Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Stephen Neal a "force to be reckoned with"

STEPHEN NEAL in his wrestling prime

February 19, 2010

College Wrestling Examiner Mark Palmer

It's been nearly a decade since New England Patriots guard Stephen Neal stepped onto a wrestling mat. Yet, according to his agent, the two-time NCAA Division I heavyweight champ is entertaining the idea of returning to wrestling... or entering MMA (mixed martial arts) competition.

The 33-year-old Neal is up for free agency as of March 5, and is considering all his options, other than retirement (an idea he had entertained with the media after the Pats' playoff loss on January 10). Including a possible return to a personal combat sport, whether it's freestyle wrestling, or MMA, Neal's agent, Neil Cornrich, told Tom Curran of

"He's excited to continue in the NFL and perhaps after that take a chance at the UFC," said Cornrich. "Getting back involved in Olympic-style wrestling is definitely a consideration."

The mere mention of Neal back on the mat -- or in the Octagon -- has wrestling and MMA fans salivating.

Stephen Neal's amateur wrestling credentials are impressive by any measure. The San Diego native was a two-time NCAA Division I heavyweight champ for Cal State Bakersfield, trouncing Iowa State's Trent Hynek in the finals at the 1998 NCAAs... then edging Brock Lesnar of Minnesota in the title bout at the 1999 NCAAs. He was a four-time NCAA All-American, and earned the Hodge Trophy as the best collegiate wrestler his senior year.

Neal made a name for himself in freestyle wrestling, too, upsetting Russian veteran Andrei Shumilin to win the 1999 World freestyle championship only a few months after beating Lesnar for the college crown.

In his wrestling prime, the 6'4" Neal tipped the scales at 265-285 pounds of solid muscle. For a big man, he was incredibly agile and fast on his feet. (In high school, Neal participated in a variety of sports beyond football and wrestling, including track and swimming... so he is a versatile athlete.) It was that athleticism that ultimately convinced the New England Patriots to give Neal a try in 2001, despite his not having played football in college.

"He's been with the Patriots his entire career and would like nothing better than to finish his career with another Super Bowl win in New England," Neal's agent Neil Cornrich said in the interview. "He's very appreciative of the opportunity the Patriots have given him and how they helped him in his transformation from wrestler to professional football player."

It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming weeks. All this discussion may simply be a means for Stephen Matthew Neal to keep all his options open... to provide an escape clause of sorts if his NFL career is truly over.

For football fans, the notion of Neal going into wrestling or MMA may seem far-fetched. After all, the Patriot would have to drop down from his reported 305 pounds to his old "fighting weight" to be able to compete either in freestyle or MMA.

However, for fans of amateur wrestling and MMA, the idea of Stephen Neal stepping back onto the mat is an exciting prospect. Other former wrestlers and football players have competed in MMA competition well into their 40s. (Randy Couture and Mark Coleman immediately come to mind.) It's not uncommon for wrestlers of Neal's age to continue to win international titles.

No less an authority than Brock Lesnar addressed the issue in an interview in 2008.

"He could become something great," Lesnar said. "If he ever tried [UFC] and could make weight, I'd have to say he could be a force to be reckoned with."

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