Olympian Jake Herbert’s dilemma: To MMA or not to MMA?

Jake Herbert during a portrait session at the 2012 Team USA Media Summit.

MISSOULA, Mont. – Dodging puddles in an unpaved parking lot on a rainy June afternoon, Jake Herbert attempted to put his career dilemma in the simplest terms possible.

Not an easy task, considering the gravity of the choices that lay in front of the 28-year-old Olympian and two-time NCAA freestyle wrestling national champ.

On one hand, there are the 2016 Games to think about. On the other, there’s the potential to make a lot more money beating up other men in a cage as a professional MMA fighter. And behind door number three?

“That’s the thing,” Herbert said and cocked his head with a shy smile. “I actually studied at Northwestern.”.

This is the problem Herbert faces, though it’s a good problem, all things considered. The time is coming where he is going to have to choose a path. The choice he makes could say a lot about MMA’s ability to appeal to qualified outsiders, and also about wrestling’s enduring hold even at a time of turmoil on the international scene. At the heart of that choice is a question that’s interested me for a long time, as someone who writes about and loves this sport, yet sometimes can’t understand what compels certain people to do it.

Say you actually had options. Say you didn’t have to assume the risks that come with getting punched and kicked and elbowed in the head for a living. Say you didn’t even have to assume the risks that come with a few more years of wrestling room torture sessions. Not as long as you don’t mind sitting behind a desk, showing off the photos of the person you used to be.

What would you choose, if it were really up to you? And what if you chose wrong, and then had to live with it?

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This is what compelled me to go see Herbert after Fight Magazine writer T.R. Foley told me he’d be in town coaching at the Sudden Victory Wrestling Academy here in Missoula recently.

On a muggy gray day in Montana, I found Herbert inside a church activity center on the city’s westside teaching the finer points of the single-leg takedown to a bunch of 10-year-olds. It’s what the bulk of his summer has looked like so far, and he couldn’t be happier with it.

“What I got to do today with these kids, that’s awesome,” Herbert said. “I’ve gotten to reach about 260 kids just this summer in these four camps I’ve done. I got to go to Alaska, to Hawaii, to Pittsburgh, then here to Montana. I love it. I love teaching kids, and I’m good at it. I’m not going to cure cancer. I’m not going to write a book that changes people’s lives. I’m just not going to change the world that way. The way I can change the world the most is with these kids.”.

The problem with making his living this way is that there really isn’t much of one. It’s not so different from wrestling in that sense, even if it is easier on the body.

Now Herbert is six months out from a shoulder surgery that he’d been putting off since 2008, and he’s facing the question of what he’ll do once he’s healed up and ready to get back into action. At Northwestern, Herbert said, he studied “wrestling, communications, and business administration,” roughly in that order. His Olympic dreams in London were derailed by a couple controversial scoring decisions, and a part of him still feels bitter about it, he admitted.

But all his years in wrestling, from the time he was 10 years old to the time he took the silver medal at the World Wrestling Championships in 2009, have taught him that he’s not going to get rich wearing a nylon singlet.

“I was at the top of the game, making the most I could make for wrestling, and that’s $1,200 a month stipend from USA Wrestling,” Herbert said. “Then I got a $25,000 bonus for taking second in the world. So there’s not money in it. If I wanted to make money, I wouldn’t be wrestling – I’d be using my degree.”.

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He was about to do just that until wrestling got dropped from the Olympic program for 2020, he said. He had internships lined up in New York, some promising offers in lucrative fields, but abandoned them all when he felt called into action by the sport that made him the man he is today.

“I dropped everything and started working with Save Olympic Wrestling, then went right into my camps,” Herbert said. “Wrestling, it’s given me options. I could go to Singapore and start fighting right now, or I could call up almost any college in the nation and say, ‘Hey, I want to come coach,’ and they’d find a way to make it happen. That’s all from wrestling, and from being an Olympian.”.

The problem with loving a sport like wrestling is that it doesn’t always love you back. His heartbreak in London was symptomatic of “the kind of s— they’re restructuring FILA to try to get rid of,” Herbert said. Even if they’re ultimately successful, and if wrestling is still an Olympic sport come 2020, it won’t make it any easier for him to forget what happened to him.

“I was 4-0 against the guys who took gold, silver, and bronze,” Herbert said. “A lot of it is the draw. The guy who got silver from Puerto Rico? I wrestled him three months before and beat him 4-0, 4-0. He couldn’t have taken me down to save his life. But he got the draw and it was his day. That’s how the sport is. Then I got a certificate in the mail a little bit ago. Seventh place in the Olympics. I got a $1,000 bonus check, a little kick in the butt, and I’m on my way.”.

At least MMA would be different. It’s not a sport entirely without politics of its own, but they’re slightly more transparent, more easily navigated. Plus the money is better, as just about every ex-wrestler to make the leap will tell you. Even if it takes a couple years just to make it to the UFC, where he could easily start out fighting for $8,000 to show and another eight to win, Herbert said, “I’ll take that offer – $16,000 and all I have to do is beat someone in a fight? Sure.”.

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But there are other things to consider, too. For instance, the blows to the head, and the emerging research that indicates even a little brain jostling could be too much over a long enough timeline.

“That’s what I’m a little worried about,” Herbert admitted.

His mom is certainly no fan of him trying MMA, he said, “but I talk to these guys. I’ve asked [Daniel] Cormier and Phil Davis and Ben Askren and all these guys, how does this compare to wrestling? Because they did it. They know how hard on the body wrestling is. My body hurts me now, so I wanted to know how hard the training is with respect to wrestling. They all say it’s easier on the body.”.

Then again, just because you were a great wrestler doesn’t mean you’ll be a great fighter, and Herbert knows that.

“It’s that fear,” he said. “The fear of not making it. If I go into it and it doesn’t work, that’s time I could have spent working toward a gold medal.”.

But even if he accomplishes that, it will only delay the question rather than answer it. He could find himself in the same situation after the 2016 Games, coaching wrestling camps – maybe this time billed as an Olympic medalist rather than merely an Olympian – wondering what to do next.

Only by then he’ll be a little older, a little more beat-up. And as the years slip by some doors start to close. Eventually, one way or another, he’ll have to choose.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’m meant to sit behind desk,” Herbert said. “Not without a lot of Adderall.”.

Ben Fowlkes writes for MMAJunkie.Com, a property of USA TODAY Sports Media Group.

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