Monday February 5th. 2024

I’ve often pondered why wrestling doesn’t seem to be a huge sell in some areas of the world. I could cite that more often than not it’s cultural and that maybe certain areas just aren’t suited for wrestling, but that argument doesn’t hold water when we talk about the rise in popularity of Brazilian Jujitsu or BJJ around the world as well as here in Quebec. The sport has such a following to the point where the ban on BJJ competitions in the province was enough to make the CBC news. Added to that fact that if you go around the world, nearly every culture has some form of traditional combat that either incorporates facets of wrestling, or is another form of wrestling altogether, would imply that wrestling has roots in all forms of combat and therefore should have a universal appeal.

If we look at another similar sport, judo, who’s popularity worldwide cannot be understated as well as its popularity in this province (not hard to argue with, given its ancient history as well as the fact that it’s very much practiced in France), then it’s very hard to imagine why wrestling is not more popular.

So why has wrestling failed to attract the same following? We have just as much history as Judo. We’re not more violent than BJJ. And like Judo, we’re an Olympic sport. Added to the fact that wrestling is both featured in Division 1 University Sports in both Canada and the United States while Judo or BJJ isn’t, leaves me pondering as to why we’re not a much bigger sport at home and in other parts of the world. With the rise of Mixed Martial Arts, as well as the importance related to the sport, it’s surprising that wrestling hasn’t had more of an increase in popularity, especially in this province where a certain home-grown celebrity used wrestling to great effect during his UFC career.

George St-Pierre showed the world how important wrestling was as he used it to great effect in a dominant UFC career

This got me thinking about the mysticism surround “traditional” martial arts. Traditional martial arts involves a lot of ceremony. From the bowing, to the forms and finally, to the belt system, all of this is entrenched in traditions that have been around since the founding of the given philosophy and practices associated with that particular martial art.

The belt system in particular holds a certain degree of ingrained respect when mentioned in conjunction with martial arts. After all, when someone says that they’re a black belt at any martial art, we perk up a bit as that term has gravitas. While certain disciplines require many years and many trials to obtain a black belt, expert wrestlers are merely distinguished by the medals that they hold. With competitive martial arts, they too can get medals as well which makes winning a medal in wrestling not as unique. Added to the fact that many wrestlers fall short of winning medals at the world and international level, this does not mean that they shouldn’t be considered masters of their craft as well.

Though I’m a casual practitioner at best, it was an honour to receive my purple belt from my Sensei John Bossi and the Carlson Gracie Junior Team of Montreal

This got me thinking; what if wrestling had a belt ranking system? I could definitely see some positive aspects if the sport were to adopt this. For one, it would split up many tournaments where the only category is age, weight and gender. It would also allow older athletes to join the sport without the barrier of entry being so high. And finally, it may gave us that same allure as the traditional martial arts.

This is all fine and good on paper, but I can already see some problems that would arise from this. First, a system of testing would have to be put in place in order to insure standardized promotion for everyone. Where would we begin with this as many teams around the world have their own way of executing certain techniques? What type of benchmark would we use and how could it be enforced?

In traditional martial arts, the term McDojo has often been used to describe charlatans schools who peddle either an unearned black belt that has either come from dubious origins or has mass produced their generic teachings to the point as to have less value. These McDojos often have lower standards and taint the pool of actual martial artists who have earned their accolades through years of study and practice. Wrestling is no stranger to this as we see many people in the sport claim accolades for things they haven’t done, or have inflated the importance of things they’ve actually accomplished. In a pre-internet society, this was all too common for people to do as the ability to verify this would be difficult at best. Finally, the damage that could be inflicted by these charlatans can’t be understated as they tarnish the core principles of sport and martial arts as a whole.

With so many schools and thoughts of Martial Arts, it’s hard to know which ones are legitimate and which ones aren’t

The point I’m trying to make is that ultimately wrestling has to evolve if we’re to continue to grow and thrive. Though we may look to new ways to popularize the sport, going the more traditional way by implementing a belt system may offer a solution, despite the inherent problems it may bring. Finally, it may just boil down to the fact that wrestling will always be a niche sport, particularly in some areas of the world and the fight to make us mainstream and relevant may just be a pipe dream. Only time will tell where we go moving forward.