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With MMA, UFC influence spilling over to wrestling, are Olympics next?
By Jay Weiner
Special to ESPN.com
Updated: June 11, 2008, 9:51 PM ET
The U.S. Olympic wrestling trials begin Thursday in Las Vegas. It's the perfect location because so much of the chatter surrounding the event is focused on pushing the ancient sport to sexy, combative extremes.
"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.
Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
Dremiel Byers will be competing in the 120 kg Greco class at the U.S. Olympic trials.
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."
Freestyle, which is similar to high school and college wrestling, and Greco-Roman, in which no holds or actions are permitted below the waist, remain the classic Olympic styles and are on the Beijing program. But that almost certainly won't be the case 20, 10 or perhaps even five years from now.
"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.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have exploded onto the sports scene recently, giving rise to the new wrestling style, Grappling, which was approved by FILA, the international wrestling federation, in 2006.
"It's going back to the roots," Townsend said. "Real combat. Once you submit somebody or you get submitted, there's no question who is the better man. When you're getting choked, you really know that guy had you in a situation where he could have either broken your arm or your leg or choked you unconscious. For me, that's a much more rewarding experience than pinning somebody, which really fulfills no practical combat necessity."
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 ESPN.com. "It's really cool."
And then there's Beach Wrestling, approved in 2004 by FILA. It merges all the best of current youth and corporate culture: impressive athleticism, scantily-clad buff bodies, a little bit of sand, a lot of sun. And it's been affiliated -- at least at some competitions -- with the wildly popular beach volleyball.
"I would hope, to be honest, that we could market it as well as we market other beach sports," said American Leigh Jaynes, the bronze medalist in the 2006 women's world beach wrestling championships. "I think in the future it could bring in a lot more money than traditional wrestling. It depends how much [leaders] want to support it."
Bottom line: Wrestling -- once two hairy guys swatting, tackling and throwing each other on a mat in an echoey gym -- is changing, and purposely so.
During the past decade, wrestling has taken some hits. On the collegiate level, many colleges and universities have dropped men's programs, often claiming Title IX as a reason.
Internationally, the sport -- as physically diverse and globally wide as any -- is fighting for standing within the Olympics. While women's wrestling was added in the 2004 Athens Games, weight classes for men have been reduced in both Greco and freestyle. Women have just four weight classes.
To differentiate freestyle from Greco -- and to convince IOC officials the styles are distinct -- FILA has changed the rules of Greco, altering times of periods and required moves, and making it more difficult for the average fan to understand.
"I'm a wrestler and I don't even understand the [Greco] rules sometimes," Jaynes said.
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.
What's it look like? It's all over YouTube. To the untrained eye, Grappling looks a bit like freestyle wrestling but with limited intervention from a referee. The idea is to get an opponent in a position in which he or she submits. There are throws. There is no punching or striking. Much of the action is with one grappler on his back and the other on top of him. A wrestler's belly is never to the ground. It looks a lot like the way two brothers might wrestle in the living room, one atop the other trying to get one sibling to shout, "Mommy!"
Choking can't be done with fingers. It's got to be accomplished through an arm hold, so the grappler on the bottom is guarding against such moves.
"You have to learn to take your mind to a whole other level of meditation," said Townsend, who authored the Grappling rules for FILA. "The worst thing you can do when you're getting choked is panic. You have to think about what it's going to take to get out of that situation without having to tap out or lose consciousness. That's kind of the big reward there."
Brutal? Maybe. A true form of combat? Pretty darn close. And it is attracting a new breed of youngsters to the sport, Bender said.
Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images
Kimbo Slice and his big national ratings could add more weight to the argument for more MMA influence in wrestling.
"It gives us an opportunity to touch an audience of young athletes that we aren't currently touching," Bender said. "And then, it can expose them to traditional wrestling, as well."
USA Wrestling doesn't have data on whether the rise of MMA and UFC is driving an increase of membership to wrestling clubs. But anecdotally, wrestling administrators are feeling it.
But there are also other styles on the table -- or on the sand. Beach Wrestling is a derivative of regional folk styles from Asia and Africa, but it is clearly a bow to the rise of beach volleyball and its TV ratings.
No shoes, no shirts (for the men), no mats. But it's no day at the beach, either, said Carlos Dolmo, the 2007 men's world beach wrestling bronze medalist, and a former NCAA Division III All-American at State University of New York-Oswego.
Sand slows the match. Low attacks mean sand in the wrestlers' faces. Footing is difficult. Sand gets very hot. A push out of the prescribed ring means defeat. Oh, and the athletes are barely dressed.
"It does make it very sexy, very hunky," Dolmo said. "Everybody wants to be in shape to go to the beach."
Said Jaynes: "I don't think it's a derogatory thing that athletic women are wearing a sports bra and bikini bottom to wrestle. I worked hard. I'm an athlete and this is what I'm required to wear to be efficient in my sport."
Last year, USA Wrestling staged its beach wrestling nationals near Rochester, N.Y., at the same beach with the New York State Beach Volleyball tournament and a powerboat race.
The International Olympic Committee has instituted a new Youth Olympic Games for athletes aged 14 to 18. It's set to begin in 2010. And guess what's on the initial program of those Youth Olympics? Beach wrestling.
Still, whether Grappling or Beach will make it on to the Olympic wrestling program any time soon is anyone's guess.
Townsend calls the beach style "a novelty." Some Olympic-committed wrestlers headed to this weekend's trials say the less technical Grappling form or the more punch-oriented MMA don't require the skills freestyle and Greco do.
To them, MMA-influenced wrestlers are, more or less, second-rate wrestlers.
"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."
But wrestling has changed with the times and been molded by its cultures. That's why oil wrestling -- with oil-lathered men wearing only jeans-like pants -- on grass fields remains a huge spectator sport in Turkey. That's why "lutte lamb" on dirt rings in filled stadiums in Senegal is popular. And perhaps, that's why an in-your-face U.S. culture embraces a martial-arts influenced, highly revved version of wrestling like MMA or UFC.
"When you're talking about Grappling, you're talking now about one of the prerequisites being commercialization," National Wrestling Hall of Fame executive director Lee Roy Smith said. "How commercial can it get? Will it engage viewers or sell products? Don't underestimate that."
So, 21st-century wrestling stands -- hunched, arms out -- ready to take on a new challenge amid an ever-changing U.S. sports marketplace.
"If I'm going to sit here and play wizard for a day, there's a high probability Grappling can be an Olympic sport," Townsend said. "I don't know how the wrestling landscape can change. Twenty years? I'd bet it could change pretty dramatically and sooner than you think."
And you really don't want to mess with that guy.
Jay Weiner is a sports journalist based in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at email@example.com.