When you live inside the mixed martial arts bubble, the summer Olympics becomes an every-four-years visit to foreign corners of the combat sports world. There’s a recognizable motion and dynamism on the TV screen when you watch the double-leg takedowns of freestyle wrestlers, the right crosses of boxers, the armbars that judoka use during all-too-brief tumbles on the ground, or any of the other component parts of MMA transplanted to a different, worldlier context. (Another familiar MMA-related sight: Former Team Quest standout and 2000 Olympic silver medalist Matt Lindland is head coach of the US Greco-Roman wrestling team this year.) But each sport contains its own culture, governed by rules that range from complex to inscrutable, at least to the illiterate among us.
Yesterday, 25-year-old, 75-kilogram Roman Vlasov of Russia won his second straight Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, beating Mark Madsen of Denmark 5-1 in the tournament final. But Vlasov's semifinal victory against Bozo Starcevic, a Croatian whose name sounds like an Eastern Bloc villain from a Cold War-era comedy, produced the tournament's most memorable moment. Down 6-0 at the end of the first period and with Vlasov controlling him, Starcevic wrapped an arm around Vlasov’s head and cupped his chin, squeezed hard, shuffled his hips away, then reversed Vlasov onto his back.
What might have looked like a head pinch to wrestling purists became, with the benefit of hindsight and replay, the favorite fight ender of Renzo Gracie seminar attendees everywhere: an arm-in guillotine choke. When the camera caught a glimpse of the face of Vlasov after the reversal, he looked like a crash-test dummy, all vacant eyes and lifeless limbs lying supine on the mat as the referee called a halt.
Watch the video here.
Chokes of all kinds are definitely not okay in Greco-Roman, and yet the ref awarded Starcevic two points for the illegal maneuver. Ben Askren, ONE FC welterweight champion and a member of the 2008 men's freestyle Olympic team who may or may not have been watching Vlasov-Starcevic while in a house of worship, chimed in on Twitter to voice his displeasure.
The debacle on the mat forced Vlasov to soldier on like everything was fine, despite having to regain both his composure and his consciousness between periods. Those points dubiously awarded to Starcevic didn't matter when Vlasov won 6-3 a few minutes later. Still, the casual-viewing punditocracy that lives in YouTube comment sections couldn't let go of the absurdity of an athlete winning a gold medal despite passing out before he reached the podium.
At least part of that is the cultural intrusion of mixed martial arts. Even if you've only seen MMA in passing, you've become accustomed to the sort of finality that's easy to observe, and watching a fighter go limp from a choke is a far more obvious conclusion that one that involves arcane moves and counting points. But consider how Starcevic was able to secure the choke with his legs in such a poor position: Vlasov was concerned with gluing his shoulder blades to the mat, not hopping his hips over and attacking an arm or cutting off his oxygen. But why let the rules get in the way of being snarky? We won't be back here for another four years anyway.
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