Along the banks of the River Thames in East London, ExCeL Exhibition Centre is the largest competition venue of the 2012 Summer Olympics with five separate arenas. It might as well be known as the capital of Olympic combat sports. There’s wrestling in one arena, judo in another, boxing in a third and taekwondo in a fourth.
The only combat sport that isn’t housed inside here, it seems, is the one combat sport that America and, increasingly, the rest of the world actually cares most about.
That’s because mixed martial arts, which many call the world’s fastest-growing sport, has exploded so quickly since its founding with UFC 1 in 1993 that the slow-moving Olympic movement simply hasn’t caught up.
Even boisterous UFC president Dana White, who was busy preparing for yet another of his extravagant events — UFC on FOX: Shogun vs. Vera on Saturday night in Los Angeles — sees the absurdity of MMA not being in the Olympics while team handball, synchronized diving and table tennis are.
“All the disciplines used in MMA are already in the Olympics,” White told FOXSports.com.
It is, admittedly, an American-centric point of view, that this sport founded in the US and spreading throughout the world ought to ascend to the Olympics in a flash. But in 2012, the UFC, the world’s top mixed martial arts promotion, has hosted events in Brazil, Japan, Australia, Canada and Sweden. Later this year comes an event in England and the first UFC event in China, the world’s most populous country. The case is already being made on a worldwide level that mixed martial arts could be an Olympic sport as early as 2020.
The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation was formed earlier this year and already has 12 member countries and 60 more that have applied. The fledgling organization has a delegation in London that’s lobbying International Olympic Committee officials to consider including the sport.
“MMA is a true sport with athletes who train incredibly hard,” August Whallen, the president of the Sweden-based federation, told FOXSports.com. “Not only would the sport itself greatly benefit from being part of the Olympic program, the Olympics would also benefit from MMA and the young demographic it brings.”
The federation has an outline of how it could work as an amateur sport in the Olympic framework. Qualifying rounds in the year leading up to the Olympics would lead to a 16-athlete elimination tournament in each weight class for a maximum of four fights per athlete — a huge number in a sport that typically has months between fights. The Olympic version of the sport would have fewer allowed techniques — a more toned-down violence than the UFC — and a different type of scoring system.
“To get into the Olympics we have to have at least 50 countries that are doing it,” Marc Ratner, the UFC’s vice president of regulatory affairs, told FOXSports.com. “We’re talking a long-range plan that’s not happening overnight. It’s not going to happen for a while, but the pieces are being put in place.”
Ultimately, as much as the Olympics trumpets amateurism, the games are a giant worldwide business. And mixed martial arts has become more popular than many of the sports already in the Olympic stable. It would be bad business to keep it out.
And if we can go back to the American-centric part for just a minute: Having the sport in the Olympics would be a boon for the UFC.
“You take a bunch of amateur fighters, you go to the Olympics, you win the Olympics, and you’ll be a coveted fighter in the pros,” said Jay Glazer, a UFC commentator for FOX. “I hope the sport is heading that way. There’d be a lot more popularity from fans than there are some of other sports we’re talking about, not just in America but in the world. It’d be great for guys who are not in the UFC yet. It’s a logical next step.”