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Saturday February 4th

Former UNC wrestlers Chasen Blair and Andre Petroski chase mixed martial arts dreams

Redshirt senior Austin O'Connor wrestles Little Rock's Austin Keal on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, at Carmicheal Arena. O'Connor beat Keal 24-9.
Buy Photos Redshirt senior Austin O'Connor wrestles Little Rock's Austin Keal on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, at Carmicheal Arena. O'Connor beat Keal 24-9.

Many junior wrestlers dream of making it to the collegiate level. What's less clear, however, is what those athletes can do after their college wrestling careers are over.

To extend their careers, many former wrestlers are trying their hand at a growing sport — mixed martial arts. Although the challenge might be difficult for some, former Tar Heels Chasen Blair and Andre Petroski, have successfully transitioned toward competing on the new grand stage.

After competing for UNC from 2017 through 2021, Blair trained in San Diego and later moved to Liverpool, England at the beginning of 2022 to train with UFC star Paddy Pimblett for eight months. Last April, Blair signed to London-based MMA promotion Cage Warriors, and since then, has earned three knockout victories.

Despite his initial successes, Blair said that booking fights is still difficult and his current focus remains on training for his first fight of 2023 on March 3 in San Diego. Although he is still taking the time to adjust to his new career, he said he understands the impact the North Carolina wrestling program has made on his growth.

“Preparation at Carolina and being a student-athlete there prepared me compared to some of my competitors," Blair said. "That’s why I’ve been able to make a lot of progression in the last year so quick”. 

Petroski wrestled at UNC from 2010 to 2012 before transferring and graduating from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. As the older veteran of the two Tar Heels, Petroski was an amateur MMA fighter for three years before taking part in his first professional fight in 2018. In 2021, he signed to the UFC – the largest MMA promotion in the world – and has since gone a perfect 4-0 against UFC opponents.

Petroski’s father owned a karate studio while he was growing up, giving him the opportunity to be around martial arts his whole life. He began to train at various gyms after graduation, building his network of contacts and getting more connected in the community.

Petroski noted his wrestling background as the key advantage he has over his opponents.

“I’ve been doing MMA now for about eight years," Petroski said. "I can do everything, I can box, I can kick, I can do jujitsu, but what separates me from the guys that aren’t in the UFC is my wrestling”.

With an abundance of former wrestlers looking to enter the ranks of MMA fighting, Petroski emphasized the importance of focusing on wrestling first and being a coachable athlete.

“If you can’t learn, you can’t be taught or coached, you’re never going to be able to make use of your wrestling skills in the sport of MMA,” he said.

Such advice has been invaluable for current UNC wrestlers like Austin O’Connor, a graduate student hoping to fight in MMA in the future.

O’Connor and Blair were roommates in Chapel Hill for three years throughout their overlapping college careers. They keep in contact on a weekly basis as O’Connor looks ahead to what a potential future competing in professional MMA fighting.

The journey won't be easy, though. There are few guarantees in the sport, and hiring trainers and coaches is expensive. O’Connor said he wants to stay in Chapel Hill as a coach for another year and then save up money to train on the west coast after that.

Regardless of the final outcome, the current Tar Heel is dialed in on following in the footsteps of the pioneers that came before him.

“(Chasen) said he loved it and we’ve both always talked about our dreams with that, so it’s great to see him getting into the ring and doing what he said he was going to do," O'Connor said. "And I’m excited to be able to eventually follow that as well."

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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