"More enduringly than any other sport, wrestling teaches self-control and pride. Some have wrestled without great skill - none have wrestled without pride." - Dan Gable
It was his pride that initially stopped him from tapping. Under two minutes into the third round, he was caught in a deep armbar by fellow UFC lightweight Evan Dunham. As his opponent wrenched back on his prone right arm, he hesitated to tap. He was not ready to admit this defeat. After a few excruciating looking seconds, he finally relented and the fight was over, but he saved himself from a needless injury to fight another day.
That is the lowest point of Efrain Escudero's mixed martial arts career; the rest of it is a highlight reel of victories of a wrestler turned fighter from the past four years, including a win five months after his loss to Dunham.
At 24 years old, Escudero sports a stellar 14-1 professional record with a remarkable ten submission wins. If that was not good enough, the Arizonan based fighter scored three wins via sub while on The Ultimate Fighter en route to securing his place in the eighth season finale against teammate Phillipe Nover. Escudero then defeated Nover by a unanimous decision and was crowned the winner of The Ultimate Fighter. Not bad for someone who only a few years earlier was just another wrestler.
In 2006, "Hecho en Mexico" ("Made in Mexico") was an All-American wrestler for Pima Community College by placing seventh at the NJCAA national tournament in the 157 lb weight class. "I started training with Drew Fickett for his fight with Kurt Pellegrino. I was strictly a wrestler and he asked me if I could help him for his fight, so I did," Escudero reminisced about his beginnings in MMA helping a Pima alumnus, Fickett, prepare for his fifth UFC appearance. "I loved it and he asked if I wanted to stick around and continue training MMA. From there I learned jiu-jitsu and boxing and like eight months later I had my first fight. I knew instantly I found my new sport because I fought once and then I wanted to fight next weekend and then the following weekend and so on."
For Escudero, making the switch from collegiate wrestling to professional cagefighting was natural and necessary. "Wrestlers have to make that transition to MMA. If you play baseball, football, basketball, soccer or whatever your whole life - if you're good at it then you become a professional in it with a million dollar contract," Escudero explained why he chose this new sport. "There is no 'pro-wrestling' league and the UFC is the best alternative. It has the high competition and the atmosphere that wrestling has. The UFC is a place where as wrestlers we get to use the skills that we have trained all of our lives."
Escudero is a part of a great wrestling lineage in the UFC. Many elite fighters, like Chael Sonnen, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Cain Velasquez, Matt Hughes, and UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, come from prestigious wrestling backgrounds. Escudero mentions the recent lightweight division championship bout, "Frankie Edgar and his wrestling is what beat BJ [Penn]. It is what broke his will in that fight." Escudero continues to train today with great wrestlers like WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson at MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona.
To Escudero, wrestling is the linchpin for being a great fighter, "Wrestling is a big part in MMA. How can you go from A to C without B? How can you train jiu-jitsu if you can't take someone down? How can you box somebody if they are taking you down? As a wrestler, you can determine where the fight goes." Escudero continues about how wrestling helps him inside the cage, "When I'm in there and feel danger, my wrestling kind of takes over. I've done it so much it is in my muscle memory."
Escudero's ability to adapt his wrestling prowess and competitive spirit to MMA was an immediate success. Over a span of 14 months, "Hecho en Mexico" won his first 10 fights with six of them ending by first round submission. This impressive win streak earned Escudero a shot on The Ultimate Fighter: Team Nogueira vs. Team Mir. Escudero had to fight and win his way into the house and did so by securing a rear naked choke on Ido Pariente in the first round. Nevertheless, Escudero's initial mindset entering the house was a humble one.
"When I went on to the show, I never thought I was going to win it. I thought I was going to make a name for myself on it and then come back after the show," modestly stated by Escudero. Soon that attitude changed when two of Escudero's housemates, Shane Nelson and Junie Browning, singled him out and made these fights on the show about pride. "Shane Nelson called me out and that's when it became personal. It became that I wanted to fight him. I made a promise to myself that I wasn't going to lose to him." The result of Nelson making it "personal" was Escudero slapping on a fight ending mounted triangle choke.
After the victory over Nelson, the taunting in the house from Browning only increased. "I think [Junie Browning] was trying to put some fear in me because he was actually scared of me," Escudero hypothesized about Browning's constant verbal attacks. "He thought he could try to scare me and I would back down from him. But where I come from we don't back down." The conclusion of the fight against Browning was eerily similar to Nelson's, Escudero finishing with a slick choke and his arms raised in victory.
It feels like a long time ago that Escudero was an unknown wrestler fighting for a spot in the UFC. Now, even at his young age, Escudero is well on his way to being a respected veteran in the locker room approaching his fifth fight in the UFC, "It becomes more like a routine. I don't really have those butterflies anymore because I've fought on the big shows, on big cards and I'm used to it." On the other hand, Escudero's opponent, Charles Oliveira, is a relative newcomer to the UFC. Even so, Escudero is not taking the undefeated Oliveira lightly, "I'm expecting the best Charles Oliveira. He's fighting in the UFC and he's fighting me, because of that I know he's tough and I'm expecting a tough opponent."
On Wednesday, September 15th, after three different changes in opponents, “Hecho en Mexico” has another opportunity to step into the cage to prove his worth as a skilled wrestler turned fighter this time against the Brazilian Oliveira. But that doesn’t mean Escudero cannot be a gentleman about it, “I want to thank Charles Oliveira for taking this fight. There are no hard feelings between us, but we have got to fight each other. Once we step into the Octagon, let’s rock and roll. After, we can be friends, but we need to fight first.” Spoken like a man with a lot of pride and respect for himself and his sport.