All Points West: Wrestling, the oldest show on earth
     2016-01-29      By Frank Marquez    editor@geringcitizen.com
I could talk to you about the waning popularity of wrestling, one of the oldest, if not THE oldest sport on the planet and all the reasons why wrestling is not considered mainstream. But I won’t. I will touch on some of the more fascinating aspects of wrestling, ones, that if you’re not already tuned to some aspect of wrestling, given its rich history and recent developments, you might change your mind.

First, let’s get past how the International Olympic Committee in 2013 wanted to get rid of wrestling at its 2020 games in Tokyo, Japan. The sport, which has its roots in the Olympics, was reinstated seven months after such a ridiculous idea was acted upon. Fortunately overturned by secret balloting among IOC members held in September 2013, wrestling (49 votes) beat out baseball-softball (24) and squash (22). Whew! Consider a tradition tossed aside like that. Beyond tragic.

Some sources say more than 15,000 years, but most say the first grapplers dug their toes into the sand with nothing but grit, and I mean that literally. Competitors in birthday suits or little more locked up in physical combat about the time of the Sumerians 5,000 years ago. According to the History of Wrestling website, “The Epic of Gilgamesh written in cuneiform, sculptures and low reliefs reveal the first refereed competitions, accompanied by music.” I doubt that it was anything like the crashing guitar rhythms of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” but I’m sure it served as motivation. Well, maybe not, but if it did anything for early fans, the better.

Sadly, I can’t put a finger on the popularity of wrestling and all its variations, but make it clear, I’m only referring to the head-to-head competition that takes place on a mat, and not in a cage, or ring. Like any kid growing up in the ‘70s, the seedlings of professional wrestling compared with the often slow developing action on the mat (considered amateur) … well, it’s no contest. Put it this way, would you rather see Rick Flair jumping from the top rope in the 1992 Royal Rumble instead of Nebraska alum 163-pound Jordan Burroughs, one of the greatest in collegiate and world competition, winning his third world title in September 2015 over Mongolia’s Unurbat Purevjav? Who? Yet, anyone who follows wrestling, maybe follows it like chess and its heroes, ala Bobby Fischer’s triumphs. You’ll find those sometime stars at occasional big events. The best thing about traditional wrestling? It’s purity.

In case you didn’t know or weren’t interested, the Nebraska Cornhuskers compete in the Big Ten Conference with some of the top teams in the nation to include Penn State, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, and Illinois. There are six Big Ten teams among the top 15 Division 1 powerhouses, with Nebraska (9-4 dual record) currently ranked No. 11 by the USA Today and NWCA Coaches as of Jan. 26. Indiana and Purdue are just outside the top 20. The Iowa Hawkeyes, a team that amassed 15 national titles from 1978 to 1997 under the guidance of fierce competitor and coach Dan Gable, a man so revered among true wrestling fans, he has become the stuff of legends. The program is so dominant, his successors Jim Zalesky, who took over for Gable in 1998, and Tom Brands, the current coach, have each collected three national titles of their own.

In the young season on Nov. 14, 2015, the Hawks hosted the Big 12’s Oklahoma State Cowboys at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, shattering attendance records for a dual meet. The official count was 42,287, and the Hawks didn’t disappoint, edging the ’Boys, 18-16 to knock off the No. 1 team at the time.

Wrestling garners quite a following throughout the Midwest following a track east to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It’s also building a lukewarm following just below the latitude along Oklahoma’s southern border. You might say it has something to do with the harsh winter months. Also, for a lot of us guys who are short, we’re unlikely to be a basketball star, though there are exceptions. Husker alum Tyronn Lue (a shade under 6 feet) excelled, and is now the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Though, wrestling for the vertically challenged and those of us with stockier builds was the perfect fit. Not all fans in my family, my eldest brother referred to it as “smelling arm pits.” I bet he wouldn’t say that to Burroughs if he met him in a dark alley.

Speaking of, just this past month, I attended a dimly lit dual meet between the Scottsbluff Bearcats and Gering Bulldogs. Honestly, I’m not sure how to view this spotlight effect. Is it a marketing ploy or a mood thing? I first witnessed it as a coach in Nevada at the regional high school championship matches in Las Vegas in 2009. Did any of these wrestlers deserve stardom level attention? Maybe it resides in the realm of a participation trophy.

Believe me, the match between the Bearcats and Bulldogs was nothing like the old days when Gering Coach Chuck Deter prowled the edges of the mat. Although, the Scottsbluff gym was nearly filled to capacity, the cheering seemed limited to the matches.

Back in the day, once the cheering started, it didn’t seem to end until the last bags were packed, the mats were rolled, and chairs were folded. Maybe it was just the echoes in the gym, or Gering’s victories being replayed in my mind.

At the match, it was brought to my attention by former Gering H.S.
Algebra teacher Mike Smith how wrestling attracted one late-comer to the sport in varsity 145-pounder Deion Contreras, who battled Bearcat state champ Ben Rodriguez that night, though he lost 9-4. The mere fact this Gering wrestler was spending his last year of high school testing his mettle against guys who have been on the mats since they were toddlers was to say the least, inspiring. Why would someone do that?

Comparing the sport to ancient times, when the first contests defined the art, wrestling doesn’t start any differently in Nebraska homes filled with boys, settling their differences on living room floors, the way it did in my family. The sport with no sticks, no gloves, and no balls, says, “I can beat you.”

Safe bet? Wrestling isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. If you haven’t lived it, you might want to watch it.

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