Why aren't Olympic-caliber wrestlers like Buvaisar Saitiev making the transition to mixed martial arts? Photo by Getty Images.
Buvaisar Saitiev is one of the best freestyle wrestlers to have ever graced the mat at the world level, yet most mixed martial arts fans have never heard of him or his dominance. He won three Olympic gold medals in the 74kg category in 1996, 2004, and 2008, and he amassed six gold medals at the World Championships between 1995 and 2005. Many of his opponents talked about his impeccable timing, inpenetrable balance, and phenomenal technique on the mat, and he was the epitome of technique triumphing over strength. The joy in watching Saitiev dismantle world-class wrestler after world-class wrestler makes you wonder where these type of wrestlers are in the sport of mixed martial arts. And furthermore, why isn't Russia producing more top-notch wrestling talents that see mixed martial arts as a means to earning a rich living?
After all, the Russian wrestling team has dominated the international wrestling scene for decades. Even today, they are still considered the very best in the world with former Soviet republics grabbing more and more medals, but still falling short of the unreachable gold medal. Shirvani Muradov, Buvaisar Saitiev, and Mavlet Batirov claimed three gold medals in freestyle competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and Russia claimed four more gold medals in Greco-Roman competition.
While most readers would look at the medal tables and see Uzbekistan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and other former Soviet republics laying claim to medal spots, it's apparent that the Eastern Bloc and former Soviet region is a breeding ground for elite level wrestlers. The question to be asked is why there aren't more wrestlers from the region finding success in mixed martial arts?
A lot of speculation points to Russia's economic situation, the overrated popularity of mixed martial arts in Russia, and the difficulty for athletes to freely venture to countries like the United States to take full advantage of their talents. If you've been an avid fan of the NHL for years like myself, you might understand some of the difficulties that world class athletes have in making the transition stateside.
Players like the "Russian Rocket" Pavel Bure, Alexei Zhitnik, and Alexander Mogilny were targets of extortion from Russian crime syndicates due to their sudden fame and infusion of money into their bank accounts. Vyacheslav Fetisov and Valeri Kamensky were targeted by the feds for involvement with Russian organized crime bosses. Oleg Tverdovsky had his family abducted and put up for ransom. To say that there isn't a fear factor in leaving the Motherland is an understatement, and those now-former players have suggested that who you know in Russia is a lesson to be learned at an early age.
But is mob intimidation a legitimate reason to why these talented wrestlers from the region have been stifled from pursuing a successful mixed martial arts career? Doubtful. Considering the salaries we see at the low levels of the UFC, they don't compare to the multi-million dollar contracts of NHL superstars like Alexei Ovechkin.
The most relevant argument is that of pride. Saitiev isn't too keen on the spotlight. According to The Silent Gladiators by Nicholas A. Hopping, Saitiev would repeat a poem by Nobel Prize-winning poet Boris Pasternak before every match:
I don't think being famous is very attractive. That is not what lifts you up. You don't have to build an archive. You don't have to panic over your number of volumes. The object of a masterpiece is giving yourself away.
Seems a bit more understandable as to why Saitiev isn't seeking the limelight of a mixed martial arts' career, but most avid fans would point out that his time has passed if he ever wanted to compete in mixed martial arts. Being a famous athlete from the country may not be his wish, but other athletes surely want the riches that come with being an upper-echelon talent, right?
It's difficult to view a Russian wrestling superstar as a likeable or unlikeable character atop a UFC weight class with the language barrier and stereotypical stoicism of many Russian-born competitors. That might hurt some of the growth potential of these athletes in larger organizations, but it wouldn't stop them from ascending the mountain completely.
No, the real reason is that Russian wrestlers of Saitiev's caliber are considered true heroes of the republic. They are considered the means to continued success on the international stage, and they'll hopefully pass on their knowledge to the next generation of Russian wrestling talents in the coming years. It's a way to secure Russia's stranglehold on the freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling world.
Furthermore, money isn't exactly a problem for these kings of the mat. Saitiev is, similarly to Fedor Emelianenko, a friend to Vladimir Putin, and he's also linked to mining magnate Iskander Makmudov. For Saitiev though, his personal philosophy on life doesn't fit with the desire to seek out fame. For others, it might be different.
Evidence doesn't suggest that's the case however. We have yet to see these world class wrestlers make the transition to mixed martial arts in the region in large numbers. Bulgaria might be the exception as there is a movement among some of their better wrestlers to make the move to the sport, but their lack of training in the other arts such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu has hindered their progress currently.
Perhaps this is only a lengthened infancy for the sport in the Eastern Bloc region of the world, or perhaps the pull from higher powers to teach and continue the legacy of wrestling is far too strong. We don't know for sure, but what we do know is that mixed martial arts isn't a consuming fad in the region. It isn't something that's thought about as an option like it is here in the United States. Until that option presents itself as an enticing way to make a comfortable living, Russia and the former Soviet countries will continue churning out high-level wrestlers who only walk down a narrowed path of Olympic glory.