Olympic wrestling supporters seek new ally

In an effort to save Olympic wrestling, supporters have enlisted the help of the MMA community. Matt Kryger/USA TODAY Sports

With the clock ticking towards zero regarding wrestling's place as part of the Olympic program, all hands are on deck.

"No one should be deceived into thinking it's going to be easy," Bill Scherr, chairman of the Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling, told ESPN.com this week.

The International Olympic Committee's executive board will meet at the end of May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to determine which sports to include in the 2020 games. A final vote is set for the IOC general assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September.

"We need to get put on that short list," Scherr said. "We're competing against seven other sports. If we don't get on the short list of three or four, we're done. So we need that. Once we're done with that we start the clock towards September."

As part of the effort, the wrestling community in the U.S. has publicly aligned itself with the most powerful entities in mixed martial arts -- a full reversal for groups, such as USA Wrestling, which receives a significant portion of its budget from the U.S. Olympic committee, that were once leery of attaching wrestling to MMA.

"Wrestling would be in the Stone Age if we didn't recognize that the UFC is mainstream sport," Scherr said. "We embraced and privately loved it for years. Publicly it's time for us to embrace mixed martial arts as a mainstream sport like the rest of the world has. I think people in wrestling are ready for that.

"I believe that wrestling people now understand the importance of doing everything they can to create publicity and awareness for their sport. Wrestling has contributed in many ways to mixed martial arts' success. And mixed mixed martial arts has already contributed, without formally trying, in so many ways to wrestling. I think if we formalize that communication, partnership and coordination both organizations can be benefited."

CPOW, a composite group that includes, among others, representatives from the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) and USA Wrestling, reached out to the UFC, which was extremely receptive to the cause. Discussions between the groups, Scherr said, led UFC president Dana White to suggest Bellator MMA and its ownership group, Viacom, should join the fight as well. USA Wrestling reached out to Bellator, and the promotion's CEO, Bjorn Rebney, told ESPN.com that his group would do what it could in support of the effort.

There are murmurs Bellator MMA could host a pay-per-view this summer linked to CPOW's cause, but Rebney told ESPN.com nothing has been determined. In terms of events prior to the May hearing in Russia, expect a public relations push, perhaps mentions of the fight to preserve wrestling in the Olympic program during UFC broadcasts, as well as a set of public service announcements featuring athletes and celebrities. Over the long haul, folks in the wrestling community will educate themselves on the ways in which MMA has positioned itself as a popular television property.

"The sentiment has been positive and amazing from Dana White and the UFC, and Bellator in their desires to help us."

Scherr, a bronze medalist in freestyle at 100 kilos in 1988, said the IOC's targeting of wrestling says "more about the presentation of the sport, the organization of the sport by the International Wrestling Federation, the current modern rules as they are in Olympic wrestling, and the lack of participation in the Olympic sports movement that wrestling showed in recent times. That's what they're commenting on. They're not commenting on those millions and millions of people that love wrestling globally, and the vibrant growth the sport has seen around the earth and in the United States.

"I think this is a time period in which the International Olympic Committee has given wrestling a great gift."

So wrestling must adapt, and the community has turned its attention to mixed martial arts, which itself underwent a famous resurrection from an outlaw venture into a mainstream sports property.

"You want the Olympic program to reflect sport within the global community, and I think it should change," Scherr said. "And it will change. Wrestling wants to be part of that. So if we're not successful here in Buenos Aries, we're going to push and continue to work to improve the sport so we are eventually successful in being a part of the Olympic games."