HOBART | It's often said that a wrestling background is the best foundation for a mixed martial artist.
A pair of Hobart seniors have flipped that axiom, using MMA to propel them each into Saturday's Merrillville wrestling semistate.
Tony Vasquez, a 138-pounder, and Tony Rodriguez, a 182-pounder, have trained at Colon's Mixed Martial Arts Center in Merrillville and say that gives them an advantage over most opponents on the mat.
"You have a lot more tricks up your sleeve (after MMA training)," Vasquez said. "People just don't see some moves coming because they haven't learned that stuff."
"When I started MMA and wrestling when I was 13 years old, I left football because I knew that this was what I wanted to do," Rodriguez said. "My (freshman season) I went right to semistate and almost made the ticket round and I knew I was going to devote my time to this."
Vasquez said when he needed to cut weight as a sophomore, MMA and jiu-jitsu training was more effective than traditional methods.
"I feel like I've definitely put in a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot more than others," Vasquez said. "(MMA training) give you an edge because it's really difficult, mentally tough."
That toughness has translated, coach Steve Balash said. He remembers the first time he really noticed Rodriguez at a freshmen wrestling meet at Munster.
"We had, maybe, nine freshmen that went over there and Penn showed up with 35 freshmen," Balash said. "He ended up winning it and kicking everybody's butt. So, we knew we had somebody special."
Rodriguez has 94 career wins and has qualified for each semistate since, including taking top honors at this year's Calumet regional. For Vasquez, it's his second time being this deep in the tournament. He's 32-3 this season.
"The last couple times, I wasn't mature enough," Rodriguez said, "but I've been there so many times now, I know for a fact that that's not going to be a problem. I'm feeling very comfortable."
Both grapplers have long-term goals with mixed martial arts, but first they plan to room together and wrestle at Harper College with the hopes of moving on to a Division I program. Before they leave, they have two steps left in the state tournament.
"You're going to see me giving my all out there this weekend," Vasquez said. "I want to be on that (state meet) podium."