The first thing you learn when talking to three-time NCAA wrestling champion Jake Rosholt is that he hates losing.
In a sport filled with All-American wrestlers, Rosholt has the best collegiate credentials in the Zuffa organization, which includes the WEC and the industry-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Rosholt, who makes his WEC debut Wednesday, when he faces unbeaten submission specialist Nissen Osterneck, was the NCAA champion at powerhouse Oklahoma State in 2003, 2005 and 2006, and is considered one of the best clutch college wrestlers of the past decade.
Yet, when he looks back at his career, instead of talking up his accomplishments, the first thing he brings up is his loss to Ben Heizer of Northern Illinois in the 2004 semifinals that cost him the chance to be a rare four-time champion.
"Maybe some day in a few years I’ll look back on it and feel good about my career, but I still think about losing in the semifinals in my sophomore year," he said. "It cost me being a four-time champion."
As a junior, Rosholt tore his MCL and his meniscus with a month left in the season, was very limited in what he could do in training, but still won nationals at 197 pounds.
As a senior, midway through the season he hit a mental wall.
"I always thought I would end up going to the Olympics, but during my senior year, I burned out and decided I was done. I made the decision it would be my last year and I’d never wrestle again," he said.
He was coaching a kids wrestling club in Dallas early last year when Ted Ehrhardt, who brought him to Dallas, brought up the idea of him moving to MMA. He dismissed without a thought.
"I had never even hit a heavy bag," said Rosholt about his start training for the sport in April, 2007. "I wish I’d done some boxing and taken some jiu-jitsu classes. This was never something I considered doing. I’d never even seen a UFC except one of the Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell fights."
Ehrhardt had a plan, called Team Takedown, where the group would sponsor several top college wrestlers to go into MMA, putting them on salary, moving them to Las Vegas and getting them the best training. Rosholt and his college teammate, two-time NCAA champion Johny Hendricks, who debuts with WEC on the Dec. 3 show in Las Vegas, were to be the two big stars.
Ehrhardt did a great sell job, but Rosholt still said he had little interest. They reached a compromise. He’d send Rosholt to Las Vegas for a few days of training under Randy Couture, and then accept whatever decision Rosholt would make.
"I got beat up for two straight days, and I loved it," he said, and he hasn’t looked back since. "It just felt natural."
He’s 4-0 in fights on smaller shows in Oklahoma where because of his college background, he’s been a headliner and a big favorite.
But Osterneck and the WEC are a huge step up for someone with very little experience in most disciplines that make up the sport.
At this stage in his career, Rosholt is similar to where UFC standout Josh Koscheck was in his early days as a fighter: a great wrestler learning while in competition in the other disciplines.
In his most recent win over Chad Jay on March 15, he showed, as expected, excellent wrestling, with quick takedowns, reminiscent of Georges St. Pierre. He has natural punching power and strong ground-and-pound, which has led to three of his four stoppage wins, with the fourth coming with a guillotine submission.
His stand-up game clearly has holes, particularly when it comes to defense.
But whenever Jay connected, he couldn’t follow up because Rosholt could take him down at will. In his four matches, he said that any time he’s wanted to take a fight to the ground, he’s been able to.
There is potential in his stand-up because of his power, but he needs to work on footwork and combinations, and at the same time, not on being too reliant on his boxing when he doesn’t need to be, a mistake a lot of wrestlers who learn boxing make.
But the Thiago Alves vs. Koscheck match on Oct. 25 in Chicago was a wake-up call to national champion wrestlers: At some point during their career, someone will come along that they can’t take down, so wrestling alone will not get you MMA championships.
Osterneck is far from simply an opponent to showcase Rosholt as a future star. He’s considered one of the best middleweight prospects in the country, sporting a 5-0 record, with all five victories finishes within two rounds, four by submission. Rosholt has been training with Marc Laimon on his jiu-jitsu, because he’s facing someone who has no problem when it comes to being taken down.
And it’s a lot more than just a debut match on national television for both. WEC is dropping its middleweight division at the end of this year.
The winner of the match is a lock to be signed by UFC next year. The loser needs to make a strong showing or they could be on the outside looking in.
"There can’t be any fear of losing," he said. "If you fear losing, you’ll lose. Every time I wrestled I started thinking about how not to lose, I lost.
"I think it’s the right time (to debut with a major promotion). I don’t think I’m in over my head. Mostly I’m looking at being confident in the ring and doing what I know how to do. I want to put it on the ground and end the fight."
Still, questions abound as to whether someone who never took a jiu-jitsu class nor ever put on boxing gloves less than two years earlier, for all his athletic ability, is ready to be thrown to the wolves in UFC.
If he keeps winning, he’s probably only a few fights away from top 10 competition. While a comparison can be made with Brock Lesnar, the difference is Lesnar also has size going for him, as he’s got 30 to 50 pounds on most opponents, an edge wrestlers don’t have in the lower weight classes. Unlike most college wrestling stars in UFC, Rosholt is the rare college wrestling star who is fighting at a lower weight than he did in his last two college seasons.
But in a clutch situation, Rosholt has excelled. He was 105-20 in college, and came back from losing in the Big 12 championships all three years prior to winning his NCAA titles.
- Jake Rosholt