In the early era of the UFC you couldn’t afford to buy drinks for everybody on the card who was a D-1 wrestler. But now that Cejudo, Askren, Hendricks and Cormier are gone, the NCAA presence that once thrived is almost completely absent.
The modern-day UFC isn’t completely starved of NCAA talent. Gregor Gillespie won a National championship at 149 in 2007, Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler have noted All-American status, but the days of Kevin Randleman, Mark Schultz and Mark Coleman-level success in the sport seemed to have left when two-time Hodge Trophy winner Ben Askren left the sport.
Wrestling as a sport isn’t in bad shape necessarily as far as representation of athletes. Islam Makhachev, Kamaru Usman, Curtis Blaydes and many more are more than equipped to take the fight to the ground and let off punishing ground-and-pound. There is, however, a gaping hole in the NCAA star power in MMA for the first time in years.
“The wrestlers are technically there, but I think the bigger names like Bo Nickal, who made it all the way to the Olympic trial finals, those guys like to continue to compete in wrestling,” said Zach Bogle of the StaleMates podcast.
Nickal agrees that the well is running pretty dry, but with his impact and the others in Happy Valley right behind him, the MMA world is about to experience a navy blue takeover.
“We have a pipeline of guys at Penn State, all multiple-time National Champions and All-Americans, guys like that who are ready to make the transition and come on over to fighting, so I don’t think that I’ll be the last,” Nickal said.
There’s a lot of pressure on Nickal if he is, in fact, the re-introduction of star wrestlers entering into MMA but, as he always does, he finds more reason to be excited than nervous.
“I feel like a trailblazer,” Nickal said. “I feel like the first, like a guy who’s really going to make the jump to MMA early in his wrestling career. The guys I think who did that are Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren and Henry Cejudo, even though he didn’t really have an NCAA career. In my opinion those guys were some of the better fighters to have competed in the last 20 years. For me, I feel like I’m starting this new era of NCAA wrestlers who are going to come in and dominate.”
Will Nickal lead the charge and blaze the trail for big-name NCAA wrestlers to once again flourish in the UFC? The climb to the top begins June 3, ONLY on UFC FIGHT PASS!