Mark. O. Madsen, the first Danish wrestler to medal at an Olympics since 1948, had plenty of reasons to stick with the wrestling path he’d be on most of his life. Like … so many reasons.
The 35-year-old, who took silver in Rio in 2016, is a three-time Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling. As a member of the Danish Wrestling Foundation, he has received a guaranteed salary the past six years, and was in a good position to make the 2020 Summer Games. Attempting to transition from that world to MMA — on the wrong side of age 30, in a country that doesn’t offer many opportunities in the sport — was not the most practical choice.
But in March 2018, that’s exactly what Madsen did. He announced his retirement from amateur wrestling and his intention to work toward fighting in the UFC’s lightweight division.
“I know my age is higher than it was when I started wrestling, but my goal from the beginning was to join the UFC,” Madsen told ESPN. “My wife and I quit our jobs to make a run at this. I’ve been traveling four to five times per week the last 18 months, sleeping in a camper, because there are no MMA clubs in my area of the country.”
Somehow, within that short time span, Madsen (8-0) accomplished his goal. The UFC signed him in August, and he is scheduled to fight Danilo Belluardo in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Copenhagen. The event airs on ESPN+ (11 a.m. ET).
For Madsen, the decision to retire from a sport in which he won an Olympic silver medal in 2016 came down to how perfectly he believed 2016 went. Had his preparation for the 2016 Olympics not been so perfect, there’s a decent chance he’d still be wrestling.
But everything lined up for Madsen that year. He checked every box going into Rio de Janeiro and he still came up short to Russian gold medalist Roman Vlasov — the same Roman Vlasov who had defeated him at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Losing to the same individual in back-to-back Olympics could have hardened Madsen’s resolve to compete in 2020, but it actually had the opposite effect. He felt he had done everything in his power to win a gold medal in 2016, and didn’t get it done.
It was time to invest that effort into something else.
“I felt I was the best version of myself I could possibly be in 2016. I can’t put a finger on anything I could have done better,” Madsen said. “And at the end of the day, there was still a Roman Vlasov that couldn’t be beat. I believed I had reached my full potential, so it was time to say, ‘Click. Been there, done that.’ And move on.”
Madsen didn’t start his journey to the Octagon entirely from scratch. He had two professional MMA fights between 2013 and 2014, but his commitment to the Danish Wrestling Federation was such that he was essentially banned from competing in MMA any more than that. He admits, now, that he occasionally did a bit of MMA training undercover during that time.
Nevertheless, the odds of making it to the UFC, especially as quickly as he did, were stacked against him. Since 2011, there have been only six Danish fighters to compete in the UFC.
When Madsen makes his UFC debut at Royal Arena on Saturday, he will be accompanied (fittingly) by Martin Kampmann, the most accomplished Danish MMA fighter of all time. Kampmann fought in the UFC from 2006 to 2013, at a time when there was even less going on in Danish MMA than there is now. Kampmann was essentially forced to leave the country in order to compete, which he did for the entirety of his career.
Any MMA fan, Danish or otherwise, will probably enjoy watching Kampmann follow Madsen to the Octagon as his head coach. Even though Madsen has been fighting full time for only 18 months, the two are already the top pioneers for the sport in Denmark.
“Mark is a star in a more traditional sport; he’s a respected athlete,” Kampmann said. “Him jumping into MMA has brought a big focus to it, and really helped grow the MMA scene in Denmark.”
Opportunities in Denmark are still so sparse that Madsen had to found his own MMA promotion earlier this year, and promoted and headlined the first major pay-per-view event in the country’s history.
“I realized if I wanted to get signed by the UFC, I needed a stage and promotion with international appeal,” Madsen said. “We went to London and knocked on the door of Cage Warriors and asked them to franchise in Denmark. So, we’ve been hosting our own events under the umbrella of Cage Warriors.
“I’ve been fighting, hosting events, developing my own team and MMA gym. It’s been a crazy ride in 18 months. MMA is growing in Denmark, and the future is very bright, but we don’t have the resources yet.”
Kampmann understands Madsen’s plight better than anyone, and believes he is the right person to lead the charge and put Danish MMA on the right path. “We’ve only been working at this dedicated [a level for] a short period of time. The leaps and bounds he’s taken since we focused on MMA, it’s going very quick. If the curves keep evolving like this, our goals will be lofty.”
Madsen’s UFC journey starts on Saturday, but in his mind, he’s already won.
“Getting signed by the UFC might be the most gratifying moment in my athletic life,” Madsen said. “Even more than winning a silver medal.”