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|Dremiel Byers will be competing in the 120 kg Greco class at the U.S. Olympic trials.|
"It's going back to the roots," Townsend said. "Real combat. Once you submit somebody or you get submitted, there's no question who is the better man. When you're getting choked, you really know that guy had you in a situation where he could have either broken your arm or your leg or choked you unconscious. For me, that's a much more rewarding experience than pinning somebody, which really fulfills no practical combat necessity." Ouch. Earlier this year, Townsend was hired by USA Wrestling as Manager of Developing Wrestling Styles. He previously was a coach and competitor at Xtreme Couture, the MMA team. "With the growth of MMA, Grappling is the next big thing as far as amateur wrestling goes," Townsend told ESPN.com. "It's really cool." And then there's Beach Wrestling, approved in 2004 by FILA. It merges all the best of current youth and corporate culture: impressive athleticism, scantily-clad buff bodies, a little bit of sand, a lot of sun. And it's been affiliated -- at least at some competitions -- with the wildly popular beach volleyball. "I would hope, to be honest, that we could market it as well as we market other beach sports," said American Leigh Jaynes, the bronze medalist in the 2006 women's world beach wrestling championships. "I think in the future it could bring in a lot more money than traditional wrestling. It depends how much [leaders] want to support it." Bottom line: Wrestling -- once two hairy guys swatting, tackling and throwing each other on a mat in an echoey gym -- is changing, and purposely so.
|Kimbo Slice and his big national ratings could add more weight to the argument for more MMA influence in wrestling.|
Sand slows the match. Low attacks mean sand in the wrestlers' faces. Footing is difficult. Sand gets very hot. A push out of the prescribed ring means defeat. Oh, and the athletes are barely dressed. "It does make it very sexy, very hunky," Dolmo said. "Everybody wants to be in shape to go to the beach." Said Jaynes: "I don't think it's a derogatory thing that athletic women are wearing a sports bra and bikini bottom to wrestle. I worked hard. I'm an athlete and this is what I'm required to wear to be efficient in my sport." Last year, USA Wrestling staged its beach wrestling nationals near Rochester, N.Y., at the same beach with the New York State Beach Volleyball tournament and a powerboat race. The International Olympic Committee has instituted a new Youth Olympic Games for athletes aged 14 to 18. It's set to begin in 2010. And guess what's on the initial program of those Youth Olympics? Beach wrestling. Still, whether Grappling or Beach will make it on to the Olympic wrestling program any time soon is anyone's guess. Townsend calls the beach style "a novelty." Some Olympic-committed wrestlers headed to this weekend's trials say the less technical Grappling form or the more punch-oriented MMA don't require the skills freestyle and Greco do. To them, MMA-influenced wrestlers are, more or less, second-rate wrestlers. "The wrestlers that go to MMA real soon are the ones that have no chance to go to the Olympic team," said U.S. national 84-kg freestyle champ Mo Lawal, who trains with MMA athletes. "Good wrestlers stick in the wrestling game for a while and then go to MMA next." T.C. Dantzler, the U.S. Greco champ at 74 kg, pooh-poohed the notion that extreme versions of the sport are imminent entries to the Olympics. "As far as the demise of wrestling," he said, "when you go to Eastern Europe or go to Istanbul, Turkey, there's not a huge MMA buzz. ... If you go to Iran, they're not talking about MMA." But wrestling has changed with the times and been molded by its cultures. That's why oil wrestling -- with oil-lathered men wearing only jeans-like pants -- on grass fields remains a huge spectator sport in Turkey. That's why "lutte lamb" on dirt rings in filled stadiums in Senegal is popular. And perhaps, that's why an in-your-face U.S. culture embraces a martial-arts influenced, highly revved version of wrestling like MMA or UFC. "When you're talking about Grappling, you're talking now about one of the prerequisites being commercialization," National Wrestling Hall of Fame executive director Lee Roy Smith said. "How commercial can it get? Will it engage viewers or sell products? Don't underestimate that." So, 21st-century wrestling stands -- hunched, arms out -- ready to take on a new challenge amid an ever-changing U.S. sports marketplace. "If I'm going to sit here and play wizard for a day, there's a high probability Grappling can be an Olympic sport," Townsend said. "I don't know how the wrestling landscape can change. Twenty years? I'd bet it could change pretty dramatically and sooner than you think." And you really don't want to mess with that guy. Jay Weiner is a sports journalist based in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at email@example.com.