Wrestling to get an MMA-inspired makeover

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

“I swear it upon Zeus an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler.”

Wrestling is the fundamental skill in MMA, as it can dictate where the fight takes place.

But more fundamentally still, wrestling goes to the heart of human existence. Wrestlng is as old as humankind. The creation story of numerous cultures centers on it.

The Japanese trace their origin to a wrestling match between Takeminakata no Kami (representing man) vs. Takemikaza no Kami (representing God). In the 32nd chapter of Genesis (Old Testament) Jacob wrestled an angel (he lost).  And in the United States, in Plymouth, the founding fathers wrestled braves from the friendly Massasoit tribe, as an early exercise in strong-arm diplomacy.

In the 18th Olympiad, in 708 BC, wrestling (pale) was added. In 648 BC mixed martial arts (pankration) was added.

With various additions, the Olympics continued for over 1,000 years, until in 394 AD, when it was banned by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, as part of his campaign to impose Christianity in Rome.

When the Olympics were reborn in Athens in 1896, wrestling again became a focus of the Games.

In February, the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board made an unfathomable, despicable recommendation to drop the sport. In so doing, the IOC voted to maintain field hockey, rugby, golf, taekwondo, and modern pentathlon. How many people can even name all the individual sports in modern pentathlon?

Wrestling is now forced into a pool with wushu, wakeboarding, karate, rollersports, baseball/softball (they are making a joint bid), squash, and sports climbing as candidates for one empty spot in the list of 26 core sports.

But wrestling is fighting back, and drawing inspiration from another sport that defined the ancient Olympic games – Mixed Martial Arts.

Former world champion and chairman of the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, Bill Scherr, met recently with UFC chief executive Dana White and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney.

Scherr then published an essay titled ‘A Shout Out to the UFC!’

As wrestling fights for its life to stay in the Olympic program, it is important to celebrate and understand the Ultimate Fighting Championships. It has become a tremendous source of pride and entertainment for the wrestling community and offers much that wrestling can learn from and emulate. They have also provided a showcase for the great skills wrestling develops and have highlighted many of wrestling’s greatest athletes.

The UFC is the largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world. Based in the United States, they have a long-term contract with FOX television and average 4 or 5 million viewers per show. They have achieved more than a million “buys” on pay-per-view broadcasts for individual fights on multiple occasions. UFC is also a truly global phenomenon with events expanding around the world and programming in over 130 countries. It is one of the most valuable sports franchises on the planet with private estimates of an enterprise value surpassing that of the New York Yankees or Manchester United franchises.

Every wrestling fan’s chest should swell to know that the sport has contributed to that amazing success. From the early days of the UFC and the success of wrestlers Dan Severn and Don Frye, wrestling has been a big part of the UFC. Wrestling helped the sport gain momentum as it emerged to mainstream with help from wrestling heroes Randy Couture, Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell. Today, many of the brightest stars in the sport are wrestlers including Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones. And the future of the UFC is bright with many grapplers waiting in the wings to emerge like Johnny Hendricks, Daniel Cormier and Sara McMann. Perhaps one of the sports brightest moments was UFC 100 which showcased wrestling great Brock Lesnar against Frank Mir and generated 1.7 million pay-per-view “buys.”

As much as wrestling has done for the UFC, the UFC has given back more to the world’s oldest and greatest sport. Prior to the UFC, the average person walking down the street had no idea what the terms foot sweep, double-leg takedown or a body lock were describing. Today, due to the UFC, most would know and be able to describe these wrestling moves, as well as the importance of being able to defend leg attacks and counter throws. Many mixed martial arts gyms now offer classes in wrestling and many young boys and girls are taking up the wrestling in grade school and high school dreaming of one day getting into the UFC’s octagon. And, perhaps most importantly, UFC fans now know of the great skills that wrestling develops and the tremendous athletes in our sport.

Wrestling is not a mixed martial art and it should not think of itself as such. It should not incorporate fighting disciplines into its organization. Wrestling has its place among the Olympic sports. Wrestling skills are among the most primary and arguably the most essential for success in the octagon. Wrestling is best served by sticking to its knitting and developing the sport of wrestling. Leave the fighting to the professionals.

That being said, wrestling has much to learn from its friends in the UFC. The franchise was on the verge of bankruptcy when brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and their business partner, Dana White, purchased it for $2MM in 2000. In just over a decade they have turned it into a multibillion dollar franchise. What were some of the elements that helped them become so successful? First, they changed the rules and the sport presentation significantly. They went from a format where the athletes, particularly those from jiu jitsu, were spending much of the time lying on the mat (boring to those outside of jiu jitsu) to standup fights which showcase skills from all of the disciplines. Wrestling is badly in need of rule changes at the international level. They also improved the presentation of the sport. The stage is grand for the athletes and fans. The “octagon” is just plain cool. There are lights and fog and pyrotechnics and the intro music is loud and exciting. Perhaps most importantly, they have learned the value of creating a connection with the fans and their athletes. They tell the stories of their fighters and people respond emotionally. The reality series have helped develop these deep connections to the fighters. And, importantly they make investments in developing the sport at the grassroots level where they hold competitions.

Wrestling is on the verge of a different type of bankruptcy now. It would be a severe blow to be removed from the Olympic program. Now is the time to examine the sport and make changes like they did in the UFC—not only to demonstrate to the International Olympic Committee that wrestling belongs but to improve the sport for the future.

Read entire essay…

Now the inspiration is taking shape. Kelly Whiteside from USA TODAY interviewed several key figures about the coming makeover.

Nenad Lalovic, FILA acting president

“We have to think about how to make a show,” said Lalovic. “Because without that today, it’s difficult.”

Wrestling will also move forward with significant rule changes which will be announced this weekend at FILA’s congress in Moscow. “We have to make the sport more watchable and understandable for fans, otherwise we cannot acquire more fans,” said Lalovic.

Lalovic also said the sport will add two weight classes in women’s wrestling and eliminate one each in men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman. Each discipline will have six weight classes.

Bill Scherr, chairman of the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling

“We need to think about ways to change how the stage is presented,” said Scherr. “They compete in an octagon and we compete on a mat. We don’t have to compete on a mat. We can compete in sand, we can compete in grass and we can compete on a mat or an octagon. I don’t know. We can get survey groups together and see what looks best.”

“The non-violent perspective of wrestling is not going to change.”

Jordan Burroughs, Olympic champion

“In face-offs it would be good to have something cool other than two guys walking on to the mat, shaking hands, wrestling, then walking off,” said Burroughs. “It shows great sportsmanship but not very good showmanship.”

Just as Vale Tudo was practiced in Speedos, which eventually gave way to loose fit fight shorts and larger Vale Tudo shorts, the singlet is going.

Freestyle wrestlers will likely wear fight shorts and a tight-fitting microfiber T-shirt.

Former Princeton wrestler and current hedge fund manager Mike Novogratz explains that for branding purposes, and T-shirt sales, a two-piece uniform makes sense.

“Two pieces? Dan will probably roll over in his grave,” he said, with Gable standing by his side.

“Nah. I wore a three-piece in college,” said Gable. “A shirt, tights and a pair of shorts that went over.”

“I stand strong on whatever is necessary to get us back in.”