Arizona State wrestling has emerged as one of the leaders in the college landscape when it comes to producing mixed martial arts talent. It has delivered UFC veterans and contenders John Moraga and Aaron Simpson. Current and former champions Ryan Bader and Cain Velasquez spent years on the mats in Tempe.
“We have a special state for MMA, and I think Arizona fans recognize that,” Simpson said. “Arizona is still a hotbed for mixed martial arts.”
Recently, the No. 8 ASU wrestling team honored several current and former stars for its third annual MMA Night at Wells Fargo Arena, as the Sun Devils opened their Pac-12 schedule.
Coach Zeke Jones said he doesn’t shy away from talking to recruits about mixed martial arts. He believes that it’s a strength of the program, and it is something ASU does that not many other colleges do.
“When we talk to recruits, we tell them they have two paths: You can go down the path to an Olympic gold medal, or if you have the ability to fight, you can be an MMA star. You can become a UFC or Bellator champion,” Jones said.
Mixed martial arts has come into its own as a profitable sport. Those who reach the top of the ladder can earn millions per fight. Former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar secured north of $2 million for his win against Mark Hunt at UFC 200. Former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey earned $3 million in her loss against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207.
Conor McGregor, one of the biggest names in the UFC and in combat sports as a whole, has used his personality and skill inside the cage to cash out paychecks of $590,000, $1 million, $3 million and $3.5 million in the past three years.
Even fighters who don’t reach the top can still reap the rewards of their hard work. Former lightweight champ and current welterweight contender Rafael Dos Anjos has made six figures in eight of his last nine fights. Bader, who never fought for a UFC title, consistently scored six-figure paydays before he departed to Bellator.
Both Arizona State and Arizona have been home to a culture that breeds fighters and fierce competitors. A bevy of boxing, jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai gyms across the Valley give martial artists in Arizona plenty of places to hone their crafts in the hope of competing under bright lights in the UFC Octagon or Bellator cage.
The 2018 edition of MMA Night featured the No. 9-ranked UFC flyweight Moraga, former UFC welterweight Simpson and 143-fight veteran and Coolidge native Shannon “The Cannon” Ritch.
Mixed martial arts and wrestling have gone hand-in-hand since the Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted in 1993. Wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu were how smaller men took down and defeated much larger opponents. Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock were prime examples that technique trumped size.
Moraga, a former Sun Devil, noted that his time wrestling at ASU provided him with knowledge of how to be successful in mixed martial arts.
“I learned how to focus and train smart,” Moraga said. “I think wrestlers are great at adapting because they’re always used to being in competition.
Moraga said he never thought about fighting until he and Velasquez talked about it while both were with ASU Wrestling. The UFC flyweight is a 24-fight veteran, with 12 fights in the UFC. Some of the biggest legends in MMA have ASU roots. Dan Severn fought in and won some of the earliest UFC tournaments, but before that he was a three-time All-American at ASU. Don Frye showed the world that wrestlers could use their skills to keep the fight standing if they wanted to, and force their opponents to box with them. Dan Henderson won the PRIDE middleweight and welterweight championships, and was the first man to simultaneously hold two belts in a major MMA promotion.
Despite the world-class MMA fighters that have come out of Arizona State, only 10 wrestlers have won an individual championship as a Sun Devil. ASU hasn’t seen a wrestling national championship since 2011, when Anthony Robles and Bubba Jenkins won in the 125- and 157-pound weight classes.
Jones, a member of the 1988 ASU wrestling team, the only Arizona State squad to win an NCAA championship, said he almost stepped foot in the cage around the time he won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics, but it never materialized.
“A wrestling base is the foundation of success in mixed martial arts, and I think any of our guys could do it,” Jones said.