Olympic Wrestlers And The Future Of MMA, Part 2: Why Attracting Olympic Wrestlers To MMA Is Harder Than You Would Think

In a perfect world, young athletes who rise to the top of combat sports like wrestling, boxing, and judo, would leave their sport to test themselves in the mixed martial arts arena.

Unfortunately, we don't live in this world and MMA continues on without enjoying the participation of the world's most elite in many of the individual combat disciplines

Still conspicuously absent from the MMA world is the bulk of the USA's world class wrestlers, among them, London's American Olympic freestlye medal winners. These athletes look poised to remain in the sport of wrestling for the forseeable future. Their sport is purely amateur, receives no government monetary support, and exists almost completely out of the limelight of public attention, yet MMA lacks the means to obtain them.

Continue reading after the jump to see why it is difficult for MMA to acquire the world's very best in the individual combat arts, particularly Olympic medalist wrestlers.

The Problem with Attracting the World's Best Combat Athlete/Martial Artists to MMA

I think that there are, broadly speaking, two types of combat sports participants: those who love the combat, and those who love the individual sport itself. Usually those who rise to the level of an Olympic medal are the latter type, the former usually find the the upper levels of the sport to be too technically onerous and are more likely to gravitate toward MMA earlier in their career.

When an athlete truly loves the sport they pursue, they are going to make a reasonable number of financial sacrifices to stay with their sport. In order for MMA to entice participation from the world's elite in any individual combat sport/martial art, it needs to offer monetary compensation which is substantially and immediately greater than the initial combat sport in question

This is particularly a problem with attracting young world champion-level boxers. I suppose it is possible, in some far off future, that MMA will have the financial clout to lure the Saul Alvarezes of the world into its ranks. I'm pretty certain that a fighter like "Kid Cinnamon" could be had for a price, but this is a price that an MMA promotion won't be able to offer at any time in the foreseeable future, and maybe ever.

The best kick-boxers seem to be more likely MMA acquisitions, and if all the top kick boxing promotions collapse, which is possible, I'd imagine we'd see something of a mass migration. Also, kickboxing, in general,seems to have much closer ties to MMA than boxing.

I don't have enough knowledge to comment on the situations of the best in other striking disciplines. Nor do I have any understanding regarding the presence of the submission art's true best practitioners in MMA, though I am certain this is something that has been and will be discussed extensively by my more qualified colleagues.

Non-American Olympic medal judo players and wrestlers usually receive very respectable financial rewards from their home countries, or private backers. Depending on the country and amount of the award, I think it is very possible that at some point not too far in the future, an MMA career will be able to essentially guarantee the kind of money that would compel young medalists in to abandon their sports. This is not the case yet.

Finally there are American medalists in wrestling and Judo. These athletes receive no financial reward from their country and usually little to no private financial compensation. I think that with Judo, as we are seeing with Ronda Rousey, the move to MMA is a slam dunk. If the USA has a young judo medalist, MMA should provide their greatest opportunity for financial advancement.

The situation with American wrestling Olympic medalists intuitively would seem to be the same as Judo, but it is a bit more complicated. Three factors may prevent American wrestling medalists from entering MMA, as you will see, below.

1. The Success of the American Freestyle Wrestling Team

In my Olympic preview, I predicted that the American freestyle wrestling team would produce three medals: one gold, one silver, and one bronze. I described this outcome as a rousing success. The USA did even better, with two golds and a bronze.

Combining this year's Olympic results with a third place team finish in last year's world championships, the USA is back among the world's elite in freestyle wrestling. With success like this comes hope. Now more American wrestllers are going to believe that they to can be world and Olympic medalists. This means fewer will go into MMA.

2. The Daniel Cormier Effect

Daniel Cormier proves to elite wrestlers that one can pursue a wrestling career until relatively late in his athletic life, and then rise to the top of the mixed martial arts world. Daniel's success may be aided by the fact that he is as good an athlete as anyone in the sport, and is a beneficiary of a somewhat thin heavyweight division, but I doubt that matters much to his wrestling colleagues. They see Daniel winning MMA belts and feel that if he can do it at his age, then so can they.

3. The Living the Dream Fund (LDF)

When the LDF was first launched, I scoffed. My scoffing was based on a misunderstanding of its purpose. I thought that the fund was intended to entice a large body of Olympic hopefuls to forsake MMA in favor of sticking with wrestling. I figured that the creation of the fund was in direct response to the MMA defections of Mo Lawal and Ben Askren (probably not Cormier, but that is a discussion for another day). Though both wrestlers could potentially have earned world or Olympic Medals in the future, I don't believe that the LDF would have given them nearly enough reason to stick with wrestling, had it been available to them.

The LDF pays the following sums of money for medals, in thousands

World championships

  • Gold: 50
  • Silver: 25
  • Bronze: 15

Olympics

  • Gold: 250
  • Silver: 50
  • Bronze: 25

Wrestlers like Lawal and Askren, had they stuck around for another Olympic Cycle, would have less than a fifty percent chance of winning a single world or Olympic medal (less than fifty percent is a safe estimate, it could be much lower). When you combine their likelihood of success with expected winnings, it is clear that even with the LDF in place, MMA offered a much safer investment of time and effort.

Now take into consideration that Askren and Lawal were at the top, or close enough, of the American ladder. Those occupying all the rungs below would have an even lower expected return from the LDF. The LDF is not going to offer ninety-nine percent of our Olympic hopefuls greater finanical opportunity than MMA.

I realize now that the LDF is not designed to retain nintety-nine percent of our Olympic hopefuls, it is specifically tailored to keep rare wrestling superstars, like Jordan Burroughs, competing on a mat, and away from MMA, retirement, or head coaching positions, a la Cael Sanderson.

But Jordan Burroughs is another topic for another post. In part 3 we will look individually at each of American's three freestyle medalists from the London Olympics

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