The 2012 Olympics in London were a rousing success for the American freestyle wrestling team.
Three freestyle wrestlers from the USA stood on the medal podium. All three are young, athletic, and would be huge assets to the sport of mixed martial arts. To the detriment of MMA, it is unlikely that we will see any of them pursue a career as a prize fighter anytime soon
Whether it is for financial reasons, or merely because of the self-perpetuating nature of the success they have experienced, these wrestlers remain outside the reach of MMA. This is unfortunate news for a sport which should seek to incorporate the world's very best in every martial discipline.
Olympic Wrestlers And The Future Of MMA
After the jump, a look at the problems with MMA ability to attract the best combat athletes in the world, and why the three American medalists in the 2012 Olympics probably won't be pursuing an MMA career anytime soon.
The New Crop Of American Wrestling Olympic Medalists, And Why We Won't See Them In MMA.
The biggest Olympic wrestling prize to be won by MMA, and a name on many lips, is Jordan Burroughs. He is a star and an athletic phenomenon. Were he to sign with a major MMA team right now, he would bear the burden of some of the highest expectations ever shouldered by any MMA fighter who has yet to fight. He is the best wrestler that the United States has produced in a generation, and radiates a level of talent which transcends his sport. The most promising thing about him might be, at least coming from an MMA perspective, his adaptability.
The differences between Jordan's world championship performance in 2011, and his Olympic victory in 2012 are glaringly noticable. In 2010, Jordan was a folkstyle wrestler pretending to be freestyle wrestler. He beat everyone across from him because his style was unique, his speed and power were shocking, and by the time of his graduation from Nebraska, Jordan was one of the best folkstyle wrestlers from his feet that we have ever seen. These factors, combined with some good luck, allowed him to shock the wrestling universe, coming out of nowhere (by the standards of international wrestling) to win a world title.
At the London Olympics, we saw a totally different Burroughs. It is clear that he employed a cerebral and attentive approach to fashion himself into a true freestyle wrestler in the eleven months between the world championships and the Olympics. He was cool and calculating, and executed his game plan to perfection. He won the way a freestyle wrestler needs to win, leaving nothing to a referee's subjectivity, nor to chance. This time he won, not because he was physically dominant and took everyone by surprise, but because he was simply a better freestyle wrestler than his opponents.
A big obstacle stands in the way of Burrough's MMA conversion, other than his aforementioned love of the sport, and that is simple economics. Burroughs is going to make plenty of money purely from wrestling.
Jordan has a reasonable expectation to sweep the gold medals at the next three world championships and Olympics. He will also receive income from clinics and endorsements, which will almost certainly be worth a minimum of a couple hundred thousand dollars in the next four years. Even if Jordan under performs, and only wins silver in the next three world championships followed by gold in Rio, I would estimate, factoring in LDF winnings, that his five year gross income from wrestling would be over $750,000. This could be much higher, and unlike in MMA, the only person he has to split his earnings with is Uncle Sam. That is a bunch of money, particularly in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Would MMA offer him a greater expected monetary return in the next four years with the additional money needed to wrench him away from the sport he loves? I highly doubt it. Jordan won't be going into MMA anytime soon, nor will the future Jordan Burroughses of the world, if any come about.
Jake Varner, the other American gold medalist, would seem to be a perfect candidate for MMA. He is only twenty-six, he would be the perfect size for light heavyweight, and it is more likely than not that he won't win a second Olympic gold medal. This is not a huge knock against Jake, and it is something of which I am sure he is aware. Only one American wrestler ever has won two Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling at non-boycotted games, and that was when there were ten weight classes. In this day in age, winning multiple Olympic golds is almost impossible. I only give Jordan Burroughs good odds for a second because he is a once in a lifetime talent. Varner, only two wins away from being the third best college wrestler ever, is an incredible talent, but he is no Burroughs.
Things lined up perfectly for Jake in London; he took advantage of the situation, and wrestled like an Olympic champion. It would be the perfect time for him to go out on top; he has achieved wrestling's highest accolade. I think the chances are decent that he will call it a career, and if he does, I highly doubt he goes into MMA.
Why? I don't have a satisfactory answer, but I have a couple bits of informed speculation. First, I get the impression that Jake is a guy who really has no interest in being a prize figher. Second, Jake's father is a high school wrestling coach and his best friend and mentor, Cael Sanderson, is the head coach at Penn State where he clearly derives great joy from his profession. I predict that Jake follows their lead and goes into coaching, possibly taking a position at the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, where he prepared for his Olympic run. There he can train future Olympians, and help his friend, Cael, rule college wrestling.
Coleman Scott won a bronze medal in London, and this bronze, more than the two golds mentioned above, will entice our elite wrestlers to stay in the sport of wrestling, Scott among them. Coleman's collegiate pedigree is on the higher end among Olympians and Olympic hopefuls. He was a four-time All-American, two-time national runner up, and won an NCAA championship. However, in his years on the senior freestyle circuit, Scott's results have been decent, but not overwhelming, and have certainly never been suggestive of what he would achieve this year.
Everything clicked into place for Scott, and in a very short period of time he went from well down the American ladder, to one of the world's very best. Though he won Bronze in London, Scott, I believe, appeared to be the second best wrestler in the field at sixty-six kilos. His only loss came to eventual gold medalist, Azerbaijani wunderkind, Toghrul Asgarov, in a reasonably competitive match.
I think that Coleman knows how close he is to being the world's best. He is now thoroughly tantalized by his proximity to gold, and it would take a boat load of guaranteed money to dissuade him from making a second Olympic run. MMA probably can't provide this for a potential bantamweight.
Coleman's Olympic success might not have convinced only him to stick with wrestling. Heading into the next Olympic trials, there will be many wrestling hopefuls with freestyle credentials comparable to those that Coleman had heading into this year's trials. Coleman's magical run to a bronze validates these wrestler's efforts and sacrifices; if he could improve that much and that fast, then so could they.
The Bottom Line
Here are three Olympic wrestling medalists, all still young enough to enter MMA and develop into well rounded fighters, but it appears that all will remain with the sport of wrestling. This is great for the sport of wrestling in the USA, and would not be possible if not for the increasing levels of success of the American freestyle program.
Unfortunately, this is a loss for MMA. I explained in part 1 of this piece why fans should want these athletes within MMA's ranks. MMA will always be entertaining, it will continue to display the skills of high level martial artists, and intriquing stylistic match-ups will continually demand our attention. But, if MMA, as a sport, is going to succeed in one of its most central missions, it needs to attract the world's best in each combat discipline, and right now the world's best remain outside of MMA's reach.
Even if you don't subscribe to my view that MMA should still serve as a proving ground for martial disciplines, you should still want to see these medalists become fighters. Imagine what Daniel Cormier would look like now if he had embarked on his MMA career in his mid twenties. The wrestling world has already contributed a great deal to MMA, but it's contributions only represent the tiniest fraction of its available resources. These Olympic medalists are the very best wrestling has to offer, and it doesn't appear that they are being offered to mixed martial arts anytime soon.