Penn State head wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, a four-time NCAA mat champ and Olympic gold medalist, is a fan of mixed martial arts, and thinks that Ed Ruth, one of his former wrestlers, will do well as a fighter… but never considered competing in MMA himself, PennLive.com reported in two separate articles Friday.
When asked by PennLive.com’s Bob Flounders if he ever considered an MMA career after hanging up his singlet, Sanderson replied, “No, not really” then added, “”I’m not against it. It’s been a great avenue for some wrestlers and I think wrestlers are doing very well. I think my hope and the hope of wrestling people is that MMA would just help the sport (of wrestling) grow because if you look right now, all of the champions are former wrestlers.”
At least two former Penn State wrestlers – 2008 NCAA 197-pound champ Phil Davis, and Pat Cummins, 2004 NCAA heavyweight finalist – have found some success in MMA in recent years. They can expect to be joined by Ed Ruth — the Nittany Lions’ only three-time NCAA titlist (2012-14) – who announced earlier this month his intention to enter MMA competition after expecting to be a member of the US men’s freestyle squad at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Sanderson addressed Ruth’s decision to sign with Bellator MMA a year before next summer’s Rio Games. “I would like to see him focus on winning an Olympic gold medal and that’s the conversations that I had with him when he was with us,” Sanderson said during a Penn State Coaches Caravan stop in suburban Allentown, Pa., PennLive.com reported Friday.
“I think he’s going to be very effective and he’s going to be a great fighter. He’s got a lot of passion and he’s a talent. Obviously, (he has) great speed and toughness.”
“He’s not the meanest kid,” Sanderson added. “It seems like a lot of MMA guys are mean, they just have like a mean streak. Ed’s not a mean kid but he hates losing and he’s very competitive so I think he’ll do well.”
It’s fun to imagine Cael Norman Sanderson – who will turn 36 next month – as an MMA fighter after hanging up his singlet. His amateur wrestling credentials in high school, college and international competition were impeccable. A four-time Utah state champ at Wasatch High School, Sanderson headed east to Iowa State, garnering four Big 12 conference crowns, and becoming only the second wrestler in NCAA history to win four national titles in 1999-2002. (His opponent in the 184 finals at the 2001 NCAAs: none other than Daniel Cormier, who wrestled for Oklahoma State.) Arguably Sanderson’s greatest collegiate achievement: a flawless 159-0 record for the Cyclones. That four years of perfection was declared the No. 2 most outstanding achievement in college sports history by “Sports Illustrated”… while his final win was one of the NCAA’s “25 Defining Moments” for its Centennial celebration.
If all that weren’t enough, Sanderson then burnished his wrestling portfolio with considerable success in freestyle. The pinnacle achievement: winning the gold medal in men’s freestyle at 84 kilos/185 pounds at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
The 6-foot tall Sanderson dominated most of his collegiate opponents with finesse, not brute strength… a formula that worked even on imposing physical specimens such as Minnesota’s Brandon Eggum (his NCAA finals rival at 184 in 1999) and Lehigh’s Jon Trenge (for the 197 title in 2002). Despite that domination, one would never accuse Sanderson of having a mean streak. In fact, off the mat, “Mr. Perfect” came across as downright modest, even reticent in interviews and press conferences during his amateur mat career. It’s difficult to imagine that Cael Sanderson getting in the face of an opponent at the theatrical spectacle that are MMA weigh-ins… or making headline-generating statements that get MMA writers salivating, and spur ticket sales and pay-per-views. (Another indicator of Sanderson’s self-effacing nature: it was difficult to get him to pose shirtless in the photo above for the annual “Sports Illustrated for Women” swimsuit edition at the end of his college career; his Iowa State coach, Bobby Douglas, essentially had to trick him into doing it. In quotes printed alongside the photo, Sanderson made self-mocking comments about his “belly” and thin arms.)
Instead of entering the Octagon after concluding his wrestling career, Cael Sanderson entered collegiate coaching. Despite whatever success he may have had in MMA – and the resultant, positive spillover for amateur wrestling – it’s probably for the best, not just for Iowa State, then Penn State, but for college wrestling in general.