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Even today, fans get excited at the prospect of an excellent
amateur wrestler training to become a mixed martial artist. And
that’s nothing compared to the 2000s, when a former NCAA champion
transitioning to fighting would make headlines on MMA websites and
stir up considerable hype. There was the implicit assumption that
any good amateur wrestler would dominate, or at least have
considerable success.

I always found this to be silly, because contrary to the narrative
most people believe, wrestlers never had automatic success, not
even in the 1990’s. Don’t get me wrong; wrestling was and still is
the single most important skill in MMA, as well as the best base
from which to build. The overwhelming majority of MMA champions
have at least decent wrestling. This is even true today, when more
and more top fights are largely kickboxing affairs. Kamaru
Usman
vs. Colby
Covington
might have been a pure kickboxing match, and Stipe
Miocic
vs. Daniel
Cormier
3 was mostly striking with a little grappling thrown
in, but that’s only because of how good all four men are at
wrestling.

However, could a wrestling champion who competed in MMA have great
success solely through his wrestling and no other skills? Not by a
long shot! Early greats like Mark Coleman,
Kevin
Randleman
and yes, even Dan Severn,
needed to adapt their wrestling and learn new skills. To illustrate
this point, consider the following wrestlers who had uninspiring
careers in MMA, all from the 1990’s, going from most to least
successful:

Perhaps the greatest wrestler to ever compete in MMA for more than
a one-off, wrestling legend Kevin
Jackson
was an Olympic gold medalist and two-time world
champion who was only 32 years old and two years removed from his
last world championship when he got into MMA.

He had some limited success, winning the UFC 14 light heavyweight
tournament, beating a respectable opponent for the time in Tony
Fryklund
in the finals, even if Fryklund was a good 20 pounds
lighter than him. Yet in his very next fight, vying for the first
ever UFC light heavyweight championship at Ultimate Japan in
December of 1997, he was submitted by Frank
Shamrock
, smaller than him by at least 10 pounds, with an
armbar in all of 16 seconds. Jackson had no clue how to defend the
submission, immediately pulling straight back on the arm, which
made it much worse.

A learning experience, right? Alas, in his return at UFC 16,
Jackson ended up losing in a grueling 10-plus minute match—there
were no rounds back then—to Jerry
Bohlander
, also by armbar. Jackson had seemingly learned
nothing since his UFC debut in that match. His wrestling was of
course top-notch, but he had no top control nor ground-and-pound
and his submission defense was almost nonexistent.

Could Jackson, if he worked hard, have corrected these flaws and
become one of the top fighters of his day? Very possibly. But the
point is, his wrestling alone was not enough. Instead of trying
again, Kevin
Jackson
retired after a quick victory over Sam Adkins,
going back to amateur wrestling and later becoming a highly
successful coach.

There was a lot of hype surrounding Alger when he debuted in the
Ultimate Fighting Championship. Training at
Hammer House with Mark Coleman,
he was a two-time NCAA Division I champion who had gone undefeated
in his final 78 matches. Many thought he would have similar success
to Coleman, only at light heavyweight.

Instead, he was armbarred in a minute and a half by Enson Inoue at
UFC 13, a huge upset at the time, and after three easy wins against
journeymen in Iowa, was knocked out by Eugene
Jackson
at UFC 21. Similar to Jackson, he didn’t have any
skills other than his wrestling, and that turned out not to be
enough.

Gary
Myers
made a more concerted effort in MMA than either Jackson
or Alger, fighting 25 times from 1995 all the way to 2008 and
working as a MMA promoter to this day, yet he had less success than
either of them. Myers was a member of the US Army Wrestling team
and barely missed making the Olympic team at the trials prior to
competing at the first-ever event by Extreme
Fighting
, an organization founded by then-UFC matchmaker John
Perretti.

While he managed to beat journeymen, Myers would always lose to any
skilled fighter of his day, including those far smaller than his
220 pounds. He lost to Marcus
Silveira
, Jeremy Horn,
Yuki
Kondo
and even the very limited Wallid
Ismail
. While Myers’ takedowns were predictable and
one-dimensional, he did mostly manage to get his opponents on their
backs. However, once there, he had no clue what to do. His
ground-and-pound was so poor he made Severn’s look like that of a
prime Mark Coleman
crossed with prime Tito Ortiz. He
illustrates, perhaps more clearly than Jackson or Alger, that
wrestling is just a means to an end, and not the goal itself. In
the absence of ways to capitalize from top position, it can be
surprisingly toothless.

A giant 270-pound brute, Neff was an excellent Greco-Roman wrestler
who almost made the 1988 Olympics as a 21-year-old but barely lost
in the Olympic trials finals. Not only did Neff have the same
problems as the fighters above him on this list, he was very easy
to hit and hurt standing up, a flaw that Pete
Williams
needed all of six seconds to exploit. Paul
Buentello
knocked him out in three minutes early in his career,
as well. Sadly, Neff passed away in 2013 at the age of just 46.

While not successful, all the fighters we’ve looked at so far have
had winning records, even if just barely, and thanks to the very
low level of 90s journeymen. Heberstreit, by contrast, stands at
just 0-1.

Heberstreit was not a great wrestler, but surely, being an NCAA
Division I wrestler should have been enough to win an undercard
bout on IFC 1 Kombat in Kiev, right? Unfortunately, he was matched
against John Lober, a
very tough, competent fighter whose final record doesn’t do him
justice, as I have mentioned in a past column.

Things started out well for Heberstreit, as he got a quick, nice
takedown. Once there, however, Lober—who knew Brazilian
jiu-jitsu—tied him up, then performed a move that had never been
done in MMA until then, to my knowledge. Lober put his feet against
the cage and kicked off. In the process he swept Heberstreit. Like
most pure wrestlers then, Heberstreit was absolutely helpless on
his back. After being pounded on by Lober, he gave up his back and
then tapped to a rear-naked choke. Realizing that success in MMA
would be far from easy, and looking shell-shocked after the beating
he took, Heberstreit would never compete in the sport again.

These five men are far from the only examples, but I hope they
drive the point home that wrestling was never an automatic ticket
to success, even in the early days of MMA.


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