From the cage to the mat

Prep wrestling sees a boost from MMA
By: Justin A. Lawson Journal Sports Writer
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As Manny Guzman strikes his sparring partner for the first time in a room full of professional fighters, he fits in easily and perhaps stands out slightly. His strikes come with authority in an exercise that isn’t even at full speed. The sparring session goes to the floor where Guzman is reluctant to give up control and even when he does he quickly regains it through sheer determination. He doesn’t look like a 17-year-old when he’s in his element. His mixed-martial arts skills make him look a man, a man with a serious future in front of him. Instead, Guzman is merely a high school junior who has used his skills in the octagon to become a wrestler at Placer High. “He learned how to do his single legs, double legs, his control positions on the ground right here in the sport of MMA and then when he went to high school wrestling, he dominated because of it,” said Dan Lovas, one of Guzman’s coaches and owner of Auburn Martial Arts Center. Like many wrestlers around the country, Guzman found mixed-martial arts before he found the high school wrestling mat. A sport that was once seen as old-fashioned and put off young athletes because of the uniform, is thriving once again. Across the country, boys wrestling is at its highest participation levels since 1979-80 after the sport suffered a massive drop off in the mid-90s. And how has wrestling all of sudden regained its luster? Many point to the rise of mixed-martial arts. The fastest growing professional sport in the world is chocked full of former high school and NCAA wrestling champions, including local product Urijah Faber. Rise of MMA The Ultimate Fighting Championship, the top MMA promotion company in the world, overtook boxing a few years ago and is on its way to mainstream sport status. It recently signed a 10-year broadcasting contract with Fox, the same network that was host to last year’s Super Bowl. “People see it on TV and they see these athletes and they say, ‘I want to be like them.’ Wrestling is one of the mixed-martial arts,” said Santino Garcia, who is a sophomore on the Del Oro wrestling team and whose father Al Garcia runs Coaching Kids MMA Club in Rocklin. The younger Garcia has participated in boxing and MMA since he was 3 years old. In the Placer area, high school wrestling numbers are down but some have found more numbers coming into the youth programs. Del Oro, which has a long wrestling tradition, has about 140 wrestlers in its system from second grade through high school. While UFC has found a place in many kids’ hearts, parents haven’t necessarily run to their local Brazilian jiu-jitsu or Muay Thai gym to sign up their kids. Some have turned to wrestling as a less violent alternative. “Kids watch with their dad’s and they say, ‘Oh, you like that?’ This is not quite as violent a level or a competitive level here,” Del Oro wrestling co-coach Clint Madden said. “It’s not about hurting someone here, it’s about out maneuvering them.” High school wrestling fell to the wayside in high school sports during the mid-90s, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations data. But it has undergone somewhat of a renaissance lately with a rise in participation of 26 percent from 1994-95 to 2009-10, the last year the NFHS had data available. In California alone the rate has increased by the same percentage in just the last eight years. Coincidently the rise in participation parallels the UFC’s rise to fame, which began to take flight in 2002. “That’s definitely helped bring the sport to the forefront,” Madden said of MMA. “It’s made my job easier.” From the octagon to the mat Guzman briefly wrestled in elementary school but admits he got in too much trouble to continue beyond that. When he was 15, he came to Auburn Martial Arts Center where he grappled with professional fighters, some of which were high school wrestling champions. After getting his lumps with experienced wrestlers, Lovas recommended Guzman try high school wrestling. “My coach is a wrestler and kickboxer and all my coaches taught me stuff here and then from grappling people, wrestling people in the gym it helped me get to varsity,” Guzman said. Guzman, who wrestles at 145 pounds, is in just his first year of wrestling. He started the season on junior varsity where he went to the Panu Classic in Yuba City and crushed the competition on his way to a gold medal. From there, he quickly ascended to varsity where his lack of experience caught up with him. Guzman struggled the following week at the Chukchansi Invitational in Bakersfield where a number of the state’s top wrestlers were in the field. “He’s definitely on the right path (in wrestling),” said Placer wrestling coach Don Packheiser, who also was a Shudokan instructor. “For a first-year wrestler, do I think he’ll make it to state? Not at his current level of expertise. Does that mean he can’t get there? No, anybody can get there but it’s going to take a lot of hard work. He’s got the tools so if anybody can do it on a first year, Manny would be one of the people that can do it.” While many MMA fighters have a strong wrestling base, the sports are vastly different. The most obvious is wrestlers aren’t allowed to hit each other. Additionally, wrestling bouts will be stopped if a move appears to be too dangerous. The biggest difference, though, is in strategy. “For instance, in MMA if someone started to gain a control position on the ground you would want to go to your back and pull them into your legs, which is called guard,” said Lovas, who wrestled collegiately at San Diego State. “In high school wrestling, you’d be exposing your back and you’d be losing points or you’d be pinned.” Going the distance Guzman is hoping to follow a long line of successful wrestlers to MMA fame. Faber won a Sac-Joaquin Section title as a wrestler out of Lincoln High before moving onto UC Davis and now the UFC. He is the No. 2-ranked bantamweight contender and will fight Dominic Cruz for the championship later this year. For now, Guzman splits his time between wrestling and MMA and often goes to the Auburn Martial Arts Center right after wrestling practice. The split time, Packheiser said, has effected his growth on the wrestling mat but it’s clear which sport he prefers. He has already had nearly 20 amateur fights and Lovas said he could go pro now if he wanted. Lovas, who also serves as his manager, is content to let him learn now and not let him get burnt out too early. That gives Guzman a chance to continue working on moves with exotic and dangerous names like the Kimura, rear-naked choke and the trusty arm bar, all staples in a fighter’s repertoire. “MMA is like my passion,” Guzman said. “I’m addicted to it, I can’t stop doing it. I come here like pretty much everyday. I just love it… “It’s my dream to become pro, to be good at it. To be one of the best ones is my main goal.”