Helen Maroulis mulls MMA after training with Conor McGregor

Helen Maroulis
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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.

MORE: Ronda Rousey to ‘take time to think about future’

Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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