The Rise of the New Monarchy: Following an ODU Alum's Rise to Fame in the Octagon
Josh Castro | Contributing Writer
As a sound like thunder began to fill the Ted Constant Center, Chris Mecate stared blankly down the hallway, his eyes locked keenly on the black steel cage in the center of the arena. The warrior spirit had brought him to the pinnacle of war, to a place he had been forged in fire years ago as one of Old Dominion University’s world-class wrestlers. As his walkout song began to drown out the cheers of the crowd, he realized his journey had begun once again.
It was time for him to step into the lion’s den again, the only place he truly felt at home.
Mecate sits next to me in a café on a warm Saturday evening, nearly two weeks out from facing the toughest opponent of his MMA career. We laugh and make small talk about our favorite local fighters, the newest renovations to campus and this year’s batch of freshman athletes.
“These kids keep me on my toes every year,” Mecate says with a grin. It’s his second year coaching young athletes full time, a blessing that many fighters will never see. While many are forced to grind out a local 9-5 to pay gym fees, he spends his day crafting champions, which allows plenty of time for personal progression as well.
Though it’s easy to mistake his charm and athletic ability for inherently natural talent, the real story contains an uphill journey that few could stomach.
“I was always a physical kid. My dad knew he could play off that, and got me started in the classic kid sports, baseball, soccer, basketball. He was always looking for something that I would not only excel at but that I would really enjoy as well, something I could sink my teeth into. Of course, with all those team sports, I did well, and I really liked to do them, but there was just something missing in that “team” environment. One day he’s was reading the paper, and saw an article about some local kid who won a trophy in wrestling. He calls me in and says, ‘Chris, do you think you’d like wrestling?’ I said ‘sure, why not.’ So my dad, who didn’t know a thing about wrestling at the time, finds out what club this kid was training at, and the very next week I was signed up for wrestling.”
Unencumbered by the shackles of competitive team sports, he charged into the new world of freestyle wrestling head first. Natural talent rarely negates hard work, and Mecate soon found himself struggling in the early years against a slew of formative opponents.
“My first year I didn’t do well. I wasn’t soft, but I was young and still getting conditioning myself for combat sports and the rigors of competition. My dad made sure I was put through the fire, he stood by me and pushed me because he knew I could get better. It’s so cliché to say, but the older you get, the more you come to appreciate what your parents have done for you. Looking back, he took so much time from his life to help me. Stuff that I assumed all kids had, you know? He would take me at all hours to train or compete anywhere I wanted, and all he expected of me was to put in the work to do well. So that’s what I did,” Mecate said.
The years ticked by, and his passion began to mature into obsession, and he quickly found himself improving in all areas of the sport.
“In high school, I was surrounded by some great coaches, in particular, the Vargas brothers, who were the only ones at the time who lived near me and had competed in Division 1 wrestling. They showed me a ton of support, training with me in private sessions, pushing me to my limit and beyond. The high school coaches I had my freshman year didn’t expect too much, and told my dad if I tried really hard I may even be able to start that year with the other guys.”
Never one to back down, he ran with it, going undefeated until almost Christmas, and facing only minimal losses after that, placing in his California state tournament as a freshman, a rare feat.
“It was a big moment. I think it was the first time colleges coaches started looking at me, I had gained quite a bit of recognition from it. Things didn’t really start picking up until I competed in a competition in North Carolina known as Super 32. The event featured a huge bracket, nearly 180 wrestlers from across the country, with more than a handful being state champions. I was a junior at the time, so I wasn’t even seeded to place well in the competition. I went on to knock off a few future All-Americans and bunch of other state champions to win it all out of 180 people. Looking back, that’s when I think my confidence really began to spike. That’s when I realized all those guys I looked up too, all those household names, they all bled like I bled. I knew I could stand with any of them.”
Now seeded as the number one contender to win the California state championships, he was dealt a devastating blow when he obtained 5th place overall.
“It really hurt,” Mecate says with a sigh. “I wasn’t pouting because I felt like I had given it my all, but I just expected more. Everyone was congratulating me, but in m, head I could stop thinking about how much it sucked to lose. I was waking up every morning at 5 a.m. to go running up hills, I didn’t do that for 5th place.”
He fashioned his anger into a tool, hell bent on showcasing his skills.
“My dad had read a story about Jerry Rice, and how he would run up this hill every morning, because he said that no other receiver in the NFL was up that early running. My dad loved that, so he found a hill like that where we lived and named it “Mecate Hill,” and every morning I would run up and down. That summer I began to hone everything in, I cut out every outside distraction that I thought would hold me back from a state championship title. I had been working my whole life for that title, and I doubled down on my training. I began to go over the top, to the point where I finish a tournament on one day, and not even a day later I’d be back in the gym training with All-American athletes. I told myself that if I was going to lose again, it was going to be on my own terms, not because I didn’t do enough to prepare.”
With the pressure to perform not only for his family, but for the chance to be recruited by the top wrestling programs in the country, Mecate felt the walls begin to close in on him.
“The week before the state tournament, I was training with one of my coaches, and the stress and anxiety to win the state title caught up with me. I told him I needed to use the bathroom and ran outside. I probably cried for like 20 minutes, with all these thoughts running through my head. What if I didn’t win it? All these people had gone above and beyond to support me and see me win, my dad had driven me all across the state to train, something had to give. But I think it was a positive moment, because it cleared my head, and put things back into perspective. These people were still going to be around when it was over, win or lose. So I picked myself up and told myself to get at it.”
Mecate would sweep through his entire division at the state championships that year, clinching his spot as one of the most sought after wrestlers in the country. Recruiters were offers left and right, with other schools vying to add him to their wrestling programs. One coach stood out amongst the rest, taking a round-trip visit to visit Mecate at home.
“I had taken a disappointing trip to Cal-poly, it had seemed unorganized and I just didn’t have the same vibe as I did at Old Dominion. Steve Martin, the head coach at ODU knew it was going to come down to either ODU or Cal-poly, so he took a round trip flight from Norfolk to Los Angeles, rented a car and drove another two hours to my parents home in Highlands, knocked on my door and asked ‘Chris, what do we have to do to get you to Old Dominion?'”
Impressed with the coaches, the team and the beautiful Virginian scenery, Chris declared his intentions to wrestle for ODU and set his eyes on becoming an All-American.
College increased the frequency of competition, and he piled up one win after another, but each year fell short of becoming an All-American champion. Finally, his senior year, he would have one last chance to win it all.
“I hit more than a few bumps on my way up, but that year I steamrolled the competition to win the All-American. I remember in that last match, as the last few seconds were ticking down, a smile coming over my face, because I knew I was going to win it all. I stood on that podium for the last time feeling like I had really done everything in the wrestling world. I had set out to do. I put Old Dominion on the map, and that made me happy.”
Those with a warrior’s heart never forget the thrill of combat, the lust for competition always burns inside their souls, begging them for just one more fight. Mecate quickly found himself on the coaching staff at ODU. But nothing quite satisfied his urge to compete, so he began to train every day at the House of Muay Thai, a MMA academy in downtown Norfolk. He would soon find himself once again facing down an opponent in his old stomping ground at the Ted.
“I had my first fight for the Spartyka Fight League earlier in the summer, and I fell in love with it. I don’t care what anyone has to say, no one has fought more at the Ted Constant Center than I have. I bled for Old Dominion for years at the Ted, so no fighter is going to walk into my house without me having something to say about it,” said Mecate.
And prepare he has. With his next opponent closer than ever, he has honed in everything from his diet to his striking, training endlessly to put on the best show possible.
On October 14, whether he brings home a win, lose or draw, Chris Mecate will always wear the crown of a Monarch.