I spoke to a good friend of mine yesterday night. We were discussing his upcoming return to the mat on the Division I level and if we would see a season at all this year. Amidst all of that, we briefly discussed a subject that's been mentioned and thrown around time and again, and it had to do with the lack of quality training for the next level in Indiana. Our conversation led me back to a thought I've had over the years while observing the sport on a state and national level:
Wrestling will ALWAYS miss out on the top dollar in comparison to boxing, mixed martial arts, and other combat sports because there are too many gatekeepers in the sport with elitist mindsets.
Why? There's just a general lack of resources throughout the state for those who wish to compete to truly get better, and while many clubs are geared towards youth wrestling, there isn't enough focus for those beyond high school. This isn't just an Indiana problem, though. From what I've learned, this is common across the nation. Too often, clubs close off their services to those after high school or college who don't have certain credentials. The USA Wrestling website even has a set criteria for an athlete to participate in a Regional Training Center (ex: You must place this high at this tournament to participate; You must have done this in high school to participate). It's actually kind of silly because you have so many young men and women who are avid fans of the art of wrestling with extensive knowledge along with some kind of talent, but because they didn't enjoy the same success as another wrestler, they have to potentially miss out on becoming better and no longer continue on in the sport. Most want to simply participate because it's fun. Notice how excited many wrestlers get for the spring and summer seasons because there are countless opportunities to compete in two new styles (Freestyle/Greco) or hybrid styles (Ironman) with wrestlers all over the state and country that they don't usually see. I remember my friends and I would be so excited for the spring and summer because we got to work on a variety of new moves and take on new challenges, but more importantly because there was no pressure. We didn't really worry about scholarships or team state titles, we just went out and did the sport we loved and had fun trying to make the travel teams, and that's the beauty of it all. Clubs miss out on so much money and numbers because they're too focused on the Division I prospects, and I'm not saying they shouldn't focus on them, but if the goal is to have our participation numbers up, we should be opening our doors to more than just the wrestlers who are top-ranked recruits and shift our focus to the entire wrestling community and be mindful of those who want to continue on in the sport, as well as those who want to learn it for self-defense, to get in shape, or to pick it up for the first time because they might have an interest in mixed martial arts, they saw the NCAA tournament on TV, or they happened to come across some sick Greco-Roman highlights.
And let me clarify, I’m not saying every person who enters a wrestling room is an Olympic-caliber grappler, and to be quite honest with you, I’m not sure many want to be, but that shouldn’t be any reason they have to stop competing. You look in mixed martial arts, boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, taekwondo, etc., and you will see people of all ages in studios training (sometimes with people half or twice their age) to either stay in shape, learn self-defense, or compete in local tournaments for fun and continue to excel because they’re in a SPORT. It is for SPORT. Gatekeepers in wrestling have some of the worst attitudes though and will discourage people from entering. I’ve heard reasons being from how hard it is to wrestle to that toxic elite mentality, but you never hear boxing trainers or fighters discourage people from entering the gym to work on their craft, especially those willing to pay any amount.
Here’s a testimony for y’all, though: Hassan Assad (better known as MVP in WWE) had left professional wrestling for a year. During his time off, he came across a gym in Houston known as Gracie Barra. He went inside and asked for information, and quickly signed up. By 2019, he’d been training for seven years and in that time been promoted to a purple belt, won several opens around the state of Texas, and qualified for the world championships twice all after the age of 30. That happens in so many other sports except wrestling. You don’t hear about guys picking up the sport in their 20s or 30s and excelling because, at least over here, it’s frowned upon. Not everyone is going to be Jordan Burroughs, and not many want to be, and that’s okay.
With that, I’m not saying you don’t see folks from the United States competing in the Masters/Veterans tournaments because you absolutely do. Nick Hull won the U.S. Open in the Masters Division last year. The problem is that they don’t get the same or proper training from top-tier coaches that cadets, juniors, and seniors get, and we can’t blame it on age or body shape because there are plenty of 40-somethings in phenomenal shape with great health, and are in better shape than their younger counterparts, some compete in the UFC.
All I’m saying is… Picture this: You have an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. He went to a smaller school in Indiana where he was a semi-state qualifier, ranked in the top eight all year and beat multiple Division I recruits, but because he didn’t make it past the ticket round, he didn’t receive many college offers, and would rather stay close to home for school. The closest school he can afford doesn’t have wrestling, and he feels at a loss when he hasn’t even hit his ceiling yet. With the proper coaching and development, though, he knows he could still be a quality guy. Most write him off and say, “Yeah, right. He didn’t make it to state or do anything nationally, he has no credentials. How does he expect to do anything?” Oh, resources, you say? Well, there’s a training center up the road from him filled with multiple Division I recruits and Fargo All-Americans, but you don’t believe he can wrestle there because he didn’t do what they did in high school? Let him practice with them, let them help him get better over time, and then let’s see what he becomes. Allow him to travel and compete in tournaments so he can really deepen his knowledge of the sport. Due to him being older, he’s less likely to develop bad habits and he’ll have a better understanding of what it is he’s doing, and who knows where he’ll be a year from now. Him being able to practice with top level guys could help mold him into a top level guy and maybe put together a few wins at an open tournament to allow him to be noticed by a quality school.
And this applies to club wrestling only. I can understand Division I schools not opening their doors for many obvious reasons, but the most prominent being that they don’t want anyone who isn’t their own to become a liability and also because they’re trying to win a championship in the NCAA, so they need the absolute best they can get at that moment in time. However, with proper training and letting go of the mindset that only those of certain level can participate, if clubs open their doors to anyone willing to listen and learn, I could see a huge increase in participation across the board among all age groups. We get too caught up in letting rankings, placements, and past credentials determine the value of someone when guys like Joe Rau (who only qualified for state once in Illinois and went 0-2) make the world team and our very own Deondre Wilson beat an NCAA Finalist in Dan Vallimont at Senior Nationals back in December and he also took down Jordan Oliver at the Open a few years ago. Imagine what he could do with a quality club or RTC behind him that he doesn’t have to move out of state for. If we don’t break the gatekeeping, elitism, or create more resources and opportunities for our wrestlers statewide and nationally, we’ll kill our sport. I’d like to see more opportunities for women, older wrestlers, and a positive view on Greco-Roman, and regular promotion of them in Indiana. Maybe the ISWA could sanction more local tournaments with a bigger feel (The Indianapolis Open, The Evansville Open, etc.; just some ideas)