USA Freestyle’s top MMA Prospects

International style wrestlers have a rich history of Mixed Martial Arts domination. Daniel CormierYoel Romero and Henry Cejudo are among the elite today in MMA’s premier organization, the UFC.

In 2017, USA Men’s Freestyle won six gold medals and a team championship for the first time since 1995. Assuming these elite few hold their spots on the world and Olympic team, many talented senior level studs will be left in limbo.

Some of these men will find their way into the cage, here are five with all the makings to be world champions at last.

Men’s Senior Level Wrestlers With MMA Championship Potential

The impressive resumes of the competitors below will be proof enough for many that they can win at the highest level of mixed martial arts, already having mastered a transferable skill.

This list contains national champions, world team members, and those that have had great success competing internationally. In a sport filled with exceptional athletes and technicians, it is important to identify those whose styles will translate well. Let’s take a look at a few guys who could be looking to make the switch.

5. Richard Perry, Light Heavyweight (205) Bloomsburg University (3x NCAA Qualifier)

In comparison to his peers on this list, Richard Perry does not stand out in his collegiate accomplishments. Perry hails from Connecticut, where he was fairly dominant in a region not known for high level wrestling competition. As a Division 1 wrestler at Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg University, he enjoyed great success during the regular season, earning top rankings on numerous occasions.

After floating around taking assistant coaching positions, Perry found himself training with Olympic Champion Brandon Slay at the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center. With a talented coaching staff, Perry became an instant freestyle threat at 86 kg (189.5). Although he has earned medals at major international competitions, Perry is most known to domestic fans for giving four time NCAA champ and national treasure Kyle Dake a serious run for his money.


Pictured: Kyle Dake realizing he’s in a match

Why MMA?

Despite his promising trajectory, Perry will have a tough time cracking the top ranks domestically at 86 kg. Quite frankly the speed and timing possessed by Richard Perry is perfect for MMA and it would be a shame if he never fulfilled his championship potential in sport.

The rhythm and tricks of Perry are reminiscent of wrestling legend and all time UFC middleweight great Yoel Romero. Like Romero, Perry will often lull his opponents to sleep, his hands and feet slow down, it appears he’s just hanging on you, looking for a breather. Convinced a man his size would be pacing himself, world medal level competitors let their guard down and are promptly swept off their feet by a clean attack.

This speed would be best utilized at 185 pounds, or at 205 pounds where Perry would not have to drain himself physically with a weight cut.

 

4. Jordan Oliver, Featherweight (145) Oklahoma State (4th, 1st, 2nd, 1st), 3x National Team Member

Jordan Oliver had one of the most illustrious folkstyle careers of the modern era. In high school, Oliver won three state championships in Pennsylvania, to this day the toughest wrestling state in the country, only losing in the finals as a freshman.

Oliver was recruited by the all time great John Smith to wrestle at the legendary Oklahoma State program, where he was a four time All-American, three time finalist, and two time champion.

In freestyle, the ex-Cowboy has trained with the Sunkist Kids club in Arizona, an environment that has raised hall of fame fighters Dan Henderson, Dan Severn, and Don Frye, to name a few. While Oliver was in the thick of things and making national teams up until 2015, his success has diminished in some ways in recent years.

Part of this struggle is consistency, including the decision to wrestle at his natural 65 kg (143 lbs) or up at 70 kg, where there is less of a cut.

Why MMA?

Most fighters only compete two to four times a year, taking weeks and sometimes months to strategically meet their target weight. Oliver would have no problems making the featherweight limit of 145 pounds, where at 5’8 he would be one of the larger competitors.

Oliver has flirted with starting a fighting career in the past, he would be one of many Oklahoma State alumnus to walk into the cage. Raised in Easton, there’s no doubt the boxing great Larry Holmes has influenced pugilistic aspirations. Currently suspended and unable to compete in wrestling, it’s as good a time as ever for a career change.

The style of Jordan Oliver is best described as strategic, recently he has been content to pick his spots and score points when he needs them, not for the sake of offense. When he does decide to attack, it is slick and efficient, Oliver is an extremely talented wrestler who knows how to execute in high pressure situations.

 

3. Nick Heflin, Light Heavyweight (205) Ohio State (5th, 5th, 2nd)

Perhaps the best freestyle “upper-body” wrestler in the country, Nick Heflin is a hammer, plain and simple. The NCAA run of the Ohio State Buckeye ended in dramatic fashion. With seconds to go, Heflin went big and threw future Olympic Bronze medalist J’den Cox to his back for the match winning takedown in the NCAA finals. Unfortunately, time had expired just short of a complete takedown and Heflin was left with silver.

Under the radar for years after his 2013 senior season, Heflin returned to the spotlight when he was seen bombing the country’s best in freestyle at 86 kg.


Pictured: Heflin’s victims, including Penn State’s throw-happy Bo Nickal

Why MMA?

The state of Ohio has a great fighting tradition. Ohio State has had its fair share of MMA greats, including the late Kevin RandlemanMark Coleman, and more recently Lance Palmer.

Although he is currently coaching at the University of Oklahoma, it would be great to see Heflin fully unleash his upper body techniques in the cage, where it is legal and encouraged to put his opponent’s health in danger.

 

2. Jimmy Kennedy, Lightweight (155) University of Illinois (4th, 5th, 5th), 3x National Team Member, 2014 World Championship Representative

It’s absurd to say that a three time All-American is a late bloomer, but that’s exactly the case for the Illinois native Jimmy Kennedy. At 133 pounds, Kennedy lived up to the hype of his illustrious high school career in Illinois, earning well over 100 collegiate wins.

It wasn’t until the transition to freestyle, however, that Kennedy began to fully blossom. At 61 kg (134.5 lbs), he has made numerous national teams, winning the US Open and World Team Qualifiers in 2014.

More recently, Kennedy made the move up to 70 kg (154 lbs), where he defeated highly regarded, reigning NCAA champions Jason Nolf and Isaiah Martinez. Kennedy ended 2017 making the finals of the World Team Trials, and earning yet another national team spot.


Pictured: Kennedy blasting through Penn State’s Jason Nolf

Why MMA?

While Kennedy has had amazing success in both college and freestyle wrestling, a world level medal or championship has eluded him. The allure of world glory, and the money that may accompany it, could be enough to lure the 5’6 powerhouse to a title run at 155 pounds. At 29 years old, he is in his physical prime and there is no need for Kennedy to deplete himself cutting to 135 or 145.

Power and craft are the greatest weapons Kennedy could bring into the cage. With training, his heavy hands should be enough of a threat to really open up reactive double legs. If he can’t finish in open space, Kennedy has the technical skills and pure man strength to keep any opponent with their back on the fence.

 

1. Nahshon Garrett, Bantamweight (135) Cornell University (3rd, 2nd, 5th, 1st)

Nahshon Garrett is an inspiration. The California native and his seven brothers and sisters were raised by only his mother, who struggled with substance-abuse for many years. In spite of this Garrett was able to win two state titles in California, known for its enormous tournaments and tough competition. To top it off Garrett attended the auspicious Cornell University, where he had great success.

Juggling an Ivy League education and a complicated personal life, Garrett became a four time All-American, two time national finalist, and one time undefeated national champion his senior season.

Why MMA?

After Cornell, Nahshon Garrett moved to train with the Sunkist Kids club in Arizona. Competing against fellow All-Americans and national champions in almost every domestic match, Garrett has not yet won any major US tournaments.

Despite his mind for the game and explosive attacks, the subtleties of freestyle wrestling seem to be giving Garrett some trouble for the time being. Struggling in freestyle, perhaps Garrett will be filled with the fighting spirit of Arizona and make a run at a UFC title.

There are so many aspects of his game that make for a perfect fit. One of the best things to see in a wrestling for MMA prospect is the understanding of hand fighting and short offense. His senior season, Garrett was able to move and frustrate his opponents with ease with a combination of heavy hands and quick feet, often ending up in a go behind situation before the other wrestler could make a complete judgement.

In MMA, takedowns become their most effective when your opponent is considering multiple possibilities for your next move. Just like in wrestling, hands pushing and pulling in different directions, level changes and half shots all cause reactions that open up opportunities. For Garrett, this could be a slick sweep single or an explosive blast double.

With the addition of strikes and submissions, it’s not hard to see Garrett’s understanding of the fighting meta-game leading him to gold.

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Heart vs. Brain: Predicting UFC 219

Full fight card

ADDITIONAL GIFS AND LINKS IN BOLD!

UFC 219: Cyborg vs Holm

Barring weigh in day shenanigans (update: this time, the shenanigans came early), the lineup for UFC 219 is finalized. In an alternate universe, the headliner for this card is a welterweight title fight between Tyron Woodley and Nate Diaz, continuing the UFC’s recent path of  chasing “money fights.” In our reality, the main event is decidedly not, a money fight. On Saturday, December 30th, we will see former boxing and MMA titleholder Holly Holm challenging the terrifying destroyer of worlds, Cris “Cyborg” Justino for the 145 belt. It has been an uphill battle for Cyborg to gain traction with the fans, and it seems she is just now starting to get the appreciation that she quite honestly has deserved for many years. This is not a particularly compelling fight in terms of career momentum; Cyborg has been virtually untouched since losing in her professional debut, and in her last fight Holm broke a 3 fight losing streak with a gnarly headkick win over Bethe Correia in June.

betched

The peoples’ main event, however, is the co-main featuring Khabib Nurmagomedov and Edson Barboza. Not only is this a ridiculously intriguing stylistic match up between arguably the best grappler and striker in the division, the winner is in a strong position to challenge either Tony Ferguson or Conor McGregor for a lightweight championship.  I’m pretty salty this isn’t a five round fight, but the UFC would not risk headlining a card with Khabib Nurmagomedov, notorious pull-out artist, at this stage.

khabib record

Heart vs. Brain: Main Card Predictions

The concept is pretty self explanatory, I’ll pick who I want to win for personal reasons, and who I think will win based on the stylistic matchup and objective factors. For fun, I’ll keep a running scoreboard and see what yields better predictive results, my “heart”, or my “brain” (both are lacking in quality in this case.) As of now, the preliminary and main card divisions have not been set, so I’ll use the top few fights.

Jimmie “El Terror” Rivera vs. John “F***ing” Lineker

Update: John Lineker has withdrawn from the fight for undisclosed reasons as of Christmas Eve, because we were naughty. Read on like it’s happening anyway!

Heart: I am SO torn. It is not about how much I like Jimmie Rivera, he’s a solid combination counter puncher with heavy hands and even heavier leg kicks, representing Tiger Schulmann’s in New Jersey. There’s a lot to like about the guy, he’s a true martial artist, an action fighter, and holds a beautiful 21-1 professional record.

jimmie rivera gif

My conflict is whether I absolutely love or hate John Lineker. In the cage, the man is a stout tornado of bricks with a chin of granite, a violent character and a great ambassador for exciting fights at the lower weight classes.

echange-with-dodson-lets-him-off-the-cage

All that aside, there’s something that rubs me the wrong way. John Lineker has missed weight FIVE times in the UFC, including his fight with John Dodson where he competed up at 135 pounds. Lineker is clearly unapologetic about his unprofessional behavior, exhibit A:
lineker belly rub

Something else you’ll learn about me is I’m frustrated seeing fighters win exchanges or fights completely based on sheer physical talent. His physical gifts and the rigidity of his fighting style lead me to believe Lineker may be undisciplined in his training, not just with his weight management. I admit I view this fight a righteous battle where hard work should beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard, which should tell you something about whether or not I have any physical ability.

In this one, I put my love\hate relationship with “Hands of Stone” on hold and opt for Jimmie Rivera, fueled by my desire to see him against the best of the best at 135.
Pick: Rivera

Brain: I don’t think Lineker has been improving. He is often outfought by more careful and disciplined strikers, and would be likely finished if he had a human’s chin. When his opponent doesn’t stand in front of him or move straight back off the flurry, he can look lost at times and will resort to goading his opponent into brawling with him. Rivera has looked a little more hittable as of late, but he is an extremely intelligent fighter who studies his opponents thoroughly, and has all the tools necessary to put a beating on Lineker. I expect a  thoughtful kickboxing clinic, and a vintage Rivera performance to set up a fight for the title. Pick: Rivera

Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov vs. Edson Barboza

Heart:  Khabib has been able to ragdoll, control, and beat on all of his UFC opponents, and I believe this is 100% attributable to the fact that the man GREW UP WRESTLING BEARS.  That bear has a great butterfly guard and a mastery of flow-rolling, a star in his own right really. Listen, I love both of these fighters. But here’s the dilemma, Khabib Nurmagomedov has been struggling with making weight at 155 since 2013 at the earliest.  His battle with tiramisu outside the octagon is well documented. He’s entering his physical prime at 29 years old, and he’s freaking enormous, look at him next to beloved light heavyweight champDaniel Cormier on his left, and UFC veteran at 155 Tyson Griffin on his right.  Khabib is a treasure and I want to protect the future of his career, which is why he needs to move up to 170 ASAP. He completely controlled former lightweight champ Rafael Dos Anjos at 155, who is now terrorizing the welterweight division, I have no doubts he can have championship level success at 170.

khabib throw

For this reason, Khabib has to lose this fight. He will not give up on 155 with a colossal fight with Conor McGregor looming on the horizon with a win, he needs a loss to nudge him in the right direction, for his own sake. Pick: Barboza

Brain: In a “striker vs. grappler” matchup, it is often the case that the wrestler or grappler needs to show a threat in the striking exchanges to open up a clean takedown entry, for a good chance of finishing on top.  Khabib will implement risky, “lead with my face” blitzing combinations in spots to get his positions. All he needs is to be touching you, where he can at the very least force a clinch position, where he has freaky mutant strength.
khabib blitz

Somewhere out there, there’s a clip of Khabib blasting through gigantic middleweight Luke Rockhold in training. Along with his immense physical talent,  Nurmagomedov is a masterful wrestler and grappler, making great use of folkstyle wrist rides and non-traditional grappling control positions to hammer away with ground and pound.

khabib gnp
Pictured: Michael Johnson being assaulted

Then there’s Barboza, the best kicker in the UFC. The issue for Edson in the past was pressure and forward movement from heavy handed wrestlers, he would either back up with his hands down to defend the shot and get nailed, or cover up and end up in a disadvantageous position. More recently we have seen Barboza really develop his boxing game, he is no longer afraid of pressure, and has shown great “eyes”, reading his opponents’ attacks and countering with jabs and check hooks. We rarely see Barboza on his back, as he keeps great distance and position in the cage, in addition to his great hips. Anyone foolish enough to remain standing in front of “Junior” over three rounds is going to end up unconscious or missing a leg.

At this point in their careers, I don’t think Khabib Nurmagomedov is fragile enough for Barboza to properly punish him for his mistakes. I see Nurmagomedov using frantic blitzes to get his clinch positions or to get a hand on a leg, where he can probably control for long stretches. I don’t predict a Michael Johnson type beat down, but a unanimous decision seems like a safe bet.  Pick: Nurmagomedov 

Women’s Featherweight Championship:
Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino vs. Holly “The Preacher’s Daughter” Holm

Heart: I’m a bit of a Cyborg hater, there, I said it. She has clearly abused PEDs in her career, and it has given her an enormous physical advantage over many of her opponents. As I said before, I don’t like to see fighters win in obvious physical mismatches, which describes all of Cyborg’s UFC fights. She’s a bully style fighter, and I couldn’t help but smile when she took a kickboxing bout against world champ Jorina Baars. The UFC has recently decided to embrace her, much to the delight of many long time fans, but I’ll be a hater until she loses decisively and eats some humble pie, because that’s how I operate.

jorina baars gif

Holly Holm has to be one of the nicest people in MMA. Watch her interviews, listen to other people talk about her, she’s clearly a saint. The former 19 time (that’s just silly) boxing world champion has also displayed some beautiful craft in the cage. Holm is out here throwing lead leg question mark kicks against muay thai world champs. For a standout boxer, Holm has really shown off a sensational kicking game in MMA. She also has some sweet tumbling skills, need I say more? Pick: Holm

Brain: We have not seen Cris Cyborg fight someone who can manage distance and circle off the cage like Holly Holm. In a more simple sense, Cyborg has only fought undersized bantamweights at 145/140, and now she is fighting a large bantamweight at 145. At 145 pounds Holly can keep a high pace, and keep Cyborg at the end of her lead kicks to the knee and side kicks to the body, as well as straight counter punches. I have only ever seen Cyborg walk girls down, get them to the cage, and just unload with muay thai combinations. She is very skilled, powerful in the clinch and very heavy in the top position. In my eyes, this is a very dangerous fight for anyone, but it favors Holm stylistically. Look for Holm to pick up points from the outside and use her defensive acumen to make Cyborg pay for her aggression. Pick: Holm

holm slip gif

Tune in to UFC 219: Cyborg vs. Holm on Saturday night December 30th, we’ll find out if I should trust my heart, or my brain.

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