COLUMBIA — Eighty-seven pounds. Roughly the weight of a middle-schooler.
That is also the potential difference between the smallest possible heavyweight wrestler and the largest. By NCAA rules, any man who weighs between 198 and 285 pounds falls into the category, and Missouri wrestler Mark Ellis has been working his way up through the weight class for the past five years, developing his mental game as he adds weight each year. As the Tigers' only senior heavyweight and a returning All-American, Ellis is a team leader, but he’s come a long way since beginning his wrestling career.
“He has physically and mentally grown up the most of any of my kids,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said.
Ellis came to Missouri in 2005 as a preferred walk-on for the football team, but he quickly realized that at 211 pounds he was too small to play. Instead of continuing with football, he joined the wrestling squad, where he faced both mental and physical challenges.
“He’s grown and matured so much physically, and then mentally he has just matured so much more than that,” Smith said. “I was teasing him the other day about the days years ago when he would lose his cool. He would storm out of the room if he lost, and I’d have to tell my assistant to go get him.”
“I came a long ways,” he said. “My freshman year here I struggled. Losing my composure, losing my cool, I’d do that a lot. That’s when I would get scored on, that’s when I would lose.”
Since then, Ellis, who now weighs about 266 pounds, has not only gained composure on the mat, he also won a national championship last season. Smith attributed Ellis’s remarkable evolution to his dedication and the high bar he has set for himself.
“He’s so driven,” Smith said. “He told me his freshman or sophomore year that he was going to be a national champ. And I told him what he’d have to do, all the things he’d have to improve. He did everything. He does it all. He doesn’t just say it. He lives it. He does what he tells you he’s going to do.”
Smith said that not only does Ellis spend countless hours in the weight room and on the mat, he also works out in ways that one might not expect a heavyweight to do. For instance, he spends time doing sprints and on the track because he knows that speed and cardiovascular strength will help him improve.
“He does things right,” Smith said. “He’s always in the weight room, staying after practice, things like that. You see him on the track and you think of a heavyweight being slower. But he’s getting great times.”
Despite his dedication, some mental struggles remain. Ellis is grappling with what it means to be a defending national champion. Not letting the expectations and pressures associated with his status come into play on the mat has become the biggest challenge to Ellis’ performance this season.
“My coach told me that I need to remember that I’m not defending my national title, I’m going out to win another one,” Ellis said. “I’ve won one, but I can’t really look at it like that, like I’m the defending national champ.”
Ellis admitted those pressures along with early losses to Central Oklahoma’s Dustin Finn and teammate Dominique Bradley have impacted the beginning of his season.
“I’ve got to keep my eye on the prize,” he said. “I’ve already lost earlier this year, and it was kind of difficult on me. I struggled a bit.”
Smith said that Ellis has come to grips with how to improve. Ellis said talking to his coaches and teammates has helped him to move on. He said the most important thing he has learned is that he needs to hang in there and not give up.
“If you do get scored on and things don’t go your way, or if you don’t get a takedown, you’ve got to stay composed,” he said. “You can still end up winning the match.”
Ellis also faced some confusion before the season, when he realized he was probably now big enough to play football for Missouri. He joined the team for spring practices and seriously considered putting on a helmet and cleats this fall. Splitting his focus between two sports, though, proved to be a difficult proposition.
“This year, I wanted to give it a go again,” Ellis said. “And I feel like I could maybe have gone out there and played, but I wasn’t really sure, and I knew I wanted to wrestle again.”
So, in the end, Ellis chose to give up football for the second time and focus solely on wrestling. But this time, the choice was not based on the belief that he couldn’t cut it or wouldn’t be successful. The Mark Ellis who stepped off of the football field and onto the mat this year is a far more disciplined and mature athlete, and for the first time, he knows his focus.
“Right now, it’s all about wrestling,” he said.