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Rulon Gardner -- the 2000 Olympic gold medalist Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler, the 2001 world champion, the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, and the only man ever to defeat the great Alexander Kareline in international competition -- has agreed to enter the world of mixed martial arts.
His first fight will be on Dec. 31, 2004, on the annual New Year's Eve card put on by the Pride organization in Japan. Gardner's opponent will be a fellow Olympic gold medalist, Hidehiko Yoshida, who won gold in 1992 in the sport of judo in the -81 kg/178.5 lb. weight class. Yoshida's record in Pride is 4-1-1, with his only loss coming by decision to Pride's middleweight champion, Vanderlei Silva.
The Gardner-Yoshida fight for Dec. 31 was announced during Pride's High Octane card, held Sunday, Oct. 31, at the Saitama Super Arena just outside Tokyo. Both Gardner and Yoshida were in attendance at this show.
Reached by phone at his hotel in Tokyo on Sunday night after the show, Gardner confirmed that he would be indeed fighting in Pride. He stated that this fight with Yoshida would be under the normal Pride rules, with no special stipulations.
Even though Gardner has never competed in mixed martial arts before, he was eager to have this match with Yoshida.
'For me it was probably just seeing the status of wrestling, see where it's at, and the similarities to mixed martial arts, judo, and wrestling,' he began. 'There are similarities and contrasts. Talking to wrestlers and the different groups, you're always having a debate, 'Which one is more complete?' For me, I was offered the opportunity to come in and to go out and use my skills of wrestling to take a judo athlete on, an Olympic champion. And here's an opportunity for two athletes to go out here and use two different types of grappling techniques and see which one is going to succeed. And that's where I wanted to take it from, is that direction.'
Even though the regular rules of Pride will be in force in this fight, Gardner told us not to expect much striking.
'You're not going to have much striking or some of the things as much as the average Pride fighter,' he stated. 'You're going to have two grapplers where it's a little more hopefully strategy instead of complete striking.'
Asked if he had ever had any training in submissions, he candidly replied, 'Not really.' For that he will travel to the Team Quest Martial Arts Gym in Portland, Oregon, to train with some familiar faces from Greco-Roman wrestling who have now focused on the mixed martial arts: Dan Henderson, Matt Lindland, and Randy Couture.
'Most definitely,' said Gardner of his intentions to train with Team Quest. 'Dan Henderson has been talking to me for years trying to get me into it,' he added. Referring to his fellow Greco wrestlers who have done so well in mixed martial arts, Gardner reasoned, 'These guys have taken the sport to a new level. They came to me and said, 'Let's show these people how good we really are. Maybe we can get a little more exposure and a little more press for it and be even that bigger.' '
Gardner only decided to sign with Pride after the completion of the tapings for the first season of shows for Real Pro Wrestling in Los Angeles on Oct. 8-9, on which he is one of the television announcers. His decision, he said, came in 'the last two weeks. Dan [Henderson] has called me for years. I was like, 'Hey, now is the time for it. There was a great offer on the table. And you can go out there and do real well.' ' In fact, Gardner said that it was Henderson himself who first conveyed Pride's offer to him.
Now, at age 33, and after retiring from Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2004 Olympics, Gardner must first begin to train in striking. This thought does not faze him at all.
'It's something you have to get adapted to,' he said, perhaps understating that process of adaptation. 'That's one of the things that intrigued me about it,' he continued. 'Being a wrestler you don't have really to deal with [striking]. And here is an opportunity for me to learn about something. I don't know how well the judo athletes are in striking. So I think it kind of puts us all in the same boat a little bit.'
Gardner is also fully cognizant that with only two months until this fight takes place, he has a lot to learn in a short space of time.
'Am I going to be 100 percent proficient at it? Am I going to get so comfortable with it?' he asked. 'No, but that's where getting an understanding and learning and feeling comfortable there are something that I'm going to have to do and have to be adjusted to real quick.'
While various reports are circulating about the length of his deal with Pride, he stated, 'Actually it's up to one to three fights. It's just however long I want to go. I could be gone after one fight.'
Asked if this deal with Pride will conflict with his working with Real Pro Wrestling, he replied, 'No. Real Pro Wrestling, we're actually looking to doing some stuff in December, some media stuff, getting the name out there, getting the word out there, getting people interested in Real Pro Wrestling.'
In fact, Gardner believes that his appearance in Pride will aid the building of support for all styles of wrestling. 'Here's another avenue that we can help expand the sport to have a bigger role now than compared to, 'Oh yeah, they're just wrestlers.'' He hopes that his fight will lead to more people saying, ' 'Oh no, you guys are some bad dudes.' Someone learned how to be a wrestler, learned how to be the best fighter or grappler in the world. I think that's what we're trying to show here.'
While Gardner will be competing in Pride, he also recently turned down a lucrative offer from WWE. 'It's completely different than WWE,' he said. 'The WWE didn't draw me to it because I couldn't use a lot of my wrestling skills in the sport.' He emphasized that in 'mixed martial arts, you can use a variety of your tactics and strategies. Now here's an opportunity for me to go out there.'
Again the angles of Olympic gold medalist vs. Olympic gold medalist and of grappler vs. grappler in a classic clash of styles were what proved key in convincing Gardner to take this fight.
'My whole strategy going in is, we're going to stay with a judo athlete. Here's an Olympic judo champion, an Olympic wrestling champion. And they're going to see which one's fight strategy and technique comes out,' he said.
Of course, money played a role, but was not the deciding factor in his choice.
'Yeah, money's nice. Money's part of it,' said Gardner. 'But I think realistically I wanted to truly do it because it was an opportunity to show another angle of our sport that most people truly don't get to see.' And, of course, he said, 'I'm going to in and learn it. If I get in a bad situation, I tap out. You just quit, submit.'
If you have followed Rulon Gardner's activity for any length of time, you would know by now that he is a wrestling person through and through. While numerous other world-class wrestlers have competed and triumphed in mixed martial arts, none have been as well-known as Rulon Gardner. And if helping wrestling means using his notoriety to gain attention for the sport by fighting a judo gold medalist in Pride, then so be it.
'That's why we want to get involved, because we're able to go out there and basically show wrestling off to the world,' he reiterated. 'I think it can even give us that much more press. And who knows what the viewing over here is?' he said of Pride's large audience in Japan. 'But then there's the United States and around the world. It gives us more of an opportunity to exemplify what a wrestler does.'
I added that his appearance in Pride will no doubt greatly increase the number of pay-per-view buys for Pride in the U.S., especially from amateur wrestling fans.
'If it does, I'm happy for them,' Gardner said, again saying he hoped to 'go out there and show off' wrestling.
'I don't profess to be a great fighter because that wasn't my job before. But I want to learn,' he stressed. And he knows that he will be far from a complete fighter in two months. So he already is working on developing a style that is right for him, and that appeals to him as well: 'Maybe not the striking, and all those things, but the takedowns and the submissions and all those things, that's the type of wrestling, I think that's what really draws me to it, is that kind of format.'
You can still expect to see him at the numerous amateur wrestling clinics he conducts. 'Oh yeah,' he said. 'I spoke at four schools this last week. Nothing is going to change there. I just want to go out there and hopefully show wrestling to the world as being another great avenue, opportunity for a wrestler to go out there and show his skill off and what we're capable of.'
He will start his training at Team Quest, he said, 'Probably the week after' this coming one. He will remain in Japan for a short while to do some more press work for this fight on Dec. 31.
Yes, he knows he will be making some nice money at this. But, as is typical of Rulon Gardner, he concluded with this thought about the relative importance to him of making money and helping wrestling with this fight: 'I hope so in that effort, but I also hope that really we can open up a few more eyes and show them the grandeur of the sport that we love.'