Dan Henderson said Tuesday if it weren’t for wrestling being in the Olympic Games, he might have joined mixed martial arts a little sooner.
But the former Pride and Strikeforce champion — and member of the 1992 and 1996 American Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling teams — also said he wouldn’t trade his Olympic experience for anything.
And he believes it’s unfortunate that wrestling has been removed as an Olympic sport starting with the 2020 Games.
Speaking on a conference call Tuesday for the upcoming UFC 157 card in Anaheim, Calif., when he will take on Lyoto Machida, Henderson expressed disappointment with Tuesday’s surprise decision by the International Olympic Committee to drop wrestling from its set of 25 “core sports.”
“It’s kind of sad that it happens to one of the oldest sports in the Olympics,” said Henderson, who grew up competing in the discipline and was a member of his high school and university teams.
Ronda Rousey, who headlines the Feb. 23 card in the UFC’s first-ever women’s bout when she defends her bantamweight title against Liz Carmouche, is also an Olympian — though in a different combat sport. She became the first American woman to win a medal in judo when she captured a bronze at Beijing 2008.
Rousey, who also shared her thoughts on Tuesday’s call, was even stronger in her opinion on the move by the IOC to drop the original Olympic combat sport — wrestling was part of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens.
“It’s a shame. It’s one of the first Olympic sports and they’re destroying part of their history by getting rid of it,” said Rousey, who added that it’s even more astounding to her considering that golf will be added to the program in 2016.
“If you don’t break a sweat, it’s not a sport, it’s a skill,” Rousey said.
While saddened by the news, Henderson said he wasn’t overly surprised by the decision.
“It’s the sport that’s been there the longest in the Olympics, but I’d been hearing that being threatened and that a possibility for at least 20 years now. Hopefully it doesn’t stay that way.”
Rousey, for her part, was shocked.
“I thought it was a hoax when I heard it,” Rousey said.
The decision was made by a vote by IOC members, and as yet there have not been any reasons offered for its exclusion, leaving people like Henderson and Rousey to speculate.
“I guess it’s not as exciting as other sports and doesn’t get as much TV coverage. It is what it is. It’s definitely not exciting as MMA, but I enjoyed it and I think it’s a tough sport and it’s just sad to see it go,” Henderson said.
Added Rousey: “Maybe because a few countries were overly dominant. That’s kind of why they took softball out.”
While the move cannot be good for the sport as a whole, both don’t believe this will cause wrestling to drop off the face of the earth. In particular, they believe the popularity and growth of MMA will help sustain the sport, not replace it.
“Having MMA around will help preserve wrestling. Because it’s such a good base for MMA, I see a lot of kids coming in and doing it,” added Rousey, which is noteworthy considering her base is judo rather than wrestling.
In fact, when she fought wrestling-based fighter Miesha Tate for the Strikeforce title last March, one of the storylines heading into their bout was which base for MMA was stronger. While Tate was the first person to be able to take Rousey down, she was unable to control the bout and Rousey executed an excellent judo throw and won by armbar — as she has done in all of her professional MMA fights — before the end of the first round.
Wrestling — at least within the confines of a mixed martial arts bout — has also been regularly criticized among MMA circles as being boring, with fans often vocal about wanting to see more striking or submissions. Meanwhile, many have wondered if and when MMA could be included in the Olympics.
The 42-year-old Henderson, who has been fighting professionally since 1997, doesn’t believe the loss of wrestling is a good or bad thing in that regard.
“I don’t think it affects MMA at all. MMA is exciting enough on its own. It definitely has a shot at getting in there.”
NOTES: The UFC confirmed Tuesday that Canadian Alexis Davis of Port Colborne, Ont., and Sara McMann are the latest fighters officially under contract in the women’s bantamweight division, joining Rousey, Carmouche, Tate and Cat Zingano.