Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on http://slam.canoe.ca and was written by Patric Laprade.
On Sunday, the world of amateur wrestling breathed a sigh of relief as the International Olympic Committee voted to reinstate the sport to its roster. Given the rich history of amateur stars turning professional, it was only natural for a few to speak their minds.
“It was a huge mistake. How a founding sport could not be part of the Olympics?” asked Gerald Brisco, who is in charge of scouting the amateur ranks for potential WWE superstars.
Back in February, in a surprise move, amateur wrestling was dropped from the list of sports. It was allowed to re-apply, competing on Sunday with baseball/softball and squash.
“I was a little concerned baseball/softball was going to be picked because they got a big push,” Brisco told SLAM! Wrestling. “But when Tokyo was named as host for the 2020 Olympics, I thought we had a better chance since Japan is a very strong amateur wrestling country, therefore a wrestling supporter.”
The only amateur wrestler ever on the cover of Sports Illustrated weighed in as well.
“I was in Stillwater, Oklahoma at the Hall of Fame when the decision was announced,” said 1956 Olympic silver medalist Danny Hodge. “Everybody was celebrating. I’m thrilled. I’m proud they stuck together. I’m very proud.”
The amateur wrestling community banded together for the fight, including some big name pros, like Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar.
FILA, the international organization for amateur wrestling, changed its boss and vowed to revamp to make amateur wrestling more contemporary and TV-friendly.
“We are aware of our mistakes and they will not happen again,” wrestling head Nenad Lalovic said in a wire story. “This crisis gave us the strength to change and we finally found out that we can change. This was the most valuable experience of all of this journey.”
Brisco was proud of how everyone came together.
“I was thrilled by the reaction of the wrestling community. We united like I’ve never seen before. It was a common battle,” said Brisco. “There were no more rivalries between countries or colleges. It was a bad thing it got eliminated to begin with, but the good thing is that it brought the whole community together. It forced everybody to work together.”
Amateur wrestling and pro wrestling have been associated for the longest time. Pro wrestling got its roots from different amateur wrestling styles and in the early 20th century, the Greco-Roman and catch-as-catch can styles were performed at the same time. Therefore, many pro wrestlers have an amateur background, especially in previous eras, as it was almost mandatory to have such credentials.
As Paul Vachon explains, “athletes who become Olympians dedicate their life to their sport. After they got out of amateur, wrestling was the only thing they could do, so they turned pro. Well, it was like that in my era.”
Wrestlers the likes of Frank Gotch, Strangler Lewis, Billy Robinson, Gerald and Jack Brisco, Paul Vachon, Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Brock Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin, and Jack Swagger all had an amateur and professional careers.
If a lot of them competed in the NCAA or in provincial/state championships, few actually made their way to the Olympics and even fewer were medalists. Actually, being tagged as an Olympian is much different than having performed on a national level.
“You are a world class athlete when you compete at the Olympics. The competition is much better at an international level than on a national level,” added Brisco.
Earl McCready, Ed Don George, Harry Madison, Verne Gagne, Dale Lewis, Mr. Saito, Bob Roop, Jumbo Tsuruta, Riki Choshu, Brad Rheingans, and Maurice Vachon are among those who competed in the Olympics before turning pro. Amongst the medalists, Henri Deglane, Chris Taylor, Danny Hodge, and Kurt Angle all brought back a medal, Deglane and Angle winning the gold. Pete Mehringer did too, but wasn’t a pro wrestler very long.
Brisco believes that keeping amateur wrestling in the Olympics can actually help pro wrestling.
“I started wrestling because in my hometown of Oklahoma, there were two wrestlers who won gold medals in the 1960 Olympics, Shelby Wilson and Douglas Blubaugh,” explained Brisco. “This is what your inspirations become when you’re a kid.”
In other words, a youngster could see a wrestler performing at the Olympics, start wrestling and one day, turn pro.
“When you’re around that caliber, it migrates to your own performances. You want to have that same level of respect and treatment,” continued Brisco.
Respect is something very valuable for a pro wrestler and being an Olympian helped both Hodge and Maurice Vachon.
“When you’re performing at an Olympic level, it gives you the credentials to be a champion, to be well respected in pro wrestling,” said Hodge, who was one of the best junior heavyweights in pro wrestling history, and a championship boxer as well.
According to Paul Vachon, his brother Maurice’s career would’ve not been the same if he hadn’t participated in the Olympics.
“Most people familiar with pro wrestling don’t know about the British Empire games. But they all heard about the Olympics in London in 1948,” he said, comparing the gold medal Maurice won at the British Empire games to not winning one at the Olympics.
And even if a lot less amateur wrestlers are turning pro than 40 or 50 years ago, the fact that wrestling will still be part of the Olympics can only be a good thing.
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