NCAA champ Anthony Cassar laying groundwork to join Penn State teammate Bo Nickal in UFC

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Bo Nickal isn't the only Nittany Lion hoping to take the world by storm.

Enter Penn State University wrestling alumnus Anthony Cassar, who makes his second professional MMA appearance Sunday at Fury Challenger Series 8 in Houston.

For as long as he can remember – long before a national championship and Big Ten Conference championship – Cassar had MMA on his mind. The benefits of a fruitful MMA career align with his personality.

“I actually knew from sophomore year of high school that I wanted to fight,” Cassar told MMA Junkie. “I saw the wrestlers start dominating in the UFC. I really started seeing myself doing that. It also makes sense with my personality and a lot of things I gravitate toward. I just really like those big moments, the big stage, the entertainment aspect of it, the money, the fame. All of that really attracts me. In wrestling, you get that, especially at the college level, but it's a completely different level when you get to that world stage in MMA.”

Cassar's wrestling career began in youth. One of four boys, his father introduced it to them at a young age. Cassar was immediately drawn to the 1-on-1 nature of competition. It was complete glory or complete failure – no in-between.

“I had a pretty natural feel for it, but I wasn't in the best position for training,” Cassar said. “We started the program in my town. I was kind of behind the curve up until really high school and college when I really started focusing in on it.”

Mar 23, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Penn State wrestler Anthony Cassar (blue) reacts after defeating Oklahoma State wrestler Derek White (not pictured) in the finals of the 285 pound weight class during the NCAA Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

When he speaks about his collegiate wrestling career, Cassar does so from the perspective of an underdog. You can hear the belief in his voice that perhaps he was never naturally the best, he just worked hard to get there.

With a chip on his shoulder and a drive to get better, Cassar won an NCAA Division I championship in 2019. He defeated multiple ranked wrestlers including Gable Steveson to get there.

The doubt that came with a 2018 win against Ohio State sticks out in his brain as one of his all-time favorite moments. He felt the room had already made up their minds – and he proved them wrong.

“On paper, they were going to beat us that year and break our crazy 60-dual meet win streak,” Cassar said. “We had a couple guys injured and out, so everyone was counting us out outside of our Penn State culture. I got the call to wrestle that night and basically, it kind of came down to my match. I was wrestling at 197 pounds against the No. 1 kid in the country at the time. I still hadn't really had a big name out there yet and I ended up securing the win.

“Then, our heavyweight capped off the dual. That was ‘the dual of the century,' they call it. That was one of the best moments I've ever experienced of just really feeling that team aspect and stepping up when the moment was the absolute biggest. Outside of my national title, I always say that was my favorite moment.”

Cassar's exit from wrestling and pivot to MMA wasn't exactly how he drew it up, however. A severe shoulder injury in his senior year resulted in surgery and the end of his collegiate career.

“It was super tough,” Cassar said. “I think a lot of athletes go through it in different ways. For me, it was an injury that I felt like (happened) when I was on top of the world in pursuit of Olympic gold. That was my next goal after my national title. I was in a good spot to do that. In the qualifying tournament, I got hurt and I tried to continue to wrestle through it the next couple months. It just kind of kept giving out. That kind of cut my dreams short.”

Cassar was faced with a choice, made even more difficult by the sudden COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Would an Olympic pursuit be next?

After some soul-searching, life persuaded Cassar in a different direction.

“After I got hurt and I reevaluated, I prayed about it and talked to my loved ones,” Cassar said. “I felt like my heart was pulling me toward making that journey. I already love everything about it. Everything that I've expected has come. The first fight kind of reflected everything I hoped for.”

The start to his official MMA stint has been slow but calculated. Meanwhile, his former roommate and close friend Bo Nickal has taken the world by storm. Cassar hopes to find similar success as he brings his elite-level abilities to a different sport.

“It was really good to watch that whole journey and get a real sense of what that's going to look like,” Cassar said. “Out of anyone, we (wrestlers) definitely have the biggest advantage. That helps a lot. When things get crazy, we can resort back to the wrestling. It's proven to be the most successful style. That gives you a lot of confidence. But for sure, there's a learning curve: striking, jiu-jitsu, all of it.

“That's what my focus has been throughout this last six months or so. It's just focusing on those new styles, becoming adequate at them, and then continue to improve them to hopefully become somewhat near my wrestling that I can always fall back on. You definitely can't just walk in there and hope to be successful unless you just want to be a super boring fighter and hold guys down.”

In December, Cassar made his pro MMA debut and quickly defeated 22-fight veteran Idrees Wasi by first-round submission at iKON FC 6.

It's been a struggle to find opponents since then, as Cassar moves down from heavyweight to light heavyweight. With so many intangibles coming into play, Cassar isn't sure what his build will look like – but he's confident the final product will be one worth watching.

“Obviously, it was great to be a part of that quick rise with Bo,” Cassar said. “He does things like that, though, if you look at his career. He's super exciting and he likes to go for it right away. I'm more of the cerebral type. I like to make sure I'm prepared and ready to go and dominate. Honestly at this point, I'm just focused on getting better and improving each fight camp and each camp.

“I know where I'm going. I know my goals are inevitable. I don't need to rush it. But at the same time, I'm open to what comes and not really setting a strict deadline for anything. … I do think God put me here to do this on the biggest stage.”

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