This weekend was a bittersweet one for me.
It’s a weekend that I wait for all year long. The day after, I moan and groan because it will be another 365 days before it happens again.
The weekend I’m talking about is March Matness. No, that’s not a typo; I’m not much of a basketball fan. I’m talking about the Division I NCAA Wrestling Tournament. I absolutely long for this weekend and can’t wait for it to come around every season.
This time, my beloved Buckeyes nearly pulled off an incredible upset, finishing second to perennial powerhouse Iowa by a mere 4.5 points. The difference is miniscule–one, maybe two more wins for the Bucks or losses for the Hawkeyes would have been enough to sway the standings in our direction. Given the number of medical defaults Iowa received (a medical default is when you automatically win because your opponent is injured. Think of it as a forfeit.), the number of overtime matches they won, and the number of overtime matches we lost, a 4.5 point difference is a mere pittance. GAH!!!
Why am I getting all worked up over wrestling?
Wrestling, much like its athletes, is a unique, yet highly misunderstood sport. Most people, because they haven’t been exposed to it in any meaningful way, don’t give a darn about it. It just ain’t sexy. Whenever it comes up in conversation, the statements I hear most often are: a) “you guys run around in sweats all the time and never eat. That’s dangerous!” and b) “Wrestling is gay.” The latter statement is the one preferred by my just slightly immature and homophobic 9th grade students, but adults have uttered it on occasion as well.
Very few people can fathom my fascination with the sport. 99.9% of the people who “get it” were either wrestlers themselves or are married to one.
All sports can be great crucibles to shape character. The practice and dedication required to become skillful can burn discipline into the soul. On the flip side, athletes of all stripes are prone to displays of pride, narcissism, and arrogance. Wrestlers are not immune to this temptation. Brent Metcalf’s boneheaded retaliation after his finals loss, along with the lame excuses he offered in the following interviews, is a prime example.
Here is part of the match:
Here is the unsportsmanlike move at the end of the match:
Metcalf interview afterwards
Nevertheless, wrestling is the best character crucible of all sports-wise, IMO.
Wrestling won’t get you paid, laid, or made, as one author put it. It’s all guts and no glory. The stipend for a team USA wrestler, for instance, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 dollars a month, so many need part time jobs in addition. Former Olympian Melvin Douglas, worked at Home Depot in his gladiator days.
Perhaps the most common physical mark of a wrestler is “cauliflower ear.” It looks so disgusting, yet many wrestlers wear it with pride as a sort of “red badge of courage.”
It is the world’s purest sport. While there is a team aspect to it, at its most primal level, it pits man against man in clean combat. No gloves. No pads. No helmet. No raquet, ball, or stick. Just a mouthpiece, a headgear resembling ear muffs (many forego the headgear), and your body. It totally exposes your abilities, dedication, and heart. In a basketball or football game, it is possible to pawn your mistakes off on other team members. Not so in wrestling. If you make a mistake or don’t prepare enough, there is no comforting fig leaf that you can use to hide.
It is also, arguably, the world’s oldest sport. Records of wrestling competitions exist amongst the annals of ancient Greece and Egypt. By contrast, basketball was invented in the 1800′s.
Wrestling is not biased against a certain size, height, weight, or body type. Whether you are 100 pounds or 280 pounds, there is a spot on the team for you. Men with no legs or missing arms have wrestled. The blind have wrestled (their grips are scary enormous!) and have done quite well. The tiny, like Sam Henson (I dare not call him tiny to his face!), or the gigantic, like Rulon Gardner and Alexander Karelin, can carve out a space in wrestler lore. The tall and lanky slicksters, like Kendall Cross, as well as the stocky brawlers, like Tom Brands, can win championships.
While discipline is prevalent in all sports (From watching my sister compete, I’ve gained a great respect for cross-country runners.), the discipline required in wrestling is particularly intense. The conditioning workouts are enough to kill a small horse. Perhaps the most taxing is the strength of mind needed to maintain a wrestler’s diet. Wrestlers watch their diets like hawks, and it takes considerable mental toughness to maintain a balance between laziness and extreme and unsafe measures.
Once you have put all the hard work into preparing yourself, there’s nothing like engaging in a hard fought battle on the mat, walking off afterwards feeling like a mack truck hit you.
Perhaps I’m biased. Well, I think there’s no doubt: I competed in it for 15 years and have coached for 3. I have been intimately involved since I was 9 years old. For me, wrestling is something spiritual; to be successful, one must display many of the character qualities of a disciple.
Though things like courage, fortitude, and perseverance are found in many places and in all sports, you will find them in abundance in wrestling. If you look into the eyes of someone who has spent a lifetime in it, you will see a depth of soul that a precious few have known.
So, you see, calling wrestling the “world’s oldest and greatest sport” is no empty boast.
I sure do hope there’s wrestling in heaven.
Check out some more highlight vidz:
2008 Big Ten Finals
2008 NCAA Finals
A short clip of an Iowa practice