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Wrestlers now have two choices: Olympics or UFC

USA Wrestling officials have mixed feelings about its athletes leaving for the Octagon

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The Associated Press

Prior to becoming a UFC middleweight, Dan Henderson, left, wrestles against Switzerland’s David Martinetti during the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. Henderson is just one of many former wrestlers to turn to the UFC following their wrestling careers.

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USA wrestling coach Steve Fraser, left, listens as American Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner talks to the media before the start of the Athens Olympics in Athens, Monday Aug. 9, 2004. Fraser has been happy to see some of his former wrestlers in the UFC, such as Randy Couture and Dan Henderson. However he hopes it won't start a trend of his athletes leaving the sport.

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U.S. National Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser remembers he wasn’t upset when one of his wrestlers, Randy Couture, decided to leave the sport for mixed martial arts. Likewise, he didn’t mind when Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland left for the same reason.

However if star pupil Joe Warren chooses the Octagon over the mat now, that one’s going to sting.

“With all of those other guys, I felt their call for it,” Fraser said. “They had all had great careers in wrestling and were at that age where it wouldn’t have surprised me if they wanted to retire from wrestling. So I didn’t mind that we lost them.

“Joe’s career isn’t done. And I won’t be happy about losing guys whose careers aren’t done.”

After winning a world championship in 2006, the 32-year-old Warren seemed poised for a long run in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Those dreams ended however, when Warren tested positive for THC, the chemical produced by marijuana, for the second time in 2007 and was dealt a two-year suspension by the U.S. Anti-Doping Association.

In order to continue competing during his suspension, Warren made his MMA debut last March as a featherweight at DREAM 7 in Japan. He’s now won both of the MMA bouts he’s entered and scared Fraser into thinking he’s not coming back.

“He went up there with Henderson and Lindland just to do it until his suspension was over,” Fraser said. “Well now he’s beat two guys and he’s making money. So I think we’ve lost him for good.”

According to Henderson, Warren is planning on returning to wrestling to take care of unfinished business when his suspension ends this month.

Even so, Warren is just one of a growing number of wrestlers showing not only interest in what MMA has to offer, but also a willingness to leave their sport to find out.

Fraser doesn't even need to look around his U.S. National team to know that. At a recent clinic he provided for young wrestlers this summer there was plenty of evidence sitting in front of him.

"I was doing a clinic for 60 kids and I mention Rulon Gardner, our Olympic champion from a few years ago," Fraser said. "And a decent amount of the kids knew who he was. Then I mention Randy Couture, and everybody knows him. It's just natural that more and more high school and younger wrestlers are going to be drawn more that sport.

"Where they might have become wrestlers in their career, I think we'll lose guys to MMA. But what do you do?"

Well, you could offer wrestlers $250,000 to ignore the UFC and keep striving in their own sport, which is exactly what USA Wrestling announced last month. Through an incentive program titled Living the Dream Medal Fund, wrestlers will now be rewarded a quarter-of-a-million dollars with an Olympic Gold Medal.

Although USA Wrestling says that the UFC had absolutely nothing to do with the three wrestling medals it won in Beijing, the lowest total since 1968, there's no question that a small percentage of wrestlers that could have represented the U.S. are collecting checks as a professional fighter instead.

Before Matt Hughes became a legendary UFC welterweight champion, he had considered offers to move to Colorado Springs and train with the U.S. team. He chose to enter the workforce instead.

"There was no pay, it would take me away from my family and only for a chance that I may make the Olympics or I may not," Hughes said. "I decided not to do it and started working as an electrician and coaching college wrestling instead."

But while amateur wrestling wasn't enough to pull Hughes away from his home, MMA was.

Shortly after discovering the sport in 1996, Hughes met his longtime mentor Pat Miletich. Because of his relationship with Miletich and early success, Hughes eventually quit his job as an electrician and assistant wrestling coach at Eastern Illinois University to train MMA full time.

Although there definitely came a point where Hughes would question his decision, the incentives involved with MMA and the UFC allowed him to keep following his dream. Without those rewards on the horizon, Hughes may have never continued.

"The UFC could definitely take over as the top goal for wrestlers for a few reasons," he said. "It's an easy transition for wrestlers because wrestling is a great base for fighting. There are instant paychecks, so you can start making money if you're pretty good at it. And there's kind of a fame thing involved, people recognize you."

Wrestlers have definitely already paved the way for others to follow behind them. Just considering former NCAA champions, there are 14 that have made the transition to MMA. That list includes names like Mark Coleman, Josh Koscheck, Kevin Randleman and Brock Lesnar.

All this is not to say that USA Wrestling and the UFC are in competition with each other. Former wrestlers fighting in the UFC are well liked and highly respected by wrestlers and vice versa.

Henderson, a former Olympic wrestler, says that younger competitors may be drawn to MMA as the UFC continues to move into an unprecedented spotlight. But that popularity also means more kids are seeking out wrestling camps.

"I think it's definitely more difficult for wrestling with the options the UFC offers, you're going to gravitate towards that," Henderson said. "On the flip side, there's a ton of kids out there that are starting to wrestle because they've seen wrestlers doing well in MMA."

In the end, it's interesting to hear Fraser try to answer whether the UFC is good or bad for wrestling.

On one hand, he's extremely happy that it's given some of his former students a chance to compete after wrestling and become mainstream stars.

On the other, he hopes Warren and others like him are willing to put off title shots and UFC championships as long as Couture, Henderson and Lindland did.

"I think it's good because it gives our wrestlers something to do when they're done and they can make money at it," Fraser said. "I'm happy for all of them. But as a national coach I don't want to lose medals for our country because they're jumping to the UFC too soon. I haven't seen that a lot so far, but who knows if it's headed that way. I hope not."

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].

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