UFC chief executive Dana White helped turn mixed martial arts into a wildly lucrative industry by engaging fans and embracing show business.
Facing Olympic extinction, wrestling is now listening to its flashy cousin.
Bill Scherr, the chairman of the U.S.-based Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling, wrote an essay last week titled “A Shout Out to the UFC!” that signaled something of a seismic shift in the thinking among top wrestling officials.
Wrestling, with its roots in antiquity, trudged along for decades while mixed martial arts soared in popularity. But Scherr, a past world champion and successful businessman, argued that wrestling — which the IOC recently recommended be axed from the Olympics starting in 2020 — has a lot to learn from the path MMA promotion companies took to success.
“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,” Scherr said. “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.”
It makes sense for wrestling to seek help from mixed martial arts. The two sports have been intertwined since the Octagon was conceived.
Former collegiate and international wrestlers such as Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones have provided mixed martial arts with combat-ready athletes who used their skills honed on the mats to blossom into stars. Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney called wrestling the “single most important feeder system” for mixed martial arts.
But while the UFC and Bellator are raking in revenue, wrestling has been forced to re-examine itself or face dire consequences.
“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,’” White said.
Wrestling officials have reached out to White, Rebney and others to figure out how to get there.
Any plan for a concrete partnership has not progressed past the discussion phase, with White and top U.S. wrestling officials speaking as recently as a week ago. But it’s clear that, at least in the U.S., wrestling has finally acknowledged its shortcomings in the context of the modern sports culture.
“I don’t think wrestling needs to compromise the sport in order to do the things we need to do to improve ourselves. The sport is pure,” Scherr said. “We don’t need to change the essence of the sport. What we do need to accomplish is changing the way we present the sport and the way we connect with our audience and fans.”
That could include significant changes both on the mat and in the arena.
Scherr and many other wrestling officials in the U.S. and beyond have long argued for rules changes that spur more action and increase scoring.
Scherr praised mixed martial arts for emphasizing “stand up” action that’s easier to follow and usually more exciting to watch than two athletes rolling around on a mat.
But Henderson, a two-time U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman team member, expressed the views of many within wrestling, who fear that tweaking the old sport to appeal to a fickle modern audience could rob wrestling of much of its essence.
Finding a middle ground will likely be a major emphasis moving forward.
“Overall, I think sometimes when they’ve tweaked with the rules they’ve made it worse,” Henderson said. “I’d imagine they can get guys a little more active and more scoring, get a little bit more excitement. But it’s hard to compare anything to how exciting mixed martial arts is.”
Wrestling officials are also exploring whether they could emulate the way UFC and Bellator put on a show.
While mixed martial arts ramps up the pre-fight ambience with lights, pyrotechnics and loud music, wrestling typically leans on little more than a public address announcer to generate excitement.
The theatrics were ramped up at the recent NCAA championships in Des Moines, Iowa, and the fans seemed to enjoy it. But Rebney, whose organization has flourished in part because of partnerships with MTV and Spike TV, believes wrestling needs to embrace and publicize its strengths rather than simply mimic of flashier aspects of mixed martial arts.
“You focus on the storytelling of the athletes, you focus on creating stars,” Rebney said. “You’ve got to tell those stories. Wrestlers are some of the greatest athletes we’ve got in this country.”
Generating such publicity has long been a problem for wrestling.
The sport’s limited television appeal compared to others Olympic competitions is a major issue. But for many in wrestling, self-promotion — hyping those personal stories that help make stars — runs counter to everything a sport built on principles of toughness and humility stands for.
Former Missouri star Ben Askren, who competed for the U.S. in the 2008 Beijing Games before joining Bellator, said he was often chided in his wrestling days simply for speaking his mind.
But it’s clear that, in the wake of the IOC’s recommendation, the wrestling community is trying to connect with the public and shed its somewhat stand-offish reputation.
“It is a blue-collar work ethic, I need to be humble for my sport kind of deal … it does not lend itself to be fan friendly in certain aspects,” Askren said. “My wife, she was never into wrestling until we got married. But she made a great point the other day. She said that wrestling doesn’t market itself for what it’s worth.”