MMA temptation often too strong for Olympic wrestlers

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Few examples in modern sports embody the maxim “no pain, no gain” quite like a transition from Olympic-style wrestling to MMA.

Jordan Burroughs knows this well. The American freestyle wrestler, fresh off winning his third Pan American Games gold in the 74 kg category earlier this month, understands the appeal of the cage. At 31, with one Olympic and three Pan American golds to go with four world championships, he’s instead focused on family priorities.

That doesn’t mean MMA hasn’t crossed the mind of one of the most decorated wrestlers in U.S. history.

“Of course I think about it,” Burroughs said after conquering gold in Lima 2019. “MMA fighters make huge amounts of money. But then I see a UFC fight, and I see guys like [former Olympic wrestler and current MMA fighter] Ben Askren kicked in the chin … I don’t know. I have a family. My wife doesn’t want me to get kicked in the head — and she’s boss.”

Olympic-level wrestling, which has supplied MMA with a good chunk of stars for two decades, is ready-made for the cage. Seven of the eight current UFC champions have a wrestling background.There are other avenues such as boxing or the martial arts — Ronda Rousey was a silver medalist in judo at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing before becoming a household name in UFC and WWE. Yet it is wrestling’s moves and determination that have translated best onto the cage.

Still, as traditional wrestling’s relevance competes with the allure of MMA’s fame and fortune, it’s not uncommon for those caught in the middle to ponder whether a move to the cage is worth it.

Medalists such as Cuban fighter Yoel Romero and Americans Matt Lindland and Henry Cejudo are wrestlers who answered the call of the UFC’s Octagon and proceeded to shine there — betting that the promise of a better payday would be enough to offset the risks involved.

“The biggest difference is the physicality of MMA. I feel you almost need to want to hurt your opponent to be able to compete,” Team USA wrestling coach Bill Zadick said. “Maybe as a younger man I’d have thought about it. The older and more mature you get, you start to look at situations with a different perspective. It’d be tough for me”.

For its part, the UFC keeps an eye on the wrestling ranks for potential stars. Olympians are a goldmine for the circuit based in Las Vegas. Per a UFC source, however, the organization looks for additional attributes that could translate to the cage such as physical condition, the ability to absorb techniques from other disciplines that feed MMA, and experience competing at lower levels needed to reach the Olympics.

According to the source, UFC watches every prospect and when the organization decides he or she is ready, it does its best to offer them a spot to test themselves. From UFC’s perspective, the discipline and dedication in wrestling makes it easy to see why so many from that discipline thrive in MMA.

A trajectory such as Kyle Snyder’s, who at 23 already has NCAA, world and Olympic championships at 97 kg to his name, could be attractive to MMA. He added his first Pan American gold to his ledger this month, and while he could see himself competing in MMA he’d like to stretch his wrestling career as far as he can.

“Wrestlers are very tough,” Snyder said. “We have a hard heads and know how to get out of tough situations. [UFC heavyweight Daniel] Cormier or Cejudo have proven you can transition relatively easily, because wrestlers know how to control their opponents. Since that’s the case, why not try it out?”

For Burroughs, the thought of having his face rearranged is enough to provide a final answer: “Nah, I’m good.” But the 2012 Olympic gold medalist can afford the luxury of options. Through USA Wrestling’s Living the Dream Medal Fund, Burroughs has earned $480,000 — including $250,000 for his London gold.

Cejudo, whose 2008 Olympic gold netted him $40,000 before the fund’s creation, earned $100,000 alone for his participation in last year’s UFC 227 — a flyweight win over former freestyle wrestler Demetrious Johnson.

“It’s a professional outlet for many wrestlers,” Zadick said. “I don’t blame anyone who joins UFC. Quite the opposite, I’m glad for those who try it out and for those who do well in it. However, we have the best rules in Olympic wrestling we’ve had in the last 30 years, and we have a great pool of young talent that I’d love to see continue to compete in this sport. To make that happen, we would have to figure out a better economy to support it, so that the wrestlers would be incentive to keep wrestling.”

USA Wrestling and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee rely on private contributions and donations to operate. Wrestlers who represent the U.S. don’t receive a regular salary, and until the 2008 Olympics medal winners would typically receive a $40,000 bonus, as Cejudo did. That meant only top-level performers could manage a comfortable living without turning pro.

With UFC hitting its stride and the U.S. experiencing a steady Olympic decrease (nine medals in 1992 to three in 2008), Living the Dream was created in 2009 with the goal of keeping top talent and rewarding golds with $250,000, silvers with $50,000 and bronzes with $25,000. Medalists at the world championships would also reap financial benefits, and the NCAA made payment exceptions for athletes such as Ohio State’s Snyder — an Olympic champion at 20 who normally wouldn’t be compensated given the amateur status.

“This is bigger than just wrestling,” Cejudo told The New York Times in 2009. This is bigger than the quarter million. This is going to change everything. It’s going to revolutionize the sport.”

Cejudo, however, would not benefit from the fund. The American wrestler scrapped plans to become a motivational speaker after the announcement of the fund and put the 2012 Olympics in his sights. After three years spent without competing, he failed to even qualify for the London Games.

His path would take him to make his UFC debut in 2014, and in June he became just the fourth fighter to hold titles simultaneously in two weight classes — fly and welter — with a victory over Marlon Moraes. Aside from financial and marketing opportunities, MMA provides more spots to succeed, whereas the 2020 Olympics will offer just 18 chances at a gold medal between genders, classes and styles.

It is why, with notable exceptions such as Burroughs, the call of the cage is often too strong for wrestlers to overcome.

“I leave this tournament [the Pan American Games] with a few scratches. When you leave an MMA fight, you’re probably been rolled into a hospital in a wheelchair,” Burroughs said. “Wrestling is more of an art form. Still, I love MMA. I follow it, I watch it, I’m passionate about it. I respect it a lot and many times I’ve thought that if my former teammates have done well, maybe I could do it too. But I also think there’s a lot of guys I’d rather wrestle than fight”.

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