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Wrestlers don’t intend to roll over

After the International Olympic Committee recently ruled it no longer considers amateur wrestling a “core sport,” that beginning in 2020 Grecos and Romans and freestylers of every ilk will have to petition for inclusion into the Games (and good luck with that), a fellow named Charles P. Pierce, an excellent writer of long-form magazine stories, said this latest out-of-the-blue IOC edict has caused outrage both serious and worldwide.

Way more than the French figure skating judge caused.

Wrote Pierce on the Grantland website: “For example, the Iranians are wrestling-goofy; they finished tied for third in the wrestling medal count in the London Games, behind Russia and Azerbaijan. And now they are furious. Just what we all need.”

Several years ago — this must have been when the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials were held at the Convention Center — I recall interviewing an incredible bulk named Matt Ghaffari, whose real first name is Siamak. He was born in Iran but went to high school in New Jersey, in Paramus. He was witty as hell. But he still had that wild look in his eye, and I remember making a mental note never to pick a fight with an Iranian-American wrestler who shaved his head, weighed 130 kilos, and was educated in the same town where Paulie Walnuts had a guy whacked on “The Sopranos.”

(Ghaffari won the Olympic silver medal in Greco-Roman in 1996, losing to a Russian named Alexander Karelin, who Badassoftheweek.com (honest) called “the real-life equivalent of what you would get if you mixed Ivan Drago with Fedor Emelianenko and Zangief from ‘Street Fighter II’ … one of the most goddamn frightening human beings of all-time.” And Ghaffari lost to this man-beast only 1-0.)

A couple of days after the IOC ruled that synchronized swimming and badminton pay more money under the table — I mean, are more compelling on TV— than amateur wrestling, Las Vegas was awarded the 2015 World Wrestling Championships, to be held in September of that year at Orleans Arena.

Men’s freestyle; women’s freestyle; Grecos, Romans, Iranians, Russians, Azerbaijans. They’ll all be here.

So were I Jacques Rogge, the IOC chief, I’d probably tread lightly around Big Al’s Oyster Bar that weekend. You never know when one of the wild-eyed Iranians might use the power of persuasion — and a headlock — to get amateur wrestling reinstated to the Olympics.

Pat Christenson, the Las Vegas Events president and 1976 NCAA 167-pound wrestling champion from Wisconsin who has been working to bring the World Championships to town for many years, said the world wrestling community wants to reach out to the IOC in a more diplomatic fashion, which is unfortunate when a headlock is an option. He sees the World Championships as a great opportunity for amateur wrestling to put its best foot forward.

“If we can use it as a platform, we certainly will do that,” Christenson said, alluding to our city’s long history of hosting major college and high school wrestling championships such as the Cliff Keen Invitational, now in its 33rd year.

The USA Wrestling people also are taking the politically correct path to getting wrestling reinstated. I couldn’t get Les Gutches, one of its executive directors, to say anything untoward about the IOC, either.

“Obviously, I am a little bit biased, but we think there are a lot of merits to the sport and we think it should be in the Games,” said Gutches, who won the gold medal in the 85 kg/187.25-pound division in the 1997 World Freestyle Championships in Russia. So mark him down as another guy I’d never want to mess with, even when he’s being politically prudent.

Gutches said people in amateur wrestling refer to it as the oldest and greatest sport, even if you have to wear one of those rubber suits to make weight, and notwithstanding the risk that sweat from some Middle Eastern guy’s armpit might drop onto your chin when he twists you into a shape most resembling a pretzel.

“We’ve got an all-star committee working on this,” Gutches said. “We remain optimistic, though we know we’ve got some work ahead of us.”

The tug-of-war lobbyists were optimistic, too, and tug of war was dropped as an Olympic sport in 1920. It hasn’t been heard from since, unless you count “Battle of the Network Stars,” where Gabe Kaplan’s team pulled Robert Conrad’s team into the water in no time flat (probably because Kevin Tighe was not as strong as he looked.)

But, like Charles Pierce, I will be pulling for the Grecos and the Romans and all the amateur wrestlers, even if they do get low ratings on CNBC at 3 a.m., because that’s the slot they are stuck with when Michael Phelps and the gymnasts are doing their primetime things, and the beach volleyball players are rolling around in the sand, causing it to cling to their bodies.

I will pull for the wrestlers because they epitomize the amateur concepts and ideals on which the Olympics were formed, and also because of the cool wrestling tradition that when one of the great ones retires, he announces it not at a news conference or in a Subway commercial, but by leaving his wrestling shoes in the middle of the ring.

Somebody apparently forgot to tell Rulon Gardner he was supposed to stash stacks of unmarked $100 bills in his size 13s before he left them there.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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