This is not written with any intent to disparage the fighting skills and accomplishments of either John Moraga or Jake Ellenberger. Both have accomplished amazing things in their combat sports careers, and rank among the very best fighters at their weights in the world. Personally, I'm an enormous Jake Ellenberger fan, I just like the guy. I have no ax to grind with John Moraga either.
My problem lies with the coverage provided by the broadcast team on last night's UFC on Fox 8, as well as with various other outlets in the MMA media. Both, to varying degrees, misstated the wrestling accomplishments of Ellenberger and Moraga. To be more specific, despite claims made by MMA broadcasters and reporters,neither John Moraga nor Jake Ellenberger achieved All-American status wrestling in college.
All-American status seems vastly misunderstood outside the wrestling community. Simply put, you are a collegiate All-American if you place top eight in the nation while wrestling for the varsity team of a college or university. Five national tournaments in the United States can claim to produce collegiate All-Americans: the NCAA Division One, Two, and Three National Championships, the NAIA National Championship, and the NJCAA National Championship (I won't get into NCWA here). Of these five, the most prestigious by leaps and bounds is the NCAA Division One championships.
In the interest of preserving meaning, and due to the gulf in prestige and competition level, the only wrestlers who have really earned the right to be described by the unqualified locution "collegiate All-American" are Division One top-eight finishers. If an MMA media member discusses the wrestling credentials of a top-eight national place winner in a non-Division One championship, he or she should always pair it with a qualifier, e.g. Ben Henderson was an NAIA All-American.
Jake Ellenberger, without ambiguity, never earned All-American status.
Last night during his co-main event fight with Rory MacDonald, a UFC broadcaster described Jake as a "two time NCAA Division Two All-American". This is patently untrue. Jake wrestled in college for University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO) for a single season, on the Division Two level, competing in exactly nine matches, and he never found himself anywhere near placing at the national championship. I would be willing to guess he had the talent to be an All-American; the UNO coaching staff thought highly enough of him to bring him on as an assistant coach, and his brother Joe actually was a two-time Division Two All-American for the University of Nebraska -Kearney. Nevertheless, Jake was definitely never a collegiate All-American.
John Moraga also never actually became a collegiate All-American
MMA media and the UFC broadcast team from last night repeatedly referred to Moraga's two All-American finishes, which he supposedly earned while wrestling for Arizona State. In truth, the real number of All-American finishes he earned wrestling for ASU is zero.
Moraga, I have little doubt, worked incredibly hard in five years of college to go from a fringe Division One wrestler to his team's starter and a national qualifier, and this says a great deal about his character and work ethic. While John put together a respectable collegiate career, he was definitely never an All-American in college. In truth, he never even actually competed in the NCAA national championships.
The idea of Moraga's "All-American" status comes from his two sixth place finishes at the University Freestyle Wrestling National Championships in 2006 and 2007. Placement at "Universities" only bestows All-American status in only the most dubious sense, and in no way is it collegiate All-American status. First off, University Freestyle Nationals features competition in freestyle wrestling, a completely different style of wrestling than the American folkstyle wrestling of college competition. Additionally, University Nationals is not varsity competition, and the wrestlers do not wrestle in connection to a school or collegiate team. Instead, wrestlers represent independent wrestling clubs with no official connection to intercollegiate wrestling; many competitors do not even wrestle for an actual college team at all. Finally, University Nationals does not enjoy anywhere near the same level of attention and participation from athletes as an NCAA wrestling championship.
We should also place Moraga's performances at University Nationals in proper perspective. While the wrestling community does not treat University Nationals as a true national championship, "University All-American" status can still mean a great deal, after all, some of the weight classes feature a good amount of high level Division One talent. In Moraga's case, however, he avoided most of this talent on his way to a place on the podium. In both 2006 and 2007, Moraga took advantage of fortuitously soft draws to make the tournament's semifinals. The way the brackets in wrestling tournaments work, if a wrestler advances to the semifinals, the lowest place ha can receive is sixth. In both years, once in the semis, Moraga had to face top-tier talent, and both times he would lose his next three matches, and drop to sixth place.
Jake Ellenberger and John Moraga were not, and are not, college wrestling All-Americans. Those receiving pay checks to talk about MMA, and who are interested in the accurate portrayal of facts, ought not refer to them as such.