The wild success of wrestlers in MMA is well documented. Yet, they always seem to sneak up on fans. There isn’t much buzz until they’re on the verge of stardom. Then you’ll hear, “Well of course, look at their wrestling credentials!” Bandwagon fans, the lot of them. Let’s break that trend and get familiar with two-time NCAA Division 2 national champion Garrett Lineberger.
The former Notre Dame College Falcon is set for his amateur debut at the inaugural Cowboy Fight Series in Annandale, Virginia.
Two-time national wrestling champion Garrett Lineberger ready for amateur debut
At the highest level, most wrestlers have been training since they were children, Lineberger was four years old. Early on he was coached by his father, a former state champion.
“My first couple of years I was terrible. I had a poor attention span, it wasn’t looking good.
My third year we were going to the weigh-ins for a tournament, and my dad says to me, ‘Are you ready to be good this year?’ And I was like…yeah!”
It’s that simple, folks. Mr. Lineberger taught young Garrett the cement mixer, also known as the cowcatcher, or a gator roll, depending on where you call home. As most know, pinning kids in flashy moves is fun, and things began to click for him.
He developed a love for the sport. All of their time as father and son was either spent wrestling, thinking about wrestling, or watching wrestling. VHS tapes of John Smith and the Brands brothers were staples in their diet.
An emerging interest in football and the distraction of puberty dulled Lineberger’s competitive fire by late middle school.
“I didn’t know if I loved wrestling anymore. I hit a plateau.”
Freshman year of high school, Lineberger was goofing around, getting work in the wrestling room of a dynastic program. As it turned out, he was still pretty good.
Zoning issues kept him out of competition freshman year, but that didn’t stop him from putting together a legendary career elsewhere, with Thomas Stone High School.
“I took second in the state my sophomore year. I lost to Josh Llopez, he was a Super 32 champ and a Fargo champ. I had four losses in high school, they were all my sophomore year, and three of them were to Josh Llopez.”
Lineberger never lost again in high school, putting together undefeated runs for Maryland state championships in his junior and senior seasons. In his senior year, he finished off his opponent in the finals by first-period technical fall.
The Raiders of Wrestling
Lineberger had letters of recruitment from strong NCAA Division 1 programs like North Carolina State throughout his state championship seasons. He was unsure of what to do, until he got a message from Anthony Ralph from Notre Dame College, a Division 2 program in Ohio. They were competing in a Division 1 tournament, the Cleveland State Open soon after. Lineberger decided it would be worth it to check them out.
Notre Dame College cleaned up.
“Joey Davis won it, he beat Mike Ottinger, who was really tough at the time. Mo Miller made the finals against the dude from UVA. I think Orlando Scales was in the finals. They were handling a lot of great D1 guys.”
The Notre Dame wrestlers were dominating with swagger and taking no prisoners. They had earned a reputation as the “bad boys.”
“I remember watching Jeffrey Pelton in a semifinal match, and he just had this crazy tattoo sleeve. I was thinking, ‘Who the hell has a sleeve in college?'”
Pelton was matched up with Ian Miller, a blue-chip recruit out of high school and a future high-placing Division 1 All-American.
“He gets boot scooted off the rip, and I’m like alright, this dude gets smashed. I fast forward to the end, and now Pelton is thrashing him, throwing him around, tossing him to his back. What?! This guy just beat Ian Miller?
I take my visit and there are 30 or 40 dudes who could all be national champions. Me and Joey hit it off immediately, we were talking about style, Jordans and all that. I go into Coach Ralph’s office and he tells me, ‘I’ll offer you a full ride, I’ll match any offer.’
I dropped everything for Notre Dame.”
When Lineberger finally got to drill with his new best friend Joey Davis, it was shocking. Davis was notorious for no-nonsense practices, and keeping a brutal pace, even in drilling.
“Then he goes, ‘You wanna go live?’ I’m like ‘What were we just doing?!'”
He was still just 17 as a true freshman, he had to grow up fast in a room of Division 1 caliber brutes.
But he learned quickly. Known for his killer top game, Lineberger was able to pick up on the physicality and hand fighting of college wrestling. He adapted his style and began to dominate.
In his first season, Lineberger stormed through the 184-pound bracket at the Division 2 national tournament, where he met a familiar face.
Pitt Johnstown’s Travis McKillop had handled him in the regional tournament by a comfortable margin, 8-5. It seemed inevitable that the Mountain Cat would easily cruise to his first title. McKillop scored the first takedown of the match.
But Lineberger stayed tricky on bottom, creating scrambles. He scored two points of his own. It became more urgent for McKillop to stay on top. Choosing to ride out the period, McKillop overcommitted to his ride and got decked.
Lineberger stuck him for the pin, winning his first national championship as a true freshman, barely 18 years old.
He ended his career at Notre Dame college as a four-time All-American, and two-time national champion.
There is a stigma around Division 2 wrestling, namely that it just isn’t as tough as D1. It’s true that the concentration of talent may be more limited than Division 1. You’re not wrestling the same schedule. But, Notre Dame College always wrestled in Division 1 open tournaments in the first semester, and they always showed they belonged. At the national tournament, the All-Americans and national championship contenders are all worthy of placing at the Division 1 level. A D2 national champion is an absolute stud by all accounts.
A noteworthy Division 2 standout making waves in MMA today is Kamaru Usman. Marty from Nebraska-Kearny was a three-time All-American and a national champion his senior year.
Lineberger further proved his worth at the World Team Trials in freestyle. Without an extensive freestyle background to speak of, he made a deep run in the tournament. After three straight wins in the consolation bracket, he had the misfortune of running into the same wrestler that knocked him out of the championship side.
Lineberger isn’t quite following in the footsteps of his closest friend and teammate Joey Davis by transitioning to MMA. The two stars have been preparing for their fighting careers together for years.
“There was one summer where we were living together. We worked landscaping from about 8 AM to 5:30 PM almost every day. When we got off work, we either went and wrestled or lifted. It was probably the healthiest I’ve ever been.
But Joey would get so mad at me from landscaping, we were with each other 24/7, we would just butt heads eventually. We were so fed up with each other we put on MMA gloves, and we’d fight.
For like an hour. It’s just how it had to be. We’ve been getting after it for a while now.”
Training is a bit more structured these days. Lineberger has had plenty of time with “mastermind” Team Bodyshop head coach Antonio McKee.
“That dude is from another planet, I promise you. He is the best MMA trainer. He lives by the book. He’s broken the game down to a science. Just look at the results. Look at Joey, look at AJ, he’s the most lethal dude I’ve ever put my hands on, sparring, grappling, whichever. Aaron Pico is a tank.
It’s a small gym, but you don’t need much.
Antonio is a jokester, but he makes you work. He’s strict. We train on the beach, he teaches that digging into the sand makes you stronger. Those are intense workouts, no breaks. But it’s all smart training, and there aren’t really fight camps. You’re always in shape. If anything, we start to taper as the fight gets closer.”
Cowboy Fight Series
For his first amateur fight, Lineberger is preparing in his native Maryland with Team Lloyd Irvin. Outstanding winners at Cowboy Fight Series may have an opportunity to train with the legendary Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone himself, and there’s always Team Bodyshop out west.
He has no set plans for the future, Lineberger is just going to enjoy the ride.
Cowboy Fight series has branded themselves as the home of the best prospects in MMA. Early on they announced NCAA D1 All-American Pat Downey and U23 Freestyle world champion Richie Lewis as blue-chip signings.
For some, Garrett Lineberger flew under the radar, despite being the only NCAA champion of the three, a two-timer at that.
“D2 guys don’t really catch as much respect. But I understand, wrestling is political.
I never really wanted the attention, this is fun for me. I like going to war. I just love martial arts. I like being the dark horse.”
Wrestlers are typically blue-collar grinders, associated with hyper-aggression and a no-nonsense approach. While Lineberger embodies many of the virtuous qualities of the sport of wrestling, he has the mind of a traditional martial artist.
“I love the idea of bushido, the samurai way.
It just happened along the way with wrestling. I was reading the samurai code, watching different guys who are legends in the sport, they’re peaceful.
I watched a lot of Rickson Gracie. I studied his breathing method, how he trains. I think it’s astounding. I realize times have changed, but he was something else. In my mind, he was the toughest Gracie.
He was very humble, I admire his lifestyle. He didn’t even like fighting, but he had to.”
High-level wrestlers often seem destined for MMA success, but there have been plenty of cases where folkstyle and freestyle studs don’t pan out.
Either they lacked the discipline they applied to wrestling, or their style of competition didn’t quite fit with the sport.
Lineberger is confident his approach will translate.
“I think what will set me apart is my ground game. It’s what I bring over from my top and bottom wrestling.
There are plenty of good wrestlers who transition who are only good at takedowns, but the grappling aspect is underrated. Look at guys like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Ben Askren. Askren was always amazing on the mat, that’s what gives him the edge over a lot of other wrestlers. He was also known for his funk, well you can adjust wrestling funk to jiu jitsu, adapt it to a catch-wrestling style.”
Lineberger has always been a high-level technician, but his physicality has been building to a near-unstoppable level over the past few years.
Look at this gorilla.
As for the dedication? Lineberger is infatuated.
“It’s very addicting. My mind is constantly wrapped around it. If I have days off, I’m still thinking about a combination, or some kind of submission. I can’t help it, I’ll start watching jiu jitsu videos.
I kind of like jiu jitsu more than wrestling now. I love striking too, but I definitely have to get better at that.
I love the sport.”
Lineberger was set to make his amateur debut back in August, alongside former Notre Dame College teammate Cobey Fehr. Opponents dropped out, one after one, until the date was too close, and Lineberger was unable to find a dance partner. Fehr won his fight by TKO.
Cowboy Fight Series has kept his foe locked down, and Lineberger is ready to go.
“Nobody can run now.”
You can watch Garrett Lineberger on Saturday, January 26th on FloCombat.