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AGON is pro wrestling — without the fake blood

By Gary D'Amato, 01/24/14, 12:15PM EST


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Professional eating contests are televised. So, too, are quasi-sports such as poker, bass fishing and billiards.

How is it that they have found a home on cable TV, but wrestling has not?

That's exactly what a group of former NCAA Division I wrestlers thought when they launched AGON Wrestling Championships last year.

If they are successful, authentic wrestling — not the variety featuring masked villains, fake blood and guys hitting each other over the head with chairs — could one day fill arenas, earn competitive television ratings and carve out a niche in the growing realm of combat sports.

"We think AGON is way overdue," said Mike DiSabato, a co-founder of the promotion and a former Division I wrestler at Ohio State. "We think there's a huge opportunity for our sport, if it's produced correctly, to have a place on TV.

"Wrestling does sell on TV. If you look at the NCAA tournament last year on ESPN, 850,000 Americans watched that program on a Saturday night in March competing with NCAA basketball and the like. Compared to other combat promotions, 850,000 is a lot of people."

AGON, derived from the classical Greek word for competition, has held two events, and a third, "AGON III: Festival of Funk," is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Williams Center at UW-Whitewater. Admission is $15.

The four-match card features brothers Ben and Max Askren of Hartland, both of whom are AGON investors. Ben is the organization's matchmaker, and Max is its marketing director.

Ben Askren is a former two-time undefeated NCAA champion at the University of Missouri and a 2008 Olympian and is unbeaten as a mixed martial arts fighter. He won a Bellator MMA title and recently signed with ONE FC, a mixed martial arts promotion based in Asia.

In October, he returned to the mat for the first time in nearly four years and dismantled two-time NCAA champion Quentin Wright, 22-8, in AGON I.

In AGON III, he faces Michael Poeta, an assistant wrestling coach at the University of Illinois and a former three-time NCAA All-American.

Askren said he has not wrestled in Wisconsin since his high school days at Arrowhead.

"This will be awesome for me because I have not competed in my home state in any fashion since high school," he said. "It has been a long time and it will feel great to get things going in front of a home crowd again."

It's not as if he didn't already have enough on his plate. In addition to his MMA career, he coaches wrestling at Roufusport Mixed Martial Arts Academy and runs wrestling academies in Hartland and Mequon with Max and former Arrowhead coach John Mesenbrink.

"Better to be busy than it is to be bored," Askren said. "If you had asked me last summer, 'Are you going to do this?' I would have said, 'Are you crazy?' But this was something I couldn't say no to."

AGON offers a competitive outlet for former collegiate wrestlers. They won't get rich, at least not initially. DiSabato said winners typically earn $2,000 to $4,000 per bout.

"Are we changing anyone's lives? No, but a lot of wrestlers are happy that they're getting a paycheck to wrestle," DiSabato said. "You've got to start somewhere. Maybe by AGON 50, guys are making $20,000 or $30,000 a fight."

What has DiSabato, Askren and others excited is the opportunity for growth and the potential to appeal to sponsors and television.

"We have content that's very valuable," DiSabato said. "The No. 1 property in cable television is sports. Because of Netflix and the Internet, sports is becoming the only reason to subscribe to cable. We see it as an opportunity.

"People say, 'Nobody will tune in to wrestling.' Those same people were probably saying, 'No one is going to watch hot-dog eating on ESPN.' But guess what ..."

"AGON III: Festival of Funk" will be held in conjunction with the Askren Wrestling Academy Winter Classic. Grade school divisions will wrestle starting at 9 a.m. AGON III will be held at 1 p.m., and the junior high division will start at approximately 2 p.m.

Other AGON III matches are Max Askren vs. Ben Bennett, Mesenbrink vs. Craig Becker and Chris Hellman vs. Luke Smith.

DiSabato said AGON would succeed by telling wrestlers' stories and promoting matches that otherwise would never happen.

"Think how many folks would watch (UFC stars) Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier wrestle in AGON in Madison Square Garden," he said. "One of our goals is to promote Ben Askren vs. (four-time NCAA champion) Kyle Dake. If we put that on in Madison Square Garden or State College, Pa., or Iowa City, how many people would tune in on pay-per-view?"

No one knows the answer. But AGON would like to find out.

"UFC alone is a $2 billion or $3 billion company," Askren said. "If we can ever achieve anything similar to that, it would be mind-blowing."

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