I’m standing on the main concourse inside Madison Square Garden listening to Mike Malinconico explain the rules of wrestling when a kid no older than 12 walks by in a T-shirt that reads, “God. Wrestling. What else is there?” Maybe that sentiment is commonplace in the Midwest, where college wrestling is a holy and sanctified thing, but here in Manhattan it seems a bit out of place. Or maybe I’m just out of place, and it’s the 14 college wrestling teams and the nine thousand spectators who are at home.
I’ve been to nearly every kind of combat sports event out there, from Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments in cavernous gymnasiums and MMA shows in casino ballrooms in Las Vegas to amateur boxing matches in drab Police Athletic League buildings in the Bronx. But I’ve never been to an amateur wrestling meet before, despite the fact that the sport is arguably the most important component of mixed martial arts.
“College wrestling has become like triple-A ball for MMA,” Malinconico tells me, and he’s right. From UFC legends Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, and Matt Hughes to the indomitable Dan Henderson and current UFC light heavyweight Jon “Bones” Jones, some of MMA’s brightest stars got their start wearing wrestling shoes and singlets. Malinconico, a former wrestling coach at Okalahoma State and Syracuse, should know. He runs the famous Rhino wrestling club in New Jersey, and his 24-hour lock-in sessions (think sleep deprivation plus hourly workout sessions for an entire day – the perfect hell for the wrestling aficionado) are all the rage.
I make my way down to the floor of the arena to see the action firsthand. There are eight mats laid out, and on the back of my press pass is a list of the team match-ups. But I know nothing of the dramas attached to each. Iowa versus Hofstra on mat four? Cornell versus Missouri on mat six? It might as well be the Jets versus the Sharks.
“We’ve got a lot going on at 141 pounds … it’s Hofstra and Iowa!” one of the announcers bellows over the loudspeakers, but he’s cut off by another announcer, this one quite possibly sharing the DNA coding of a carnival barker. “I’ll tell you folks, the match-up on mat number six – that match is worth the price of admission!” he shouts. “Number seven-ranked Missouri, number eight-ranked Cornell – it’s a battle! Now wrestling on mat number five, Ian Paddock of Ohio State with a seven to zero lead over Danny O’Malley of Maryland! Seven to zero, Ian Paddock!”
I run into Frankie Edgar, the former UFC lightweight champ who’ll be fighting for the featherweight belt in February. In a past life, Edgar wrestled for Clarion University and was an assistant coach at Rutgers University. He’s here to cheer on the latter.
I ask Edgar to compare his time wrestling with his time in mixed martial arts. “It’s different,” he says with a smile. “I mean, the biggest thing is that in MMA, I could fight three times in a year, while in wrestling it’s three times in a day. Of course, it’s a different sport: Mixed martial arts has got punching and everything. But the mental and physical preparation is tough for both.”
So why isn't amateur wrestling as popular as mixed martial arts; why are there UFC pay-per-view events filled with giant stars but nothing comparable for the sport that’s practiced far more widely throughout the country.
“Well, it’s hard for people to understand what’s going on because you’ve got to know the rules – what the moves are, how things are scored,” he says. “A fight, though, a fight is just a fight. Everyone understands that.” He shrugs.
Does he ever long for the days when it was all about putting on wrestling shoes and turning the corner on his takedowns, before the striking and the jiu-jitsu and the lights and the TV cameras? Edgar looks at the crowd and the controlled chaos all around. “I miss it,” says the former MMA champ. “I definitely miss it.”