After a successful career with Nebraska wrestling that came to a close in 2019, Tyler Berger was ready to get back on the mat.
The coronavirus put that goal on hold, but the current Husker volunteer assistant coach got his wish two weeks ago when he returned to his home state of Oregon to compete at a wrestling event known as Wrestling Underground 1, a meet that featured some of the best wrestlers in the country.
“During COVID, there’s been these events which have a mixture of wrestling and UFC,” Berger said. “It’s the same rules as a wrestling match, except it’s in a cage and they usually have six to eight matches. They stream it online for fans to watch as well, so it’s a great way to keep wrestling going during this time.”
The event was streamed on UFC’s Fight Pass and app, and, according to Team USA, the event was backed and promoted by UFC legend Chael Sonnen. The event had six total matches with Berger opening-up the night with a showdown against three-time All-American Joey McKenna, an alumnus of Ohio State.
“I was contacted by one of the people who put on the event, Kevin Keeny,” Berger said. “I knew him back in high school, and he asked if I would be interested in wrestling at this event. I said, ‘absolutely,’ it didn’t matter who I’m wrestling or what the weight was, I just wanted to wrestle.”
With COVID-19 concerns still prevalent, the event was practically empty with only camera crew, officials and the 12 wrestlers allowed inside the arena.
“It was weird,” Berger said. “There were no fans. You couldn’t bring a partner to practice with or even a coach. It was completely silent at the event. So, I had to get myself going for the match. Get my mind and body ready to go.”
After graduating from Nebraska in 2019, the three-time All-American stayed with the UNL wrestling team for the 2019-2020 season as a volunteer coach. He also continued to train and prepare for future wrestling opportunities. Unfortunately Nebraska’s season came to an abrupt end with the NCAA championship being cancelled due to COVID-19 — cutting Berger’s first season as a coach short. And while training for a close-contact sport like wrestling proved difficult during the first few months of the pandemic, Berger persisted.
“I never stopped working out during COVID,” Berger said. “There was a time, though, where we couldn’t get on the mat, so that was tough. But I kept doing everything else that I needed to do in order to be the strongest that I could be.”
Berger and McKenna never competed against each other during their college years, as they were in different weight classes.
“I knew it was going to be an interesting match, going up against McKenna,” Berger said. “But I knew what my advantages were going to be. I knew having a little more weight on him and being in a cage was going to be the key to winning.”
Although Berger came into the match with the size advantage, there was still speculation going up against a four-time conference champion. All of that went away when the match started, as Berger bolted in and never stopped. Using the cage to his advantage, Berger was able to get out to an early lead against the two-time world medalist and leave the match with an 8-2 victory.
“A lot of people thought I was the underdog,” Berger said. “But I think this match helped open some eyes and spread my name. I wasn’t the first choice when being matched up with McKenna, there were other names being suggested before me by the event people.”
Both Berger and McKenna enjoyed the time back on a mat. McKenna even posted on Twitter after the match, thanking Berger and the host of the event for the opportunity.
“It was great,” Berger said. “McKenna is a great wrestler, and that’s why I wanted to wrestle him. Being able to go up against him was a big opportunity and just being able to wrestle again was a great feeling too.”