Can mixed martial arts save wrestling?

2011-02-19T01:44:00Z Can mixed martial arts save wrestling?By DAVE SKRETTA, AP Sports Writer The Times and Democrat
February 19, 2011 1:44 am  • 

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - Randy Couture remembers the path his life was supposed to follow. He would put his foreign language and literature degree to good use as a high school teacher, and his background as an All-American wrestler to work as a coach.

Those were the days before mixed martial arts, back when something called the "Ultimate Fighting Championship" was only beginning to give birth to an entirely new sport. The former NCAA runner-up at Oklahoma State was content trying out for the Olympics, helping young wrestlers in high school and college, and scraping together enough money for a decent living.

Couture never envisioned he would become one of the pioneers of MMA, nor that the sport once derided by Sen. John McCain as "human cockfighting" might help save his own first love.

As school wrestling programs are put on chopping blocks across the country, either to reach Title IX compliance or save a few bucks in a down economy, mixed martial arts is providing the centuries-old sport some salvation. Kids interested in professional fighting without access to trainers or gyms are giving it a lift - simply by walking into wrestling rooms again.

"Wrestling is a great foundation for mixed martial arts," said Couture, who shelved his original career path in favor of the UFC in the late 1990s, only to see it explode in popularity. "It's one of the oldest combative sports on the planet for a reason."

Mixed martial arts has undoubtedly become big business, catering to a younger demographic that snaps up T-shirts and tickets, video games and energy drinks. Thousands of fans are turned on by the action, the intensity, the sacrifice that it takes to be great.

In short, many of the same elements that once drove kids to wrestling.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, more than 355,000 high schoolers competed on 9,772 teams during the sport's high-water mark in 1977, back when Dan Gable was an Olympic hero and the United States was a force on the international scene.

By 1995, more than 1,200 of those programs had been cut and participation was at 217,000.

The cuts have been just as pronounced in college, where more than 650 schools have axed programs across all levels, including 177 in Division I, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Among those to drop the sport are Auburn, Florida State and Texas - schools that spend lavishly on football and other athletic programs.

Part of the decline has been tied to Title IX, the landmark federal legislation passed in 1972 designed to create equal educational opportunities for men and women. Schools began cutting men's programs such as wrestling that had no female equivalent in an attempt to balance the number of teams for each gender, along with the amount of money allocated to them.

By the early 1980s, the country found itself in the throes of a recession, and more schools began trimming the sport to save money, a practice that continued into the mid-90s.

"In a lot of ways, wrestling has been the redheaded stepchild in the sports world," Couture said. "It's never really had that status with the general public."

About the time wrestling was at its lowest, the UFC came barreling onto the scene.

A group of investors put together a single-elimination tournament in November 1993 designed to crown the world's best fighting style. The pay-per-view show was a modest success, and more events followed, before McCain and others began to deride the often-bloody combat.

Mixed martial arts went underground and overseas as state after state banned "no-holds-barred" fighting, only to reappear in earnest during the early part of the last decade, when the UFC began to work with state athletic commissions on a universal set of rules and regulations.

When the UFC landed a reality show on cable, it ushered in a new era for mixed martial arts. All those states that had been disgusted by the sport began to sanction it, crowds began to fill major arenas, millions watched on television, and mainstream sponsors began flocking to a sport that had just a few years earlier been considered taboo.

Fast-forward to the present. The UFC recently sold out 55,000 seats at the Rogers Centre in Toronto for a show on April 30. An event by rival promoter Strikeforce last weekend in New Jersey attracted more than 1.1 million viewers for premium cable partner Showtime.

Wrestling can only dream of that kind of attention.

"The MMA is a tricky situation for amateur wrestling," said Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. "As more young kids across the nation watch MMA, it reinforces the notion that combative sports are cool, and as a result, it's become the 'in thing.' That will inspire more young kids to participate in amateur wrestling.

"On the other hand, entities like ours are constantly trying to convince key decision-making administrators that amateur wrestling supports the greater educational mission of schools."

Whatever the reason, the link between MMA and wrestling has been good for both sports.

Mixed martial arts has begun plucking talented wrestlers from college programs across the country, giving them an opportunity to continue competing that hadn't existed.

While the money is nowhere near what elite boxers and other professional athletes earn, the biggest stars still command six figures per fight. Smaller promotions can pay up to $40,000 per fight, often with bonuses for knockouts and the "fight of the night."

"The big-time wrestling fans haven't open-armed accepted fighting yet, they still feel like fighting is pulling wrestlers away," said former Michigan All-American Joe Warren, who's been fighting in the Bellator promotion. "We can make as much as you can make in a whole year winning a (wrestling) world championship in one fight. Hopefully the fans understand that."

Among those who have transitioned to mixed martial arts are former NCAA champion Brock Lesnar, who previously struck it rich in the WWE; Dan Cormier, who wrestled in the Olympics and won Pan-Am gold after his career at Oklahoma State; and Ben Askren, the 2007 and '08 NCAA champion from Missouri whose younger brother also wrestled for the Tigers.

While they still must learn other major elements of MMA - like jiujitsu and kickboxing - wrestlers already have a background in the ground game, and an understanding of the unique work ethic that goes into conditioning, strength training and monitoring their weight.

"Wrestling is the base of all grappling, and all hand-to-hand combat. If you're a good wrestler, you're going to be good at this," said Warren, who also hopes to make the Greco-Roman team for the 2012 London Olympics. "Wrestling teaches you how to scramble, mental toughness, and that's something I think MMA people who don't come from wrestling don't have."

Warren believes so much in the marriage of MMA and wrestling that he helped establish RiNo Sport Galleri, a gym in Denver that caters to both sports.

Many high school wrestling coaches worry the two will become inextricably linked - they are, after all, different sports, with different rules and objectives. But they've also witnessed the number of kids coming to their practices increase dramatically, and they know why.

"I'm starting to get youngsters coming to my camp that want to move into MMA someday," said Jeff Jordan, who's coached St. Paris Graham to 10 straight Division II Ohio state titles. "I'm not a big MMA fan, but I know being a good wrestler is a great foundation."

That's a big reason why participation has risen every year since 2004, gaining back about 40,000 kids from the sport's nadir. More than 10,000 high schools now sponsor wrestling, the most ever, according to the coaches association, and Arkansas became the 49th state to sanction championships when it added 42 programs for the 2008-09 school year.

"It's an interesting subject," said Jeff Buxton, who runs one of the elite high school wrestling programs in the country at New Jersey's Blair Academy. "I had a friend who coached in New Mexico and fathers were pushing their kids into wrestling to prepare them for the MMA."

There are new opportunities for kids in college, too.

Despite pressing budget shortfalls in many states, 68 new programs have been added across all divisions since 1999 - offsetting 29 cuts over the same period. And this year's Division I tournament in Philadelphia has sold a record 105,000 tickets to all sessions, making it one of the top-five revenue-generating sports among all NCAA championships.

"MMA is certainly starting to show its face in the wrestling world. Or better yet, wrestling is starting to show its face in the MMA world," said Mark Reiland, the coach of Iowa City (West) High School, one of the top programs in the country.

"We do get kids that are very interested in the sport," he said. "Some talk about doing it when they finish. I believe a couple have even done some fights in the local events here. So it is starting to become something that may help the sport at the younger levels."

A look at wrestlers succeeding mixed martial arts

Here's a look at some former college and Olympic wrestlers who have made the transition to mixed martial arts:

-Randy Couture: The face of the UFC for years, Couture was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State and later coached at Oregon State. He made his UFC debut in 1997 and is still competing in MMA. His team, Xtreme Couture, is one of the sport's most successful.

-Brock Lesnar: Perhaps best known for his career in WWE, Lesnar wrestled at the University of Minnesota, winning the 2000 NCAA title. He made his MMA debut in 2007 and won the UFC heavyweight title in his fourth professional fight.

-Mark Coleman: One of the pioneers of MMA, Coleman was an NCAA champion at Ohio State before embarking on his professional fighting career. He fought in the UFC for the first time in 1996 and has established his own training camp made up primarily of former wrestlers.

-Dan Cormier: After winning two junior college titles, Cormier transferred to Oklahoma State and was national runner-up. He won gold at the 2003 Pan-Am Games and was fourth at the 2004 Olympics. He moved to MMA in 2009 and has won his first seven fights.

-Aaron Simpson: A two-time All-American at Arizona State, Simpson has also been a college wrestling coach. He began fighting in 2007 and has fought primarily for the UFC.

-Josh Koscheck: A four-time All-American at Edinboro University, Koscheck appeared on the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter," the reality-style cable program that helped establish the UFC as the dominant promotion. He has a professional record of 15-5.

-Urijah Faber: One of the most popular fighters in the lighter weight divisions, Faber wrestled for UC-Davis and twice qualified for the NCAA tournament. He is 24-4 as a professional and has received some mainstream attention as a pitchman for the AMP energy drink.

-Jake Rosholt: A three-time NCAA champion from Oklahoma State, Rosholt won his first five professional fights before losing three of his next five. He trains out of Couture's gym.

-Ben Askren: Considered among the best wrestlers ever at Missouri, Askren lost NCAA title matches in 2004 and '05 before winning the next two years. He also competed in the 2008 Olympics before jumping to MMA in 2009, where he has won his first seven fights.

-Joe Warren: An All-American at Michigan, Warren began fighting in 2009 and has won five of his first six matches. He is simultaneously training with the U.S. national Greco-Roman team in an attempt to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.

 

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