Opinion Part II: The Extinction of Olympic Wrestling and Its Impact on MMA
By Jesse Heitz
Anyone who read my last piece on wrestling being dropped from the Olympic Games is well aware of my feelings on the matter, how incensed it tends to make me. Yet, just recently, UFC boss Dana White, made some interesting comments to the media, which were then published by the Bleacher Report, that highlighted his belief that the extinction of amateur wrestling at the games might just open the door for MMA to become an Olympic sport.
“I’ve been battling this problem for years now. Colleges are dropping it, high schools are dropping wrestling. The problem with wrestling is it’s an awesome base for fighting, for mixed martial arts, and everything for what it does. I’ve never wrestled, but what I hear it does to guys who wrestle, it changes people’s lives and it’s just grueling hard work and dedication. All the things that go in with being a wrestler.”
“The problem is nobody wants to watch it. Any sport especially these days, it’s about selling tickets, and eyeballs, and viewers and all these other things.”
“What this could be is the evolution of mixed martial arts becoming an Olympic sport, we bring spectators, eyeballs, whether it’s on TV or whatever it is this sport draws, wrestling doesn’t.”
“I can’t be the guy to try and run out and save wrestling. You know how many wrestling programs I’ve funded over the last five or six years? A lot. I don’t want to see wrestling go away either, it’s such a big part of the sport, but something’s going to happen here. It’s going to evolve into mixed martial arts and MMA or something I don’t know.”
“I don’t think wrestling’s going to go anywhere, but competitive wrestling definitely is.”
Dana White is right on the money, that over the last few decades that wrestling seems to be a dying breed. With regards to collegiate wrestling, it’s only a true cash cow primarily within the Midwest. Even there, Title IX has depleted the number of wrestling programs. Wrestling does provide an incredible base for fighting, one we’ve seen demonstrated time and time again within the confines of not only the UFC’s Octagon, but each and every ring and cage the sport has ever seen.
Where I will vary from Dana White’s assessment or analysis of the current wrestling situation is when he states that nobody wants to watch it, particularly during the Olympics, that it lacks “the eyeballs”. I would argue the opposite. That at least on the Olympic stage, wrestling does fairly well when it comes to the all-important issue of ratings.
If it can have peak viewership of 58 million and an average viewership of 23 million, I’d say it’s doing just fine. Even its “subpar” peak ratings it pulls in twice the viewership of any BCS National Championship Game. No one can tell me that equestrian or rowing are pulling in better ratings. Besides, short of medal matches, it always seems that wrestling is confined to the broadcasting shadows, either being on some hard-to-find NBC subsidiary channel, or on in the middle of the night, none of which do anything to help capture the all-important and massive U.S. audience.
However, I digress. Will MMA make an entrance into the Olympic Games, replacing wrestling and becoming the reincarnation of ancient Pankration in the process? I don’t know, but it would be great for MMA to get such international recognition, even if it does come from an athletic body that prides ratings over the sports themselves. One of the greatest pre-fight angles plays on nationalism, country versus country. The Olympics would only intensify such a storyline. It would at once expose a global audience to the sport.
First and foremost, MMA hasn’t even been fully legalized in the United States, so the impending inclusion of MMA in the Games seems questionable. Yet, let’s grant for a minute notion that MMA was a hair away from being featured in the Games. Several issues that largely center on the promoters within the MMA world would remain, complicating the question about what type of turnout we’d get if MMA were somehow included in the Olympic Games.
Would promoters, in a combat sport, allow their biggest names and largest draws to participate? Would the promoters or the fighters be comfortable taking life off of their careers by absorbing the punishment of a handful of fights within the confines of a week or two, all for no monetary compensation? Would the promoters let their fighters take months out of the year to train for the Olympics?
I don’t claim to have the answers to these questions but I’m inclined to think that promoters and the very nature of the sport itself, and the conditions of the modern professional athlete may make a speedy integration of MMA into the Olympics fairly difficult.
To read Part I, CLICK HERE.