Division 2 program Notre Dame College Wrestling is an MMA prospect factory. Their most famous and successful athlete, Joey Davis, made wrestling history and is turning heads in Bellator MMA. Decorated All-Americans Garrett Lineberger, Jeffery Pelton, Mo Miller, and Dante Rini have successfully made the transition to MMA. While their stints with the college were brief, Cody Garbrandt and Jarred Brooks have represented the school’s hard-nosed brand on the world’s biggest stage for professional fighting. The latest prospect to watch is the 135-pound menace, Cobey Fehr.
Fehr made the full-time jump to MMA after two All-American finishes at the NCAA tournament, as many wrestlers do. But his journey was nowhere near typical. MMA and wrestling overlapped at a crucial period in Fehr’s life, putting him on a path to reach the potential he always knew was there.
Cobey Fehr walks us through the ups and downs of his athletic career in this long-form interview. Stick around for insights into the training at Strong Style MMA (gym of former UFC champion Stipe Miocic) and GIFs of some gnarly wrestling action.
Disclaimer: This interview contains frequent uses of profanity, discretion is advised. Cobey Fehr is a colorful character and he’s not afraid who knows it. For example:
“I’m from Barberton, Ohio. It’s a suburb of Akron, it used to be a huge town back in the 70s. The economy was supported by the manufacturing industry, and we had a great high school basketball team. But everything went south when the factories closed and the jobs left.”
Barberton fell into a long depression. Without opportunities, many residents were cut down by alcoholism and drug abuse. Fehr’s father, Cobey Fehr Sr., runs the most popular bar in town. They see the highs and lows of all of Barberton’s citizens. A former wrestler, Fehr Sr. knew his son would need guidance to avoid a future of destitution.
“When I was a little kid, it was like I was born to raise hell. I was ready to rough-house from day one. He knew I was going to need organized unarmed combat in my life. So when I was four years old, my dad took me to the Varsity Teen Center, a wrestling club in downtown Barberton.
I wrestled on the youth team, I wasn’t on any fancy club teams or anything. I was home-grown. My coaches were Chuck Kallai and Earl Woodruff, they both have passed away.”
The Fehrs and the club team would drive around Ohio to compete in local tournaments. They believed in trial by fire, registering him in multiple weight classes to double the number of matches he would get per tournament.
“They used to make me go to high school practices to wrestle when I was in fifth grade, I was like 70 pounds. I wasn’t even good. I never really won shit in my youth career, but the whole time it was about instilling me with grit, making me resilient.”
“It’s crazy, I don’t think about this too much. But the guys I wrestled with in middle school, they’re all on drugs or have fallen into one bad situation or another. So from that team, I’m like the Last of the Mohicans.”
Fehr was always one of the youngest and smallest kids in his grade. As a 100-pound high school freshman, he held his own on the mat. It didn’t hurt that he had a championship caliber coach showing him the way.
“My coach was Dave Mariola. He was a D1 All-American for Michigan State in the 80s. He beat Ohio State wrestler and former UFC champion Mark Coleman three times, lost to him maybe four times. They had a bit of a rivalry in college.
I was trained by the right people, but I didn’t believe in myself.”
Inspiration would come in spurts, and Fehr would make surges towards reaching his goal of becoming a state champion. As a sophomore, he qualified for the state tournament. In terms of his wrestling skill, he had started to break through. But the chaotic culture of youth in Barberton was beginning to drag him down. Fehr was “running with the wrong people”, partying. It affected his results in competition.
“By my senior year, I knew I had to take it seriously. That was my chance. That tournament meant a lot to me. To stay on track, my coach moved me into his house the week before the tournament. Coach Mariola had never had a state champ at Barberton, that was our goal.”
Cobey Fehr ran through to the semifinals, where he hit Dean Heil. He lost 3-0. Dean Heil went on to be a four-time state champion in Ohio, a two-time national champion for Oklahoma State, and a four-time D1 All-American.
“I almost had him a couple of times. I almost 360’d him from the open, I almost hit a leg cradle at one point, but he got me. I’m still salty about that…I’m just kidding. I’m close with the Heils. I helped coach his little brother!
I wrestled back and won every match to take third, but I wanted that state title.”
Cobey’s focus on wrestling waxed and waned, but his disinterest in academics was constant. By the end of his high school run, he could not meet the Division 1 Clearing House academic standards. Two Division 2 programs were ready to take a chance on him, rival Ohio programs Lake Erie College and Notre Dame College.
“Kevin Hoogenboom recruited me, and not a lot of people were willing to do so at the time. Anthony Ralph was giving me interest from Notre Dame, but I picked Lake Erie.”
Ohio is a power wrestling state. A third-place finisher at the state tournament has plenty of room to grow into a decent college wrestler. Early on, the Lake Erie coaches recognized Cobey Fehr’s talent, making him a starter as a true freshman. But it didn’t last long.
“I was basically the team fuckup for a year and a half. I got kicked out. I was dismissed from the college for academics. I was lost at Lake Erie.
I was very fortunate that Notre Dame College was still willing to take me in. I fell in love with the program right away. When I got to school, Garrett Lineberger and Joey Davis were there to greet me. They were so friendly, “Hey man, welcome to the team!” They shook my hand and took me in, I learned we had a lot in common. I started to gel and get into a rhythm with the team.”
Coach Sonny Marchette worked diligently with Cobey Fehr on his mental fortitude, molding his mindset. Anthony Ralph spent time every week helping Fehr through his personal problems, keeping him focused and positive. With his mind right, he couldn’t help but grow.
“The culture was different. I hate to say it like this, but Notre Dame College is like ghetto Iowa. We’re freakin’ hard-nosed. You go in the room when everyone is drilling, it practically looks like a bigass fight club. Everyone had tattoos at the time, our team had Eric Burgey, Jeffery Pelton, Brandonn Johnson, Garrett Lineberger, and Joey Davis. A bunch of hammers.
It was the culture, you felt like you were a pro. Everyone took it so seriously. It just rubbed off on me. Instantly. I went from being average to being All-American caliber, fast.”
Fehr stayed busy wrestling unattached at freestyle tournaments.
“After I got to Notre Dame, I had to sit out the rest of the year, because I was ineligible. I trained my ass off and prepared all summer to wrestle that next season. Then I had to wrestle off with Mo Miller for the spot. He was number one in the country at the time. He has over 120 wins at Notre Dame, and he’s a four-time All-American. He’s tough as hell, he’s a fucking hammer. He’s fighting now too, so look out.
Anyway, I lost to Mo freakin’ 3-2. He was much better than me, but at the time I was able to push him. He beat me, and I kind of threw a fit. I started reverting back to bad habits, started doing bad in school. I had to be a backup that whole year.”
After another season out of the lineup, Cobey Fehr went home that summer with the itch to compete. On four days notice, he took an amateur MMA fight.
“It was scary as hell. I had never boxed once in my life, never did kickboxing, just wrestled. But I’d been in a few street fights in my day. I was pissed off and wanted to do something.
They freakin’ threw me some guy out of the crowd. I just took him down and smashed his head in.”
There was still time left in the summer, and Cobey was offered a second fight. This time it was against an experienced amateur, Greg Spearman.
“I think he was like 7-3, maybe 7-2. It was on two weeks notice. So I got in there with him, and it was actually going pretty well. I was just throwing him all over the place.”
It was a big deal for one of Barberton’s finest to be competing. Cobey Fehr Jr. and Sr. got everyone they knew in town to come out. Bar patrons, high school teachers, wrestling coaches, childhood friends, college friends, they filled buses with droves of people to fill the small gymnasium to watch the fight two hours away from home. They sold nearly 300 tickets.
“I got submitted. I wasn’t hip yet. I had never done jiu jitsu, I didn’t know what jiu jitsu was. I looked like an idiot in there.
My people couldn’t believe it, they wouldn’t accept it. I had a ton of people in there mad that I lost.
It was the most humiliating moment of my life. Everyone I knew was there, and I got choked out. I never wanted to show my face in my home town again.
I had been running on the treadmill at the Y, thinking that would get me ready.
The loss left a horrible taste in my mouth, and I moved back to Notre Dame right after that and got back to training for wrestling. It lit a fire under my ass.”
The loss to Greg Spearman was the best thing that ever happened to Cobey Fehr.
“F” the Brackets
The old adage goes, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” To Cobey Fehr, once he had fought in MMA, wrestling was easy.
“I was never afraid of wrestling again. I had competition anxiety, that’s for damn sure. I would lose to myself a lot of the time. In a lot of my losses, it’s like I decided beforehand that I was going to lose.
Wrestling is very physical, it’s tough, but it doesn’t hurt like MMA does. It really put things in perspective, wrestling wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I thought it was.”
With much of his anxiety alleviated, Fehr began to do away with many of his bad habits.
“I used to always look at the bracket, and I would pay so much attention to who my opponent was. It would stress me out, it wasn’t helping.
My junior year, my new slogan was, ‘Fuck the brackets.’
Don’t look. Why worry about it?”
Fehr’s newfound confidence showed immediate results. Notre Dame College famously spent much of the first semester traveling to Division 1 open tournaments to test their mettle. The Michigan State Open was a constant.
“That year I got second at the Michigan State Open, I beat some solid D1 guys. One was Zac Hall from the University of Michigan, one of the top recruits in the country. He was a four-time state champion. When I beat him I was like, ‘Alright, I’m not too bad.’
Then when I got back to wrestling D2 kids, I was giving them a hard time.”
Leg Cradle Revenge Tour
Fehr’s game was highlighted by his scrambling ability. Many opponents fell victim to his funky mat wrestling.
At the Multidivisional National Duals, the best teams from all levels excluding Division 1 compete in a dual tournament to declare a team champion.
“The first day of national duals, I beat the number three and number five guy in the country. The next day, I beat Nate Rodriguez, he was a D2 national champion and like 26-0 at the time.
The ref was giving me a hard time in that match, because I had a Notre Dame singlet on. I remember looking at Anthony Ralph, he was pointing to his chest yelling, ‘Too much heart! Too much heart!’ He’s beating on his chest like a maniac, he flipped his chair and started yelling out, ‘Rocker step! Rocker step!'”
Coach Ralph was calling for Fehr to pull Rodriguez toward him with an over collar tie, and fire off his outside single. Fehr obeyed, he hit the move twice in the third period to break his opponent and win the match. Notre Dame was on to the finals against a consistent top three team, St. Cloud State.
“I wrestled Matt Nelson, who was a two-time All-American.
He was ranked number one in the country.”
Fehr threatened early with his signature move, scoring off of Nelson’s shot.
He used a granby roll to return to his feet with little resistance.
When Nelson shot in again, Fehr cinched it up even tighter.
Fehr won Division 2 Wrestler of the Week. He was unwilling to accept the honor.
“People tried to hype it up to be more than it was. Joey (Davis) should have gotten it. It should have been Joey every week. He destroyed everyone and was swaggering all over people but they couldn’t bring themselves to keep giving him awards.”
Despite his humility, Fehr didn’t end his reign of terror.
“After that, I went on a leg cradle tour. That February, I pinned every single person I wrestled that month in a leg cradle.
When we wrestled Wheeling Jesuit, their 25-pounder beat one of my best friends Jacob Goodwin. When their guy beat him, he started flexing at the crowd like he was a gladiator. It really irritated me.
When I saw that, I decided I was going to do something.
I pinned the dude in a leg cradle. I got down on my hands and knees like I was being arrested, and the crowd freaked out.
We’re in the middle of West Virginia, they’re booing us and throwing things, cussing us out. I’ve got old men coming out of the stands trying to attack me. It was silly. We had to get a police escort out of there. They definitely didn’t like us too much after that.”
Nationals and Senior Year
“At the regional tournament, I think I hit something close to 18 leg cradles. I’m not even lying. I leg cradled everyone that I wrestled at that tournament at least two or three times.”
But it wasn’t just leg cradles. Fehr showed off a variety of skills. In his first match he took his opponent feet to back from a double leg. Then he leg cradled him.
In his next match, Fehr showed off his funk and scrambling ability. He also hit a leg cradle.
The turns didn’t come quite as easily in the finals.
The match went to sudden victory rideouts, but Fehr’s granbys and mat wrestling carried him through to a regional title.
“But at the national tournament, I folded. I lost in the quarters, I got taken down at the end of regulation and then again in overtime. I took seventh that year. It left a horrible taste in my mouth, especially because our team came in second overall. When I was getting all those pins, it felt good because I was getting points for my team. When I couldn’t do that at nationals, it hurt.”
Cobey Fehr clearly had the potential to win the national championship, but his life was chaotic and he had to fight just to stay afloat. He had been wrestling with a torn meniscus and LCL, his knee was destroyed. For a wrestler who likes to scramble and get into funky situations, it’s inopportune for your knee to pop out of place in the middle of a match.
To add insult to injury, Anthony Ralph, his rock, took an assistant coaching job at Ohio State.
“That took the wind out of my sails. I was struggling with depression, and I always talked to Ralph about everything. He was the best coach I ever had. It’s close to home, he’s a hell of a coach. He’d answer the phone at any time of the night, he was always there for me. I didn’t feel betrayed when he left, going Division 1 and wrestling a Big 10 schedule? That’s every wrestler’s dream. It just kind of broke my heart.
I had to take a step back for a few days at one point, I had to get some help.”
Fehr’s love for his team kept him going through that final season. Despite being “half a man”, Cobey Fehr made it through the consolation bracket and finished as an All-American once again. Better yet, Notre Dame College won the team championship.
“I wasn’t really there my senior year, I already knew I was done with wrestling after that. I wanted to do MMA.”
After his humiliation in his second amateur fight, Cobey Fehr knew he needed to get with the program and actually learn MMA. Where better than Ohio’s own Strong Style gym? Jeffery Pelton and Mo Miller had made the gritty gym their home, and everyone knew UFC fighters Stipe Miocic and Jessica Eye.
He was brought in as a wrestling partner for Eye.
“I showed up at Strong Style to train with Jessica, and it was full MMA. The first round, I took her down like three or four times. Then in between rounds, the coaches were like, ‘Okay, just kickboxing now.’ It’s my first day, and I’m locked in the cage with a UFC fighter. She’s throwing all this stuff, kicking the shit out of me. She’s whippin’ my ass, all I could think to do was close my eyes and try to hit her. I actually landed and broke a tooth in the back of her mouth. We’ve been friends ever since.”
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Two Barberton bandits breaking barrier and building empires. Thank for the help @cobeythedon and the time that you put into helping make me better. You’ll get your turn for helping me reach mine . Teamwork makes the dream work. . . 👁🐝🍃#payitforward #jessicaevileye #ufcsingapore #cleveland #dreamchasers #wrestler #striker #flyweight #ufc #lonewolf #rollie #trainingday #singaporeherewecome
But Strong Style is a gym where you need to earn your stripes. They don’t welcome just anyone into the fold. Early on, they had their doubts about Fehr.
“I was floating in and out of the gym at first, I had no striking. I couldn’t box at all. I was going to be a big project to get ready for the MMA team there. I was still finishing up school, so I don’t think the coaches felt I was going to take it seriously.
I had a bit of a reputation, too. Most of the guys in that area of Ohio were my wrestling competition, so I had been a fucking prick to them. Flipping them off, grabbing my balls, they didn’t like that. They told the coaches I was a bad kid, probably.”
Head coach Marcus Marinelli was just what he needed.
“He is a very scary guy. I’m not afraid of many people, but he’s in his fifties and he would beat the brakes off of me. I’m terrified of that man. I’m under his thumb now, I try to do what he says.
Marcus provides a lot of structure for me. It’s like the military, it makes me a little more focused.”
The Strong Style coaches spent time developing Fehr’s striking, and he took an amateur boxing match. He won by TKO.
Return to MMA
“I took another fight against a guy that was 4-2 I think, Marvin Kirk. In all his fights he’s all bloody and shit, he’s tough. If I was just a wrestler, I would have to have been grinding on him for nine minutes, because he wouldn’t just go away.”
But Fehr had evolved immensely. Every day at Strong Style is a different sport focus, they have boxing day, wrestling day, and so on. You won’t make it if you’re not well rounded in your skill set. Strong Style provides world-class boxing coaches in Joe Delguyd and Alex Cooper, high-quality weight lifting facilities, and top coaches and partners in jiu jitsu and MMA.
The work put in on a day to day basis is grueling.
“I’m in a good place right now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of hard work. I’m so banged up, I feel like an NFL kick returner. I feel old as hell, but you’ve got to be able to push your body to crazy places. It’s chaotic, it’s tough.
Tough sparring rounds, sometimes we’ll do two on one.
We’ll run 5Ks with a 40-pound kettlebell.
We’ll do a “polar” 5K, where you run outside in the cold, it’s encouraged you run with your shirt off. Pretty intense shit. But when I say I’m in a good place, that’s what I mean, it might not be your idea of a good time, but it gives me structure. I need it, I’ll get bored otherwise.”
Fehr was in a hurry to make up for his loss, and all the time away from the sport.
“I was so aggressive, picking him up and slamming him, doubling off on him, scrambling just for fun, rolling around.
I pounded him out, but I’m a bit embarrassed with my performance overall. That’s not how I fight in the gym, at all. I want to take my time, use more of my skills. I’m hoping in this next fight I can loosen up and enjoy it a little more.”
Fehr moved to 2-1 as an amateur, but it was his first bout with any MMA training under his belt.
Cobey Fehr vs. Deshawn Morton at WFC 99
What does Fehr know of his next opponent?
“Nothing. I haven’t looked. I don’t overlook anyone, that’s for certain. I learned that in wrestling when I was five years old. I expect a tough guy every time. But you know my slogan.”
Quality training partners give Fehr the confidence he needs.
“Larry Bell used to be 200 pounds, he walks around at 150 now but still hits like he’s 200 pounds. Mo Miller is obviously a great wrestler and his right-hand feels like a brick getting thrown from a slingshot. I also have Max Meese, he’s 5-1 I believe at 135. He’s been kickboxing before he could wipe his own ass, and he’s a purple belt in jiu jitsu. He’s got all kinds of nasty submissions.
I’m tested. It’s always a scrap in the gym. I just need to trust my own abilities.”
“I’m gonna put Barberton, Ohio on the map. I’m gonna show everyone the brand of people we have. We’re tough. Everyone is tough there. It’s so different than most towns. A lot of us don’t realize how special we are because they never leave, they think everyone is just like us.
People from other schools used to mock us. At high school basketball games the girls would show up with pillows under their shirts like they were pregnant. The guys would wear giant basketball jerseys and Air Force Ones.
When I saw that, I was like, ‘Fuck you. I’m fighting back.’
My entire life I’ve been a fighter, I’ve had a chip on my shoulder because people looked down on us and stuck up their noses. I don’t like that shit at all.
I’m really proud of all the support from Barberton. A lot of people have been coming out to my fights. I want to thank all of them. It’s fucking awesome.
I can’t wait to show everyone how gritty people from Barberton are. Some might say it’s a shell of itself, I’d call it a sleeping giant.”
Cobey Fehr has had extreme highs and lows thus far in his athletic career. The athlete who took out the top five of his weight class and pinned the number one wrestler in the country is always there. With the discipline of Marcus Marinelli and Strong Style, and the support of his Notre Dame teammates and hometown, Fehr might just find the stability he needs to make a name for himself in MMA.
If you’re in the area, you can catch the next leg of Fehr’s journey at World Fighting Championship 99 on Saturday, February 23rd. WFC bouts typically end up on Youtube, so you can be sure I’ll provide coverage when it’s all said and done.
Stay tuned for more wrestling prospects in MMA, Cobey Fehr is the third Falcon featured but he won’t be the last.