Does Mixed Martial Arts Hurt Amateur Wrestling?

Dan_gable_mediumWhile few would deny the rise of MMA has renewed interest in competitive amateur wrestling, some at the top of the American wrestling food chain are worried the better wrestlers may supplant an Olympic career for one of riches and fame. Notable quote:

"It's almost catastrophic to the development of wrestlers in our country," said Brands, who spent several years as national resident coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. "It hurts, it hurts our country."

Brands and Gable don't have a major problem with the MMA. They just want to see America's best wrestlers represent their country before worrying about their wallets.

MMA and UFC combine a variety of fighting techniques, including wrestling, boxing and several martial-art forms. Some of the top attractions in the sport have wrestling backgrounds, including Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar.

"If there was one sport you could pick ... it would be wrestling," said local MMA star Jesse Lennox, a high school wrestler at North Linn. "It's very one-on-one driven."

Couture and Lesnar recently fought at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas as part of a $1.118 million show. Lesnar, a 2000 NCAA champion for Minnesota, won and earned $450,000. Couture, an NCAA runner-up in 1991 for Oklahoma State, earned $250,000.

By contrast, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo made about $85,000 last year.

"The MMA offers an opportunity for people to make some money," Gable said. "I'm not against it. I'm not a real big fan of trying to knock someone loopy. We just don't want to lose top wrestlers to the MMA."

That's the rub. Although opportunities like the MMA and UFC were not available when Brands' competitive career ended, he said he was more interested in beating Russians and striving for gold medals than big paychecks.

"I felt my call was coaching and I've never been driven by money," he said.

Lennox said Gable, Brands and USA Wrestling have nothing to worry about. Paydays like the Lesnar-Couture show are not the norm for beginning fighters. It takes years to make serious money in MMA, he said.

"What little money you would make getting into MMA is not worth a gold medal," he said.

To each his own and I don't think there's any room to fault those wrestlers who would rather chase Olympic glory rather than a UFC belt. One could have an endless debate about which is more meaningful, although most would say Olympic achievements are paramount. Still, it's an open question and I'm not certain there's truly a correct answer.

But that's neither here nor there. The central issue is whether MMA hurts America's Olympic or high-level international wrestling efforts. I can certainly see instances of limited hinderance where some elite wrestlers who can actually contend at the international level are lured away with promises of riches. But those situations are likely to be few and far between. What is more likely to happen is that the overall pool of wrestlers grows creating more fighters with wrestling backgrounds who otherwise would never be able to compete at the international stage (to say nothing of the fact that more wrestlers in the competitive pool increases the chances 

Second, the chasing of Olympic glory and MMA success are not mutually exclusive. While both could not likely be sought after simultaneously, efforts in either endeavor can be temporarily post-poned. Fighters with Olympic cailber wrestling can take time away from fighting or wrestlers with MMA dreams can put their new career entries on hiatus. I don't think the option of temporarily putting off one career for another is particularly easy, but high level athletes generally have fairly sophisticated support systems that assist in their athletic endeavors. Between sponsors, facilities and management assistance there are ways for the best among the wrestling breed to pursue mutliple aims.

In fairness to Gable and Brands, I do not dispute that MMA will at some point intervene in the aims and career trajectory of elite wreslters that have heretofore carried the torch for American wrestling exceptionalism. But their claims that MMA is somehow catastrophic to wrestling's higher end are grossly exaggerated.

The sky is not falling.

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