With rival programs dropping all around them, the Cal Poly wrestling team is hoping a notable association between its sport and mixed martial arts can help keep the Mustangs afloat.
Unlike counterparts at UC Davis and potentially Cal State Bakersfield, Cal Poly wrestling isn’t going anywhere just yet, and with an innovative fundraiser featuring a pro-am card of mixed martial arts fights, the Mustangs are aiming to stay clear of the danger zone.
“The response has been great,” Cal Poly head coach John Azevedo said, “but we’re hoping they come and buy a ticket. It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, that’s great,’ and another thing to show up.
“This is about the future of Cal Poly wrestling. It’s about support. The administration is seeing that people care about Cal Poly wrestling.”
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“Fight for Wrestling,” the brainchild of former Cal Poly coach Lennis Cowell and former Mustangs grappler Scott Adams, is a card of 12 mixed martial arts fights — four amateur, eight professional — and will be the first sanctioned card of its kind in San Luis Obispo.
The event boasts scheduled appearances by Cal Poly Hall of Famer and Ultimate Fighting legend Chuck Liddell, former Mustangs All-American Chad Mendes, New England Patriots guard Stephen Neal and actor Lou Ferrigno and will include a silent auction also aimed at raising money for the Mustangs wrestling program.
Weigh-ins for the fights are scheduled for 3 p.m. today at Downtown Brew. The event starts Saturday at 5 p.m. at Mott Gym, which will be outfitted to accommodate more than 3,600 seats. Tickets start at $35, $25 for students, and are available at fight forwrestling.com.
In a campus-wide effort, eight Cal Poly students are also volunteering to perform promotional, marketing, advertising and other business-themed duties for the event as part of their senior projects.
Word of the event was first spread on Facebook by senior basketball player Charles Anderson, who has been in charge of social media.
“The notion is that we just need to save wrestling,” Cal Poly business professor Colette Frayne said.
“Saturday night when we’re there, we’re going to run out and we’re going to sell out, and guess what we’re going to say? ‘Yes we will.’ These kids have worked their tails off.”
Cowell and Adams, who since his college days went on to co-found World Extreme Cagefighting, had been toying with the idea of bringing an MMA event to Cal Poly as a means to raise funds for years, Adams said.
Only recently did it come to fruition, and the timing coincides with news that two Pac-10 programs will be dropping wrestling next season. UC Davis made the announcement that it was going to drop wrestling and three other sports because of budget concerns last month.
Cal State Bakersfield made the same announcement earlier in the season but has since given the program the opportunity to fund raise 100 percent of their operating budgets for the next two seasons at least.
Just like Cal Poly is hoping to capitalize on the popularity of alumni like Liddell and the promotional savvy of Adams, who sold the successful WEC to the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2006, the Roadrunners are doing the same with Neal, a former two-time NCAA heavyweight champion at Cal State Bakersfield.
After a dinner auction that included Patriots memorabilia reportedly raised more than $100,000 in Bakersfield this past weekend, things are looking up for the Roadrunners, but a return is not yet guaranteed, especially not an extended one.
If both the Cal State Bakersfield and UC Davis wrestling teams are lost, that would leave Cal Poly, Stanford and Cal State Fullerton as the only Division I wrestling programs in California and drop the Pac-10 Conference to just six teams.
“If you’re a coach, and you don’t see that as a slap in the face and a wake-up call, you probably shouldn’t be coaching,” Mustangs assistant coach Mark Perry said. “You know it’s coming. Get ready for it. You’ve got to be proactive. And everyone probably should have been proactive a long time ago.”
As it stands now, Cal Poly athletic director Alison Cone did not say Mustangs wrestling was on the chopping block.
She said the program has been forced to make cuts in the recent economic recession, but that those cuts have been across the board rather than aimed at any certain sport.
Though further budget cuts may dictate otherwise, she’d like to keep it that way.
“I wouldn’t say that wrestling is in danger,” Cone said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s not. I wouldn’t say I have a magnifying glass on it either.
“We all look at the way that we have to try to address our budget shortfalls and eliminating a program is not something we have chosen to do at this point.”
Organizers and Cal Poly administration are hoping to raise between $50,000 and $100,000 with Fight for Wrestling, and if all goes well, it could become an annual event.
The pairing of the two sports is beginning to seem like a natural fit.
Some of the best mixed martial artists have come from wrestling backgrounds.
Liddell was best known as a defensive wrestler while he was at Cal Poly, and he’s since coupled those grappling abilities with the striking skills he sharpened as a kickboxer after his college days to become arguably the most successful UFC champion of all.
He’s joined among the elite by former NCAA Division I wrestling champions like Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar, who both went on to become UFC titleholders.
Mendes, who took an undefeated record his senior year at Cal Poly all the way to the national championship match, stands at 7-0 in the 145-pound weight class of the WEC, and three of the fighters on the Fight for Wrestling card are former Cal Poly wrestlers, two of whom are either making their amateur or professional debuts.
“There is no doubt wrestling is the blueprint for MMA,” Perry said. “It’s at least the blueprint for the art you have to have at the highest level.
“They can do nothing but help us, and we can do nothing but help them.”