TEMPE – Arizona State’s wrestling program has a long history of producing superstar mixed martial artists, dating back to the 1990s when legends Dan Severn and Don Frye experienced great success in the infancy of the UFC.
In the early 2000s, many others followed suit, as Cain Velasquez and John Moraga went on to win UFC championships following their collegiate wrestling careers. They were joined by ASU products including C.B. Dollaway, Aaron Simpson and Ryan Bader, who is set to defend his heavyweight title at Bellator 280 on Friday.
Nearly 20 years have passed and MMA has evolved into a completely different sport. New rules and regulations have been implemented, along with different practices and techniques.
Through all of this change, former ASU wrestlers have continued to make waves within mixed martial arts, with multiple Sun Devils securing professional wins in April.
Bubba “Bad Man” Jenkins, who brought a national wrestling championship back to the Valley in 2011, has enjoyed an illustrious MMA career since graduating from ASU. Once the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation, Jenkins wrestled at Penn State for three seasons before heading west to attend ASU. His time in Tempe was short and sweet.
“I loved Arizona State,” Jenkins said. “We had great gear, we traveled to a ton of cool places. It was just an awesome experience. I came in as a superstar, they loved me as a superstar and I left as a superstar.”
Following a strong 8-3 run with Bellator, “Bad Man” made the move to the Professional Fighters League, where he currently competes in the featherweight division. On April 28, he returned to the cage against former UFC competitor Kyle Bochniak. Jenkins won two rounds out of three en route to a unanimous decision victory.
“Never question my mental toughness. … I’ll be back in the gym next week,” Jenkins told reporters after the bout.
Current undefeated Bellator lightweight and former ASU wrestler Lance Gibson Jr. looked up to Jenkins in high school, which factored into his decision to come to Tempe.
“I remember watching his national championship match when I was 15 years old. It was inspiring to see him succeed at ASU, definitely cool to see him making it happen. He was a beast,” Gibson said. “Next time I’m in Vegas, I’ll go and get some mat time with him … probably learn a few things.”
Gibson was born to be a mixed martial artist, as his father, Lance Sr., was quite the fighter in the late 1990s. Lance Sr. traveled the world fighting for different promotions, including a short stint with the UFC, where he competed in Japan. Both Gibson Jr. and his father share the nickname “Fearless.”
While Jenkins went straight from wrestling to professional mixed martial arts, Gibson Jr. competed in the amateur circuit while he was still in high school before becoming a walk-on for ASU’s wrestling team.
“They told me that since I was a national champion and the No. 1 prospect going into MMA, I didn’t need to do any amateur fights,” Jenkins said.
Though Gibson did not win a national title during his time in Tempe, he exceeded walk-on expectations before heading to the MMA Lab in Glendale to train alongside the face of Arizona’s MMA community, Benson Henderson.
“He’s a legend in the sport, a great athlete, and an incredible mixed-martial artist,” Gibson said.
While both men compete in Bellator’s lightweight division, Gibson looks up to Henderson, and has no desire to set foot in the cage opposite the former UFC champion.
Gibson did, however, enter the cage at Bellator 279 on April 23, when he kicked off the event and faced Nainoa Dung. Dung caught Gibson with a big shot early, but Gibson was able to persevere. He dominated the second and third rounds, winning the bout by unanimous decision.
“I’ve never been knocked out in my life. … I wasn’t going to lose that fight,” Gibson said.
While the MMA careers of Jenkins and Gibson are in full swing, both men acknowledge their roots, and agree that wrestling at ASU helped them get to where they are today. Jenkins often returns to Arizona for big matches, and reaches out to ASU’s high school recruits to share his experience at the school.
“I just tell them how amazing the program is. … I tell them that I had the time of my life,” Jenkins said.
Current Bellator heavyweight champion and former ASU wrestler Bader is in Paris to defend his title against France’s Cheick Kongo at Bellator 280. Although Bader’s last two bouts were in his backyard at the Footprint Center, the champion will enter hostile territory this time around, though he doesn’t seem too worried about it.
“I fought in Brazil where the whole crowd chants, ‘You’re gonna die,’ so I think I’ll be all right,” Bader said.
This title fight marks the second time Bader and Kongo will clash, as their first bout was ruled a “no contest” due to a controversial eye poke. While video footage revealed that Bader poked his opponent’s nose – not his eye – Kongo refused to continue fighting, setting up a highly anticipated rematch.
The heavyweight champion expects this fight to go a bit differently than the last.
“I’m going to go in there and do what I want,” Bader said. “I can knock him out, I can take him down. I want to go in there, put him away, get a stoppage, and keep defending this heavyweight title.”
Bader, Jenkins, Gibson and countless others have cemented their legacies within the sport, and ASU continues to pump out MMA superstars with each graduating class.
Although the school has long been recognized for its palm trees, warm weather and wrestling prowess, fight fans around the country are beginning to label ASU as the college for future MMA champions.