On the Decline of U.S. Olympic Wrestling

14 Aug

      So the United States took only four wrestling medals in this year’s Olympic games (props to men’s freestyle gold medalists Jordan Ernest Burroughs and Jacob Stephen Varner, bronze medalist Coleman Scott and women’s bronze medalist Clarissa Kyoko Mei Ling Chun) just one more than its disappointing three medal performance from 2008 when two American men and one woman medaled. Back in 2004, the U.S. nabbed six medals (four by male wrestlers, two by females) and in 2000, America took a total of seven medals just among male wrestlers before there were any women’s divisions to add to our count. So what has happened to America in a sport we once stood at the top of?
      There are probably a number of factors involved in the decline of U.S. Olympic wrestling but one that cannot be ignored has to be the emergence of mixed martial arts. Prior to the Ultimate Fighting Championships, American amateur wrestlers had no way of making money with their skills, save possibly going into professional wrestling, which most were loathe to do given the circus-like and prearranged nature of that game. So their only competitive outlet was to continue on in amateur wrestling.
      Even in the early days of the UFC, elite wrestlers like Mark Coleman and Randy Couture only entered into MMA after they were already on the downside of their wrestling careers. There was simply not enough incentive for good young wrestlers to give MMA a try. Wrestlers work their whole life to go to the Olympics and the combination of time spent training for a different sport and the potential for injuries made MMA an afterthought for those who had a shot at an Olympic medal. But that was when MMA was a minor sport and even the top competitors were only being paid a few thousands dollars – hardly enough to risk an Olympic dream for.
      But over the past ten years, MMA in general and the UFC in particular have grown exponentially in terms of popularity… and pay checks. Top UFC fighters can now earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, champions can earn millions. It has become the one outlet where a skilled amateur wrestler can employ his skills to make a decent living. So is it any wonder many top collegiate wrestlers say they look forward not to the Olympics but to becoming a UFC fighter?
      While this has been a boon to the sport of MMA, it appears to have become a severe drain on U.S. Olympic wrestling. Some cases in point:
      Ben Askren, once the top collegiate wrestler in the U.S. and someone who came close to medaling in 2008 in his first trip to the Olympics, probably would have been a favorite to medal – perhaps even win a gold – in this year’s games. Instead, he abandoned wrestling to make a living competing in MMA for the Bellator promotion.
      Johny Hendricks was a two-time NCAA champion who, instead of taking a shot at international wrestling when he graduated college in 2007, went directly into MMA. Though he’s now a top contender for the UFC welterweight crown, it’s also possible you might have been seeing him on the medal stand in London this year if things had gone differently.
      Jon Jones, though he was only a junior college wrestling champion, likely had the talent to be successful on a much larger wrestling stage. Once slated to wrestle for Iowa State (one of the major collegiate wrestling programs in the country) before he got sidetracked, Jones ended up as the UFC lightheavyweight champion and is seemingly on his way to becoming one of the greatest fighters in the history of MMA. But his natural athleticism (two brothers currently in the NFL) and his uncanny wrestling skill (he has easily outwrestled former NCAA All-Americans like Ryan Bader inside the Octagon) perhaps would have given him a chance to medal in the Olympics if his career had gone down a different path.
      While I love MMA and am not unhappy to see great athletes such as these adding to the sport’s talent pool, it’s unfortunate that MMA’s gain has to come at the expense of another sport, particularly one in which America has had such a rich tradition over the years.
      There don’t appear to be any easy solutions here. Though, after the failures of 2008, a program was instituted to guarantee American wrestlers $250,000 if they won a gold medal, that does not help them pay the bills while they’re training for that medal. And given that a gold medal is such a long shot, even for top wrestlers, the incentive this provides would appear to be minimal when compared to the immediate possibility of a pay day in MMA.
      The idea of attempting to do both sports seems even more far fetched. Former Greco-Roman wrestling world champion Joe Warren, after moving to MMA and achieving some moderate success with Bellator, faired poorly when he tried to go back to wrestling this year in a vain attempt to qualify for the Olympics. Both sports are specialties that require complete dedication. To try and take time from one to compete part time in the other will likely only lead to failure in both (Warren also lost his Bellator title by knockout this year, as well).
      Short of someone coming forward to pay big bucks to American wrestlers simply to stay in that sport and compete internationally, perhaps the one hope for a reascendancy of U.S. wrestling on the international scene is an increased international growth of MMA. When wrestlers in Russia and other countries see they, too, can make a lot of money by dropping out of wrestling and entering MMA, then the playing field may start to level off. But until MMA becomes a worldwide phenomenon, not just among fans but among those wanting to compete in it, it seems U.S. Olympic wrestling may well continue to decline.

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