Before men like Randy Couture, Don Frye and Dan Henderson came along, collegiate wrestlers didn't have much of a career path once their eligibility expired.
But when it turned out that wrestling might be the best base for a mixed martial arts fighter, suddenly those collegiate wrestlers had numerous options available to them.
And few collegiate wrestlers in the 21st century have been better than Jake Rosholt.
He won three NCAA championships and was a four-time All-American at wrestling powerhouse Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys have 34 NCAA team wrestling championships, which is more than any team in any sport. Making the wrestling team at Oklahoma State is a feat in and of itself. Becoming one of the program's greatest wrestlers is akin to being the greatest shooting guard at North Carolina or the finest running back at Southern California.
Rosholt won the 184-pound NCAA title as a freshman in 2003 and finished third in the weight class in 2004. He moved up to 197 pounds in 2005 and won the NCAA title in 2005 and in 2006, finishing his career with a 105-20 record.
But when his eligibility expired, Rosholt, 25, wasn't certain what he was going to do. He briefly helped coach at his alma mater and then was in Dallas working at a wrestling club.
He met Ted Ehrhardt, who was one of the founders of an MMA team called Team Takedown. Rosholt wasn't much of a fan of MMA and said he barely paid much attention to it.
But Ehrhardt offered him a trip to Las Vegas, where he could meet with another Oklahoma State great, Couture. Couture, of course, transitioned from college wrestling into one of the greatest mixed martial artists ever, winning the UFC's light heavyweight title on two occasions and capturing its heavyweight belt three times.
The trip to Las Vegas in and of itself wasn't much of a lure to Rosholt.
"I'm pretty much a small town kind of a guy," said Rosholt, who is from Sandpoint,
Idaho. "I'm not really what you'd call a Vegas guy."
But what Ehrhardt was offering forced Rosholt to consider: a seven-year contract for $100,000 per year, complete with health benefits, a vehicle allowance and a housing allowance.
Rosholt flew to Las Vegas, met with Couture and then sparred with UFC stars Forrest Griffin and Frank Mir.
"I knew how to wrestle, but I didn't know anything about how to fight and they beat me up pretty badly," Rosholt said.
These days, though, it's Rosholt doing the beating. He's compiled a 3-0 record and will meet Chad Jay on Saturday in the co-main event of an Xtreme Fight League card in Tulsa, Okla., that will be broadcast nationally on HDNet.
Guy Mezger, a former UFC fighter and the president of HDNet Fights, said that while Rosholt may not have a national reputation in MMA yet, it won't be long before he does.
"Even if you forget the fact that he's this great wrestler, you're looking at a kid who is going to be very successful in this sport because he's got so much else going for him," Mezger said. "He's an exceptional athlete. He is so athletic and he's very coachable, as most guys are when they're that athletic."
And though Rosholt hadn't had any experience throwing punches, Mezger said he's already become a powerful striker.
Mezger sparred with Rosholt and felt the impact of his blows.
"It was early on in his career and I didn't get hit unless I ran into something, but when he hits you, you feel it," Mezger said. "He hits extremely hard. And he's really made a lot of progress as a fighter."
There are days when Rosholt has his doubts. Xtreme Couture has a collection of some of the greatest MMA talent in the world and Rosholt learns his weaknesses every day in training.
At this stage of his career, his toughest competition is by far in the gym. For a guy with his pedigree, who is so used to success, finding weaknesses can be frustrating.
"Honestly, I find weaknesses (in myself) everywhere I look," Rosholt said. "I'm constantly saying to myself, 'I need to do this better.' I am always finding areas where I'm not good enough. Given my background, the ground skills transferred more quickly for me. They were much quicker to come along than the striking skills, but it's not fair for me to think that if I figure out how to strike, I've got this down. I've got a lot of work to do."
Ron Frazier, Rosholt's striking coach at Xtreme Couture, knew he had something special when he saw Rosholt return to the gym the day after Griffin mauled him in their sparring session. And while Frazier concedes that Rosholt's striking is behind his ground work, he concurred with Mezger's assessment of his power.
Rosholt, he said, is all but a cinch to hit the elite level in MMA.
"I would agree with Jake that he has a ways to go with his striking, but he's farther ahead now than he thinks he is," Frazier said. "He's got really good power and he's getting better fundamentally. In the next couple of years, he could become a dominant striker.
"He's like a sponge. You tell him something and he listens and soaks it up and he works on it. That's what he did to become a three-time NCAA champion and that's what he's doing now in MMA. Jake has the whole package you look for when you look for a great fighter."
Ehrhardt said he's talked with all of the major promoters and it's a matter of when, not if, Rosholt lands with one of them. He has discussed Rosholt with UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, as well as representatives of the WEC, Elite XC and HDNet Fights.
The investment Ehrhardt made in Rosholt and the other Team Takedown fighters, which includes Rosholt's former OSU teammates Shane Roller and Johny Hendricks and former Penn State wrestler Eric Bradley, may have seemed outlandish to those who didn't know of their backgrounds.
Ehrhardt, though, sees it as a savvy investment. In addition to Rosholt's salary, insurance and allowances, they'll split his fight purses and sponsorships 50-50.
Ehrhardt expects to break even on the deal by the third year and to start making money by the fourth year.
"If he becomes an elite fighter, like I am convinced he will, it's only one fight to get that investment back," Ehrhardt said.
Rosholt isn't so concerned about money at this point, though he concedes the financials of his deal make it easier simply to focus on fighting.
His goal is to one day attain the stature in MMA of someone like Couture.
"I spent so much of my life on wrestling and I wound up getting to an elite level there," said Rosholt, who said he wasn't interested in wrestling beyond college. "I'm not going to be satisfied in MMA without the same kind of success. I don't just want to be a guy. I want to be the guy. I want to win titles and be recognized as one of the elite fighters in the sport.
"That's a long, long way for me to go, but it's a goal to work toward. I'm not going to allow myself to be satisfied just being good. I want to be great."
And Mezger is not alone in his belief that greatness is entirely possible.
"Whenever you have a guy with his athleticism and his intelligence and his work ethic, you have something special," Mezger said. "This is a guy who can go as far as he wants to in this sport. He's got the ability to be one of the elite of the elite if he keeps progressing."
- Jake Rosholt
- Randy Couture