For years the assumption has been that as the popularity and economic possibilities of MMA grow, more and more amateur wrestlers will move to the sport. Following the success of early adopters like Dan Henderson and Mark Coleman it seemed only natural that Olympians like Daniel Cormier, Sarah McMann, and Henry Cejudo, who in decades past would have had to settle for jobs as coaches or given up the sport entirely after their collegiate or Olympic careers were over, would be the vanguard of a new wave of high-caliber wrestlers seeking gainful employment with their hands.
Yesterday, however, the New York Times reported on a small fund that is rewarding and nurturing America's amateur wrestling with bonuses for big wins that could provide wrestlers with the financial security that would allow them to stay in wrestling for longer and avoid the pitfalls that come with a career where other people get to choke you into unconsciousness.
In 2009 two former collegiate wrestlers-turned-Wall Street tycoons rebooted an already existing fund, calling it the Living the Dream Medal Fund, "for the purpose of allowing the entire wrestling community to participate in celebrating and honoring the hard work" of American wrestling champions. The fund's founders, billionaire investment banker Michael E. Novogratz and real estate developer David Barry, see it as a way to help current wrestlers continue wrestling and motivate others to try the sport, which, let's be honest, can sound to some reasonable people like years of pain and suffering and mind-bending deprivation for very little tangible payoff. The fund awards stipends for medals won at both the wrestling World Championships and the Olympics. Wrestlers who win gold at the World Championships, for example, get $50,000, while Olympic champions get $250,000. Those funds can help offset the almost complete lack of endorsement deals available to Olympic wrestlers, the same kinds of deals that have made swimmer Michael Phelps and sprinter Usain Bolt (among others) multi-millionaires and household names.
"Wrestlers have to cobble enough to live on to train for four or eight years, so winning $250,000 is nice," Novogratz told the Times. "They can use it as nest eggs."
At the 2012 Olympic Games in London two American wrestlers, Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner, won gold medals and the $250,000 that came with it. Novogratz, who wrestled at Princeton, was so excited by their wins that he doubled the prize money for a gold medal defense in Rio, to $500,000. Varner, unfortunately, didn't qualify for this year's games, but Burroughs, who says he was scraping by for years before starting to claim Fund money, will get his chance at real money next week.
Half a million dollars, while still peanuts to a Phelps or a Bolt (to say nothing of professional Olympians like Carmelo Anthony and his fellow NBA stars on the USA Basketball team), is a huge sum in the world of MMA. For a night's work, that's Anderson Silva money and Jon Jones money and now Nate Diaz money. Not quite Conor McGregor money, but superstar money. Which muddies the water a bit when it comes to amateur wrestlers making the decision about moving from the mat to the cage. We all know that no one is tougher than a wrestler, that no one trains harder or works harder or cuts weight harder or generally puts himself through more misery. But even some of the toughest wrestlers in the world think twice when considering a career spent getting punched in the nose. Even Brock Lesnar, who may be the largest human being on record, who had one of the most successful heavyweight runs in the history of collegiate wrestling, who was a UFC heavyweight champion, who fights under the influence of performance-enhancing drugs, and who made much more than $2.5 million for one night's work at UFC 200—even Brock Lesnar hates getting hit.
So while the rewards and temptations of the Living the Dream Medal Fund won't be enough to keep most or even many amateur wrestlers from at least considering the benefits of an MMA career ($25,000 for an Olympic bronze medal won't be changing any lives), it may keep the best of the best away, like Burroughs. Which would be a shame (who wouldn't want to see Burroughs vs. Dagestani wrestling genius Khabib Nurmagomedov in a Cold War-style lightweight brawl?), though a very understandable one. No one likes getting kicked in the face, and $500,000 buys a lot of singlets.