John Smith won two NCAA titles at Oklahoma State and then went on to win 2 Olympic Gold Medals and four freestyle World Championships. Dan Gable also won two NCAA championships while wrestling for the Iowa State Cyclones. Gable’s post-graduate freestyle career includes a Pan American Games title, the 1971 World Championship, the championship at the 1972 Tbilisi tournament and the 1972 Olympic Gold Medal. Bruce Baumgartner, too, was an NCAA champion while wrestling at Indiana State. In his storied freestyle career he accumulated more Olympic and World hardware than some entire countries have won.
For decades America’s best college wrestlers successfully transitioned from intercollegiate competition to the international stage. Glen Brand, Bill Smith, Doug Blubaugh, Tom Brands and countless others advanced from NCAA championship trophies to Olympic gold. And then – as if to keep the chain unbroken – many of them went in to coaching and trained the next generations of international freestyle champions.
At least to this fan, the chain seems to be weakening.
I like to watch all forms of wrestling and freestyle is no exception. But FILA, the international governing body of amateur wrestling, has changed freestyle rules so drastically in the last ten years that modern freestyle bears far less resemblance to American folkstyle wrestling than in years past. Do these changes contribute to the seeming American decline? I think so.
It’s not just that we wrestle a different style in America, it’s also that our organizational structure is different. The United States is one of very few countries in the world (Canada might be another) where kids get most of their wrestling opportunities within our schools – and American schools are almost inextricably tied to folkstyle wrestling. Most of the world’s wrestling powers develop their athletes through a “club” type system. Some of them may be privately funded and others government run, but this formula allows them to more freely adapt to changes in freestyle.
Here in the US our kids spend thousands of hours working toward winning first a city middle school tournament, and then a high school state championship and finally an NCAA crown – all in our prevalent “national” style. The most dedicated of those will spend a couple of “offseason” months competing in freestyle and/or Greco Roman wrestling. Thanks to USA Wrestling and Jason Bryant I just finished watching more hours than I should have of the Cadet and Junior Freestyle Championships in Fargo. By and large it was very entertaining wrestling, but I’m willing to bet that there are at least a half dozen 17-year-old kids in each of the former Soviet republics that could easily handle most, if not all, of out Junior Champions in freestyle competition. The number one reason is simple – those kids devote their entire lives to freestyle wrestling.
The disparity doesn’t disappear at the elite level. Our best wrestlers will have prepared for years to win an NCAA championship – or two – or three - and then at age 22 or 23 switch to a style where their opponents have a 10 – 15 year head start on them.
There are those who say the answer is simple – convert American interscholastic and intercollegiate wrestling to freestlye. If our primary goal for wrestling is to win more international medals that might be the answer. But what if our goal is to expose more kids to the intrinsic value of wrestling? Does a change in styles help there? I’m not sure – but I suspect not. It’s not that I think young athletes would naturally prefer folkstyle to freestyle. That defies logic. The difficulty would come at the teaching/coaching level. I fear that we would have too may coaches who, brought up completely in folkstyle, would lose their enthusiasm for the sport – and without motivated teachers we would see a drop in participation.
There is no rule that says a young American wrestler must follow the traditional path to Olympic glory. The recent improvement in American Greco-Roman wrestling may be due, in part, to more young athlete’s foregoing a college career to focus on their GR training. Let’s also not forget that America’s only freestyle gold medallist in Beijing, Henry Cejudo, opted to go directly from his high school graduation to the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Now there’s a new factor in the equation – Mixed Martial Arts. An international freestyle career has never been a gateway to great wealth for American competitors. Traditionally, the top athletes have earned a small stipend from USA Wrestling and supplemented their incomes with college assistant coaching jobs. The latter again brings the style conflict into play as they sacrifice their own freestyle training time to teach better folkstyle techniques to younger athletes.
Increasingly, graduating wrestlers are lured away from the sport by the potential for big money in MMA, where the top stars can earn six figures per bout. Former Oklahoma State Cowboy stars Jake Rosholt and Johnny Hendricks were among the first to eschew international wrestling competition and move quickly into MMA fighting. 2010 graduates Lance Palmer of Ohio State and Missouri’s Mark Ellis both recently announced upcoming forays into mixed martial arts. Will this trend continue and how will it impact the future of American wrestling?
Many MMA fans believe that the growth in “ultimate fighting” will only help wrestling when young grapplers see the potential for future wealth battling in the octagon. I’m not sure that I believe that premise. Look at baseball where even journeyman players are millionaires. Yet, participation in Little League has dropped 13% since 1997.
Do we, as fans, really care what happens on the international stage? Unfortunately, I suspect that the answer is that fewer and fewer of us do. If you are among those who do, there is a way to help our top freestyle, Greco-Roman and women wrestlers. The Living the Dream Fund was created to provide cash rewards for medal winners at the World Championship and Olympic competition. An American gold medallist in Moscow in September will receive $50,000 from the fund, while a silver medal is worth $25,000 and a bronze will net $15,000. You can contribute online at the Living the Dream website. You'll be strengthening American wrestling.