College Wrestling is one of the most difficult levels of competition and for years these athletes could only pursue the Olympics after graduation.
With the creation of Mixed Martial Arts, many wrestlers have transitioned their skills over with incredible results.
Since 1993 there’s been countless collegiate wrestlers to fight in the UFC, it’s hard to count or rank them all.
But I’ve picked out a few of my personal favorites, here are 10 UFC fighters who wrestled in college and found success. Let’s get into it!
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10. Michael Chandler
“Iron” Michael Chandler was an All-American wrestler for the University of Missouri, competing in the 157 lbs weight class and qualifying for the NCAA tournament all four years while in college.
During his sophomore year, Chandler faced a future fighter, Bubba Jenkins. Losing in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
Chandler placed 5th at the 2009 NCAA Tournament, after losing to another future fighter Gregor Gillespie in the consolation finals.
On the other side of that 157 lbs bracket was Justin Gaethje, though he and Chandler didn’t meet until their fight of the year matchup in 2021. Surprisingly, there was only one takedown the entire fight.
Chandler is also a two time Big 12 Runner-Up; losing to Cyler Sanderson (brother of Cael Sanderson) in ’08 and Jordan Burroughs (now a seven time world champion) in ’09.
He began his MMA career just three months after graduating college and became a three time Bellator Champion.
Chandler fought for the belt in his second UFC fight, now with two performance bonuses and two fight of the night bonuses, we might see him fight for gold again soon.
9. Ryan Bader
Ryan “Darth” Bader joined the UFC after winning the 8th season of The Ultimate Fighter with his coach and former college teammate, Cain Velasquez.
Bader wrestled at Arizona State University where he qualified for the NCAA Tournament all four years, placing 4th in 2004.
Unfortunately his next NCAA Tournaments were cut short by fellow future UFC standouts.
Bader lost to Phil Davis in the second round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. Then next year he’d make it to the quarter-finals before losing to future UFC Champion, Chris Weidman.
Both Davis and Weidman would later lose to another future UFC fighter, Jake Rosholt, who is now a 3-time NCAA Champion.
Bader had a good run in the UFC, with wins over Rampage Jackson, Rashad Evans and Phil Davis; his former wrestling opponent.
After leaving the UFC, Bader signed to rematch Phil Davis, this time for the Bellator Light Heavyweight Title. Bader won, for the second time, by split-decision.
He went on to win the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix and defeated Fedor Emelianenko for the Heavyweight Title, earning him the status of Double Champ.
Bader still uses his elite wrestling to dominate the Heavyweight division at Bellator.
8. Kevin Randleman
Kevin Randleman is an MMA legend, having fought in the UFC, Strikeforce and Pride FC.
Before fighting, Randleman wrestled at Ohio State University, where he was a three time All-American and two time NCAA Champion.
He was ineligible to compete his senior year and through his friendship with Mark Coleman, started training MMA.
Randleman mainly used wrestling throughout his career, but surprisingly won 2004 “Upset” and “Knockout” of the Year when he beat Mirko Cro Cop with a right-cross and follow-up elbows.
In 1999 he beat Pete Williams to become the UFC Heavyweight Champion and during his prime, only lost to champions like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Rampage Jackson.
Kevin Randleman unfortunately passed away in 2016, but is still remembered for the athletic monster and champion that he was.
7. Johny Hendricks
The “Bigg Rigg” Johny Hendricks was a four time All-American and two time NCAA Champion at Oklahoma State University.
Even before college he had a history with now retired fighter, Ben Askren, beating him in 2002 during high school.
In the finals of the 2005 Big 12 Tournament, Hendricks faced another future fighter in Tyrone Woodley.
Hendricks won the match after a controversial call where he was given a point after claiming Woodley bit him.
Woodley said Hendricks illegally put his fingers in his mouth and the pace of the match changed after losing that point.
Hendricks entered the 2007 NCAA Finals as a two time champion but surprisingly lost to Iowa wrestler, Mark Perry.
He had his first pro fight just 7 months after his last college match, winning in the third by TKO.
Hendricks went 10-1 in his first eleven fights in the UFC, earning a title shot against Welterweight Champ Georges St. Pierre.
GSP won via split-decision, a victory that many still believe Hendricks was robbed of.
Hendricks got another title shot when GSP retired, this time against “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler.
He won the UFC Welterweight Championship by unanimous decision, but lost it just nine months later in a rematch with Lawler.
Hendricks retired in 2017 and now works as a police officer in Texas.
6. Mark Coleman
“The Hammer” Mark Coleman, is a UFC Hall of Famer and one of only two fighters to win both a UFC and Pride FC Tournament. The other fighter being Dan Henderson.
Coleman was an All-American wrestler at Miami University in Ohio, before transferring to Ohio State University and winning the 1988 NCAA Championship.
He continued wrestling, winning the 1991 Pan American Games and placing 7th in the 1992 Olympics.
Coleman competed to represent America again in 1996, but lost in the Olympic trials to Kurt Angle, a future WWE Hall of Famer.
Kurt Angle went on to win the 1996 Olympics and Coleman began his MMA career that summer, winning the UFC 10 and UFC 11 tournaments.
After winning back to back tournaments, Coleman defeated Dan Severn to become the first UFC Heavyweight Champion in history.
Coleman beat Igor Vovchanchyn to win the PRIDE FC 2000 Openweight Grand Prix but would then lose 3 of his next 4 fights to Antonio Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Cro Cop.
His last fight was at UFC 109, where he fought fellow UFC Hall of Famer, Randy Couture. Couture won by submission.
Coleman struggled with substance abuse and alcoholism throughout his career, with his addiction worsening in retirement.
The Godfather of Ground & Pound is now over 2 years sober and back to training for a potential boxing match.
5. Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar wrestled at the University of Minnesota where he was the NCAA Runner-Up in ‘99 and NCAA Champion in 2000.
He went undefeated his senior year with 33 wins, and after graduation was signed to the WWE.
By 2007 Lesnar was a three-time WWE Champion and chose to make the jump to MMA.
In college, Lesnar wrestled at 285 lbs but funnily enough had to cut weight to 265 when joining the UFC.
His UFC career started with a loss to former Champ, Frank Mir. After beating Heath Herring, Lesnar set himself up for a fight against the 45 year old champion, Randy Couture.
At UFC 91, Lesnar defeated Couture by TKO. This event made Lesnar the first UFC fighter to break 1 million PPV buys.
He successfully defended the belt twice, including a rematch against Frank Mir.
Lesnar had the belt for almost two years before losing to Cain Velasquez. He would lose again, this time to Alistair Overeem, and return to the WWE.
Brock Lesnar is the only person to have been a champion in both the WWE and UFC, and though he retired from cage fighting, Lesnar is still entertaining fans in the wrestling ring.
4. Cain Velasquez
“Cardio” Cain is a two time UFC Heavyweight Champion and former wrestler at Arizona State University.
During his time at Arizona he became a two time All-American, placing 4th at the 2006 NCAA Tournament and 5th in 2005.
Also in his bracket was future WWE Wrestler, Jake Hager, who Velasquez traded wins with earlier in the season. But Hager lost before they could meet in the NCAA Tournament.
At both the ‘05 and ‘06 tournaments he lost to Cole Konrad in the Semi-Finals, Konrad went on to become the first Bellator Heavyweight Champion.
Cain Velasquez won his first UFC Title by knocking out Brock Lesnar in the first round, but lost it in his first defense against Junior Dos Santos.
He later won the title back in a rematch, and successfully defended it in their trilogy fight.
Velasquez’s career was cut short due to injuries but has left a legacy most heavyweights only dream of.
3. Randy Couture
The Natural, Randy Couture, is a six time UFC Champion with a career that started at the age of 33 and lasted fourteen years.
Before pursuing MMA he wrestled for Oklahoma State, where he was three time All-American and two time Runner-Up at the NCAA Tournament.
At the 1992 NCAA Tournament, Couture lost to future Pride Legend Mark Kerr.
Couture went on to debut at UFC 13, winning the Heavyweight tournament while Kerr won the next tournament at UFC 14.
They would never meet in the cage but fought on the same card at UFC 15, where they both won by stoppage.
Randy Couture’s accomplishments are too many to list, but a few are being an Army Sergeant, the oldest UFC Champion in history, and the first multi-divisional champ in UFC History (Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight).
He has wins over greats like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and even former boxing champion, James Toney.
Couture proved the dominance of American wrestling in MMA, and even though he retired in 2011, we’ll see him in action again soon with the new “EXPEND4BLES” 2024 film.
2. Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier, also known as DC, is an All-American wrestler and one of the best UFC Heavyweights of all time.
His college career started at Colby Community College, before transferring to Oklahoma State University and earning Runner-Up at the 2001 NCAA Tournament.
DC lost in the 2001 finals to Cael Sanderson, an undefeated wrestler from Iowa State.
Cael Sanderson is the only college wrestler in history to graduate undefeated, having beat DC six times throughout his career. He now coaches the Penn State Wrestling Team.
After graduating, DC made the US Olympic Team but was taken out of competition for health reasons.
He quickly transitioned to MMA, winning the Strikeforce Heavyweight Title in his third professional fight.
When starting his UFC career, DC competed at Light Heavyweight to avoid fighting his American Kickboxing Academy teammate, Cain Velasquez.
DC was undefeated until UFC 182 where he faced the Light Heavyweight Champion, Jon Jones.
He lost by unanimous decision but had another chance at the belt when Jones was stripped for violating Athletic Code of Conduct.
DC beat Anthony Johnson to win the vacant UFC Light Heavyweight Title and defended it twice before the rematch with Jones.
DC lost to Jones by head kick KO, but the bout was later changed to a no contest after Jones failed a PED test.
The UFC reinstated DC as the Lightweight Champion and after another defense, he moved up weight to fight Stipe Miocic for the Heavyweight Title.
DC beat Stipe to become the second Double Champ in UFC history and retired after coming up short in their trilogy fight.
Cormier is now a Commentator for the UFC and coach at a local high school.
1. Bo Nickal
Bo Nickal is the most accomplished college wrestler to fight in the UFC.
He started wrestling from a young age and after winning the Texas State Championship three years in a row, he committed to Penn State University.
His head coach, Cael Sanderson, famously went undefeated throughout his college career (159-0) and won four NCAA Championships.
Bo finished his freshman year as the NCAA Runner-Up and went on to become a three time NCAA Champion.
After graduation, Bo began his Freestyle Wrestling career and competed to represent America.
In 2019 he lost to J’den Cox at the World Team Trials and the next year he’d lose to fellow Penn State wrestler and 3x NCAA Champ, David Taylor, at the Olympic Trials.
Bo had his first professional MMA fight in 2022 and after winning twice on the Dana White Contender Series, he’s become the biggest prospect in the Middleweight Division.
Bo is the 3rd-three time NCAA Champion in UFC history, coming after Mark Schultz and Jacob Rosholt.
He went undefeated in his first five fights, finishing all in the first round.
His best win to date is against another Contender Series alumni, Jamie Pickett, where he submitted Pickett in under three minutes.
Bo might be the best wrestler to ever fight in the UFC and still able to knock people out on the feet. With his experience it would be surprising if he didn’t become champion at some point.
Several other UFC fighters also had a background in college wrestling that didn’t quite make my top ten but are honorable mentions:
- Mark Schultz – 3x NCAA Champion, first Olympic Gold Medalist in UFC History
- Ben Askren – 2x NCAA Champion, 2x NCAA Runner-Up
- Phil Davis – 2008 NCAA Champion, 2006 NCAA Runner-Up, 4x All-American
- Mark Munhoz – 2001 NCAA Champion, 2x All-American
- Gregor Gillespi – 2007 NCAA Champion, 4x All-American
- Mark Kerr – 1992 NCAA Champion, Won UFC 14 and 15 Tournaments
- Josh Koscheck – 2001 NCAA Champion, 2000 NCAA Runner-Up, 4x All-American
- Tyron Woodley – 2x All-American
- Chad Mendes – NCAA Runner-Up, 2x All-American