Coach trains mixed martial arts fighters

Purdue alumnus and current UFC fighter Matt Mitrione grapples with Purdue assistant wrestling coach Tom Erikson Wednesday as part of his training.

By Derek Bulthuis

Sports Editor

From the Tokyo Dome where 62,000 fans cheered on a Purdue coach-to-be, to Montreal where a former football player defeated one of the best known names in the sport, the Purdue connection has been felt throughout the MMA world.

While in high school in Chicago Heights, Ill., Purdue assistant wrestling coach Tom Erikson said that he didn’t show much promise and never qualified for the state tournaments. After a knee injury sidelined collegiate football career while at the University of Dubuque, Erikson moved back to the Chicago area and began wrestling again.

During his time at Triton Community College, Erikson was a two-time national champion. Erikson then transferred to Oklahoma State, a wrestling power house, where he was named an All-American twice. Outside of college, Erikson was a four-time Olympic qualifier and three-time alternate. He also won the wrestling World Cup in 1992 and placed second in the 1987 World Cup.

After seeing several acquaintances enter MMA, Erikson decided to get into the sport in 1996 when he fought in a show called MARS, Martial Arts Reality Superfighting.

“I had three fights in one night and then at the time in my fight at final, it was a 40 minute fight (and) was a draw,” Erikson said. “At the time, it one of the longest fights at the time”

In the early days of mixed martial arts, Erikson said that the non-wrestlers had major drawbacks.

“I think the one advantage we had was that we (wrestlers) were world class athletes that trained every day, and when this sport first started, guys didn’t train every day. They were weekend warriors. Hey, they were going to go into the gym and roll around and pretend to be Chuck Norris or whatever.”

Erikson believes that a wrestling background not only gives wrestlers an advantage in training, but it also gives them a basic skill set that puts them ahead of everyone else.

“Egotistically speaking, I think wrestling is a great fundamental base for the sport of mixed martial arts,” Erikson said. “It kind of crosses over and defeats two different barriers. If you’re going to fight a striker, you can take a guy down. If you’ve got a really good ground guy, you can prevent the takedown. So, you can kind of defend two positions.”

While fighting competitively, Erikson had a career record of 9-4-1 and competed in several organizations including Pride Fighting Championships and K-1. He viewed MMA as an extension of wrestling that helped him continue to have fun in the sport while learning new skills.

Erikson first came to Purdue as a volunteer coach when former coach Jessie Reyes asked him to help with one of his heavyweights. After serving as a volunteer for two years, Erikson was named an assistant coach, a position that he has served in for the past 12 years.

During his time at Purdue, Erikson has seen many Purdue wrestlers go on to mixed martial arts. Jon Fitch graduated from Purdue in 2002 after wrestling for four years. Since then, Fitch has fought in several UFC events and has a career record of 23-3 in his MMA career.

“Jon was a grinder. It wasn’t out of the blue that he decided to fight, but it was a little surprising,” Erikson said. “We’ve had other guys, Jake O’Brien for example, he always wanted to fight. I think that probably helped us in recruiting him that I did fight, but he always wanted to fight. Nathan Moore who wrestled for us, kind of had the itch a little bit and ended up fighting.”

Jake O’Brien wrestled for Purdue for two years before leaving for the MMA world and has accumulated a record of 13-4 while Nate Moore has a record of 6-2. Erikson said that of the MMA fighters to come from Purdue, Moore was probably the most technically sound and Fitch was mediocre.

“Probably the most average was Fitch. Fitch was a grinder. Fitch was just a really hard working kid. By the time he was in here in his fifth year, he redshirted a year, by the time he was a fifth year senior, he started getting it in wrestling,” Erikson said. “I mean just working hard, working hard. Coming in and working hard every day and just the light started going on.”

Erikson currently helps train former Purdue football player Matt Mitrione. Mitrione played defensive tackle at Purdue between 1998 and 2001 and is currently seventh on the Purdue career tackles for loss list with 50 tackles for 162 yards lost and tied for 17th on the career sacks list with 10 sacks.

“I loved my time at Purdue, I had a great time. Coach (Danny) Hope was my recruiter, I had a great relationship with him and coach (Gary) Emanuel now, the (co-defensive coordinator and defensive) line coach now. I had a great time with them. They taught me a tremendous amount about competition being competitive, yet being focused. That’s always been my Achilles heel, my focus.”

After Purdue, Mitrione played in the NFL for couple years spending time on the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings. After leaving football in 2006, he decided that he wanted to get into MMA. Mitrione says his friend, Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Jaysen Werth, first asked him to be in a show in October 2008. Mitrione then competed in “The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights” in 2009.

“Before he went on the show ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ I guess he was training somewhere and he knew that I fought, so he came and asked me if we could roll around. For a couple weeks before he went on that show, not right before but before that, he’d come in and we’d roll around, work on our feet a little bit and work on different positions and stuff like that.”

Erikson said that while training, Mitrione said he was interested in getting into the sport, but never mentioned that he was going to be on the show.

“A couple weeks after that I was like, ‘He’s on that show!’ He never even told me, man,” Erikson said. “That would have been cool to go out there.”

Mitrione has trained several times with Erikson since then, including before his fight with Kimbo Slice in May. Mitrione is currently training for his fight against Joey Beltran during UFC 119 in Indianapolis on Sept. 25.

Although Mitrione has several coaches that help him train, he likes working with Erikson because of his positioning knowledge. Mitrione and training partner Sean McCorkle, who is also fighting in UFC 119, travel to Purdue three times a week to learn from Erikson.

“I never wrestled or did anything like that at all, that’s why I come up here to get wrestling work because coach Erikson is one of the best in the business, and if I can work with talent here at Purdue then I’m getting the best looks of anybody,” Mitrione said.

“Matt, his greatest asset is that he’s a phenomenal athlete, he’s a really good athlete,” Erikson said. “He was always a great athlete here, it’s a matter of being disciplined and training the right way. Even now, when we go with different stuff, some different positions, he’s so athletic I’m like, ‘Just slow down. Use a little technique here. A little technique will go a lot farther than your athleticism.’”

“This camp here, I’m not worried about the standup as much,” Mitrione said. “So, I think the guy is going to try to wrestle me quite a bit, so I’m trying to work on my takedown defense, my sprawls, how to punish him a little bit more for when he takes shots to wear him out a little bit more. And then if he does get me to the ground, my ground game has developed pretty well.”

Helping Erikson train Mitrione and McCorkle is Purdue senior heavyweight Roger Vukobratovich. Vukobratorvich said he is happy to help out and finds that he is taking something away from the experience.

“Everybody you wrestle, whether it’s wrestling or MMA, they’re all going to give you a different look,” Vukobratovich said. “Matt’s a real athletic guy so he gives me that explosive, quick look I don’t from a lot of heavyweights in our room. I do take away a lot of stuff as far as positioning. It makes me really focus on my technique because I can beat him technically without having to beat him physically.”

After growing up watching MMA and after the experience of practicing with the fighters, Vukobratovich is not counting out a future in the sport.

“It’s something that I’m definitely interested in,” Vukobratovich said. “...There’s points were I see they’re definitely better strikers than I am, but I mean, I’m light-years ahead of them in wrestling, so that’s a big part of it. I feel like ... I would have a leg up on a lot of guys. So, it’s something I think about, for sure.”

Mitrione will face Beltran on Sept. 25 and his fight will be aired on Spike TV.