Much is made of the transition for those elite collegiate and Olympic wrestlers who wish to try mixed martial arts as a post-wrestling career option. On the heels of the 2012 London Olympic Games - which saw Americans Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner bring home gold medals in freestyle competition - the question about who is next to move from the amateur wrestling ranks to the professional MMA divisions is hotter than ever.
For one Greco-Roman Olympic champion, however, the move wasn't as easy or fun as he thought it would be.
"For me, it was a different transition," 2000 Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner said to Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I've never really gotten into striking and hitting and hurting. I remember being in that fight and looking across [Hidehiko] Yoshida - he's a very skilled, talented striker and ultimately his submissions and his ability to be able to throw is second to none - but as I was hitting him I'm like, 'This isn't fun. This isn't why I became an athlete.
Gardner's foray into mixed martial arts was shortlived. One bout, to be specific: a 2004 essentially open weight match with 1992 Olympic gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida at PRIDE Shockwave on New Year's Eve. Gardner won via unanimous decision.
Despite the auspicious beginnings, something didn't click for Gardner. Or rather, something clicked, but not in an expected or good way. Whereas in wrestling, Gardner was committed to winning and intensity, he felt MMA asked of him a savagery he simply wasn't capable of. He didn't feel right in a sport where the object was to hurt the opponent.
"I enjoyed that first fight and I enjoyed getting back into youth wrestling and that kind of stuff," Gardner confessed. "I just didn't have the killer instinct to go out there and just try to hurt somebody. It was almost an unknown feeling to me to feel what I was feeling when I fought, so it was a different journey. I didn't really know if I wanted to go down to see that part of my personality because it's a thing you have to pull out of yourself and that; that grittiness. I don't know if I have that."
"I've been to Rome and I've seen the coliseum. I kinda felt like I was a gladiator. I didn't know if that's where my calling was in life. I didn't see myself being that type of fighter," Gardner continued. "I didn't see myself as a killer."
That doesn't mean, however, he wasn't close to walking further down the MMA path. In fact, as Gardner revealed to Helwani, the management at PRIDE already had their sights set on Gardner's next bout: a match with then-PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko.
"They wanted me to jump in there with Fedor. They'd offered me a substantial amount of money," said Gardner. How substantial? According to Gardner, approximately $1 million.
"They loved the idea of me going against Fedor. You have sambo, you have wrestling, you have two of the classic styles of wrestling. They wanted us to go at it. I just said, 'You know, I have better aspirations right now I want to get into.'"
Among the favorite PRIDE-era matchmaking tactics were the use of Olympic medalist, gold medalists preferably although not exclusively. They were often matched against one another as in the case of Gardner and Yoshida. Sometimes, however, they were fed to more seasoned opponents for, well, sport.
Multiple-time world judo champion and 1992 Olympic silver medalist Naoya Ogawa was butchered by Emelianenko in just 54 seconds in the judoka's eighth professional bout. 2004 Olympic Greco-Roman gold medalist Karam Ibrahim Gaber was badly knocked out by Kazuyuki Fujita at K-1 PREMIUM 2004 Dynamite in the wrestler's first and only ever MMA fight.
The lures of the fight game never appealed to Gardner. Not the competition itself or the naked cash grab. "Like I said, it wasn't truly about making money. Some people in the world think everything's about money. For me, it wasn't. I think there are other things that I appreciated about the sport that I loved to learn," he said.
That doesn't mean even his close friends didn't try to talk him into it. "You would not believe how many friends I had said exactly that. 'Are you crazy? I could've went out there, you could've taken a dive or something!'" To hear Gardner tell it, that would've been a betrayal of the person he was - a person molded in the cauldron of tough but fair competition.
"No, no, no, no, no. That's not the person I am," said Gardner, roundly rejected the suggestion. "If you're going to go out there and prepare for something like that, you train and you develop the technique."
Gardner just didn't have the will to put in the time. He told Helwani he didn't feel like he had anything to prove in MMA and the effort it would take to prepare for someone the caliber of a 2004 Emelianenko in a bout where pain is the objective ultimately never appealed to him.
"It was looking at being a 6 or 8 or 10-month out before I'd even be able to even feel comfortable being in his level because back then Fedor was truly the man that people feared in the world of heavyweight MMA."
"He was and I still think he is the most dangerous individual out there."