2008 Olympic wrestlers still perfect in MMA
August, 22, 2013
By Josh Gross
David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCTBen Askren transitioned from the 2008 U.S. Olympic team to an unbeaten run as Bellator champion.CARSON, Calif. -- Drip. Drip.
Red droplets won't stop falling from Steve Mocco's nose.
"It's been bleeding for a while," he said, not needing to be asked before saying something. "You just tap it and it starts bleeding."
The pattern held steady during half-minute intervals, and Mocco made proper use of the paper towel that was balled up in his meaty right hand. Moments after his third professional MMA victory, a decision against Lew Polley, Mocco smothered a folding chair inside his StubHub Center locker room, nodded, dabbed the drips away, and smiled.
Accomplished wrestlers like the two-time NCAA super-heavyweight champion -- one of seven men that comprised the 2008 Olympic freestyle team -- seem to go about their business as if these type of scenarios are normal. Drip. Drip. It's comfortable. Almost reassuring.
Standing a shade under 6-feet, the 260-pound "Bear" is among four members from the '08 freestyle crew doing well in MMA. Mocco, Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren and Henry Cejudo have a smooth 31-0 combined record.
"We all did what normally you do after wrestling," Cormier said. "Just we fight, too."
Positive results have prompted chatter about their success to "pick up steam," said Cormier, who served as team captain at the Beijing Games. When kidney failure tied to weight-cutting prevented him from competing in consecutive Olympics, Cormier shifted his focus to MMA.
Today he's 12-0, widely considered a top-three heavyweight, and is closing in on a UFC title opportunity.
Prior to this new life, Cormier's old one in Oklahoma was uninspired.
Work and video games occupied much of his time, which wasn’t going to cut it after a lifetime pursuing pure competition. Cormier struggled, understandably, and a couple of times had to rely on his close friend and fellow national team wrestler, Muhammed Lawal, to help pay the mortgage.
"It was hard," Cormier said. "After retiring from wrestling, I didn't have much."
The sport of mixed martial arts became a legitimate option after Cormier saw how well "King Mo" did while fighting in Japan. "You should do it," Lawal liked to tell him. In fact, Lawal is credited with planting the MMA seed in the minds of the '08 wrestlers. Being repetitive and consistent, like Mocco's drip, drip, apparently worked.
MMA was familiar to the group, of course. They enjoyed discussing the sport, but it certainly didn't consume them during the run to Beijing.
"I don't think it was ever a 'plan,' " Askren said. "Just each of us found our own way to MMA."
Being in the right place at the right time had a lot to do with that.
During the 2004 Olympic cycle, UFC had yet to launch "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show. Four years later, UFC was pulling huge pay-per-view numbers and attracting many of the sport's best fighters because that's where the money was flowing after the demise of Japanese MMA.
It was no coincidence, Askren said, that "you've got the seven best [wrestlers in America], and four of them decide to do MMA."
Currently a free agent after defending the Bellator MMA welterweight belt last month for the fourth time, Askren (12-0) said he'd like to wind up in the Octagon, which would bring him closer to being the No. 1 welterweight in the world.
After falling short of qualifying for the 2012 Games, Cejudo and Mocco made their moves and have been busy. Cejudo, a gold medalist in '08, made his MMA debut this spring. He won his first four fights with little problem, and his next contest is expected to be announced on Monday.
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallUnbeaten in his first four MMA bouts, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo is regarded as a top prospect in the flyweight division.
Cejudo is regarded as a top prospect in the flyweight division. Mocco, meanwhile, stepped into the cage for the first time last year. Of the four Olympians, he most resembles a work in progress.
"I don't want to compare myself to them yet," Mocco said. "I feel like I have a lot more to prove. They're established, good fighters."
Facing a late replacement during Friday's Resurrection Fighting Alliance 9 card, Mocco engineered a decision win that didn't please many fans seated in the outdoor venue. Still, he showed up punching, and grappled as he pleased. Mocco and his camp, headed by American Top Team's Ricardo Liborio, sounded satisfied. As satisfied as they can be, at least.
"A lot of people expect too much from Steve," Liborio said. "He's a great name in wrestling. There's a lot of expectations of Steve as a contender, and there's no doubt that he's going to be. We just need more time. That's why he's in RFA now. I think there's enough contenders here, people with quality, that we can achieve our goal to get to the UFC and stay."
Competitors on Mocco's level understand the formula well. Work hard, make the most of what you have, and anything can happen. The heavyweight looked noticeably slower against Polley than he should have. He said he needs to work on resetting after exchanging on the feet. There are many nuances yet to be discovered.
"He'll get the most out of what he got," Liborio said. "He'll find out if he can be UFC champion or not."
"I'd like to think so," Mocco said between drips, "but we'll find out one way or the other."