Many years back we noticed a trend of American Wrestlers moving to MMA in huge numbers. It wasn’t too long before these juggernauts of the mats became the most prominent combat athletes in the MMA game. American Wrestlers are considered to be the most battle tested and prepared athletes to enter the MMA cage. UFC Commentator Joe Rogan has long been a fan of the American Wrestler as he touts the strength, heart, and athleticism of these combat warriors.
While I am a HUGE fan of American Wrestlers in MMA, a few questions have always gnawed at me. Since American Wrestlers are not the dominant force at the Olympic Games that they once were, where are these wrestlers from other nations? Can foreign wrestlers adapt to today’s MMA game the way that the American Wrestler has? Will we ever see a migration of foreign wrestlers into current MMA the way we saw with the American Wrestler over the past ten years?
In 1993, Royce Gracie and his Brazilian Jui Jitsu family brought their Martial Art to America, and eventually to the world, in the form of an eight sided cage that we all now call The Octagon. In doing so, the Gracie’s disproved everything that the rest of the world knew of the combat arts. This “new” ground fighting style proved to be far superior to any of the traditional striking arts, and the Gracie’s were turning the Martial Arts world on its collective head. By 1994, the UFC had attracted the attention of former All American Wrestler Dan Severn, and thus began a migration of American Wrestlers into the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, what little that was known by Americans of the Martial Arts was largely learned from watching from Bruce Lee playing Kato on “The Green Hornet” and David Carridine spinning in slow motion on Thursday night “Kung Fu” episodes. There were the arguments amongst the different fighting arts as to whose style would beat whose. “The Karate Kid” carried the baton through the eighties… But this was all just Hollywood. There were always those haunting questions: Does this karate stuff really work in the streets? Which style is really the best? Can a karate guy beat a professional boxer in a street fight? The Gracie family answered those questions while, at the same time, creating a whole set of new questions.
In 1972, Dan Gable, the greatest wrestler ever to strap on a singlet, won gold at the Munich Olympic Games. He tore through the entire field at the Olympic Games and either pinned or shut out all of his opponents. He never even surrendered a single point! (In fact, Dan went through his entire high school and college wrestling career and only lost once, and that was his final college match. He finished 182-1.) Unlike the boxers from the 1970’s who struck gold in the Olympic Games (Ray Seals, Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael and Leon Spinks, etc.) and returned home to the United States to embark on their multi million dollar athletic careers, Dan Gable returned home looking for a job. Dan found a job as an assistant college wrestling coach, and finally worked his way to the head coaching position at Iowa by 1976. This was the only real job option for the best wrestler the world had ever known in the 1970’s! You see the AAU rules back in the 1970’s forbid an athlete from earning a living in sports without losing his amateur status. In accepting a job in wrestling, Dan Gable had rendered himself ineligible to wrestle as an amateur. So in order for a wrestler to compete in another Olympic games he would have to find a full time job outside of sports altogether, train full time as an amateur wrestler, and return to the Olympics four years later and try to do it all over again. These world class athletes had very little outlet for their world class skills.
When Dan Severn entered the Octagon in 1994, he opened the flood gates for the American Wrestler into MMA. With little to no other outlet for their elite athletic skills, the American Wrestlers began a major migration into the Mixed Martial Arts, both at home and abroad. Wrestlers like Mark Coleman, Don Frye, Randy Couture, and Kevin Randleman began appearing on fight cards in the UFC, Pride, and other newly formed MMA circuits from America to Japan. The new millennium saw the next wave of MMA fighters, including former college wrestling standouts like Matt Hughes, Rashad Evans, Josh Koscheck, and Jon Fitch. A quick look at the current top ten MMA fighters in the eight weight classes reveals that American Wrestling is the most prominent fighting base among the elite MMA fighters in the world.
There is no question that an American college wrestling base, along with a National Championship or two in tow, is a great ingredient in the formula for success in MMA. Former Bellator Welterweight Champ Ben Askren is undefeated at 12-0; he was a two time National Wrestling Champ at the University of Missouri; he also was a US Olympian in 2008, but he never medaled in the Olympics. UFC Heavyweight Champ Cain Velasquez (13-1), UFC LHW Champ Jon Jones (19-1), UFC Middleweight Champ Chris Weidman (11-0), top Ranked Welterweight Johnny Hendricks (15-2), the four best Lightweights in the World (Michael Chandler, Eddie Alvarez, Anthony Pettis, and Benson Henderson), and UFC Flyweight Champ Mighty Mouse Johnson all have their backgrounds in American Wrestling; but none of these elite fighters were Olympic champs!!! When I look at all of these American Wrestlers and the success that they are having in MMA, I have to wonder just how good the best wrestlers in the world, the Olympic medalists, would fare in today’s MMA cage.
Mixed Martial Arts is becoming a worldwide mainstream sport. While the UFC has traditionally drawn its talent from places like Brazil, Japan, Europe, and the good old US of A, fans began to notice that Bellator started, about two years ago, tapping into some former Eastern Bloc talent, and the UFC has followed suit. There is one region that has caught my attention with regards to the former Eastern Bloc, and it is the area on the western bank of the Caspian Sea.
This West Caspian region begins in Northern Iran and runs north toward the top of the Caspian Sea to the North Caucasus Mountains; it is bordered on the east by the Caspian Sea and on the west by the Turkey boarder and the Black Sea. The region includes known nations such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, as well as little known former Russian republics like Dagestan, Kalmykia, Chechnya, and Balkaria. The entire region is less than 180,000 square miles, slightly larger than the state of California.
Combat sports are a part of life for kids growing up in many of these small Republics. Wrestling, Sanshau, Kick Boxing, Sambo, and other Martial Arts are often practiced early on, and some of the world’s best wrestlers had their start in this region. Because many of the small republics and cities of this region have no Olympic team, wrestlers from these poor republics often compete under the flag of a larger country that actually has the funding for an Olympic wrestling team. Because of this, many Olympic wrestlers from the West Caspian region win medals for a country that is not actually where they learned and developed their skill. It had been brought to my attention recently that this region produces more Olympic Wrestling medal winners than any where else in the world. I checked it out.
Olympic Wrestling features two disciplines; Freestyle and Greco-Roman. There are seven weight classes in each. There are also four (not the usual three) medals awarded in each weight class; Gold, Silver, and two Bronze medals are awarded. Thus, in the 2012 Olympic Games there were 56 total medals awarded in men’s wrestling. What I did was list all 56 medal winners and then searched not just their country of record while at those Olympics but their country of birth. (For example, Zaur Kuramagomedov won bronze for Russia in the Greco-Roman 60 kg weight class; but Zaur was actually born and grew up in Tyrnauz, a town in the republic of Kabardino-Balkar, a small republic in the Northern Caucuses Mountains. Sharif Sharifov won gold for Azerbaijan in Freestyle at 84 kg, but he did not grow up in Azrebaijan; Sharif was born in Dagestan, a small republic on the west bank of the Caspian Sea in the Northern Caucuses Mountains.) When I researched these 56 medal winners, I found that 30 of them were born in the region west of the Caspian Sea known as the Northern Caucuses. That’s right, 30 of the 56 medals won in men’s wrestling at the 2012 London Olympics were won by West Caspian Wrestlers!!! Three of the medal winners in the same 2012 games were Americans!
Did you catch that? 30 of the 56 medals won in men’s wrestling at the 2012 London Olympics were won by wrestlers from this Northern Caucuses region that lies on the west bank of the Caspian Sea! Three of the medal winners in the same 2012 games were from the USA!
How is it possible that a region slightly larger than California could produce 53% of the Olympic Wrestling medal winners? West Caspian Wrestlers won 30 of the 56 medals while American Wrestlers won just three! If American Wrestlers are considered the very best fighters in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, how good are these West Caspian Wrestlers going to be once they grab a foothold in MMA?
The wrestlers from the West Caspian region out performed the American Wrestlers ten to one in the last Olympics. Granted, Americans Wrestlers grow up wrestling Folkstyle, while the Olympics are Freestyle, but it is hard to ignore the success of this region’s wrestlers. Most of these combat warriors are from cultures that are considerably poorer than American culture, so their desire for success may be rooted in a much different way. If Olympic medal count is any measure of success in MMA, then the West Caspian Wrestling pedigree seems far superior to the typical American Wrestling pedigree that is currently dominating Bellator and the UFC. In fact, recently there are several fighters from this region that are making noise in the UFC and Bellator.
One can only imagine the sleeping giant that has awoken on the western bank of the Caspian Sea!
Stay tuned for Chapter II next week.
Front-Page Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports