Every so often, you come across athletes that possess an innate ability to become elite at different sports quickly. On the other side of the coin, you also see athletes who need to work countless hours to achieve their aspirations. Bo Nickal is that rare prospect that has both qualities within him.
Bo Nickal is a 27-year-old former wrestler competing in the UFC Middleweight Division. As an MMA fighter, Bo Nickal holds a professional record of 4-0, with three of those fights coming in a UFC octagon. After his first fight in Jorge Masvidal’s iKON FC, he went to Dana White’s Contender series. White wanted to bolster his fight experience before awarding him a contract, so Bo Nickal grabbed two quick submission wins to secure his official spot in the promotion. This past March, Bo Nickal submitted Jamie Pickett in the first round of his live UFC debut, giving fans a taste of what an athlete of his pedigree could achieve. This Saturday, Bo Nickal faces short-notice replacement Valentine Woodburn in a bout between two undefeated fighters, hoping to add another win to his MMA record.
So, how did Bo Nickal get here? The truth is that Nickal has been wrestling his entire life. Bo Nickal started wrestling between the ages of five and six and went on to make his high school’s varsity wrestling team in the eighth grade. He placed second at the New Mexico state wrestling tournament as an eighth and ninth grader and went undefeated for the rest of his high school career, finishing with an overall 183-7 record and 131 pins. As a three-time UIL state champion, Bo Nickal committed to wrestling powerhouse Pennsylvania State University as the ninth-ranked pound-for-pound wrestler in the country.
Bo Nickal wrestled at three different weight classes at Penn State. After a redshirt season, he came in as a freshman in the 174 lb division. He won the Big Ten Conference Championship that season but lost a close match to would-be arch-nemesis Myles Martin in the finals of the NCAA tournament.
Nickal moved up to 184 lbs the following season and built an undefeated record heading into the Big Ten Conference Championship. He would eventually place third in the tournament following a loss to Myles Martin in the semifinals and a win to claim bronze. Despite the setback, Nickal rebounded nicely to go on a run in the NCAA tournament, eventually winning the whole tournament for the first time in his college career. As a sophomore, he still had two years to compete.
Bo Nickal got back to his dominant ways his junior wrestling season. Bo Nickal went undefeated in regular season action, won the Big Ten Conference Championship, and then won the NCAA tournament, beating rival Myles Martin in both finals. Nickal won the NCAA MVP award for wrestling and the Schalles award for being the top pinner in the country. It’s no wonder Bo Nickal feels comfortable at the UFC’s 185-lb middleweight division after such an exciting run at 184 lbs in college wrestling.
In his senior year, Nickal moved to 197 lbs for the last weight class of his competitive college career. He adjusted well, winning the Big Ten Conference Championship and the NCAA tournament. For his success, Nickal was awarded a second Schalles award and the most prestigious award in college wrestling, the Dan Hodge trophy. His success transcended wrestling, as he received the Big Ten Athlete of the Year award. This final year of dominance stamped Nickal in the record books as one of the best college wrestlers in history.
Following Bo Nickal’s college wrestling career, he competed internationally in 2019 as a freestyle wrestler. While his focus was mainly on wrestling, Nickal already told the public about his intentions to transition into MMA. However, he was first looking to continue garnering acclaim in his primary sport of wrestling while also trying to qualify for the World Championships and Olympics. Nickal competed in the US Open in 2019 at 92 kg (202.8 lbs) due to teammate David Taylor representing the US at his native 86 kg (189.5 lbs), and despite being new to the weight, he went on to win the championship. Nickal’s success in the US Open automatically put him in the World Team Trials Challenge finals, where he dominated to secure the win. These wins put him just one man away from representing the US in the 2019 World Championships. Unfortunately, Nickal lost to J’den Cox over two matches to fall short, but at just 23 years old, he could still redeem himself to earn a spot in the U23 World Championships. Bo Nickal went on a run where he defeated Shamil Zubairov (an opponent who he lost to previously) and 2018 Russian National champion Batyrbek Tsakulov, securing the U23 World Championship in 2019.
Bo Nickal continued to compete in freestyle wrestling against the planet’s best wrestlers until 2021 and would even challenge longtime teammate David Taylor in the finals of a tournament that would decide the US representative in the Summer Olympics. Taylor came out on top but went on to win the gold medal in the Olympics, further emphasizing how proud Bo should have felt about getting to that point.
From the perspective of Bo Nickal’s wrestling career, his post-collegiate performance was likely marred by his desire to be great, in the sense that he never stuck with one particular weight class for too long. Whether to chase accolades, get in there with the best, or be gracious to a teammate, Nickal was always willing to test himself at different weight classes, primarily seeing success at most of his stops.
Just think about how many past UFC greats came from an NCAA wrestling background; Chris Weidman, Matt Hughes, Dan Henderson – the list goes on. Now, think about the fact that Bo Nickal is potentially a better wrestler than any of them ever were. Bo Nickal continues to take on new challenges, and if his history has told you anything, it’s that he’s willing to work for every goal he sets out to achieve.