The beer keg of Olympic revelry is now kicked. A plastic cup sits upturned upon its tap's pump handle,, and the sweet lamentation of "Tuesday's Gone" whines in the background.
The party is over, and in the aftermath of the celebration, some reflection is in order.
Part of this reflection should turn to the potential impact of Olympic combat sports medalists on the future of mixed martial arts. Of particular interest are everyone's favorite Olympic combat athletes - the freestyle wrestlers. Will they end up fighting, and why should you, as an MMA fan, care if they do or not?
This two part post will explore the relationship with MMA and wrestling's Olympic medalists. It will then, examine the reasons why it is unlikely that we see any of the 2012 Olympics newly minted wrestling stars compete as mixed martial artists.
After the jump, thoughts on why MMA fans should want to see wrestling's Olympic medalists inside a cage, as well as the importance of the world's greatest combat athletes to the sport of mixed martial arts.
I have always believed that a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for mixed martial arts, as a sport, should be status and financial means enough to attract most of the world's absolute best practitioners of every separate martial art/combat sport. Thus far MMA has only succeeded in attracting but a few.
The way for combatants to distinguish themselves as the world's best is varied, like in wrestling or judo, where "best in the world" status is attained by winning an Olympic or world medal; or as a prizefighter, as in boxing and kickboxing, where "best in the world" status is conferred by beating a holder of a championship belt endorsed by a high profile sanctioning body or promotion. MMA fans should and usually do want to see any of these stars of the basic combat sports compete in a mixed martial arts format.
One of the central and most intriguing MMA projects, to me, at least, has been its use as a sort of martial arts testing grounds. It has gone a long way toward empirically proving which martial art is superior to another in an actual combat situation. In the very least, with a few weird counter-examples, MMA has whittled the field of truly practical martial arts to a fairly small field. As a corollary to this whittling process, and without citing any concrete examples, I think it is safe to say that MMA has exposed an substantial number of martial arts institutions as imparting knowledge that has very little to absolutely no utility in the world of actual combat.
The results of MMA's martial arts testing served as vindication to many combat sports/martial art practitioners who always knew darn well that their skills provided them greater actual fighting ability than pretenders from other activities where combat prowess only existed in the theoretical world.
For example, take the accomplished high school wrestler who always had to deal with claims from some little twerp classmate that he, doubtlessly, would be the victor in a real fight because he had a second degree black belt from the local Kim's Karate dojo. He would make this claim despite his belt level having no predication on his aptitude in full contact combat, which was something in which the black belt had never actually participated. Fellow classmates would infuriatingly support his wild assertions because of cultural inertia and rank ignorance.
"You might have placed third in the state in wrestling, but he has a second degree black belt in karate," they would say in hushed voices. "He does jump kicks and stuff. You just know how to hug people while wearing tights. You might have seventy pounds of muscle on him, but size didn't win the day for Sho'nuff when he fought Bruce Leeroy. You're like Zangief, and everybody knows that Zangief always loses to Ryu."
[Author's note: I am targeting certain students of karate from certain schools. Yes, I am aware that there are real karatekas, who are actual, honest to goodness, bad-asses. These individuals are not in controversy here]
MMA has, blessedly, dispelled many of the myths in martial arts, but it cannot definitively fulfill its mission of identifying the world's most combat-effective, until we see the world's very best in the base martial arts square off in mixed martial arts competition. One could say, that on almost an existential level, MMA needs combatants with world champion boxing skills and Olympic gold medals in wrestling to succeed as a sport.
I think that there are those who would object to this. I anticipate, or am simply fabricating a contrary position, which would claim that MMA has evolved; it has distinguished itself a unique sport, and these super specialists with medals and titles are no longer desirable. The modern well-rounded fighter would quickly exploit the imbalances in the world's best practitioner of a non-mixed martial art. They would point to freak show-ish exhibitions involving James Toney from boxing, Eldar Kurtanidze and Karem Gaber from wrestling, or Badr Hari from kickboxing.
Those of this position would yell angrily (because MMA arguments are usually angry and hostile and typically have Drowning Pool or some such band in the background) that MMA is no longer some experimental fighting laboratory and that the sport has moved past merely discovering the victor in a cage fight between the world's best judoka and an Olympic Greco-Roman gold medalist. The world now has these people called mixed martial artists, and that the central project of mixed martial arts now is determining who is the world's greatest mixed martial artist.
I accept the fact that MMA has evolved. This evolution has not disposed of MMA's purpose as a means of proving the worth of various individual martial arts, but has slightly altered it. The relevant question is no longer which combat sport/martial art works the best in a fight, the question is now, which combat sport/martial art provides the best base for a mixed martial arts fighter?
The "this is mixed martial arts" crowd can then be easily placated with the qualified statement: MMA fans should want to see Olympic and world combat sports medalists in MMA, so long as they entered MMA at a young enough age where they have time to become well-rounded, or at least plug the massive holes in their game, and still be in their athletic prime. I can't much disagreement as to the truth of this statement.
This is why we should want to see, and actively hope for, Olympic and world medalist wrestlers in MMA.
The problem lies in attracting these and other young combat sport champions to a career in MMA. This, with a particular focus on the situation with American wrestlers, which has become a bit more complicated since London, will be explored in Part 2: Why We Won't See The New Wrestling Medalists In MMA.