The Olympic Crossover

By Tommy Messano Aug 14, 2008
The 2008 Summer Olympic Games and their vast commercial reach could serve as a launching pad for the next mixed martial arts superstar.

With NBC, MSNBC, the USA Network and various Internet outlets providing more than 3,600 hours of Olympic coverage, a medal-winning athlete with a compelling story could be in perfect position to crossover to MMA. After all, it has happened before.

Many Olympic wrestlers and judokas from various countries have gone on to give MMA a try. Some enjoyed more success than others.

Karam Ibrahim (Pictures), for instance, dominated the Greco-Roman wrestling competition at the 2004 Olympics. The gold medalist at 211 pounds made his MMA debut against the solid but unspectacular Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures), who knocked him out in little more than a minute at a K-1 show in December 2004. Ibrahim has not fought since.

Kenny Monday won Olympic gold in freestyle wrestling in 1988 and a silver medal in the same discipline four years later. In his lone MMA bout, he took on John Lewis (Pictures) -- one of the more accomplished fighters he could have faced in 1997 -- and finished him in the second round.

Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in freestyle, was a late replacement at UFC 9 in May 1996. Despite facing Gary Goodridge (Pictures) at a time when he was one of the world’s most feared strikers, Schultz stopped the Canadian on a first-round cut. He appeared in only one other MMA match.

Japanese judo gold medalists Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures) and Makoto Takimoto (Pictures) have had mixed success in MMA. Pawel Nastula (Pictures), a judo gold medalist from Poland, owns a subpar 1-3 mark in the sport, but his three losses have come to former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett (Pictures), reigning interim UFC heavyweight titleholder Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures) and Aleksander Emelianenko (Pictures).

Of course, at least one Olympian who failed to medal excelled in MMA. Dan Henderson (Pictures), who twice competed in the Olympics, remains the only man to hold major titles in two weight divisions simultaneously. His good fortune notwithstanding, focuses on three American wrestlers who medaled in the Olympics and went on to high-profile MMA fights -- if not careers:

Kevin Jackson
Olympics: 1992 (Barcelona, Spain)
Weight/Discipline: 82 kilograms, freestyle wrestling
Medal: Gold

The 27-year-old native of Lansing, Mich., stormed through the draw in Barcelona, Spain, on his way to the top of the medal stand.

An Iowa State University product, Jackson emerged from a stacked group of Pool B wrestlers in which he was picked to lose on more than one occasion. He responded in the clutch in the gold medal match against Elmadi Jabrailov, as the American shut out his opponent en route to victory.

Forever linked to one man’s highlight reel, Jackson may be best known to MMA fans for submitting to a Frank Shamrock (Pictures) armbar in less than 20 seconds in the UFC’s first 205-pound title match. Jackson competed in only two more professional fights after his encounter with Shamrock and finished his MMA career with a 4-2 record.

One of only five American wrestlers to win three world titles, Jackson is still considered one of the greatest freestyle wrestlers in history. In 2001, he was named USA Wrestling’s National Freestyle head coach and currently holds the position for the 2008 games in Beijing, China.

Rulon Gardner
Olympics: 2000 (Sydney, Australia), 2004 (Athens, Greece)
Weight/Discipline: 130 kilograms, Greco-Roman wrestling
Medal: Gold, Bronze

It took a mere nine minutes of mat time in September 2000 for Gardner to become the best-known amateur wrestler in the United States. Following a 3-2 semifinal win, Gardner was pitted against Russia’s Alexander Karelin in the gold medal match. A three-time defending Olympic gold medalist, Karelin was a heavy favorite to pummel the American upstart.

The two men battled to a scoreless tie at the end of regulation, and Gardner scored the only point of the match in overtime. It was Karelin’s first loss in international competition in more than 13 years; he had not been scored upon in more than six years.

Gardner retired from wrestling after he earned a bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

The Greco-Roman star’s MMA career lasted all of one fight, as he collided with fellow Olympic gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures) at Pride “Shockwave 2004.” In a fight remembered more for Gardner’s significant size advantage over Yoshida, the American was awarded a unanimous decision. Gardner has not competed since.

He will serve as a color commentator for NBC during its wrestling coverage at the 2008 Olympics.

Matt Lindland (Pictures)
Olympics: 2000 (Sydney, Australia)
Weight/Discipline: 76 kilograms, Greco-Roman wrestling
Medal: Silver

An All-American at the University of Nebraska, Lindland began his MMA career before he pursued his Olympic aspirations. In fact, he won his first three fights.

On the mats at the 2000 Olympics, Lindland dominated pool play and earned a bye into the semifinals of the 76-kilogram Greco-Roman competition. Lindland’s win over Ukraine’s David Manukyan put him in the gold medal match against Russia’s Mourat Kardanov. Following a 3-0 defeat to Kardanov, Lindland walked away with the silver medal. He was fighting Yoji Anjo in the UFC three months later.

Lindland boasts an impressive 21-5 record in MMA and has become a mainstay on middleweight top 10 lists, despite losses to Murilo Bustamante (Pictures) and David Terrell (Pictures). Now 38, he serves as the model for current Olympians hoping to cross over.

Five to Watch in Beijing

Since the 2004 Olympics, the sport of MMA has stabilized financially and gained mainstream acceptance. The time seems ideal for an Olympian to capitalize on his fame and to think about making MMA his post-Olympics profession.

The latest crop of Team USA athletes competing in the Olympics is young and mostly inexperienced in international competition. Though none are favored to take home the gold, here are five wrestlers to keep an eye on as the games unfold in Beijing, China:

Brad Vering
Weight/Discipline: 84 kilograms, Greco-Roman
First Match: Aug. 14

The 185-pound Greco-Roman contender is one of only two members of Team USA with prior Olympic experience. Vering was also a silver medalist in the 2007 Greco-Roman championships, but he will have to get past Russia’s Alexei Mishin to bring home the gold.

Daniel Cormier
Weight/Discipline: 96 kilograms, freestyle
First Match: Aug. 21

At 211 pounds, Cormier is the other returning member from the 2004 squad, as he placed fourth in Athens, Greece. The multi-talented Cormier was offered a scholarship to play football at Louisiana State University coming out of high school.

Adam Wheeler
Weight/Discipline: 96 kilograms, Greco-Roman
First Match: Aug. 14

Wheeler, who has never made an Olympic appearance, made noise just by making the team. His upset of five-time defending national champion Justin Ruiz came as a surprise to many experts. Wheeler is a former member of the United States Coast Guard.

Andy Hrovat
Weight/Discipline: 84 kilograms, Freestyle
First Match: Aug. 21

Hrovat pulled off the shocker of the U.S. Olympic trials when he upset Team Quest Temecula’s Mo Lawel. The University of Michigan product has had an up-and-down international career. A strong showing in such a stacked weight division would come as a surprise to many.

Ben Askren
Weight/Discipline: 74 kilograms, Freestyle
First Match: Aug. 20

A 163-pound four-time All-American at the University Missouri, Askren made waves by telling anyone who would listen that he plans to take home the gold. He comes equipped with the marketable long blond curls that have become his trademark. Despite his predictions and signature haircut, Askren is ranked 30th in the world at his weight. He recently announced his plan to shave his head prior to his first match.
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