During a Tuesday press conference in New Jersey to announce “Fuel The Dream,” USA Wrestling’s landmark fundraising initiative to raise funds to pay for the families of Olympic wrestling team qualifiers to go to Beijing, Olympic standout and Oklahoma State champion wrestling coach John Smith was asked his opinion about the effect MMA is having on elite wrestlers.
Smith was very supportive of MMA when responding to the question.
“I think that what groups like the IFL and the UFC have done for amateur wrestling, when the Olympic dream is finished, has been really good,” Smith said. “It gives some of our best athletes the chance to be professionals where there was no chance before, so I have no problem with that. The problem lies with guys who don’t finish out the once in a lifetime opportunity and cut corners to try and make the jump. If guys go as far as they can go and experience Olympic and international competition and then move on to MMA that’s great for them.
“The international aspect will actually prepare them for the professional side much better than the college side. We are seeing that more and more. It’s the guys who shortchange that goal who move on to fast that hurt both sports, and thats what we want to try and avoid. I am sure you will see guys come out of Beijing and then move on to MMA and do well. Thats the good part of the process. The ones who left early are the problem ones.”
Oklahoma State is one of the most dominant wrestling programs in the nation. It has produced mixed martial artists such as Randy Couture, Jake Rosholt, Johny Hendricks, and Shane Roller. U.S. Olympic hopeful and future mixed martial artist Muhammad Lawal is also an alumnus of the school.
USA wrestling chief Rich Bender also added that he expects the United States wrestlers to again be one of the strongest American teams in Beijing, which will be great news for MMA from a marketing standpoint in the future.
The Beijing games should be very interesting, as the major MMA promotions in the sport could be scouting them more closely than usual. If a wrestler wins gold and gains mainstream media traction out of it such as Kurt Angle, Rulon Gardner, and Matt Ghaffari in years past, there could be a tremendous recruitment process to get them involved with the sport in order to capitalize on their notoriety.
Both Ghaffari and Gardner have dabbled with MMA in Japan in the past, but never committed full-time to the sport. Angle has teased the possibility of transitioning into MMA at various points of his career, but has never made a jump.
If someone such as Lawal takes gold and begins to train full-time with the intent to debut soon after, the sport could see the birth of a new superstar almost overnight. And having someone such as Smith encourage top wrestlers to take a look at MMA as a post-college career could prove to be a huge boon for the sport.