A few subway stops from Madison Square Garden, Ellen’s Stardust Diner is a hot spot for Broadway directors searching for new talent.
Chances are high one of the Stardust’s singing wait staff will bring you soup and salad at the theater-district tourist trap one day then appear as the lead in a Broadway production within months.
Mixed martial arts fans looking for the sport’s next superstar probably should have bought an all-session pass to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships this weekend Madison Square Garden.
The list of college wrestling stars who’ve rocketed to fame in the UFC is extensive — Brock Lesnar (Minnesota), Mark Coleman (Ohio State), Chris Weidman (Hofstra) and the Oklahoma State pipeline that includes Daniel Cormier, Randy Couture and Johny Hendricks, to name a few.
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There’s a good chance one of the 330 wrestlers at the NCAA tourney eventually rises to MMA stardom.
“All of them would make good fighters,” Missouri graduate and MMA champion Ben Askren said. “Honestly, there’s only been one high-level guy that I can think of who didn’t make it as a mixed martial artist. That stands out, out of all of them that have tried, I can think of one guy. Even that guy won a handful of fights in the UFC. He just wasn’t that great.”
Askren, who until Saturday was the only two-time NCAA champion in Tigers history, hasn’t joined the UFC parade because of a feud with the organization’s president, Dana White.
He has been a Bellator MMA welterweight champion and holds the ONE Fighting Championships welterweight belt, boasting a 14-0 professional record.
Askren also is unashamedly proud of the success college wrestling stars have found in MMA, which admittedly is a more violent combat sport. He believes elite wrestlers have several advantages inside the octagon.
First, wrestling teaches fighters to dictate position, whether you want to tussle on your feet or on the ground. It gives those with a wrestling background the advantage of knowing a variety of takedowns, takedown defense and how to ride an opponent once on the ground or escape if needed.
“Number two would be that you get to compete so many times,” Askren said. “Over the course of a career, by the time you graduate as a college wrestler, most of those guys got the opportunity to compete 1,000 times. Being able to compete at a high level is a skill. A lot of people who come to mix martial arts from taekwondo or jujitsu, they’re not getting a fraction of those matches. Preparation for competition is a huge advantage.”
The physical demands of elite college wrestling also breeds hardnosed fighters.
“Going that far in the sport of wrestling, it’s such a tough sport and it just creates tough, hard-working individuals who know how to get the job done,” Askren said.
Of course, it’s not for everyone.
Missouri junior 197-pounder J’den Cox, who won his second NCAA crown Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, doesn’t see MMA in his future.
“I’m all for punching people in the face and stuff,” Cox said. “I’m just not for that happening to me. If one day I decide, ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind getting punched in the face,’ I’ll decide to do it. I’m cool with throwing the kicks and throwing people and choking them, but, when that happens to me, I’m done. I quit. You can call me a sissy or whatever you want, but I like my face the way it is.”
Cox — who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials on April 9-10 in Iowa City, Iowa, by virtue of his most recent NCAA title — would prefer to stick with wrestling.
Oklahoma senior Cody Brewer, a 2015 NCAA champion and the 11th four-time NCAA All-American in Sooners history, also plans to test the waters in freestyle wrestling.
It’s a variation used internationally, including for the Olympics along with Greco-Roman style, that differs from folkstyle, which is used for high school and college wrestling.
Brewer, an Oak Park graduate, would prefer to vie for an Olympic or world championships berth down the road then go into coaching rather than become an MMA fighter.
“I don’t want to get punched in the face,” Brewer said. “Actually, getting kneed or kicked in the face would be the worst thing. It’s one of those things, great sport and wrestling’s a big part of it now, but they'd have to pay me a whole lot.”
There is a misconception that mixed martial arts is the domain of lifelong brawlers.
“I’ve never been in a fight in my life that I haven’t been paid for,” Askren said.
He understands the hesitancy some wrestlers have about making the switch, but Askren said the striking aspect can be overstated.
“Wrestling, you’re not striking each other, but it’s a very combative sport,” Askren said. “When you take a shot and put your head into a knee or hip, that feeling’s almost worse than taking a punch.”
As terrifying as the punches, kicks and chokeholds might appear to an average person, Askren said it wasn’t an issue for him.
“I’m not the kind of guy who worries about much,” said Askren, who competed for the U.S. at 74 kilograms in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “I just go have at it. I’ve always liked the combative stuff. I’ve always been good at the combative stuff. My first thought was that if I didn’t like it or didn’t enjoy it, I could always go back to wrestling and try to make another Olympic team or something.”
Instead, Askren — as so many other wrestlers before him and since — found immediate success. He credits his wrestling background, which has become increasingly important in MMA with the influx of top-level wrestlers.
“There were skillsets when I was just starting out that I had to learn,” said Askren, who added Brazilian jujitsu to his ground-and-pound, wrestling-inspired dominance. “But when you really look cross the board, the people who struggled the most are the people with no wrestling background. That’s the hardest background to learn, because most people who are great at it have been doing it for 25 years. You can’t make up 25 years.”
Askren would love to see Cox, or any other NCAA wrestling champion, give MMA a go.
“He’d be (darn) near unstoppable,” Askren said of Cox. “I’ve asked him point-blank, and he’s told me no. I don't think he's going to do it, but he would be outstanding.”
As for Askren, his next fight is a ONE Fighting Championships welterweight title defense April 15 against Russian Nikolay Aleksakhin in Manila, Philippines.
He’s given up the idea that he’ll ever sign with UFC (though he hilariously hasn’t given up trying as this Fighters Only World MMA Awards parody of Adele’s “Hello” attests).
“I don’t know if it’s going to happen,” Askren said. “It’s not a big deal. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’m in a really good spot right now in my career and my life. It bothered me maybe for like 20 minutes. Then, you get over it, move on and figure out what’s next. That’s kind of how I live my life.”
One lucrative fight at a time.