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MMA heads hopeful Olympics lockout will end

2016-08-14 02:38
Conor McGregor (Getty Images)

Rio de Janeiro - The sight would send Brazilian fans into a frenzy: Jose Aldo landing knees to the chin and kicks to the head in an Olympic fight.

Aldo could bathe in the glory from his home country - fans swarming him in celebration after a medal is placed around his neck.

But mixed martial arts (MMA) is still angling for an Olympic home even though it's a worldwide hit and the components of the sport are already etched into the games elsewhere.

The submissions of judo, the strikes of boxing and taekwondo, and strategy of wrestling are summer staples, and karate is on the way to Tokyo in 2020.

Top promotions are filled with stars from around the world like Conor McGregor of Ireland and Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland. Several fighters have even been Olympians, like UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and Ronda Rousey, the sport's biggest crossover superstar and a judo bronze medallist in 2008.

Despite that backdrop, MMA has been locked out of medal competition amid concerns similar to those held by US states that once banned the sport.

It's violent. Bloody. Unsafe.

Densign White, chief executive of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), said the sport's universal appeal should make it attractive enough to International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials to make it an official sport in 2024, though 2028 seems more realistic.

White concedes even 12 years could be a stretch as the organisation treads through the political minefield of convincing an old guard of decision makers that MMA is not only good for the games, it's good for business.

"It's the politicians that don't understand the sport," White said. "We've been trying to get France to accept MMA and the politicians there say if we get rid of ground and pound, then we'll allow the sport to take place. Ground and pound is what they find really objectionable."

No ground and pound? They may as well get of rid of dunking in basketball.

Still, there's no doubt MMA would look strikingly different in a condensed Olympics setting than the format fans know well from spending $60 (R673) to watch UFC's pay-per-view cards.

"I think there's a place for it. I just don't know that the physical makeup of mixed martial arts will allow it," UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier said. "Look at boxing. It's three or four fights but it's 10-ounce gloves. We only get four (ounce gloves - R113g). It could work, but we'd have to make some pretty significant changes."

The mixed martial arts federation has a plan it believes would work:

- 32 athletes per class.

- Fights would be three rounds of 3 minutes each (down from 5 minutes each in UFC).

- Fighters would wear shin guards and 7-ounce (198g) amateur gloves.

- Fighters would be limited to one bout a day, with the entire tournament finished over four or five days.

- The use of elbows, knees to the head, heel hooks or pressure on the spine would be prohibited.

At the 2016 IMMAF World Championships, the organisation said there were only seven injury byes out of 210 participants in 13 weight categories and 190 matches.

"There is some blowback but I think people's minds can be changed," White said. "They have to realise that amateur MMA is not the same as professional MMA. ... It's not as violent. There's less blood."

That could mean fewer eyeballs.

The UFC already boasts of broadcasts in over 129 countries and territories in 28 different languages, making some fighters wildly famous around the globe.

Still, UFC would certainly get a major boost with some of its brightest stars fighting in front of casual fans. It's easy to imagine a tournament loaded with so many stud fighters that UFC 202 would seem like prelim bouts on Fight Pass.

UFC President Dana White would prefer to see professionals fight instead of amateurs.

"I'm not a fan of the amateurs," Dana White said. "The only thing that makes them an amateur is like two moves are taken away. I don't recognize amateur fights."

UFC, by far the dominant MMA promotion, has not ruled out making a harder push to help get the sport into the Summer Games.

"It takes a lot of money, time and hard work and we haven't done that on the Olympic side," Dana White said. "If it was a full-time focus for us like everything else we've done, we'd get it done."

White also knows the next big UFC star could be competing somewhere in Rio de Janeiro.

Beyond Rousey and Cormier, Sara McCann and Dan Henderson are among the fighters who made the transition from the Olympics to the octagon.

The question that dogged boxers for years at the Olympics has shifted toward medal winners in judo, boxing, and the other combat sports: chase more medals or start going for title belts?

Kayla Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medallist judoka, worked as a training partner with Rousey during the Beijing Games and the two have remained tight.

The UFC superstar even gave Harrison contacts if she wanted to pursue an MMA career. Harrison said she would consider an MMA career because it comes with perks that amateurism can't match.

"It potentially could be very lucrative for me," she said.

American boxer Mikaela Mayer, who won her first bout Friday, considered MMA before she found boxing. But it's on hold for now even though she knows winning big in Rio could brighten her prospects.

"There's so much in amateur boxing that I haven't accomplished, so much more that I still want to accomplish, that I wouldn't even consider doing an MMA fight," she said. "I need to build my own sport, and I feel a responsibility to do that, almost, because we are pioneers of this sport."

The IMMAF won't give up, either. It has started the often convoluted process to be recognized under the umbrella of both the World Anti-Doping Agency and SportAccord.

Up next, approval from the International Olympic Committee. UFC 500 could be closer on the calendar than a date on the games.

"We can't say we'll never get there," Densign White said. "This might take 20 years, but we're going to get there."

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