The recent drastic emergence of talent in the heavyweight division of mixed martial arts that has taken place over the last several years with the rapid ascension of fighters such as Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez and Shane Carwin has served as a testament to the constant growth of the sport. Gone are the days of Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski ruling the division with an iron fist, and sadly, gone are the days of Fedor Emelianenko competing with any type of regularity. In it’s place a “new breed” of big men has been implanted, and with it a question begs to be asked: Who’s next? The guys currently occupying the top ranking in the weight class seem to have come from nowhere over the last couple of years, and only a fool would dare to believe there’s not a strong possibility they may be joined, or even replaced by an even “newer breed” of heavyweights, just like Arlovski and Sylvia before them.
Enter Cole Konrad, aka “The Polar Bear“. Walking around near the 300 pound mark just like his good friend and training partner, UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar; this pair of corn-fed Titans have far more in common than comparable size and a mutual training facility.
Along with being a 2005 Pan-American gold medal winner, Konrad is a two-time NCAA Wrestling Champion at 285 pounds. One of the best in University of Minnesota wrestling history, Cole went undefeated with an unbelievable record of 76-0 during his last two years spent at the “U” competing at the top of the food chain against many of the most imposing wrestlers in the sport.
Guess who else just so happens to be among the best heavyweight Golden Gopher’s in the history of the school’s decorated wrestling program?
“I met Brock pretty much as soon as I got to college,” said Konrad in a recent conversation with FiveOuncesofPain.com. “He had always wrestled at the University of Minnesota and I was wrestling there, so when I was there he would come and work with me. Pretty much since I was a freshman I’ve been working with Brock. He would come in whenever he was in town at the time, because he was still with the WWE, but he would come in whenever he could.
“Training partners once you get into the upper levels of wrestling are kind of few and far between. It’s hard to find good guys to work with. Especially good, big guys. So, I was still training for international wrestling stuff at the time while he was just getting into MMA, and he needed big guys, and I needed big guys, so it just seemed like a natural fit. We have a mutual trainer in Marty Morgan was working with both of us at the same time, so he kind of put us together and it just made sense.”
And with Lesnar already zeroed in on pursuing a career in the strategically brutal world of mixed martial arts, Konrad’s transition into the sport several years later seemed like more of a formality than anything else. And what better measuring stick to weigh yourself against than the best in the weight class?
“I started thinking seriously about getting into mixed martial arts shortly after my wrestling career was over,” said Konrad. “I had been training with Brock, and once I started training with those guys, I just kind of knew that I could do this and make a pretty swift transition. So I just continued to train because I wanted to be fairly well-rounded before I just hopped in there and gave it a whirl, but I knew I could figure it out.
“Training with guys like Brock, Chris [Tuchscherer], Jon [Madsen] and the rest of the guys that have had some experience fighting kind of let me know where I was at, and that I could make it work.”
It’s no coincidence that so many of the fastest rising stars in the MMA today – such as Lesnar, Velasquez, and now Konrad – have been groomed from wrestling mats all round the United States. The ability to take the fight where you want it – whether it be standing or on the ground – can be argued to be the most decisive advantage one could possibly hold over an opponent.
“Wrestling correlates directly with MMA,” said Konrad. “You learn such an awareness from wrestling, as far as where your hips are, where your weight is, how to apply good pressure, and how to keep a hard pace that just wears people down. That’s really the core of becoming a good wrestler. So that carries directly over into MMA. Also, the footwork in wrestling is actually so similar to boxing footwork that it helps a lot of wrestlers pick up the boxing for MMA relatively quick too. There are a lot of different attributes of wrestling that correlate so well with a lot of the different positions in mixed martial arts, and I think that’s one of the reasons that a lot of wrestlers are able to make that smooth transition.”
With the grappling background Konrad possesses there will be few that doubt his skills and potential ability when his fight’s go to the canvas, but there will always be questions hanging over a decorated wrestler’s head when making the crossover to MMA until performances in the cage dictate otherwise. Questions like: How are his hands? Can he take a punch? Is he prepared for kicks? How will he react when tagged directly on the chin?
“I feel like some parts of the striking game came really natural to me, but I’m definitely still working on it, and I’ve had to work on it quite a bit,” answered Cole when pressed for information on his development in the striking department. “I want to put more combos together and things like that. I mean it was natural for me to throw a jab and some of the basics, but learning the combos and stuff like that is taking a bit of work. I mean, you do have to learn it; I don’t know if it comes completely natural for anyone.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable during sparring at all. I feel completely comfortable, and I’m sure a lot of that comes from me not caring whether I get hit or not. I kind of wrestled that way, where I always led with my head, and I did a lot of head butting and dirty shit. So that kind of carried over where I didn’t really care.
“I mean, punch me in the forehead if you want.”
It’s always refreshing and insuring to hear a developing fighter address his perceived shortcomings openly and candidly. The worst mistake an up and coming fighter could make would be to fail to recognize his faults and not strive to improve upon them.
“You’re never content, and you’re always trying to get better, but the place I feel like I have the most work to do is on my feet,” said Konrad. “And it’s not that I don’t feel comfortable there, it’s that I feel like I have a lot of room for improvement in the stand up to where I could be really dangerous on my feet. That’s kind of exciting. I’m looking forward to progressing as a mixed martial artist. That’s why I try to focus on my striking and sparring as much as possible right now, and I enjoy being on my feet.”
With Cole apparently passing the “decorated wrestler transitioning to MMA verbal gut check” with flying colors, the next concern for someone that has spent most of their life controlling men on the mat is undoubtedly how they will perform with the potential of being kicked or punched directly in the face.
“The weirdest thing is – and I told Marty and Brock this – that it was the most content I’ve felt in the last decade while entering a competition,” said Konrad when talk turned to his professional MMA debut. “There were no butterflies and I was totally at peace. I knew what was going to go down, and how it was going to go down. I just felt totally comfortable out there, even though it was totally foreign to me outside of the practice room. I felt more calm and relaxed out there than I ever did for a wrestling match, which was surprising, but it’s relieving to know that.
“I feel super confident in my abilities, and I have a pretty realistic idea of where I’m currently at. So, just knowing that in my mind is just such a big factor. Confidence is such a big role in any sport.”
For any of those that missed it, Konrad came out victorious in the opening round of his MMA debut during “Max Fights 8″ against Gary Herman via one of the grizzliest submissions in the history of the game, sending a direct message to every man collecting a paycheck in mixed martial arts’ heavyweight division: I’m coming.
“Honestly, that’s a move that I hit a lot,” said Konrad. “They just call it the “polar bear choke” because Brock calls me “The Polar Bear”, but it’s kind of my choke. I go for it a lot. It’s similar to wrestling when I have that bottom leg torqued – or in half guard for MMA – but it’s just a comfortable position for me. I’m able to control my weight and put a lot of pressure down while I trap that shoulder to the mat where you can’t really move, and I get to just crank away.
“It’s one of those moves where, until you feel it, you just don’t understand how it could really work. I have your hips into the mat and I have good pressure going into you across your torso up through your shoulder onto the mat, and really, there’s nowhere to go. From there I basically wait for them to try to shrimp and get underneath me, and as soon as they do that I come from over the shoulder and around the chin and I can lock it up somewhat similar to a d’arce choke. But from the pressure that gets put on there, you’re really screwed. I mean, once I have it locked, you have about a second…. or less than that to wiggle before things get too tight to move.”
And what happens to the human body if one was to choose to snap over tap in a submission such as the “polar bear choke”? Well, lets just say that before they knew it, the “body” would be converted to more of a pretzel shaped “carcass” of sorts, as Cole would explain, “I’m sure if someone didn’t tap that their back would get messed up, the neck would get messed up mainly, and the cartilage on the ribs would pop. But they would get choked before that, and they would stop, I’m sure.”
Having recently just dipped his feet into the water as far as his mixed martial arts career is concerned, Konrad is admittedly in no hurry to ultimately be recognized as the very best in the heavyweight division. Developing as a fighter is all about building blocks of knowledge on top of blocks of knowledge; something Cole knows all too well.
“I’m just looking to test myself at this point in my career,” said Konrad, who improved his professional record to 2-0 with a “Matrix Fights” TKO over Joel Wyatt in February. “My game plan going into that last fight was to stand up the whole time, because when I get against top competition, they’re going to have good takedown defense,they’re going to be good on the mat, and they’re also going to be really good on their feet, so I need to get into real life situations right now. You can only do so much live sparring with partners; it’s just not the same as when you actually hop in the cage. There are a lot of questions surrounding me right now. There are even questions that I have for myself. I’m a wrestler, so how comfortable am I going to be on my feet when I’m actually in a fight?”
And what better way to answer those questions than to throw yourself directly into the fire? Konrad realizes that the only way to prove his worth as a fighter to both himself and the fans is to simply put him in the game. Something he’s more than eager to do, and absolutely something that played a pivotal role in his recent signing with Bellator Fighting Championships.
“Staying busy is definitely important to me right now at this early point of my career, and it is by design,” said the twenty-five year old Minnesota Martial Arts Academy trained fighter. “It wasn’t like all of a sudden I just decided that I wanted to fight twenty times in a year or something. I’ve been training in mixed martial arts for about three years now, full time. I got to a point where I felt like I was well-rounded and wanted to get out there and get some experience, and I think the only way to do that is to get in the cage and figure it out, to work on different areas, and just to continue to develop. I want to be able to carry over everything I’ve learned in the cage into all of my upcoming fights and just continue developing as a fighter. I may be rapping off some fights here relatively quick, but these are just building blocks on the way to where I’m trying to get to.
“Being able to stay active is one of the big reasons that led me to sign with Bellator Fighting Championships. They said that I would have “X” number of fights in a certain amount of time, and that’s exactly what I was looking for. Bellator is a well-known and well-respected company, and the big thing is that the fights are going to be on Fox Sports, Telemundo and late nights on NBC- that’s a lot of viewers. I talked to some other companies that wanted to give me four fights and over two years, and that there’s nothing wrong with that, but at this point in my career, I need to have more fights than that just to get the experience. So, Bellator just seemed like a perfect fit, all around.”
Already three years invested in his MMA training and currently primed to put his abilities on display in front of literally millions, 2010 promises to be breakthrough year for Mr. Konrad that will likely have his name on the lips of MMA and sport fans alike for many years to come, but it’s the next decade the rest of the heavyweight division needs to concern themselves with. Consider yourself warned. “The Polar Bear” is coming.
“Look at how many guys that are just great in individual areas and they’re getting beat,” said Konrad in closing. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I have no problem learning the situations, and learning the real situations, and not just in the training room.”
Cole would like to thank Brock Lesnar, Marty Morgan, Bellator Fighting Championships, Death Clutch, Everlast and Full Tilt Poker for supporting the development of his fight career.