USA Wrestling Wrestling alums aim ...

Wrestling alums aim for MMA Titles in the IFL

By Jerry Milani | Dec. 17, 2007, 1:04 p.m. (ET)

When the International Fight League (IFL) holds its first World Grand Prix finals event on December 29 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., wrestling fans may take particular interest in the card, regardless of the IFL team for which they normally root. That's because in each of the five Championship bouts, at least one of the participants has competed in a high level of amateur wrestling.

With more than 30% of the 2007 IFL roster spots taken by former collegiate wrestlers, it was to be expected that a few of those athletes would find their way into the Grand Prix, which serves as the league's "All-Star" event, featuring the top athletes at each of the league's six weight classes. But the fact that more than half of the finals participants have a wrestling background speaks volumes about the influence the sport has had in mixed martial arts.

The IFL, which has established itself in the growing world of mixed martial arts, has differentiated itself from other organizations in several important ways. Rather than competing in a cage, its athletes battle in a 24' x 24' boxing ring. They also compete as members of teams based in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and London, coached by legends of the sport such as Renzo Gracie, Pat Miletich, Ken Shamrock and Matt Lindland.

"Our team format is modeled largely after high school and collegiate wrestling, so I think it's appropriate that so many world-class wrestlers become successful as world-class mixed martial artists," said Kurt Otto, IFL Commissioner. "Our partnership with USA Wrestling underscores this strong connection between the sports."

"More than anything else, wrestling is the cornerstone of my success in MMA," added Roy Nelson, a two-time All-American at Cimarron Memorial H.S. in Las Vegas. "I think that's true for many other guys, one reason why so many of us are competing for IFL belts."

Nelson will put those skills to the test against fellow heavyweight Antoine Jaoude, who represented Brazil at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. Jaoude has won all four of his matches in IFL competition in rising to the top of the weight class.

Although he is known more now for his prolific striking ability, Benji Radach also grew up on the wrestling mats. "I actually started in wrestling - my dad was a youth coach for elementary school, and my older brother was a wrestler, so I started at a really young age, running on the mats before I began to grapple," said the Washington native. "Then I continued with wrestling all the way through school, and later I did freestyle wrestling and made the national team for Washington State. Afterwards I got into boxing, kickboxing and then started MMA."

Like Nelson, Radach sees wrestling as the basis for his MMA game. "It's the key component to my fighting," he noted. "It allows me to dictate the fight and gives me the solid base for all my MMA artillery. If I'm facing a strong stand-up fighter, I can use my skills to take him down where I have the advantage. Or if it's a good jiu-jitsu guy, I can use my wrestling to get in the best position and use my hands to help in defense and offense. It's the key to my whole game."

Radach's opponent in the middleweight (185-lb.) division championship, Matt Horwich, may not have a direct wrestling background, but his coach and mentor, Matt Lindland, is one of the most successful and well-known wrestlers, earning a spot on the U.S. Greco-Roman team in Sydney in 2000. A straight-ahead fighter with good jiu-jitsu skills, Horwich will likely force Radach to use all of his wrestling skills if he is to continue his unbeaten IFL run.

The welterweight (170-lb.) division is one of the league's strongest, and even within that competitive group, former Freeport (N.Y.) H.S. and Nassau Community College star Jay Hieron stands out. His toughness was forged in part from his success on the mats, and the discipline that translated from his wrestling background served him well after a brief stint in prison. "MMA really turned my life around, got me back on track," said Hieron. "But without wrestling, I would never have had the basics to even think that I could be good at fighting, that I would be able to dedicate myself to being successful."

Hieron will have his hands full with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master Delson Heleno, who won all three of his regular season matchups in 2007, in the finals.

One of the best wrestlers ever at New York University, Shad Lierley burst on the MMA scene this year in big way, knocking out his experienced opponent in the first round of his first bout, and taking undefeated teen phenom Chris Horodecki to a decision in what many have termed the MMA "Fight of the Year," helping to earn the former University Athletic Association champion a rematch with Horodecki in the lightweight (155-lb.) title bout.

In the IFL's new featherweight (145-lb.) class, former Labette (Kan.) Community College and Missouri Valley College wrestler L.C. Davis puts his undefeated (8-0) record up against Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Wagnney Fabiano. Davis also coached wrestling at Pratt (Kan.) Community College before embarking on his MMA career, which so far has worked out well. His wrestling friends from all three stops are among his biggest fans.

The IFL World Grand Prix can be seen live on HDNet on Dec. 29 at 9:30 p.m.