Wrestlers don’t have it easy.

Their sport, while ostensibly team-oriented, requires an individual level of dedication like few others. From a very, very young age, wrestlers are learning to cut weight to be able to participate in the upcoming weekend’s tournament, they’re subjected to a training regimen that would make the majority of their peers quit on the first day, and while their friends spend their Saturday mornings playing video games, wrestlers spend them with their faces buried in each other’s armpits. It’s not a glamorous life, and it doesn’t get much better as wrestlers get older.

Assuming they’re elite enough to be noticed during high school, they’ll likely be offered a scholarship to a university where, if they continue their success, they’ll qualify for and win an NCAA tournament and perhaps be remembered as one of the all-time greats. But then college ends, and these wrestlers are world-class 22-year-old athletes whose competitive prospects are suddenly much dimmer. The best football players go to the NFL. The best basketball players go to the NBA. Where do the best collegiate wrestlers go?

For a long time, there were basically two options. Some of the sport’s best have gone on to have successful careers in the world of professional wrestling. Kurt Angle was a two-time NCAA champion at Clarion University and went on to gain even more notoriety during his career in the World Wrestling Entertainment and Total Nonstop Action promotions. Jake Hager, Jr. set a NCAA record when he scored 30 pins during his 2006 All-American season at the University of Oklahoma. He currently performs in the WWE as Jack Swagger and will compete in one of the main-event matches at this year’s WrestleMania.

Of course, the other, more logical option for elite college wrestlers was to retain their amateur status for long enough to try out for the Olympics. Through time spent on the freestyle circuit, wrestlers can continue to hone their craft until such time when they make their run at Olympic glory. Angle went this route before entering into the world of professional wrestling and emerged with an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 games. Rulon Gardner and Cael Sanderson became household names for a time after their gold-medal performances at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics, respectively, and Henry Cejudo’s underdog story captured the country’s imagination during his incredible gold-medal run in 2008.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, another possible career path emerged for amateur wrestlers looking to continue their athletic journeys. At UFC 4, two-time NCAA All-American Dan Severn stepped into the Octagon for the first time and destroyed his first two opponents in less than three minutes, total. He would go on to lose later in the night to fellow UFC legend Royce Gracie, but lasted longer than any three of Gracie’s previous professional opponents. As a result, wrestling emerged as not only a viable base from which to build an effective MMA game, but an extremely useful one.

Severn continued to succeed as the preeminent wrestler of the proto-MMA days, winning the UFC 5 and Ultimate Ultimate tournaments in 1995, and remained firmly entrenched in that position until he was usurped by another powerful former NCAA wrestler, Mark Coleman. Coleman debuted at UFC 10 in 1996 and won his first six pro fights (including one over Severn at UFC 12). Along with his contemporary, Mark Kerr, “The Hammer” expanded upon Severn’s existing wrestling-for-fighting game, which led to him becoming one of the recognized innovators of the offensive strategy known today as “ground-and-pound.” Coleman’s proudest competitive moment would come in 2000, when he won the Pride FC 2000 Openweight Grand Prix, but his contribution to MMA would be shown best in the fighters who followed him.

As the new millennium dawned, wrestlers would come to comprise a greater and greater percentage of elite MMA fighters. Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes are three UFC Hall of Famers who began their athletic careers in singlets. They join Severn, Coleman and Chuck Liddell to create a UFC Hall of Fame that is two-thirds comprised of wrestlers. The sport’s place as a fantastic base for aspiring MMA fighters—a position asserted repeatedly by UFC commentator Joe Rogan during the promotion’s broadcasts—is probably best demonstrated by the fact that five of the UFC’s eight current champions come from wrestling backgrounds (six, if you count Georges St-Pierre, who despite never having formally competed in wrestling before he began his MMA career is one of the sport’s most polished ground fighters).

The point is, MMA is absolutely, positively a great opportunity for elite wrestlers in 2013 to continue to showcase the skills they spent so many years crafting. This recent development of a third potential career path for high-level wrestlers is especially interesting considering that one of the other two alternative paths was recently closed off. Last week, the International Olympic Committee announced that wrestling would likely not be a part of the Summer Olympics beginning in 2020, effectively shutting down what was once considered the most honorable way a wrestler could showcase his talents.

While this move certainly dealt a significant blow to the wrestling community worldwide, some circles within the MMA community have likely had a different reaction. Where those focused on wrestling rightly see the IOC’s announcement as a major detriment to their sport, those focused on MMA could see this as an opportunity to not only get more elite wrestlers into the cage, but get them in the cage sooner. Dan Henderson waited until he was 26 years old to make his MMA debut because of his commitment to Olympic wrestling (he competed in the 1992 and 1996 Summer Games), an age that today would seem like a late-ish start. Daniel Cormier, another former Olympic wrestler, waited even longer than that, fighting in MMA as a professional for the first time at age 30. Without the Olympics to “hold them back,” it stands to reason that many more elite wrestlers will turn to the cage after college, which will hopefully introduce a continual group of hungry, dedicated athletes who will be able to apply the necessary focus to MMA that would have otherwise gone to perfecting wrestling only.

Now, just because the Olympics is no longer an option for wrestling’s best doesn’t mean that all of them will suddenly flock to MMA. There are surely some for whom the additional offensive options present in MMA would be a deterrent. In wrestling, if you shoot in on an opponent, he could move to avoid it or stuff you and gain an advantageous position. In MMA, if you shoot in on an opponent, he could move to avoid it, he could stuff you and gain an advantageous position, or he could knee you in the face. The mere addition of striking and submissions will surely be too daunting a challenge for even some of wrestling’s toughest competitors.

Even still, wrestling’s apparent decline among fans of “traditional” sports is coinciding well with MMA’s rise in popularity, and what might have seemed like a creative way for a wrestler to make some extra money after college in 2000 will soon be seen as the desired career path for a critical mass of elite wrestlers. MMA will be for wrestlers what the NFL is for football players, and as the paydays for the UFC’s fighters continue to increase, so too will the sport’s attractiveness to those champions of the mat.

Wrestlers will never have it easy, and the forthcoming absence of the sport from Olympic competition is nothing short of a travesty. That being said, MMA has already replaced both pro wrestling and the Olympics as an amateur wrestler’s best bet to prolong his athletic career, and by removing one of the other two options from the table, it will only serve to the sport’s advantage.

Photo: Former Olympian Daniel Cormier (Jerry Chavez/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.