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Could wrestling legend Mark Schultz have been UFC champion? 'I think so, but talk is cheap'

The Olympic gold medalist talked to about why he walked away from UFC after only one fight in the Octagon, the "incredible suffering" of wrestling practice at Oklahoma, and how mixed martial arts (MMA) has shined the light on "wrestling being the greatest foundation in martial arts."

Schultz pinning Turkey's Resit Karabajak in 1984 Olympics
Schultz pinning Turkey's Resit Karabajak in 1984 Olympics

Mark Schultz had been retired from wrestling for eight years when he stepped into the Octagon for the first time against Gary Goodridge at UFC 9 way back in 1996. On top of that, his brother David was murdered only four months prior to the event. But that didn't stop the Olympic gold medalist from taking Goodridge down -- at will -- and delivering several elbows that would open up a fight-ending cut on the head of his opponent to earn the technical knockout victory.

Schultz looked to have the pedigree to become a dominant force in UFC, but his first professional fight under "No Holds Barred" (NHB) rules at Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan, would ultimately be his last.

He retired at 1-0.

It wasn't because the three-time NCAA national champion didn't want to compete or because he didn't enjoy getting the best of Goodridge. Back in those days, the money wasn't what it is today, nor was the sport recognized as anything more than "human cockfighting," the now infamous phrase by then-Arizona Senator John McCain. There had been a legal battle in Detroit courts leading up to the event, with threats to actually get the show pulled all the way up to late in the afternoon on the day of the fights.

It would become even harder for the sport to grow (and fighters to make money) due to McCain being successful in pulling UFC pay-per-view (PPV) broadcasts from several cable companies.

Schultz was a wrestling coach at Brigham Young University (BYU) and that wasn't going to be a job he passed up for the unknown. That, and the fact that the BYU president was none too thrilled after catching word that a representative of the Mormon school took part in a bloody bare-knuckle fight.

"I was the head wrestling coach at Brigham Young University," said Schultz, who served as a associate producer in the upcoming movie that features a dark chapter in his life called Foxcatcher, that will be released through Sony Pictures Classics on Nov. 14, 2014.

"When I fought, they put my photo on the cover of the Salt Lake Tribune. There was blood on the ground. A lot of the Mormon mother's women called the president of BYU and complained. I got called on the carpet by the BYU president, Merrill Bateman, and he said, 'Mark, that is not what we are about here.' And this is the days of NHB, before MMA. He said, 'You can keep working here. I'm not going to fire you, but you cannot continue to fight unless you quit here.' I had three kids. I needed health insurance, so I chose to keep my job as the head wrestling coach."

Schultz moved on with his life as a coach, but what if he stayed on the fighting path back then? Could he have become a champion?

"I think so, but you know talk is cheap," said Schultz, giving an honest response. And one you would expect from a man whose athletic career was based solely on hard work and predicated on vasts amounts of sweat. All those victories and medals were paid for in hours of mat time, not in lip service. And he didn't win three NCAA titles and go 27-0 his senior year at Oklahoma without complete dedication and a great deal of sacrifice.

The Sooner alum recalled the arduous days of practice during his college tenure.

"When we got done with practice in Oklahoma we would invariably look like we were participating in some strange, clothed water sport," said Schultz, who has an autobiography he wrote along with David Thomas, also called Foxcatcher, coming out through Dutton Publishing on Nov. 18, 2014. "It looked like we just jumped in a pool. We would leave pools of water on the mat. There would be fog in the air. Our shoes would be squishy after every practice. It was just incredibly tough."

"Add weight cutting to all of that and you just have incredible suffering. These wrestlers -- you talk about tough guys -- some wrestlers have had hundreds of matches, thousands of matches in their career. To say that there is any comparison between wrestlers and guys on the street is just ridiculous. There is just no comparison."

Schultz may have walked away from professional fighting after only one fight, but he still watches the sport today. He coached retired UFC middleweight Chael Sonnen at BYU and introduced him to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. As for current fighters, Schultz said he is a fan of Johnny Hendricks, Cain Velasquez, Georges St. Pierre, and, well, "all the wrestlers."

Perhaps the biggest reason he is a fan of MMA today is because of how important it is for a fighter to have a strong wrestling base in his/her repertoire. It isn't a secret or a surprise that a majority of today's champions all have a strong wrestling background. For example, six out of the 10 UFC champions are wrestlers and there are standout wrestlers in other organizations too, like ONE FC welterweight champion Ben Askren and former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler.

And the latter, Schultz said, once told him his famous 1982 NCAA championship match against Ed Bannach "is the second greatest match in history behind Larry Owings beating Dan Gable." Owings beat Gable in 1968 and Schultz stopped Bannach from winning his fourth-straight title in the lone match to be televised on ABC Wide World of Sports that year. Both matches are often mentioned in the conversation of greatest match ever.

MMA has proven wrestling holds its own against the other martial arts of the world and Schultz says it is undoubtedly the best foundation to becoming a complete mixed martial artist.

"The thing that I love about NHB and MMA is how it has brought wrestling out of the shadows and into the limelight as the greatest foundation of martial arts," Schultz said proudly. "Wrestlers can learn technique very easy. They can learn a rear naked or a double-wrist lock just as easy as they can learn a switch or stand up. It's just another move. It just ends up submitting a guy instead of scoring points. Plus wrestlers have the best conditioning. So if you can combine the foundation of wrestling with submission holds of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the knees and kicks of Muay Thai, the punches of boxing, you have the ultimate martial art."

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