If the future of the Cal Poly wrestling program is at all tied with the success of “Fight for Wrestling” — a mixed martial arts event being held at Mott Gym this weekend to raise funds for an endangered sport — the Mustangs just may have to end up thanking the California Mid-State Fair if all goes well.
If not for the part-time jobs afforded to local youth at the fairgrounds in Paso Robles back in the mid-1990s, the awkward pairing of a future mohawked Ultimate Fighting star and his then-teenage girlfriend wouldn’t have happened.
Perhaps the Fight for Wrestling doesn’t have its headliner either.
Cal Poly is hosting the MMA event, the first of its kind in San Luis Obispo, hoping it helps the wrestling program, which finished No. 18 in the country this past season, get on its way to becoming less dependent on a shrinking amount of state funding.
Two college wrestling programs in the Pac-10 have already been cut this year, with the final fate of one still hanging in the balance, and it seems the only way a team can ensure its survival is to raise a big enough chunk of cash to live off the interest.
The Mustangs might not be on the immediate chopping block, but Fight for Wrestling is Cal Poly’s most outward and progressive attempt at making that a reality.
Promoter Scott Adams, a former Cal Poly wrestler and co-founder of World Extreme Cagefighting, is wagering on the local appeal of female fighter Casey Noland, a San Luis Obispo High and Cal Poly graduate, to help make it happen.
“She went to SLO High School. She’s been really embedded in the community,” Adams said. “She’s a mom. She’s an instructor at a martial arts studio in Atascadero.
“She’s got more heart than most fighters I’ve seen. She’s got a tremendous heart, and she doesn’t quit.”
In her first sanctioned professional bout, Noland will be taking on San Jose’s Jenny Trujillo at Fight for Wrestling, which will kick off Saturday at 5 p.m. Weigh-ins for the nine professional and four amateur bouts are scheduled for Friday, and tickets to the main event are available at www.gopoly.com or the Mustang ticket office.
Now, back to the Fair.
It wasn’t at the fairgrounds but on the route up and down Highway 101 to and from San Luis Obispo that a 17-year-old Noland met former Cal Poly wrestler Chuck Liddell, an aspiring kickboxer then in his mid-20s.
Liddell and some friends worked security at the fair and carpooled with Noland and a friend, who worked as concert ushers.
As Noland tells the story and as detailed by Liddell in his autobiography “Iceman: My Fighting Life,” Liddell opened up like a speedtalker on a therapist’s couch when they met, showering the younger girl with stories about his life growing up in Santa Barbara, his grandfather, his street fights.
Noland’s father Chad, though not a starter, was a Cal Poly wrestler himself in the 1970s. He might not have approved of the budding romance, but he wasn’t about to threaten a professional fighter.
Despite their age difference, Liddell and Noland began dating, and less than a year after they met, Liddell was attending the San Luis Obispo High prom at age 26.
“That’s the story of how they made the age limit at prom,” Noland joked.
Though the two remained close and even had a daughter together, 12-year-old Trista, the relationship stalled.
“Chuck’s a really good dad,” Noland said. “He just deserves a ton of respect. He’s always treated me with respect.”
Focused on his career, Liddell went on to become a pioneer in mixed martial arts, arguably the UFC’s first mainstream superstar after defending his title a record seven times.
Noland is now similarly being promoted as a pioneer in female MMA. Saturday will be her first professional MMA bout, but to her it doesn’t feel new.
Her first experience with competitive fighting came early on in her relationship with Liddell. She was there when he tested for his blackbelt in Hawaiian Kempo, a style developed by John Hackleman, founder of The Pit in Arroyo Grande.
“Never once growing up did I ever fight on the street,” said Noland, who moved to San Luis Obispo at age 10 after her mother Jaymie got her veterinary degree from Colorado State. “I got along with everybody. I had a lot of friends. I still have never been in a street fight my whole life.”
Yet, Noland was immediately drawn to the training. She worked out with Liddell at The Pit every day after school.
The striking skills she learned there led her through a 3-0 record as an amateur boxer, a couple of kickboxing bouts and ushered her into the fledgling world of MMA, which by the late 1990s and early 2000s was still in search of respect and official sanctioning.
As a Cal Poly student and young single mother, Noland was approached by Adams to compete in her first MMA bout.
“They offered me 1,000 bucks and it was three 8-minute rounds,” Noland said. “It was really last-minute. I had only been grappling six months. Scott Adams was like, ‘Hey, you want to fight?’ I need the money. I’ll take the thousand bucks.”
After a few amateur MMA bouts, Noland’s career was interrupted by the birth of her second daughter, Sabrina, whom she had with Strikeforce middleweight Tim Kennedy.
An instructor at The Pit North in Atascadero and a part-time teaching assistant at North County Christian School in Sabrina’s first- and second-grade combo class, Noland has been training full time for the past three years in her quest to become a professional.
In her last amateur bout a year-and-a-half ago, she said, she won by knockout within the first 30 seconds. The 5-foot-6, 135-pound Noland was scheduled to have a professional debut in Bakersfield last year, but her opponent did not make weight.
So, the opportunity to start a pro career in her hometown — on the campus where she earned a degree, where her father wrestled and where her mother is now a veterinary professor, is a paradox.
The timing seems both perfect and a long time coming.
“She started fighting on Indian casinos,” Adams said. “She’s a true pioneer in female fighting ... She was one of the original fighters in California.
“And now to be able to fight right here in San Luis Obispo and at Cal Poly is a big opportunity.”
Big for Noland. Big for Cal Poly wrestling.
“Pretty much everybody I know has said they’re coming to watch me,” Noland said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also exciting.”