The 30th Olympic Games of the modern era will get underway in in ten days time and athletes from all over the world are descending upon London hoping to secure an achievement steeped in centuries of history by placing on the most prestigious of podiums.
Pankration is perhaps the earliest form of MMA style competition and was introduced to the ancient Olympics at around 500 BC. It combined the sports of boxing and wrestling and also incorporated certain locks and holds some of which would be familiar to modern Jiu Jitsu practitioners.
Considering that a primitive form of MMA was incorporated into the original Olympics introducing the sport again could arguably represent a return to the roots of the competition which was first founded approximately 21 centuries ago.
However despite its historical significance the campaign to have MMA introduced to the Olympic Games has hardly even got off the ground. There are plenty of potential obstacles, the Olympics can only incorporate a limited number of sports and the practicalities of having to potentially break lucrative promotional contracts might deter fighters from entering a competition more renowned for prestige than remuneration.
There are still strong links between the Olympics and MMA with a number of athletes making the transition. Bellator champion Ben Askren competed in wrestling, as did Kamal Shalorus, Daniel Cormier and Dan Henderson, while Ronda Rousey and Satoshi Ishii both represented their countries at Judo in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with the American taking home the bronze medal and the Japanese heavyweight walking away with gold.
Another Olympian, Heath Sims, is currently the head of the wresting program at one of the most renowned mixed martial arts academies in the world, Evolve MMA. The facility has a reputation as being the best in Asia and he works regularly with elite fighters such as Shinya Aoki, Rafael Dos Anjos, Zorobabel Moreira and Eddie Ng.
Sims competed at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and overcame a series of setbacks including a serious back injury to beat the odds and qualify for that competition. With a decade's experience of competing exclusively in wrestling and another decade's experience of coaching and competing in MMA he is the perfect person to discuss the differences and similarities between the two contrasting competition formats.
How does preparing and competing in the Olympics compare to professional MMA?
The physical preparation for wrestling and MMA is very similar. Conditioning is a top priority for both. The main difference in wrestling is a shorter intense sprint of up to six minutes while MMA is 15-25 minutes so wrestlers need to learn how to slow the pace slightly for MMA. Both sports require weight cutting and wrestlers have much experience cutting weight as it is normal from a young age.
Mental preparation is very similar for both sports. Athletes need to develop confidence in their technique, conditioning level, and build mental toughness. Much of the physical preparations are very similar. The major difference is MMA requires a much more wide variety of technique. Fighters have to perfect Muay Thai, wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, and boxing. Then they have to figure out how all aspects work together. Fighters also may have multiple coaches that all have to work together in the training and development of a fighter. Wrestling preparation requires much more repetition of the same technique. Wrestlers know their opponents very well and there are not usually any surprises as to what they will do.
How much more pressure does a competition like the Olympics put on an athlete knowing that the opportunity only comes around once every four years?
The pressure at the Olympic games is intense! Wrestlers train their entire lives to earn the right to be at the biggest stage in sports. The media coverage can be overwhelming if a wrestler is not prepared correctly on how to handle the media and cameras but the Olympic Committee does a fantastic job of preparing the athletes with extensive media training months before the event.
How did the arena you competed in at the Olympics compare to the arenas you used to fight MMA in, what were the main differences?
The venue for Olympic wrestling seated a few thousand spectators. Many of the major wrestling venues are similar. Wrestlers get comfortable competing in front of a crowd at a young age at the major events. This helps prepare them mentally when they transition into MMA.
Why do you think wrestlers have been so successful in MMA?
Wrestlers can have success in MMA in much less time than fighters who come from other disciplines because the competitive similarities speed the learning curve for wrestlers. They have learned how to compete and prepare for major competitions over years of tournaments and hundreds if not thousands of matches. Wrestlers know how to learn technique and apply it in live situations very quickly. Once a wrestler is in the right environment for training with good coaches and partners their learning curve skyrockets!
Has MMA had much of an effect on wrestling? Do you think young wrestlers now aspire to be MMA fighters?
Wrestlers now look at MMA at the next logical step in their athletic career. Wrestlers struggle financially throughout their wrestling careers but now they have an avenue to make a very good living with very little changes to their training lifestyle. MMA has also in turn validated the effectiveness of wrestling. I am not sure if that has translated into growing the sport or not but if has definitely brought attention to it.
Have you noticed much difference between the sort of MMA fights you have seen in Asia, where most fighters don't have a wrestling base, and the fights you used to see in the US where wrestling is much more predominant?
I do not see much difference in the fights. We see many takedowns, submissions and knockouts in Asia. The only thing you don't see as much is a pure wrestler who has not learned Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu who goes out and fights with only wrestling knowledge.
What do the US Olympic wrestlers get in terms of financial support, are they able to make a living out of the sport?
The financial support for wrestling is limited. There are wrestling clubs that help support the athletes and the National Governing Body (USA Wrestling) that supports the top wrestlers. Some wrestlers enter the military just so they can train full time and earn a salary with benefits.
Could you see MMA ever becoming an Olympic sport?
I do not see MMA as a Olympic sport. The nature of the sport does not allow for a short term tournament type format. There are also many other requirements for a sport to be accepted that MMA is not even close to fulfilling.
Will you be watching the London Olympics and are you expecting the US wrestling team to win many medals?
I will be watching. Now with the streaming of the events it allows for much more coverage and I believe every match will be available live streaming. The US team should win some medals but there are always a few surprises seeing who rises to the occasion and becomes an Olympic medallist.
What was the experience of living in the Olympic village like? Is it true that as soon as they are done competing everyone parties really hard?
Yes of course everyone celebrates, parties, and enjoys the events. Living in the village is what you make of it. I found most people wanted to leave and spend time in the city. The entire city of London will be a big party with people from all around the world celebrating and enjoying the events and festivities.