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Steve Mocco readies himself for next chapter in storied athletic career

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The former two-time NCAA wrestling champion and U.S. Olympian told the media after his third-place finish at the 2012 Olympic trials he hadn't taken off his wrestling shoes and therefore hadn't retired as an athlete. Tonight at RFA 4 in Las Vegas, Nev., Mocco trades a singlet for hands wraps and gloves as he transitions to the next state of his athletic career when he makes his professional mixed martial arts debut.

Steve Mocco
Steve Mocco
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images North America

In terms of wrestlers transitioning to MMA, Steve Mocco has one of the most impressive wrestling resumes you're ever going to read. He is arguably the greatest high school heavyweight ever, a two-time NCAA Division I national champion, a Dan Hodge Trophy winner, four-time NCAA finalist, a 2008 Olympian among numerous other titles. Mocco has achieved everything in wrestling one could reasonably hope to do.

Except that he didn't and that probably explains why he's here. Mocco's wrestling career is one of incredible achievement, but perhaps unfulfilled potential or unmet expectations. He didn't lose often (only once in high school, only six times in college), but when he did it was against wrestlers he already beat. He never won an Olympic or world championships medal. He failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic team.

If there is an achetype for elite wrestlers who ultimately transition to MMA, it's those who made it to the absolute peak of wrestling but ended up just short of their own career goals. Mocco fits that mold.

To hear him tell it, something wasn't done inside of him. He hadn't finished competing and adamantly told the media that after his third-place finish at the 2012 Olympic trials. The doors in wrestling may have been closed, but a chance encounter with a UFC veteran and a lingering curiosity with MMA changed everything.

Tonight in Las Vegas, Nev. at RFA 4, Mocco is set to make his professional mixed martial arts debut under the watchful eye of Ricardo Liborio and American Top Team. In this interview with MMA Fighting, Mocco discusses how he made his way to MMA, what he expects from himself, his background in judo, why he ended up at ATT and what he expects to accomplish in this new combat sports endeavor.

Full audio and partial transcription below:

Luke Thomas: There was a narrative about how you got into MMA and one of the ones presented was that you had been recruited by Bigfoot Silva prior to UFC 146 because he was gonna fight Cain Velasquez, but I have also seen that before that, you were training with Carmelo Marrero. Talk to me, how did you actually end up in the position you're in today?

Steve Mocco: Yeah, I was coaching at Lehigh and I was interested in MMA and Carmelo opened up a gym in Lehigh Valley at American Top Team and I met coach Laborio there and I also knew Cammy. He worked as a wrestling coach down in Florida and I came down to Florida after Toronto this year to train with Bigfoot and kind of check it out. I liked it down there. It was a good fit. It seemed like a good situation for me so I moved down.

Luke Thomas: When did you first hook up with Marrero?

Steve Mocco: I was looking for training partners for freestyle wrestling and he had a wrestling background. He came up to start training to cross-train with me and wrestle and then I started going down when he opened up his gym and working out of his gym. It was probably a year ago or so. It was when I was coaching at Lehigh.

Luke Thomas: When you first started cross training outside of freestyle into MMA, what were your first impressions of it?

Steve Mocco: I liked it. It's exciting for me. It's new and I'm trying to learn as much as I can. It's a fresh thing. I've wrestled pretty much my whole life so it's a new exciting challenge for me.

Luke Thomas: You were a guy that was pretty much focused on freestyle at a time when MMA sort of hit a boom. Were you not paying attention to it at all? Were you vaguely aware of it? How much did you actually know before you were hands on with it?

Steve Mocco: I always had an interest in it. I follow it. I was into it even when I was competing in freestyle, but I had a lot of goals in my mind and as far as actually jumping into it, I was pretty set on what I was doing so I didn't have time to get into it.

Luke Thomas: Did any other elite wrestlers and I say elite by national team or people who did very well in college. Did any of them try to recruit you or put in a good word for it?

Steve Mocco: Yeah, I talked a lot with guys over the years, guys that had gotten into it but at the time, I was pretty much set on wrestling and wrestling full-time as a living so that was kind of what was up.

Luke Thomas: So you were coaching at Lehigh and I'm sure that was a wonderful position, but why was it enticing for you to leave coaching and move into this. Was it the idea that you could still compete as an athlete? Was that something you felt like you still hadn't finished doing?

Steve Mocco: Yeah, I definitely wanted to still compete. I like coaching, it was great but I still had the itch to compete. The training was new and I liked the sport and that's kind of how it was. I still wanted to compete. I was pretty much done wrestling competitively. I sure wasn't gonna do another cycle and I figured, "I'm 30, now's the time if I'm gonna do it to do it."

Luke Thomas: What is your opinion on the state of wrestling in mixed martial arts, like wrestling for those purposes? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it improving? The average high level fighter, how would you evaluate the average high level fighter's wrestling?

Steve Mocco: I think it's real good. I think it's getting better and it's an important aspect of the sport. Guys are taking it seriously and they start getting better at it and even guys that aren't from a wrestling background.

Luke Thomas: In terms of the level of athlete in the heavyweight divisions in mixed martial arts, from what do you see from other athletes across higher weight divisions, how would you rate their athleticism?

Steve Mocco: I think you've got to be pretty athletic in MMA. The guys that are successful have to be good athletes.

Luke Thomas: Relative to guys you faced in wrestling, how good are they?

Steve Mocco: I think it's a similar athleticism background. If you're gonna have success in a sport like wrestling or MMA, you have to have some athletic ability. I think in MMA they have great athletic ability and in wrestling too.

Luke Thomas: So a lot of guys you actually faced in college have wound up coming over to MMA and doing pretty well, Cain Velasquez chief among that. Did you have any moments where you were obviously interested in it, obviously guys were in your ear, but did you ever have any moments where you said to yourself,'Here's a guy who I beat in college and he's just kicking ass over here. I bet I could do that, too.' Did that particular kind of thought ever cross your mind?

Steve Mocco: Not necessarily that but I see a lot of guys I went to school with and wrestled with having success and I thought it was an interesting thing to get involved with and I think as long as I'm looking at these guys and they're doing well, and a lot of them had they continued to wrestle probably would have done really well. They made the jump so it seemed like a smoother transition looking at them.

Luke Thomas: Tell me why you picked ATT. You said it was a good fit and one thing ATT was known for this past year was they went to the NCAA Division I national tournament and I don't know if recruiting was the correct word, but they were definitely scouting talent and seeing who was interested, putting a word in their ear. Do you think ATT was a good fit because they're better than other teams at getting guys who are elite wrestlers and then turning them into elite fighters?

Steve Mocco: For me, personally, I thought it was a good fit because they had a lot of good training partners for me and I really liked the coaches. I think that they're making a tremendous effort to go after wrestlers. We've got a lot of good wrestlers who are just starting out their careers and I think they'll continue to do that but they have a lot of guys from all kinds of backgrounds too. They did make it a pretty smooth and easy transition for me personally coming from a wrestling background.

Luke Thomas: You have a bit of a background in judo. You're famous for your foot sweeps. To what extent have you kept those skills alive and do you plan on continuing to develop your judo now that it's arguably more applicable in mixed martial arts?

Steve Mocco: Yeah I like judo. I like cross training in judo. I think it's a good grappling background. I want to continue to use it and work on continuing improving at it.

Luke Thomas: Do you train in a gi still?

Steve Mocco: Occasionally, yeah, occasionally I train in a gi. A lot of times to get a good workout I'll just throw it on and do some jiu-jitsu in it too but most of the time I'll train without it.

Luke Thomas: A lot of the guys who transitioned from wrestling to MMA told me they'll obviously use jiu-jitsu, they know jiu-jitsu but, I think laziness is a strong word, but the relaxed nature of jiu-jitsu relative to wrestling, they don't really like. What is your opinion of jiu-jitsu as you begin to train in it.

Steve Mocco: I like it a lot. A lot of it is really new especially stuff off your back and a lot of things you wouldn't normally get to do in wrestling. A lot of aspects are similar like hip position and stuff like that. It's fun learning it. I like grappling too and it's all pretty new to me so I'm trying to learn as much as I can.

Luke Thomas: Of all the skills you're trying to pick up, which have you acclimated the most to?

Steve Mocco: Probably the grappling. I felt like it was most similar to what I'd been doing.

Luke Thomas: Is the striking as hard as you thought it would be to learn?

Steve Mocco: Yeah, it's definitely a skill and that's probably one of things I've been working on a lot. Picking it up takes a lot of work and we work on it pretty much every day.

Luke Thomas: You have this fight coming up on Friday on AXS TV. Is there a certain kind of way you want to win and I know they're probably building off of your wrestling but are there certain benchmarks you're looking for, certain things you want to do in particular this time out to evaluate progress or as a measure of testing how far you've come. Is any of that into play?

Steve Mocco: You know, I just want to compete. If it's on the feet, I want to get the better of the feet and if it's on the ground, I want to get the better of him on the ground. Wherever we'll find ourselves on the floor, I want to do better at.

Luke Thomas: There have been elite wrestlers that have come over and maybe not quite at your level but certainly good ones and there's an argument that they were pushed way too fast. They were elite and they got into fights with guys that were MMA veterans and it didn't go their way. Some would argue that they got ruined along the way. Are you conscious of there being a 'too much, too soon?' Are you looking to have a really measured entrance into mixed martial arts in terms of the quality of opponent?

Steve Mocco: I'm 30 years old. I want to challenge myself. It's not like I'm 19 years old and just getting my feet wet in the sport. At the same time, I have a lot of faith in my coaches and if they think I'm ready, I know I'm ready.

Luke Thomas: Do you have an idea about, and again, don't want to put the cart before the horse, but do you have a sense in your mind of maybe in a year or two or three, whatever that is, that 'I want to be fighting at the highest level,' UFC or Strikeforce or whatever? Do you have an idea of that time line?

Steve Mocco: No, right now I just want to get as good as I can get and learn as much as I can learn in all aspects of my game and keep improving it. That's kind of my goal and I've got a lot of short term goals right now but I'm taking it day by day and fight by fight.

Luke Thomas: Are there any wrestlers who have crossed over who's career you find to be a model you want to follow? It could be a Couture, could be a Cormier, an Askren or even somebody like Frankie Edgar. Is there somebody that's gone from wrestler to fighter and you say, 'That's the guy that did it right.'

Steve Mocco: Yeah, I like Johny Hendricks, how he went about it. He took his time, got evolved and got on a roll. All of them, I think any one of those guys you mentioned, if your career goes like that, it's gonna be good.

Luke Thomas: So you were something of a controversial figure in college wrestling, but basically for reasons that were specific to college wrestling. I don't think that will carry over but I was talking to Johny Hendricks about it and it's funny you bring that up, I was saying the same thing. He was a bit of another controversial figure in college wrestling and that was totally removed from his identity when he came to MMA and he said he was really glad about that, he didn't have to sort of live under those expectations anymore. Are you carving out a new athletic identity?

Steve Mocco: Yeah, I'm looking forward to that. I'm just looking forward to the whole deal.

Luke Thomas: Is there anything you're particularly nervous about?

Steve Mocco: No, no, not really. Just taking it day by day and fight by fight and enjoying it.

Luke Thomas: In terms of adapted wrestling to MMA, somebody who for example, like Chael Sonnen. He's not the best wrestler who transitioned to MMA, but he's got possibly the best adapted wrestling for MMA. In your mind, who has the best sort of MMA wrestling?

Steve Mocco: I think Chael Sonnen definitely like you said. I think Ben Askren is really good at controlling fights with his wrestling. I think there's a lot of really good wrestlers that use other aspects of MMA but definitely when I think of wrestling or controlling a fight with wrestling, I definitely think of Ben Askren or Chael Sonnen or somebody like that.

Luke Thomas: What about somebody who has no formal background in MMA but has managed to adapt it really well, someone like Georges St. Pierre. I know there's some controversy about how good he is. In your mind, how good is his wrestling?

Steve Mocco: I think it's real good. He doesn't have any background in wrestling?

Luke Thomas: Nothing except from what he learned from training in MMA.

Steve Mocco: From training MMA, yeah, I think from watching him fight, he's really good. Great technique and that's pretty impressive.

Luke Thomas: Can you talk about your health. Wrestling can be a brutal sport and there's a famous picture of you with a black eye. How is your health and is there any carryover from wrestling in terms of something you have to look out for?

Steve Mocco: No, no. I'm pretty healthy. I've been lucky that way. Nothing too serious along the way as far as bad stuff. I'm in pretty good health.

Luke Thomas: I know you're primarily focused on your fight, but the day after is the 2012 NWCA Classic All-Star Classic here in DC. Kyle Dake and David Taylor are gonna wrestle at 165. If I could, could you give me a prediction for that match?

Steve Mocco: I want to go with Dake a little bit. I've seen him wrestle freestyle and he kind of looked really really good. I'm thinking Dake.

Luke Thomas: Do you think the match will be similar to the one they had at the Olympic trials or because it's folkstyle, it's gonna be different?

Steve Mocco: No, it's gonna be different but I still think Dake can get it done. He's a tough scrapper. Not to take anything away from David Taylor, but I'm going with Dake on that.