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Blanchette: National wrestling champ takes shot at MMA

Spokane’s last look at Jamelle Jones was brief and riveting, a college wrestling match that went from lifeless to wham-bam-slam in a flicker and made him a national champion, again.

It was a moment that crackled with possibility, though maybe only Jones himself would see just what the possibilities were.

Tonight he tries to fulfill them.

The former North Idaho College wrestler is one of the principals in Arena Rumble: Rising Stars 2, a mixed martial arts production at 7 p.m. at the Spokane Shock Training Center in Spokane Valley where he’ll make his professional debut.

That should keep expectations modest. Except Jones’ aren’t.

“I’m a champion,” he said. “I expect nothing but the best. I expect to win and be dominant. I expect to fight my heart out.

“I expect success.”

Probably because he’s used to it.

Jones was one of NIC’s two champions when the Cardinals hosted the NJCAA national wrestling meet at the Spokane Convention Center in 2011, but his resume is considerably thicker. A two-time state high school champion in New Jersey, he won a first NJCAA title at St. Louis-Meramec in 2009 before taking a year off to help care for his newborn son. Meramec dropped its program in the interim, which brought him to Coeur d’Alene.

That 2011 match pitted him against Walker Clarke of Labette Community College, who had won the 197-pound title the year Jones sat out. It ended in a pin maybe seven seconds after Clarke had boldly tried for a takedown, Jones’ counter being both swift and lethal, more of an MMA-type finish than a wrestling one.

Then it was off to Campbellsville University in Kentucky, where Jones placed third in the 2012 NAIA nationals, losing a 4-3 decision in the semis.

And then he pulled the plug on college and wrestling.

There was still that young son, almost 4 now, to provide for. There was a girlfriend back in Coeur d’Alene and he “wanted to make it work with her.” He’d come to enjoy the pace of life there and the connections he’d made.

“I weighed it out and I had two national championships and been an All-American three times,” he said. “There’s no money in wrestling, no pro league for us to go to. It was time to go on to the next thing.”

College athletics has turned its back on wrestling so completely by abandoning programs that maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that wrestlers are starting to do the same with college. One of the connections Jones had made here was with Trevor Prangley, a former NIC wrestler who’d ripped up a knee in his final junior college match. As he rehabbed and weighed opportunities at four-year colleges, Prangley discovered MMA competition and decided to forgo his remaining eligibility. He now runs his own gym in Coeur d’Alene where Jones trains.

“I think the level of competition and that you can make a living at this is very inviting for someone that has the genetic capabilities,” said Prangley. “There’s money to be made now. Jamelle sees that and he’s a great prospect.

“And wrestlers have the greatest advantage in transitioning to this sport,” Prangley insisted. “Wrestlers hold the option of where the fight goes, whether to keep it standing or take it down and win there. If you only have one spot to win, you’d better hope you can keep the guy there.”

But there are other skills that need to be learned, and old ones to relearn (“wrestlers need to understand that it’s better to go to your back rather than your hands and knees,” Prangley said). Jones, who’ll face Montana heavyweight Ace Gingrich tonight, has only been training full time since November.

Every day in the gym there’s a new trick to prepare for, a new technique to learn – all while trying not to be consumed with the anticipation of that first fight, or over-regarding its importance.

“Really, you don’t even start fighting until your fifth or sixth fight,” Prangley said. “It takes that long to know how to deal with the different set of nerves you experience.

“It’s not like fighting in a bar where you jump off a chair and hit a guy. You have weeks to think about the fact that you’re going to be in a fight on that night, and the fear of losing in front of people. It takes a while to harness that. That will be a challenge for Jamelle, and we’ll see how he does with that. For me, it was a long road to get over those nerves.”

And Jones has some.

“I’ve got jitters,” he admitted. “I know I won’t have as much experience. But you’re not going to see anybody more athletic than me on this show.”

And he’s accustomed to success.

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