Austin O’Connor, a graduate of St. Rita, won his 2nd NCAA championship in March while competing for the University of North Carolina. Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics

Austin O’Connor, a graduate of St. Rita, won his 2nd NCAA championship in March while competing for the University of North Carolina. Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics

Elite wrestler Austin O’Connor aspires to be UFC champ

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By Mike Walsh
Correspondent

There are 38 North Carolina wrestlers who stepped on the mat at least once for the Tar Heels this season.

Nine competed in at least one match at 149 pounds. Seven battled at 165.

At 157, however, there is but one name listed: Austin O’Connor.

Competing as a graduate student this season, the 2017 St. Rita alum won his second national championship in three seasons, earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference recognition for the fifth time and was named the ACC Co-Wrestler of the Year. He concluded a brilliant career with a record of 131-13 (.910 winning percentage), including 28-1 in ACC matches.

O’Connor went 181-4 during his high school career at St. Rita and was four-time IHSA state champion.

“From a young age, I’ve had a competitive edge and from the people I had around me always pushing me in everything,” said O’Connor, who grew up in Lockport. “They have helped me out, and I always want to do better and work hard and get there.

“I want to just be a Chicago guy and work for things.”

The 2022-2023 season marked the ninth time a UNC wrestler was afforded the top honor in the conference, with O’Connor becoming the second Tar Heel and seventh wrestler in ACC history to win the award more than once.

“People are going to view Austin O’Connor as a person who changed the University of North Carolina wrestling for this generation,” Tar Heels coach Coleman Scott said. “He’s a five-time All-American, which will never be done again.

“A two-time national champion and only the second multi-champion in the history of the program; he’s completely changed the trajectory for the program going forward.”

With the 2023 NCAA finals now in the past, O’Connor has reflected “a little bit” on everything he’s accomplished while wearing a Carolina Blue singlet.

“I had a goal in mind and what I did was pretty amazing,” he said. “We took the university back to where it was and heading in the right direction.

“I want to stick around next year and coach, and add to our team’s legacy as well.”

OConnor 3

Austin O’Connor (right), who grew up in Lockport, finished his college career at North Carolina as a five-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection and five-time All-American. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics

While O’Connor’s numbers are indeed exemplary, so is his desire to compete.

During the 2021-22 season, he injured his right leg at practice. After sitting out for two weeks to heal, he participated in the ACC tournament in February 2022 and sustained a more severe injury, fully tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee as well as his medial and lateral meniscus, and spraining his lateral collateral ligament and medial collateral ligament.

O’Connor wrestled with the ravaged knee at the 2021-2022 NCAA national tournament and he placed eighth at 157 pounds. He then let his knee heal and rehabilitated the injury, and three months later underwent more surgeries to have scare tissue removed.

“I started to see improvements and I was slowly getting better,” he said. “I started wrestling a few weeks into this season.

“There are still a few aches, but it’s not the same as it was. I’m able to wrestle and do everything else in my daily life.”

On March 18 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, O’Connor authored the final chapter of his collegiate wrestling career, defeating Penn State’s Levi Haines 6-2 in the championship bout at 157.

“I wanted to try to bounce back and prove people wrong after taking eighth last year,” he said. “That made it more special to win it.”

O’Connor is the second Tar Heels wrestler to win multiple titles, joining T.J. Jaworsky, who won three straight (1993-95).

“Austin came here with a goal and that was to be a national champion,” Scott said. “He worked extremely hard during his time here and he’s earned the right to be called a two-time national champion.

“But even better, he’s walking out of here with a degree and a bright future ahead, and we’re excited to see what the future holds for Austin O’Connor.”

O’Connor graduated with a double major in communications and exercise-sport science. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship program at Chapel Hill. He would like to coach at UNC next season while preparing for a possible career as a mixed martial artist.

“Next year, I want to help my team while transitioning to MMA,” O’Connor said. “I’ll have some free time to learn martial arts so I can fully chase down that dream to fully compete and be at the top of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).

“It’s hard to stay in the sport of wrestling (as a competitor) because there’s no money involved. I’d rather pursue MMA because there’s more fame and money involved in that. It’d be easier to pursue that.

“For now, I’ll train for MMA and, if not, I’ll have a coaching job on my resume that I can come back to.”

Would he consider a return to St. Rita?

“I could see myself there,” O’Connor said. “I could be an athletic director or coach. But now, I want to be a UFC champion.”

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