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Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest rising sports in popularity in the entire world. While it’s still a fairly young sport to the consumer, MMA has been around since ancient times in Greece, known as pankration (a story for another day), was involved in the creation of sumo, and even more. MMA gained it’s main popularity in the early 90’s at the founding of the UFC.
Now, fans want to see the sport join the Olympic Games alongside other combat sports such as wrestling, judo, taekwondo, karate, and most similarly, boxing. The IMMAF has made a push to have the sport recognized by the International Olympic Committee. While this process is ongoing, it’s unsure how or when MMA will become an official Olympic sport.
In today’s essay, we’ve spoken with experts from many of the fields surrounding the process of Olympic accreditation, looked at sports past, and put it all in one spot for reference.
Pankration: The Precursor to Mixed Martial Arts
The first place to start when looking at mixed martial arts’ journey to the Olympic Games is to look to the past. As we have previously looked at with Milo of Croton, combat sports played an important part of Ancient Greek culture. There were three forms of unarmed sports: wrestling, boxing and pankration. To give some insight on the sport, we spoke with Michael B. Poliakoff, author of Combat Sports in the Ancient World. Poliakoff wrestled at the University of Yale and is a second dan black belt in taekwondo.
Pankration is, as the Greeks described it, an all encompassing event. They incorporated boxing and wrestling together into the new sport. “Back in the day, in ancient Greece, pankration was an all in contest. That’s to say it combined every form of un-armed combat, that’s to say boxing, kicking, wrestling, strangleholds. There were only two things that were considered illegal: biting and gouging into the soft parts an opponent. Other than that, every form of fighting that would defeat an opponent was legal. The bout ended when one competitior either signaled submission, that he could not fight, or was unable to continue to fight.”
If that sounds familiar, you aren’t going crazy. UFC 1 was essentially that, plus an extra rule. For those not familiar, the three rules were no biting, no eye gouging, and no groin strikes. Pankration banned all but the last rule. But these rules weren’t the end of the similarities between early MMA and pankration. Much like the first events that saw Royce Gracie and Gerard Gordeau win two fights on the same night to fight each other for the championship, practitioners of pankration had to fight multiple times in one night. In addition to that, the comparisons continue with an open round with no time limit.
“These fights were done out in the open in an open aired stadium. All of the contest, Olympia included, took place in the summer. So, the athlete had to defeat not just his opponent, but the brutal heat. There were no rest periods at any points. These things were done in a tournament structure. So, it was entirely possible for a man to fight in one bout and immedately be paired with another competitor.”
Pankration did not play second fiddle to boxing or wrestling either. Many of the nobles in ancient Greece were not just fans of boxing and wrestling, but pankration too. But, like anything else, pankration had it’s share of critics that wanted to see the sport gone. Despite that, the rich and upper class of Rome and all of Greece enjoyed the sport as with any other Olympic sport.
“It was certainly as popular as [boxing and wrestling]. Indeed, wildly popular. One thing that is important to note, it had it’s detractors in antiquity, just as boxing and wrestling did. It was, when all is said and done, a sport that attracted many people from the Greek nobility.”
Mr. Poliakoff goes on to tell the story of Diagoras of Rhodes, not only a competitor himself, but the father to competitors in the Olympiad. His sons competed in all three of the unarmed combat sports and were the best in their respective sports.
“One of the most famous families in the Greek combat sports was that of Diagoras of Rhodes, a very influential aristocrat. Not only was he an outstanding combat athlete, he was a boxer, but, his son, Damagetus, won the pankratia at Olympia. His other son, Acusilaus, was both a victor in boxing and pankration at Olympia. You may know that wonderful story. In the 83rd Olympiad, one of his sons won in boxing and Damagetus won in pankratia, and there was the old man, the great victor of the past sitting in the stadium. His two sons picked him up, put him on their shoulders, and carried him around the stadium prompting one of the spectators to say, ‘ Diagoras, you can die now because there’s nothing left except heaven.'”
The three sports didn’t self-isolate from each other. It was very often that Greeks would see athletes cross-pollinating into all of the sports for the ultimate glory. It was rare that someone won in more than one, but winning in pankration, boxing, and wrestling was especially glorious.
“The three sports, boxing, wrestling, and pankration, were the the combat sports, sometimes called the heavy events for the obvious reason that you had to be pretty damn big to be successful in these events. There were no weight classes either. There was a certain overlap. We even hear of one man called, Kleitomachos, who won at the Isthmian Games, a rather significant festival, in all three events in one day. The man must have had spectacular endurance.”
These athletes weren’t run of the mill competitions either, they were superstars like no sport had really seen. It was often that these combatants would rub elbows with the consuls of Rome, being friends with the highest of authorities.
“Diagoras was an aristocrat of imminent lineage. We have a story from late antiquity, I have to preface this. We don’t have the complete records of the ancient world. A lot of it is piecemeal. There is an inscription about a pankraitist called Tiberius Claudis Rufus from the Greek city of Smyrna. What we know from this inscription is that he was a friend of Roman consuls. He was known to the Roman aristocracy. He fought at Olympia in pankration all the way until nightfall when the judges finally said, ‘We have to call this a draw.’ It’s so interesting that his family boasted that they were the descendants of Roman consuls. All of this suggests that this was not a sport that was shunned by the most noble families in antquity.”
Tiberius Claudis Rufus, Milo of Croton, Diagoras of Rhodes, and countless others embodied one thing: the perfect example of what the Greek strived to be, which is the best. The fighters had a warrior mentality that always looked for the next challenge. They were prepared to die in warfare for their fellow Greek, and that mindset carried over to the early Olympic Games as well.
“In many ways, the Greek combat sports provided an outlet for very strongly competitive individual competitive instincts that could no longer have a place in warfare. Just look for a moment at Greek military tactics. It was a lock step, hop-step phalanx. They moved in unison. It was the maverick that was dangerous, the coward. If you broke ranks, you were jepordizing all the people around you. And yet, deeply engrained in the Greek consciousness is to always be the best and always be competitive and to win over all others. The sports provided them with that outlet and the combat sports really incorporated a lot of that risk taking and danger which could never be acceptable today. This was a sport that commanded tremendous regard.”
With MMA being the big name to join the Olympics, Mr. Poliakoff said that pankration is an important part of history, but it would not exist in the way the sport originally was played. Poliakoff calls for more regulation to make the sport acceptable to modern times.
“I would say if pankration to become an Olympic sport, it will have to have more regulations than just banning biting and gouging. We’re not going to want to see people do axe-kicks to the necks or knee thrusts to the goin, which was also legal. It’s not going to fly for an Olympic sport, nor would it fly in mixed martial arts either. There will have to be some adjustments.”
Pankration is an integral part to the Olympic mythos. It’s history gives fans a glimmer of hope that what was could be again. While, as Mr. Poliakoff said earlier, pankration couldn’t be what it was, modern mixed martial arts can stake it’s claim in it’s own section of the Olympics.
For that, enter the IMMAF…
The Mission of the IMMAF
The IMMAF is the global sanctioning organization for amateur mixed martial arts. Their president, Kerrith Brown, is a two time Olympian in judo and has already brought the sport to new levels since becoming the president in 2015.
The IMMAF has one goal: to get mixed martial arts into the Olympic Games. It hasn’t been easy, either. The IMMAF was founded in February 2012 and has worked tirelessly to organize the amateur level of the sport, growing it in a way fans haven’t seen. They’ve organized MMA World Championships, instituted drug testing and so much more.
“The IMMAF was founded in 2012 to becoming the governing body for amateur mixed martial arts. The sport started upside down as opposed to judo, wrestling and those other combat sports. We’ve worked with the UFC closely to help develop the sport and we are working hard to continue to grow.”
The caliber of fighters coming out of the IMMAF is a different breed as well, Brown believes. We’ve seen names join the big leagues like Jose Torres, Amanda Ribas, and Alessio Di Chirico as well as the emerging stars like Muhammad Mokaev, who we will be talking to later on in the study. He feels the type of promotion the fighters are getting from the IMMAF help them become even better at the next level and we are seeing fighters turn pro and dominating much earlier on than what we’re used to seeing.
“Look at the experience of IMMAF athletes like Mokaev with a 23-0 amateur record, compared with professional superstars at 5-0 and 6-0. If I would have tried come out with the record some of these pro’s have in judo, I would have been laughed out the building. But IMMAF athletes come in and they’re hungry. They’re doing this from a young age and it’s incredible to see what they can do. In the IMMAF World Championships, they have to fight five times in five days. Think about that, they have to make weight and fight for five days. It’s insane how dedicated these athletes are. You see it on the next level too. They are so talented and so good very early on. They fight back to back to back.”
The challenge has been with the Global Association of International Sports Federations, or GAISF. Brown calls on their lack of transparency and political pandering to other core sports as the biggest hurdle for the IMMAF to become and IOC recognized sport. The fight hasn’t been easy, and it’s become ugly. The IMMAF has overcome arbitrary obstacle after arbitrary obstacle and Kerrith Brown feels as if GAISF keeps moving the goal posts.
“The GAISF has been the biggest issue for our mission. Their policy is not very transparent and if they don’t want you in, they don’t have to tell you why. We are WADA compliant, we have done all the proper steps with development of the athletes. It really is just political. They’ve actually told us that we would never be recognized unless we joined with Vadim Finkelchtein and WMMAF. Normally that takes three or four years to do and I think they were surprised when we merged in only 15 months. We’ve become WADA compliant and they turned us down anyway because they were talking to the GAISF, which is illegal and that was stemmed from our lawsuit that is scheduled for hearing in January. They took a third party take on it and they can’t do that. Since then, they’ve changed and can now do that. But it looks like we are going to be recognized by WADA which is a huge step. We’ve worked very hard on our drug testing policy.”
It’s not just the GAISF, however. Multiple International Federations from other core sports are trying to keep MMA from becoming a recognized sport. The politics involved are corrupt and, according to Brown, being the new kid on the block isn’t a walk in the park, especially when the sport is dwarfing the core sports in popularity. Brown said, “Wrestling, sambo, Muay Thai, almost all the core sports do not want us in the Olympics. It’s funny, they’re nice when we talk to us, but as soon as we turn our backs, they don’t want us in. It’s a lot of lobbying and politics.”
Brown has had to play politics with the organizations as well. But, he isn’t scared to do so. He’s played ball with some of the officials, held meetings and made changes to the IMMAF that he feels inches the sport closer to recognition by the GAISF.
“We’ve played politics as well. Especially with the terminology. Instead of ‘ground and pound’ it is called ‘groundwork.’ Instead of a ‘cage’ it’s ‘fighting area,'” Brown said with a sarcastic shrug. “It’s just the names but you have to play politics. We’ve worked with Marc Goddard on the cage. No one’s ever asked a judge on the cage and it would be horrible at times, the cage would be messed up, there would be holes in the canvas. Then there is the issue with youth and people saying that it’s too brutal. Okay, no problem. We don’t allow head shots now. We’ve done little things like that to make the sport appeal to a wider audience.”
The ramifications of an Olympic accreditation for MMA would be gigantic. As in boxing and wrestling, a gold medal in the Olympic Games gives a gigantic boost to not only the athlete’s represented country, but his or her athletic career after the Olympics. While the sport is producing stars on the professional level already, the boost they could get from becoming an IMMAF World Champion and Olympic champion could propel the sport to new levels.
“The Olympics would be huge for MMA. It would send it to the next level. We don’t get involved with the promotions of things, that’s not our mission. We don’t direct fighters to the UFC, Bellator, or ONE. We are just developing the athletes. When you look at names like Jose Torres, Amanda Ribas, Muhammad Mokaev, these are just the beginning of our World Champions. Imagine when the 2019 crop comes through. Adding the next step, the Olympics, to that would bring it to an even higher level than before.”
While it’s a lot to overcome, Kerrith Brown is optimistic about MMA and the Olympics moving forward. The organization is making headway and with karate being added for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, he feels that could be the opportunity needed to get mixed martial arts into a permanent spot in the Games.
“In 2028, the Olympics are being held in Los Angeles. I’m hopeful that we get mixed martial arts on there as an exhibition similar to karate in Tokyo. I mean, in 2024, the Games are held in France and they are doing break dancing. Break dancing is a sport! There’s no way MMA shouldn’t be considered a sport. I think if MMA was on the Olympic channel, it would be one of the most, if not the most, watched event on the channel. It would be up there with the 100 meter, basketball, football, you name it. They would have one of the highest ratings of all the games.”
There are concerns, however. With judo, rule changes have changed the sport fundamentally, for example, legs are off limits now in judo due to the Olympic ruleset. The Jiu Jitsu community has expressed concerns about their sport being added as well, despite surging popularity and high level of competition and skill. Kerrith Brown says it is all for the entertainment for the audience and while, some changes in other sports are necessary, mixed martial arts is already drawing eyes to the sport as is.
“It’s all to make it more appealing to a wider audience. You can’t touch the legs now in judo. My time, you could, but now you can’t and it makes it more exciting. People are worried about MMA being watered down but MMA is already exciting. It’s the fastest growing sport in the world. Stars like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor and Israel Adesanya are some of the best known athletes in the world right now.”
Brown leaves us with one chilling message: the IMMAF is ready. He feels if called on for the Tokyo Olympics, the structures and processes are in place to make an Olympic debut tomorrow.
“We’ve done the research, we’ve done the work, we have the data. If someone came up to us and said, ‘Press a button and you’re in the Olympics,’ we would be ready on every level.”
The IOC Holds the Keys to The Castle
Of course, none of this matters if the IMMAF doesn’t meet requirements that the IOC sees fit. We spoke with the Media Relations Team of the IOC and they clarified what is required from a sport to be recognized as an Olympic Sport.
The International Olympic Committee is the body that oversees The Games. Their mission is to grow the Olympic Movement and has presided over the Olympic Games since 1896. Fortunately for us, IOC board member, Kikkan Randall, provided us with where to look in the IOC literature. Having spoken with a couple people involved, I have the feeling that not one specific board member knows exactly how a sport becomes recognized by the IF and the IOC, but they did have a clear set of rules.
According to the Olympic Charter, a sport must be governed by a recognized International Federation. Rule 25 in the Recognition of IFs states, “The IOC may recognise as IFs international non-governmental organisations governing one or several sports at the world level, which extends by reference to those organisations recognised by the IFs as governing such sports at the national level. The statutes, practice and activities of the IFs within the Olympic Movement must be in conformity with the Olympic Charter, including the adoption and implementation of the World Anti-Doping code as well as the Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of Manipulation of Competitions.”
In June 2015, the IOC revised their grading criteria that they use to evaluate a sport that is attempting to join the games. This is to make sure sports like X-Arm and dressage doesn’t apply for and join the Games.
Ms. Randall continues on, “The sport that is included in the programme as part of the OCOG proposal is considered an Olympic sport, along those included in the initial sport programme, until the actual conclusion of that specific edition of the Games.”
The main five points being looked at by the IOC are an Olympic proposal, value added to the Olympic Movement, institutional matters, popularity, and a business model. This is where things begin to get convoluted. I will dove into each section as briefly and simple as possible. You can review the entire list here.
The Olympic Proposal
The first item on the docket is the Olympic Proposal. The Olympic Proposal has six requirements. First, the new sport must have a number of events and the list of said events, likely for scheduling purposes. A competition format is next, something showing how the competition will be held as well as how many days the competition will require. The IOC also needs the best athletes to compete in the world, making sure the prestige is there for the event. Lastly, the venue details are required, which are how many needed, if they are permanent or temporary, capacity and field of ply, which is essentially a cage in our case.
Value Added to the Olympic Movement
The second thing the IOC looks at is what value a new sport brings to the Olympic Movement. According to the IOC’s website, the goal of the Olympic Movement is, “To contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.”
The three things looked on as value are as follows. Games time is first, which is how long the sport has been around. Legacy is the second one, which is simply a prestige aspect. Third, the IOC wants to see youth involvement in the sport, presumably to know that the sport will have legs once it is added to their list of Games.
The biggest hurdle, perhaps, is institutional matters. This is over half of the qualifications that a new sport needs to join The Games. There are a total of 18 items in the institutional matters section, and we will go over the main points.
The first two are the year of establishment of the sport’s International Federation and when said IF was recognized by the IOC. In other words, have an IOC-approves IF. There are also a minimum number of World Championships required, although that number is not specified. Gender equality is also there, which is reasonable as the IOC wants to appeal to all genders and widen their audience. The sport must have a WADA approved drug program as well. The last thing in the list is the health of the athletes.
The popularity of the sport is next on the list. The sport must be recognized worldwide and have an actual audience. The IOC doesn’t look at potential sales, however. They want to see how well you’ve done in the past. The number of ticket sales in the last World Championship event is the top line here. Next is media accreditation handed out, which is assuming that the IOC wants to see what news outlets attended the event. TV coverage is the third line which measures interest in fans that aren’t at the Games. Media coverage is also a big factor in the popularity of the sport. Lastly, the sport had to be popular in the host country, much like karate being added to the Olympics for 2021 in Tokyo.
Last but not least, the IOC needs a business model. They need to know how much money this is going to cost, so they need estimates on venues, broadcast rights, and technology like cameras, instant reply and such. The other thing the IOC needs is what additional costs will they be seeing with the sport added to the Olympics. This includes ticketing, sponsorships, and licensing.
How does an IF become IOC recognized?
All this begs the question, how does an IF get recognized by the IOC? According to the charter, “The IOC may recognise as IFs international non-governmental organisations governing one or several sports at the world level, which extends by reference to those organisations recognised by the IFs as governing such sports at the national level. The statutes, practice and activities of the IFs within the Olympic Movement must be in conformity with the Olympic Charter, including the adoption and implementation of the World Anti-Doping Code as well as the Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of Manipulation of Competitions.”
In layman’s terms, there needs to be a governing body, they can’t allow PED’s, they must be valuable to the Olympic Movement, and can’t have corruption in the sport to blemish their Olympic image.
Ms. Randall provided a little more insight on those requirements as well. She says, “There are other criteria the IF needs to meet and comprise of universality, popularity, governance, athlete welfare and development. Before an IF can be considered by the IOC, the sport it governs must be practised and organised in more than 50 summer and 25 winter countries worldwide.”
Once recognized by the IOC, it isn’t all smooth sailing. As you would expect, the newly minted sport has to remain compliant with the IOC’s guidelines. “Recognition by the IOC may be provisional or full. Provisional recognition, or its withdrawal, is decided by the IOC Executive Board for a specific or an indefinite period. The IOC Executive Board may determine the conditions according to which provisional recognition may lapse. Full recognition, or its withdrawal, is decided by the Session. The IOC Executive Board determines all details of the recognition procedures.”
In other words, the IOC can boot out a sport for any reason. It’s likely that karate will not be renewed after the Tokyo Olympic Games due to popularity being minuscule worldwide compared to what it is in Japan.
Overall, the IOC has made a list of requirements that they seem to pick and choose from to allow sports into the Games. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it makes things hard for new sports to get in, again a good thing. Having ease of access to the games could bring the prestige of the Games down which tarnishes the brand. And the ability to make exceptions for sports helps the ratings of the Olympics, much like adding in karate to the 2021 Olympic Games.
MMA’s Cousin: Boxing
Boxing is probably the most similar sport to MMA and would probably be a very similar structure to how Olympic MMA would be held. We spoke with boxing historian from The Fight Site, Taylor Higgins, about the history of boxing in the Olympics and how the process works.
Boxing joined the Olympics in 1904. The only Olympic Games missed by boxing was in 1912 when boxing was still illegal in Switzerland, where The Games were being held that year. But, 1904 wasn’t really an Olympic sport according to Higgins. “1904 was hilarious. Every one of the 18 boxers who competed were American, and you could compete in multiple weight classes so one guy, Oliver Kirk, won gold in two division.” He continues, “1908 was a little better with four countries participating and a weird scoring system where there was a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the third and final round.”
It wasn’t until later on that boxing became more of what we recognize it to be today in format and level of competition. “It starts to become more international in 1920, and another weight class, light-heavyweight, was added.”
The AIBA is the governing body for boxing and has almost been back-ended out of the process for the Olympics.
“You used to automatically qualify if you did well at the AIBA World Championships. However the AIBA, which is the sport’s governing body, is incredibly dodgy and corrupt, so the IOC decided that they’d hold their own qualification events because they didn’t trust them.”
Representing Your Country
Becoming a member of the Olympic team of your country is no easy task in any sport. Boxing is no exception. Higgins walks us through the process of qualifying from a grassroots boxer to a bonafide Olympian.
“Boxers start off at the state level, then regional. After that winning a National Championship to gets them on the US Team.” He continues, “There will then be Olympic Team qualifiers and then Olympic Team Trials. To actually get to the Olympics in Tokyo, you’ll have to perform well at one of the four Continental Olympic Qualifiers: Africa, Americas, Asia & Oceania and Europe or the World Olympic Qualification tournament.”
Then there is the qualification for your country. “So for the USA, you had four qualifying tournaments to make it onto the Olympic Team Trials with the top two boxers in each weight category advancing. Eight boxers in each division will compete against one another over the course of a week, with the winner qualifying.”
The Olympic Tournament
Once there, young boxers aspiring to be a champion have a mountain to climb. From other just as hungry boxers to rules changing constantly, the sport is not easy to conquer.
“Rounds are scored 10-9 these days. Previously a clean blow counted as a point, and they’d be tallied up in a ridiculously convoluted system which was horribly flawed,” and thankfully it’s changed.
Boxers in each weight class are put in a single elimination tournament where one mistake can dash an Olympians dreams. “There’s a max of 32 fighters in a division, although it’s often less than that, like 24-28, and a preliminary round to whittle it down to 16. Guys who have performed well at ranked events like Worlds are usually seeded, however as Worlds aren’t being recognised by the IOC this year seeding will be decided some way else,” which is another example of how the rules changing work against the athlete.
The benefits of winning gold
Winning a gold medal is a gigantic boost for a young boxer’s career. Becoming an Olympic champion boosts the impending professional career of a boxer and gives them many more opportunities down the road, giving them a boost from the crowd.
“It’s mostly arketability. It’s handy for promoters to sell someone who’s an Olympic gold medallist. Almoat like a stamp of credibility. There is media attention, big contracts, especially if you’re American! There are opportunities a lot of other boxers wouldn’t get. If you win a gold for your country, in many cases it makes news. It already puts your name on the map which is a promoter’s wet dream,” Higgins says. He concludes saying, “Promoters will be chomping at the bit to sign a gold medalist from the US or UK.”
But, mixed martial arts is not a clone of boxing and it has worked at distancing itself from that. So, we brought in another Fight Site guy.
The Wrestling Way
MMA has never adhered strictly to boxing. From the very earliest days, the sport has picked and choose what it liked and what worked in other sports to incorporate in it’s own. Even in the early UFC days, fights weren’t boxing style cards, they were one night tournaments.
To see some of the methods from wrestling, we spoke with another expert from The Fight Site, Ed Gallo. Gallo is a wrestling connoisseur and one of the most knowledgeable names in the sport on the planet. Ed walked through the process of becoming an Olympic wrestler with us and what the implication of mixed martial arts in the Olympics could mean for the sport.
The first step to becoming an Olympic champion is to qualify for your national team. In the United States, there are several considerations to athletes that have succeeded throughout the cycle. With the amount of wrestlers in the world, there’s a lengthy process that guarantees that the best and most dedicated athletes make the team.
“The first step in the process for the Olympics is they have to qualify for the the Olympic team trials in the United States. If you’re a returning World team member and you medaled at the Worlds, you’re guaranteed your spot in a wrestle off in a spot. If you placed top five in the World, you’ve also qualified your team spot in the Olympics. To make the Olympics, you have to qualify for the team and qualify your weight.”
Qualifying isn’t a one time thing, either. Being a four year cycle, USA Wrestling has several tournaments that are known beforehand that will qualify you for the team. Getting through one of these tournaments gives you a chance at getting a chance to make the Olympic team, which is what makes qualifying so hard.
“There are a few different tournaments that you can qualify at domestically. There’s the Dave Schultz Memorial tournament, the Bill Farrell, there’s always an official national tournament. Sometimes it’s the Open, sometimes it’s the Senior Nationals. It’s usually declared by USA Wrestling through their website. They’ll say what the status of the tournament is and what it counts for. With an open national tournament, like senior nationals, it’s if you place, you’ve qualified for the Olympic team trials. NCAA Champions also qualify for World team trials.”
In addition to qualifying for the Olympics, the athletes also have to worry about qualifying specific weights for the Olympic team as well. If a wrestler qualifies for the Olympic trials but the country as a whole has yet to qualify the specific weight, the athlete is out and will not get that shot at competing in the Olympics.
“Qualifying for the Olympics is very similar to qualifying for the team. You have to qualify for a specific weight in the tournaments. Top five at last year’s Worlds automatically qualify the weight. And then there are continental qualifiers. There’s the European, Asian, African, Oceana, every contentinent besides Antarctica, then here you have the Pan-American qualifiers which is both North and South America.”
Then there is the issue of a deeper talent pool. Not only are you competing with the best in the world at the World Championships and the Olympic Games, in the Olympics there are less weight classes to compete in. It makes it difficult for athletes in between weights to make the team, forcing them to either wrestle up or cut a lot of weight. It makes the talent pools that much deeper.
In the World Championships, weight classes are set in kilograms at 57, 61, 65, 70, 74, 97, 86, 92, 97, and 125. But, in the Olympics, 61, 70, 79, and 92 kilos are non-existent. Gallo says, “In the Olympics only have 57, 65, 74, 86, 97, and 125 kilograms. The competition in the Olympics is much more dense, everyone has to either move up or down to compete at an Olympic weight. It’s ridiculously tough because of that weight distribution. It’s a huge accomplishment.”
The implications of an MMA Olympic champion are gigantic as well. Gallo points out that in MMA now, we already see the emphasis put on Olympic champions in other sports. Think Cejudo’s Triple C accomplishment, or the judo gold medal won by Ronda Rousey. MMA loves Olympians and a mixed martial arts Olympian would bring the sport to new levels as well.
“In the United States, the Living the Dream foundation pays athletes at Worlds and the Olympics. Every country in the world cares about the Olympics. It’s so different than the World Championships because everyone is watching, not just fans of wrestling. It’s the Olympics, the pinnacle of sports. It’s the ultimate opportunity to get cross exposure in other sports. If you win a medal in the sport, like gold, everyone automatically cares. That’s why the UFC loves the Olympic medals in marketing. Daniel Cormier medaled at a World Championship but they never talk about it. They talk about him making it to the Olympic teams. Even though the World medal is more impressive, they talk about him making it to the Olympics because of it’s history behind it. It’s extremely prestigious.”
From The Athletes Themselves
You can talk to analysis and historians of combat sports until they are blue in the face. But it isn’t just the analysts that want to see MMA in the Olympics. The athletes echo the sentiment as well and would like to see the world’s fastest growing sport join The Games.
Muhammad Mokaev, IMMAF Champion
The best and most recent example of IMMAF success stories is Muhammed Mokaev. Mokaev has won two IMMAF titles and made the transition to his professional career this past August. With three fights and three wins under his belt as a professional, Mokaev is no stranger to winning. After winning his two IMMAF titles, he signed with Brave CF in Bahrain and began his professional journey there.
Mokaev was relocated from Dagestan to the United Kingdom by his father. Dagestan is not an easy place to live and, while proud of his heritage, Mokaev still resides in the UK today. He wanted to show his father gratitude and make him proud, so he took up fighting not to let his father’s hard work go to waste.
“I wanted to make my father proud somehow because he brought me to the UK. I knew I couldn’t do anything much education wise so I knew I had to do it in sports.”
“Definitely, but not 2020, 2028 for sure. I would stay amateur for the Olympics, the Olympics is the name.”
“It makes amateur fighters understand better a professional career. It’s not just different rules of the fighting like elbows. It’s about the traveling and hotels, different atmosphere, and traveling without your coaches and getting a different feel for the sport.”
Ben Provisor, Two-Time Greco Roman Olympian
Ben Provisor is a two time Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling. He is also starting his transition to mixed martial arts. Provisor gives us his unique insight on what impact the Olympics has in wrestling as well.
As opposed to amateur boxing in the Olympics, wrestlers are paid monetarily if they place. While wrestlers in college are not paid, earning money in the World Championships and the Olympics should they medal. Provisor tells us that it is a big part of the drive to wrestle in the Olympics aside from glory. “If you win an Olympics in America, you get $250,000. Comparing it to the World Championships, you get $50,000 in the Worlds. Money-wise, it’s a much bigger tournament. Then in general, we get to compete against 16-20 other opponents. The amount of money and exposure you get for being an Olympic champion is amazing. There’s nothing like the Olympics.”
It’s not only gold that gets athletes paid either. Bronze and silver athletes are among the best in the world and get paid as well. In addition to that, USA Wrestling provides insurance for their World Team members as well.
“I get health insurance through USA Wrestling. I get a stipend from USA Wrestling monthly. When you actually compete in the Olympics, you get money for just weighing in. If you take bronze, it’s $50,000, if you take silver, it’s $100,000, and gold is $250,000.”
As stated in boxing with Taylor, winning an Olympic medal means more money down the road for athletes like Ben Provisor. With a transition to becoming a professional MMA fighter on the horizon for Provisor, there’s a lot at stake with the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The medal guarantees him a bigger contract from the start of his career on.
“I would definitely be able to secure a lot bigger contract if I came home with a medal from the Olympics. I’ll still be able to make a decent amount of money being a two time Olympian already. Going into fighting, I’ll be doing okay. If I win a medal, it’s going to increase my contract four or five times the amount of money just because I have the Olympic medal.”
Provisor also thinks that the crossovers will start sooner. He thinks that we could see an athlete wrestle one Olympics then transition to MMA the next. And being a wrestler, Provisor also thinks that this could spell success especially for wrestlers.
“If you look at all the success that high level wrestlers in the UFC, I believe they would have a great opportunity in two styles. If you can win an Olympic championship in wrestling, then you definitely have the skills to be able to get very good at fighting and be able to win another medal in fighting. I think that’s a possibility.”
MMA to the Olympics is Inevitable
It seems it is just a matter of time until we see mixed martial arts in the Olympic Games. While it might make it in time for 2024 due to the recent legalization of the sport in France, the likely debut is in Los Angeles in 2028. While there is still a lot of work to be done, there has already been a lot of work already finished.
With the UFC pushing the sport into new levels of popularity, the sport is only growing. We are seeing pure MMA fighters come up who have been training in the sport as their main sport. Athletes are reaching new levels of abilities quicker. The sport is only getting bigger and will continue to do so.
I hope you find this paper as interesting as I did writing it. I will see you all in Los Angeles!