Randy Couture remembers the path his life was supposed to follow. He would put his foreign language and literature degree to good use as a high school teacher, and his background as an All-American wrestler to work as a coach.
Those were the days before mixed martial arts, back when something called the “Ultimate Fighting Championship” was only beginning to give birth to an entirely new sport. The former NCAA runner-up at Oklahoma State was content trying out for the Olympics, helping young wrestlers in high school and college, and scraping together enough money for a decent living.
As school wrestling programs are put on chopping blocks across the country, either to reach Title IX compliance or save a few bucks in a down economy, mixed martial arts is providing the centuries-old sport some salvation. Kids interested in professional fighting without access to trainers or gyms are giving it a lift – simply by walking into wrestling rooms again.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, more than 355,000 high schoolers competed on 9,772 teams during the sport’s high-water mark in 1977, back when Dan Gable was an Olympic hero and the United States was a force on the international scene.
By 1995, more than 1,200 of those programs had been cut and participation was at 217,000.