Wrestling Looking to MMA for A New Image
Pushed against the proverbial cage, wrestling is now fighting to keep its place in the Olympic Games. Literally fighting. With the International Olympic Committee’s decision to place wrestling on a chopping block, supporters of the sport are looking to the rapid and successful growth of mixed martial arts for ways to rebrand and rejuvenate the sport before a May 29 IOC executive board meeting.
Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées (FILA) president Nenad Lalovic spoke with USA TODAY Sports of the organization’s intention to make the sport more viewer-friendly to ensure its continuance. This would mean no more singlets, a stage more grandiose than a square mat, walk-out music, etc.
“We have to think about how to make a show because without that today, it’s difficult,” said Lalovic about these changes.
Bill Scherr, former world champion and current chairman of the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, met with UFC President Dana White and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney to discuss their success. He has recently published an essay titled “A Shout Out to the UFC!”
In this essay, Scherr states:
The UFC is the largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world. Based in the United States, they have a long-term contract with FOX television and average 4 or 5 million viewers per show. They have achieved more than a million “buys” on pay-per-view broadcasts for individual fights on multiple occasions. UFC is also a truly global phenomenon with events expanding around the world and programming in over 130 countries. It is one of the most valuable sports franchises on the planet with private estimates of an enterprise value surpassing that of the New York Yankees or Manchester United franchises.
Wrestling is not a mixed martial art and it should not think of itself as such. It should not incorporate fighting disciplines into its organization. Wrestling has its place among the Olympic sports. Wrestling skills are among the most primary and arguably the most essential for success in the octagon. Wrestling is best served by sticking to its knitting and developing the sport of wrestling. Leave the fighting to the professionals.
That being said, wrestling has much to learn from its friends in the UFC. The franchise was on the verge of bankruptcy when brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and their business partner, Dana White, purchased it for $2MM in 2000. In just over a decade they have turned it into a multibillion dollar franchise. What were some of the elements that helped them become so successful? First, they changed the rules and the sport presentation significantly. They went from a format where the athletes, particularly those from jiu jitsu, were spending much of the time lying on the mat (boring to those outside of jiu jitsu) to standup fights which showcase skills from all of the disciplines. Wrestling is badly in need of rule changes at the international level. They also improved the presentation of the sport. The stage is grand for the athletes and fans. The “octagon” is just plain cool. There are lights and fog and pyrotechnics and the intro music is loud and exciting. Perhaps most importantly, they have learned the value of creating a connection with the fans and their athletes. They tell the stories of their fighters and people respond emotionally. The reality series have helped develop these deep connections to the fighters. And, importantly they make investments in developing the sport at the grassroots level where they hold competitions.
Wrestling is on the verge of a different type of bankruptcy now. It would be a severe blow to be removed from the Olympic program. Now is the time to examine the sport and make changes like they did in the UFC—not only to demonstrate to the International Olympic Committee that wrestling belongs but to improve the sport for the future.
2012 US Olympic Champion Jordan Burroughs gave the idea that, “In face-offs, it would be good to have something cool other than two guys walking on to the mat, shaking hands, wrestling, then walking off. It shows great sportsmanship but not very good showmanship.”
FILA and The Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling will be working together to prepare for the IOC executive board meeting on May 29. The meeting, which will take place in St. Petersburg, Russia, will allow ten sports to make their cases for readmission into the 2020 Olympic Games. The board is expected to pass three of these sports for a final meeting in September.