Dan Gable tells us which Iowans could have been MMA stars

Bryce Miller

Former Iowa head wrestling coach Dan Gable  acknowledged the cheering crowd as the 1972 olympic wrestling team was introduced during final matches at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials held at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Saturday night  April 21st, 2012.

Originally published on 7/9/2014

Dan Gable pondered the question. Dan Gable loves to ponder those what-if kinds of questions.

Which former wrestlers in his wrestling-zany life would have been cut from the kind of bloody, bruised cloth that makes up the multi-million dollar world of mixed-martial arts?

Who could survive — and thrive — in The Octagon, a place for those with toughness, guts and a dash of crazy?

MMA is littered with success stories from Gable's sport.

Seven of the top 15 competitors in's "Pound for Pound" rankings competed in college wrestling, including consensus world No. 1 Jon Jones. The former star at Iowa Central Community College who committed to then-Iowa State coach Cael Sanderson and signed with Northern Iowa before deciding to earn paychecks with punches.

Gable will be featured on a show called "The Voice Versus" on Friday that touches on the intermingling sports for AXS TV.

"I think any time you've got brothers, especially ones that have grown up scrapping with each other and became wrestlers," Gable said. "Whether that's the Brandses or Banachs or someone like that. Those guys would do well in those fighting things."

Anyone who knows the history of the Brands brothers in Iowa — and the beating the family's basement withstood in Sheldon — understands that current Iowa coach Tom and assistant coach Terry staged their own version of MMA, minus the cameras and cash.

No one would question the grit of former Iowa stars and Olympic gold medalists Ed and Lou Banach, either.

What about another Olympic gold medalist, Randy Lewis?

"I'm not sure he has that mentality," Gable said. "If you punched him in the nose, he'd probably stop and say, 'Why'd you do that?' Rather than punch back, he might sniff a little and say, 'Don't do that again.' "

Gable drifts to another former Hawkeye star, Olympic bronze medalist Chris Campbell.

"He was a technician, but he could hold his own in a street fight," he said. "Thing is, nobody would probably pick a street fight with him."

You bring up two-time Iowa NCAA champ Lee Fullhart, a guy who wrestled so physically that he seemed to be auditioning for the part of the guy with the crimson head bandage in the classic Civil War fife-and-drum photos.

"Fullhart would be a guy who could do this," Gable agreed. "He doesn't like a lot of people. Seriously. He really doesn't. I think if you look at what he's doing now, he's a (U.S.) Border Patrol guy on the U.S.-Mexico border. So he lives a little dangerously. So to be an MMA guy, you need some of that."

What about Iowa State? How about NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner?

"You know, he showed me at the last world trials and national freestyle championships, he's got quite a bit of what you need to be one of these stars," Gable said.

The discussion rolled along …

"Some of the other top Iowa guys, Lincoln McIlravy — he's too nice of a guy. Chuck Yagla, too," Gable said. "Brent Metcalf, he's got that mentality. (Former Iowa champion and ex-UNI coach) Brad Penrith would have tried it with a couple beers in him, but he quit drinking in the (late) 1980s — so he obviously did the right thing."

One former Hawkeye champion did dive into the mixed-martial arts scene. Lisbon native Royce Alger fought during a brief career in the late-1990s.

"Royce, with the proper training, could have been damn good," Gable said. "He was naturally tough, but he just wanted to climb in there and do it. Bottom line, you have to learn more than wrestling. You have to learn boxing, judo, defense. It's a multi-sport thing."

What about Northern Iowa?

"Bill Koll (a 1948 Olympian), the slam rule was brought into effect because of him," Gable said. "He was one of these guys who picked you and threw you on your head. And UNI's (NCAA third-place) 133-pounder, (Joe) Colon, he looks like he could have been that kind of guy."

What about Gable himself?

"You know, I grew up boxing and wrestling," Gable said. "But did you know my left ear is a boxing ear, not a wrestling ear? That's my most cauliflowered ear. I got banged up in college in a boxing match in a dorm room late at night at Iowa State.

"Chuck Jean was on our team. He was really good (two-time NCAA champ), but he got in trouble and had to transfer to Adams State College. Anyway, he got me with a roundhouse. That's what happened to my left ear."

Gable fully comprehends the power and impact of just one punch, let alone an MMA career filled with blows to the head and contorted limbs.

"Maybe I could have done it, but I'm not really fond of trying to knock somebody out," Gable said. "And now with the science and everything, I'm thinking about the longevity point of view with brain injuries and those things.

"I didn't worry about those things (as a wrestler), but I didn't understand things like nerve injuries in the old days. My right hand, if I hold it straight out and write, it still shakes. That's permanent.

"I had a nerve injury on the right side of my neck and I didn't take care of it. I still have it today. Three years later, I had the same injury on the left side of my neck, learned a lesson and took care of it, and it's fine."

MMA stars fight through those types of injuries in an effort to avoid breaking down on the way to the bank.

Gable debated the risk versus reward.

"Every time you fight, you're going to get hit — and you're probably going to get hit hard," Gable said. "How long can you do that?"

There were plenty of former wrestlers in the state of Iowa capable of competing on today's MMA stage.

The question: Would they want to?

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller



Wrestling legend Dan Gable — the college star at Iowa State, Olympic gold medalist and coaching icon at Iowa — will be featured on the AXS TV show "The Voice Versus."

Gable sat down with AXS TV Fights commentator Michael "The Voice" Schiavello to discuss his sport's contributions in mixed-martial arts and professional wrestling.

The show, scheduled to air at 9 p.m. CT Friday, is available on select satellite providers: Dish Network (167), DirecTV (340).


FORMER WRESTLERS THRIVING IN MMA's "Pound for Pound" rankings in mixed-martial arts features seven former wrestlers among its top 15.

No. 1: Jon Jones (Iowa Central CC, Iowa State commitment, UNI signee)

5: Chris Weidman (Hofstra)

6: Cain Velasquez (Iowa Central, Arizona State)

9: Johny Hendricks (Oklahoma State)

10: T.J. Dillashaw (Cal State-Fullerton)

12: Chad Mendes (Cal Poly)

14: Daniel Cormier (Oklahoma State)