By Jeremy McLaughlin – THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH – Original here
Reece Humphrey starts his morning run when the sun shines just enough to guide him around the Ohio State campus.
Humphrey, an Ohio State senior wrestler, doesn’t really need the sunlight. He knows where he is headed. The path was laid out a long time ago.
The son of a five-time national champion, Humphrey has aspirations of winning an Olympic gold medal in 2012. That goal has driven him to train and compete in international tournaments the past two off-seasons. He will practice with the United States team at the world championships in Denmark next month.
“I’m just ready to go for the gold and go for that dream,” he said.
Many college wrestlers have a similar dream, but a growing number are forgoing international competition to enter mixed martial arts, which has immense popularity and high payouts. Wrestlers are tempted to try it because many of their skills and moves are transferable to MMA. Many have succeeded.
“The things (wrestling teaches you) are what you need to be a champion fighter,” former Ohio State national champion Mark Coleman said, “and to transition is easier for a wrestler because they have a great base and the mind power.”
Coleman speaks from experience. When his Olympic dream ended in 1996, he entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship, MMA’s most-popular outlet, and became one of its biggest stars.
More wrestlers have followed him, even some who could have had long international careers. At UFC 100 in July, 13 of 22 fighters had college wrestling experience.
“People doing MMA now didn’t have the dream of being a UFC champion” as a kid, said former Ohio State national champion Tommy Rowlands, who works in the MMA industry but doesn’t fight. “That’s where wrestling is really going to take a hit if we don’t do something. (Today’s) kids are going to become adults and then they are going to say, ‘Forget the Olympics. I want to be a UFC champion.’ ”
Staying in the fold
Shawn Bunch is one of those torn. A member of the U.S. world wrestling team, he is focused on winning a world title but eventually wants to fight, perhaps soon.
“I might take a fight right after worlds,” he said. “You could do both, but it takes a lot of time. It’s very tempting. I’ve got a lot of friends in (MMA). They try to (persuade me), flashing their money.”
Bunch would have jumped into MMA already if not for the Ohio Regional Training Center. Based in Columbus, it helps wrestlers with money it gets from donors, fundraising events and USA Wrestling.
The center supports Bunch, world team member Tervel Dlagnev and former Ohio State wrestlers J.D. Bergman and J Jaggers. Each gets a monthly stipend of $1,500. Their rent is also paid.
In return, they train with Lou Rosselli, an Ohio State assistant and a top freestyle coach. They also help raise money for the center and perform community service. Rowlands would like to grow the program to support seven wrestlers.
USA Wrestling also has upped the ante. It will pay $250,000 to any U.S. wrestler who wins a gold medal in 2012. Silver medalists will get $50,000, bronze medalists $25,000. It also will award cash to medalists at the world championships.
“The dream of a gold medal is very attractive but, at the same time, these guys have to survive,” Coleman said. “Wrestling needs to, and I think they have taken, steps to offer more money to medalists at the Olympics. They don’t make enough money for the amount of time and work they put in.”
Will it be enough?
The pool of U.S. wrestlers competing after college remains level, USA Wrestling spokesman Gary Abbott said. Some of the best, however, recently switched to MMA. Ben Askren, a two-time NCAA champion and 2008 Olympian, began fighting in February. Daniel Cormier, a two-time Olympian, announced this month that he would start fighting.
“You can say there are guys who might have had Olympic opportunities who decided to go right into MMA,” Abbott said, “but in a lot of cases, the best athletes coming out of college are still giving their international wrestling careers a try, even if they think they want to do MMA.”
Will it stay that way? Even with support from the training center and USA Wrestling, the possible earnings in MMA outstrip those in wrestling. Coleman reportedly received $100,000 for his win at UFC 100. Low-level fighters earn enough to support a living, though that’s getting tougher because more fighters are competing.
“You could make $18,000 in your first MMA fight … and be a star,” Rowlands said. “The only way you become a star in wrestling is if you win the Olympic gold medal.”
That’s still enough incentive for wrestlers such as Dlagnev.
“I want to be the best in the world in wrestling,” he said. “Right now, MMA can’t give me that.”