The UFC has had a long history with Olympians.
Dating as far back as UFC 3: The American Dream, many of the world’s greatest amateur athletes who either competed, medaled, or served as an alternate in the pre-eminent athletic competition later made the transition to the cage. The results have been mixed, but each former Olympian has lent legitimacy to the Octagon and the sport of MMA it serves.
With UFC 170’s main and co-main event featuring three former members of Team USA in Ronda Rousey, Sara McMann, and Daniel Cormier, here’s a list of some of the international elite who made the transition from Olympian to UFC fighter and how they fared.
Kevin Jackson - The 1992 US Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, Kevin Jackson made his Octagon debut by winning the UFC 14 middleweight tournament. Nicknamed “Lightning” for a reason, Jackson scored back-to-back submission finishes in an incredible combined two minutes of Octagon action. The 4x NCAA Division I All-American wrestler would go 0-2 via armbars in his next/last Octagon appearances in a quick loss to future champ Frank Shamrock and in a 10+ minute war with UFC stalwart Jerry Bohlander.
Mark Schultz - The 1984 US Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, Mark Schultz made his one/only winning Octagon appearance in a 12 minute battle with Octagon vet Gary “Big Daddy” Goodridge at UFC 9: Motor City Madness. At the time, the former 3x NCAA Division I National Champion wrestler was the head coach for Brigham Young University’s wrestling team and cross-training at Pedro Sauer’s gym in Provo, Utah with the legendary BJJ black belt, as well as others like Rickson Gracie.
Townsend Saunders - The 1996 US Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, Townsend Saunders made his Octagon debut at UFC 16: Battle at the Bayou against the stiffest competition he could have asked for in fellow promotional first-timer Pat Miletich. The bout was a closely fought split-decision loss for “Junior” in his first MMA bout against one of the most dominant fighters/champions the Octagon has ever known. The 2x NCAA Division I All-American wrestler returned to the cage at UFC 18 against tough customer and Lions Den product Mike Burnett, who took a unanimous decision over Saunders.
Matt Lindland - The 2000 US Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, Matt “The Lindland had a lengthy Octagon career, which began in Tokyo, Japan at UFC 29. To kick off his 5 years inside the Octagon, “The Law” scored a quick TKO over Yoji Anjo and followed that win up with 3 others en route to a UFC middleweight title shot against BJJ black belt Murilo Bustamante. At UFC 37, in the infamous “double tap” battle for the crown, Lindland was submitted twice by Bustamante in a strange struggle for the strap. Following his first UFC loss, Lindland continued as a top contender with memorable highs like a submission win over BJJ black belt Travis Lutter and a feud with Phil Baroni, and memorable lows like knocking himself out with a slam at UFC 43. All in all, Lindland went 9-3 in the UFC.
Sara McMann - The 2004 US Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, Sara McMann has one fight and one win inside the Octagon. At UFC 159, McMann took to the cage against another debutant in Sheila Gaff. In just over 4 minutes, the former Lock Haven University wrestling team member scored a ground and pound TKO and earned herself a title shot tangle with fellow list entrant and UFC women’s bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey at UFC 170.
Yoel Romero - The 2004 Cuban Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, Yoel Romero made an emphatic entrance into the UFC last April with a Knockout of the Night-earning flying knee. Following his one and only career loss in the Strikeforce cage, “Soldier of God” has lit a fire under the UFC’s middleweight division by scoring back-to-back-to-back KO wins in his three Octagon appearances in less than a year’s time. Most recently at UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Philippou in January, Romero made one of the greatest come-from-behind victories, down two rounds to none against Derek Brunson. With only five minutes left in the bout, Romero landed punches and elbows to force a third round stoppage and earn a Fight of the Night bonus.
Ronda Rousey - The 2008 US Olympic bronze medalist in judo, “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey is undefeated in MMA, with all 8 wins via armbar and is the first/current UFC women’s bantamweight champion. The first woman in US Olympic history to medal in judo, Rousey is not only the face of women’s MMA, but, according to UFC President Dana White, is the very reason women broke the Octagon gender barrier. In 2013, she successfully defended her belt twice against Liz Carmouche and Miesha Tate, appeared as a head coach on The Ultimate Fighter season 18 against rival coach Miesha Tate, filmed two movies in “The Expendables 3” and “Fast and Furious 7”, and announced her next title defense at UFC 170 against Sara McMann.
Mark Coleman - The 1992 US Olympic freestyle wrestling team member, Mark Coleman made his Octagon debut by winning the UFC 10 tournament and then returning two months later by winning the UFC 11 tournament. At 5-0, “The Hammer” submitted Dan Severn via neck crank to be crowned the first ever UFC heavyweight champion. Coleman dropped the belt in his first title defense to Maurice Smith and then lost his next two UFC bouts before jumping ship to Japan. In PRIDE, he was back to his old tricks in running roughshod over the competition to win the 2000 PRIDE Openweight Grand Prix tournament. After that, the former NCAA Division I National Champion wrestler had a spotty career in the Japanese promotion before returning to the Octagon at UFC 100, where he earned a unanimous decision win over Stephan Bonnar. In his final outing, Coleman participated in the first ever UFC Hall of Famer vs. UFC Hall of Famer bout as he took on Randy Couture. All-in-all, Coleman went 7-4 in the UFC.
Daniel Cormier - A 2004 and 2008 US Olympic freestyle wrestling team member, Daniel Cormier has stirred-up two of the UFC’s divisions with a possible title shot for the undefeated star-in-the-making in his near future. At UFC on FOX: Henderson vs. Melendez, Cormier made his debut in a unanimous decision handling of former UFC heavyweight champ Frank Mir. The winner of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix followed that up with a similar unanimous decision over Roy Nelson. Then the former NCAA Division I All-American decided to drop to 205 pounds to challenge former UFC light heavyweight champ Rashad Evans in the co-main event at the upcoming UFC 170. With a win over Evans, plus Cormier’s verbal feud with current UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones, the aforementioned title shot could happen sooner rather than later.
Dan Henderson - A 1992 and 1996 US Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team member, Dan Henderson is easily one of the greatest MMA fighters of all-time. At UFC 17, Henderson earned his first and second victories inside the Octagon to be crowned the middleweight tournament winner. From there, Henderson had a successful stint in RINGS and won the PRIDE welterweight and middleweight championship belts. Henderson returned to the UFC in unsuccessful attempts for the UFC light heavyweight and middleweight titles, which “Hendo” followed-up with 3 Octagon wins, including the Knockout of the Night over Michael Bisping at UFC 100 to cap off their The Ultimate Fighter season 9 coaching rivalry. The former NCAA Division I wrestler moved on to Strikeforce, where Henderson went 3-1 before returning to the Octagon for his latest 1-3 stretch including the Fight of the Night/Year war with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, which is getting a deserved rematch this coming March.
Hector Lombard - A 2000 Cuban Olympic judo team member, Hector Lombard made his long-awaited Octagon debut at UFC 149 in a disappointing split decision loss to “The Barbarian” Tim Boetsch. With an impressive 33-4-1, 1 NC overall MMA record, the second Octagon Olympian nicknamed “Lightning” tore through smaller promotions to a one-time ridiculous 25 fight unbeaten streak filled with knockouts and submissions. In his second UFC bout, Lombard showed those vaunted fight finishing skills by KO-ing Rousimar Palhares in December 2012. Much of the same from Lombard last year inside the Octagon as he had a dismal splitdecision loss to Yushin Okami before dropping to welterweight to KO Nate Marquardt. Up next, Lombard is set to face Jake Shields at UFC 171.
Christophe Leininger - The 1984, 1988, and 1992 US Olympic judo team alternate, Christophe Leininger was the first of these athletes to enter the Octagon, which he did at UFC 3. Within one year of its existence, the born and raised judoka joined the third UFC tournament and took on future UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock. It was Leininger’s first MMA bout and Shamrock’s 11th, and it showed as Shamrock earned a submission via strikes. After three winning fights in smaller shows, Leininger returned one more time at UFC 13 against Shamrock’s Lions Den teammate Guy Mezger, which similarly ended in a loss.
Randy Couture - A 1988, 1992, and 1996 US Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team alternate, Randy “The Natural” Couture did just about everything imaginable and unimaginable inside the Octagon. It all began at UFC 13 by winning the heavyweight tournament in Couture’s first pro fights, to only be followed up by besting the undefeated Vitor Belfort, which led to winning the UFC heavyweight strap from Maurice Smith. “The Natural” returned from a stint in RINGS to capture the UFC heavyweight title for the second time with two successful defenses against Pedro Rizzo. From there, Couture dropped his next two Octagon bouts before cutting to light heavyweight, where he defeated Chuck Liddell, then Tito Ortiz, to be the undisputed UFC champ. At 205 pounds, “The Natural” lost the belt controversially to Belfort before winning it back in the rematch. In a different rematch, Couture tangled with Liddell for the belt and as the first rival coaches of The Ultimate Fighter. Couture would lose to Liddell, beat Mike Van Arsdale, lose to Liddell again, be inducted into the UFC of Fame, and retire. Thirteen months later, the former 3x NCAA Division I All-American wrestler was back winning the UFC heavyweight title at 43 years old, defeating Tim Sylvia. In his first title defense, Couture scored an even more incredible TKO stoppage of Gabriel Gonzaga. Then “The Natural” met the mountain that moves, Brock Lesnar, and lost the title. In a bit of fan-service, Couture battled and lost to former interim UFC heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in an absolute 3 round classic. Back at 205 pounds, Couture would go on a win streak, including Brandon Vera, a UFC HOFer vs. UFC HOFer tilt with Mark Coleman, and a beating of pro boxer James Toney. In his final (to date) Octagon appearance, Couture would suffer a highlight reel knockout loss to the leaping front foot of Lyoto Machida in front of the largest audience in company history at UFC 129. All-in-all, Couture went 16-8 in the UFC.
Dan Severn - A 1984 US Olympic freestyle wrestling team alternate, Dan Severn was the first fighter to go from the Olympics to UFC superstar. The MMA world was introduced to “The Beast” at UFC 4, where he easily dismissed and submitted his opening two opponents before meeting Royce Gracie in the finals. In the 15+ minute struggle, Severn muscled Gracie around and reigned down ground and pound for much of the match, but “The Beast” didn’t do enough to KO Gracie or force his corner to throw in the towel. Instead, Gracie triangle choked Severn. The very next UFC tournament was titled “The Return of the Beast” where Severn fulfilled the prophecy and ran roughshod through the competition to win the UFC 5 tourney. At UFC 6, Severn took on Shamrock for the UFC Superfight championship. It was a quick bout, as Shamrock caught Severn in a guillotine choke to claim the title for himself. Later that year, he went on to score three more Octagon wins to claim his second tournament at Ultimate Ultimate 1995. It led to an infamous rematch with Shamrock for the UFC Superfight championship at UFC 9, which Severn won, but is often referred to as the worst fight in company history. He would return to the Octagon two more times in losing efforts to Mark Coleman for the UFC heavyweight championship at UFC 12 and, three years later, to Pedro Rizzo at UFC 27. Outside of the Octagon, the former 2x NCAA Division I All-American would amass an insane MMA record of 101–19–7. In 2005, rightfully so, Severn was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. All-in-all, Severn went 9-4 in the UFC.
Darrel Gholar - A 1988 US Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team alternate, Darrel Gholar fought only one time inside the Octagon in a losing effort at UFC 18 against future UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner. At the time, Gholar was entering only his second pro MMA bout, while Tanner was an already successful 16-1 MMA veteran.
Trevor Prangley - The 1996 South African Olympic freestyle wrestling team alternate, Trevor Prangley fought 4 times in the Octagon and made his UFC debut in dazzling tap-inducing fashion. At UFC 48, Prangley secured his first Octagon win with the rare “cobra choke” on Curtis Stout. In his follow-up fight, “The South African Hammer” would take a unanimous decision win over BJJ black belt and eventual The Ultimate Fighter 4 winner Travis Lutter. After that, Prangley dropped two decision losses to veteran grapplers in Jeremy Horn and Chael Sonnen. Still an active fighter, Prangley had a losing stint in Strikeforce before returning to smaller promotions and defeating many.
Mike Van Arsdale - The 1996 and 2000 US Olympic freestyle wrestling team alternate, Mike Van Arsdale made his Octagon debut at UFC 17 with an armlock submission over Gracie Academy’s Joe Pardo. The former NCAA Division I National Champion wrestler would fight sparingly in smaller promotions before returning to the Octagon 7 years later against John Marsh, a BJJ black belt under Royce Gracie. At UFC 52, Van Arsdale would win by unanimous decision. In his next two Octagon appearances, Van Arsdale would be submitted by Randy Couture at UFC 54 and Renato Sobral at UFC 57.