Jon Jones, Ben Askren, Daniel Cormier. Some of the best fighters in MMA have a significant background in wrestling. But what makes wrestlers successful in the cage isn’t just their physical tool kit, but the mental toughness they’ve honed over decades spent competing on the mat. To be a successful American wrestler means dozens of hours each week dedicated to training, weekend events with multiple matches, and a weight management plan that is often severe and long term. While the skills of wrestling – double legs, underhooks and takedown defense – are crucial to the success of a fighter, it might be the grind of the American collegiate season which is more instructive as to why so many of today’s title holders started their careers on a wrestling mat.
“Wrestling changed my life,” says Pat Curran, the current Bellator bantamweight champion. “I wasn’t a bad kid, but without wrestling and the discipline of the sport I could have gone down a different direction. Wrestling is all about discipline.” According to UFC heavyweight Daniel Cormier the discipline of wrestling comes second to the brutality of the sport’s ability to push most professional fighters past their limits. “My wrestling practices at AKA are tough, man. Guys getting through them are tough and I think that helps them handle fifteen minutes in the cage,” says Cormier. “Your cardio is challenged as much in the wrestling room as the cage.” Though fighters can attend one wrestling class a week, the scholastic wrestlers who end up in the cage endured 10-15 years of five month long seasons, forcing them to become mentally tougher than those who focus on knockouts and submissions.
Many of MMA’s former collegiate wrestlers had goals to become an NCAA All-American, and to achieve that goals means sacrificing the good times of partying with friends, or eating bad foods. Diet, exercise and a fixation on their goals are what separate good wrestlers from their competition, and the mental toughness that breeds is a lifelong trait. “After wrestling, everything is easy,” goes the quote famously attributed to 1972 Olympic champion Dan Gable. The coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes for more than 25 years, Gable instilled the values of toughness in his wrestlers. When the times were toughest, he taught, they were expected to outperform. That mantra has filtered through wrestling. Overcoming adversity is part of what marks a successful wrestler, and is an attribute every cage fighter needs in order to be a title-holder. Pain and the temporary, though repetitive anguish of weight cutting and wrestling eight 7-minute matches a day, is what teaches the youth wrestlers to accept adversity as their default setting. It’s no surprise then that wrestlers have become the preferred breed of fighter in professional MMA. The act of fighting is the act of training for six months for a single goal requires a willpower not seen in other sports. Staying focused on that goal through training takes metal toughness and emotional competence that is best built on the wrestling mat. “Of course I wouldn’t be on my way to being a champion without wrestling,’ says Cormier. “I’m a guy that needs a challenge to get me focused and make sure that I work hard. The takedowns and stuff are important to but it’s what wrestling did to make me mentally tough that has made all the difference in my career.”