Helen Maroulis wrestled in a cage with Conor McGregor for 45 minutes last week and is considering competing in mixed-martial arts. The first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion still wants to grapple at the Tokyo Games, though.
“If I could take a punch, I would love to do [MMA] one day,” Maroulis said in a phone interview from Norway, where she’s spending the winter with her boyfriend while finishing her college degree taking online classes. “If I could punch, I would love to do it one day. Obviously, you need other skills besides just wrestling.”
Maroulis’ interest in MMA led her to get in touch with John Kavanagh, who runs Straight Blast Gym in Dublin. She flew from Oslo to Dublin for five days last week to take classes in jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. Coaches told her she had the skills to become a fighter.
“[Kavanagh] said the only reason a high-level athlete would come to fight is for the money, and that’s not worth the possible head trauma,” Maroulis said. “He pretty much said you need to make the decision if it’s something you want to do and why. I was really impressed by that, because I feel like a lot of people have encouraged me to fight. They’re like, yeah, you should go and do that, you’ll be huge. They’ll say stuff like, oh, you’ll make so much money.
“I love what I do with wrestling, and everyone knows it’s not a money sport. It’s not like a fame-based sport. So [money] has never been my motivation for why I’ve worked hard before. So I thought it was interesting that John pointed that out. A lot of athletes are transferring over at a very high level. Well, why is it that they’re coming to MMA? Is it for the love of the sport, or is it for the money? He’s not against either one of them, but I think it was just very humbling for me to step back and say, OK, why do I want to do this? What would be the reasons? I’m very competitive, so there’s just something that looks really exciting about getting in the cage. It just looks like a new challenge, a new puzzle to solve and just all the disciplines that I got to experience, it was like, cool, I see how this is like wrestling. … I would enjoy transitioning and working hard on those areas, but then the bigger picture, which is the potential long-term injuries, is also something to factor in.”
Maroulis opted not to make any decisions yet, especially because she definitely wants to wrestle in the 2020 Olympics.
“That’s something I’ve been praying about and asking myself,” she said. “How is it going to work? Is four years too late to start? Can I do some stuff now?”
Maroulis met McGregor in Dublin but thought the UFC champion would be too busy to do more than pose for a photo. She was wrong.
Kavanagh suggested McGregor could show Maroulis some MMA basics. They did more than that, wrestling in the cage for nearly an hour.
“He moves really, really well,” said Maroulis, who has plenty of experience training with Olympic champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder, as well as Russian men. “He’s very slick. And he really has good feel for body position. So I think it was beneficial on both ends.
“You can respect when someone appreciates the sport, or they can appreciate the details of it. I feel like he has a very natural ability for wrestling, very detail-oriented. … And I learned that wrestling in the cage is way harder than wrestling on a mat with no walls.”
Maroulis plans to wrestle in competition for the first time since Rio at a meet in Ukraine in early March. She expects to compete at 58kg this year, rather than 53kg in Rio and 55kg at the 2015 World Championships.
Maroulis, who noted the difficulty in cutting weight to 53kg for Rio, laughed when asked if she could compete at 53kg after nearly seven months off.
“Absolutely not,” she said laughing. “That was a one-time. I mean, maybe I could do that again in four years, but, no, I’ve really been enjoying the food.”
If Maroulis qualifies for and competes at 58kg at the world championships in Paris in August, she could go up against Japanese legend Kaori Icho. In Rio, Icho became the first woman in any sport to win an individual-event gold medal in four Olympics.
Remember in Rio, Maroulis kept another Japanese legend, Saori Yoshida, from reaching that four-gold-medal feat. Yoshida was expected to retire after Rio, but afterward said she would consider returning for a run to Tokyo, perhaps after a one- or two-year break.
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