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University of Iowa head wrestling coach Tom Brands offers advice to his athletes at the 2012 NCAA tournament in St. Louis, Mo.

University of Iowa head wrestling coach Tom Brands offers advice to his athletes at the 2012 NCAA tournament in St. Louis, Mo.

This week’s NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Wells Fargo Arena present Dickensian contradictions. As far as mass appeal goes, they’re not that big of a deal. The first day’s matches will only be broadcast on the Internet. All but one other session will be relegated to ESPNU, the least-watched station in Disney’s cable sports family. However, as a tourist event of economic impact, they might be the biggest thing to hit Des Moines since Pope John Paul II. Hotelier Bob Conley explained.

“I’ve been in this business a long, long time, and this is the biggest thing I have seen. The last sports event that was even close to this was when the U.S. Senior Open came to Glen Oaks. This is huge, because people are coming from everywhere. I never saw so many requests for hotel rooms. We’ve been sold out forever, and we could have sold 10 times the number of rooms we have. Just recently we sent 150 people to other hotels. Hotels are sold out as far away as Ames,” he said.

During the last month, waiters and bartenders all over Des Moines repeated an exceptional piece of scuttlebutt. It goes like this: When these same wrestling championships were held in St. Louis last year, every bar and restaurant within a mile (this distance grows as the rumor is repeated) of the host Scottrade Center ran out of beer (and booze or food). No one can confirm this rumor, but Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (CVB) Sports Event Manager Mark Kostek thinks it’s based in truth.

“We took a team to St. Louis last year, and we were eating in the Hard Rock Café, which is maybe half a mile from the Scott Center. They ran completely out of draft beer,” he recalled.

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Rumors may travel around the world before the truth gets out of bed, but, as P.T. Barnum noted, they make better box office. Local CVBs have been sending memos encouraging bars and restaurants to take on extra provisions and staff this year. Carter Collins Hutchison, owner of Gramercy Tap and Star Bar, said she is taking the rumors quite seriously.

“We’re certainly planning on having extra supplies,” she said.

Chris Diebel of Orchestrate Management (representing nine restaurants and hotels) said that all its facilities will take on extra provisions for the event, “as much as 50 percent more at beer-drinker favorites like Zombie Burger and Raccoon River Brewing Company.” Beer truck drivers said their trucks will be stocked, and they will be on-call during nights of the event.

Conley is going further. Sensing the magnitude of this occasion three years ago, when first asked to set aside a block of hotel rooms, he accelerated a $3 million makeover and “spring cleaning” to his Holiday Inn Downtown-Mercy Campus Hotel. That place, one of the closest hotels to the arena, will greet wrestling fans with remodeled rooms and lobby, plus a new restaurant and bar. (The restaurant’s official grand opening will be postponed until late summer.)

CVA_21PAGE 16“We just felt like we needed to be ready for this event. This is like the old days when people came to basketball tournaments and shopped downtown — for prom dresses and everything else they couldn’t find in smaller towns. Today you can’t even buy a pair of shoes downtown, so most basketball fans stay out by the malls. Wrestling fans really only care about wrestling. They will be loyal to the downtown area,” he predicted.


Wrestling’s geographic heart

How does an event that barely registers on the Nielsen Ratings inspire such fanaticism?

“You know how some TV shows stay around for years despite relatively low ratings? That’s because the show’s fans make up for their low numbers with loyalty and intensity. Advertisers covet that. Wrestling is the same way only compounded. It might not rack up the kind of ratings that football, basketball or even bull riding do, but its fans are incredibly involved,” explained Jason Johnson, a fan at this year’s Iowa high school tournament.

CVA_21PAGE 17Last year’s NCAA championships set a record for attendance, drawing 112,393 people over six sessions in St. Louis. That venue’s proximity to “wrestling hot beds” was credited in media reports. This year’s event is being held at ground zero of wrestling hotbeds. Iowa is the sport’s perfect match. USA Today proclaimed the Iowa High School Wrestling tournament to be the state’s top sports attraction. Some 77,000 fans who pack Wells Fargo each year for that tournament renew their proclamation, selling out Saturday night’s final session for 24 years in a row. That’s the largest high school wrestling crowd in the nation. Ohio’s record is 66,000 and Pennsylvania’s 53,000. Both those states have nearly four times Iowa’s population. New York’s best attendance was 12,000.

Why do Iowans embrace wrestling more than others do? Olympic gold medalist and University of Iowa Wrestling Coach Tom Brands thinks it’s all about a tradition of heroes.

“People crave a winner. Throughout the decades, in the state of Iowa, there has always been a winner in the sport of wrestling. Frank Gotch started it, and it continued with Dan Gable and has carried on to this day. Since the early 1900s, little boys, and sometimes girls, grow up wanting to stamp their name on the wrestling world,” he said.


Iowa’s heroic G Men

Gotch and Gable are arguably the two greatest heroes in Iowa sport’s history. Gotch was a farm boy in an era when professional wrestling was both brutal and honest. While just a teenager in 1899, he wrestled an alleged furniture salesman for more than two hours before losing a hard fought match. The victor was so impressed with his foe that he gave up his real identity: He was actually American heavyweight champion Dan MacLeod.

Nine years later, Gotch defeated Georg Hackenschmidt, “The Russian Lion,” for the world championship in Chicago. In conceding defeat, the loser admitted, “He is the king of the class, the greatest man by far I ever met.” Gotch retained his title six years, becoming one of America’s first great sports celebrities, a favorite guest at Teddy Roosevelt’s White House and in baseball club houses. (In the Frank Gotch Collection at the Dan Gable Wrestling Museum in Waterloo, one can see the wrestling shoes he wore against Hackenschmidt plus many other rare items.)                 

Mac Davis wrote in “100 Greatest Sports Heroes”: “As the idol of millions in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Gotch made wrestling a big-time sport in his day. He drew larger audiences than did the heavyweight champion of boxing when defending his title.”

Nat Fleischer wrote in 1936: “The story of American wrestling at its greatest, is the story of the career of its most illustrious champion — Frank Gotch… Gotch was to wrestling history in this country what John L. Sullivan was to boxing. He dominated the field. Through his extraordinary ability, he gained for wrestling many converts and brought the sport into such favor that it became as big in the (promotional) field as boxing.”

Gable, from Waterloo, personified success on multiple levels. The first Iowa high school wrestler to finish his career undefeated, he went on to win the gold medal at the 1972 Olympic Games without giving up a single point, a feat that made him as famous in Russia as he was in Iowa. As coach at the University of Iowa, his teams won 15 national championships in 21 years, inventing a mystique of dominance that became internationally known as “the Iowa style.” We asked him why wrestling clicks with Iowans.

CVA_21PAGE 18“Pretty obvious to me. Its past successful history, from the early 1900s until right now. Wrestling is pretty difficult and involves extra hard work and disciplines. The state of Iowa, given that it’s an agricultural state and involves a lot of independently hard-working people, fits wrestling’s mentality. Everyone needs a little of this in them. The more one is known throughout the world for productive action, the better off you can be. Both farming and wrestling take this state to all corners of the world,” he explained.                  

Brands believes that Iowans have held on to old fashioned, hard core values personified in wrestling.

“That lure to a very tough, but very rewarding, sport has never left the roots of the working class in the state of Iowa. It is loved and appreciated by spectators and participants alike. It is very personal and never leaves the fiber of who Iowans are,” he summed up.

In Iowa, wrestling is better designed to create heroes than other sports. It does not dilute the significance of championships. While other Iowa high school sports are divided into as many as six classes, wrestling uses just three. Smaller schools hold their own, too. Since the new millennium began, Council Bluffs’ Lewis Central has won the “big school” class three times, Oskaloosa once and Waverly-Shell Rock four times. Those schools ranked 45th, 51st and 52nd in enrollment when they won. Iowa’s success has translated to the collegiate level, too. Together, Iowa (23), Iowa State (8), Cornell (1) and Northern Iowa (1) have won 33 national championships. Save Oklahoma, all other states have combined for just eight.

Because of the intensity of Iowa’s love for wrestling, Kostek says the NCAA is inaugurating a new event this year.

“For local fans who want a wrestling experience but weren’t lucky enough to find tickets to the championships, this is the first time they have hosted a Fan Festival that will televise live every match in the championships, via closed circuit in Hy-Vee Hall,” he said. .


What to expect

Wrestling tournaments are spectacles. From the upper rows of Wells Fargo Arena, last month’s high school tourney looked like an eight-ring circus. Nearly 700 young men in multicolored singlets grappled with opponents while young girls cheered rhythmically on the edges of each mat. Action spiraled continuously and kinetically, each ring on its own clock. Just outside the rings, wrestlers prepared for their impending battles: Some meditated, others practiced yoga, calisthenics and visualization; coaches gave last-minute instructions, some with mantras. All the while cheerleading teams, with their own coaches, carefully watched the action to see which of the eight mats their on-deck wrestlers would be assigned on a “first mat available” basis. Losers retired from the mats in tears, rage and despondence. Winners rejoiced.

 In the stands, large congregations sat together and cheered their boys. Parents and fans from 240-some high schools wore their own uniforms and repeated odd mantras. Entire sections would dress in identical T-shirts:

                  “Do it big and let the small fall under that.”

                  “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.”


A back-to-the-wall predicament

This year’s NCAA event will be the first since the International Olympic Committee dropped wrestling from its list of core sports, those which automatically qualify for quadrennial Olympiads. That’s given its fans a back-to-the-wall urgency that fits them like a singlet.

“It’s crazy. Wrestling was part of the Ancient Games. Nothing is more hard core to the Olympics. Dropping it also discriminates against the poor. Anyone, in any country, can wrestle without spending money on equipment. Yet a bunch of elitists on a committee of elitists would rather promote yachting,” explained fan Jim Sandburg.

Wrestlers are used to such lack of respect. The Olympic Committee decision came after years of attrition for collegiate wrestling. Title IX passed Congress in 1972 and began affecting college athletic departments in 1978. The most popular way for colleges to comply with the sexual discrimination prohibitions of Title IX was to drop male-only wrestling. Since then, college wrestling programs have been dumped nationwide in staggering numbers. In 1981-82, there were 146 Division I wrestling teams, with 3,659 student-athletes participating. By 2011-12, those numbers dropped to 77 teams with 2,438 student-athletes. That’s by far the largest net loss in any sport.

“It’s a predicament, but predicaments and reversals are parts of our sport. Hopefully, this is what we needed to invigorate wrestling,” said Sandburg. CV

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