After one of the most hyped MMA debuts in recent memory, Bo Nickal is set to take the cage in hopes of earning the Dana White stamp of approval, but, quite frankly, after earning the utmost respect of Cael Sanderson for four years, Nickal is in no jeopardy of being blinded by the bright lights of being on Dana White’s Contender Series.
Objectively speaking, there are few people as influential as the UFC President. It’s not impossible to be a star in MMA without having met or fought in front of Dana White, but it’s impossible to be a star and not want to. The concept of MMA wasn’t built by Dana, but the business sure was. While this will be the first time Nickal will get the chance to check that box of fighting in front of the king of MMA, he’s spent significant time around a similar figure.
Nickal arrived at Penn State as a Texas high school phenom with a skillset, star power and a ceiling that very few coaches could properly harness. He was almost guaranteed to be a star and he was almost guaranteed to be a National Champion, but the only coach truly fit to get the maximum possible potential out of Nickal was 159-0 Cael Sanderson.
Sanderson’s accolades on the mat alone are enough to give him the pass for any and all fumbles he may have as a coach. Problem is, he’s almost as flawless of a coach as he was a wrestler. Records aside, Sanderson has never had a scandal or even many disagreements with wrestlers he’s coached.
Year in and year out, there’s domination, National Titles and stars coming through the Penn State wrestling room, and out of all the names he’s led to their full potential, few athletes stand out more than Nickal.
“It is difficult to compare wrestlers and their accolades from different times and circumstances, so I won’t do that, but Bo Nickal is a very good wrestler,” Sanderson said. “As great as being a three-time NCAA Champion is, Bo Nickal and his career at Penn State was much bigger than that. Bo was a master in the big moments. The bigger the moment, the better Bo competed. In the most competitive dual meets when the team needed him, he delivered every time. Bo’s unique athleticism and ability to put opponents on their back from any position made him a crowd favorite right away.”
The transition from NCAA wrestling to MMA is still in the “loosening up” phase, and with good reason. Wrong coach, wrong conversation, wrong tone of voice a wrestler talking about jumping into MMA post-NCAA career could come off as dismissive, distracted and disrespectful. Sanderson never put that pressure on his athletes. If you give everything you have in practice, Sanderson will give everything he has to you, including his undivided attention in conversations about post-graduation endeavors, which is how he learned years ago that Nickal would one day be in the position he’s in.
“He mentioned early on that he planned on competing in MMA,” Sanderson said. “His family has an interest and background in MMA, which seems to have inspired him to dream about fighting early on his life.”
Sanderson keeps himself pretty busy. The results speak for themselves since he became Penn State’s head coach. As much as he respects the sport of MMA, he’s admittedly a “casual,” and only pays extra attention when a wrestler is fighting, but he knows what it takes to be successful in combat sports as a whole and assures everybody that Nickal has plenty of it.
“[How far he goes] is obviously up to Bo, but I believe he will be as good as he decides to be and that, to my understanding, is to be the UFC champion,” Sanderson said. “I can only speak to his wrestling ability, but he is not only freaky talented but, more importantly, he is freaky competitive. I believe he will do really well.”
The world’s most dangerous “casual” may never be able fully immerse himself in the world of MMA, but Bo Nickal has just given him another reason to circle UFC events on his calendar.
Catch Dana White’s Contender Series, featuring Hodge Trophy winner Bo Nickal, Tuesday, August 9 on ESPN+!