This article is in response to Todd Martin’s column, The Bottom Line: A Strange Concept, which challenges the claim that Henry Cejudo — or in fact any wrestler, no matter the wrestling resume — could be considered the greatest multi-combat-sport athlete ever.
Wrestlers were upset with the article, obviously, because wrestlers are a defensive mob of cauliflower-eared maniacs always chomping at the bit to defend our sport. I know this because I am one of those maniacs. I’m a former high school and college wrestler, a former high school referee, and a current high school coach. I am an avid wrestling fan and make the pilgrimage to the NCAA tournament every other year. But when I saw the reactions to Martin’s post, I rolled my eyes.
We wrestling fans are too knee-jerky and quick to overreact. At least since 2013, when the IOC nearly voted to remove wrestling from the Olympics, we are loudly insecure about the future of our sport. We love our sport, and we will double-leg anyone who disagrees that it’s the oldest and greatest sport in the world.
I saw replies on Twitter attacking Martin and asking why wrestlers make the best MMA fighters if they aren’t considered combat athletes. Some also conflated toughness with combat, arguing that wrestlers were tough and thus combatants. These fans didn’t read the article carefully enough, though, or they would’ve read the part where Martin wrote, “[wrestling] has proven itself the most valuable building block for a complete MMA fighter,” or when he clearly stated that winning a gold medal in wrestling, “is as impressive as athletic achievements come.” Martin wasn’t bashing wrestling at all, he was posing an interesting question about how the sport should be classified.
I agree that wrestling is the best sport in the world, but does it actually matter if it’s considered a combat sport? The sport is great in and of itself.
And as I continued to think about it, I realized that classifying wrestling as non-combative might actually be a good thing.
Yes, it’s the best building block for MMA and other combat sports, as proven by Cejudo and so many others. And yes, it teaches the warrior graces: courage under pressure, triumphing over pain, moving past defeat, etc etc. But no, unlike MMA and the other combat sports, wrestling does not require simulating the experience of death.
Well, it sort of does. But the wrestling version of that simulation — the pin — as painful and inglorious as it is, has been honed over thousands of years into a highly stylized, even abstracted representation of death. Why? To make the sport safe and, well, sportsmanlike. To make a place in the arena where courage and skill can be developed and illustrated apart from the grisly sacrifice or ugly near-sacrifice of human life as seen in MMA. As Martin put it, “Death is not desired in a sport.”
Sure there are some pins, like a tight head-and-arm or a Chandler Rogers assassin, that closely resemble submission holds from other combat sports, and if you’ve ever seen a bouncer subdue an unruly patron in a bar fight, you know that wrestling takedowns are commonplace in real-world scenarios. But many pins, like the crossface cradle, for example, do not “incapacitate” the opponent so much as restrain him or her until the ref’s hand slaps the mat.
And now, in the twenty-first century, as blood and death spill across the video screens and game consoles of every home in America, that bit of extra space between “combat sport” and just plain old hard, painful, awesome “sport” might be more important than ever.
Last year, when I came up with the crazy idea of trying to start a wrestling program at a high school that didn’t have any high-impact sports offerings — for example, no football — one of my first challenges was to reassure the administration that wrestling is a safe sport, not a fight. And when I tried to recruit athletes, I cannot tell you how many times I comforted apprehensive parents by saying that their sons and daughters were not going to be punched in the head or have their arms twisted off. “This isn’t MMA or boxing,” I’d say to calm them, “it’s just a sport with rules and a clear scoring system.”
It worked. The admin let me start the program and the parents let their kids come out for the sport. Our slowly dying sport is now one high school program larger precisely because I had convinced people that wrestling is not a combat sport. As concussion research and knowledge of CTE permeates through our society, as youth numbers in peewee football and youth boxing plummet, defining our sport as non-combative might be essential to its survival.