Friday 5ive: Five Amateur Wrestlers that Shaped Modern MMA

By: Albert Miller – The future is here my friends, we live in a day and age where Mixed Martial Artists are able to make millions instead of hundreds. As I’m sitting, thinking and reviewing event results, a pattern emerged in my consciousness: amateur wrestlers had a tremendous hand in evolving the sport into what we know and love today. The Gracie Family’s contributions to the sport can never be downplayed and can never be forgotten. But even as Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, others have come along and made many innovations to the idea.

I want to take an opportunity to celebrate those among us who have taken the time to coach kids and cultivate their enthusiasm for competition, especially those in the combat sports. I have two friends from the business school that I attended that stick out in my mind the most: Steve, who had been coaching young men for a local high school for the better part of a decade; and Zack, who’s oldest is developing into a serious competitor. I firmly believe in amateur wrestling’s positive impact on how young people develop, this week’s Friday 5ive is acknowledging five amateur wrestlers who have made innovations in my realm of influence.

Note: These fighters are ranked by how much they’ve changed the course of the sport through their competition and utilization of amateur wrestling.

KevinRandlemanNo. 5: “The Monster” Kevin Randleman (Ohio State University) – I remember seeing Kevin Randleman for the first time, promotional stuff for his bout with Maurice Smith. I remember seeing the man and I immediately started cheering for him. Randleman was brash, he was confident, and most importantly: he was capable. Kevin Randleman’s first UFC fight was a Heavyweight championship semi-finals fight (in a four man tournament that included Smith, “El Guapo” Bas Rutten, Tsuyoshi “TK” Kohsaka, and Randleman himself), and he was so alive in his promotional stuff. In the world of professional prizefighting, talking a good game will get you absolutely nowhere; Kevin Randleman could actually fight. What has earned Kevin Randleman on this list was that he credited his skill and ability to being a wrestler. When he made his UFC debut in 1999, a lot of other fighters were cross training, and being hailed as “free style fighters,” while Randleman maintained his pedigree as a wrestler. Randleman will go down in history as a former UFC Heavyweight champion, as a State Champion in Ohio, and a Big Ten tournament stand-out. Kevin Randleman passed away in 2016 due to complications from a heart attack.

MarkColemanNo. 4: Mark “The Hammer” Coleman (Ohio State University) – Now that the sun has set on Mark Coleman’s career, he will have a legacy of debuting as a brutal war machine, and made it to the twilight of his career gracefully. Mark Coleman came into the MMA forefront as a wrestler had legitimate wrestling credentials, but was also evolving into a Mixed Martial Artist. The man known as “The Hammer” was an Olympian, a Division I wrestling champion, Pan Am champion in multiple weight classes, and Big 10 champion. Mark Coleman also spent time at the infamous Foxcatcher facility owned and operated by John DuPoint. Coleman was arguably the first example of how an amateur wrestler could really excel in the sport of MMA. Coleman had defeated Dan “The Beast” Severn, and Don “The Predator” Frye on his way to becoming the first UFC Heavyweight champion; Coleman had really solidified the movement that Wrestling was an invaluable skill to have in order to remain competitive in the Octagon.

DonFryeNo. 3: Don “The Predator” Frye (Arizona State; Oklahoma State University) – Only two men can claim to be “Ultimate Ultimate Champion,” and one of those men is UFC 8 tournament champion: Don “The Predator” Frye. While he’s not as decorated as an amateur wrestler as Randleman and Coleman, Frye does command a lot of credit for how he changed the sport. Don Frye was on the wrestling team for Arizona State University, where he’d meet friend and mentor Dan “The Beast” Severn. While training under Severn, Don Frye would find some success, but would eventually transfer to Oklahoma State University where he would be teammates with future UFC alum Randy “The Natural” Couture. Don Frye was one of the first two men to wear fingerless gloves into the Octagon (the other being David “Tank” Abbott), and as a wrestler who understood the concepts of boxing and judo; that combination of skills made him a dangerous competitor in the UFC when athletes were still competing under “Style vs. Style” mentality. Don Frye carried on the tradition that Dan Severn started, that wrestling was a formidable discipline and that it would ultimately change the course of how MMA would evolve. Frye would defeat Gary “Big Daddy” Goodridge to become UFC 8 Tournament champion, and Tank Abbott to become Ultimate Ultimate 96 tournament champion.

RandyCoutureNo. 2: “The Natural” Randy Couture (Oklahoma State University) – Randy Couture has been called a lot of things throughout his career: “The Natural,” “Captain America,” Champion, Sergeant, and Coach. If Dan Severn and Don Frye ushered in the age of the amateur wrestler, Randy Couture was directly responsible for kindling the flame through the evolution to the sport of MMA. There is a quantifiable moment when MMA stopped being “Style vs. Style” and became “Mixed Combat.” That moment is a broad series of events when guys like Jeremy Horn, Chuck Liddell, Frank Shamrock, and Tito Ortiz began competing. Even when those guys had made their appearance on the circuit, Couture had already debuted, and began his march towards dominance. As a wrestler, Couture was a Pan Am champion, Division I All American, a FILA contender, and a three time Olympic alternate. We could spend all day talking about what titles and records that Couture has claimed for himself, but for this article, a lot of spotlight needs to be given to how Couture has used amateur wrestling to advance the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Randy Couture and fellow amateur wrestling monster Matt “The Law” Lindland started one of the baddest super gyms to carry MMA through its darkest days: Team Quest. Team Quest had such wrestlers on their roster as Chael Sonnen, Matt Horwich, and Dan Henderson. After Team Quest had dissolved, Couture founded Xtreme Couture, further advancing some of the most elite contenders in MMA.

DanSevernNo. 1: Dan “The Beast” Severn – In the finals of UFC 4, Dan Severn had found himself in a position that only Gerard Gordeau and Patrick Smith had been in before him: the finals with UFC legend Royce Gracie. Leading into UFC 4, Dan Severn had only ever studied different styles of amateur wrestling (Freestyle, Greco-Roman, etc.) and didn’t have the prowess of striking in his arsenal. Severn had defeated Anthony Macias and Marcus Bossett by submission, using holds that weren’t submission holds by design, but amateur wrestling techniques that were applied with “dirty” tactics and a lot of pressure. In the finals of the UFC 4 tournament, Dan Severn would exploit something in Gracie that hadn’t been shown before: amateur wrestling was a formidable adversary to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Dan Severn was the first in a long line of wrestlers who would dominate in MMA; these wrestlers would be contenders, champions, and Hall of Famers. When asked about his wrestling credentials, Severn says that the only thing he hasn’t accomplished was a gold medal in the Olympics; had he won in the ‘84 games, he would have retired and not competed in UFC 4. Some (including myself) will argue that if Severn had not competed, MMA wouldn’t have become what it is today. Dan Severn was a guy who grew up on a farm, who competed in wrestling as a way of venting energy, and became on of the most important names in Combat Sports. If that isn’t the American Dream, I don’t know what is.

Amateur wrestling is more important to popular culture than it ever has been. With the advent and innovation of FloWrestling, with amateur wrestlers like Jordan Burroughs practically being rockstars, and with MMA being the next logical competitive step for wrestlers, it’s a great time to be involved with the active wrestling scene. Thank you for joining this week’s Friday 5ive, we’ll see you next time.

Until next time: Fights, Cameron, Action!

Honorable Mention(s):

  • “The Gracie Hunter” Kazushi Sakuraba
  • Matt “The Law” Lindland
  • Matt Hughes