MMA Submission: Ricky Lundell is changing college wrestling

Cael Sanderson has been important for Ricky Lundell. In the future, Ricky Lundell will be important for many others. Getty Images

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Ricky Lundell's phone rings a lot these days.

Sometimes it's Cyler Sanderson, his best friend, the younger brother of Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson and Iowa State's star 157-pound All-American, calling to thank him for some crazy jiu-jitsu move Lundell had taught him. Other times, it's an elite-level MMA camp calling to inquire about learning some of Lundell's crazy jiu-jitsu moves. And other times, it's a well-off client wanting to know if Lundell would give him a personal lesson.

Such is life for revolutionary Ricky. His mom has pestered him for years that he ought to try wrestling. But Lundell had never wrestled before—ever. He was, however, the youngest Gracie American black belt recipient ever and the 2008 world grappling champion at 154 pounds.

"She kept telling me that my skills could translate to the wrestling mat," he says. "Eventually I decided maybe I would give it a shot."

Enter Cael and Cody Sanderson, now coaching at Iowa State, who have always been intrigued by MMA. They thought putting a jiu-jitsu black belt in the Cyclones wrestling room every day might introduce a new angle to folkstyle wrestling. They were right.

"This sport is still evolving," Cael says. "And Ricky's helping it evolve."

Lundell struggled early on learning how to wrestle and took his fair share of drubbings in the Cyclones wrestling room, which is to be expected when a rookie enters one of the best rooms in the nation. (ISU is No. 2 right now.)

There is a lot of overlap between wrestling and jiu-jitsu. But historically, one interacted with the other only with wrestlers becoming quick studies at jiu-jitsu. As far as Lundell or the Sandersons have ever heard, a jiu-jitsu player, even a black belt, had never tried to add wrestling on top of his skill set.

The toughest thing for Lundell so far: learning to handle the vast variety of wrestling takedowns.

"In jiu-jitsu, there are lots of moves you can't even attempt," he says, "because you can be submitted if you shoot low."

He also had to ditch working from his back. In jiu-jitsu, players can lay flat on their backs and still be on offense. In wrestling, laying on your back for even a split-second means the match is over. Lundell learned that one the hard way recently, during his first open tournament. After being taken down to his back, Lundell immediately wrapped his legs around his opponent's neck in a modified, wrestling-legal version of a triangle choke. In a span of one second, he went from his back to rolling his opponent to his back, with Lundell coming up in the dominant position. Problem is, the baffled ref had already blown the whistle. He signaled, with some curiosity about what had just happened, that Lundell had lost, by pin. Bystanders were even more confused. The guy who'd just gotten pinned was now pinning his opponent. But the match was over. The ref had seen Lundell's shoulder blades touch the mat and ended it—just as Lundell was taking over the match.

"Oh well," Lundell says. "I'm still learning."

Others are learning from him, too. His ability to maneuver out of traditionally weak wrestling positions, especially escaping from being put on his back, with jiu-jitsu moves is something Iowa State wrestlers have begun to incorporate. During one recent match, Cyler Sanderson gave up a takedown and was headed toward his back when he slipped into "X Guard," where he used a butterfly guard to sweep his opponent and notch a reversal himself.

"I hit it!" Sanderson yelled to Lundell when he came off the mat. "I used the X Guard you taught me!"

Too bad, then, that Lundell's college wrestling career is almost over after one year. As a 22-year-old transfer from Utah Valley State, where he got his associate's degree in science, Lundell was only granted one year of eligibility. "This is probably it," he says.

And then what? Lundell has marketable jiu-jitsu ability, both as a competitor and as a coach. He could try for another world grappling title. Or he could make good money (as in, a few grand per session) doing private lessons across the world. He's already had offers float in from Japan and Germany. Or the Sandersons think there could be a place for Lundell in wrestling coach, where he'd be teaching a never-before-seen hybrid wrestling/jiu-jitsu style to college wrestler.

"Nobody has ever seen this stuff before," Lundell says, "so it's impossible to stop."

But the most likely bet is Lundell becomes involved in MMA. He's perfectly willing to fight—"Ricky is a great kid, but he won't hesitate to break your arm," Cael Sanderson says—but says he doesn't want to go the typical MMA route of fighting in small shows for a few years before the UFC comes calling.

And why would he? Just last night, Lundell finalized a deal with Sean Sherk's trainer to go to Minnesota for a few weeks and help train Sherk, a former lightweight champ, for The Muscle Shark's upcoming fight with Frankie Edgar at UFC 98.

"I've got a lot of opportunities to do all kinds of stuff," Lundell says. "It's a pretty good position to be in."