Sun Devils’ impact felt in MMA landscape

Ryan Bader raises his arms in celebration after a victory. Bader is one of several Sun Devils to make a name for himself in the world of mixed martial arts. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Bader)

Aaron Simpson’s journey to become both a mixed martial arts fighter and a businessman was an unexpected one.

“Six years ago, I would’ve never believed I would be the owner of a major gym and fighting in the UFC,” Simpson said. “I thought I would still be a coach at Arizona State or somewhere in Division I.”

Simpson isn’t the only Sun Devil to make a jump to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Rather, it’s now commonplace in the MMA community for an ASU wrestler to make the transition from the mats to the octagon.

While the UFC is a relatively young professional sports league, ASU has already been well represented in its expanding history, especially in recent years. Many regard ASU’s wrestling program as the UFC’s major collegiate pipeline for producing future MMA talent.

Cain Velasquez once held the UFC Heavyweight Championship and still remains a top contender in his weight class, as is veteran Dan Henderson in the light heavyweight division. Ryan Bader, winner of The Ultimate Fighter 8, is fresh from defeating Quinton “Rampage” Jackson via a unanimous decision in UFC 144. Simpson, C.B. Dollaway and former football player Kyle Kingsbury are among other notable UFC contenders who attended ASU.

“No other state, other than the state of Arizona, has produced as many mixed martial arts competitors,” UFC Hall of Famer and former ASU wrestler Dan Severn said. “Arizona State, hands down, has produced more competitors than any other university. I don’t know what’s in the water in this state, but it’s done a great job producing athletes, competitors and champions.”

While the reason for ASU’s recent success in major MMA events isn’t exactly clear, Simpson believes the craze started while Bader, Dollaway and Velasquez were all on the wrestling team in 2006.

“We just had the guts to come over (to mixed martial arts) and say, ‘We want to try this out,’” said Simpson, who coached all three fighters as an assistant coach at ASU.  “Arizona Combat Sports was within a mile of the University and it just made sense at the time.”

Bader, who made the jump to MMA immediately after his collegiate wrestling career, agrees.

“You can see a lot of guys coming out and being successful,” Bader said. “Now people are coming after us and looking at us saying, ‘Hey, I want to do that too. He came from ASU, so I can do it.’ We want to keep that steady flow of wrestlers going in there and turning into fighters and being successful in the UFC.

“I think it just takes a core group of people to start it and a lot of people are around it.”

While wrestling does not offer a direct and serious professional outlet for athletes after college, current ASU wrestling coach Shawn Charles understands an MMA career is always on the mind of his athletes, and acknowledges the new reputation his program has received.

“I think it’s a great thing for them to get into after college,” Charles said.

There is still more exposure to come for the Sun Devils prizefighters. Velasquez, Dollaway and Kingsbury are slated to fight in UFC 146 on May 26 as part of an all-heavyweight showcase. Simpson reached an agreement with veteran Jon Fitch to fight in his first welterweight bout in a future card, and many experts believe Bubba Jenkins will be the next Sun Devil to have a successful career in MMA.

Jenkins, the 2011 NCAA champion at 157 pounds, has already fought twice with the Tachi Palace Fights promotion and is currently 2-0.

Outside the octagon, Simpson, Bader and Dollaway now co-own the gym Power MMA and Fitness in Gilbert and teach a variety of MMA classes. This is all done while training for their upcoming fights.

The trio just celebrated the gym’s one-year anniversary with a party in March and said it has become a much larger success than any of them planned it to be in just its first year.

“Being a Sun Devil was the best time of my life,” Bader said. “Wrestling has gotten me to where I am today. It helped me carry over to business and this side of fighting.”

 

Reach the reporter at jnacion@asu.edu

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