Since taking over as head coach of the USA Greco-Roman program I set my goal to get Team USA back to the best team in the world. I understand this is a process and I’m willing to put the time and work into making this a reality.
The truth is we need to take risks and try new things until we figure out what works. What may have worked in the past may not still work in the same way. As the leader of the program I have to be willing to make changes and try new ways of doing things. It’s been just over a year since the IOC decided to cut wrestling from the Olympic games. The worldwide wrestling community did an outstanding job of saving our sport. Wrestling is back in the Olympics. At least through the 2020 games’ wrestling is still an Olympic sport. There are no guarantees at this point that wrestling will remain an Olympic sport, as hard as that is to believe.
The fight is not over! We need to ensure that our great sport will remain in the Olympic program. We can only do this by growing an audience and assuring the IOC that wrestling is a viable sport that has a solid fan base and a following. I feel, as the head coach of the US team, it is my job to not only build the best team in the world but also grow our fan Base.
In the US Greco-Roman style of wrestling there are some challenges. Many in the wrestling community do not think Greco-Roman when they think of wrestling in our country. The US has a great system for developing a large pool of wrestlers; the problem is we are focusing on the wrong style of wrestling. I’m not talking about the other Olympic style, freestyle. I am talking about the folk-style that Americans wrestle in high schools and colleges all across the country.
When the general public thinks of wrestling the first image that comes to mind is our American folk-style. Most of the best American wrestlers have come through this folk-style system, and this isn’t going to change. I came through this same system. I admit, I loved my time competing in college and wrestling for the University of Nebraska. I didn’t really consider at the time that I was wrestling in the wrong style if I wanted to reach my Olympic goals.
This article is not about how we change college wrestling to Olympic style to help better prepare our best athletes to compete at the world level in Olympic style wrestling. Although I would love to see our American system convert to Olympic style wrestling.
This article is about how we need to build a fan base for Olympic style. We must do things differently than we have done in the past. I know it’s cliché but it’s true. If we keep doing the same things, we will keep getting the same results. To make change we have to look at things differently. We have to be willing to experiment and try something new.
Many of you know that after I finished wrestling I went into MMA as a full time career for over a decade. As an athlete I was one of the top middleweights in the world. I managed over 20 athletes that went from zero MMA to UFC. I have had guys fight for UFC titles and had champions out of my gym Team Quest MMA. My time in MMA I learned a lot about how sports are promoted and marketed. I watch as the UFC convinced fans to tune in and invest their time and money into watching.
In MMA it’s not always the best fighters that get the biggest fights and biggest paydays. It comes down to promotion and building and audience. The better the fight is hyped the more viewers tune in.
As wrestling purist, we need not say that is MMA and this is wrestling. I see way more similarities in the two sports than I do differences. It’s time for wrestling to take a page out of the MMA playbook and follow the marketing plan that has proven successful. With an open mind and a willingness to do things differently than we have done in the past, I am confident we can grow our audience outside of our core.
One of the main things that MMA has done so well and this was copied from HBO boxing is the 24/7 type stories based around a fight. These shows not only let you feel like you know the fighters. You get an inside look and find out who these men are, what makes them chase their dreams. As the viewer, you want to either cheer for or against one of the fighters. Either way- it doesn’t matter as long as you tune in, buy a ticket, order on PPV or watch the next week on free TV the audience cares. It doesn’t matter if you like the fighter or want to see him get his ass kicked; the point is you’re invested in the sport, the athlete or the organization.
There is no reason not to try new ways of promoting and marketing the great sport of wrestling. If we don’t, we may not have a sport in the near future, at least at the Olympic level.
After winning my medal in the Sydney Olympics I decided I was going into MMA to make some money. I was tired of toiling in the obscure sport of Greco-Roman wrestling. I was struggling to earn a living. Here I was, one of the best athletes on the entire planet in my chosen sport and I had to work a couple extra jobs just to be able to compete in my sport. The Olympics were in October and by December I was competing in the UFC.
I didn’t have time to learn MMA in less than 2 months so I focused on the similarities of wrestling and MMA. I knew how to train, prepare for major competition, and I was a master at competing. I took my knowledge and applied the same principals to a different sport. I knew very little about MMA when I first became involved, but I focused on the similarities of the two sports and applied the principals that I used to have success in wrestling to MMA and found success in that sport as well. I fell in love with martial arts as a whole. The same things I loved about wrestling were what I loved about MMA.
I know looking back it was a risky proposition to leave a sport I had so much success in and try something entirely different. I had no idea what to do or where to start, so I took principals from wrestling and was able to apply them to MMA. I found coaches and training partners. I knew how to train and how to compete. I focused on the commonalties of the two sports and I took the same process I used to learn wrestling and applied it to learning MMA.
I am blessed to be involved in the great sport of wrestling. I have learned so much at all levels of my career in wrestling. I have taken all of the other lessons I have learned through wrestling and applied them to other areas of my life and my businesses.
Now it’s time to take the lessons I successfully used in MMA, business and apply them to growing the audience of Greco-Roman in the US. Trying something new often encounters resistance and critics. Many leaders wait too long to take action out of fear. There is nothing to fear if we don’t find a way to grow and promote Greco-Roman. We may be done anyways. We are only guaranteed to be in the Olympics through 2020. I see this as an urgent situation. It doesn’t’ make any sense not to try and do something new. Greco-Roman in the US can no longer follow the path of folk-style or freestyle we need to carve our own path.
I understand we will face criticism. Obstacles in our new path need to be faced and overcome. Those at the bottom who dare to promote and rise up will be seen as self-serving, while those at the top who practice the same strategies will be seen as creative and resourceful.
Look for Greco-Roman to make some changes, starting with the new trial procedure that the Greco-Roman sport committee just approved. I am excited to be working together with such a bold group of men who are not afraid to take risks and look for opportunities to grow and promote our great sport.