Even today, fans get excited at the prospect of an excellent amateur wrestler training to become a mixed martial artist. And that's nothing compared to the 2000s, when a former NCAA champion transitioning to fighting would make headlines on MMA websites and stir up considerable hype. There was the implicit assumption that any good amateur wrestler would dominate, or at least have considerable success.
I always found this to be silly, because contrary to the narrative most people believe, wrestlers never had automatic success, not even in the 1990's. Don't get me wrong; wrestling was and still is the single most important skill in MMA, as well as the best base from which to build. The overwhelming majority of MMA champions have at least decent wrestling. This is even true today, when more and more top fights are largely kickboxing affairs. Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington might have been a pure kickboxing match, and Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 3 was mostly striking with a little grappling thrown in, but that's only because of how good all four men are at wrestling.
However, could a wrestling champion who competed in MMA have great success solely through his wrestling and no other skills? Not by a long shot! Early greats like Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman and yes, even Dan Severn, needed to adapt their wrestling and learn new skills. To illustrate this point, consider the following wrestlers who had uninspiring careers in MMA, all from the 1990's, going from most to least successful:
Perhaps the greatest wrestler to ever compete in MMA for more than a one-off, wrestling legend Kevin Jackson was an Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion who was only 32 years old and two years removed from his last world championship when he got into MMA.
He had some limited success, winning the UFC 14 light heavyweight tournament, beating a respectable opponent for the time in Tony Fryklund in the finals, even if Fryklund was a good 20 pounds lighter than him. Yet in his very next fight, vying for the first ever UFC light heavyweight championship at Ultimate Japan in December of 1997, he was submitted by Frank Shamrock, smaller than him by at least 10 pounds, with an armbar in all of 16 seconds. Jackson had no clue how to defend the submission, immediately pulling straight back on the arm, which made it much worse.
A learning experience, right? Alas, in his return at UFC 16, Jackson ended up losing in a grueling 10-plus minute match—there were no rounds back then—to Jerry Bohlander, also by armbar. Jackson had seemingly learned nothing since his UFC debut in that match. His wrestling was of course top-notch, but he had no top control nor ground-and-pound and his submission defense was almost nonexistent.
Could Jackson, if he worked hard, have corrected these flaws and become one of the top fighters of his day? Very possibly. But the point is, his wrestling alone was not enough. Instead of trying again, Kevin Jackson retired after a quick victory over Sam Adkins, going back to amateur wrestling and later becoming a highly successful coach.
2. Royce Alger
There was a lot of hype surrounding Alger when he debuted in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Training at Hammer House with Mark Coleman, he was a two-time NCAA Division I champion who had gone undefeated in his final 78 matches. Many thought he would have similar success to Coleman, only at light heavyweight.
Instead, he was armbarred in a minute and a half by Enson Inoue at UFC 13, a huge upset at the time, and after three easy wins against journeymen in Iowa, was knocked out by Eugene Jackson at UFC 21. Similar to Jackson, he didn't have any skills other than his wrestling, and that turned out not to be enough.
3. Gary Myers
Gary Myers made a more concerted effort in MMA than either Jackson or Alger, fighting 25 times from 1995 all the way to 2008 and working as a MMA promoter to this day, yet he had less success than either of them. Myers was a member of the US Army Wrestling team and barely missed making the Olympic team at the trials prior to competing at the first-ever event by Extreme Fighting, an organization founded by then-UFC matchmaker John Perretti.
While he managed to beat journeymen, Myers would always lose to any skilled fighter of his day, including those far smaller than his 220 pounds. He lost to Marcus Silveira, Jeremy Horn, Yuki Kondo and even the very limited Wallid Ismail. While Myers' takedowns were predictable and one-dimensional, he did mostly manage to get his opponents on their backs. However, once there, he had no clue what to do. His ground-and-pound was so poor he made Severn's look like that of a prime Mark Coleman crossed with prime Tito Ortiz. He illustrates, perhaps more clearly than Jackson or Alger, that wrestling is just a means to an end, and not the goal itself. In the absence of ways to capitalize from top position, it can be surprisingly toothless.
4. Roger Neff
A giant 270-pound brute, Neff was an excellent Greco-Roman wrestler who almost made the 1988 Olympics as a 21-year-old but barely lost in the Olympic trials finals. Not only did Neff have the same problems as the fighters above him on this list, he was very easy to hit and hurt standing up, a flaw that Pete Williams needed all of six seconds to exploit. Paul Buentello knocked him out in three minutes early in his career, as well. Sadly, Neff passed away in 2013 at the age of just 46.
While not successful, all the fighters we've looked at so far have had winning records, even if just barely, and thanks to the very low level of 90s journeymen. Heberstreit, by contrast, stands at just 0-1.
Heberstreit was not a great wrestler, but surely, being an NCAA Division I wrestler should have been enough to win an undercard bout on IFC 1 Kombat in Kiev, right? Unfortunately, he was matched against John Lober, a very tough, competent fighter whose final record doesn't do him justice, as I have mentioned in a past column.
Things started out well for Heberstreit, as he got a quick, nice takedown. Once there, however, Lober—who knew Brazilian jiu-jitsu—tied him up, then performed a move that had never been done in MMA until then, to my knowledge. Lober put his feet against the cage and kicked off. In the process he swept Heberstreit. Like most pure wrestlers then, Heberstreit was absolutely helpless on his back. After being pounded on by Lober, he gave up his back and then tapped to a rear-naked choke. Realizing that success in MMA would be far from easy, and looking shell-shocked after the beating he took, Heberstreit would never compete in the sport again.
These five men are far from the only examples, but I hope they drive the point home that wrestling was never an automatic ticket to success, even in the early days of MMA.