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Wrestling legend Dan Gable discusses wrestlers transitioning to MMA, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom

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The word legend gets thrown around a lot but when it comes to wrestling, Dan Gable has earned that label more than just about anybody in the history of the sport.

An Olympic gold medalist and two-time NCAA champion, Gable has represented the United States at the highest levels of the sport and that came before his coaching career where he led the University of Iowa to 15 National Titles while helping to produce 152 All-Americans and 45 national champions.

Just recently, Gable became the first wrestler in history to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest honor a civilian can receive — after a lifetime spent supporting and growing the sport in the United States.

“That’s the Presidential Medal of Freedom right there and I’m pretty proud of it,” Gable said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “It’s a lifetime of work and I’m not letting up yet.”

Gable is certainly proud of all he achieved in his own athletic and coaching careers but perhaps what he’s even happier to see these days is that the sport of wrestling has continued to thrive and grow far beyond where it was 20 or 30 years ago.

“Back in the day when I was wrestling in high school and college, really the coaches did everything for the sport,” Gable explained. “Now organizations, several organizations led by USA wrestling and Rich Bender. Now we have just being a male sport, it’s a female sport. It’s one of the fastest growing sports in colleges. It’s at the Olympic Games for females.”

Another factor that has helped boost wrestling’s bottom line in recent years has been the explosion of MMA with organizations like the UFC and Bellator MMA.

Wrestlers have been mainstays in mixed martial arts since the very beginning but now that MMA is arguably the No. 1 combat sport worldwide, those athletes have not only enjoyed bigger and better opportunities but even more exposure than most could have ever expected.

In the UFC, almost every single division either has an experienced wrestler as champion or at worst as one of the top contenders. Heavyweight king Stipe Miocic was a Division I wrestler at Cleveland State University. Reigning UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman was a Division II national champion. Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is not only the UFC lightweight champion but currently ranked as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, grew up wrestling in his native Dagestan, a country with a rich, deep tradition founded in the sport.

Of course for all the athletes who have made the move into MMA, there are plenty still devoted to wrestling and Gable is happy to see a balance struck so both sports have the chance to succeed.

“I like what I call lifers, what I call lifers in the sport,” Gable said. “I’m a lifer in the sport but it just so happened the opportunity to make money as a participant after the Olympics really wasn’t there until after the Olympics in 1976, they started being able to pay people and have a decent living. I want to keep the good wrestlers in the sport as long as possible and if there’s another avenue that they can work after that, that’s fine as well.

“Because like I said, wrestlers have that feel that you need in a fight. They have that feel that if they are smart, they can make the jump and I’m sure that some of them may be better in mixed martial arts than they were in wrestling and the wrestling will help. You’ve got to kind of analyze each person to see where they need to be and the love of it. Whether you really like which one better. Mixed martial arts may be a little tougher in terms of what is expected out there from the fan and it depends on whether you really want to administer some real pain.”

His wrestling career was over long before the term mixed martial arts had even been created but Gable knows he had a style that probably would have been suited for the sport.

“People always said that I was a punisher wrestler,” Gable said. “Yeah, I think I was. Cause I kind of ripped their arms off when I got on top of them. But there’s rules and regulations, especially in amateur wrestling and I’m sure there’s rules and regulations in mixed martial arts but probably not to the extent that we are in safety for wrestling.”

In addition to his constant support of the wrestling community, Gable also just recently crossed over into films when he was asked to serve as a consultant on The Last Champion. That film centers around a disgraced wrestler, played by Yellowstone star Cole Hauser, who returns to coach his hometown wrestling team.

Gable had fun working on the film and watching Hollywood take a turn on the mats with the sport of wrestling was definitely an enjoyable experience.

“It’s a good movie,” Gable said. “What I really like about it, I don’t know if anybody like anybody right now with this virus, it’s a tough time with division and parties. It’s kind of a movie where you sit down and whether you like the other person or not, it can kind of bring you together.”

The Last Champion is currently available on demand.