This Saturday, Bellator welterweight champ Ben Askren puts his crown and undefeated MMA record on the line when he faces recent 170-pound tournament winner Jay Hieron at Bellator 56. Conflicting style match-up, grizzled veteran, unorthodox attack, blah, blah, blah. The preview for that bout, and the others on the main card, will come later this week. What I want to focus on now is the fact that Askren was an Olympic wrestler, and while wrestling is a cornerstone in any complete mixed martial arts skill set, high-level wrestling accomplishments don’t necessarily translate into success in the cage – which makes Askren’s run as champ that much more remarkable. And sure, a significant number of stars in MMA have wrestling backgrounds, including the likes of Randy Couture, Josh Koscheck, Mark Munoz, Frankie Edgar… the list goes on. But the actual Olympians who’ve competed is but a fraction of that number, with those who’ve earned medals making up a club that’s even more elite. Too bad scoring one of those shiny pieces of swag doesn’t translate into an instant MMA championship belt. Of course, it should be noted that Askren never won a medal himself in the Olympics –is that why he’s had success? Anyway, here’s a list of some of the best wrestlers the United States has ever fielded in Olympic competition, plus a little note as to why, when it came to mixing in strikes and submissions into their combative endeavor, their MMA careers crapped the bed.
Rulon Gardner – This ginormous human being and Greco-Roman monster snagged himself gold in the 2000 Olympic Games and took home the bronze in 2004, and he’s best known for being the man to defeat the previously undefeated Russian Olympic super-soldier Alexander Karelin. All of this led to his courtship with the PRIDE Fighting Championships, and because the Japanese love themselves a freakshow, they pitted him against their much-more experienced fighter (and resident judo gold medalist) Hidehiko Yoshida. But whoops on them, as Gardner ended up being too massive for Yoshida to do anything to, and the American came home with the win. That was it for Gardner in MMA, though, and years later we’d be treated to his stint as a grotesquely overweight pity-party on the TV show “The Biggest Loser”. Yeesh.
Matt Lindland – In the 2000 Olympics Lindland earned a silver medal in Greco-Roman, and those skills faired him well when it came to beating dudes up in the UFC. Unfortunately, he never could quite pull the trigger when it counted, with champ Murilo Bustamante tapping him out twice in his only shot at the title, and Dave Terrell KOing him in 24 seconds when Lindland was supposedly clawing his way back up the rankings. Although recent years have been unkind to him in terms of fight results, Lindland was pretty badass for a stretch back in the day, and he seems to have transitioned nicely into a solid coach (see: Team Quest).
Kenny Monday – As a freestyle wrestler, Monday took the gold in the 1988 Olympics and the silver in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and when Extreme Fighting matchmaker John Peretti was working his magic, he got Monday into the cage to face John Lewis. The cat had virtually no problems steamrolling over Lewis, but, sadly, that was the last we ever saw of him. Was he distracted by an errant ball of yarn? Were the allures of catnip and scratching posts too much for him? Who knows. Regardless, Monday’s Olympic medals made for one dominant MMA fight, and that’s it.
Mark Schultz – A gold medal in freestyle at the 1984 Olympics, and then at UFC 9 we watched Schultz easily take Gary Goodridge down over and over again until Goodridge was halted by a cut. The next stop on the Schultz train, unfortunately, was what may or may not have been a worked fight at a 2003 Jungle Fight event in Brazil. Not good, Mark.
Kevin Jackson – Back in 1997, this Olympic freestyle gold medalist was the shiznit in the Octagon – which is why he took on Frank Shamrock for the championship. He lost via armbar in 16 seconds, then faced Jerry Bohlander and lost pretty much the same way again (despite beating on Bohlander for about ten whole minutes). So close, Mr. Jackson. So close.