Bellator's latest elite wrestling signee, Shawn Bunch, makes the leap from competitive wrestling to professional fighting on Friday at Bellator 81 at the Ryan Center in Kingston, Rhode Island. But unlike other top wrestlers who often enter MMA when they've left wrestling partly unfulfilled, MMA was long part of Bunch's plan.
Shawn Bunch is very much what we've come to know from elite wrestlers turned fighters.
He was a two-time All-American while in college at Edinboro. He won the U.S. nationals. Bunch also earned gold at the Pan-Ams and was a two-time world team member. He was also a two-time Olympic alternate. His wrestling career appears to have ended in June of this past year when in a best-of-three qualifying match he was bested by eventual Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott with a five-point throw. Bunch incredulously protested the call, but by that point Coleman was in jubilant tears in the arms of his coaches. Less than two weeks later, Bellator announced Bunch had signed with them to begin his new athletic career.
Like numerous world-class wrestlers before him, Bunch appears to be entering MMA after exhausting all options at earning wrestling's highest accolades. He's 29 and if it hasn't happened for him in wrestling yet, that is likely it. Might as well get into MMA, right?
Not exactly. For starters, Bunch nearly got into MMA in 2009. He eventually decided against in favor of another Olympic run, but it's been a keen interest of his for years. Second, he tells MMA Fighting even if he'd won a gold medal in London, he still would've done MMA. That's noteworthy, as it's precisely the opposite of Daniel Cormier's position (among other elite wrestlers) who largely took up MMA because of disappointing shortfalls in his wrestling career. For Bunch, he was headed towards MMA all along.
Perhaps most interestingly, Bunch's wrestling style appears to be highly suitable for MMA. He's extremely athletic, lightning quick, is a right-handed striker who also wrestles with his left foot forward, has a super double leg and works a series of attacks from the front head lock. Naturally, he'll need all of his skills and traits as he embarks on his MMA career, which begins Friday at Bellator 82.
In this interview, Bunch discusses his thoughts on his last wrestling match, how he got into MMA, the alumni network of former Edinboro wrestlers turned MMA fighters, why he signed with Bellator and much more.
Full audio and partial transcript below:
Luke Thomas: I was there when you lost to Coleman Scott in New York. You seemed very upset at the judgement of the five-point throw. Have you gone back and looked at the tape? Do you still feel like the scoring of the five point throw was unfair?
Shawn Bunch: Yeah, I looked at it a million times. To this day, I don't like that call, but everything happens for a reason so I guess it wasn't my path to take for the Olympics so I'm taking another path.
Luke Thomas: How would you have called that attempt by Scott?
Shawn Bunch: I would have called it three-two. Three two is what I would have called it.
Luke Thomas: Was there a sense that it also wasn't your day? In the leg clinch, he was getting all the colors when he was doing the ball grab. Did you feel like, "God, am I gonna get one of these?" at some point?
Shawn Bunch: I don't know, man. Maybe it wasn't my color, wasn't my day. I don't know. It wasn't meant to be, but you have to move forward from that.
Luke Thomas: Let's talk about MMA. It was rumored you were going to get into it in 2010. Was that true?
Shawn Bunch: Yeah. I had offers and it was actually 2009 when I first had offers to fight in Japan in Sengoku. They sent me an offer, a fight contract in Sengoku and I was gonna take it, but I ended up making the world team and then I started getting more serious about wrestling, serious about competing in the Olympics again. I was offered for 2010 in Sengoku, but I decided to wait on that.
Luke Thomas: You can confirm or deny this: You didn't start MMA training in June of this year. You had started it previously and if that's true, when and how long have you been doing any striking or submission training?
Shawn Bunch: I kind of dabbled in it a little bit. It was never full time. MMA training was never full time. One summer I went to California for like a month in a gym just working out, just learning basic stuff, nothing too serious. I'm really training full time now, starting in July. Back then, when I lived in Ohio, I went to a boxing gym a couple times a week working on a couple small things. Nothing serious compared to like now. Here and there just doing a little bit of stuff.
Luke Thomas: What have you enjoyed more? The striking, or the submissions/grappling?
Shawn Bunch: Striking. I like punching and fighting more than the submissions, although submissions are easier to pick up because of my wrestling background. I like the striking aspect more.
Luke Thomas: There seems to be a lot of guys coming out of Edinboro who made the transition to MMA. We've had Josh Koscheck, Chris Honeycutt, I believe Justin Wilcox as well. Are you in communication with those guys? Is there any alumni connection at all?
Shawn Bunch: Just my boy Mo, King Mo. He was my connection to MMA. I don't talk to Koscheck or the Edinboro guys that much. If I see them, I'll say "what's up?" but I'm really close friends with Mo and I got connected with him. We lived together in Colorado Springs and I trained with him here and there. He was my MMA connect. Daniel Cormier, too. Those two guys.
Luke Thomas: Do you think it's sort of a coincidence that all these guys from this small but elite wrestling school have found their way to MMA? How did they create so many guys who seem to be high level MMA prospects?
Shawn Bunch: It's a tough, tough, tough school. Edinboro is a small school in the middle of nowhere. You have to be tough if you want to go to Edinboro. You train so hard when you're there because you don't get as much respect being at a smaller school and you have to work extra hard to get respect. That's why I think they've had success with MMA.
Luke Thomas: So you're at AKA since July. You're 135 pounds and you wrestled at 133 when you were competing in freestyle, is that correct?
Shawn Bunch: Yeah, but we only had to make that weight like 2-3 times a year. Most of the other times they'd give two kilos at every other tournament. It was 132.6
Luke Thomas: Is there any chance you could make 125?
Shawn Bunch: 125? There's no chance I could make that. I did that my freshman year of college and I was hurting it just from back then. I could make it, but I just don't see the point of cutting down there.
Luke Thomas: AKA has a brand new facility, they've got a lot of top guys, but if you roll up all the top guys there, it's basically lightweight and above and really welterweight and above. To what extent are there guys your size who are capable of training you, training with you and helping you along as you develop?
Shawn Bunch: They've got smaller guys, but they are scarce in number. They're trying to bring more smaller guys in there. I do have one great small muay thai guy named Gabriel Carasco. He's 135 bantamweight, 4-0 and a really excellent striker. We've also got a great world champion Brazilian jiu-jitsu guy who's 9-0 at featherweight. He's small and I can go with him so I've got a striker guy and a ground guy who's good. They're both around my size. I also work a lot with Josh Thomson. He's bigger, but I get some good work in with him and they bring some amateurs in. We're trying to get more smaller guys, but it's working for me so far.
Luke Thomas: You're right handed, you're an orthodox fighter, but you wrestle left foot forward, which means you can wrestle and shoot with a little more ease at the same time. Is that correct?
Shawn Bunch: Yes, that is correct. Left leg lead. I used to play soccer when I was younger and that was my strong leg, my left leg. My power hand has always been my right hand. It worked out for wrestling with my left leg lead and now with striking, it's all good for me.
Luke Thomas: One of your specialties in wrestling was the front head lock. Here's what I'm wondering: you've got left foot forward, you're right handed, you've got a good front headlock. Are you building off these positions moreso than other building blocks as you develop your game?
Shawn Bunch: Yeah, I'm doing a lot from all these positions, being able to move. Basically my style in MMA is just trying to put it all together. Coaches have been helping me with that and other partners helping as well so it's all working out well for me here at AKA.
Luke Thomas: How would you evaluate the wrestling and the striking combination of some of the more elite bantamweights, say someone like Dominick Cruz?
Shawn Bunch: It works pretty good for him, being tall. He does a lot of knee picks when I watched him fight. He gets an underhook and then just crosses, picking the knee. That works well for him. I think it works out with him moving around, keeping guys off guard, shooting and scoring. Everything for him works good.
Luke Thomas: How would you grade the level of athlete in MMA in the bantamweight division relative to the guys you were competing against in freestyle wrestling?
Shawn Bunch: I don't know. I think there's more tougher athletes and better athletes in wrestling as a whole than in MMA at bantamweight. There's a lot of guys coming up as the sport keeps getting more popular, but I think the competition-wise, smaller guys are working right now in MMA. That's what I think right now, but I'm new, so I don't know if I can judge yet.
Luke Thomas: How would you grade your athleticism? Do you believe you'll have the quickest ability to execute on these things because of your athleticism?
Shawn Bunch: Yeah, I think it's an advantage for me. My athletic ability, I think I'm world class, one of the best athletes there is. I think I use that advantage in the fight and I don't see anybody else that has a double leg or an explosion like me that's in MMA right now. There's a couple guys who are world class wrestlers, but I don't think anyone else at my weight class has that right now.
Luke Thomas: Who are some guys in MMA who have the best MMA wrestling? Who has really good MMA wrestling that you admire?
Shawn Bunch: [Georges] St. Pierre. I was just watching him fighting last week. He's got really good MMA wrestling, his set-ups of his takedowns with his punches, mixing it all up. Him, and Demetrious Johnson. That little dude. He's got really good set-ups for his takedowns with his punches. He's really, really fast. He does a good job with that. Some other wrestlers like I know Mo Lawal does a really good job mixing up his takedowns with his punches and then Daniel, Ben Askren like you said. Those guys.
Luke Thomas: You signed with Bellator without any pro experience. Other guys haven't done that. Even Ben Askren, he did sign with Bellator, but I think he had three fights first. Tell me why you signed with Bellator.
Shawn Bunch: Just how they were going to develop me like Bjorn said. The developmental stage is a good thing for me. I managed to work a great deal with them. They can help build me and help me out while I need it right now. The company's growing. They got the deal with Spike. I see big things coming from Bellator and it's the perfect fit for me.
Luke Thomas: Have you considered the idea that you might end up facing Joe Warren or Alexis Vila? I know you're younger than those guys, but has that ever crossed your mind and does that intrigue you at all?
Shawn Bunch: Yeah, it does cross my mind, but I don't really think much of it yet because it's not happening yet. It's crossed my mind a few times, but it's just something I'll be ready for if the time comes. You can't get ready for that if it doesn't come to mind.
Luke Thomas: You faced off against Coleman Scott and I think it was just week's later that you had signed with Bellator. Let me ask you this. Had you gone to the Olympics and had you medaled, would you still have gone into MMA?
Shawn Bunch: Yeah, that was the plan. It would have been a different situation. I don't know if I still would have been in Bellator. I don't know how I would have worked it, but yeah, that was my plan, medal or not, I already knew what I wanted to do.
Luke Thomas: Do you know a whole lot about your opponent, Chad Coon? He seems to have a very minimalist record.
Shawn Bunch: Yeah, I know he wrestled at Lindenwood University. He was on my brother's wrestling team. He trained with my brother. He's older than I am. He had a lot of amateurs and one pro fight. I know he's a taller guy and came from a boxing background is what my brother said. Golden Gloves back in the day. That's about it.
Luke Thomas: How do you feel going into your pro debut? You've been competing forever. Does it feel new? Does it feel exciting going into MMA like this?
Shawn Bunch: Yes. As we start to get out there, I'm feeling it now. As each day gets closer. it's the same feeling I had when competing in anything else, wrestling or any other sport when I was younger. The same feeling come competition time and it really don't hit you until you're actually really doing it and you're in the cage. You're in the competition. I'll treat it like that.
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