IOWA CITY, Ia. — With the USA’s top wrestlers here to compete for world supremacy, national pride has overtaken college animosity this weekend at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
For fans and athletes alike.
Whether you wrestled for Penn State or Ohio State or Nebraska, you heard supportive “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants from the fans here at the UWW Freestyle World Cup — a good chunk of them coming from those wearing black-and-gold Hawkeye sweatshirts.
After helping send Team USA to a 2-0 Saturday in duals entering Sunday’s action, former Nittany Lion David Taylor (86 kilograms/189 pounds) said of wrestling before the announced crowd of 6,388: “They’re great fans here. We all know that. Most of the time (in the past), I’m getting booed running through here. It’s great.”
Meantime, Jordan Burroughs — a former Cornhusker who is arguably the country’s most accomplished active wrestler — gave full respect to not only the fans here but the Iowa wrestling program and tradition, too.
“I’m a Husker fan — not a Hawkeye fan — but I love it here. The atmosphere’s amazing,” Burroughs said. “It’s the mecca of wrestling. Thomas Gilman’s my teammate. I spent time at Dan Gable’s house. Been in the sauna with Tom and Terry Brands. Royce Alger’s roaming the hallways telling bad jokes. It’s been an amazing week.”
Heck, with a quote like that, make that man an honorary Hawkeye.
Some other thoughts from this two-day event, which will crown a world champion in Sunday’s 4 p.m. gold-medal match:
As Session I opened shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday, former Hawkeye and reigning World silver medalist Gilman was introduced to a thunderous applause. Those cheers quickly turned to jeers, as Gilman’s arm was already raised — having been awarded a forfeit at 57 kilograms/125.5 pounds.
The crowd reaction was a collective, “Come on, man.”
In the lead-up to this tournament, world wrestling powers Russia and Iran withdrew. And now the competition that was here wasn’t even competing. The U.S. rolled in the remaining nine matches past helpless India, an 11th-hour tournament addition that didn’t even arrive to Iowa City until Friday.
Iran, winner of the past six World Cup titles, had declined to come over a dispute with the UWW about the dates on which it would host the Greco-Roman World Cup. Russia, which was upset by Team USA at last summer’s World Championships in Paris, pulled out just a week ago over complications with visas.
Oh, and Turkey (fourth at last year’s worlds) also declined to come, and Georgia (third at the worlds) brought its “B” team to Iowa City as it prepares for the European Championships in Russia that begin in about three weeks.
So … this wasn’t the world’s best competition, as you’d like to expect for a World Cup — not to mention a $75 all-sessions ticket.
Team USA’s stiffest competition probably comes Sunday afternoon if Azerbaijan, which did bring its formidable “A” team, reaches the 4 p.m. gold-medal match.
The Japan dual, won 7-3 by the Americans, still brought a slew of exciting moments. It would’ve been nice to see even more of them in a true heavyweight matchup for the home country against the Russians or Iranians.
Freestyle vs. folkstyle
From a young age, I loved watching folkstyle wrestling. I grew up around it; my hunch is many of you reading this can relate.
Now, covering that style is part of my profession today. I still very much enjoy it.
But, boy, an eight-hour day of immersion in the aspects of freestyle — and it’s easy to wonder why the college system in the U.S. hasn’t switched to freestyle.
I get it: nostalgia, tradition, maybe even stubbornness to change. But the U.S. remains the only country in the world that places an emphasis on folkstyle. (There's no such thing as a folkstyle world championship.)
The best part of freestyle: Action is always moving.
Wrestlers are repeatedly kept on their feet by the referee, summoned to the middle of the mat if there's no quick action after a takedown.
There is no riding time, no escapes — not even overtime. If you get pushed out of bounds, you surrender a point. If you’re well behind, you can rally in a hurry. Scoring can come quickly, as Kyle Dake showed against India — scoring a four-point throw and two back-exposure points for a 6-0 lead in the first nine seconds!
What I like most: It feels like someone’s always in frantic, comeback mode from their feet — instead of being helpless while being ridden on the bottom. And if the final score is 4-4 with two takedowns each, the last wrestler to score is the winner.
Anyway, the fans I spoke with who showed up as freestyle novices really seemed to enjoy it once they figured out the scoring.
And no doubt in my mind, wrestlers (if you polled them) would say they prefer it, too.
“I love freestyle wrestling,” Olympic champion Kyle Snyder said. “… A lot more fun for me.”
The most electric moment of the day, when Dake successively tossed Japan's Sohsuke Takatani behind his head and to the mat for two four-point throws? That would've netted zero points in folkstyle — and maybe a disqualification.
Though the crowd size Saturday was less than what you'd see at an Iowa wrestling dual, the level of passion here has been top-notch.
“This is the best atmosphere in the world, hands down," said Dake, a former Cornell star. "These fans are insane."
Adults here quickly gravitated toward the beer that was available for purchase from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in "Gable's Garden" at the North Entrance — $6.50 for a 16-ounce can. (Let's just say it was a popular choice as the Azerbaijan vs. Cuba dual unfolded in Pool B.)
Saturday was popular for parents and kids, too. Photo opportunities were obviously impactful for youngsters who got to meet some of their wrestling heroes.
Yet one of the loudest ovations Saturday came when wrestling wasn't occurring.
It came when the Amateur Wrestling News "Hammer Award" was presented during the afternoon's opening ceremony.
Handed a large hammer trophy, symbolizing his conquering the most difficult bracket at last month's NCAA Championships in Cleveland, was a 125-pound freshman wearing a Hawkeye polo shirt, glasses and his signature smile: Spencer Lee.
After all, the quest for international dominance aside, this is — first and foremost — Hawkeye turf.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.