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MMA in the Olympics: A novel idea that will never happen

An article highlighting Clarissa Chun’s win at the USA Wrestling trials and her inclusion on the U.S. Olympic team sparked some debate about MMA’s involvement with the summer games.

MMA in the Olympics is something that former IFL commissioner Kurt Otto, EliteXC Live Events President Gary Shaw, and UFC President Dana White have all championed in the past.

I actually spoke to several promoters about the concept of MMA as an Olympic sport while researching a potential magazine article. Everyone I spoke to made great arguments as to why MMA would benefit from becoming an Olympic sport, however, no one really could provide logistical details of how medal winners would be determined.

I am often asked when I believe MMA will finally become an Olympic sport and it’s an easy answer. I’m not a gambling man but I’d bet my house that we’ll never see MMA inducted into the Olympics as a sport.

Did you hear that? Never.

No one can dispute the fact that MMA in the Olympics would be a tremendous validation for the sport and a tremendous boon towards gaining increased acceptance from the mainstream.

So yeah, it’s easy to see how being involved with the Olympics would be good for MMA. But has anyone thought about whether it would be good for the Olympics?

Regardless of who it’s good for and who it’s not good for, it doesn’t matter because it’s not going to happen in our lifetime.

I’m not being cynical or pessimistic; only a realist. After I give you the reasons why we’ll never see MMA in the Olympics, even eternal optimists will share my point of view.

The Selection Process…

How would fighters be selected for the Olympics? It’s real easy to do a selection tournament for amateur boxing considering they use headgear and heavy gloves. By the time the Olympics roll around the qualifiers all have had plenty of time to heal.

But does the industry really want a selection process in MMA that would add to the commitment fighters would have to make to be a part from the organization they fight for? Let’s say the UFC was willing to commit Georges St. Pierre to the Olympics; taking him out of the mix for one fight would be tough to swallow. However, the selection process would mean he’d be unavailable to the UFC for a second fight.

There’s also the issue of nationalism. U.S. and Japanese fighters wouldn’t care about fighting each other but what about the Brazilians? I hope I don’t offend anyone by making a gross generalization, but a lot of Brazilians at the pro level do not like fighting each other.

Top Brazilian fighters would be flat out psyched to represent Brazil in the Olympics against other nations, but if asked to compete each other in a head-to-head format, a lot of them would bail.

You could always form selection committees and eliminate a qualifying tournament but then things become very political.

The Promoters are Full of It…

When it comes time to commit fighters to the Olympics, the promoters who support it will suddenly go quiet. White has said he’d like to see it, but let’s say MMA was going to take place during the Beijing Olympics in August. And let’s say Chuck Liddell is representing the U.S. and Wanderlei Silva is representing Brazil and the two are scheduled to face each other. Such a situation means that the UFC would lose one of its biggest main events. They’d literally be handing millions of dollars in revenue opportunities to the International Olympic Committee without anything in return.

And you know White would never allow one of his fighters to fight a fighter that represents another organization. Let’s say Anderson Silva was the representative for Brazil at 185 lbs. but there was a possibility that he might have to fight EliteXC’s Robbie Lawler, who is representing the U.S. If there was any chance of one of White’s top fighters facing a top fighter from another organization, the UFC’s support would vanish.

The bottom line: no promoter from a major MMA organization is going to loan out resources to the Olympics when they don’t have a financial piece of the action.

I could see promoters possibly loaning out some of their younger, lesser established fighters who could become superstars with a strong run in the Olympics. But whether pro or amateurs are used, it needs to be the best of the class in order for MMA to be taken serious at an Olympic sport.

If promoters weren’t willing to lend out their fighters but still wanted the rub of legitimacy MMA would get by being an Olympic sport, they could always push for amateurs. After all, wasn’t there a day and age where you had to be an amateur in order to compete in the Olympics?

The problem there is that there is no universal standard for amateur status. The U.S. finally caved and agreed to allow the NBA to represent the country in the Olympics because all of the other countries were using pros. So what if the U.S., Japan, and Brazil agree to send amateur fighters but Russia starts sending pros? What if you have 32-year old Red Devil veterans smashing 20-year old kids?

Lack of Acceptance…

So far, only one network has been willing to show MMA in primetime and that is CBS. But CBS Sports doesn’t produce EliteXC’s events as it’s done through the network’s entertainment division.

NBC has entered into a timebuy agreement with Strikeforce and shows MMA early Sunday mornings. But once again, it’s done through NBC’s entertainment division and not it’s sports division.

MMA is still a tough sell to the mainstream and the reality is that NBC has a lock on the Olympics for several more years. If it isn’t yet willing to show it in primetime, why would the sports division suddenly agree to televise it? Sports producers see the Olympics as their golden ticket to win an Emmy. The last thing they want is to impugn the Olympics by featuring a sport known for violence and blood.

The Logistics of the Tournament Format…

I’m not an Olympics expert, but whether it’s an individual or team sport, medals are determined via a tournament-style format. Athletes have to compete multiple times over a short time frame, sometimes multiple times in a day. Single-day tournaments in MMA were done away with a long time ago. They’ve been brought back recently in altered fashion; California allows single-night four-man tournaments while New Jersey recently approved a concept for YAMMA in which a single-night tournament was allowed with the bouts in the first two rounds of the tourney lasting only one round of five minutes and the tournament final consisting of three, three minute rounds.

So the reality is, if you did the Olympic MMA tournament old school UFC style, you make a dangerous sport even more dangerous. You’ll run into situations where fighters that lost actually end up advancing because the guy who beat them was too hurt to advance.

Doing the single-night four-man tourney that Strikeforce utilized isn’t an option because then the tournament is limited to just four nations. And who the hell wants to do a tournament the way YAMMA did it? A fight that only lasts five minutes?

MMA in the Olympics will never happen because it’s just not feasible. However, there two like-minded options that realistically could work:

1. Submission Grappling in the Olympics – The Olympics already features Taekwondo, Judo, and wrestling, so why not jiu-jitsu? There is no striking in jiu-jitsu so it fits into the whole sportsmanship aspect of the games. And if you’ve ever been to a major grappling tournament, you already know it’s operated in an Olympic fashion through its tournament bracketing system. And when winners in a division are declared, they are announced on a podium and presented medals and trophy. Competitive submission grappling is already an Olympic sport… it’s just not yet in the Olympics.

2. An MMA World Cup done Grand Prix style – MMA is a global sport and it would be pretty cool to see nations go head-to-head. Why not do a Grand Prix-style tournament that would take place over the span of three fight cards and would be run independent of the International Olympic committee, similar to what FIFA does with the World Cup in soccer? The biggest hindrance here is that promotions still might not want to have involvement and there currently isn’t an International MMA organization that could sanction and produce such an event. Who wouldn’t be jazzed for the World Cup of MMA?

  • Tom says:

    Ultimately, the only remotely feasible way MMA can work in the olympics, is if a full-scale amateur system was put into place. As much as the MMA promotions would like it to help legitimize the sport, none of them would happily give up their fighters to risk losses/injuries.

  • Kizzle says:

    Good article…but yeah, no way this is happening.

  • DougDrex says:

    Sam, you’re analysis is right on, especially when you point out that there would be potential big matchups (like Liddell vs Silva) that the UFC would simply never allow to happen outside the UFC because of missing out on millions upon millions of revenue.

    I like your idea about submission grappling becoming an Olympic sport. I think it will still draw some attention to MMA if some of the fighters competed and did well.

  • bjjdenver says:

    I agree with DougDrex. Sam your idea about sub grappling is a great one. Imagine the ADCC type competition in the Olympics. Awesome!

  • Kyle says:

    Sam, I understand why promoters doing it. I know UFC likes to advertise having the best fighters. But, let just say Anderson Silva loses to Robbie Lawler, do you really see the UFC losing steam because of it? Is there anybody saying the NBA is no longer the dominant basketball organization after 3 failures of obtaining gold medals in the Olympics and World Championship of Basketball?

  • Sam Caplan says:

    Kyle, there’s a HUGE difference between the landscape of professional basketball and MMA. If the U.S. loses, chances are it will be to a team populated by several other NBA players. If Silva beats Lawler, he’s doing what everyone expected him to. If Lawler beats Silva, then EliteXC could trumpet that all over the place at the UFC’s expense. Your comparison in this situation isn’t applicable because the NBA isn’t seeing its best players lose to a competing organization. Furthermore, if the UFC is unwilling to co-promote outside of the Olympics, why would they work with their competition when there is absolutely no direct financial gain for them? Sure, lending their fighters to the Olympics would be great for the growth of the sport, but how often does the UFC put its financial interests outside and do something for the pure good of the sport?

  • Sofian says:

    Great article Sam, I was of the same viewpoint but didn’t think it out the way you did, I gotta say I agree with the piece 100%. And to #5 Kyle, your comparison makes no sense, the USA lost to other teams who also have NBA players (not full teams of course), furthermore when they lost the discussion was starting that the euro game may have passed the american game by (and it probably has if you think fundamentals). Think about it, if silva were to lose to lawler, there goes his #1 p4p, his UFC belt won’t exactly mean much anymore. Also keep in mind the NBA has no rival league, the UFC does, sort of.

  • Sofian says:

    wow we both jumped on Kyle with the same basic argument. Am I sam?

  • roomservicetaco says:

    Not sure I agree with your logic.

    Re: use of amateurs, Olympic soccer is restricted to under-23 players. This type of age restriction (maybe it’s 21 for mma) is one way to establish Olympic eligibility without significantly affecting the commercial interests.

    Re: tournament format, Olympic boxing is already held in a multi-day tournament format. Yes, they use headgear, but they did not always use it – Ali, Frazier, and Foreman won their gold medals without headgear. And, no reason Olympic MMA could not use headgear and shin protectors if safety were a big concern.

  • Sam Caplan says:

    Room Service, I believe you are incorrect about the Olympic soccer rules. I’m not the biggest soccer fan in the world, but there wasn’t an age restriction on the U.S. women’s team that won gold. Michelle Akers was over 23.

    But let’s say you are correct about age restrictions… and I’m not trying to offend younger mixed martial artists, but how will sending nothing but fighters under the age of 21 help the sport of MMA grow? You see, you can play soccer when you’re 6, 10, 13, or 16 and all ages in between. The VAST MAJORITY of those who are involved in MMA do not start training until after high school. If you throw a bunch of green fighters out there then it’s going to look bad.

    In regards to your point about boxing, you are comparing apples to oranges. For one, there are many that will disagree with your assertion that headgear makes MMA safer. I’ve competed in headgear and I can tell you that as far as MMA is concerned, headgear actually can make things more dangerous.

    Even with headgear, fighters will still be taking damage. You also have to take into account submissions and ground and pound. Headgear is only going to help so much if someone is absorbing a ton of punishment caused by 4-7 ounces gloves.

  • Davey D says:

    I’d like to see MMA in the Olympics only if they were amateur athletes. I really don’t think guys like Chuck, Wandy, BJ Penn, etc. should be in allowed to compete in that arena. They are the cream of the crop and it would be nice to have them there but they have their comitment’s contracted on a much larger scale which is, the UFC. Here is my take on a few things.

    1. Amateur athletes make the games better. You have NBA player’s competing yes, but you also have the best player’s from around the world who are in the NBA as well repping’ their countries too.

    2. MMA does not have an off season like a lot of other sports. Fighter’s go months between fight’s but train almost every single day. They need to be ready on moment’s notice at times.

    3. Marital Arts have been around for centuries. MMA has been around for less than 20 years. There have been NHB events, Vale Tudo matches and the like around longer than that so I am technically wrong but MMA has evolved a lot over the year’s. A lot of people still do not know what to think when they see a MMA fight, some wouldn’t know what to call it or what it is. But, show them guys like Bruce Lee, Van Damme, Jackie Chan, Segal and they’ll say, “I thought they did Karate?”.

    People just don’t realize just how many styles of fighting can be brought into the mix when competing in MMA.

    I think it’s better when you have all the aspect’s of MMA competing like Karate, Taekwondo, wrestling. Afterwards, the athletes, when they’re ready, have something else to fall back on. Some turn out to be Champion’s ya’ know?

    4. Brazil – Sam, you hit the nail on the head. Brazilian’s don’t like to fight one another a whole lot. Unless they really have to. Called it respect, honor, patroitism – whatever. When it comes to MMA, they’ll except it and do what is needed, same as jits. But for the Olympic’s – I don’t know man. However, Jiu-Jitsu in the Olympics would be an excellent addition and I’m all for that.

    Is Sambo an Olympic sport, Sam? That’s it for me now. What do you think about my take here?

  • Jim says:

    A World Cup of MMA would be insanely awesome. We’ll never get it, but still, that would be awesome.

    Maybe an organization with a good amount of high-quality fighters could do this? I’d buy three separate UFC pay-per-views with a “USA vs Brazil vs Japan vs Canada,” theme to them, or “North America vs South America,” or whatever. That would be incredible.

  • Lethal says:

    The Olympics only last 2 weeks, no way will the fighters be able to compete often enough to make it feasible to have MMA in the Olympics. It would be better to do Gi grappling and No Gi Grappling in the Olympics. The Gi grappling would be more similar to traditional BJJ and No Gi would be like ADCC competitions.

  • roomservicetaco says:

    Sam, thanks for the reply. Wasn’t trying to make a point for/against headgear in MMA. Just that, by comparison, with or without headgear, boxers take a lot of head blows over a short period of time in a tournament format and can still compete without major injury (I’m not aware of any major injury in Olympic boxing but could be wrong).

    About age limits in Olympic soccer, see: 2008 and forward is U-23. Prior was U-23 with 3 players allowed to be older.

    The point about age limits is that, in soccer, it’s done to avoid competition with the major pro leagues. Yes, there are players under 23 in pro soccer, but the limit makes it clear that the Olympics is for ‘amateurs’ (by loose definition).

    Similarly, if Olympic MMA were, for example, an u-21 event, the prospect of a Chuck/Wanderlei or other mega-fight being taken away from promoters would be removed.

    I do think that an U-21 arrangement would be good for the sport. For one, the sport would get exposure on an international level. Would the fighters be the best in the world? No, but neither were/are the Ultimate Fighter contestants and we know what that program’s exposure and human interest stories did for the sport.

    Also, the development of national MMA federations and a structured development path for young fighters would be helpful in building the stars of tomorrow and elevating the quality of mixed martial artists overall.

  • Patrick says:

    Not every sport belongs in the Olympics. Golf, Cricket, Rugby, and American Football are not in the Olympics. And yes other countries beisdes the US have American Football, just nowhere near the level of the NFL or NCAA. But these are huge sports. And they are not represented at the Olympics. Just like boxing is reduced to a single elimination tournament, with 4 two minute rounds per bout and use of headgear. Something like this would have to be done to mma. Putting more restricions on an mma bout with time or padding would result in more kickboxing matches and less grappling. I’m all for a form of submission grappling in the olympics. But the steps necessary for mma to be an Olympic sport would be too great to represent what mma really is.

  • Ken says:

    Like Sam says it’s important to try to view this from the standpoint of the Olympic Committee. I doubt they would consider it for very long.

    I think they think it would appear far too violent to the general public. It would shock people and have an adverse effect on the Olympic image (to the general public). Yes, the general public would think it far more violent than TKD, wrestling, judo and boxing. Facts don’t count for much, perception is paramount.

  • Cooped says:

    First off, MMA has a long way to go before it can be considered for the Olympics. However, there are a few high schools with MMA teams along with a few colleges putting up a team for competition. That is where it needs to start. Once that has been in place for a while, then you can start looking at International competitions and finally the Olympics.

    If you want a valid comparison, look at the NHL and Olympic hockey. NHL teams are thrown to the four corners every four years, with teammates competing against each other, and nobody comes back yelling that their NHL team is better than another because it has a gold medalist who scored against their goallie.

    Adding Brazilian Jiujitsu is a good start. If you look at the history of Judo and TKD, they first became National and then International sports before they were allowed into the Oympics. MMA has not officially reach that status, but BJJ has – It is both a National and International sport.

    As far as the Brazilians, who do you think they fight against in Brazil? They fight all the time. What they don’t like to do is fight memebers of their camps\teams, regardless of nationality.

  • Adam says:

    I think you are being somewhat shortsighted in this analysis. I agree with pretty much every point you make except: Using an age limit would severely hamper the quality of fights. You stated that most people pick up MMA post high school. That is true right now, will that be true 20 years from now?

    I don’t know anything about amateur MMA, and your statement about headgear is very surprising to me. I think two fun questions that go along with this topic are: What do you think the chances are of a Collegiate MMA league in the future? What is the current/future state of amateur MMA, is it being used as a legitimate stepping stone to turning pro for young people, or is it more for the casual MMAist?

  • Primetyme199 says:

    Why not use amateurs for MMA in the Olympics like it is with boxers? This way you don’t have to worry about the organizations letting their fighters go.

  • Fire says:

    Great article Sam. I think it’s interesting to note that this discussion on MMA as an Olympic sport begins with a woman earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team when women’s boxing isn’t even recognized as an Olympic sport. Possibility in 2012, but no guarantee. Speaking of women and fighters… Sam, I wish your wife the best of luck in the future, keep us posted.

  • Jesse says:

    BJJ has the Mundials and Pan-Ams, No Gi has ADCC and now the Worlds to name a few. Seems like a logical transition. Plus you would have a lot of MMA fighters that are wrestlers and BJJ players who would compete (because they want a gold medal) who would never think of going back to competitive grappling without this type of incentive. Some of those match ups would be insane and wildly anticipated. Imagine a Drysdale or Raphael Lovato Jr vs a Noguiera? Or how about a BJ Penn vs Aoki in a Gi match? The possibilities are endless and would all be pretty darn cool.

  • steak_knife says:

    This is an awesome article. I think it needs to be re-posted for the summer games opening this week.

  • whiskey says:

    I’m not being cynical or pessimistic; only a realist. After I give you the reasons why we’ll never see MMA in the Olympics, even eternal optimists will share my point of view.


  • Brandon cohert says:

    MMA should become an olympic sport and it would be easy to pick the fighters.. they would all come from the UFC theres a reason why they are in the UFC its because they are the best.. fighters from other leagues dont fight in the UFC because they cant perform at the level as the guys who do fight for the UFC and as far as Medals go thats easy also you have a fight bracket with a random drawing at the begining to select who will fight in the first matches and each fighter who whens his fight will move up the bracket and so on until the semi finals which determine the bronze and the finals which determine the gold and silver…the ONLY problem still is the wieght class’s you cant have a 225 fight a 155 so that needs to be worked out

  • guy says:

    why not setup a huge tournament in each country. everyone is allowed in. single elimination. winner represents the country. get 2 week respits before ur next fight. make a show of it. 4 year tournament to find the best. if any of the pros want to represent their country they got to enter. have the tournament sponsored by rounds. or you could have a test of fitness, to quickly eliminate a lot of the fighter. if 10,000 fighters enter, 1 fight every 2 weeks. you have 10,000 enter and thats only like 13 rounds. so you could even make it a 1 year tournament and 1 fight a month.


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