Bellator hoping to turn young wrestlers into MMA stars

Former three-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion Ed Ruth will make his professional MMA debut on Friday as a middleweight at Bellator 163. Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Seven years ago, a heavyweight by the name of Daniel Cormier made his professional fighting debut on a Strikeforce Challengers event in Bixby, Oklahoma.

Early in the broadcast, commentators relayed a story about Cormier's manager, Bob Cook, literally laughing at his fighter's attempts to throw kicks in the gym -- his skills were that raw.

What Cormier had going for him, however, was an Olympic-caliber wrestling background. Within three years of that debut, Cormier had won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament. Today, he's a UFC champion and one of the most recognizable stars in a sport that is constantly in search of them.

And it all started with then-Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker signing a heavyweight with no experience.

"When we signed him, Daniel really had no skill in mixed martial arts other than wrestling," Coker chuckled. "But he turned into a phenomenal fighter. When you look at the disciplines of this sport, if you have a good wrestling background, you're usually at a pretty decent advantage."

Coker, now the president of Bellator MMA, is quietly applying the same strategy he used to find Cormier to his current promotion.

Bellator has made a big splash with several free-agent signings in recent years, which include established names like Chael Sonnen, Rory MacDonald, Benson Henderson and Phil Davis. But in addition, the company has also invested in five standout amateur wrestlers who have never professionally competed in MMA.

"We call them the Fab Five," Coker said.

Their names are Aaron Pico, Ed Ruth, Tyrel Fortune, Jarod Trice and Joey Davis. The first four attempted to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic wrestling team, each falling just short at trials. Davis, an undefeated four-time NCAA Division II national wrestling champion, made his MMA debut for Bellator in August. He won by unanimous decision.

Ruth, 26, is scheduled to make his debut on Friday at Bellator 163 in Uncasville, Connecticut. He's a former three-time NCAA Division I champion at Penn State and trains out of MMA veteran Josh Koscheck's gym in Fresno, California. He's also represented by Zinkin Entertainment -- the same management group of Cormier.

Whether or not Ruth, a middleweight, comes close to duplicating Cormier's success no one knows. But as he was with Cormier, Coker is in on the ground floor of his career. And in the business of MMA promotion, it's always nice to hold a potential lotto ticket.

"I feel like the sky is the limit in this sport," Ruth said. "You look at Conor McGregor, and I'm not gonna lie, I love that guy. He was confident, knew how to talk and now he's making lots of money. I feel like every fighter comes into this sport thinking they can make astronomical amounts of money, and I feel the same. I feel my chances are great, given that I've already done the hard work I'm going to put in.

"Scott has a good relationship with my management team, and I really couldn't go wrong with Bellator. They are putting me in a position where I can take off."

Fortune, a heavyweight and close friend of Ruth's, also makes his debut at Bellator 163. His involvement in MMA began when he flew to South Florida to help former UFC champion Rashad Evans prepare for a fight. Bellator moved quick in signing Fortune, as he agreed to a deal with the promotion within a few weeks of Ruth introducing him to some of its executives.

Even though Fortune has no record, he has already been courted by fight camps and promotions. He now trains out of Arizona but says his confidence grew during his time with the Blackzilians in Florida.

"Guys like [striking coach] Henri Hooft pulled me aside and said, 'Listen, I really think you have endless potential to be a champion in this sport if that's what you want,'" Fortune said. "Hearing it from guys like that -- [UFC light heavyweight] Anthony Johnson, Rashad, [grappling coach] Neil Melanson -- I fell in love with it right away.

"One of the first things Rashad did was say, 'OK, wait, we have to make sure you have a chin, first. There are some people who, for whatever genetic reason, can't take a punch.' So, he hit me in the face, kind of by surprise, and I took it OK. That's when he said, 'OK, you got a future in this sport!'"

Neither Ruth nor Fortune is scheduled to appear on the televised main card this weekend, which is by Bellator design. Coker said he wanted to book both to a "real fight" but spare them the additional pressure of fighting on live television. Both fighters understood the decision and said it's in line with the relationship they've had with Bellator to this point.

"When Ed was telling me about signing with Bellator and what they had to offer, he said, 'They're not throwing us to the wolves,'" Fortune said. "It's very personal. They're not looking at us as an assembly line of athletes coming through the organization. I have a relationship with this promotion."

Since Coker took over as Bellator's president in 2014, the promotion has faced its share of criticism for "circus fights," mostly those involving retired greats who are past their prime or a heavyweight bout between the late Kimbo Slice and Dhafir "Dada 5000" Harris in February.

But two years in, Coker's imprint on Bellator's roster is finally taking shape and a focus on amateur wrestlers is proving to be a major piece of it. Time will tell if it produces another Cormier.

"I always feel the roster has to be built from the ground up and the top down," Coker said. "Ten years ago with Strikeforce, there were more free agents floating around. We signed Fedor Emelianenko, [Antonio] "Bigfoot" Silva, Fabricio Werdum -- now free agents are few and far between, but we're signing our share of them, as you've seen.

"We also have to build from the ground up, and that's how we built Strikeforce, and I think we're doing that here with the wrestling group we've brought in."