Former ASU wrestler Ryan Bader, others are making waves in MMA
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 enjoyed great success as UFC boyhoods.
In the early 2000s, many others followed suit, as Cain Velasquez and John Moraga won UFC championships after their collegiate wrestling careers. They were joined by ASU products including CB Dollaway, Aaron Simpson and Ryan Bader, who is set to defend his heavyweight title at Bellator 280 on Friday.
Almost 20 years have passed and MMA has become a completely different sport. New rules and regulations have been put in place, along with different practices and techniques.
Through all of these changes, former ASU wrestlers have continued to make waves in mixed martial arts, with several Sun Devils picking up pro victories in April.
Bubba “Bad Man” Jenkins, who brought a national wrestling championship back to the Valley in 2011, has had an illustrious MMA career since graduating from ASU. Once the No. 1 high school recruit in the nation, Jenkins struggled 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.
After a solid 8-3 run with Bellator, “Bad Man” moved up to the Professional Fighters League, where he currently plays in the featherweight division. On April 28, he returned to the cage against former UFC contender Kyle Bochniak. Jenkins won two of three sets en route to a unanimous decision victory.
“Never question my mental strength. … I’ll be back in the gym next week,” Jenkins told reporters after the fight.
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 game when I was 15. It was inspiring to see him succeed at ASU, really cool to see him get there. He was a beast,” Gibson said. “Next time I’m in Vegas, I’m going to hang out with him…I’ll probably learn a few things.”
Gibson was born to be a mixed martial artist, as his father, Lance Sr., was a 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. Gibson Jr. and his father share the nickname “Fearless”.
While Jenkins went straight from wrestling to professional mixed martial arts, Gibson Jr. competed on the amateur circuit while still in high school before becoming an extra for the ASU wrestling team.
“They told me that since I was a national champion and the No. 1 prospect in MMA, I didn’t need to do any amateur fights,” Jenkins said.
Although Gibson didn’t win a national title during his time in Tempe, he exceeded expectations before heading to Glendale’s MMA Lab 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.
As the two men face off in Bellator’s lightweight division, Gibson admires Henderson and has no desire to step foot in the cage in front of the former UFC champion.
Gibson did step into the Bellator 279 cage on April 23, however, when he kicked off the event and took on Nainoa Dung. Dung caught Gibson with a big jab early, but Gibson was able to persevere. He dominated the second and third rounds, winning the fight via unanimous decision.
“I’ve never been knocked out in my life. … I wasn’t going to lose this fight,” Gibson said.
As Jenkins and Gibson’s MMA careers are in full swing, both men recognize their roots and agree that wrestling at ASU helped them get to where they are today. Jenkins often returns to Arizona for big games and reaches out to ASU high school recruits to share his school experience.
“I just tell them how amazing the program is. … I tell them I had the best time of my life,” Jenkins said.
Current Bellator heavyweight champion and former ASU wrestler Bader is in Paris defending his title against France’s Cheick Kongo at Bellator 280. Although Bader’s last two fights have taken place in his backyard at the Footprint Center, the champion will enter hostile territory this time, although he doesn’t seem too worried about it.
“I fought in Brazil where the whole crowd is chanting, ‘You’re going to die,’ so I think you’ll be fine,” Bader said.
This title fight marks the second time Bader and Kongo will face each other, as their first fight was ruled “no contest” due to a controversial eyeball. While video footage revealed that Bader pricked his opponent’s nose – not his eye – Kongo refused to continue fighting, setting up a much-anticipated rematch.
The heavyweight champion expects this fight to play out a little differently than the last.
“I’m going to go out there and do whatever I want,” Bader said. “I can knock him out, I can knock him down. I want to go out there, get him out of the way, get a stoppage and keep defending that heavyweight title.
Bader, Jenkins, Gibson and countless others cemented their legacies in the sport, and ASU continues to pump out MMA superstars with every promotion.
Although the school has long been known for its palms, warm weather and wrestling prowess, fight fans across the country are beginning to refer to ASU as the college for future MMA champions.