The United States Olympic freestyle wrestling team has been smacking heads, snapping necks, slamming bodies, and winning medals for 108 years. It all started at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, Missouri when the now famous wrestling event debuted and was contested in seven weight categories. Not to brag, but the United States of America won all 21 medals - gold, silver, and bronze (U-S-A! U-S-A!). To be honest, all 42 competitors involved in that original Olympic outing were from the United States.
After 28 Olympiads, wrestling has grown into an international free-for-all of incredible talent, which has produced some of the greatest crossover athletes the mixed martial arts world has ever seen. Athletes such as former two-time Olympian and recent winner of the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix, Daniel Cormier. The Oklahoma State University alum has taken MMA by storm with an undefeated record (10-0) in the cage following two decades of tearing up wrestling mats from high school state championships in Louisiana to winning a bronze medal at the 2007 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. As MMA continues to siphon off impressive figures like Cormier once their wrestling careers are done, the US freestyle wrestling team’s goal is the same as it ever was: produce greatness.
“It's pretty simple, we only have one goal,” continues US men’s freestyle head coach Zeke Jones. “We want to be the best in the world.”
At the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England, the 1992 silver medalist Jones will be leading a US team in continuing a century old tradition of cultivating top ranked wrestlers and returning home with some medals. “We are there to help each guy prepare to be an Olympic champion because that's his lifelong dream,” says Jones, whose purpose isn’t to train one particular weight class for a possible spot on the podium, but all seven. The highest attention and expectations from fans and the media will be on the heavier half of the US team and, specifically, on one wrestler whose twitter handle “alliseeisgold” says it all: Jordan Burroughs.
“We have a returning World Champion in Jordan Burroughs at 74 kg,” tells Jones. “A returning World silver medalist Jake Herbert at 84 kg. A returning World bronze medalist at 96 kg, Jake Varner. A World bronze medalist from '09 Tervel Dlagnev at 120 kg. Our four upperweights have performed very well at the World Championships and certainly have the ability to do that in London. We haven’t had a World Champion in quite a while and Jordan Burroughs won a World title for us. He's made it pretty public that he wants to be the greatest of all time. He certainly is in a position to do that.”
The 24-year old New Jersey native was the first and only two-time NCAA Division I National wrestling champion from the University of Nebraska and he has not lost a single match of any sort since 2009. Last September, Burroughs amazed the world with an inspiring gold medal winning performance in Istanbul, Turkey at the World Championships. Shades of Willis Reed’s heroics in that fateful Game Seven, Burroughs suffered a laceration to his ear in the waning seconds of the semifinal match, moments later has his head bandaged, and goes on to defeat 2010 silver medalist Sadegh Goudarzi of Iran 3-2, 4-1. Burroughs has mentioned plans to transition to MMA once completing a second Olympic cycle, but, as Cormier points out, success in the cage for Burroughs is imminent because of his wrestling and Olympic experience.
“There's a mentality that you have as an Olympian,” explains Cormier. “Not only me and the rest of the guys that have come over from wrestling, but Rick Hawn and Ronda Rousey, who were from the judo team. It's a mentality that the Olympians carry. They're used to winning at a certain level that when they come into MMA they have success because they are used to success. They are determined. To be a high-level wrestler like that means they have the ability to train with dedication. The ability to put your body through things that most people can't because you've hardened yourself over a lifetime of training wrestling, which is by far the most taxing sport of all time. I have noticed now, I can train longer in MMA than I used to in wrestling. I couldn't go six days in the World Cup and needed a day off. In MMA, I can go from Monday to Saturday and still feel pretty decent. I am beat up and tired, but I still feel pretty decent. Two days or two and a half days of wrestling was pretty much all I could do without having a day off.”
Filling out the lighter end of the team is a trio of multiple-time Division I All-Americans composed of two Sooners and one Cowboy - all from the state of Oklahoma. “Our lightweights are where folks tend to think our weakness is, but I tend to think those are the guys that are going to sneak up on people if they don't pay attention,” affirms Jones of his three first time Olympians: Sam Hazenwinkel, Coleman Scott, and Jared Frayer. The 2008 NCAA Division I National Champion from Oklahoma State, Scott, was the last to make the team following a May wrestle-off with Reece Humphrey and, possible future MMA star, Shawn Bunch of Edinboro University, who is currently training with Cormier at the American Kickboxing Academy.
“There are a couple guys I know for sure that could do well in mixed martial arts,” states Cormier. “I know one guy who actually made a commitment to mixed martial arts after this year and his name is Shawn Bunch. He's a 132 pound guy. He's such a talented individual and such a talented wrestler that in the next two years I think he'll have some major success at the highest levels of the sport, just as I have. With his athletic ability, I think you can look to him to be the one guy that can take the same path as I did. He's crosstrained MMA and wrestling just as I did. Not just the guys who are on the Olympic team, but there are a lot of college guys that will be making a lot of noise in MMA in the next few years.”
Freestyle wrestling isn’t only for the men, as the US qualified all four spots on the women’s team. The smallest, 4’11 and 48 kg, is also the most accomplished, as Clarissa Chun is a two-time Olympian and the gold medal winner of the 2008 World Championships. At 55kg is Kelsey Campbell, a two-time National Collegiate Women's championship winner from Arizona State University, at 63 kg is Elena Pirozhkova, a 2010 World’s silver medalist, and at 72 kg is Ali Bernard a 2011 World’s bronze medalist. Transitioning from wrestling to MMA isn’t only for men either as 2004 silver medalist Sara McMann and 2008 bronze medalist Randi Miller have both successfully made the switch from mat wrestling to cagefighting.
While the US team is filled with first timers on the Olympic stage, Jones knows that wrestling experience will not be a factor in London. “You have to remember, these guys have been wrestling for 20 years, and wrestled in 500 wrestling tournaments, and probably 10,000 matches, and have trained probably 100,000 hours - I think they're ready for it,” adds Jones. The coach’s unshaken confidence is not only in the American wrestling system, but the extensive training Jones puts his wrestlers through both at home and, especially, abroad that will make them ready at the Games.
“It's pretty simple - work your butt off,” asserts Jones. “We'll make sure we do everything humanly possible to have them ready. That doesn't mean waking up at four in the morning and drinking 12 raw eggs, and carry a log on your back up a mountain in 30 below weather. We have a very smart approach for working very hard. What makes us successful is we're in Baku, Azerbaijan for a reason. This is the heart of the former Soviet Union. And we realize that if we want to be the best we have to beat them for the World Cup. We are here training with them prior to the World Cup. Foreign training is important. Fine tuning. Like anything, these are the best of the best of the best and what we're trying to do is shave a stroke off their golf game. These guys are all scratch golfers. We're gameplanning that the best that we can. You have to have a match plan for every wrestler. We have to execute the techniques and tactics to beat the best wrestlers in the world.”
Lastly, UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner is currently leading the Technical Committee for the newly formed International Mixed Martial Arts Federation in hope to one day make the sport an Olympic one. While that is an ongoing process, there is one vocal supporter for it: Coach Jones. It shouldn’t be a surprise in the least as Jones has wrestled with or coached many past, present, and, probable, future MMA superstars.
“MMA is an honorable and respectful sport and I think it would be a great Olympic sport,” declares Jones. “I think it's absolutely super. I have a nephew, James, who is very good at it. My teammates Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, and Ben Askren wrestled for me, Mo Lawal, Daniel Cormier, and I know I'm missing a ton of them. They're wrestlers and I love them. I love that they're MMA fighters and I would love to see them have the opportunity to stand up, represent their country, wear the American flag, and win a gold medal. I don't know where the [International Olympics Committee] is in their perception of the reality of MMA, but I think it would be a great Olympic sport and I would love to see it and I would watch it.”
Starting August 8th and ending August 12th, freestyle wrestling will be on full display in all of its grinding and grueling glory. For some, it could mean fulfilling a lifelong dream to stand on the medals podium. For all, it is a time to sharpen their athletic skills against the very best. And for fans, it’s a chance to watch freestyle wrestling at its finest and maybe to see a future UFC champion in the making.