UFC, Bellator Continue Olympic Fight for Wrestling, Albeit from a Distance
As the September vote for Olympic inclusion nears, all three sports under consideration—baseball/softball, squash and wrestling—are sure to pull out their heavy guns showing how global and progressive they are.
Squash has dropped courts in front of some of the world’s greatest tourist attractions to show its portability; softball points toward more global inclusion and baseball mentions large crowds for youth events in Asia; and wrestling has gone back to host events in Ancient Greece, Grand Central Station, Niagara Falls and a massive venue in the American Midwest, all the while playing to its progressive rule changes and ever-growing social media presence.
But the one element baseball may lack—the support of Major League Baseball to suspend its season a la the NHL to let the best players play—is the element of support wrestling has in many ways: the media presence and support of professional Mixed Martial Arts to help propel the message forward.
That many of MMA’s biggest stars come from wrestling backgrounds—wrestlers who competed in the Beijing Games are 36-0 in MMA thus far—is quietly welcomed by wrestling but kept at a distance in most cases. Some members of the International Olympic Committee may feel that MMA, which is a hybrid sport that includes not just wrestling, but other Olympic disciplines like boxing and even tae kwon do in addition to jiu-jitsu, is too violent to be considered for Olympic inclusion.
So wrestling welcomes the support of its former stars on large stages like the UFC and Bellator, but still maintains its neutrality toward overt support from The Octagon.
"It is an interesting mix for wrestling for sure," said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Comcast-owned Front Row Marketing Services and a longtime Olympic marketer. "Here you have arguably the fastest rising sport that draws a string young male demo in MMA, but it remains a sport that in some cultures is seen as too violent and is not welcomed by many international sport organizations.
"However, if it weren’t for elite wrestling and its stars, MMA may not even exist," he added. "So wrestling has to enjoy the support that the UFC and Bellator and others have provided but do so quietly and respectfully for all involved, and thus far they seem to be doing it right."
How fervent has the MMA support for wrestling been? UFC title holder Chris Weidman sports a USA Wrestling tattoo below his shoulder, while many UFC favorites have entered the Octagon wearing "Save Olympic Wrestling" T-shirts. Bellator last week staged a wrestling clinic in New Mexico for hundreds of kids with MMA champion Frank Shamrock leading the way, along with elite wrestlers Joe Warren and Greg Jackson.
Spike TV, longtime supporter and partner in MMA, first with the UFC and now with Bellator, even went so far as to create a compelling TV spot with a call to action in support of wrestling, using not just elite former wrestlers and MMA stars like Rampage Jackson and Randy Couture, but professional wrestling icon Hulk Hogan and even Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, imploring viewers to take to social media and cast a vote for wrestling going back in the Games.
The spot has been so popular that it is running across a host of Viacom properties in addition to Spike’s MMA and TNA programming.
"I come from Pennsylvania so I get how popular wrestling is and how passionate its followers are because of the life lessons learned in the sport," Lencheski added. "So the support wrestling is getting, without even asking from its loyal supporters is not surprising. It will be interesting to see where it all goes not just with the vote, but how wrestling, if they do get back in, can use this support to help grow its footprint even more as a brand globally, in addition to the States."
But for now, wrestling will keep its cards close to its vest and, like the other sports, work the back rooms of the IOC to plead its case quietly and respectfully. Quiet is certainly not a tactic that MMA is usually known for, and its loud support is going to be valuable to wrestling after the vote.
Silent respect and quiet gratitude are more the norm as one of the world’s original, and now progressive, Olympic sports preps for its last hurdle—the September vote in Buenos Aires that could return wrestling front and center to the Games it has been a part of for centuries, with some added marketing mojo now prepped and ready to help even more.
Jerry Milani is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted.
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