The Ultimate Fighter
"I want to show up, do my job, get the victory in an exciting fashion, and I want to let the people in the world know that ‘hey, this guy’s a wrestler, but this guy throws down.'" - Marcus LeVesseur
Unless you’re a diehard college wrestling fan, you may not have heard of Marcus LeVesseur before, and that’s a shame.
Simply put, the 29-year old Minnesota native, who makes his UFC debut this Tuesday in Fairfax, Virginia against Cody McKenzie, is the owner of one of the greatest runs ever recorded in college sports annals, having gone 155-0 with four Division III national wrestling titles for Augsburg College.
It’s a mind-boggling string of excellence (for reference, the only other United States collegiate wrestler to finish school with an unbeaten record is the legendary Cael Sanderson), one made even more stunning by the fact that LeVesseur also won four Minnesota state high school titles and scored a win over Ben Askren along the way. Oh yeah, he was a quarterback on the football team too.
“I was pretty much a two-sport athlete my entire life,” said LeVesseur, who still holds the Augsburg football records for single season rushing yards and touchdowns. “I did a little bit of track and field as well, mainly for the training. But wrestling was number one and football was a close second. I always joke around and say that if I was 6-4, I might be in the NFL.”
But wrestling was always his love, the sport where he said “I just had the talent and IQ of a wrestler.” And that love made him sacrifice experiences his peers were going through just so he could excel on the mat. So don’t call him gifted. As any elite athlete will tell you, it takes a lot of hard work to make things look so easy when the lights come on.
“Everybody says ‘Marcus, you’re super gifted and athletic and you have it easy,’” he said. “I’m like, dude, you don’t understand all the work, pain, and misery I went through. I had a personal coach that was a good friend of the family, and he would be at my house at six in the morning in the winter and we’re running before school. As a high school freshman and sophomore, I was on a college workout regimen. People don’t know that or believe that.”
He would lose during his high school career, but he finished with the aforementioned four state titles and 141 straight wins, leading him to the Division I University of Minnesota. And while he won all ten of his matches at the national powerhouse, having two NCAA champs ahead of him on the roster (Luke Becker and Jared Lawrence) didn’t bode well for his future. Add in some off the mat issues, and he was ready to make a bold move.
“Hands down, their program was phenomenal and I have nothing bad to say about the program or the coaches,” said LeVesseur. “At that time, I wanted to wrestle, and there were two phenomenal wrestlers, Jared Lawrence and Luke Becker, that were upperclassmen that had been through the program for years, and they kinda had the spot. I ran into a few political things, and there were some personal / social problems and a little bit of the family, and it all hit at once. I wasn’t happy. I thought I deserved at least a match to see where I was at. I didn’t get that.”
LeVesseur spoke to a good friend, Jamell Tidwell, about Augsburg, got positive reviews, and then spoke to the school’s wrestling coach, Jeff Swenson. Having made up his mind, LeVesseur got his release from Minnesota and began the next chapter in his life. Nearly a decade later, he has no regrets about going from D-I to D-III.
“I made the smart choice in going to Augsburg,” he said. “This is a lot bigger than just wrestling. I’m here to get my education as well, I need to be happy, this is where I feel comfortable, and this is what I’m gonna do. And if I were to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing because I’ve learned so much and I’ve met some key people who are in my life to this day because of making that transfer and I wouldn’t trade it in for the world.”
The results were astounding, both on the mat and the gridiron, and amazingly, he kept everything together throughout his lengthy unbeaten streak, even though the idea of pinning that “1” in his lost column was a golden ticket for anyone who faced him.
“Obviously it brings a lot of pressure, but I’ve always been the first to respond very well under pressure,” said LeVesseur. “And to have the target on your back, in a sense it’s kind of fun because you have to be on top of your game at all times.”
He also credits coaches Swenson and Scott Whirley for helping him stay sharp, both mentally and physically.
“They kept me level-headed and not really trying to buy into all the hype,” he said. “The hype is there and it’s not gonna go nowhere, so why even pay it attention? I just had to stay focused, train hard, lift, run, and do everything I did even more intensely. When you’re involved in it, it’s just so surreal that you don’t want to make any mistakes. You just want to stick to the protocol and just go. There’s no time for ifs, ands, or buts; you just gotta show up and do your job and that’s what I focused on.”
It worked. But unlike basketball or football, there is no NBA or NFL for stellar college wrestlers, so when college was over, LeVesseur began looking a little bit more seriously at the sport he had been dabbling in since 2003 – mixed martial arts. And though he won a lot more than he lost and built a solid reputation on the local circuit, the big shows weren’t calling and he wasn’t getting the attention you would assume someone with four national wrestling titles would get. He admits to watching some virtual rookies getting UFC shots and shaking his head at times, but there’s no bitterness in his heart or his voice when he talks about it.
“It’s hard to see that happen – a guy with two or three fights and he’s in the UFC and he’s doing good,” said LeVesseur. “But me personally, I’m just a competitor. Everybody hates to lose and I would think that I’m the number one guy on that list. (Laughs) But when you do lose, you learn, and it just kinda brings you back down to reality and makes you say ‘obviously you’re doing something wrong, so you gotta get back to the drawing board and refocus. So I really kept my eye on the prize.”
Currently 21-5 with 17 finishes, LeVesseur has won six of his last seven, including wins over Ultimate Fighter vets Dane Sayers and Brian Geraghty. If it looks like he’s hitting his stride as a fighter, he says that would be an accurate assessment.
“There have been a few moments in the past where maybe I just wasn’t applying myself as hard as I was supposed to,” he said. “I think that’s probably a small reason why it (a call to the UFC) has been longer than some have expected. But I think it’s perfect timing. Let’s say if I got the opportunity two three years ago, I might not have been ready. So the last two years, I’ve had a lot of fights and a lot of good competition, a lot of guys with a lot of fights under their belt, and I feel I’m ready.”
But as LeVesseur is keen to point out, this is only the first step. He’s got a lot more up his sleeve before he’s done in the UFC.
“This was my first goal, to make it to the UFC,” he said. “A lot of people say that they want to make it there and then they’re satisfied. That’s not me. I’m very thankful that I’m here, it’s a blessing, and I need to seize the opportunity. But, there’s a lot more than just making it to the biggest promotion in the world for Marcus “The Prospect” LeVesseur. I want to show up, do my job, get the victory in an exciting fashion, and I want to let the people in the world know that ‘hey, this guy’s a wrestler, but this guy throws down.’”