Before you enjoy these rankings, you are strongly encouraged to read the foreword/letter to readers provided by the author, Mike Riordan.
In the process of writing various articles about wrestling in the last couple years, I have completed a massive amount of research. As I poured over bracket sheets, match results, and even spoke to the occasional living person, I realized that many of the ex-wrestler mixed martial artists I analyzed have actually directly competed against each other during their time as wrestlers.
I soon realized that MMA fans other than myself would be interested in hearing about these wrestling matches between MMA stars. I reviewed my research, found 20 of these matches that interested me, and ranked them. My ranking method equally weighs three criteria: the historical importance of the wrestling match, the historical importance of the wrestlers, and the historical importance of the MMA practitioners. Even after considering these three factors and agonizing over the order of these rankings, I know that many arguable positions exist which could espouse a radically different sequence of matches. In other words, these rankings are highly subjective and imperfect, but I tried my best.
I do not intend for these rankings to advance or imply, through some inverted logic I emphatically do not employ, that because fighter X beat fighter Y in a wrestling match, then fighter X is somehow better at MMA than fighter Y. These rankings do not make any argument – they simply look back at fighters’ wrestling history. In spite of the last two sentences I wrote, if you still feel, or anticipate feeling, the irresistible impulse to say, “This is MMA, who gives a darn what they did on a stupid wrestling mat, this writer needs to wake the hell up,” before, during, or after reading, then please avert your eyes now and go away. Readers with that sort of opinion soil this blogger’s figurative ermine coat.
These rankings make no claim of comprehensiveness. Many matches exist which I have intentionally excluded, and even more probably exist of which I am unaware. You may know of other matches you think I ought to have ranked. This is fine. Disagreement makes rankings fun.
If I do not specify that a ranked match was wrestled in freestyle or Geco-Roman, then please assume it took place in American folkstyle/scholastic.
Now, without further ado, please enjoy the rankings.
20. Brock Lesnar vs. Mike Russow-1997 National Junior College Championships, Fifth place match
As a freshman wrestling for Bismarck State, Brock Lesnar would advance all the way to the quarterfinals of the NJCAA National Championships. There he would lose a close match, fall into the consolation bracket, and wrestle for fifth place against Lincoln College’s Mike Russow. Lesnar would pin Russow in the first period of that match. Though both would occupy the same weight class in the UFC from 2009-2011, and enjoy winning records in the world’s toughest MMA promotion, the topic of their 1997 wrestling match rarely, if ever, crossed the lips of commentators.
As a side note, while a senior in high school, Lesnar also engaged in bit of a rivalry with future Death Clutch teammate Jon Madsen. During that year, Lesnar would face Madsen four times, losing to him twice and beating him twice. In March of 2000, Lesnar and Madsen would both win NCAA wrestling championships at heavyweight, Madsen on the Division II level and Lesnar on the Division I level.
19. Ben Askren vs Chris Weidman-2001 FILA Cadet Freestyle National Championships Consolation Semifinals
The FILA Cadet age group (ages 17 and under) offers high school-aged wrestlers the chance to compete for world championships in the Olympic wrestling styles. The United States FILA Cadet national championships in freestyle, while lacking the participation level and timing for consideration as a true national championship, always hosts a field of extremely high-level young wrestlers. If you can place top eight at FILA Cadets, then you likely have what it takes to compete successfully on the NCAA Division I level.
When Askren and Weidman met in this tournament in the 167.5-pound weight class, they had already both suffered losses which knocked them from championship contention, and had also won enough matches to ensure a top-six placing. The winner of their match would wrestle for third place, while the loser would wrestle for fifth. Askren would demolish Weidman 15-3, ending the match by a technical superiority (freestyle wrestling’s version of a mercy rule). Weidman would lose again and finish in sixth place, Askren would lose in the consolation finals and place fourth.
While Askren and Weidman would go on to do great things in their wrestling and MMA careers, this match has little historical importance, and therefore ranks low on the list.
18. Bubba Jenkins vs. Darrion Caldwell-2008 NCAA Division I National Championship Semifinals
Jenkins and Caldwell have yet to make much of a mark in their MMA careers, but the two current Bellator fighters could, and should, go very far in the world of prize fighting.
In 2008, as college sophomores, the two wrestled in the NCAA semifinals at 149 pounds – Caldwell for North Carolina State and Jenkins for Penn State. The winner would earn a berth in the NCAA championship match. This 2008 149-pound division possibly offered the toughest field of competitors of any weight class in the history of the NCAA wrestling tournament. The other semifinal featured 2012 Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs and Brent Metcalf, a favorite for the 2016 Olympic team.
Jenkins would defeat Caldwell in a fun, tightly contested, back-and-forth bout to advance to the tournament finals where Metcalf would overwhelm him. Caldwell would lose his next match and finish in 5th place. Both Jenkins and Caldwell, in subsequent years, would complete more successful runs at the NCAA championships, Caldwell winning a title in 2009, and Jenkins in 2011.
In addition, both of these wrestlers experienced success against World Series of Fighting featherweight prospect Lance Palmer on the mat during their college careers. Enjoy the sequence below where Caldwell pins Palmer using a move he appears to just make up.
17. Dan Severn vs Steve Williams-1981 NCAA Division I National Championships Consolation Finals
Before professional wrestling fans knew him as Dr. Death, Steve Williams (RIP) completed a stellar career wrestling for Oklahoma University, placing top eight at the NCAA Championships (All-American status) in each of his four seasons wearing a crimson singlet. Williams took part in a golden age of college heavyweights. The unlimited weight class of the late 1970s and early 1980s NCAA produced three different Olympic gold medalists, and Williams had wins over two of them: Jeff Blatnick at the 1979 NCAA Tournament and Lou Banach at the 1982 NCAA tournament. The final loss of Williams’s amateur wrestling days came against the third of these gold medalists, four-time Olympic medalist Bruce Baumgartner, in a close loss in the 1982 NCAA finals.
This heavyweight golden age also produced Dan Severn, who, but for devastating injuries and horrible luck, might have become the greatest wrestler of all of them. Severn would come within a whisper of making the 1984 Olympic freestyle wrestling team, where the boycott-depleted field would have likely left him with a gold medal. In the years following the 1984 games, he would win a berth on the United States team for the 1985 World Championships, and a 1986 World Cup individual gold, earned by beating the Soviet Union’s Leri Chabelov, the world’s most dominant wrestler at his weight during this time period. Before all of this Senior-level freestyle success, however, Williams planted Severn on his back, defeating him by pin in the third place match of the 1981 NCAA championships.
When his amateur wrestling career finally ended, Severn became a legend in MMA, winning two early UFC tournaments and paving the way for decorated wrestlers to dominate the world of cage fighting. Williams, while primarily known for his professional wrestling exploits, would also have his share of adventures, or misadventures, in the world of mixed martials arts.
In 1998, in order to make a name for himself in big-time pro wrestling with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Williams participated in a tournament of quasi-MMA matches held in the WWF ring which were dubbed “Brawl for All”. While one could dedicate entire volumes writing about the monument to idiocy that was “Brawl for All” and its series of non-worked fights in boxing gloves, we would better serve ourselves leaving most of that discussion to another day. It should suffice to say that the WWF staged “Brawl for All” with the intent to vault Steve Williams into stardom, that the injury Williams suffered during one of the “brawls” contributed to the end of his WWF career, and that none of these matches officially count in the MMA record books.
Williams, unfortunately, did later find himself in a single true professional MMA bout. in 2004’s K-1 Beast event. At 44 years of age, almost two decades removed from any training in unscripted combat sports, Williams took the ring against kickboxer Alexney Ignashov, where his much younger Belarusian opponent kneed him into oblivion in a matter of seconds.
Despite the somewhat ignominious end to Williams’s endeavors in MMA, the wrestling match between William and Severn deserves its place on this ranking. After all, it featured one true MMA legend and two old-fashioned mustachioed badasses from a bygone era facing off in a match of epic proportions.
Next up, part two of this nine part series, and 16-15 in the rankings
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