When the news broke in February that amateur wrestling would be cut from the 2020 Olympic Games, a collective panic was set across the wrestling community. They weren't merely shocked at the news that something as integral to the Games would be removed, but that the process of being reinstated was anything but a guarantee.
Much to their credit, wrestling's luminaries and sympathizers have responded vigorously. Exhibition events, proposed rule changes, social media campaigns, fund raising, international cooperative efforts and other undertakings have all kicked into high gear.
In fact, on Wednesday afternoon in the Grand Central Terminal in New York City, an event that pits the U.S. against Iran and Russia, called "Rumble on the Rails", is set to take place. It will be televised live on NBC Sports and feature some of USA Wrestling's most prominent athletes, including 2012 74kg freestyle gold medalist Jordan Burroughs and four-time NCAA Division I national champion Kyle Dake.
The central question, however, is that while this all sounds great, is any of this actually working?
"I think raising awareness we've done a great job," 2000 Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling Rulon Gardner told MMA Fighting after a visit to Washington, D.C. to speak to U.S. Congressman and business leaders. "Yes, we've done that, but it's called action: getting people on board, getting people to sign petitions, call up Congress, call up the government, call up the International Olympic Committee (IOC). That type of stuff. That's going to be the part that is going to define if wrestling gets to stay in the Olympic are not.
"If we don't step that game up, all the work that we've done to this point will not matter," he said.
Gardner and Cejudo, and countless other figures within the sport, have been lobbying on behalf of wrestling to anyone who will listen. Both have done radio tours. The pair were on NBC's The Tonight Show together. They speak to state and federal lawmakers. Cejudo has used his bilingual skills to reach out to Hispanic audiences.
"It's having a big impact. Believe me," Cejudo said reassuringly. "I'm bilingual. I speak English and Spanish. So I'm constantly on national television for Univision and Telemundo and all these different shows. "We're definitely making an impact."
Despite Cejudo's faith, the truth remains that no one can be sure about whether or not the wrestling community's galvanized response is a waste of time or what the doctor ordered. The first test comes on May 29th when the executive board of the IOC meets in Russia to shortlist the eight sports down to a final group of three. Wrestling is believed to be a part of it.
If the sport and its community has absorbed any lesson through this ordeal, however, it's that nothing can be taken for granted.
Gardner, while motivated to fight for the cause, is frustrated by what he perceives is the inability to properly leverage wrestling's assets. According to Gardner, while some perceive wrestling's chances to be reinstated as improved because of a strong push from international power players in the U.S., Russia and Iran, the IOC is asking for a more comprehensive effort, including countries where wrestling isn't even particularly strong.
"It's just such a battle because they're saying, 'Yeah, you need to prove you need to be in the Olympics', but the IOC doesn't want to see that Russia has a chief part of this. They don't want to see those dominant countries, see that they're the leaders.
"They want to see all these outlying countries that don't really have the strongest wrestling programs, they're the ones that they want to see them lead this. It's going to be hard to change that train of thought," Gardner said. "We have, we believe, 10 million plus wrestlers in the world that are active right now. We think the sport definitely has an appeal. It's just a matter of getting the IOC members to realize that value."
"We have felt strong push back from day one, saying 'We won't be intimidated. We're the IOC and we're above government.' The brashness of the IOC to say that, I think, is pretty arrogant on their side," Gardner continued. "You know what? We have to fight no matter what it is. We have turn every stone. We have to see everything through to the end."
Another potential asset Gardner admits has been helpful but isn't allowed to take a prominent a role as it can is assistance from the mixed martial arts (MMA) world. The Olympic gold medalist believes similar to the IOC's request to not see the leading international countries drive the effort, they don't want the quest to save wrestling to be MMA's burden.
"The MMA world has come forth and actually offered their support, but again, now we go back to it it. The IOC basically has stated, 'We don't want this to become supported and sponsored by MMA," Gardner said. "'Don't depend on MMA to make your case for you. Don't get Russia involved. Don't make it political.' How can we win this fight if we can't use what we have at our disposal?
"UFC, Bellator, all those groups, there've been many numerous, top-level discussions about it, but you just don't know how far across that line you can step and not offend people and it's known you can get those votes to stay in the Olympics. If we don't get every one of those votes to stay in, we're out. It's over."
The elephant in the room is also the role of FILA, the international governing body of the sport. Insiders suggest FILA hasn't been as nimble and cooperative a group as either wrestlers or the IOC would like and is largely responsible to blame for wrestling current predicament. While FILA has partly sprung into action since the news in February by making changes in key leadership along with other public relations efforts, Cejudo and Gardner acknowledge wrestling tenuous grasp on an Olympic future is because FILA waited too long to listen.
"It was pretty much that FILA, the international governing body, didn't communicate and the lack of communication with the IOC and their members," Cejudo stated. "I'm very surprised [wrestling was cut], but it just the lack of representation from FILA. They dropped the ball. Now we have to suffer. There's 3 million wrestlers in America because of a few people that couldn't stay in communication with the IOC, they're going through this."
Gardner is a little more sanguine, but equally a realist.
"You'd like to say, 'Heck yeah', but I know that they're struggling," Gardner said of tension between the IOC and FILA. "I know that there's battles. They've asked FILA to make changes in the last 20 years and we haven't. We haven't been receptive and we kinda thought the old grandfather on the corner that nobody's going to ask to change. We didn't allow that happen. Now we're being forced to and if we don't make the changes, we won't be in the Olympics."
Still, both Cejudo and Gardner remain largely optimistic, especially when it comes to proposed changes by FILA to meet the IOC's demands. Chief among them: more weight classes for women and Greco-Roman wrestlers going shirtless.
"Better work out more," Gardner said laughing. 'We gotta tighten those pecs up because they ain't perky, you know what I mean?"
"The uniforms have nothing to do with it. If they want to change it, change it across the board," Cejudo added. "A wrestler loves to compete. At the end of the day, a wrestler just wants to compete."
Cejudo, in fact, believes that isn't enough and argues now is the time to be bold with everything short of a Rube Goldberg-revision.
"I'd probably get rid of the leg clinch. I'd probably make it a little more neutral. Maybe add a little pizazz to it. Make the wrestling mat different. Put it on a podium, so if some body falls off the wrestling mat, they can fall completely off the stage.
"In a very safe manner, I know that sounds dramatic," Cejudo clarified. "Just so people know who is getting the point and just add a little flare to it.
Whatever is next, Gardner and Cejudo are adamant that their do everything, tell everyone approach is the only viable option as strategy. If the IOC's executive board can brazenly eliminate wrestling from the Olympic Games, is nothing sacred? If history, tradition and worldwide appeal can't save wrestling, what can?
No one knows, which means every possible avenue of exploration needs to be touched. It's why Gardner and Cejudo continue to tour the country, speak to whoever will listen and preach their case with as much fervor as possible. All they are really capable of is a yeoman's push and the act of hope; hope the intended audience of the IOC's executive board members eventually gets the message they want to hear.
"At this point, you could never do enough," Cejudo stated firmly. "We could never do enough until we become victorious. So, everyone right now is failing. Everybody. We have to do more, more, more."