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Olympic Sports Through the Prism of MMA

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Money changes everything. And despite their prestige as Olympic sports, there's not a whole lot of money in (amateur) Wrestling or Judo. So it really shouldn't come as a shock to see mainstream media outlets writing about the two ancient arts in terms of MMA.

Here's a USA Today piece about women's Judo star Ronda Rousey and speculation that she'll soon be entering MMA:

The next mixed martial arts star could be competing in Beijing this summer.


It's little wonder Ronda Rousey, known for winning many of her bouts by armbar, has heard people suggesting she could switch sports.

"I have quite a few people who have been trying to get me to do MMA," Rousey says. "A coach has been talking to me about teaching me striking (punches, kicks) after the Olympics."

Then there's this ESPN piece about the possibility of submission wrestling becoming an Olympic sport. It features Jason Townsend, formerly with Xtreme Couture:

"People aren't trying to pin each other anymore," said Jason Townsend, who is promoting a new style -- "Grappling" -- for USA Wrestling, the sport's national governing body. "They're trying to choke each other, arm-bar, leg-lock and get their opponent to say, 'Uncle.' How long can you hold out before you tap out?'"

You "tap out" before turning blue, feeling your knee burst or your arm snap.

Welcome to 21st-century international wrestling, and -- perhaps -- the future of Olympic wrestling. Buffeted by a perfect storm of marketing and cultural vectors striking Olympic sports, wrestling -- arguably the most traditional of all -- can be traced back thousands of years, when, Townsend said, "wherever people were, whether they were in a tree, they were wrestling. People have evolved with wrestling."


"There is a school of thought among traditionalists that our sport will exist in its current form forever," USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender said. "But even those within that traditionalist community would have to admit our sport has changed. We have to keep our eyes wide-open."

The International Olympic Committee has made it known it seeks to modernize its sports to better attract young audiences. Consider the advent of BMX cycling in Beijing this summer, or snowboarding in the Winter Games.

Earlier this year, Townsend was hired by USA Wrestling as Manager of Developing Wrestling Styles. He previously was a coach and competitor at Xtreme Couture, the MMA team. "With the growth of MMA, Grappling is the next big thing as far as amateur wrestling goes," Townsend told "It's really cool."


Meanwhile, particularly in the United States, the rise of MMA, which includes striking and elements of wrestling, and the marketing success of UFC caught USA Wrestling's attention. Once FILA endorsed Grappling, USA Wrestling responded.

"Whether or not it becomes an Olympic sport, I don't know," Bender said. "But if the international federation is going to host a world championships, then we not only want to participate, we want to win." Not surprisingly, the U.S. dominated the 2007 World Grappling Championships in Turkey.

There are sceptics, interestingly including Mo Lawal who's trained MMA but has decided to focus on his Olympic bid:

"The wrestlers that go to MMA real soon are the ones that have no chance to go to the Olympic team," said U.S. national 84-kg freestyle champ Mo Lawal, who trains with MMA athletes. "Good wrestlers stick in the wrestling game for a while and then go to MMA next."

T.C. Dantzler, the U.S. Greco champ at 74 kg, pooh-poohed the notion that extreme versions of the sport are imminent entries to the Olympics. "As far as the demise of wrestling," he said, "when you go to Eastern Europe or go to Istanbul, Turkey, there's not a huge MMA buzz. ... If you go to Iran, they're not talking about MMA."

I've actually been expecting more Turks and Iranians to get into MMA for a long-time, given their incredibly strong wrestling traditions, but maybe they've found other ways to keep the sport fun for fans:

...oil wrestling -- with oil-lathered men wearing only jeans-like pants -- on grass fields remains a huge spectator sport in Turkey.