Ex-Antelope Wrestler Escudero Returns to Campus as MMA Fighter
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
Efrain Escudero remembers the recruiting pitch from R.C. LaHaye, then Grand Canyon University’s new wrestling coach, as if it were yesterday.
Here’s where the school is going to build a new arena. Over there is where a rec center will go, and it’ll have a wrestling practice facility. You’d love it here.
It all came true — including that last part — and Escudero says Friday’s Bellator 100 mixed martial arts event is like a homecoming for him. He’s one of seven Arizona fighters on the 12-bout card, and the action starts at 4 p.m. in GCU Arena.
Escudero, 27, originally from Yuma, was a state wrestling champion at Cibola High School and a junior-college All-American at Pima Community College in Tucson. He says he had offers from schools in the Midwest but wanted to stay close to home.
The youngest of five children in a field-working family, he was the first of the brood to graduate from high school. His brothers were in and out of trouble with the law.
“A lot of people said I’d be the same as they were,” says Escudero, who signed with GCU and became captain of LaHaye’s first team in 2007-08. The Antelopes didn’t win a single dual meet — they went 0-24-1 — but Escudero won the Utah Valley Open at 157 pounds and thereby became the first tournament champion in the history of the program, which has since produced several All-Americans under LaHaye.
“He was scrappy and gritty,” LaHaye says. “He was one of our leaders. He’s a good story and a good guy.”
After Escudero’s one season with GCU, he was selected for an MMA reality TV show from a videotape he made out back of Hegel Hall on campus. The show led to the start of a career, first with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and then with Bellator.
“Wrestling opened doors for me,” Escudero says. “I grew up wanting to be a soccer player, but I grew to the sides and was short and chubby. I started wrestling in junior high, when I was 12 years old.”
Mentored and coached in those early days by Jose “Pepe” Moreno, who wrestled for Arizona State University, Escudero blossomed and saw a purpose for himself.
“He told me he wouldn’t let me stay in Yuma,” Escudero says of Moreno. “He wanted me to do something with my life.”
To those who say that MMA is a brutal way to do something, he has an answer ready. Yes, there are injuries. But he’s not getting hit constantly about the head as boxers are.
“MMA isn’t barbaric,” he insists. “It’s less damaging than boxing. An MMA fighter might break a bone, but he won’t be mentally disabled at the age of 40. … We’re athletes, and there are rules and regulations, like any other sport.”
Escudero says nothing compares to a fight night for him.
“It’s an adrenaline rush when you first walk out there and see the fans, some cheering and some booing,” he says. “When they close the cage, it’s just you and him in the ring, and I love it.
“Once I get punched in the face, call me crazy, but I like it.”
On Friday, that ring will be located on the very site where he used to run wind sprints for LaHaye.
“He trained us hard,” Escudero says. “He demanded a lot of us. I was the kind of guy that if you told me to run 10 miles, I would. … It feels good to come home. A lot of blood, sweat and tears were shed here. GCU has grown so much, and it’s amazing to see it.”
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.