Nickal pursuing an MMA career

AP photo
Penn State’s Bo Nickal, top left, pins Princeton’s Patrick Bricki during their 197 pound match in the semifinals of the NCAA championships, March 22, 2019, in Pittsburgh.

Over time, there have been many, many wrestlers that have made the transition to Mixed Martial Arts to varying degrees of success.

Some elite wrestlers never develop any other skills and end up as one-dimensional wrestlers like Olympic silver medalist Sara McMann (12-5).

Some develop enough striking skills to become perennial contenders like Phil Davis (22-5, 1 NC), Derek Brunson (21-7) or Colby Covington (16-2).

Some develop elite striking and jiu jitsu skills and become all time greats like Henry Cejudo (16-2) and Jon Jones (26-1, 1 NC).

The path that three-time National Champion and All-American wrestler Bo Nickal takes is up to him.

The Under-23 world champion is already training at American Top Team with the likes of Jorge Masvidal, UFC bantamweight contender Pedro Munhoz, Bellator featherweight Cody Law and his college teammate Anthony Cassar, who will also make the transition to MMA.

“We’ve also just had a lot of weird situations with the quarantine and up at Penn State, they’ve been pretty hesitant with letting people work out and stuff so the facilities on campus were closed for about two months, Nickal told James Lynch over the summer. “I went down to Coconut Creek and American Top Team and trained with Masvidal and the guys down there. It was super awesome. It was a lot of good work that I got done. I’m excited to make the transition when the time comes.”

He has already dipped his toe in the competitive jiu jitsu waters when he grappled World and ADCC champion Gordon Ryan (142-8-3) in December 2019.

Nickal lasted 13 minutes before being submitted in a triangle by the first-degree black belt.

That was something that he told Lynch disappointed him.

He’s a competitive guy and is 183-7 as a wrestler, so he didn’t take kindly to the loss, but admitted if he had another six month of jiu jitsu, it may have been a different result.

I’m not sure that these combat jiu jitsu matches are a great indication that someone can defend practical submissions that are usually used in MMA.

In this match, Ryan was constantly kicking at his knee, going for judo throws and going for leg locks over the course of several minutes.

Ryan did finally get Nickal down, and Nickal kept turning and eventually got out of it.

Watching this was more like watching Bret Hart try to put a sharpshooter on the Hulkster than an MMA move, outside of leg lock king Ryan Hall.

Nickal did even the match at 2-2 and Ryan went to the ground and quickly locked in a triangle.

Nickal did what most do in that situation and picked up Ryan and slammed him, but couldn’t get out of it and tapped.

As far as his wrestling, the record and the accolades speak for themselves.

Some things are very clear from watching him wrestle.

In matches, such as the 2018 Big 10 championship at 184 pounds against 2016 NCAA champ Myles Martin, Nickal answers a lot of questions in regard to his transition to MMA.

Watching that match, I saw a lot of things that make it clear that he can be a really good fighter.

His transitions are outstanding.

He goes from defense to offense in a split second, exactly as he talked about with Lynch.

He is awesome at scrambling and getting dominant positions, something that most great wrestlers can do.

He is also really good at taking the back quickly, especially from the waist lock position.

I also wanted to talk to someone that really knows wrestling inside and out, so I reached out to Brian Carson, who I worked with and has covered both high school and college wrestling in Central PA and has seen plenty of Penn State and Nickal.

I wanted to ask Carson if what I saw was or par with what he sees.

“That’s his thing, the scrambling,” Carson said. “He’s a funky guy. He’ll hit moves from anywhere. You watch that Martin match, you’re going, ‘What are you doing?? Why are you doing this??, Oh ok.’ and he hits the move. During his four years, he was probably the best wrestler in the scramble. He just comes up with these ways to hit moves and get out of moves. He was very, very explosive.”

Becoming a great striker and almost as important, learning striking defense (just ask highly decorated wrestler Gregor Gillespie about that) is going to be the tallest task for Nickal.

“For what MMA is, he’s got to learn to punch,” Carson said. “If he gets them down on the mat, forget about it. They are not going to take him down. They aren’t going to beat him on the mat. He’s got to learn how to punch. I know college wrestlers have had a lot of success–like Phil Davis. He’s got to learn how to hit and learn submissions. I think there is going to be a learning curve.”

Training with Masvidal is definitely a key component to developing his striking and by his words, he is picking it up fast.

“Being able to learn from (Masvidal) is crazy,” Nickal told Lynch. “The way I kind of explain it is if someone just came in the wrestling room and didn’t have any experience and tried to wrestle me, the way I would move, you can’t really see it. They would do like 12 steps, but it would be like one. That’s how it is for him with striking. For me, it would be like 12 steps. For him, it’s a split second. Just seeing all the experience he has with his stand up game and MMA in general is super awesome just for me to be able to learn from a guy that has had so many professional fights and been able to travel all over the world. That’s someone I want to learn from and surround myself with.”

Most wrestlers are known for their seemingly unlimited cardio.

Think of Colby Covington, often referred to as the “cardio king” or Merab Dvalishvili, who always looks like he could wrestle another five rounds.

It has been the difference in pace between striking and wrestling that has been a huge adjustment for Nickal.

“It’s definitely a different pace,” Nickal told Lynch. “Wrestling is 2-3 minute periods, typically. (Striking’s) a higher intensity at a lower volume. It’s not as intense, but you’re definitely increasing the volume doing multiple five minute rounds. I think once I figure out the pace, it will definitely help me out a lot. I pick up the techniques pretty fast, so the technical stuff isn’t too much of an issue. It’s the pace and making that adjustment. It’s so much fun. I love MMA and jiu jitsu/grappling.”

After the 2021 Olympics are over and he transitions to a full time MMA fighter, Nickal will surely be a sought after free agent and have plenty of offers.

I believe it makes the most sense to sign with Bellator or PFL so he can be brought along slowly and develop all the other skills to compliment his elite wrestling.

I kind of liken him to someone like Tyrell Fortune or a young Daniel Cormier that can develop some momentum against lesser competition.

If he were to sign with the UFC out of the gate, it could be a developmental deal like they signed Greg Hardy to.

They both have huge names and people would want to see Nickal against other big names.

I believe we will find out a lot of these answers this year, and that’s why Nickal is a prospect to watch in 2021.


Vince Rodemer is a former Lewistown Sentinel and Nashua Telegraph sports reporter and editor and contributor at MMA-Prospects.com (@MMAProspectscom).


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