Following tireless campaigns and endless petitions, one of the Olympics’ oldest sports has wrestled its way back into The Games. The amateur wrestling programme was scheduled to be dropped from The Olympic Games following a decision made by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seven months ago; but this past week broke the news that wresting would be reinstated into the Olympic Games. It would be strange to picture the Olympics without the presence of wrestling; much like it would be strange to imagine MMA without wrestling. We all know that MMA, in its current form, has deep roots with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But the influence of wrestling, and the wrestling community, cannot be forgotten.
The question – which discipline is the most effective base-skill to have in MMA? – has been debated and beat with a stick for years. Don’t worry, I won’t continue to bludgeon that question to death. But according to several highly-decorated fighters, wrestling is the best background to have before entering MMA. The ability to take the fight where you want, the experience in weight cutting, and knowing your body’s limits; these are a selection of the arguments supporting wrestling. That subject could be debated for hours on end. A more interesting and more important matter to discuss is the history of wrestling in mixed martial arts and why it’s so important.
Wrestling has been prevalent in MMA since the origins of the sport. Greco-Roman wrestling was a major feature in Pankration, the earliest incarnation of mixed martial arts which originated in Ancient Greece; although some say that Pankration has no connection to MMA. It was a concoction of boxing and wrestling, with barely any rules. In the modern era we must look at Japan for the earliest form of MMA. Shoot fights in Shooto and Pancrase are some of notable examples.
In 1993, Rorion Gracie and his family created the UFC (with help from John Milius and Art Davie). The premise of the event was to host a one-night tournament to test different martial arts against each other; would karate guy beat a boxer – that old debate. It wasn’t until UFC 4 when the presence of wrestling was truly presented. The spectacle, then called NHB (No Holds Barred), saw the two-time All-American Dan Severn step in the cage for the first time. The show also introduced a very important figure in MMA history for the first time, Olympic gold medallist in Greco-Roman wrestling – Jeff Blatnick.
Jeff Blatnick is somewhat of a forgotten pioneer of MMA. Pioneer in the sense that he helped build the sport; and really, he helped give the sport credibility. When I say sport, while referring to the early years of MMA, I say it loosely. No disrespect to the fighters of the day, but even they would agree with me. It was more a spectacle than a sport. The rules were limited and the standard of fighter wasn’t at a premium, apart from a few exceptions.
With Jeff Blatnick involved in the UFC, eventually becoming the commissioner of the promotion, there was an air of legitimacy around NHB. A well-respected Olympian supporting the cause can’t hurt. In 2000, a group set out to create a rule-set for NHB, which eventually became The Unified Rules – as we know them today. The group included Jeff Blatnick, famed-referee “Big” John McCarthy and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva.
Blatnick has also been credited as the man who coined the phrase – Mixed Martial Arts – which became the permanent name for the sport. This insisted people remove the moniker of NHB (No Holds Barred); a name which gave the public a preconceived notion of the sport, and not a good one. Blatnick felt that the name gave the sport a bad connotation.
Without even getting into the great fighters who have come from wrestling backgrounds, you can see how much wrestling has helped shaped the sport that we love. One of the most influential figures of MMA comes from a decorated wrestling background, and it’s for this reason that MMA gained much of its credibility through the eyes of the public. It’s not that greats like Royce Gracie didn’t give it credibility, but to have an Olympic gold medallist at the forefront meant a lot.
Think about how many legendary fighters have come from an amateur wrestling background. In the geneses of the sport we had the aforementioned Dan Severn, and fellow-moustache-wearing Don Frye. We can’t forget “The Hammer”, Mark Coleman. Then we saw Randy Couture, and Olympian Dan Henderson. Chuck Liddell brought a similar style to Henderson; using his wrestling so subtly we hardly noticed it – wrestling-in-reverse. Tito Ortiz was quite opposite, using his wrestling and smashing people while sitting in their guards.
The Zuffa era brought us a continual stream of top-class wrestlers, including Matt Hughes. Hughes fought in other shows and made a couple of appearances in the UFC, pre-Zuffa, but it was with the new management where we saw him shine. His battles with fellow-wrestler Frank Trigg are ingrained in the history books. Wrestling continued to dominate the sport with the likes of Pat Miletich, Matt Lindland, among others.
Wrestling remains a vital part of the game today. George St. Pierre, who has no wrestling background, uses his Karate and explosiveness to compliment his wrestling. This has made him one of the best fighters in the world. The list is endless, and with the Olympic revival it will only grow; Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones, Frankie Edgar, Uriah Faber and Ben Askren all show why wrestling is so dominant when they step foot in the cage. Wrestling runs through our great sport’s veins and it’s exciting times to see it cement its place back where it belongs – The Olympic Games.