More than any year is previous history, 2012 featured real connectivity between the collegiate wrestling and MMA worlds. As this year's NCAA Division I national wrestling championships unfolded, the eyes of the MMA world watched to see who won, lost, made a name for themselves or announced interest in pursuing a career as a professional mixed martial artist.
The development of the relationship between collegiate wrestling and MMA is both organic and inevitable. As high-level wrestlers consider their future, the path towards MMA becomes increasingly intriguing as it does actionable. As old teammates take the plunge and demonstrate success, a new crop of wrestlers become aware of and interested in the intriguing career path.
This all naturally raises the question: who could conceivably cross over?
Getting a list together of those top collegiate wrestlers who are considering MMA can be tricky. Many want to try their hand at the next level of wrestling before deciding if MMA is right for them. It's rare to find a graduating senior both clear on their intent to fight and vocal about the intention given many simply do not know. In addition, those who do wish to go into MMA will often keep their plans secret in an effort to not ruffle the feathers of coaches who want their wrestlers strictly focused on winning national titles.
For now, this is how many of today's best collegiate wrestlers and graduating seniors are looking ahead:
1. Chris Honeycutt
The senior out of Edinboro is a sure thing. He's openly declared his intention to enter mixed martial arts now that his wrestling career is over.
And his entrance should be exciting. Wrestling at 197 pounds, Honeycutt is a bulldozer. He's a talented wrestler, but relies on his physical strength and athleticism for some of his success. He has an excellent double leg and finishes takedowns with authority. Those are key ingredients for success.
It should also be noted UFC welterweight Josh Koscheck is a graduate of the same university. MMA Fighting has learned there are top MMA teams interested in Honeycutt, however, there is no known connection between Honeycutt and Koscheck at this time.
2. David Taylor
Without equivocation, the Penn State sophomore is the best wrestler in all of college wrestling irrespective of weight class. It's frankly hard to overstate just how outstanding he is. Were it not for him falling short against Arizona State University's Bubba Jenkins in the finals of the 2011 NCAA wrestling championships, Taylor likely would match his coach Cael Sanderson's achievement of never having lost a single wrestling match in college.
Penn State officials declined to comment to MMA Fighting on the plans of Taylor, stating only the standout wrestler is merely a sophomore and "let's let [him] enjoy college for a while." Fair enough.
Still, Taylor is incontestably the biggest prize, either for the sport of mixed martial arts or USA Wrestling. Taylor isn't necessarily a physical specimen, but is nearly technically flawless in every dimension of the game. His wrestling IQ is off the charts and as aforementioned, some experts believe he won't lose again in college. While MMA would be lucky to have him, the elite wrestling community will be doing everything in their power to make sure he represents the United States on the international stage. Who can blame them?
3. Kyle Dake
Right behind PSU's David Taylor is Cornell University junior Kyle Dake. Last weekend, Dake become the first college wrestler in history to win three national titles in three different weight classes (141, 149 and most recently, 157 pounds). Like Taylor, Dake is incredibly tough everywhere. He's also lauded for having a remarkable degree of mental durability, drive and focus.
Cornell University tells MMA Fighting Dake has no interest in MMA at this time. His post-collegiate path could follow Taylor's to the international arena or he may find himself with a host of coaching options. He could make as much or more money coaching at an elite Division I program than in MMA all while not taking potentially brain-rattling shots. One can hope Dake eventually reconsiders, but he's locked into wrestling for the foreseeable future.
4. Cam Simaz
Like his counterpart at 157 pounds, Cornell University senior Cam Simaz won the national title this past weekend at 197 pounds. And like Kyle Dake, Cornell University officials tell MMA Fighting Simaz also has no interest in MMA at this time (it was coincidentally Simaz who defeated Edinboro's Honeycutt in a closely-contested final this year).
The standard argument goes that almost any wrestler in the national NCAA Division I championship could perform well in MMA. That's probably true. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans never even reached All-American status, and has not only achieved MMA's top honors, he did so beating other former wrestlers who had better collegiate credentials than he.
All of this is to say Simaz would likely be a successful MMA fighter if he so chose to be one. And he's on this list because MMA fans have expressed interest in him. Yet, he lacks both the physical style and seemingly the willingness to participate. Those are not necessarily the best raw materials for a wrestler turned fighter.
5. Bekzod Abdurakhmonov
Clarion University's Abdurakhmonov is an interesting case. The graduating senior took third this year. What's notable about him, though, is his lineage. His brother, Muzaffir Abdurakhmonov, is 1-1 in MMA competition and was the wrestling coach to UFC lightweight Kenny Florian.
Neither Clarion nor Abdurakhmonov responded to requests for comment, but sources tell MMA Fighting the graduating senior is likely looking to wrestle for his home country of Uzbekistan in freestyle after graduation.
6. Borislav Novachkov
Novachkov is one to watch. The graduating senior took third this past year at 141 pounds and became a three-time All-American for Cal Poly in the process. That's the same Cal Poly that produced Chuck Liddell and Chad Mendes.
Cal Poly officials tell MMA Fighting Novachkov is looking towards freestyle wrestling after graduation either for the U.S. or his native Bulgaria (he retains dual citizenship). However, sources also tell MMA Fighting Novachkov has ties to Mendes and while the Bulgarian hasn't formally trained at Team Alpha Male, the relationship is there to facilitate any entry into MMA.
7. Frank Molinaro
This PSU senior at the moment does not have interest in MMA. School officials tell MMA Fighting he's not ruling out either competition in freestyle wrestling or coaching to stay involved in the sport. That's something Molinaro should reconsider.
Ultimately, the wrestler should do what he prefers, but a career in MMA could service him well. ‘The Gorilla Hulk' has incredibly strong if not exactly diverse takedowns, is physically dominant and the mental fortitude to be more than a noteworthy MMA prospect. If he chooses wrestling, that's a fine decision. But he may soon find the MMA waters are more favorable given his unique talents.
8. Chris Perry
Sources tell MMA Fighting the Oklahoma State junior is solely focused on winning a national championship his junior and senior years, but has considered MMA as a possible career option when his collegiate career is over.
You'll note Perry comes from Oklahoma State, the most dominant collegiate program in college wrestling history. It's also a school with a who's who list of wrestling to MMA crossovers: Randy Couture, Johny Hendricks, Jake Rosholt, Shane Roller, Daniel Cormier and Muhammed Lawal among others.
Coach John Smith, largely considered to be the greatest American wrestler ever, is likely looking to place an Olympic champion rather than UFC champion. His best chance in that effort is likely junior Jordan Oliver (who did not return a request for comment for this story). Perry is an immensely talented wrestler and could pursue international wrestling if he so chose, but could also make a splash pursuing the fight game. Time will tell which way he chooses.
9. Devin Carter
Virginia Tech's top 133-pound wrestler didn't have the tournament this year he'd hoped for, but still earned All-American honors en route to taking fifth place. The sophomore is extraordinary athletic and when performing at his best, wrestles as dominantly as anyone in the division.
Virginia Tech head coach Kevin Dresser - who told MMA Fighting he believes MMA is a good option for graduating wrestlers - said Carter has yet to express interest in post-collegiate plans and declined to speculate as to what Carter may choose.
10. Kellen Russell
Along with Dake and Taylor, Russell is the third wrestler this year who will likely be heavily sought after by USA Wrestling. Russell is a two-time NCAA champion, three-time All-American and four-time Big Ten Champion senior out of the University of Michigan. Russell is arguably the most talented graduating senior in the entire nation.
Some experts suggest Russell's style isn't necessarily suited for freestyle and there's no word on whether he has any interest in MMA. USA Wrestling will likely be looking to see what Russell can do against the world's best, but the Wolverine is too talented and too technical a wrestler for MMA audiences to ignore.
Austin Trotman (Appalachian State University)
Trotman put on one of the most unexpected and sensational performances of any wrestler in this year's tournament. Seeded ninth heading in, he ultimately win third place and did so by hitting a spectacular blast double on Robert Hamlin of Lehigh (who has seeded No. 2) in overtime.
Trotman has everything you could potentially want in a MMA prospect from wrestling: supreme athleticism, ferocious takedowns and a mental fortitude second to none.
Montell Marion (University of Iowa)
The three-time All-American from Iowa continues to come up short in the NCAA tournament, but is consistently impressive. Of note: he is technically proficient everywhere and absolutely explodes off the whistle. The University of Iowa does not have a strong tradition of sending their elite wrestlers into MMA, but if Marion busts down those doors, many could follow.
Cayle Byers, Jamal Parks (Oklahoma State)
Byers, 197 pounds, and Parks, 149 pounds, are graduating seniors and Byers took third at this year's tournament. Both are physical wrestlers (particularly Byers) and insanely strong on top. Given the doors previous Oklahoma State wrestlers have opened, the path to MMA is easily available should they choose to take it.