(The ASU wrestling program has been a pipeline to the UFC/ photo The State Press)
The list of Mixed Martial Artists who’ve never suffered a loss at the sport’s highest level is short. It’s all the more noteworthy, then, that two such fighters will not only compete on the main card of Saturday’s UFC 110 event, but that they were college wrestling teammates.
Both Cain Velasquez (7-0-0) and Ryan Bader (10-0-0) will look to not only keep their perfect records in tact, but also to move closer to title contention in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight divisions, respectively. Their opposition on Saturday will be the toughest they’ve faced in the yet young MMA careers of both men. Velasquez will compete in the main event of the show, facing former Pride Heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (32-5-1, 1 no contest). Bader will face Keith Jardine (15-6-1).
Just the pressure of fighting on a major pay-per-view event would be more than enough pressure for many fighters. For Velasquez and Bader, that’s just the beginning. On top of the added pressure of seeking a place among the title contenders in their respective divisions, both will be facing opponents with vastly different styles than those they’ve faced in the past. Along with a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu game that few in MMA can equal, Nogueira is a respectable boxer whose ability to absorb punishment in order to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat is legendary. Jardine, meanwhile, will utilize a striking game above and beyond anything that Bader has previously encountered.
The answer for both Velasquez and Bader has, and likely will, come from their shared background. While wrestling for Arizona State University, both Velasquez and Bader earned All-American honors twice. As their unblemished MMA records suggest, each man has utilized their superb wrestling talent to make the transition into MMA not only easier, but thus far flawless. However, it will be each fighter’s ability to develop additional strengths in the Octagon that will determine whether or not they can compete for their division’s championship.
Despite having fewer career fights than Bader, Velasquez has shown more growth thus far in his MMA career. He has knocked out six of his seven opponents, and in his lone decision, Velasquez’s chin was tested multiple times by Cheick Kongo; a test Velasquez ultimately passed. Velasquez will need to continue to improve his striking, particularly while standing. Though he’s proven that he can take a punch, Velasquez has reached a point in his career where the opponents he will face will capitalize on his previously poor striking defense in a way that Kongo could not. Nogueira, in particular, will be relentless should he manage to put Velasquez on his back. That is not Velasquez’s only concern, though, for even if he puts Nogueira on his back, Velasquez will not be out of the woods despite his tremendous wrestling ability. While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a key component to the training of Velasquez (a purple belt under Dave Camarillo), he will not be able to underestimate Noguiera’s abilities on the ground, regardless of the position, for even a moment. There was no such concern for Velasquez against any of his previous opponents.
While a lengthy list of contenders at Light Heavyweight exists at the moment, a victory for Bader over Jardine could still vault the undefeated fighter on the short list behind top contender Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and the winner of Jackson versus former champion Rashad Evans. Since his victory over Chuck Liddell at UFC 76, Jardine has become the unofficial gatekeeper of the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division. Quinton Jackson earned a title short with his win over Jardine. Thiago Silva, after knocking Jardine out, earned a match with Lyoto Machida to determine the number one contender. In order for such aspirations to be reasonable for Bader, he’ll need to navigate past the leg kicks and takedown defense of Jardine. While relying as heavily on kicks as Jardine does will present Bader with plenty of opportunities to take him down, it will only take a few such kicks to diminsh the effectiveness of Bader’s takedown attempts. With his takedown nullified, Bader is likely to find himself in trouble against Jardine, as he has yet to show that he has the ability to stand and trade with a fighter of Jardine’s skill set. Jardine’s biggest losses have come at the hands of aggressive strikers. Though he certainly possesses the power to knock out many in the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division, aggression is something that he has yet to display on the feet. Early in his UFC career, Jardine did earn a decision victory over Mike Whitehead, who is the only fighter on Jardine’s resume with similar wrestling credentials to Bader’s, though Bader is a much better conditioned athlete than Whitehead.
To truly be considered title contenders, it will be important for both men to show that they’ve grown as fighters. It will be interesting, however, for both Velasquez and Bader to show just how effective a heavy reliance on wrestling can be when competing against or approaching the upper echelon of talent in the UFC. As the level of competition increases in MMA, fewer and fewer fighters can rely as heavily on any one discipline for success, wrestling included. C.B. Dollaway (9-2-0), fellow UFC 110 competitor and ASU teammate of both Velasquez and Bader, has had mixed results in the UFC despite brining nearly identical credentials into the Octagon as his teammates. Aaron Simpson is another ASU alumnus and former coach of Velasquez, Bader, and Dollaway. Like Velasquez and Bader, Simpson (7-0-0) is undefeated in MMA, though he had a rough go of it in his most recent fight against Tom Lawlor, a match in which Simpson needed to rely heavily on his stand up en route to earning a split decision victory.
Then again, the common components are that all four fighters wrestled for ASU and three-out-of-four are fighting for the UFC with unblemished career records. Arizona State’s mascot is the Sun Devil. A deal with the devil may best explain the great success of the school’s alumni in the UFC.