NCAA Wrestling to MMA: Five Wrestlers with a Future in MMA
Wrestling has always been one of the best bases for MMA, especially NCAA wrestling. In the past, we have seen credentialed wrestlers like Henry Cejudo, Daniel Cormier, and Johny Hendricks all become UFC champions. As of late, fewer NCAA and Olympic wrestlers have made the move over to MMA. This is partially due to wrestlers having more opportunities to make money in wrestling. However, three-time NCAA National Champion Bo Nickal has made the switch. In his short MMA career, he has made waves by going 2-0 while vowing to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Nickal’s success may influence other NCAA wrestlers to consider MMA too.
Here are five wrestlers that we may see in an MMA cage and maybe even the UFC octagon. It is also important to note that all of these wrestlers have some sort of MMA tie. I also did not include wrestlers that have recently made the switch like three-time NCAA All-American Bryce Meredith who is currently 2-0 in MMA or NCAA champion Anthony Cassar who is already training at American Top Team alongside Nickal.
Roman Bravo-Young — Penn State
Penn State senior Roman Bravo-Young was the inspiration for this list. He has a great combination of skill and MMA connections that make him an obvious answer. Let’s start with his wrestling. Bravo-Young is currently 81-9 over four seasons, but he has been lights out in his last two years in Happy Valley. In 2021 and 2022, he has a record of 36-0. This resulted in two NCAA National Championships at 133 pounds. Bravo-Young was also an NCAA All-American his freshman year when he finished eighth. Despite the NCAA Wrestling Championships being canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, Bravo-Young was still named an All-American. Bravo-Young announced he will return for a fifth year at Penn State back in May.
As far as MMA goes, Bravo-Young is close with former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz due to their Tucson, Ariz. ties. The pair often train together with the Nittany Lion helping Cruz train his wrestling. If that was not enough, he had a freestyle wrestling match against current UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling at Happy Valley Wrestling Club IV which he won 6-4. Oh, and he was teammates with Nickal at Penn State. Right now, it seems like Bravo-Young is anticipating an MMA career.
“When I fight, (Cruz) is going to be like my main coach,” Bravo-Young said. “He is going to get me set up right. He knows all the people, connections. So I am excited for that path. He is a good dude; he really cares about me.”
“One of my goals is to just get a world medal in freestyle. That’s just something I want to do and travel internationally to wrestle and then after 2024 I am going to switch over to fighting completely.”Quote via Spinnin BackFist
Gable Steveson — Minnesota
Gable Steveson competing in MMA may be more of a pipedream than a reality, but I will not ignore it. Steveson would likely be the best wrestler ever to compete in MMA. At the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo Steveson won a gold medal at 125kg (275.58 pounds) at just 21 years old. He is also a two-time NCAA champion at heavyweight, taking first in 2021 and 2022. I have a hard time believing he does not win in 2020 if the NCAA Wrestling Championships were held. As a freshman in 2019, he earned All-American honors with a third-place finish. Overall, he finished his NCAA wrestling career with a 90-2 record.
At one point, there was a WWE and UFC betting war for Steveson’s services. Eventually, the WWE won as Steveson signed a multi-year deal with the company. He later admitted that he anticipated that he would sign with the WWE before the deal was finished. The UFC had a lot of ground to make up before negotiations ever started. Despite signing with the WWE, the door hasn’t closed on an MMA career. Steveson himself admitted an MMA move could be down the road. It seems like Steveson is taking the Brock Lesnar approach to MMA. After all, they both wrestled at Minnesota and Steveson listed Lesnar as a dream WWE matchup. Regardless, if Steveson ever steps foot in a UFC octagon he would immediately become a threat to the current champion.
Zahid Valencia — Arizona State
Zahid Valencia is in an interesting position in the world of wrestling. First off, he was tremendous in college. At Arizona State, Valencia compiled an NCAA record of 129-5, including two NCAA titles at 174 pounds. In 2020, he was 20-0 at 184 pounds and appeared on pace to add another NCAA title to his resume, but he was suspended due to a failed drug test which found recreational drugs in his system. Once again, the NCAA finals were canceled that year anyway, but the suspension cost him an All-American spot. Valencia also took third and 174 pounds his freshman season.
Valencia has always been active in freestyle wrestling. There is a good chance that prevents him from training in MMA as he has performed well. He won gold at the 2022 Pan American Championships at 86 kg (189.60 pounds) and several other international competitions. However, he has been unable to crack the US world or Olympic team. At the 2020 US Olympic Team Trials, he finished third. The eventual Olympic gold medalist David Taylor finished first while Nickal finished second. Previously, in 2018 and 2019 he failed to qualify for the world team at 76kg (167.55 pounds) as Olympic bronze medalist Kyle Dake has that spot-on lock. For Valencia, as long as wrestling legends control the positions in front of him, he will struggle to reach the pinnacle of freestyle wrestling. This is what makes his transition to MMA possible. Valencia could either ride out his time on the freestyle scene or he could get fed up and transition to MMA.
Valencia does not have any direct MMA ties that have been made public; however, in 2020, former UFC double champion Henry Cejudo mentioned Valencia has expressed interest in MMA.
“I believe any wrestler that decides to make that transition and decides to take their time with the sport is a threat not to be messing with,” Cejudo said. “If I was to pick one guy, besides the great Kyle Snyder, I’d say Zahid Valencia from Arizona State. He expressed interest in the sport, and I believe he mentioned it.
“I believe if he gets into the sport of mixed martial arts … he’s a two-time NCAA champ who was going for his third before this whole coronavirus. I think at the welterweight division, with time, he’d be a really hard dude to beat.”Quote via MMA Junkie
Nick Suriano — Michigan
Nick Suriano is one of the most interesting NCAA wrestlers, so it’s hard to pinpoint what his future holds. Regardless, he is an incredible wrestler. In college, Suriano compiled an 86-7 record, headlined by two NCAA National Championships. The first came at Rutgers in 2019 at 133 pounds. The second was at Michigan in 2022 at 125 pounds. He was also a runner-up in 2018 at Rutgers, falling to Spencer Lee in the 125-pound finals in his only loss of the year.
Suriano has competed in freestyle since throughout his college career. At the 2021 United States World Team Trial, he went 2-2 at 57 kg (126.66 pounds) which was not good enough to medal. This makes MMA a more realistic career path. If he is unable to reach the pinnacle of freestyle wrestling, he may be tempted to jump ship and begin in MMA.
As far as MMA connections go, he is also tied to former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. He also has been in the gym with Edgar.
“I’ve been doing (MMA) off and on since high school,” Suriano said in 2019. “I’ve worked out with Frankie and really enjoyed it. It’s funny. MMA and wrestling are both fights. And I love to win the fight.”Quote via ESPN
Sebastian Rivera- Rutgers
Sebastian Rivera finds himself in a similar position to Suriano — he too is connected to Edgar. In comparison to Suriano, Rivera has more MMA experience, but he was less successful in college. Rivera wrestled for six years. He spent his first four years at Northwestern and his last two years at Rutgers — his tenure at Northwestern includes one redshirt year. In total Rivera was a five-time NCAA All-American: twice at 125 pounds, twice at 141 pounds, and once at 133 pounds. His All-American season at 133 was his best opportunity to win a national championship; however, it was during the doomed 2020 season. It was especially tough for Rivera as he entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed.
Rivera becoming an MMA fighter seems like a layup. With his connections to Edgar, Rivera was able to do some MMA training throughout college. All in all, he could transition to MMA relatively soon, if he wanted to.
“I’m not really sure what I want to do after graduation,” Rivera told InterMat in 2019. “I think MMA is worth exploring.”
“I’ve been involved in the MMA lifestyle,” Rivera continued. “I actually like getting punched in the face. Fight or flight — I’d say it’s cooler than wrestling.”Quote via InterMat
*All records via Wrestlestat*