Ever since the debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championship on pay-per-view, grappling martial arts have received a major boon in popularity. No longer does boxing and cinematic kung-fu dominate the American public’s perception of unarmed combat as they had for years. When people think of fighting nowadays, takedowns and chokeholds are almost as likely to come to mind as punches and kicks. Grappling has shoehorned itself into our combative consciousness.
And yet, despite the fact that more people are studying arts like BJJ than ever, grappling as a spectator sport does not look like it’s going to take off any time soon. MMA is strictly the only venue where people will pay to see men apply armbars and heel hooks on one another. The viewing audience for pure wrestling, sans punches and kicks, seems to be limited to what can fit in a high school gymnasium. This is interesting considering that, traditionally, wrestling was amongst the most popular sports in both America and the world as a whole. Many moons ago, the popularity of legitimate professional wrestling actually rivaled that of baseball. Following the expansion of the theatrical style of worked wrestling matches, however, public interest in scientific wrestling tapered off and never really recovered.
Could legitimate grappling contests ever regain any kind of public recognition in this country? People have tried to bring it back before. Real Pro Wrestling, a Tennessee based promotion, was formed to bring amateur wrestling back into the public eye. For two seasons, it broadcast wrestling contests on ION Television before the company eventually folded in 2007. It would seem, especially in this day and age where both MMA and theatrical wrestling dominate the airwaves, that scientific wrestling does not have much of a chance at making a comeback.
Nothing is impossible, however. After examining the success of other combat sports, as well as theatrical pro wrestling, I’ve come up with a list of ideas that I believe would need to be implemented in order for pure scientific wrestling to have a shot at becoming popular again:
– To start off with, it must be stressed that grappling is, in fact, combat. Heavy emphasis should be put on the fact that all grappling styles are martial arts, even American wrestling. There are several ways to facilitate this. First off, regardless of whatever rule set is ultimately used, the matches should take place inside of a ring. People associate rings with fighting, as both boxing and professional wrestling takes place inside a ring. Rings are also more glamorous than traditional wrestling mats, which have an amateurish feel to them (To prevent grapplers from tumbling out, it would likely be a good idea to line the bottom rope with a net, as they did in Vale Tudo).
Secondly, more militarized and interesting terminology should be used to describe techniques. For example, instead of rear naked choke, announcers could use the law enforcement term for the hold: Lateral vascular restraint. If not that, then perhaps the widely known sleeper hold. Not only will this make grappling seem less like a sport and more like fighting, but it will also pique the interest of new fans and make them want to know how the techniques work.
Finally, Human Weapon style self-defense instructionals could be included in the hypothetical grappling program along with competitive bouts. It must be made known that grappling can be used as a means to protect oneself.
– I think neither ordinary amateur wrestling nor submission grappling rules would be most effective at capturing the public’s interest. The rule set should allow for the entire gamut of grappling styles to compete, from Sumo to BJJ. Taking a cue from Catch Wresting and Judo, a grappler should be able to win by both submission and three-count pinfall. The addition of pinfalls, I believe, would both help enable more crowd pleasing action and give grappler from non-submission styles a more even plane to compete on.
– Stylistic and cultural clashes should be encouraged. A promoter of this hypothetical grappling promotion would find it in his best interest to emphasize the international scope of the sport. Fighters from exotic and esoteric styles (Pehlwani, Glima) should be brought in to contrast with fighters who use more conventional styles. Grapplers should also be allowed to wear the traditional attire of their style, even if the different uniforms change the dynamics of the match (Such as gis). Taking a cue from pro wrestling and Pancrase, vibrant colors should be encouraged to catch the eyes of potential spectators.
– The point system should be simple as possible to insure the uninitiated have no trouble keeping track of what’s going on. Catch wrestling utilizes a twelve-minute time limit with no scoring system, so the only possible outcomes of a match are pinfall, submission, or draw. With a system like that, there wouldn’t be a risk of new fans being distracted by how fighters are supposed to earn points. The trade off is that a lot of matches would have the potential of going the distance with no decisive winner being declared.
A rope escape points system similar to Pancrase and pro wrestling might also be something to consider. Fighters would have a set number of points in the beginning and would lose one each time they grab the rope to escape a submission or pin. There’s a lot of bullshit that could come with this one, however: Accidental rope grabs, and fighters risking serious injury trying to grab the rope instead of tapping.
– It’s ok to get creative with the competition format if it helps getting people to watch. David vs. Goliath and tag team matches are two good possibilities. Open weight brackets, after all, are a staple of grappling tournaments. Hook N’Shoot also used to hold tag team submission grappling matches, so it’s not a completely novel idea.
– Well known names from the MMA and pro wrestling world could be brought in to attract attention. The primary focus, however, should be put on young up-and-coming grapplers. For an organization in any combat sport to be successful, it needs homegrown stars that people would identify the promotion with.
Now that I’ve laid out all these ideas, I take it you’ll probably want to ask me this: Is it even necessary for scientific wrestling to make a comeback? What would be the point in this day and age when MMA training is so widely available? Well, there are several reasons why I think wrestling’s resurgence would be a positive thing, both for the sport itself and the martial arts community as a whole. Despite MMA’s booming popularity, wrestling programs are still being cut in high schools and colleges all across the country. If more kids were interested in learning the art of wrestling, these programs would be able to stay afloat and keep offering young people competent martial arts training as well as scholarships for college. Along with this, a professional venue for scientific wrestling would give martial artists who are solely interested in the art of grappling another means to make a living besides teaching. Despite MMA’s success, boxing and kickboxing are still popular worldwide. Why shouldn’t grappling also get that kind of recognition?