By Phil Lanides
In recent years, it has become the norm for standout college wrestlers to make their way from their studies to the cages of MMA. Tyron Woodley, Ben Askren, Rashad Evans, Josh Koscheck…the list goes on and on. Many have experienced considerable success. In fact, fighters such as Cain Velasquez, Matt Hughes, Brock Lesnar, and other current and former champions can claim wrestling as their true base combat sports discipline.
The next one in line could very well be Mark Ellis.
The 2009 NCAA Division I Heavyweight Champion, Ellis went straight from college to the vaunted American Kickboxing Academy gym in San Jose, California. Many fight teams can boast a solid stable of wrestlers, but few have competitors the caliber of AKA, as Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, and Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal all call the gym home. Ellis has been working with all of them, and not just on his ground game.
“It’s been everything,” he says. “We have a real good schedule at AKA, so I’ve been working on everything. I’ve noticed that other wrestlers that have come into MMA don’t wrestle, but I still do. We do that at AKA. I have been focused on my striking, of course, but my wrestling has even gotten better. I’ve also been working on my jiu-jitsu, which has come pretty naturally. I think I’ve got a knack for it.”
While many wrestlers have garnered success in MMA, some have had difficulty with the transition. In amateur wrestling, getting dominant positioning is what it’s all about. There’s no striking. That can be a difficult nuance to pick up, strange as that may sound. But Ellis is confident that won’t be an issue with him.
“Now, I haven’t fought yet, so I haven’t really taken someone down and just beat on them as hard as I can,” he explains. “But everyone says I look really good in training. It’s going to be fun. You get the takedown, and you look for the submission or beat on them. I am ready to go.”
So, what sets Ellis apart from your fellow wrestlers that have entered MMA?
“I say this as humbly as I can, but winning a national title…not everyone can do that,” he explains. “My style of wrestling translates well [to MMA]. And, there just aren’t many collegiate wrestlers in MMA that have won a national title. But the wrestlers that understand how to grind and work hard and push themselves, they are most likely going to be successful. And I feel that I’m part of that group.”
Ellis’ entry into MMA brings up a trending topic in MMA: more and more NCAA wrestlers are heading to MMA rather than trying for the Olympics. Why is that the case?
“I just think there’s an opportunity to make a substantial amount of money if you’re successful, and especially if you’re a heavyweight. You can make really good money,” states Ellis. “And, many wrestlers wrestle their whole lives, and they are looking for a new challenge. That’s the case with me. And I think I can be successful in MMA.”
This Saturday, Ellis will make his MMA debut against a fellow collegiate standout in Jake Heun. The 6’2” 225-pounder made his pro MMA debut earlier this year, earning a 2nd-round submission win. A former University of Hawaii football player, Heun is a solid athlete with developing skills…just like Ellis.
“I don’t know much about Heun. He’s a Division I athlete, though, so I imagine he’s big, strong, and athletic. I’m going to be ready for him.”
With a rookie, you never know what you’re going to get. What should the Hawaiian fight fans expect out of Ellis this weekend?
“They’ll most likely see me with my hand raised at the end, he declares. “I’m hoping that it will be exciting, but the most important thing is that I get the victory. I need to get to 1-0, and then take it from there. But I plan to come out of the cage with my head held high.”