GRINUPS: Tonight begins Bellator’s strategy of featuring USA wrestlers, a strategy to cultivate new top stars for the company

By Nick Grinups, MMAATorch contributor

Bellator made news in the MMA world this week when they announced the signing of former UFC Welterweight Title contender, Rory MacDonald.  Coker has been known to offer former UFC veterans a gracious amount of money to fight under the Bellator banner.  But Coker is a smart businessman and is also looking to add the next MMA superstar to his roster.  Coker has tapped into a familiar pipeline: USA wrestling.  Since Coker took over Bellator in 2014, they started to sign young USA wrestlers knowing by after the Olympics in 2016, they would pursue a full-time MMA career.  

The organization is betting part of the company’s future that one or two of these big time wrestling prospects will be the new face of Bellator in the next three years. 

Bellator started their promotion back in 2008, where you saw former successful amateur wrestlers Cole Konrad, Ben Askren, Michael Chandler, Zach Makovsky, and Joe Warren winning titles for the organization.  Flash forward six years and you see Bellator trying to push a new generation of wrestlers such as Bubba Jenkins, Darrion Caldwell, and Chris Honeycutt.

Now Bellator is making a new push, a different push. Coker and company are signing highly touted wrestlers that are making the transition to MMA full time. Bellator signed five of USA wrestling’s top prospects and now will try to grow these fighters to compete and grow their careers as professionals.  Coker is hoping that investing in these athletes now will yield a high return and then maybe in two, three or four years one of these fighters will be face of the entire company.  The only catch is that the total number of professional fights that these five fighters bring to Bellator is zero.

Let’s take a closer look at the five young fighters that Bellator will have compete sometime in the near future.

First fighter, Joey Davis is competing tonight at Bellator 160. He will be the first of the five high-profile amateur wrestlers to make their first Bellator and MMA debut all together.  Davis is a 22 year old welterweight, who was a two-time high school state champion wrestler in California.  Although Davis got a lot of attention from Division I programs, he ended up competing for Notre Dame College of Ohio, which is a Division II program.  He was the third wrestler to compile an undefeated career in NCAA history, finishing his career at 133-0.  Not only does Davis have a fantastic wrestling pedigree, but he has an amateur record of 5-0 in MMA. He is one of the few wrestlers to have MMA experience prior to finishing college.  Look for him to make a statement tonight against Keith Cutrone – who is 1-0 with a TKO in his career.

Aaron Pico has been a wrestling Phenom since he was a young teenager.  The now 19 year old is officially making his switch over to MMA after barely missing an Olympic berth by one match.  Pico is arguably one of the greatest MMA prospects of all time.  During his high school years Pico was a national freestyle champion and a world freestyle champion.  After high school Pico decided not to attend and compete in college. Instead, Pico’s only goal was to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.  The Californian went on to compete internationally, placing in multiple tournaments around the world at the senior level.  The scariest part of Pico’s build up as a prospect is that he was also the 2009 National Junior Golden Gloves Champion.  I am saying this with full confidence; Pico could be Bellator’s Jon Jones. I know that is a lot to say, but his wrestling accolades sweep Jones’s under the rug and Pico’s boxing is on a whole other level.  To gain even more hype, there was confirmation that the 19 year old knocked out Josh Thomson in sparring which led to the former Strikeforce Champion to pull out against Michael Chandler.  Pico will be competing at the featherweight division and will hopefully compete in early 2017.

Another Division II champion, Tyrell Fortune, will be the young face in the heavyweight division.  The 26 year old is currently trains out of the Blackzillains camp.  Fortune was named the 2013 division II wrestling of the year.  The Blackzillain was also a two-time division II champion at Grand Canyon University and before that he was also a two-time Junior College national champion at Clackamas Community College.  The big man was ranked 3rd in the USA at the senior level before trading in the wrestling shoes for the four ounce MMA gloves. Look out for Fortune, as he is a very athletic heavyweight and will make is Bellator debut in late 2016 or early 2017.

Ed Ruth, who will be competing in the Middleweight Division, is one of the most highly touted NCAA wrestlers in the last decade.  Ruth competed for the Nittany Lions of Penn State and was able to achieve three NCAA National Championships while wrestling for them.  Ruth is long and athletic, drawing a lot of comparisons to former Penn State graduate Phil Davis.  The three-time national champion and four-time All-American signed with Bellator in May 2015.  Ruth would try to qualify for the 2016 Olympics at the 189 pound weight class.  After the failed attempt by Ruth, he announced to the world via Twitter he was switching over to MMA.  The 25 year old was able to train with Jon Jones which really impressed Greg Jackson, calling Ruth “amazing.”  As of right now, Ruth has no fight scheduled, but he is eager to step into the cage.

Jarod Trice may be one of the more overlooked wrestling prospects that Bellator got a hold of in 2016.  Trice, 27, was a three time all-american for Central Michigan University.  During his time in college Trice was a three-time University National champion in Freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling, winning both styles in 2010 and adding one more Greco roman title in 2015.  What makes Trice very interesting is that he was very successful wrestling at 264.5 pounds and 216 pounds but is going to make fight at 205 pounds.  I think the lighter weight will give Trice strength in his grappling department.  He is expected to make his Bellator debut at light heavyweight and sometime in very late 2016 or early 2017.   

Here at MMATorch, we will keep an eye on these prospects and see if Bellator’s investment can parlay into the future of MMA.


(Nick Grinups has previous written about MMA for Sherdog.com. He wrestled 15 years and ended his career wrestling Division I for Drexel University, where he graduated with a double major in Finance and Marketing. He wrote for the school paper at Drexel as well. He grew up boxing and doing judo to stay in shape for wrestling. He has also done some BJJ while training. He has been an MMA fanatic since 2006 and has been immersed in learning about the sport as it has grown. He is also a stand-up comedian in Philadelphia and involved in the advertising/marketing industry.)

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