COMMENTARY | When Matt Lindland heard the International Olympic Committee ruled to cut wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games, he was coaching with the U.S. men's Greco-Roman team in Havana, Cuba.
The veteran mixed martial artist and Olympic silver medalist was dumbfounded.
So was UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, rising star and Olympic veteran Daniel Cormier and the entire MMA community, which has gone on the offensive to save wrestling since the IOC's shocking announcement Tuesday.
"Society needs this sport," Lindland said Wednesday night from his hotel in Havana. "This is a sport that develops men and builds character. It doesn't matter what your culture is or your socioeconomic status, you get out on the mat and you compete with other men your size. What other sport gives tiny men and big men and men in the middle equal opportunities?"
Information has been hard to come by while in Cuba, but Lindland said everyone on the U.S. team is sick about the news.
While the decision to cut both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling from the Olympics' 25 "core sports" in 2020 is not final, the ruling remains a major blow. The IOC executive board will meet again in St. Petersburg, Russia, for a final vote in May.
In the interim, the USA Wrestling Olympic Committee has sought support through social media. A Twitter account, called SaveOlympicWrestling (@OlympicWrstling), is operating as a petition that will be sent to the IOC. So far, almost 5,000 users have followed the account, with an eventual goal of 150,000 in mind.
Additionally, fighters like Ben Askren, Tito Ortiz, Jon Jones, Dan Henderson, Mike Chandler, Clay Guida, and Urijah Faber have activity tweeted and retweeted in support of the cause.
They are just a few notable names, which combined with thousands of other fighters and concerned fans, have pushed to keep #SaveOlympicWrestling trending on Twitter.
"I think it's that support and those athletes in a very similar combative sport that understand," said Couture, a three-time Olympic team alternate. "They understand the importance of wrestling as a base and foundation. I think martial arts gave wrestling a martial arts status it didn't have before, both in the scholastic ranks and in the Olympic ranks. We share a mind set, a warrior spirit, so to have a decision like that made, in some ways it feel like your sport is being attacked. At the end of the day, we are all warriors, we are all fighters. We don't take that sort of thing lightly."
Added Cormier: "It's been very refreshing to know that people understand the history that wrestling has with the Olympic games."
Cormier placed fourth at the Athens Games in 2004 and is one of the sport's most outspoken proponents.
"My reaction was, 'You've got to be effin' kidding me," Cormier said. "I was flooded with text messages. It was more disbelief than anything. 'It's not April, but it has to be an April Fool's joke.'"
Cormier says he drew motivation for his own career by seeing the likes of Kurt Angle, Tom Brands, and Kendall Cross standing on the podium with gold medals in 1996.
"It was seeing that pure emotion and happiness of our wrestlers attaining the ultimate goal of being the best in the world," Cormier said. "I didn't know it at the time, but that was something that drove me in college and through the World Championships."
With the future of wrestling as an Olympic sport now in doubt, many wrestlers may turn to MMA sooner rather than later.
"It's hard to say whether it's good or bad," Couture said. "Yeah, I think MMA is going to see an influx of high-caliber wrestlers now come to MMA sooner. Is that good? I don't know if that's good.
"How much notoriety do you get when one of those Olympic athletes that has an Olympic medal hanging around his neck already forays into MMA? I mean, it was a pretty big deal when Rulon Gardner fought in Pride. Matt Lindland as a silver medalist fighting in the UFC. Dan Henderson still fighting today as a two-time Olympian. Joe Warren as an Olympian fighting the sport in Bellator. Those guys bring a legitimacy and a fan base from what's considered a legitimate sport to mixed martial arts, which is a sport that is sometimes still misunderstood, which some people think is extreme and fringe and not legitimate."
Wrestling actually has a long history in mixed martial arts, so much so that it's commonly regarded as one of the best bases to train from.
"Wrestling has been a critical element to the growth of mixed martial arts," Lindland said. "Probably the most influential sport there is. I understand the guys that do their Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are the guys that developed the sport, but all that is is wrestling with a jacket on for God's sake."
Wrestling was part of the inaugural modern-era Games in 1896, and it's one of the United States' strongest Olympic sports. The country has racked up 124 medals over the years.
"It's that grit and determination that wrestlers have," Cormier said. "Wrestlers have the commitment to training. Not many sports encourage that kind of training on a consistent basis. We are willing to do things that most people aren't. We'll train hard and long, training through injuries."
But this isn't just an American endeavor. Seventy-one nations competed in wrestling at the 2012 Olympics in London, a tally that includes men, women and nations from six different continents.
That tally represents participation from athletes that don't have the resources to compete in other Olympic events such as cycling, equestrian, or modern pentathlon.
"I'm optimistic," Lindland said. "I think maybe this is an opportunity for our sport to gain some mainstream exposure, hopefully. Maybe this will be a blessing in the end."
Paul Putignano lives in Southern California, where he has covered mixed martial arts and a wide array of sports across the Greater Los Angeles area. His work has been published in a variety of newspapers and online publications.
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