During the Big Ten Network's broadcast of the Midlands, an annual collegiate wrestling tournament at Northwestern University, wrestling legend Dan Gable addressed MMA. He said that he worries that the money will attract too many of the top wrestlers away from training for the Olympics, but the two can learn to live side-by-side and even help each other out.
Defection from elite wrestling to MMA has already begun. Ben Askren, a 2008 freestyle Olympian, has begun training at American Top Team and is set for his first MMA fight on February 7. Mo Lawal (pictured) was on the freestyle national team, and took second at the Olympic Trials, before winning three straight Sengoku bouts. Now there is talk of the WEC building a flyweight division specifically for Olympic gold medalist, Henry Cejudo.
Former national team coach and current Iowa assistant coach Terry Brands sees MMA differently than his mentor, Gable:
"It's almost catastrophic to the development of wrestlers in our country," said Brands, "It hurts, it hurts our country."
Brands has a right to be worried about the future of the sport. Since 1972, 466 college programs have been cut. The sport is under siege due to shrinking budgets at colleges and high schools, the enforcement of Title IX, and the lure of more popular sports like football and basketball. Seemingly every year, I buy a "Save College X" wrestling t-shirt, yet, it is never saved.
But Brands is shortsighted to think MMA will do anything but help wrestling. When children find out that many of their favorite fighters started their careers in a wrestling room, they will follow in their hero's footsteps. Not to mention that wrestling and mixed martial arts are not mutually exclusive. Askren, Lawal and Cejudo can participate in fights yet still participate in the Olympics.
I tend to agree with Gable. Before the next Olympics in 2012, wrestling and MMA's leadership need to come to an understanding as to how these two can help each other. The U.S. Olympic Training Center should be opened to fighters who need help with wrestling skills. Fighters under contract who wish to pursue the Olympics should be allowed to take a year off. There is no reason for an all-or-nothing mentality.
Photo via Amateur Wrestling Photos