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MMA in the Olympics: A novel idea that will never happen

An article highlighting Clarissa Chun’s win at the USA Wrestling trials and her inclusion on the U.S. Olympic team sparked some debate about MMA’s involvement with the summer games.

MMA in the Olympics is something that former IFL commissioner Kurt Otto, EliteXC Live Events President Gary Shaw, and UFC President Dana White have all championed in the past.

I actually spoke to several promoters about the concept of MMA as an Olympic sport while researching a potential magazine article. Everyone I spoke to made great arguments as to why MMA would benefit from becoming an Olympic sport, however, no one really could provide logistical details of how medal winners would be determined.

I am often asked when I believe MMA will finally become an Olympic sport and it’s an easy answer. I’m not a gambling man but I’d bet my house that we’ll never see MMA inducted into the Olympics as a sport.

Did you hear that? Never.

No one can dispute the fact that MMA in the Olympics would be a tremendous validation for the sport and a tremendous boon towards gaining increased acceptance from the mainstream.

So yeah, it’s easy to see how being involved with the Olympics would be good for MMA. But has anyone thought about whether it would be good for the Olympics?

Regardless of who it’s good for and who it’s not good for, it doesn’t matter because it’s not going to happen in our lifetime.

I’m not being cynical or pessimistic; only a realist. After I give you the reasons why we’ll never see MMA in the Olympics, even eternal optimists will share my point of view.

The Selection Process…

How would fighters be selected for the Olympics? It’s real easy to do a selection tournament for amateur boxing considering they use headgear and heavy gloves. By the time the Olympics roll around the qualifiers all have had plenty of time to heal.

But does the industry really want a selection process in MMA that would add to the commitment fighters would have to make to be a part from the organization they fight for? Let’s say the UFC was willing to commit Georges St. Pierre to the Olympics; taking him out of the mix for one fight would be tough to swallow. However, the selection process would mean he’d be unavailable to the UFC for a second fight.

There’s also the issue of nationalism. U.S. and Japanese fighters wouldn’t care about fighting each other but what about the Brazilians? I hope I don’t offend anyone by making a gross generalization, but a lot of Brazilians at the pro level do not like fighting each other.

Top Brazilian fighters would be flat out psyched to represent Brazil in the Olympics against other nations, but if asked to compete each other in a head-to-head format, a lot of them would bail.

You could always form selection committees and eliminate a qualifying tournament but then things become very political.

The Promoters are Full of It…

When it comes time to commit fighters to the Olympics, the promoters who support it will suddenly go quiet. White has said he’d like to see it, but let’s say MMA was going to take place during the Beijing Olympics in August. And let’s say Chuck Liddell is representing the U.S. and Wanderlei Silva is representing Brazil and the two are scheduled to face each other. Such a situation means that the UFC would lose one of its biggest main events. They’d literally be handing millions of dollars in revenue opportunities to the International Olympic Committee without anything in return.

And you know White would never allow one of his fighters to fight a fighter that represents another organization. Let’s say Anderson Silva was the representative for Brazil at 185 lbs. but there was a possibility that he might have to fight EliteXC’s Robbie Lawler, who is representing the U.S. If there was any chance of one of White’s top fighters facing a top fighter from another organization, the UFC’s support would vanish.

The bottom line: no promoter from a major MMA organization is going to loan out resources to the Olympics when they don’t have a financial piece of the action.

I could see promoters possibly loaning out some of their younger, lesser established fighters who could become superstars with a strong run in the Olympics. But whether pro or amateurs are used, it needs to be the best of the class in order for MMA to be taken serious at an Olympic sport.

If promoters weren’t willing to lend out their fighters but still wanted the rub of legitimacy MMA would get by being an Olympic sport, they could always push for amateurs. After all, wasn’t there a day and age where you had to be an amateur in order to compete in the Olympics?

The problem there is that there is no universal standard for amateur status. The U.S. finally caved and agreed to allow the NBA to represent the country in the Olympics because all of the other countries were using pros. So what if the U.S., Japan, and Brazil agree to send amateur fighters but Russia starts sending pros? What if you have 32-year old Red Devil veterans smashing 20-year old kids?

Lack of Acceptance…

So far, only one network has been willing to show MMA in primetime and that is CBS. But CBS Sports doesn’t produce EliteXC’s events as it’s done through the network’s entertainment division.

NBC has entered into a timebuy agreement with Strikeforce and shows MMA early Sunday mornings. But once again, it’s done through NBC’s entertainment division and not it’s sports division.

MMA is still a tough sell to the mainstream and the reality is that NBC has a lock on the Olympics for several more years. If it isn’t yet willing to show it in primetime, why would the sports division suddenly agree to televise it? Sports producers see the Olympics as their golden ticket to win an Emmy. The last thing they want is to impugn the Olympics by featuring a sport known for violence and blood.

The Logistics of the Tournament Format…

I’m not an Olympics expert, but whether it’s an individual or team sport, medals are determined via a tournament-style format. Athletes have to compete multiple times over a short time frame, sometimes multiple times in a day. Single-day tournaments in MMA were done away with a long time ago. They’ve been brought back recently in altered fashion; California allows single-night four-man tournaments while New Jersey recently approved a concept for YAMMA in which a single-night tournament was allowed with the bouts in the first two rounds of the tourney lasting only one round of five minutes and the tournament final consisting of three, three minute rounds.

So the reality is, if you did the Olympic MMA tournament old school UFC style, you make a dangerous sport even more dangerous. You’ll run into situations where fighters that lost actually end up advancing because the guy who beat them was too hurt to advance.

Doing the single-night four-man tourney that Strikeforce utilized isn’t an option because then the tournament is limited to just four nations. And who the hell wants to do a tournament the way YAMMA did it? A fight that only lasts five minutes?

MMA in the Olympics will never happen because it’s just not feasible. However, there two like-minded options that realistically could work:

1. Submission Grappling in the Olympics – The Olympics already features Taekwondo, Judo, and wrestling, so why not jiu-jitsu? There is no striking in jiu-jitsu so it fits into the whole sportsmanship aspect of the games. And if you’ve ever been to a major grappling tournament, you already know it’s operated in an Olympic fashion through its tournament bracketing system. And when winners in a division are declared, they are announced on a podium and presented medals and trophy. Competitive submission grappling is already an Olympic sport… it’s just not yet in the Olympics.

2. An MMA World Cup done Grand Prix style – MMA is a global sport and it would be pretty cool to see nations go head-to-head. Why not do a Grand Prix-style tournament that would take place over the span of three fight cards and would be run independent of the International Olympic committee, similar to what FIFA does with the World Cup in soccer? The biggest hindrance here is that promotions still might not want to have involvement and there currently isn’t an International MMA organization that could sanction and produce such an event. Who wouldn’t be jazzed for the World Cup of MMA?