It was over in less than a minute, but in one short sequence Kevin Randleman put on a display that perfectly encapsulated his mixed martial arts career. The event was Pride 33 and Randleman’s opponent was Fedor Emelianenko. At the time Pride was as big, if not bigger, than the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the MMA world. Emelianenko was its heavyweight champion and its brightest star. The Russian was a real life Ivan Drago plowing through opponent after opponent with machinelike efficiency. Randleman was no slouch himself. A former UFC champion, he was renowned for his explosive athleticism and world class wrestling ability. Still, Fedor was the heavy favorite.
The two began the match by feeling each other out standing up, but it wasn’t long before Randleman shot a double leg and drove the Russian to the mat. Fedor didn’t stay put long; he rolled to his stomach and stood up. Then, in an instant, Randleman locked his hands around Fedor’s waist, arched his back, and delivered one of the most devastating looking suplexes in the history of mixed martial arts. The move later dubbed the “Randleplex” by fans looked like it might have broken the Russian’s neck (for visual evidence, follow this link). Kevin Randleman had just won the biggest match of his career in spectacular fashion… only he hadn’t. An elite Judo player, Emelianenko knew how to survive a suplex. He tucked his head and rolled into the slam, allowing his shoulders to absorb most of the blow. Seconds later, the Russian rolled his challenger over and secured side control. He rained down blows on Randleman until the challenger raised his arm to deflect the blows. From there, it was all over. Fedor grabbed the extended appendage and applied a picture perfect Kimura (a submission hold in which the opponents arm is twisted backwards until he either submits or the limb snaps). Randleman had no choice but to tap. That was Kevin Randlemen the mixed martial artist in a nutshell. Spectacular highs followed by unbelievable lows. Incredible accomplishments, coupled with the knowledge that there could have been even more.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. To get a better idea of who Randleman is, and why I selected him as my “Favorite Buckeye” let’s travel back a little bit further to Sandusky, Ohio in the late 1980s
The Consummate Athlete
At a University like Ohio State with a large and storied athletic department, arguing about who the greatest athlete in its history is in exercise in subjectivity, and ultimately, futility. That being said, you would be hard pressed to argue that anyone was significantly better at their respective sport than Kevin Randleman was at wrestling.
A native of Sandusky, Ohio, Randleman attended Sandusky High School where he accumulated a 122-11 record and captured the 1989 OSHAA state wrestling championship. In addition to wrestling, Randleman was a four-year letter winner in football. He was also a member of Sandusky High’s track team, where he qualified for the State Finals.
Wrestling is sometimes thought of as a sport where elite athleticism can often be thwarted by solid technique and hard work outpaces flash. The best, though, possess both. A state finalist in two sports, Randleman possessed the work ethic of an elite wrestler and the speed and explosiveness of a football and track star.
A Fast Start
Randleman’s first season at Ohio State exceeded all expectations. The redshirt freshman was the very definition of a phenom, racking up an impressive string of 42 victories including a 1st place finish in his first Big Ten Tournament. Randleman would go on to put on an impressive display at the NCAA tournament. He racked up victory after victory, earning All American status and a spot in the tournament finals. In the finals he was matched up against Mark Reiland, a Junior from perennial wrestling powerhouse Iowa. The two had wrestled four times during the regular season, splitting the series 2-2. Randleman fell behind Reiland early 6-2. Then, with about 30 seconds left in the second period, disaster struck. Randleman, who was in the bottom position, attempted to reverse his opponent, but ended up getting stuck and put on his back. He was unable to escape and Reiland earned the fall with one second remaining in the second period. The loss gave Randleman a 2nd place finish in his first NCAA tournament. It was quite the accomplishment for a freshman, but disappointing nonetheless.
It would be the last NCAA tournament match that Randleman would ever lose.
Building a Legacy
As a redshirt sophomore in 1992, Randleman was virtually unstoppable. He racked up forty two wins to go alongside zero losses and three draws. It is one of only three unbeaten seasons in Ohio State history. Randleman would win his second Big 10 title in a classic match featuring a blow-up between Iowa Coach Dan Gable and the Buckeye’s Russ Hellickson (which was the result of Iowa fans throwing debris on the mat after a controversial call). After the Big 10 tournament came the NCAA’s and a chance at redemption. Randleman opened the tournament with a flurry pinning Clemson’s Keith Turner and Oklahoma State’s Travis Gittins in 60 and 42 seconds respectively. Next up for Randleman was a Big 10 Championship rematch against Chelesvig. Randleman won another razor-thin decision, this time by a 3-2 margin. After the victory over Chelesvig, Randleman was left with only Steve Williams of NC State (the tourney’s #10 seed) standing between him and the finals. It was another tough match, but Randleman would pull out a 4-2 decision, earning his second consecutive NCAA finals appearance. To earn his first national championship, Randleman would have to go through #5-seed Corey Olson of Nebraska who was fresh off of a semifinal victory over #1-seed Rich Powers. One year after being pinned in his NCAA title match, Randleman flipped the script and won the NCAA Tournament by fall at 3:39 of the first frame. More than a decade of hard work and sacrifice had paid off. Kevin Randleman was a national champion.
After winning a national championship as a sophomore, Randleman entered the 1993 season with a chance to solidify himself as one of the greatest wrestlers in Ohio State history. He was nicked up throughout the season, suffering injuries ranging from a broken jaw to a torn ligament in his knee (which wasn’t fixed until after the season) but finished with an impressive 27-1 record and a third consecutive Big 10 championship. Next up was the NCAA tournament where Randleman would put on one of the most courageous performances in the history of the sport.
There’s a lot of talk about toughness in sports. In fact, some time there is so much talk that it ends up getting tuned out. Well, I assure you that when I tell you that Kevin Randleman’s 1993 was one of the most impressive displays of toughness that I have ever seen in any sport, I’m not being hyperbolic. Randleman entered the tournament as the #1 overall seed and he backed it up scoring an impressive first-round victory over Clarion’s Dan Payne. In the second round, however, things took an ugly turn. During his match against Central Connecticut’s Mark Frushone, Randleman suffered a dislocated jaw. The injury wasn’t caused by an illegal move, so if Randleman couldn’t get back on the mat within the allotted “injury time” he would forfeit the match and be eliminated from the tournament. However, instead of taking the easy and understandable way out, Randleman popped his jaw back into place and kept wrestling. The end result was a 10-5 victory and a spot in the national quarterfinals. Randleman was three matches away from the national championship and he would have to navigate the rest of the tournament with a severely damaged jaw. Every crossface, front headlock, and inadvertent blow to the face would no doubt cause excruciating pain. Randleman endured though, beating Kyle Rackley 4-3 in the quarterfinals and #4-seed Ray Brinzer of Iowa 9-6 in the semis. A finalist for the third straight year, only a rematch of the 1992 championship match against Nebraska’s Corey Olson stood behind Randleman and his second straight NCAA tournament crown. The match was much closer than their first encounter, but Randleman was able to pull off the 5-2 win and become the first 2-time national champion in the history of Ohio State wrestling.
Take a look at the video below for highlights of the match and some details on the injury:
What Was and What Might Have Been
The major source of frustration for those who have followed Randleman’s career is that despite how much he accomplished, and he accomplished more than almost anyone in the history of the program, he could have accomplished more. Randleman’s senior season was the first example of this phenomenon rearing its head. A two-time national champion going into his final season, Randleman had a chance to join an elite group of three-time champions . However, Randleman’s swan song as an Ohio State athlete ended before it had the chance to begin. Academic issues led to Randleman being deemed ineligible for the 1994 season, effectively ending his college wrestling career. In a quote from Bruce Hooley’s “Unforgettable Buckeyes” Randleman tried to explain
“I had a kid when I was young and there was a lot of sickness in my family with my mom and my dad. My family and friends always counted on me for strength. When you give so much of yourself like that, you sometimes spread yourself too thin. That’s what happened to me. I didn’t leave anything for myself and eventually I got to where I just couldn’t deal with that pressure any more. I had to walk away from wrestling… Eventually, I just stopped going to class and that’s how I wound up ineligible for my senior year.”
Not finishing his career is something that Randleman says still haunts him today, but despite missing his senior year, Randleman remains one of the most accomplished grapplers in Buckeye history. Randleman owns 2 of the 7 winningest seasons in Buckeye wrestling history (42 in both 1991 and 1992), the seventh most pins (13 in 1992), and the 16th most wins (108) without having wrestled his senior season (his final ranking would likely be 3rd if he completed all 4 years). Randleman’s .928 winning percentage ranks 3rd in Buckeye history and his 382 career team points is good enough for 6th. Perhaps my favorite Randleman stat is that of the 10 quickest pins in Ohio State history, Randleman owns four including the all-time fastest pin; a mere eight seconds. Randleman was inducted into the Ohio State hall of fame in 2004 and his three-year stint in Columbus remains one of the most successful runs by any athlete in any sport.
A New Challenge
For a long time the only options for wrestlers after college were to tryout for the Olympics, go into coaching, or get a “real” job. However, in the early 1990s, a new opportunity appeared: Mixed Martial Arts.
Randleman got his start in the small, now-defunct Universal Vale Tudo Fighting league. Mark Coleman, one of Randleman’s coaches at OSU (and a national champion himself) offered Randleman a professional fight in Brazil. Randleman took the fight (on 24 days notice with no formal MMA training) and just like that a career began. His first event was UV4 in October of 1996 and he used the event to announce his presence with authority. Back in the early days of MMA, tournaments were commonplace. These would involve a fighter having to endure as many as three fights in the same today (now regulations limit fighters to one bout per day and lengthy waiting periods between fights are often mandated). At UV4, Randleman would have three fights; first against Luis Carlos Maciel and then Geza Kalman and Dan Bobish. He would win all three fights by first round stoppage (two submissions and one TKO. Randleman would go on to post a 6-2 record in UVF with all but one victory coming by way of submission or TKO.
In March of 1999, just over three years after his professional debut, Randleman earned a shot in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The event was UFC 19: Ultimate Young Guns and his opponent was Maurice Smith. Smith was fresh off of an upset victory over Mark Coleman. Smith used his leg kicks to keep the wrestler at a distance and hand him his first professional loss. Since Randleman and Coleman trained together (at the Hammer House fight camp in Columbus) and possessed similar skillsets, many predicted that Smith would be able to employ the same strategy to beat Randleman. As it turned out, Randlman’s speed ended up being the difference, allowing him to get close and repeatedly drag Smith to the ground where he could punish him with the patented Hammer House ground and pound attack. After 15 lopsided minutes of action, the bell rang and Randleman had earned his first UFC victory.
Randleman’s second fight in the UFC was a Heavyweight title match against Pancrease legend Bas Rutten. It was a hotly contested fight, but Randleman ended up on the wrong side of a controversial decision. It was a setback, but only a minor one. Randleman wouldn’t have to wait long to earn his second UFC title shot. Rutten retired, vacating the belt and the UFC decided to pit Randleman against Pete Williams, a stand-up savant from Ken Shamrock’s “Lion’s Den” camp. On the feet, Pete Williams was the more dangerous fighter, and Randleman had no desire to play the stand-up game. Instead he used his explosive takedowns and outstanding top control to pin Williams to the mat for the majority of the 25-minute affair. When the judges rendered their decision, it was a decisive victory for “The Monster.” Randleman followed up his title victory with a five round decision win over Pedro Rizzo. Next would come consecutive losses to a pair of UFC hall-of-famers Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture.
Crossing the Ocean
Randleman would have one more UFC fight, a win against Renato “Babalu” Sobral before moving to Japan to fight for Pride. Randleman opened his career with 3 straight wins over Michiyoshi Ohar, Kenichi Yamamoto and Murilo “Ninja” Rua, and followed that up with losses to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Kazushi Sakuraba.
Riding a two-fight losing streak, Randleman was at a crossroads in his career when he faced Mirko “Cro-Cop” Filipovic at Pride FC – Total Elimination 2004. Cro-Cop was the most feared striker in the game, and his highlight reel was filled with images of competitors wilting under the force of his left high kick. Common sense dictated that Randleman’s only chance to win would be to take the Croatian kickboxer down to the mat and grind out a decision. Should the fight remain a stand-up battle, it likely wouldn’t last that long.
Well, the fight did stay standing up and, as everyone expected, it ended with a spectacular knockout at 1:57 of the very first round. Only it was Filipovic that was on the receiving end. Expecting a takedown attempt, the lanky Croatian dropped his hands ever so slightly, leaving his chin momentarily exposed. Randleman seized the opportunity landing a perfectly placed hook, planting his opponent on the mat. Sensing victory just around the corner, Randleman pounced on Cro Cop landing a series of devastating hammerfists until the referee pulled him off of his now-unconscious foe. It was Randleman’s biggest win in his Pride career, and it would turn out to be his last great victory. I’ve embedded a video of the fight below:
After the Cro Cop fight, Randleman fought Fedor Emelianenko in the bout that I described in the opening of this article. As I said, it was a devastating loss and one that Randleman never truly recovered from. Randleman would go on to suffer three straight losses (including a rematch with Cro Cop) and endure a life-threatening battle with staph (click here for a very disturbing photo of just how bad his infection was). After the staph infection, Randleman was never the same. He would lose nine of his last eleven fights leaving him with a life-long 17-16 record as a professional (he had been 15-7 before the losing streak). Randleman had an incredible career as a mixed martial artist, but he was never able to evolve his all around game (see: striking/jiu jitsu) enough to compete with the new era of “all around fighters.”
A True Hall-of –Famer
As I’ve tried to convey throughout this piece, simply put, Kevin Randleman is one of the greatest athletes and probably the best wrestler to ever step foot on an OSU mat. There were situations that kept him from realizing his full potential: the lost senior season, the staph infection, the inability to adapt, but even so, what he has accomplished is astounding. He is a three-time NCAA finalist and a two-time champion. He is a UFC champion and he’s beaten up some of the toughest guys in the world. He has gone toe-to-to with guys like Cro Cop, Chuck Liddell, Maurice Smith, Pedro Rizzo, and Randy Couture, and more often than not, he came out victorious. I had the opportunity to meet Randleman several times (mostly at high school wrestling camps). He always had the time to talk to us 14-year-old aspiring tough guys and his message was always positive. Kevin Randleman is a world class athlete, a decent human being, and most important, a true Buckeye.