Mitchell: March Mat Madness
Like Scott, this is one of my favorite times of the year. I don’t care much for college or pro basketball; in fact, I barely see any of the NCAA tournament. I’m a wrestler. I haven’t had a match as a competitor in 18 years, but once you make the commitment and it gets into your blood, you are a wrestler for the rest of your life. Indulge me for one post, as I step away from baseball and talk about my other sporting love.
In March, the Ohio High School Athletic Association State Wrestling Tournament takes place, which is one of my favorite sporting events of the year. The Big Ten Championships usually take place the same weekend. Two weeks later, the best college wrestlers in the country meet for the NCAA Championships. I’d love it if wrestling got more coverage (the Big Ten Network is expanding its coverage of the Big 10 Championships greatly this year), but wrestlers have always toiled largely in obscurity in front of the close-knit wrestling community and maybe that’s how it should be.
The culture of wrestling is a modern counter-culture. Sacrifice and delayed gratification reign. The more difficult road chosen, the better. There is no app for that. Athletes at the upper level of all sports are dedicated to their craft, but there is something different about what wrestlers go through. Being a wrestler, you are both a part of a group but also an island onto yourself. The training to be a wrestler is too much for most people to handle. You have early morning weight-lifting, or runs in 7 layers of clothing and plastic body suits followed by often multiple training sessions where you intentionally put your body through painful, potentially harmful drills and exercises, then perform hand-to-hand combat against teammates followed conditioning exercises designed to try to break you mentally and physically. You do all this to prepare to go get into a fight with someone with whom you don’t have a previous squabble.
Why do this? Why do wrestlers put themselves through the torment of training, then pile on the physical and mental anguish of weight management (cutting)? There is little fame or money in wrestling. There are a few who make a good living coaching in college. Some wrestlers are transitioning into the world of MMA, but big paydays are few and far between there. Cael Sanderson went undefeated (159-0) throughout his college career, winning 4 straight National Championships and then went on to win an Olympic gold medal in Athens and most people don’t know who he is. Luke Fickell is known all over the college football landscape, but before he was the interim head coach of the Buckeyes, he was a 3-time OHSAA wrestling champion. Fickell could have been a great college wrestler, maybe an Olympian, but he chose football and its greater potential for financial reward.
Many of those who stick with wrestling do so because it is out of the limelight. They relish the personal testing that goes on every day for the sake of proving themselves to themselves. Wrestlers have to be internally motivated to go through what they do. There is a saying repeated by wrestling coaches everywhere. “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” Wrestlers embrace that and wear it like a badge of honor.
The fate of wrestling is sealed by its self-designed exclusivity. It will forever be a second-tier sport subject to derisive homophobic jokes and scorn from the uninitiated. It will be this because we make it too difficult for outsiders to embrace. That’s ok, because respect from those who know what it is you went through to get where you are is enough for a wrestler.
Good luck to all the athletes who sweat, bleed, starve, grimace, hurt, and persevere for the chance to go out and put it all on the line for the opportunity for glory. It’s wrestling time!