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TheMatside View by Gary Abbott: The top 10 wrestling stories of 2005
Could the year be over already? Is 2006 really starting this Sunday?
Each year, we take a look back at the top 10 wrestling stories of the year, as we head into the New Year. It has been another interesting season for the amateur wrestling community, with some great action and unexpected twists along the way. How about these topics as the top 10 of 2005?
1. New international wrestling rules - The 2005 year marked the beginning of the new rules of international wrestling, which had been announced by FILA during the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. It was a year of education and experimentation for those in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. The match structure changed completely, to a format similar to tennis, where you must win two of three periods to take a bout. Every weight class is started and completed in one day. If you step out of bounds, your opponent gets a point. There was a total revamping of Greco-Roman wrestling, where each athlete gets a chance on the top par-terre position with a reverse bodylock. Like them or not, you have to admit that this was the biggest change in the sport this year. And those involved in youth wrestling who have not learned the new rules will have to learn in 2006 because USA Wrestling is switching over to them in the age-group levels. Let the debate continue on the new rules…
2. Oklahoma State's dynasty in the making - It is an overused word, but John Smith is building a powerhouse in Stillwater, Okla. which is starting to remind people of the great (shall we say it?) wrestling dynasties in history. The Oklahoma State Cowboys had a record-setting performance at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Mo., winning five individual titles and setting a record for the largest margin of victory in tournament history. It was a third straight team title for Smith's Pokes, and the 33rd in the storied history of the program. And the scary part is that most of the team has returned for the 2005-06 year. Cowboy fans had a great time during the NCAA finals, watching Zach Esposito, Johny Hendricks, Chris Pendleton, Jake Rosholt and Steve Mocco win their gold-medal matches. Mocco's footsweep takedown on Cole Konrad of Minnesota was a fitting ending to an amazing team performance. People are starting to wonder what it will take to stop the OSU streak.
3. Iris Smith, World champion - With just seven weight classes in international wrestling, and the world scene getting tougher every year, winning a World title seems to get more and more difficult. This year, perhaps the biggest surprise winner of a gold medal at the 2005 World Wrestling Championships came from an American women's wrestler, when Iris Smith of the U.S. Army captured the 72 kg/158.5 lbs. title in Budapest. Iris Smith has not been No. 1 in the USA since 2001, and her best past performance was seventh in the World meet. She tore through a challenging field to earn a spot in the finals, where she upset one of the greatest women wrestlers in history, five-time World champion Kyoko Hamaguchi of Japan. Smith is a great example of how hard work, dedication and belief in yourself can pay off with success. Her performance was inspiring, the highlight of the U.S. effort at the World Championships. Iris reminded everybody to never give up on your dreams.
4. Brent Metcalf makes Junior Nationals history - Something must be said for talented and successful wrestlers who put themselves out on the mat and take on all comers. In Fargo, N.D. this summer, high school phenom Brent Metcalf of Michigan tied the national record by winning his sixth career Junior Nationals title. He matched the 1980's achievement of Sean Hage of Georgia, winning the freestyle and Greco-Roman gold medal at the ASICS/Vaughan Junior Nationals for the third straight summer. When some "big name" athletes chose not to compete, Metcalf came and made history. Something needs to be said for one of his competitors as well. Matt Dragon of Pennsylvania chose to drop down in weight and enter the freestyle tournament at 152 pounds, where he met Metcalf in the finals. Dragon was pinned in the gold-medal match, but stepped up went after Metcalf. When you add in Cadet National achievements into Metcalf's age-group history, he could be considered one of the greatest youth wrestlers in USA Wrestling history.
5. Beach Wrestling arrives, and Sombo has returned - FILA, the international wrestling federation, is expanding its focus on more forms of wrestling. During the 2004 Olympic Games, FILA announced the creation of Beach Wrestling as a new international sport. FILA noted that wrestling in the sand has been a traditional sport in many cultures since the beginning of time. Many people were initially skeptical of Beach Wrestling. The first major Beach Wrestling event held in the USA, the East Coast National Beach Wrestling Championships held in Long Beach, N.Y. was a stunning success and opened many people's eyes to the possibilities that this new sport can offer. During the 2005 World Championships, FILA then announced that it would once again host a World Sombo Championships in 2006. This is sport that FILA once governed, but abandoned during the 1980's. This combat sport, which combines wrestling and judo and athletes wear a jacket, is very popular in Russia and other nations. FILA will hold the Beach and Sombo World Championships together in Turkey next fall. USA Wrestling, the wrestling governing body in the United States, will have qualifying events for a World team in these new international styles. Fans are asked to come out and see these sports for themselves before they judge how they fit into the wrestling scene worldwide.
6. Olympic medalists, where are you? - At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, the United States won six medals, three in men's freestyle, two in women's freestyle and one in Greco-Roman. A full season has now passed, and it is time to ask, where are our Olympic medalists today? Only one of the six won a World medal in 2005, women's freestyle star Sara McMann of the Sunkist Kids, a silver medalist in Athens. McMann did not wrestle most of the season, but came back out during the World Team Trials to make the U.S. team. At the World Championships, she faced her nemesis, World and Olympic champion Kaori Icho of Japan, in the first round at 63 kg/138.75 lbs. After losing to Icho, McMann rebounded and wrestled back to take a bronze medal. Two of the other medalists competed during the 2005 year. Olympic silver medalist Stephen Abas of the Sunkist Kids moved up a weight class to 60 kg/132 lbs., and beat Olympic champion Yandro Quintana of Cuba in a tournament in Cuba. However, Abas was upset in the U.S. Nationals by Michael Lightner of the Sunkist Kids (who went on to win the title), and Abas withdrew. Injury plagued Abas during the year, and he did not enter the World Team Trials. Olympic bronze medalist Patricia Miranda sat out the 2005 season to finish her first year at Yale Law School, but announced a comeback in the fall. She entered the New York AC Holiday Open up a division at 51 kg/112.25 lbs., where she lost in the finals to Jenny Wong. The other three medalists have not wrestled, freestylers Cael Sanderson of the Sunkist Kids and Jamill Kelly of the Gator WC, and Greco-Roman hero Rulon Gardner of the Sunkist Kids. Gardner continues his public speaking career and wrote a book. Sanderson is an assistant coach at his alma mater Iowa State. Kelly is involved in the wrestling program at his alma mater Oklahoma State. Gardner will definitely not return to wrestling, but the jury is still out about Sanderson and Kelly. Will they get the Olympic itch in the next year or two? Stay tuned.
7. Chasing the Cowboys - Perhaps the most interesting news out the NCAA Div. I Championships in St. Louis was not that Oklahoma State won easily, but that some different schools have stepped up to challenge for a national trophy behind the Cowboys. In their best team finish since 1974, the Univ. of Michigan placed second in the team standings, led by individual champion Ryan Bertin at 157 pounds. Oklahoma, the team that everybody likes to underestimate each season, came in third in the standings, led by champion Teyon Ware at 141 pounds. The fourth place team was Ivy League power Cornell, led by individual champion Travis Lee at 133 pounds. Cornell's great finish reminded everybody that colleges like Cornell that are recognized for their academics can still excel in Div. I wrestling. There are many programs in the nation that have a potential to crack into the Top Four at future NCAA meets, and the level of wrestling at some campuses continue to improve. Watch for more "surprise" teams to make big strides in future years.
8. 75th NCAA Anniversary Team allows fans to celebrate college wrestling legacy - In order to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, fans were given an opportunity to vote online for the top 15 wrestlers in college wrestling history. This team was honored during a special public presentation in St. Louis' Union Station between sessions at the NCAA Tournament. The legacy of college wrestling was celebrated in a very public way. The 75th team included the only two four-time NCAA Div. I champions ever, Pat Smith and Cael Sanderson, plus a storied lineup, with five from the light weights, middle weights and heavy weights. These stars were also honored: Stephen Abas, Tom Brands, Dan Gable, John Smith, Yojo Uetake, Lee Kemp, Lincoln McIlravy, Wade Schalles, Joe Williams, Kurt Angle, Ed Banach, Carlton Haselrig and Dan Hodge. It was amazing to see many of these greats together, especially since Uetake flew in from his home in Japan to attend the celebration. Wrestling fans enjoyed arguing which wrestlers who were not selected might have deserved consideration. It was a fun activity which displayed college wrestling at its best, and the NCAA put the time and resources into the project to make it a classy show.
9. Tricia Saunders knocks down another barrier, the first woman in Hall of Fame - When the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum announced its class of 2006, another barrier was broken down within the sport. On her first year of eligibility, four-time World champion Tricia Saunders of the Sunkist Kids was elected as a Distinguished Member, becoming the first female inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame. Saunders has been breaking down barriers for women within wrestling going back to her days as a youth athlete, and is arguably one of the greatest women international wrestlers of all time. She ended her career never having lost to an American opponent. To top it off, Saunders was one of the coaches of the historic 2004 U.S. Women's Olympic Wrestling Team. Although the ceremony will not be held until June in 2006, the announcement of Saunders' election into the hallowed hall of wrestling history is a major milestone that shows just how far women have come in our sport.
10. World University Games freestyle team takes home three gold medals - For the first time since 1981, wrestling was included in the World University Games, a major multi-sport competition with tremendous respect on the world level. The hosts in Izmir, Turkey insisted that wrestling be added to the program, and many of the top wrestling nations sent talented teams loaded with Senior-level stars. In a performance that gives the U.S. optimism for the future, three young U.S. stars won freestyle gold medals at the tournament: Nate Gallick of the Sunkist Kids/Iowa State, Jesse Jantzen of the New York AC/Harvard and Tommy Rowlands of the Sunkist Kids/Ohio State. All three of these rising young talents beat wrestlers with World and Olympic experience on the way to victory. Gallick and Rowlands beat athletes from host Turkey in the finals match, a difficult feat considering the passion for wrestling in that nation.
Some others that are worthy of consideration include:
- The Office of Civil Rights announced a change in Title IX measurement could help protect wrestling, as colleges can now conduct a specific survey to measure interest in sports on campus. Feminist groups are staging a battle to get rid of the new change, and the NCAA has come out against it. At least through the first year of its implementation, the Bush Administration is standing strong behind the interpretation. This new tool could lesson the pressure on colleges to drop men's teams in order to reach the proportionality quota within Title IX regulations.
- Jim Scherr, an Olympic wrestler and a past Executive Director of USA Wrestling, was named as the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, one of the most powerful and important positions in international athletics.
- RealProWrestling conducted a complete season of international-style wrestling on national television, running weekly shows on PAX-TV and Fox Sports Net from March through May. A major hurdle was overcome when a fire wiped out the home and offices of founder Toby Willis, but the shows were still completed and aired. RealProWrestling used some innovative changes in order to enhance the action. Although no plans have been announced for a second season, the organization continues to work to get a regular place for wrestling on national sports television.
- Tolly Thompson of the Sunkist Kids finally earned his chance to wrestle on a U.S. World Team, after many years battling stars such as Kerry McCoy, Stephen Neal, Tom Erikson and others at the super heavyweight class in men's freestyle. Thompson lost in the first round at the World Championships to the eventual champion, but battled back with an inspiring performance in the wrestlebacks to capture a bronze medal.
- Kyle Maynard, the amazing young wrestler who overcame congenital amputation and competed without hands and feet, continued to inspire the nation with the publication of his book, No Excuses. The book made the New York Times Best Sellers list, educating people about wrestling and his own tremendous achievements.
- Wrestling continued to see new college programs added. In a turnback of recent trends, new college teams are being added each year, rather than many years of reduced opportunities. The competition level where the biggest growth is occurring is at smaller colleges that need to attract male enrollment. The NAIA wrestling program has grown by a few schools each year, and we some colleges on the NCAA Div. II and Div. III levels are choosing to start wrestling teams. The NCAA Div. I level has seen two programs return from the dead - Bucknell Univ. and Binghamton Univ. - as the wrestling world has stepped up to bring these teams back.
- Justin Ruiz made a major step forward in his international wrestling career, competing with success during the foreign tour season, then winning a bronze medal in the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. He was the only U.S. Greco-Roman medalist at the World meet this year.
- Ali Bernard, a Minnesota native who attends college in Canada, continues to be a star of the future for the United States after winning her second career Junior World title. Bernard captured the 72 kg/158.5 lbs. at the Junior World Championships in Lithuania, pinning all four of her opponents.
- Greco-Roman star Harry Lester became the first athlete from the U.S. Olympic Education Center (USEOC) program in Northern Michigan to win a U.S. Nationals wrestling title, when he captured the 145.5-pound division in Las Vegas, Nev. in May. Lester then continued making history by being the first USOEC wrestler to make the U.S. World Team, when he competed at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
- After 10 years of service to the sport, the Dave Schultz Wrestling Club ceased operation. Founder Nancy Schultz, along with numerous volunteers and donors, built a successful club which made a difference in American wrestling. This was initially created as a short-term solution for many athletes after the death of Dave Schultz, but went on to provide a decade of opportunity for elite and developing athletes in all three styles.
- Deanna Rix of Maine became the first women's wrestler to win three career Junior National titles, when she dominated action at the ASICS/Vaughan Women's Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D. and was named Outstanding Wrestler.
- 1999 World Champion wrestler Stephen Neal was a starter in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots at right guard, and helped lead the team to its third NFL Super Bowl title in recent seasons. Neal now owns three Super Bowl rings. This time, however, his position in the starting lineup gave wrestling tremendous coverage across the nation, as the spotlight on the game pointed at Neal's wrestling background.
- College wrestling is seeing an infusion of new young coaches who seek to build careers on the sidelines, such as Zeke Jones at the Univ. of Pennsylvania and Kerry McCoy at Stanford. One of the greatest coaches in history, Hall of Famer Joe Seay, has returned to the sidelines by taking over the reigns at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
- Greg Jones of West Virginia completed his college wrestling career as a three-time NCAA champion, dominating the 184-pound class during his senior year.
How about you? Are there any other stories you believe should be in the top 10? As in other years, we will ask our users to post their thoughts on TheMat.com's message board. Add your ideas to this link: