David Kehrli, Correspondent
Growing up in Killbuck, Ohio, Max Rohskopf found wrestling as his way out.
After a successful collegiate wrestling career at N.C. State, now Rohskopf sees mixed martial arts as his way to not just make a living for himself, but to support his family as well.
Rohskopf wasn’t your prototypical elite-level recruit out of high school, and he had to convince the Wolfpack coaches he was worth the risk presented by his struggling grades and history of disciplinary issues.
After an 8-13 record in his freshman season, not many people expected he would one day sniff an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Championship, let alone win one, but Rohskopf never wavered in his confidence in himself.
“I knew before, during and after my freshman season I could do it,” Rohskopf said.
“I knew there weren’t a lot of people who thought I could. Anyone who saw me training day in and day out I think knew it. But from the outside looking in, nobody expected me to win an ACC title.”
What followed was a much-improved campaign as a sophomore where he became N.C. State’s starter at 165 pounds and qualified for the 2015 NCAAs, finishing the year with a 25-16 record.
As a junior, Rohskopf won the 2016 ACC Championship at 165 pounds and earned the No. 5 seed at the NCAAs, but he wasn’t happy with how his season ended at Madison Square Garden — something that motivates him today in his MMA career.
“I put it together the summer before that 2015-16 season, and based on my season results I underperformed at the NCAAs,” Rohskopf said.
“I didn’t care about the ACC title, I wanted to compete for a national title. But I did show how good I actually am; even though I didn’t show it at the end of the year, everyone knows how good I really am regardless of what happened at the end.”
A torn labrum derailed his hope of redemption in 2016-17, officially ending his collegiate wrestling career.
Following his shoulder injury, Rohskopf immediately left N.C. State, knowing he was meant to be an athlete and school was never really his thing.
He moved to Wilmington, N.C., where he shifted his full attention to mixed martial arts.
“I think it’s one of the purest forms of competition,” Rohskopf said of MMA.
“I like wrestling. I like jiu-jitsu. I like boxing. I like all that stuff. But the thing I don’t like about all those things is it’s really one dimensional … MMA is more wide open — there are more ways to prove yourself against another person. That’s always why I’ve been really attracted to it.”
The transition from wrestling to MMA has been a natural one, as it has been his long-term plan for a while now.
“It’s kind of been in the back of my mind since I started wrestling,” Rohskopf said.
“The only avenue I had to get (into MMA) was wrestling. I didn’t even know I was going to be able to wrestle in college, so I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get the training I needed. I’ve always known that I wanted to do that. Once I got to college and I started making more connections, I said ‘this is actually going to happen.’”
Rohskopf used those connections while in college to begin developing numerous MMA skill sets instead of focusing solely on wrestling.
An open invitation to the N.C. State wrestling team during Rohskopf’s freshman year from former N.C. State wrestler Sean Spangler to train jiu-jitsu at his gym in Apex, N.C., ultimately helped kick-start Rohskopf’s MMA career.
“I was really kind of the only one who took him up on it, because I knew three or four years down the road, I’m going to need jiu-jitsu and submission grappling anyways, so I might as well start now,” Rohskopf said.
“So I started training with him. He’s so well connected in Vegas and in the fight game, and he has a lot of experience, so he’s my main mentor right now.”
While training jiu-jitsu with Spangler, Rohskopf also developed his boxing skills at Jawbreaker Boxing in Raleigh during his time at N.C. State.
Spangler, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, used his connections to help set Rohskopf up with Alliance/Uzcategui Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Wilmington, where he trained since the time he left N.C. State up until his recent move to Las Vegas.
“Since I’ve been training jiu-jitsu, I don’t wrestle a whole lot anymore,” Rohskopf said.
“But when I do wrestle, my wrestling is even better now, because I’ve been able to add another layer to it. With my style of wrestling, the jiu-jitsu helps, because I wasn’t a traditional wrestler.”
Always looking to improve, he made an effort to connect with other professional fighters and get additional training, spending time working out with Bellator middleweight John Salter and UFC middleweight Derek Brunson, who each fight out of Wilmington.
Rohskopf’s coach in Wilmington, black belt and multiple time International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) open champion Jonathan Uzcategui, is a firm believer great things are coming in MMA for the former wrestler from small-town Killbuck.
“Keep an eye on this kid, he’ll probably be on TV soon,” Uzcategui said.
“He’s a good talent and he’s very hard working … In the four or five months he’s been here, he’s already placed in the highest level of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’m impressed.”
Rohskopf placed third at the IBJJF Pan-American Games and second in No-Gi and second in Gi at the IBJJF American Nationals since training with Uzcategui.
While in Las Vegas for the IBJJF American Nationals, Rohskopf was invited to train at one of the top MMA gyms in the country, Xtreme Couture.
What ensued at Xtreme Couture continued to carry Rohskopf further along his pro career journey.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series from David Kehrli chronicling Max Rohskopf’s initial steps in forging a career in MMA competition.