Broken Dreams and Broken Hearts: MMA's Olympians Try to Save Wrestling
Diego Diaz wants to be an Olympian.
At least he wanted to be an Olympian until 15 members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted on Tuesday to drop wrestling from the Games starting in 2020.
Who is Diego Diaz?
He's a nine-year-old boy who trains under 2008 Olympic team captain and Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion Daniel Cormier in Cormier's youth wrestling program. After Tuesday's news, the former Olympian isn't sure what to tell young Diego.
"This kid last year hardly won any matches, but he stayed all summer, he wrestled his butt off," Comier told me in an interview for Bleacher Report.
"Just last weekend, we're at one of the tougher tournaments here in California, and he's in the finals. I said, 'Come on, Diego, let's sit down and get some food and talk to me.' And he just kind of started talking. You know what he said? He goes, 'At first, coach, I didn't know if wrestling was for me, but I stuck with it. Coach, I want to go to the Olympics for wrestling.'"
It's heartbreaking to think that at nine years of age, Diego Diaz had his dream snatched away from him before he ever had a chance to reach for it. With wrestling removed from the Olympic Games after 2016, there are a lot of gyms filled with a lot of sad kids right now.
2008 Olympian and former NCAA champion Ben Askren, who currently holds the Bellator welterweight title, joined Cormier in his confusion over the IOC's decision to remove a sport that has been a part of the modern Olympics since its beginning in 1896.
Like Cormier, Askren runs a youth wrestling program, instilling in children the same work ethic that earned him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. On Tuesday night, he had to figure out a way to break the news that they had to reach for new goals because the Olympics may no longer be an option.
"I'm figuring out what I want to say to all the kids tonight," Askren explained to me. "We preach to them that the Olympics can be a long-term goal in their lives."
The job of wrestling coach has suddenly become a lot tougher on former Olympians like Askren and Cormier. Those two, and others like them, have worked tirelessly to raise the next generation of grapplers whose ultimate goal is to hit the mats of the Olympic Games and represent their country with pride.
Cormier's group of kids includes children as young as seven, and they already talk about reaching for the stars. For them, the sky was always full of Olympic gold.
"What do I tell these kids now?" Cormier asks. "Hey guys, there are no more Olympics. You can be an NCAA champion, you can be a World Champion, which is an honor most people don't attain, but you can never be an Olympic champ. You can never stand at the Olympic Games and hear your national anthem played. How do I tell that to seven-, eight- and nine-year-old kids who have dreams of becoming Olympic champions?"
The Youth of a Nation
When you listen to wrestlers talk about their long path to the Olympics, you hear that training starts at a very young age. Rarely will any top wrestler just pick it up once they get to high school or college. It's a lifetime of work that goes into becoming a top wrestler, and even more effort to come close to making an Olympic team.
Former UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman knows how the hard work pays off.
An athlete his whole life, Coleman found a passion for wrestling that took him all the way to the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain. He admits that because of wrestling and the dream of being an Olympian, he avoided many of life's pitfalls and stayed focused on one day being a champion.
"Wrestlers start at five years old, and they embrace the grind, it's not just a one-season grind," said Coleman. "It was 27 years of my life. The intensity picked up every year. Maybe at five I wanted to be the best in the world at a lot of things, but by high school I was starting to think about winning an Olympic gold medal. I was always thinking about that gold.
"It kept me out of trouble, it gave me focus, it gave me a little bit of swagger," Coleman continued. "It was something I could look forward to. It was a huge, huge part of my life."
As it turns out, Coleman didn't medal in the Olympics. He finished seventh overall, but his good friend and teammate Kevin Jackson did win a gold medal that year. Regardless of his own accomplishments in mixed martial arts, Coleman still points to the moment he made the Olympic team as the proudest achievement in his entire athletic career.
"Just making the Olympic team, to this day it's probably the highlight of my athletic career. Even though I won the UFC belt, I won the Pride Grand Prix, but I remember that day and my emotions were overwhelming when I won that match to make the Olympic team. I'm emotional today," said Coleman.
Newly minted UFC fighter and 2004 silver medalist in wrestling Sara McMann says her experience competing in the Olympics is something that isn't quantifiable by any standard measure. It wasn't about financial gain or a greater business purpose. It was about achieving something special that only a few people will ever experience in their lifetime.
"It's something that changes your life completely," McMann said about her Olympic experience. "It's the pinnacle of what you can reach in an amateur sport. To go and represent your country on the biggest stage possible with your entire country pulling for you, it's the most tremendous thing you can do in the sport that you love."
Daniel Cormier still sports a tattoo representing his time in the Olympics. It's a permanent piece of art on his body, but he doesn't need a tattoo to remind him of being a part of the Olympics. It's ingrained on his soul, something he will hold with pride until the day he dies.
"Once you're an Olympian, you're always an Olympian," said Cormier. "Now the next generation of our wrestlers will not have that opportunity. Listen, it is a badge of honor. It's something I carry with me every day in everything I do. I love the fact that I was an Olympian and got the chance to compete and represent our country. If they drop this sport, realistically that takes away the ultimate goal in wrestling."
Politics and the Numbers Game
There's been a lot of speculation in the wrestling world as to why the sport was dropped when so many others remain—and others are being considered to take its place in the 2020 Games.
According to a report from the Associated Press with documents obtained from the IOC, wrestling apparently ranked very low in several key areas including popularity at the games themselves. Viewership peaked with 58.5 million viewers and an average of 23 million viewers overall during the wrestling sessions held at the 2012 Games.
Some have pointed at conspiracy and politics at the heart of this decision. Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is on the IOC panel, happens to be a member of the International Pentathlon Union. The modern pentathlon was another sport apparently up on the chopping block for the 2020 Olympic Games. It tested low with audiences as well, averaging only 12.5 million viewers during the London Olympics.
The modern pentathlon survived—wrestling did not.
Olympic gold medalist and now professional wrestler Kurt Angle also pointed toward a possible tie-in between the lobbyists involved with the modern pentathlon and the IOC. But he also points a finger at wrestling's governing body for not working harder to ensure the sport had a home at the Games.
"I believe we in wrestling kind of dropped the ball," Angle told Bleacher Report. "FILA, which is the world governing body of wrestling, never thought that the IOC would ever really drop wrestling. So we didn't have any representation at the IOC meeting. There were probably a lot of other representatives from things like the pentathlon, which is the sport they were supposed to drop. People aren't really very interested in the modern pentathlon. It was the one that was supposed to get dropped, and in the last hour, they picked wrestling instead," Angle told me on Wednesday.
"I think, in a lot of ways, we made a mistake. We took things for granted when we thought they would never consider dropping us. And they did. Now we have to fight to get it back."
At the 2012 Olympic Games, 71 different countries participated in wrestling, while 26 countries had athletes competing in the modern pentathlon. Wrestling also accounted for the lone medals for several countries including India and Puerto Rico.
"The members that voted on the actions against wrestling yesterday are some of the same folks that blindly watched Lance Armstrong compete in a sport with known violations because it was all about the bottom line, the dollar," charged Mike DiSabato, former Ohio State wrestler and owner of Cage Fighter, a prominent brand that sponsors and supports several wrestling programs around the country.
"The reality is the leadership in wrestling has obviously not done a good job of late in positioning themselves politically [in a manner] that would protect the sport, the oldest and greatest sport in the Olympic Games. Now the fight's on."
Cormier, who remains an active player in the U.S. wrestling circuit, says he was told as recently as two days ago that his sport was in no danger of being cut from the Olympics. Then on Tuesday morning, like the rest of the world, he woke up to the devastating news that the 2016 Games would be the last scheduled time wrestling would be a part of the Olympics.
How MMA Could be Wrestling's Saving Grace
What do Daniel Cormier, Sara McMann, Ben Askren, Mark Coleman, Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland all have in common besides being Olympians? They are also prominent mixed martial artists.
MMA is littered with former wrestlers who sit near or atop divisions throughout the sport. UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is a former college wrestler. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones: a former college wrestler. Current top light heavyweight contender Chael Sonnen: a former NCAA All-American wrestler. UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson: a former college wrestler. The list goes on and on.
MMA has benefited greatly from the sport of wrestling, and some of those former Olympians and wrestling supporters who are so disgusted about the decision to remove wrestling from the Games believe mixed martial arts could be just the support they need now.
"We need some help," said former UFC champion Mark Coleman. "Believe it or not, quite possibly the Fertitta brothers and Dana White need to help save wrestling. We need to save wrestling because I don't think the UFC wants to go into the Olympics, and I think it would hurt their brand. They need wrestling because wrestling has done a lot for the UFC and MMA itself."
Several sports that are vying for a spot in the Olympics have had major lobbying from their respective groups, including those who supported the modern pentathlon prior to Tuesday's meeting. Is it time now for the UFC and MMA as a whole to stand up and become a lobby for the sport that has provided some of its greatest champions?
"Folks like Lorenzo Fertitta and the UFC need to get involved at this point," DiSabato stated when asked about what wrestling can do to survive. "The pipeline that feeds the UFC primarily comes from combat sports like wrestling. If wrestling is to have long-term stability in the U.S. and worldwide, there's got to be a place to have the ultimate dream come true, and that's the Olympic Games.
"In my opinion," DiSabato continued, "it's good for the UFC and all of MMA for this sport to continue. So we have to as a community, not just the wrestling community but the MMA community, rise up and speak to this on a political level in Washington and on the IOC level to remind them of the importance of this sport."
Survival of the Fittest
If there's one endearing quality about wrestling and wrestlers as a whole, it's the work ethic that goes along with the sport.
There's a reason why so many wrestlers become MMA champions. The lessons learned on the mats at an early age translate to the same dedication and desire needed to compete at the top levels in fighting.
"I think the most important thing that wrestling taught me were the values that made me successful in life because that's success in more things than just wrestling," said Ben Askren. "I think I owe most of those successes to wrestling."
Those life lessons drove Askren to become an Olympian and then eventually a mixed martial arts champion. Now he believes that it's time for wrestlers and the wrestling community to truly show what they're made of.
And so does 2000 silver medalist and former UFC contender Matt Lindland. "They're in for a fight, and wrestlers know how to fight for what they want," said Lindland. "If what we're going after is a medal, we know how to go after that. But if what we're after is to save our sport, I think the wrestlers have the tenacity and the drive to fight this out."
Mark Coleman knows all about the spirit that wrestlers carry from the mat into the cage when they become MMA fighters. He knows that same drive can be used to help save the sport from being cut from the Olympics.
"Wrestlers are fighters," he said. "We're fighters, and it's a fight out there. I've always said if you can't wrestle, you can't fight. We won't quit. We still have a chance," said Coleman.
The chance comes first in May when the IOC will meet in St. Petersburg, Russia to decide which sports will be included for a vote to take the open spot on the 2020 games. A final decision will then be made by the committee in September.
"Wrestling will always survive because of the character and the integrity and the work ethic that we have. Parents will want kids to do this sport," said McMann.
This is a line drawn in the sand—and wrestlers are not the best group to haggle with when it comes to resolve and tenacity to see things through. The wrestling community refuses to go softly into the night after this devastating decision was made.
"It's time for us to stand for the sport that's made us all," Cormier told me.
The IOC now officially has a fight on its hands.
Damon Martin is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained in interviews with the author unless otherwise noted.
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