As the sport of wrestling continues to grapple with baseball/softball and squash to return to the Olympic Games in 2020, a former NCAA wrestler took his turn in the limelight this past Saturday, and that unexpected success could be a boon to again raising the profile of wrestling among casual fans as the summer moves along.
Long Island native and former Hofstra University All-American Chris Weidman has been a rising star in the UFC, but his sudden second round knockout of legendary champion Anderson Silva (33-5 MMA, 16-1 UFC) in Las Vegas Saturday sent the MMA world into a frenzy and gave Weidman’s roots—wrestling—a boost not just in the Octagon but around the world.
How close is Weidman’s tie to wrestling? He sports a “USA Wrestling” tattoo on his arm. That real estate, along with the viral and media frenzy that surrounds the UFC, can help keep wrestling top of mind globally across a hot and crowded summer athletic schedule.
The relationship between elite MMA promotions like the UFC and Bellator is strong but not over the top, per se. While several disciplines included in MMA are part of the Olympic program, MMA itself is not a recognized sport by the International Olympic Committee, and many members of the IOC have been public about their concerns of the violence associated with MMA, despite its ever-growing global popularity.
Therefore, wrestling officials have welcomed the halo effect that MMA, from leaders like the UFC’s Dana White and Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney, has brought to the Olympic wrestling cause without publicly acknowledging the ties between the sports.
What does that halo effect mean for the Olympic cause? “It is support and credibility you can’t buy,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Front Row Marketing, one of the leading brand marketing and sales companies in the global sports and entertainment space.
“While you never want to upset the IOC by officially aligning with a sport or a person that may be seen as controversial, that passionate support is a nice boost for wrestling," he added. "It’s a type of support you really don’t see from baseball players and that sport’s Olympic push, and you can’t downplay the value of promotions like the UFC in keeping the wrestling cause front and center.”
Weidman was one of several elite former wrestlers who has shown support for wrestling in and around the Octagon in recent weeks. Champion Frankie Edgar, who has spent time coaching wrestling at Rutgers University, also sported a “Save Olympic Wrestling” T-shirt during Saturday’s pay-per-view, and former wrestling All-American Mark Munoz also posted a win in the Octagon Saturday.
Some of the other biggest stars of the UFC and Bellator have also done so on their own, with more support expected as the vote nears in September.
For Weidman, what has his new-found success been like?
"It's been a little bit of a blur, but it's been good," he said. "It's been a bit surreal. It still hasn't sunk in all the way, but it feels good."
His win was also a nice boost for Hofstra, the Long Island school that has had a history of steady success in wrestling. Others like Bryan Vetell and Jay Hieron have had success in transitioning to MMA—but none at the level of Weidman’s win Saturday.
“If you are a wrestling official or a fan, you have to be rooting for these guys to be successful,” Lencheski added. “It is exposure you can’t buy, and it certainly doesn’t hurt the cause. They are great stories and great examples of the success that wrestling can bring to athletes once their careers are over.
"Whether it is in the Octagon or in the boardroom, the discipline has provided a great base for life success, and that, more than anything is what wrestling’s real value is to its participants and to the Olympic programme."
For Weidman, wrestling success has led to an avalanche of support and business opportunities in and out of the Octagon, and that success for the long and short term should make wrestling officials around the globe smile, even if they have to cheer from a distance for now.
Jerry Milani is a featured writer at Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted.