By Nasir Jabbar
UFC 170‘s headline act will feature two Olympic medalists in Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann, and was supposed to feature a third Olympian in Daniel Cormier. Though other Olympic veterans like Henry Cejudo and Yoel Romero have successfully hopped onto the MMA bandwagon, the sport isn’t for everybody. It’s a tough, grueling game that apparently has “no moral values,” according to French judoka Teddy Riner.
At the risk of upsetting another French brick shithouse, Riner’s anti-MMA stance reeks of ignorance. So in honour of UFC 170, I’m going to highlight four Olympians who have a good chance of crossing over. These athletes have either expressed an interest in MMA, supported it, or have an uncanny parallel with another well-known fighter. Lets run them down…
Outside of the Olympic games there isn’t a professional avenue for judo players, but MMA provides that opportunity, giving former judokas a chance to use their skill set to compete and make a living. Travis Stevens could be the next crossover star from the world of judo — joining the ranks of Rousey, Hector Lombard, and Yoshiro Akiyama — and he’s already considering MMA as a future career.
The 27-year-old American made his first Olympic appearance at the 2008 Beijing Games (where he placed 9th in the 81kg division), and fell short of the podium again in London in 2012, losing out in the bronze medal match. Failing to capture an Olympic medal in two attempts puts Stevens in an awkward position. Does he jump into MMA now or wait around for the next Olympic games?
Stevens is not only a top ten Judoka in his weight division he also regularly trains under Renzo Gracie at his academy in New York, and more impressively is a black-belt in jiu-jitsu under grappling guru John Danaher. A double black belt is a testament to Stevens’ incredible ground game, which provides the perfect base to enter MMA.
The Irish boxing starlet has won a long list of medals in her boxing career competing at 60kg, culminating in her gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Traditionally for male athletes, winning a medal in the Olympics is a foundation to enter the professional ranks, with many of the top boxing promoters snapping up successful Olympians. However, the women’s boxing scene isn’t thriving, which makes a transition to MMA much more enticing.
There is a ton of buzz surrounding former boxing star turned hot MMA prospect Holly Holm, who has made short work with all her opponents in MMA, albeit against some questionable opponents. Taylor is still fairly young at the age of 27, so she has time to work on the ground mechanics before shifting to MMA. Already carrying a huge following in her home country, Taylor would be a welcome addition to the 135-pound division.
MMA is littered with many collegiate, regional, national, you-name-it wrestling stars. Most of the best wrestlers have come out of the amateur wrestling scene in the U.S., which has served as a conveyor belt in feeding the best talent to MMA. There are only a handful of Olympic-caliber wrestlers in the sport, but freestyle wrestler Varner could potentially be another one. Varner hasn’t indicated whether he will enter the MMA bubble, but unlike his teammate Jordan Burroughs, he hasn’t dismissed it. The California native is a fan of the UFC, naming fellow wrestler Dan Henderson as his favorite fighter.
If his gold medal from the 2012 London Games wasn’t enough to prove how legitimate his wrestling credentials are, the 96kg competitor is also coached by Cael Sanderson who is one of, if not the greatest amateur wrestler to come out of the States. Like Stevens and Taylor, Varner is still relatively young at the age of 27 and could mold his MMA career on fellow Olympian Daniel Cormier. Cormier turned professional at the age of twenty-nine, and was also a small heavyweight who eventually dropped down to 205 pounds. With Varner’s elite-of-the-elite wrestling pedigree, a move to MMA could garner him just as much success as past Olympians who have competed in the sport.
Another gold medalist at the London Olympics, the British Taekwondo practitioner became a overnight superstar with her performances en route to a gold medal in the 57kg division. The Korean martial art isn’t as common as other disciplines among MMA practitioners, but two fighters who have embraced it are decorated lightweight stars Anthony Pettis and Benson Henderson.
As the UFC gets ready to launch its new 115-pound women strawweight division, the promotion is still on the hunt to fill the final spaces in its TUF 20 tournament. Enter Jade Jones, who fights around the strawweight limit and could a very viable candidate. Obviously, she lacks MMA experience but at least she knows how to fight.
If Jones decided to transition into MMA, a few years of practicing the ground game would be a must, but being only 20 years old she has time on her side. As the UFC was ramping up for last year’s Fight Night in Manchester, Jones met and trained with WMMA pioneer Rosi Sexton, who became the first female British UFC fighter and was involved in the first UFC women’s bout in Europe. Now that Sexton has left the promotion, could Jones step in as the next British WMMA star?