Former U. Minnesota wrestler Cole Konrad, a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion, is beginning to make a name for himself in a new sport — mixed martial arts.
Konrad (2-0) will make his debut with Bellator Fighting Championships on Thursday night in Boston against Pat Bennett (1-0). The fight will be Konrad’s third MMA bout, but his first televised event.
“I plan to come out with some fire and kind of send a message,” Konrad said.
After defeating his first two opponents in the first round, Konrad signed a contract with Bellator in February. Bellator fights and highlights are broadcast nationally on Fox Sports Net and NBC.
“Some guys will fight 15 times before they get an opportunity like this,” Konrad said. “It was just encouraging to know that they noticed my potential and my skill.”
Bellator plans to add a heavyweight tournament in its third season, which begins in August. Konrad, 26, could earn a spot in the tournament if he continues to perform well.
Konrad got his first taste of MMA more than two years ago when he began training with another University alumnus, Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.
Prior to officially launching his own MMA career, Konrad had NFL aspirations, trying out with the New York Jets in 2007 and the Minnesota Vikings last spring as an offensive lineman. Konrad, who had not played football since his freshman year of high school, failed to make either squad.
Konrad primarily works out in Alexandria, Minn. at Lesnar’s private facility with head trainer and former Gophers wrestling assistant coach Marty Morgan. He has also trained at Minnesota Martial Arts Academy in Minneapolis.
Minnesota Martial Arts Academy owner and head trainer, Greg Nelson, said that training alongside Lesnar has been a tremendous asset for Konrad.
“He’s definitely become a much more well-rounded fighter since he’s obviously working with one of the best fighters in the heavyweight division,” Nelson said.
Konrad said that he has been surprised how comfortable and relaxed he has felt competing in a new sport. He even told Gophers head assistant coach Joe Russell that he’s been less nervous before his MMA fights than his wrestling matches.
While his wrestling background has helped him transition into MMA, Konrad said he has enjoyed developing other aspects of his game and has become increasingly comfortable on his feet.
In his second bout, Konrad said he intentionally fought on his feet to acclimate himself to a different style. Konrad delivered a knockout blow to his opponent in the first round.
Nevertheless, Konrad’s wrestling roots could be his hallmark during his MMA career.
“I’m not going to say that my style is going to be strictly wrestling, but that’s obviously the thing that’s most natural to me,” Konrad said. “More times than not, I would assume that I’ll go to wrestling dominant positions to control the tempo and pace of the fight.”
Konrad has maintained strong ties to the University’s wrestling program and works as a part-time staff member, Russell said. His role with the team has him working with heavyweight wrestlers and doing occasional administrative tasks.
“He’s arguably one of our best wrestlers ever, so to have him around the younger guys is important just from a mentoring standpoint,” Russell said.
Konrad, who wrestled at 285 pounds in college, has had to drop down to 265 pounds for Thursday’s fight.
Heading into the contest, Konrad has watched tape of Bennett’s first fight, but said that he doesn’t want to over-strategize.
“You can game plan all day, but until you get out there and the bell rings, there’s no set thing that’s going to go down,” Konrad said.