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The top-ranked heavyweight nationally spoke about being a team leader as a senior. Chad Leistikow

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As far as conversation-starters go, this one came across awkwardly.

It happened when two-time all-American Bobby Telford warned his Iowa wrestling teammates that he was changing things up.

"I want to party a lot this year," he told them. "It's my senior year. It's time to party."

Strange looks were shot at Iowa's disciplined, massive heavyweight.

"I explained to them what I mean by that," Telford said. "Partying with my friends and my teammates on the mat in tournaments. Having fun."

So far, Telford's senior season has been something to celebrate. He is unbeaten in 16 matches and hasn't allowed a single takedown.

This week, he moved to No. 1 in the national rankings. That's significant for an Iowa wrestling program that hasn't had a national champion at any of the three upper-most weights since Steve Mocco at heavyweight in 2003.

"He's asserted himself as the best guy in the country," ninth-year Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "He's got to keep proving it every time out."

Off-the-mat growth

In an interview with The Des Moines Register this week, Telford frequently mentioned his non-traditional upbringing in Hockessin, Del., and credited his father, Bob, for developing his character.

"He raised me the right way that a man should be raised," Telford said. "I wasn't brought up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was put in place when I needed to be put in place."

Fair to say he had a strict upbringing?

"I'd say 'strongly guided,' " Telford said.

His grandfather started a logging company after serving in World War II. His dad worked in the family business and wasn't allowed to play sports.

Telford got the green light to play sports, and he became the No. 1 high school heavyweight in the country.

In the summers, he wasn't partying with classmates. He, too, worked in the logging business, which meant hanging out with laborers who had a limited education, a checkered past or, more likely, both.

"It's work that no one wants to do," Telford said. "My dad put me around an atmosphere like that, where you can learn from other people's mistakes before you make them."

SCORING: Hawkeyes know why, how they need to get more points

That's not to say Telford didn't slip up. He mentioned getting kicked out of his house as a teenager.

When he went to pick a college, he sought another home that would keep him accountable. The Iowa program under Tom and Terry Brands, crafted around hard work and discipline as it was under Dan Gable, was a natural fit.

Telford admitted a few indiscretions early in his Iowa career, which he chalked up to not listening to his coaches. When that stuff happened, Tom Brands would make a phone call to Delaware.

"The way Tom talked about it, is that Mr. Telford gave him some strong words of encouragement," Telford said. "Some strong backup — to get on my ass as soon as possible."

On-the-mat progression

Telford carries a dry, direct sense of humor. His work ethic is equally infectious in the Iowa wrestling room.

"Guys genuinely like him, and I think they always have," Tom Brands said. "Younger guys hang with him more."

Sophomore Thomas Gilman, ranked No. 4 at 125 pounds, is one of those Telford disciples.

"He's a funny guy. He's easy-going," Gilman said. "He lightens the mood. He makes you smile. He shows that if you work hard, things will turn your way."

Telford lost seven matches a year ago and settled for fourth at the NCAA Championships. This season, he's different. No "super kale protein shakes" or anything like that, he said. But he's been completely overpowering opponents. Eight of his first 10 matches resulted in pins, seven in the first period.

Give some of the credit to second-year volunteer assistant Ben Berhow. He came to Iowa from Minnesota, where he wrestled for five years and coached for three under J Robinson. One of Berhow's pupils up north was Tony Nelson, who won national championships at heavyweight in 2012 and 2013.

Berhow is a big body that Telford can battle, and learn from, in the wrestling room.

The weight limit at heavyweight is 285 pounds. Telford is among the nation's bigger heavyweights, in the 270s, and poses a debilitating trifecta for opponents: size, power and speed.

Berhow calls Telford the best hand-fighter — the battle to gain position during tie-ups — in the country.

"He's a violent hand-fighter. Guys feel it," Berhow said. "Guys cower to that intense physicality he brings."

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Reporters Chad Leistikow and Andy Hamilton break down the top-ranked Iowa wrestling team in early January.

He's also one of the most fluid-on-his-feet heavyweights.

Believe it or not, Telford wrestled at 135 pounds as a high school freshman, before jumping to 189 as a sophomore.

"Why stop wrestling the way you've been wrestling your whole life?" Telford said.

Telford beat four top-10 opponents last week alone, including then-No. 1 Mike McMullan of Northwestern with a late takedown to win his first Midlands Championships title. His dad flew 1,100 miles to suburban Chicago, on time as always, to view that moment.

Three days later, Bob Telford was in New Jersey, watching his son beat then-No. 9 Billy Smith of Rutgers.

"I appreciated it," Telford said.

The next challenges

Sunday, Telford will put his new No. 1 ranking on the line for the first time this season against No. 2 Austin Mardsen of Oklahoma State in a 2 p.m. dual in Stillwater, Okla.

"It's his time," Gilman said. "He's a national champ in my mind."

Perhaps as much as of a key to Telford's national title hopes as his wrestling is his ability to avoid health-related hiccups.

Telford hurt his knee in the first round of the NCAA Championships in 2013 in Des Moines, an ill-timed injury that forced him to default and miss his chance to be a four-time all-American. A year ago, he was slowed by chronic knee pain.

This year, Telford has been good to go in every facet.

"He's really been conscious about taking care of his body," Berhow said. "That's huge, for as hard as we train."

The final test is more than two months away, at the March 19-21 NCAA Championships in St. Louis.

It's there that the No. 1-ranked Hawkeyes will aim to capture their first national championship since 2010.

Telford said he has let himself think about what winning his first national title would be like. That vision has nine other guys in singlets right behind him.

After all, a good party includes lots of friends.

"This is an army," Telford said, looking around the Iowa wrestling room. "This isn't a rinky-dink program. We're not going out into battle or into war with someone's helmet undone or anything. These guys know what they're doing. They've got all their weapons. They know how to pull the trigger.

"If I'm the first one walking out, so be it. Because I've got some backup behind me."

MOST RECENT HAWKEYE NCAA CHAMPS BY WEIGHT

A look at the time since Iowa's last NCAA champion in each of the 10 weight classes, starting with the most recent (years without first-place finish):

133 (0 years) — Tony Ramos, 2014

157 (1 year) — Derek St. John, 2013

125 (2 years) — Matt McDonough, 2012

149 (4 years) — Brent Metcalf, 2010

174 (4 years) — Jay Borschel, 2010

165 (6 years) — Mark Perry, 2008

141 (10 years) — Cliff Moore, 2004

Hwt. (11 years) — Steve Mocco, 2003

Note: Iowa hasn't had a champion at 184 or 197 pounds since a new weight-class structure was unfurled for the 1998-99 season. Lee Fullhart was the last Hawkeye to win a title at 190 pounds (comparable to 197 today) in 1997. The last Hawkeye to win at 177 pounds (comparable to 184 today) was Royce Alger in 1988.

IOWA'S CURRENT LINEUP AND RANKING

The Des Moines Register uses Amateur Wrestling News rankings in publication.

125 — Thomas Gilman (fifth)

133 — Cory Clark (eighth)

141 — Josh Dziewa (10th)

149 — Brandon Sorensen (eighth)

157 — Michael Kelly (12th)

165 — Nick Moore (11th)

174 — Mike Evans (second)

184 — Sammy Brooks (seventh)

197 — Nathan Burak (sixth)

Hwt. — Bobby Telford (first)

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