When it comes to the great rivalries in college athletics, Michigan State vs. Boston College isn’t one of them.
That said, however, when the Spartans and the Eagles get together, it’s usually a big deal.
When BC moved from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Eagles’ first basketball game in the annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge was a 65-58 win over the Spartans in 2006. The following spring, BC and MSU met on the ice in the finals of the 2007 NCAA hockey tournament, and after trailing by a goal deep into the third period, the Spartans scored three goals in the last 10:07 to win their first national championship in over 20 years. That fall, BC football enjoyed its best season since its move to the ACC, and after falling short against Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, the Eagles defeated Michigan State in the Champs Sports Bowl to earn a Top Ten finish in the AP poll.
Put simply, there’s usually something on the line when BC and Michigan State face off.
“Both are huge sports universities,” said UFC lightweight – and BC soccer alum – Kenny Florian. “Michigan State has been for a long time, and they just have a very strong athletic program. I think BC is one of the stronger ones on the East Coast, and it’s cool to have two athletic powerhouses in the college world going at it.”
Florian never faced Michigan State in his four years in an Eagles uniform, and since BC doesn’t have a varsity wrestling team, Gray Maynard – who will face Florian at UFC 118 – never met the Eagles in his four years as a wrestler at Michigan State. However, while neither fighter had a big BC-Michigan State moment, their upcoming fight at TD Garden in Boston certainly qualifies.
“We’ve got BC and Michigan State going at it here in Boston,” Florian said, “so we’re going to make the most of it.”
While he’s shifted a large portion of his training to the Tristar Gym in Montreal, Florian remains a major presence in his hometown, teaching and training at the Florian Martial Arts Center in Brookline, Mass., working on his boxing with longtime coach Peter Welch, and working on strength and conditioning with trainer Mike Boyle, a Boston-area institution best known for his work with the Boston University hockey team.
“We don’t talk about it too too much,” Florian said of their associations with rival schools. “In the beginning, we joked around a little bit about it, but he’s awesome.”
Still, while he stays close to home, Florian stays quite busy with training, teaching at the Florian Martial Arts Center and co-hosting ESPN’s MMA Live. As a result, he doesn’t have as much opportunity to follow his alma mater as he’d like.
“I don’t have an opportunity to really follow sports like I used to, just in general,” Florian said. “I really don’t have the time that I used to. But I try to follow up and see how the BC football team is doing, I was really excited to see BC win the national championship [in hockey this past April], and I used to love going to the BC basketball games. I haven’t been to a BC anything in a few years. Hopefully, I can find some time to get back and watch the football team play this year, the basketball team, and hopefully the hockey team. I’m always supporting and rooting for them.”
Maynard, meanwhile, trains in Las Vegas at Xtreme Couture, a long way from East Lansing, but like Florian, still supports his team when he can.
“That’s my alma mater,” Maynard said. “It’s a great school, and I keep up.”
Maynard doesn’t have specific memories of his Spartans’ comeback championship win three years ago – think Silva vs. Sonnen with the underdog factor of Serra vs. St-Pierre – but the Eagles still managed to make an impression on him.
“I remember the hockey a couple of times, even while I was at school,” said Maynard, who earned All-America honors for the Spartans in 2001, 2002 and 2003. The fact that Maynard remembers seeing MSU and BC on the ice is saying something, because even though Maynard remains a fan of MSU teams, he tends not to remember specifics.
“I’m the worst at that type of stuff,” Maynard said. “I’ll watch it, but I’ll forget about it real quickly. What’s next?”
Maynard’s short memory also applies to crowd reactions, which is good when fighting a hometown favorite as he will be at UFC 118. Of course, ignoring a hostile crowd is a skill Maynard honed in the Big Ten, wrestling for the Spartans in places like State College, Ann Arbor and Iowa City.
“I was doing that for a long time,” Maynard said, “so the crowd doesn’t help or hurt. I’m there, the cage door closes, and that’s it. I’m ready to fight. There’s nothing that the crowd can do to hurt me.”
For his part, Florian is looking forward to a better home crowd than he ever enjoyed as a BC soccer player.
“We really didn’t have the biggest crowds, to be honest” Florian said, “but it was cool. It was always good to be playing at home and having their support, their motivation behind you. Relating it to the fight game, any time you have a crowd behind you, they’re always there to motivate you in those times when you need it, those times when you need to fight back. Many times, it acts as a great intimidating factor to your opponent, especially when he’s taking a beating and the crowd’s going nuts.”
Maynard remains skeptical, saying, “One thing I’ve learned over the years is if you go in there and you’re prepared, that’s all you need to do.”
Of course, both of these former college athletes will be well prepared when they step into the Octagon on August 28. What remains to be seen, however, is which one will go to the head of the class.