Over the years, the UFC has seen a massive evolution in terms of fighting styles and the tools fighters bring into their arsenals. This can be traced all the way back to UFC 1, when Royce Gracie introduced the world to Brazilian jiu-jitsu by taking down and beating strikers much bigger than him. That was in 1993.
Fast forward to 2021, and grappling is as integral a tool for modern mixed martial artists as any. But apart from grappling and submission skills, fighters have increasingly leveled up their wrestling. We've seen time and again how good wrestling not only neutralizes a powerful striker's strength, but can also turn the tables very quickly. Former lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is a perfect example of this.
From taking an opponent's strength away to outpointing them via takedowns to unleashing vicious ground and pound, wrestling is incredibly important for the modern mixed martial artist.
Let's take a look at 5 of the most accomplished wrestlers competing in the UFC today:
5) T.J. Dillashaw
T.J. Dillashaw is a former two-time UFC bantamweight champion. He was a finalist on season fourteen of 'The Ultimate Fighter', but Dillashaw had been wrestling long before his MMA days.
T.J. Dillashaw began wrestling in high school, and by the time he was done, he had racked up an overall record of 170-33. This earned him a full scholarship to California State University, where he wrestled as part of their team, the Cal State Fullerton Titans. In his senior year, Dillashaw was ranked 10th in the nation at 133-pounds, and by graduation he had qualified for NCAA Division One thrice.
He is set to take on Cory Sandhagen at UFC Vegas 26 on May 8th, 2021.
4) Tyron Woodley
Despite his recent loss of form, 'The Chosen One' is one of the best welterweights we've ever had the pleasure of seeing in the octagon. Woodley has been athletic since his childhood, competing in both amateur wrestling and American football through high school.
In 2000, an 18 year old Tyron Woodley won the Missouri 4A Men’s State Championship in the 160lb weight class. After graduating high school, Woodley joined the wrestling program at the University of Missouri, where he became a two-time NCAA Division One All-American.
3) Aljamain Sterling
Aljamain Sterling has been in the news recently following his controversial win against Petr Yan at UFC 259. While he may be one of the most disputed champions in recent UFC history, if not the most disputed, Sterling's wrestling pedigree is undeniable.
Aljamain Sterling began wrestling in high school in 2004. He enrolled at Morisville State College, where he met and trained with Jon Jones on the wrestling team. After his freshman year, Sterling transferred to the State University of New York College at Cortland and eventually became a two-time NCAA Division Three All-American with a record of 87–27.
He earned his nickname 'Funkmaster' from his unorthodox wrestling style.
2) Kamaru Usman
Akin to the others on this list, UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman also started out as a wrestler before turning to mixed martial arts. 'The Nigerian Nightmare' began folkstyle wrestling in his sophomore year of high school and compiled a 53-3 record before leaving for college.
Collegiately, he competed at 174 pounds and was the 2010 NCAA Division Two national champion, a three-time NCAA Division Two All-American and a NAIA National qualifier. Usman was also a 2010 US University World Team member. He finished his 2010 season with a 44-1 record and 30 straight wins.
Shortly after his folkstyle career was over, Usman turned his attention to freestyle wrestling and became a resident of the United States Olympic Training Center, with hopes of making the 2012 Olympic team. Kamaru Usman was sidetracked by injuries and eventually abandoned his Olympic goal, turning his attention to mixed martial arts instead. The rest, as they say, is history.
Usman will put his UFC welterweight belt on the line against Jorge Masvidal this Saturday at UFC 261.
1) Michael Chandler
Another fighter who's been wrestling since high school, Chandler was voted the 'Most Valuable Wrestler' during his senior season. He enrolled at the University of Missouri and became a mainstay in the wrestling squad, where he was a four-time NCAA Division One qualifier. He collected 100 career wins as well as earning All-American honors.
Michael Chandler earned runner-up honors in the 2008 and 2009 Big 12 Championships, compiling a 31–15 record against Big 12 opponents, and a 100–40 overall record in his four years.
If you want to see how good his wrestling is in an MMA fight, look no further than this thunderous suplex he landed on Benson Henderson at Bellator 165: