High-school wrestling on ascent thanks to MMA, grassroots groups
Popularity of wrestling is on rise thanks to both MMA and grassroots organizations
One insurance agent nearly singlehandedly sold Arkansas schools on the sport
Some purists resent the MMA/wrestling connection, but UFC influence is undeniable
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.