Backlash to the IOC's decision to sack wrestling from the Olympic program has resonated throughout the sport's tight-knit community -- from the amateur level all the way to the pros.
A number of WWE superstars who competed as amateurs at the high school and collegiate levels have expressed anger and confusion at Monday's shock announcement.
Dolph Ziggler, who left Kent State in 2003 as the program's all-time leader in wins, was on his way to speak at a high school in Arkansas on Monday morning when he caught wind of the news through social media.
"I've been getting texts all day from my buddies, guys I haven't talked to since high school sending me texts and Facebook messages." said Ziggler, a former WWE World Heavyweight Champion. "It's hitting close to home more than usual. I know it's not 100 percent yet but there are so many Olympic events, it's unfortunate they've chosen a legitimate sport and one of the original sports ever. It's mind-blowing that it's even on the chopping block."
Jack Swagger, who was a two-time All-American at Oklahoma, reacted with a similar sense of disbelief.
"More of an 'Are you kidding me?' type of reaction," he said. "I'm so disgusted by it. I'm fired up."
Swagger, who also went on to hold the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, took the news with a personal sense of grief considering the deep impact the sport has had on his life.
"It's no secret I wasn't the most athletic kid on the playground, but I went into it head over heels even though I wasn't good at it at first," Swagger recalled. "It teaches you so much about life and that's what makes it the best sport. It teaches you discipline and dedication and how to work hard and how to sacrifice for your goals. Those are things you can apply to any area of your life, whether it's your education or your career. Honestly, it turned me into a man."
Cody Rhodes, son of legendary ring veteran Dusty Rhodes, enjoyed a decorated high-school career -- with 101 wins against just two losses -- before passing on scholarship offer from Penn State to turn pro. His reaction could be classified as optimistic denial.
"[It's] extremely disappointing, but I honestly cannot see them going forward with that," said Rhodes, a two-time WWE Intercontinental Champion. "I'm very disappointed with the fact that they're even considering it. This is freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. This has a rich tradition in the Olympics. I don't even want to disparage some of the sports that they're keeping, you just don't do away with wrestling."
Perhaps the most distressing consequence of the decision: it strips a wrestling of a competition that represents the pinnacle of the sport. To what dream will a young grappler aspire in a world that doesn't have wrestling in the Olympics?
"If you're a kid and breaking into that sport and want to improve, they're taking away not only the top level, but also going to cut into the bottom level the junior programs and the kiddies," Rhodes said. "Because, well, if it's not an Olympic sport, people might not think it's something they should take seriously."
All three believe a groundswell movement from within the wrestling community will go a long way toward keeping the sport in the Olympic fold. There's time still. The IOC executive board meets in May to decide which sports to propose for 2020 inclusion -- and wrestling could be voted back in.
"We're known for our work ethic, being eccentric when it comes to that," Swagger said. "We're going to see a huge grassroots program started. I know USA Wrestling has already included a Facebook page. We have so many avenues available to us now where we can reach wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans alike that I really think it's going to take hold just judging from the initial reaction."
Rhodes believes all former and current wrestlers, even those less prone to activism, will be compelled off the sidelines in the fight for wrestling's future.
"I'm not one for sit-ins and major protests," Rhodes said. "They make decisions for whatever reasons they do. But I think they will have an incredible amount of backlash if they go through with it, more than anything they've ever seen."
It was Ziggler who faced those most affected on Monday, when the wrestling team at the high school where he spoke came together and confronted him about the news.
"They were genuinely distraught. I told them it was such a tight-knit community, we'll all come together and at least make our voice heard," he said. "It's just a shame. I love wrestling and I parlayed that into the WWE, but a lot of my teammates, friends and kids that I coached, their ultimate goal is to be an Olympian and represent their country. Throughout amateur wrestling, that's their NFL: that's as big as it gets."
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