IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kyle Dake knew that the crowd inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena would go ballistic if he provided the big moves.
The former Cornell star is a student of the sport of wrestling as much as he is a competitor, so Dake knew all about the die-hard fans who flock to Carver each winter. He knew those same fans would be in attendance to watch the UWW Freestyle World Cup this past weekend.
And Dake wanted to make sure the price of admission was worth it.
“I just wanted to put on a show for them,” Dake said. “This is the best atmosphere in the world. These fans are insane. They love the sport of wrestling. As a competitor, I love wrestling here.
“This is a crazy atmosphere. It’s packed to the gills, and hopefully the next time we have it here, there will be even more people. The crowd is crazy. They’re great for the sport.”
Dake provided some crazy fireworks, helping Team USA to the 2018 World Cup title, its 14th overall and first since 2003. On Saturday, the 27-year-old provided high-amplitude scoring sequences en route to two technical falls.
He followed up on Sunday by defeating Azerbaijan’s Jabrayl Hasanov, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, in the gold medal match. For the weekend, Dake went 4-0 for the United States as the starter at 79 kilograms (roughly 174 pounds).
The crowd responded with “USA” chants that echoed off the walls. Over the two-day event, the total attendance came in at 12,766, which made for a rowdy atmosphere that many of the United States wrestlers fully enjoyed.
“It’s awesome,” said Thomas Gilman, a former Iowa star and the U.S. starter at 57 kilos (125.5 pounds). “There’s no better place to have it in the world. This first round — it’s not packed, but there’s a lot of people out there. I’ve never seen it like that for the World Cup.
“It’s in my backyard, and we have the best fans here.”
MORE WRESTLING WORLD CUP COVERAGE
- Without Russia and Iran, Team USA rolls to World Cup title
- Thomas Gilman goes 1-1 on Day Two
- Full analysis on USA-Azerbaijan Gold Medal match
- Japan tops Cuba for third, Georgia takes fifth
- You guys HAVE to see Kyle Dake's big throws
This was the 30th time the United States hosted the event, but just the first time it was in Iowa City. Toledo, Ohio, has hosted 17 times while Los Angeles has hosted three times. Chattanooga, Tennessee; Spokane, Washington; and Stillwater, Oklahoma, have all hosted twice, and Baltimor; Fairfax, Virginia; and Boise, Idaho, have all hosted once.
But Iowa City made sense because of the consistently strong fan support. The Iowa wrestling program has led the NCAA in average attendance for the last 11 years. In 2016-17, Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa all ranked in the top 10 nationally in average attendance.
“It’s awesome,” said J’den Cox, the U.S. starter at 92 kilos (202.5 pounds). “They love great wrestling. They’re going to be great fans. I’ve wrestled here two times before, and every time you come to Carver-Hawkeye, it’s wrestling nation. It’s awesome.
“You’re going to be loved — except for when you wrestle against Iowa. Otherwise, if you’re on Team USA, they just love to watch you wrestle.”
Wrestling fans here love the freestyle discipline as well. When the Olympic Trials came to Iowa City in 2012, more than 50,000 attended over the course of two days. When the trials were in Las Vegas back in 2008, the total attendance was 22,642 over three days.
As such, the trials returned in 2016, where the turnout was equally as strong. A total of 44,254 showed up to watch wrestlers from all parts of the country punch their tickets to the Rio Olympics. Many of those same wrestlers were part of Team USA this weekend.
“It’s good to have everybody cheering for you,” said Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and four-time Senior world champion. “I was telling a lot of people this past week — when I wrestle here at the Olympic Trials, it’s amazing. The stadium is packed, there’s 12,000 people here, but the only people that are rooting for me have Burroughs as their last name.
“It’s insane. I’m a Husker fan, not a Hawkeye fan, but I love it here. The atmosphere is amazing. This is the mecca of wrestling. Thomas Gilman is my teammate. I got a chance to spend time at Dan Gable’s house. I sat in the sauna with Tom and Terry Brands. Royce Alger is roaming the hallways telling bad jokes. It’s been an amazing week.”
It helped, too, that the United States dominated. Just nine months removed from its first world team title since 1995, Team USA rolled to a World Cup crown, winning 31 of 40 total matches. The U.S. recorded 19 technical falls, more than the next two closest countries combined (Japan, 10, and Georgia, 7).
“They have great fans here. We all know that,” said David Taylor, who went 4-0 this weekend at 86 kilos (189 pounds) and won two NCAA titles at Penn State. “In the past, we got booed coming through here, but to have the opportunity to wrestle for the United States, and in front of those great fans, it’s great.
“We’re here to wrestle, but we’re here to be entertainers and put on a show. We bust our butts every day when we’re practicing, and we don’t do that to come out here and win 1-0.”
Even the visiting teams thought highly of the atmosphere. Team Japan, which finished third, fully embraced the spotlight that Iowa City often shines on wrestling. They took pictures with many fans, and even tweeted a picture out of them eating Carver’s ice cream cones.
Yuki Takahashi, the defending world champion at 57 kilograms, gave a thumbs up to the crowd after his win over Cuba’s Reineri Andreu Ortega in the third-place dual, and ultimately gave one of his Team Japan shirts to a young fan rooting for them.
“Iowa City — this is almost like a UFC fight because it’s a grand stage and there’s such a great atmosphere,” Takahashi said through an interpreter. “I’m just so grateful to be here.”
Next year’s UWW World Cup will be in Kaspiysk, Russia, but it remains to be seen for 2020 and beyond. There’s also the possibility of the United States hosting the Greco-Roman World Cup, something it hasn’t done since 1996. There’s also the Women’s Freestyle World Cup, which has never been contested in the United States.
Time will tell if any of the World Cups return to Carver, but this past weekend left a dang good impression. As the maintenance crew rolled up the mats after the United States’ celebration, Gary Abbott, the communications director for USA Wrestling, packed up his bags and headed toward the exit.
He stopped to thank a worker and smiled.
“This was a lot of fun,” Abbott said. “It’s nice to have these things at places that love wrestling.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.