From UFC to Hollywood, Wrestling Support Is Up off the Mat
Wrestlers are resilient people, always finding their way out of difficult places in the mat. Maybe that’s what the International Olympic Committee had in mind when they announced the sport would be gone from the games starting in 2020. Since that point everyone from celebrities to heads of state to athletes and citizens from all walks of life have rallied to try and help get the sport reinstated to the games through a process that will really begin when the International Olympic Committee meets in St. Petersburg, Russia in May.
The latest loud support came in two pieces this week. First, mixed martial arts, which has some of its greatest stars coming from an Olympic or NCAA Championship background, announced its whole-hearted support for the cause in statements by UFC head Dana White and Bellator head Bjorn Rebney.
Then on Thursday USA Wrestling and the grassroots organization “Beat The Streets,” which funds inner-city wrestling programs, announced that they will bring some strange political bedfellows, the US, Russia and Iran, together on May 15 for a special match and fundraiser in of all places, New York’s Grand Central Terminal, to raise awareness and dollars for the youth of the sport. The event will be one of hundreds around the world in May, which has been dubbed “International Wrestling Month.”
Throw that on top of the support of both houses of Congress, over 20 states which have issued proclamations, Russian president Vladimir Putin, Secretary of State John Kerry, the Emir of Kuwait, and a host of celebrities ranging from Billy Baldwin to Ashton Kutcher, and wrestling and its cause seem to be everywhere these days. Change, and a huge wakeup call for FILA, the international governing body, may be just what the sport needed.
"Some of the things that wrestling has been criticized (for) by the U.S. Olympic Committee are the very things that mixed martial arts, the UFC, Bellator (MMA) and others do very, very well," said Bill Scherr, former USOC head and chairman of the U.S.-based Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling to Associated Press this week when asked about the value of MMA support. "They have vibrant television markets and audiences. They have great fan interest from a grass roots level. They have a very strong presence with all forms of digital media, including Facebook, web sites and Twitter."
"When we heard it was being yanked from the Olympics, I said 'It needs to be more fan friendly. It needs to be more exciting,'" UFC head Dana White added in the same story.
The U.S., Russia, Iran competition will be held alongside the annual Beat the Streets Awards Gala, which will be held following the competition at Bryant Park Grill. A ticket will be required for both the competition and the Gala.
"We are elated to bring together three nations this year to show not just how great the sport of wrestling is, but to exemplify how sport provides a common bond for countries who do not always see eye to eye on issues," Beat The Streets Chairman Mike Novogratz told Bleacher Report. "Like our dual meets in Times Square the past two years, 'The Rumble On The Rails' will be an event that that will transcend the power of wrestling, while raising much needed funds for the inner city kids who participate in our Beat The Streets program year round. It will be a great night for our program and our sport, and an amazing night for The City of New York."
This is not the first time that the U.S. and Russia have united in The Big Apple, but it is a very unusual trip for Iran, which has no diplomatic ties with America at this point. In 2010, an all-star challenge featuring top U.S. wrestlers was held on the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier docked on the west side of Manhattan. In 2011, the U.S. defeated World champion Russia, 5-2, the first sports event ever held in historic Times Square. In 2012, another U.S. vs. Russia dual meet was held in Times Square, along with the U.S. Olympic Team Wrestle-off for the 60 kg/132 lbs. position on the U.S. Olympic Team in men’s freestyle.
Iran last competed in the U.S. in the 2003 World Championships in New York City but the two countries made international headlines just a few months ago, when they met in a match in Tehran and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and thousands of fans cheered the Americans and even shook hands with US superstar Jordan Burroughs. “It really showed how wrestling as a sport can bring together cultures that don’t have much else in common,” Burroughs added.
Hollywood’s endorsement has also been pretty remarkable. Baldwin, who wrestled collegiately at The State University of New York at Binghamton, has been a vocal supporter, even going to the NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa last month to raise awareness. There is a major motion picture, “Foxcatcher,” that is due out later in the year starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo (it is about the murder of an Olympic gold medalist), and all three stars, along with others like Mario Lopez, Kevin James and others, have offered help to raise awareness.
The effort has reached down into the grassroots as well, where this past week, New York City’s Public Schools Athletic Association, which had been cutting sports, announced it will bring in girl’s wrestling as a high school sport. The issue of not enough involvement for women had been one of the global problems the IOC had stated in wrestling’s Olympic expulsion.
Whether all this support will be enough to sway the IOC remains to be seen. There are a number of issues that wrestling as a sport needs to address and explain on a global level, and the dogmatic leaders of the Olympic program never like to be shown up in public. But if there ever were a case study for the power of a sport and what it can do to rally quickly, one may be able to look back at wrestling to see how fast things can change. Hopefully the time hasn’t run out.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted.
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