“Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.”
That quote from Dan Gable, arguably one of the best wrestlers to ever step onto the mat, has become a motto for many who dedicate their time and energy to the sport, and it seems fitting when talking about former Penn State standout Ed Ruth.
Ruth, a three-time NCAA champion during his time as a Nittany Lion, has made the seamless transition from his collegiate career to the world of MMA, currently making a name for himself as a fighter for Bellator.
If it hadn’t been for the WWE, however, Ruth’s combat sports career may not have started at all.
“I just saw [wrestling] on TV,” Ruth said. “I was looking at WWE and saw all these guys jumping around; strong wrestlers. They were just kind of making a show of it, and I just thought that was awesome. So, I looked at my mom and I was like, ‘Hey, can I start wrestling?’ She took me to my first wrestling practice, everyone was on the mats, and that’s pretty much how that story started.”
Ruth’s wrestling career quickly took off, wrestling for Susquehanna Township High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania before transferring to Blair Academy in New Jersey as a senior to finish out his high school career.
A 2014 graduate from Penn State, Ruth was a four-time Big Ten champion, and took home NCAA titles in 2012, 2013 and 2014 after placing third at the 2011 NCAA Championships.
After finishing his collegiate career, Ruth tested out the freestyle wrestling circuit, but eventually gravitated towards the world of MMA for his next endeavor.
“I just liked [MMA],” Ruth said. “I was always a big fan of boxing and just fighting in general. I was like, ‘You know what? I can do this.’ After college, I actually started to go around to the MMA gyms and the boxing gyms and started to test myself out.”
That interest turned into Ruth’s new career, with his training eventually evolving into a signed deal with Bellator in 2015.
“I went around to a couple gyms and trained with some UFC fighters, and they were all saying like, ‘Yeah man, you definitely got what it takes,’ and that really stuck with me,” Ruth said.
Like Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren, Aaron Pico and many more, Ruth’s dominance from his collegiate days continued to the cage, and that didn’t seem like a coincidence to the three-time NCAA champion.
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“Just the durability, wrestlers are very durable people,” Ruth said. “We’ve just kind of been built for hard work, and I feel like that transferred over really well to MMA. There’s no shortage of practices. You can do any discipline: you can do Muay Thai, boxing, kickboxing, grappling, jiu jitsu, judo, and all of that works inside the cage. As a wrestler, we just have a really good work ethic, and that’s one thing that really carried over.”
However, making the switch from wrestler to fighter didn’t come without any challenges.
“The only thing about being a wrestler thought, and going into a fighting sport, it capitalizes a lot on footwork,” Ruth said. “And wrestlers, we are not big on footwork. We’re more on planting our feet in the ground and moving someone around us, rather than being the guy to move around someone. I always thought that was an interesting point, and that was something I always wanted to focus on when I first started fighting. I didn’t want to be a flat-footed fighter.”
Another key element of the wrestling mentality that has carried over into Ruth’s MMA career? The ability to build off of a loss.
Ruth’s record took its first big hit back in December 2018 when he was defeated for the first time in the cage by Neiman Gracie.
“Honestly, [the loss] just kind of helped me settle on the actual dynamics of MMA as a sport,” Ruth said. “Every sport has its rules, its universal rules, and you’ve got to pay attention to those rules, and especially the experience. That’s what really stuck out to me during that last fight. I was like, ‘Wow, I did not respect the sport the way I should’ve.'”
The former Nittany Lion didn’t let the loss get the best of him, however, bouncing back with a TKO win on July 12 against Kiichi Kunimoto to move to 7-1 in his career.
“Just kind of made me go back to the drawing board, start redefining some of my training tactics and just kind of getting after myself and redefining what MMA was for me,” Ruth said. “Honestly, after that loss, it just made me feel like more of a fighter. I was like, ‘Wow, now I’ve had my downs and my ups as a fighter.’ I was like, ‘Now I know who I am, now I know what I’m made of.’”
Plenty of other wrestlers seem prepared to make the jump into the fighting world, with another three-time NCAA champion from Penn State making headlines for his potential in MMA: Bo Nickal.
“I see someone like him faring pretty well, just because he’s big on throws,” Ruth said. “Those guys who do a lot of upper body, you can find a lot of throws inside the cage and guys usually aren’t prepared for that. I definitely see him being somebody who has some decent strength just because he’s a long guy.”
Nickal wasn’t the only one who Ruth said could make the switch, either.
“[Frank] Chamizo, just because he’s a really explosive guy,” Ruth said. “I see Yianni [Diakomihalis] because he has flexible hips, and guys who wrestle and they learn how to do the kicking aspect of it tend to do really well. So, I definitely see Yianni being able to hold his own in the cage. I also see Zain Retherford because he has long arms for someone his height.”
Ruth, however, has big goals of his own for his MMA career, hoping to become another great wrestler to build up an impressive resume by the time he’s done with the sport.
“I’m just going to keep on fighting, hopefully keep getting these knockouts,” Ruth said. “Staying healthy, and then I’m trying to get this belt as soon as possible and I want to start defending it. That’s my plan.”
As for other organizations in the fighting world? Ruth has his eyes set on the prize in one place at the moment: Bellator.
“Right now, all I’m thinking about is Bellator,” Ruth said. “Everybody has goals to fight in as many organizations as they can, of course UFC was up there, too. But, it was just, I started fighting for Bellator and it seemed like it was the right choice.”
Now, after a few years in the sport, Ruth has seen an evolution in numerous areas of his game as his training continues. But, how about the mental piece of fighting? Just like a bottle of wine, Ruth thinks it’s improving with age.
“Right now, I’m just trying to get better,” Ruth said. “That’s pretty much all I think about every single day, just trying to find ways to make myself better to actually grow as a person and not just as a fighter. I found out that as I kind of mature and get more experience in life, it actually helps me more so in fighting.”