Corey Anderson wasn’t an MMA fighter until Ben Askren convinced him otherwise
Ultimate Fighter 19 competitor Corey Anderson could end up being one of the brightest prospects to come out of the show when the series finally concludes, but just over a year ago, he had no interest at all in actually being an MMA fighter.
Growing up a wrestler since he was a kid, Anderson’s goals always involved a future on the mats. Whether it was going for some kind of Olympic glory or maybe one day teaching athletes about wrestling, Anderson knew his athletic goals and fighting had nothing to do with them.
No one could have predicted, however, that during his last year of wrestling at Newberry College in South Caroline that Anderson would run into an MMA fighter, who was determined to turn his attention from wrestling to fighting.
"Ben Askren was coaching me my senior year at school, and at the time he was the Bellator champ and he was always talking about the way I move and they way I move my feet when I wrestle is like a boxer," Anderson explained when speaking to FOX Sports. "Because my freshman year of college, I broke my leg in three places and I red shirted and at the time my sister was married to a professional boxer and because of rehab, I did boxing, a lot of boxing to get my feet moving because I had to learn to walk again after being on crutches for like six months.
"I developed that into my wrestling style, always bouncing and moving, circling, just like I was in the boxing matches."
Askren recognized right away that Anderson didn’t move his feet like a typical wrestler would, and he saw the talent brimming under the surface with Anderson’s potential move to MMA. Still, Anderson resisted because while he enjoyed boxing, MMA wasn’t a sport he really knew much about or had any interest in pursuing.
I was like ‘why’d you tell me to come here, this ain’t no wrestling gym?’ and he said ‘this is your new sport, I want you to try it’
— Corey Anderson on Ben Askren convincing him to try MMA
The campaign to get him to try MMA didn’t slow down as Askren was relentless with his efforts to convince Anderson to give it a shot.
"He said ‘your style would go so great with MMA, you’d be phenomenal, you should definitely do it, you should definitely try’. I told him over and over I’m not fighting anymore," Anderson said. "I was doing it just a little bit through rehab. I boxed, I was 2-0 as far as amateur boxing and it was fun but I didn’t really want to compete no more. But Ben was on me every day, every other day."
Eventually, Askren’s overtures fell on deaf ears until the former NCAA champion and Olympian found a way to get Anderson into an MMA gym. Sure, it was a little underhanded at the time, but looking back on it, Anderson is glad Askren did what he did.
Anderson had asked Askren to continue on as his coach after his senior year as he looked to take the next step in his wrestling career, and the former Missouri standout gladly said yes. So Askren lined up a camp, gave Anderson the directions and told him to show up.
"The season was over and I had asked to help me train for the junior Olympics, and he agreed and he said ‘be at this address tomorrow’. Little did I know that address would be Duke Roufus’ gym," Anderson said with a laugh.
"At the time I really didn’t know anything about MMA. I didn’t follow it, so I’m seeing these guys jump off the fence. Little did I know it was Anthony Pettis doing the ‘Showtime’ kick. I was like ‘why’d you tell me to come here, this ain’t no wrestling gym?’ and he said ‘this is your new sport, I want you to try it’. Even that day I said no, I just sat on the edge and watch, but that day watching it was just so similar to wrestling to me. I knew I could take down anybody in the gym and I was like I do know a little bit of boxing so I’ll give it a try."
Anderson mixed it up on the mats with the other fighters, mostly relying on his wrestling to get him by during the practice. A few days later he decided to return to the gym and that’s when he ran into Roufus himself as he was running a practice for all the pro fighters training that day.
At the time, Anderson was a novice in MMA and wasn’t even really a fan of the sport. He honestly didn’t even know who Roufus was when he walked in that day. But Anderson enjoyed the first day of training and sparring, so why not jump into an actual MMA practice?
"I come back a couple of days later to try it and this time I meet Duke Roufus and I’m talking to Duke and I had no clue who the man was. He’s telling me all this stuff, how good I could be, and it was sparring day," Anderson explained. "He told me to just go in there and it was Anthony Pettis, Erik Koch, Ben Askren and another heavyweight. We were just going in there and going at it, and I’m holding my own, taking everybody down and then he says ‘kickboxing only’ and I took my first leg kick and I wanted to cry."
As much as the leg kick hurt, Anderson was starting to fall in love with fighting and he didn’t even know it at the time. Round after round as he pursued takedowns and worked on his boxing skills, Anderson’s focus quickly shifted from a future in wrestling to a career in MMA.
Roufus recognized Anderson’s talent right away, and informed the former Olympic hopeful that no matter how much he protested, MMA was the sport for him.
"He was like kid whether you know it or not, you’re an MMA fighter," Anderson said.
The transition worked like a charm and eventually Anderson made it all the way to The Ultimate Fighter as part of Team Frankie Edgar, and on Wednesday night he’ll take the next step in his career journey when he faces Team Penn light heavyweight Josh Clark.