With the UFC's recent expansion into the 125 lbs. weight class, and the popularity of MMA rising ever higher, the sport will require a greater number of small framed men to fill those ranks. That said, a gold mine of future prospects is waiting to be picked through in the ranks of college gymnasts.
Strength. Speed. Agility. Explosive power. These are all qualities one must posses in order to become a successful mixed martial artist. Jon jones, Georges St. Pierre, even monsters like Brock Lesnar have some combination of these traits which help them to excel where other men of equal size, determination, and skill may not. In searching for the next generation of fighters, it is time to look beyond the world of college wrestling rooms and into that of parallel bars and tumbling mats. On top of the aforementioned qualities, a top level college gymnast will have extraordinary flexibility, balance, and coordination beyond what most people can even comprehend. Everything they do, from rings to swings and is based on having complete control over their bodies.
As the sport grows, fringe weight classes will necessarily be explored. Super heavy weight fights, however, save for the occasional vicious knockout, haven proven to be amateurish snooze feasts. On the other hand the growing ranks of lighter weight fighters have produced some of the fastest paced, most technically advanced and exciting match ups ever imagined. As luck would have it, the ideal frame for a gymnast is also the ideal frame for a lower weight class MMA fighter. Take Paul Hamm, a gold medal winner in the 2004 Olympics for example. He stands at 5 feet six inches tall and weighs 137 pounds, which puts him in a perfect position to get in the mix at bantamweight. Bart Connor and Kurt Thomas, two more decorated American gymnasts, are even smaller than Hamm, and would have made Herculean 125 pound fighters.
Collegiate wrestling programs have become the de-facto minor leagues of MMA. A large portion of the today's top ranked prospect were groomed through years spent throwing other people around in grimy wrestling mats. The skill sets developed over this time will very often translate well to MMA. Outside of the Olympics or a coaching job, most wrestlers will be done competing the second they earn a degree. The same can be said for their counterparts in gymnastic programs. How often have we heard MMA's wrestling stalwarts sing the "I Just Wanted To Keep Competing" song? Most gymnasts have likely been competing longer than any wrestler of the same age and one can be sure an equal number are not ready to hang it up when the amateur career comes to and end.
Certainly there are intangibles to be considered, such as heart, the will to win and the ability to take a punch. Whether these things are learned or inherent, we have no reason to assume they cannot be found in a certain percentage of high level athletes no matter what the discipline happens to be.
Before UFC 129, much footage was released of George St. Pierre training gymnastics. He sang the praises of both the sport and its athletes. It was an interesting idea that was all but dismissed. This summer, as you watch the 2012 Olympics, take note of some of the names you see in the gymnastic competition. Some of those same characters might decide to get off the pommel horse and start pummeling faces.
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