Most college athletes spend their NCAA careers hoping to one day stand with the professionals, play on their court, run on their field, hang where they hang. For an NCAA wrestler as high ranking as Austin O’Connor, it’s just another day in the offseason.
A North Carolina National Champion, O’Connor has already made good on a lifetime commitment to wrestling by becoming one of the biggest stars in the sport, taking home a National Title back in 2021 and even linking up with some of the most dominant champions in the history of MMA.
The hype around O’Connor has only grown coming into his final season, as well as the expectations. He’s bouncing back from an injury but digging even deeper in preparation for one more run, and he’s enlisted the help of the standouts at MMA powerhouse gym, American Kickboxing Academy.
“I’ve gotten a chance to meet Daniel Cormier for the first time last year and go out to AKA and train with Islam (Makhachev) before one of his fights,” O’Connor said. “I met with Khabib (Nurmagomedov) and all the other dudes who train out of there and that was really cool. I’m in contact with DC all the time now.”
The trip out to Northern California wasn’t just a vacation and a chance for O’Connor to rub shoulders with famous fighters; between an interest in an MMA career after graduation and getting mat time in one of the most wrestling-heavy MMA gyms out there, O’Connor is gearing up for his biggest season yet, as well as a post-wrestling career path.
“My biggest draw to AKA was that I’m going to go out there and I’m going to compete against the best in the world and the best who have already done it,” O’Connor said. “You can’t really get that experience anywhere else in the world. These guys have the same experience as me, they’ve done Sambo their whole life and they’ve been around wrestling so much. They’re high-level wrestlers, too, and I’d say that’s the closest style to what I want to adapt my MMA style to, so if I get out there and train under those guys, I’m doing the same exact thing that they’ve done.”
The venture into the MMA world won’t be an instantaneous jump, despite having the perfect gym and management system figured out. O’Connor plans to take a year off from competition to coach wrestling and slowly begin to dip his toes in the mixed martial arts water. He may be ahead of the pack with his wrestling skillset and AKA connections, but the 157-pounder has no interest in viewing the climb to the top of the premier MMA organization to be a race.
“Some of the better wrestlers who have competed in MMA and the UFC have done a little bit better when they take their time a little bit and get some cage experience,” O’Connor explained. “It doesn’t matter how great of a wrestler you are, MMA is going to be a different thing. You could be the best wrestler in the world but you’re not going to just hop in the cage and be the best all-around combat athlete in the world.”
It would only make sense that one of the key sparks in the explosion of NCAA stars going to MMA kicks off his final season on the first collegiate wrestling event on UFC FIGHT PASS, but although the table seems to be set perfectly for O’Connor to get his name out there in the UFC universe before graduating, it all comes down to health.
“This is a crazy experience for the wrestling world,” O’Connor said. “To be able to put on promotions like this is a big deal for us. Every dual I take seriously, but I don’t want to reinjure myself. If I’m healthy, I want to be able to go out there and be able to compete for my team.”
Fight fans may not get to see him kick off his final season in the NCAA, but it won’t be the last time they hear from the killer in Carolina blue.
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