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High-school wrestling on ascent thanks to MMA, grassroots groups

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Travis Mann, a lieutenant colonel in the Arkansas Army National Guard stationed in Germany, wrangled a 48-hour pass for the last weekend in February. He hopped a 12-hour flight to Atlanta and then a connection to his hometown, Little Rock, Ark.

He spent most of his brief time in Little Rock in the Jack Stephens Center. There he watched his son Tanner pin his way through the 130-pound bracket to win the Arkansas state wrestling championship, his third consecutive crown.

A few matches later, the colonel watched another of his sons, Tyler, wrestle in the 145-pound final against an opponent who had defeated him twice previously during the season. Trailing 3-1, Tyler, a freshman, emerged from a scramble with a dramatic reversal to tie the score with 11 seconds left in the match.

In overtime, Tyler converted a double-leg takedown to win the match, 5-3. Tyler pointed to his father in the stands, a scream poured from his mouth, and he jumped into his brother's arms. In the tunnel beneath the stadium, Travis Mann hugged his wife, Kristi, and their sons before flying back to Europe.

"It gave me a lot of confidence that my dad was just there," Tyler said. "It was good to win the state title for him."

This scene of family togetherness and triumph wouldn't have been possible without a man named Greg Hatcher, a Little Rock insurance agent who over the past six years has sold the entire state of Arkansas on wrestling.

In Arkansas and elsewhere in the United States, especially in big cities such as New York and Chicago, wrestling is growing. The number of high school wrestlers stands at its highest point since the 1979-80 season, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations' data. The number of high school wrestling participants grew in each of the past six years, jumping to 272,890 in the 2009-200 season, a 14.3 percent gain over the 2003-04 season.

USA Wrestling, the governing body for the sport in the U.S., credits grassroots organizations, such as Hatcher's Arkansas Wrestling Association and Beat the Streets in several northern U.S. cities, with restoring growth to wrestling, a sport that has suffered for decades as hundreds of college programs were shut down in the wake of Title IX.

Others, however, say the rise of mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where former wrestlers such as Randy Couture have thrived, has helped raise wrestling's profile.

"I believe wrestling has been elevated to a respected martial arts status that it didn't have before UFC and the sport of MMA," Couture said. "I think you will see two things continue: more high-level collegiate and Olympic wrestlers transition to MMA as their professional outlet and more kids enter scholastic programs as a viable route in martial arts and combative sports."

But many old-school wrestlers, who are proud their sport doesn't include kicking, punching and chokeholds, recoil at being grouped with the UFC. USA Wrestling spokesperson Gary Abbott prefers to emphasize the grassroots groups for the sport's growth spurt. Diplomatically, he said, "Whether mixed martial arts has something to do with it, who knows?"

What is clear is Hatcher's impact on wrestling in Arkansas. When the insurance agent started the Arkansas Wrestling Association in 2005, wrestling was not a sanctioned high-school sport in the state.

Hatcher wrestled in college in Michigan. He moved to Arkansas and started an insurance business in 1990. He is the father of five children, four girls and a boy, and has long been active in organizing youth sports in Arkansas. He's also the chairman for the 2011 Little Rock Marathon.

Despite his children's involvement in soccer, football and other sports, the lack of wrestling in the state nagged at him. "For the first 15 to 20 years (I lived in Arkansas), we had no wrestling here," Hatcher said. "That kind of bummed me out."

Don Schuler, who ran a small wrestling club in the state, encouraged Hatcher to put his organizational and selling skills to work on building youth wrestling in Arkansas. "It's been on my to-do list," Hatcher told Schuler.

That was 2005. Two years later, Hatcher and Schuler had convinced 40 schools to launch varsity wrestling programs. For the 2008-09 season, the Arkansas Activity Association sanctioned wrestling as a varsity sport.

Hatcher sold high-school athletics directors on the sport by offering free wrestling mats, which can cost up to $10,000, to schools who would agree to start a program. He gave athletic directors a week to decide before he offered the mat to another school.

"If you give them an incentive to do something, that works sometimes," Hatcher said, "but I find fear of loss is greater."

Ultimately, Hatcher wanted the sport to do more than exist; he wanted to give kids an opportunity to excel. So when Pat Smith left his assistant coaching position at Oklahoma State University in 2006, Hatcher approached the four-time NCAA individual wrestling national champion about starting a wrestling academy in Little Rock.

At first, Smith resisted. "No way do I want to do something like that," Smith recalled telling himself. "There's no wrestling in the whole state of Arkansas."

But Hatcher's sales skills worked again. "This guy motivated me," Smith said. "I saw his passion and his dedication."

When Smith joined Hatcher's Arkansas Wrestling Academy in 2006, there were just four students working on moves. Now there are 75 regularly working out on the mats, Smith said. He agrees that MMA has helped raise wrestling's profile. "The majority of the kids who come into my room are MMA fans," he said. "They tell me who they watched the night before on TV."

Tanner and Tyler Mann, as well as the youngest Mann brother, Tucker, take lessons from Smith. Tanner is being recruited to wrestle at the U.S. Military Academy.

Kristi Mann is grateful to Hatcher for bringing wrestling to Arkansas. When Tanner won his first state championship at 119 pounds in 2009, Kristi sought out Hatcher after her son's victory. "I told him, 'This 119-pound boy, this smile on his face and this win are because of you.' I give him all the credit," Kristi said.

New York City wrestling has been a step ahead of Arkansas. At least schools in the city's Public School Athletic League have had varsity wrestling programs for decades. But public school wrestlers from the city rarely have had much success. In the history of New York's state tournament, no wrestler from New York's Public School Athletic League had ever won an individual state championship.

"Wrestling just doesn't have a culture in New York City," said Steve Flanagan, wrestling coach at Wingate High School in Brooklyn.

Beat the Streets is trying to change that. A few years before its official founding in 2006, the organization started working toward its goal to elevate New York City wrestling. When Beat the Streets got started, the PSAL had a total of about 20 high schools with wrestling programs. Now there are 62, the group says.

Beat the Streets has also helped launch about 60 middle school wrestling programs. Although strength and speed come in handy, wrestling is a technique sport. If city kids begin learning moves as high school freshmen, they're often several years behind suburban and upstate wrestlers, who started the sport in grade school.

Bill Crum, Beat the Streets' chief operating officer, said improvement could be seen in the performance of city wrestlers at this year's New York state wrestling tournament in late February. "The bad news is we lost a lot of close matches," Crum said. "The good new is we were in a lot of close matches. We said when we started this seven or eight years ago, it would take 10 years to really have an impact, and that's holding true."

Like Hatcher's Arkansas Wrestling Association, Beat the Streets operates in part by providing wrestling mats to cash-strapped schools. The organization also uses funds to supply singlets and shoes and underwrites wrestling camp tuition.

Wingate High School started a wrestling team thanks to the largesse of Beat the Streets. Flanagan started as the coach four years ago. "It was hard," he said. "My first year we had three or four girls in the starting lineup."

This year Flanagan had his first two qualifiers for the individual state wrestling tournament: Ahmed Elsayed (135 pounds) and McZiggy Richards (189 pounds). With those championships, the pair qualified for the New York State Federation of Secondary Schools Wrestling Championships, which took place in February.

Elsayed, a junior whose parents came to the U.S. from Sudan about 20 years ago, hopes to wrestle at Brown University. "It's very important to me to represent the city," Elsayed said. "It's one of the reasons I want to place in the state tournament next year. I want to show New York City wrestling has come a long way."

Richards, a junior who immigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean island nation of Saint Vincent two years ago, won one match in the state tournament. He's hopeful about next season. "I want to be a state champion," he said.

Flanagan discovered Richards on the soccer field at Wingate, where he plays goalkeeper. The coach is always searching for ways to attract kids into his wrestling room. One method he uses is promoting wrestling as a foundation for MMA. "Honestly, I'm trying to use it more," the coach said.

In addition to New York City, Beat the Streets has a presence in other Northern cities such as Philadelphia, Cleveland and Detroit. Brian Giffin, who was executive director of Beat The Streets in New York, recently moved to reinvigorate the Beat The Streets program in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools once had a strong wrestling tradition. Between 1937 and 1956, city wrestlers won 36 individual state titles, according to data provided by the Illinois High School Association. In the more than five decades since then, however, only five individual state champs have been public school students from Chicago.

Giffin's plan to improve wrestling in Chicago is to build wrestling feeder programs at public middle schools in the city. He hopes to establish 60 such programs in the next five years.

CPS may not need that much of a nudge to become competitive with the suburban schools. This year, for instance, CPS had four wrestlers place in the individual state tournament: Uplift Community High School's Jameel Carter (119 pounds) and his twin brother Jamal Carter (152 pounds) both finished fourth in 1A; Bowen High School's Dequence Goodman (215 pounds) placed fourth in 2A; and Mather High School's Nikko Liotta (130 pounds) finished fifth in 3A.

The next step is for CPS to have more than a handful of talented wrestlers scattered throughout the city. It is looking to develop deep teams that can stay on the mat with suburban high school powerhouses.

Lane Tech is proving that a city school can compete. The school qualified four individuals for the state tournament this year: Danny Carlson (103 pounds); Johnny McCarthy (112 pounds); Matt Finnegan (125 pounds); and Chase Wilson (160 pounds).

Lane Tech would almost certainly have qualified a fifth wrestler if 152-pound junior Max Schneider, a Junior Olympics judo gold medalist who won one of CPS's rare individual state championships as a sophomore, hadn't been on the sidelines with a shoulder injury for much of the season.

Lane Tech also showed its team strength this year by advancing to the quarterfinals of the dual wrestling state championship. The team lost in the quarterfinals by two points. Winning the match would have guaranteed the school at least a fourth-place medal. "We were disappointed, but we showed we belonged," said Mark Miedona, Lane Tech's head coach.

At the beginning of this season, Lane Tech experienced a deluge of new wrestlers coming out for the squad. About 110 showed up for the first day of practice. Usually, about 70 would-be wrestlers come out for the team.

Miedona speculated that Schneider's state championship might explain the surge. Alan Fried, a former NCAA national wrestling champion at Oklahoma State who occasionally helps out at Lane Tech, offers a different explanation.

"There's more respect for wrestling, and that's from MMA," Fried said, adding: "I wish I was 20 years younger. Wresting used to be perceived as stupid: rolling around on the floor with guys. Not anymore."

Joey Rialmo, a senior at Lane Tech, came out for wrestling in part because of MMA. "I love watching the UFC," he said.

Previously, he had started lessons in jiu jitsu, a martial art important to many UFC fighters. One day his uncle pointed out that Rialmo was spending money on jiu jitsu when he could fight all he wanted for free in the wrestling room at Lane Tech.

Taking his uncle's advice, Rialmo finally joined the Lane Tech wrestling team. He became a starter at 140 pounds and fell one match short of qualifying for this year's state tournament.

Rialmo, however, didn't miss the state tournament. He traveled with his teammates to Champaign, Ill., in February. They sat in the upper deck of Assembly Hall, where they watched the Jumbotron video, a short presentation celebrating wrestling that the Illinois High School Association has traditionally shown before the finals.

Rialmo and his teammates loved this year's video, in part because it featured UFC fighter Clay Guida. But that didn't mean everybody was enamored with the video, which became a lightning rod in the sometimes uneasy relationship between wrestling and mixed martial arts.

Guida, a former high school wrestler in Illinois, stepped in to pay for the Jumbotron video's production after he heard that the IHSA wasn't going to fund it this year. Guida is a connoisseur of IHSA jumbotron videos. "I watch the one from 2007 after the weigh-in the night before my fights," he said. "The video gets me superjacked and pumped up."

This year's Jumbotron video, produced in less than one week's time, showcased Guida discussing how his experiences as a high-school wrestler had prepared him for life -- and for his career as a UFC fighter.

Controversy boiled the surface shortly after the video played to the more than 10,000 people gathered in Assembly Hall to watch the finals. On an Illinois wrestling chat room, many posters complained about the big-screen presentation.

One called it an "abomination" and laid out his objections to linking wrestling and MMA: "Wrestling is the opposite of MMA. If you learn how to wrestle well enough, then you'll never have to fight. You can subdue someone without the need for violence. Wrestling is a peaceful sport. We're embarrassed for those MMA people and don't want our kids to see the great sport of wrestling as some sort of steppingstone to street thuggery."

Addressing the controversy, Guida said he has nothing but respect for wrestling. "I've heard of bunch of people say, 'Clay, the only reason wrestling is still around is because of the UFC and mixed martial arts,'" Guida said. "I say it's the exact opposite: Without wrestling, there would be no UFC."

UFC president Dana White is puzzled why more in the wrestling world don't work with mixed-martial-arts organizations. "It's weird," he said. "It's not only weird, it's really stupid. If you're in wrestling, you have to an absolute moron not to embrace mixed martial arts. We're the reason wrestling is going to survive and hopefully thrive in the future."

Then White added one more piece of evidence, a personal one, to show that MMA was introducing kids to wrestling. "Look, I have two boys, 8 and 9 years old. I just put them in a wrestling program," he said. "Now I live in Las Vegas. I don't live in Iowa. I wouldn't have put them in a wrestling program if it wasn't for mixed martial arts."