The Iowa 133-pounder knocked off Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello, 7-4.
ST. LOUIS — Cory Clark isn’t the type to dazzle on the mat with a flurry of takedowns or off of it with one-liners.
But the quiet, unassuming Iowa senior just might be one of the toughest men to ever wear a Hawkeye singlet.
Battling through who-knows-how-much pain and facing the nation’s top-ranked wrestler Friday night at the Scottrade Center, Clark fought with everything he had.
And with one good shoulder, he gutted out a 7-4 comeback win over Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello to reach his third consecutive NCAA final at 133 pounds.
“I may not hit the prettiest shot or I may not hit the legs and finish,” Clark said. “But I'm tough to beat, and I think that showed.”
This was Clark’s 16th victory of his NCAA Championships career; 13 have come by regular decision.
He doesn’t always dominate with points, but he punishes opponents with a relentless motor.
Ask anyone around the Hawkeye wrestling program, and they’ll use the same word to describe him: tough.
Nobody’s tougher, they say.
“Doesn’t matter what’s wrong with him: bumps, bruises or if it’s something huge,” teammate Brandon Sorensen said Friday morning. “It doesn’t matter. It’s Clark.”
Even an opposing coach, unprompted, went out of his way to comment on the grit that he saw from Clark.
“Cory Clark is one tough kid,” Northern Iowa’s Doug Schwab, a former Hawkeye national champ, said Friday night. “Holy cow. Man. How can you not be impressed? You see what that kid’s been through this year, you know he’s been battling. Now, he’s back in the finals again.”
It’s been no secret that Clark is hurting.
Heck, it’s out there to see — that cumbersome, black harness wrapped tightly around his left shoulder.
Opponents this week have tried yanking on his bad wing. The Southeast Polk product tries not to wince.
When the referee went to raise Clark’s arm to signal victory, it didn’t go up very high.
“First of all, one of my main goals as a competitor is to show no pain, show no emotion,” Clark said. “So that sucks that you noticed that (it) hurt.
“To be honest, we’re in the national finals. It doesn't matter if you cut my arm off. Doesn't matter what kind of pain I’m in.”
In his match with Tomasello, Clark looked to be in trouble. He trailed 3-1 after two periods.
But two times in the third, Clark turned holds that appeared to be in Tomasello’s favor into takedowns — the winning move coming with 19 seconds left to break a 4-all tie.
“It's not easy to do, but it's kind of cheap how they are in so deep and you wind up scoring on him,” Clark said. “You’ve got to think what it does to a guy mentally.”
Earlier Friday, Clark became the 19th four-time all-American in school history and just the third of the Tom Brands era.
Saturday night, he can become the school’s first individual champion since Tony Ramos at this same weight in 2014.
And in a strange twist of fate, in Clark’s 113th and final college match, he’ll face a former teammate in South Dakota State’s second-seeded Seth Gross.
This week two years ago, Gross was in an Iowa jail.
He was in jail two years ago but will now wrestle former teammate Cory Clark for the NCAA title at 133 pounds.
Then a redshirt freshman, Gross decided to go out with friends while his Hawkeye teammates were at the nationals here in St. Louis. One drink led to another, and soon he was facing felony charges for burglary and was kicked off the Iowa team.
He wound up in Brookings, S.D., with a fresh start and cleaned up his act.
“With Iowa, I wouldn't say it's bad blood anymore. I made the mistakes, not them,” Gross said Friday after beating Oklahoma State’s Kaid Brock 12-3. “And I don't have a right to be mad at them, but it gives me extra fire knowing it's a guy that I was supposed to be on the team with.”
Noting that Gross “would love to stick it up my you-know-what,” Clark said he won’t take his former teammate lightly.
“I know he's tough on top. I know he can tilt guys,” Clark added. “… I know that's a mental edge for him, maybe, is his top game.
“But you can't forget I'm tough on top, too. And you can't forget I'm tough on bottom.”
Nobody who follows Iowa wrestling will forget.
And you can bet, win or lose, Clark will be tough through the pain for seven more minutes.
“Tomorrow is what matters,” Clark said, “and I’m not going to sit here and say this hurts or this hurts. Once the tournament is over, I'll be glad to sit down and tell you what hurts. Not to be an ass, but it's kind of how I feel.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.