Wrestling has always been part of actor Billy Baldwin's life.
With the sport's future in peril, Baldwin is hoping his notoriety and Hollywood connections can help keep it on the Olympic program.
Baldwin, who wrestled at Binghamton University before a long career in television and films, has joined USA Wrestling's Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling as a self-described "Hollywood point person."
The committee was formed in the wake of the IOC's recent recommendation that wrestling be left out of the Olympics starting in 2020. Baldwin is charged with keeping the sport's plight on the minds of the public, and he said that he has enlisted Ashton Kutcher, his brother Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Mario Lopez, Mark Ruffalo and others in Hollywood and the world of sports to help him out.
"You can take the young man out of wrestling. But you can't take wrestling out of the young man," Baldwin told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Montecito, Calif., on Monday.
Wrestling was a passion for Baldwin long before he ever thought about acting.
Baldwin grew up in Massapequa, N.Y., and wrestled for the high school program made prominent by Al Bevilacqua, a longtime wrestling coach and official. Bevilacqua now works with the Beat the Streets USA program, which helps develop wrestling opportunities in urban areas across the nation and is putting on an exhibition featuring the U.S., Russia and Iran in New York on May 15.
Baldwin's best friend is Bevilacqua's son Chris, who also served as his best man at his wedding, and as kids they bonded through the sport.
"Wrestling was kind of like my life when I was in 10th, 11th and 12th grade. I ran with this pack of like 15 guys and we were all going through it together. All of the skin infections and the cauliflower ear and the injuries, we all went through it together and we formed a really tight fraternity," Baldwin said.
Baldwin wrestled for two years at Binghamton before he "surrendered to the reality" that he wasn't big-time college wrestling material. That, combined with the death of his father Alexander, a high school teacher and football coach, pushed Baldwin into working his way through college instead to help out his family.
Baldwin began his acting career soon after graduating from Binghamton, appearing in such films as "Backdraft" and 'Sliver." He's now using his fame to spread the word about the Olympic wrestling movement.
Beyond his Hollywood friends, Baldwin said he's lined up Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Mark Spitz, Janet Evans, Bruce Jenner, Carl Lewis, Michael Phelps, Mary Lou Retton, John McEnroe and other sports figures to support the cause.
Baldwin said their help could be as simple as publicly endorsing the wrestling movement and supporting it on Twitter. But Baldwin is also organizing a series of public service announcements and a celebrity auction to raise money for USA Wrestling.
"There's a lot of appeal to having these famous people step up, and to have these Olympic legends stand up on behalf of a sport they've never competed in," Baldwin said. "But they get it. They respect and understand how important this is."
Baldwin knows that the IOC members set to vote on wrestling's future in late May aren't likely to be swayed by a few famous folks. His main goal is to keep wrestling's predicament alive in the media, both in the U.S. and internationally, and to remind everyone of how valuable wrestling can be for young men and women.
"The work ethic and the discipline and the mental toughness transcend the sport of wrestling. And later in life, when you are crossing bridges and fighting your way through adversity as a husband and a father in the pursuit of your life's interest and your career, that will come back to serve you well," Baldwin said.
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