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Inside the rise of Abe Assad, who nearly quit wrestling but now starts for No. 1 Iowa

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kids covered the mats on the floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday night. Nathan Burak was leading the Iowa wrestling team’s annual youth clinic when the second-youngest wrestler on the Hawkeye roster emerged from the tunnel in the north corner.

Out walked Abe Assad, his hood up so as to keep a low profile, quiet but intentional. He navigated the sea of children and stood on the center mat. He looked up toward the top of the bowl and watched as the first fans walked in.

He took a deep breath. A dream was about to become a reality.

“Everybody wants to wrestle in Carver,” Assad would say later. “It’s the biggest stage in college wrestling.”

The weekend before, Iowa coach Tom Brands inserted Assad into Iowa’s starting lineup at 184 pounds. He is only the second true freshman one year removed from high school to start under Brands, joining two-time national champion Spencer Lee — rare and elite company, sure, but Assad has lived up to the billing, winning all three matches since the removal of his redshirt. 

Brands opted for Assad because he operates with a low pulse and high aptitude — “and we need that,” the coach of the top-ranked Hawkeyes added. He’s 18-3 and ranked 6th nationally by Trackwrestling. His 19th birthday is just 11 days before the Big Ten Championships. Teammates have dubbed him “Cool Guy Assad” because of his calm demeanor both on and off the mat.

“He just has that swagger about him,” said Michael Kemerer, Iowa’s starting 174-pounder. “He stepped right in and it feels like he’s been here for four years already.”

Iowa's Abe Assad, far left, waits to be introduced ahead of the top-ranked Hawkeyes' dual against Nebraska on Saturday, Jan. 18. Assad rallied to beat All-American Taylor Venz, 6-4, at 184 pounds that night.

Standing on the Carver floor, Assad thought about his current reality and how impossible it seemed not so long ago. He nearly quit wrestling after his sophomore season at Glenbard North in Illinois. He had won 75 matches in two years but lost his passion. Anger consumed him, and the sport he had grown to love left him broken.

After introspection, Assad made changes big and small, both in scenery and in mindset. He re-committed himself and fell in love with wrestling again. The last three years have looked like this: two state titles, a bronze medal at the Cadet freestyle world championships, a Junior national title, and, now, a starring role on the best Iowa wrestling team in a decade.

Assad flashed a quick smile and walked back toward the tunnel. Along the way, fans stopped him for pictures — “Household name already,” Brands said. Later that night, he rallied for a 6-4 win over Nebraska All-American Taylor Venz. He surrendered a takedown in the first period, then scored two of his own, and each one brought the 12,883 in attendance out of their seats.

When the match ended, he took off his ankle band slowly and smiled. The applause was deafening. It was the kind of roar Iowa wrestling fans love to take part in, and one that family, teammates and coaches expect Abe Assad to incite every winter for the next four years.

'There were some dark moments'

Earlier this season, Brands met with Assad, who was frustrated after dropping matches at both the Grand View and Lindenwood Opens. Brands remembers Assad describing one in great detail.

“His own evaluation was right on,” Brands said this week. “I watched the film, and I really didn’t even have to watch the film. That’s a pretty good quality to have, when you can evaluate, be hard on yourself and own it a little bit and not look through rose-colored glasses.”

Assad has always possessed an analytical mind. He craves tasks that require independence and mental fortitude, be it legos, magic card tricks or yo-yo skills. When he was very young, he taught himself how to use a drill by watching his grandfather work on cars.

“How did you learn to do that?” Jill, his mother, asked.

“I just watched,” she recalled him saying.

It’s easy to see why Assad was drawn to wrestling. The sport demands accountability and discipline but allows for creative freedom. Every aspect of the sport, from matches to practices to workouts, is a challenge with no perfect answer. He collected youth state and national titles. Jill and Rick, his father, thought wrestling would lead to a bright future.

Iowa's Abe Assad met with the media after winning his Carver-Hawkeye Arena debut on Saturday, Jan. 18. The true freshman is now 18-3 this season and is ranked No. 6 nationally at 184 pounds.

Then came high school.

As a freshman, Assad dropped from 145 pounds, his natural weight, to wrestle 120. He saw it as an avenue into Glenbard North’s starting lineup, but he struggled all year, worrying more about his weight than improving. Jill said the school nurse once called because she was worried about Assad’s health. He went 35-10 and qualified for state, but failed to reach the podium.

The next year, more of the same. He wrestled 145 despite continuing to grow (he would wrestle 170 a few months after his sophomore season ended). Went 40-8 and again reached state, but fell short. Jill remembers angry outbursts. She was worried he might quit.

“There were some dark moments during those first two years,” added Tom Gudella, an assistant at Glenbard North. “He was really close to hanging it up and saying, ‘Forget it, I just want to be a regular student.’”

Honest conversations with both Gudella and his parents forced Assad to look inward instead. Whatever I’m doing isn’t working, he thought. I’m not getting any better. This, too, became challenge.

And he conquered it with help from one of the best wrestling coaches in the country.

Israel Martinez began Izzy Style Wrestling in 2005, not long after he won three Illinois state championships and a junior-college national title for North Idaho. Martinez has helped coach many of Illinois’ top-tier high-school wrestlers over the years, including Tony Ramos, a 2014 NCAA champ for Iowa, and Jordan Blanton, a three-time All-American for Illinois.

Assad went to Martinez for help. When he arrived, guys like Will Lewan, Real Woods and Pete Christensen were all in the wrestling room. Lewan won a Cadet world title in 2018 and is now at Michigan and ranked No. 9 nationally at 157 pounds. Woods is at Stanford and ranked No. 3 at 141. Christensen is at Wisconsin. Assad was fueled by the idea of chasing those guys.

Abe Assad celebrates after winning a match at the 57th annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships. Assad, a true freshman for the Iowa wrestling team, finished second at 184 pounds.

“The room was hot,” Martinez said. “When you see a young man who you know has it in him but maybe doesn’t believe in himself, you’ve got to do your job as a coach and pull it out of him. He came in and started figuring it out. His confidence grew so much in just two years.”

In came the results: He won a Greco-Roman title and reached the freestyle finals at the Cadet national championships in 2017. Went undefeated and won state his junior year. Made both the Cadet greco and freestyle world teams, then won a world freestyle bronze medal. Signed with Iowa. Another state title. A third-place finish at the UWW Junior men’s freestyle national championships against college wrestlers. A Junior freestyle national title last summer. He grew — both literally and in his wrestling.

More importantly, Assad enjoyed the process. One day, Rick came home from work to find his son getting in his car.

“Practice with Izzy,” Abe said.

Rick was confused. “Weren’t you there yesterday?”

“Yeah,” Abe said, “but I want to go back and work some more.”

“He’d always been great about going to practice,” Rick continued, “but he hadn’t been motivated to go and do extra like that.”

Added Martinez: “He fell in love with wrestling again.”

'There was a lot to consider'

After the Hawkeyes returned from their Indiana road trip earlier this month, Assad penned text messages to friends from home. He requested counsel on a matter of great importance.

What, he asked, should his walk-out song be?

“It’s a big thing,” Assad said. “It gives you a personality. I was thinking ‘Die Young,' by Kesha. ‘Midnight City’ (by M83). There was a lot to consider.”

He decided on “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath, straight from the top. The superhero made famous by actor Robert Downey Jr. is his favorite of the Marvel collection, for one, but the song also takes Assad back to his earlier youth. He and Rick logged thousands of miles together, driving from one wrestling tournament to the next.

“It’d come on in the car and we’d both know it,” Assad said. “It’s a song I’ve known since I was a kid.”

There’s a part of the last few weeks that still seems surreal to Rick and Jill. They were convinced their son would remain a redshirt this year.

Even after his second-place finish at the Midlands Championships.

Even after Brands said that Iowa has “three options” at 184.

Even after Assad was invited on the weekend road trip to Indiana and Purdue.

On the bus ride, Brands called Rick and informed him that they wanted to start Assad. Iowa coaches were impressed by his overall growth, his fundamentals, his explosiveness and awareness; by his ability to learn from his mistakes; by the fact that, twice at the Midlands, he trailed late in matches and rallied to win.

But first, Brands sought his parent's blessing. Rick called Assad, who felt he was ready. At Indiana that Friday night, he and senior Cash Wilcke were both on the mat for the pre-dual introductions.

As they walked back to the bench, Brands whispered to Assad, “You’re going.

Abe Assad made his Iowa debut during the Hawkeyes' road trip doubleheader on Jan. 10 and 12. The true freshman won both matches, including a 5-2 decision over Purdue's Max Lyon on Jan. 12, part of Iowa's 41-0 victory.

“You watch him in the room and you watch the difference between the room and competition, and he definitely puts his best foot forward against competition,” Brands said this week. “It was the right decision because he’s the better wrestler right now.

“Watching (Abe) through the fall, into the winter, at the Midlands — he gives us the better chance at 184.”

That’s really what this decision boiled down to, that Brands feels Assad offers the Hawkeyes a better shot at scoring more points at 184 come March. A lot can happen between now and then, but there’s no question it will take points from all 10 weights for Iowa to bring home its first national team title since 2010.

A lot will be expected of a true freshman starting on a team that’s favored to win the NCAA Championship. Assad was just nine when Iowa last brought home a team title. But he shrugs at the idea of pressure. He seems genuinely excited about the opportunity to not just contribute, but to add his own chapter to Iowa’s 2019-20 season.

“When you’re good, you don’t lose much,” Jill said. “I almost think that you have, not a steeper learning curve necessarily, but an extended learning curve, because you’re always the one being chased. This year, Abe loves that he gets to chase somebody else. It’s a challenge to him.

“And there’s nothing he loves more than people doubting him or underestimating him.”

Iowa's Abe Assad flexes after his first victory at home during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual against Nebraska, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

'Any idea who this is?'

When Assad came to visit Iowa a year-and-a-half ago, Brands took him and his parents on a tour of the Hillcrest Hall on the westside of the Iowa campus. The main entrance was closed, so Brands found a janitor to help.

The janitor guided everybody through a back way and onto an elevator, and Jill marvels at what came next.

“Tom looked at the janitor and says, ‘Any idea who this is?’” she recalls. “And the janitor says, ‘I’m pretty sure that’s Abe Assad.' That quickly gave Abe an appreciation for the level of enthusiasm for the sport at Iowa.”

That rabid support is part of what drew Assad to Iowa. The Hawkeyes have led the nation in wrestling attendance each of the last 13 years. All three of their home duals this season have featured crowds of 10,000 or more. 

After his Carver debut, Assad settled into a chair underneath Carver and reflected. Three years ago, he nearly walked away. Now he’s among the best in Division I wrestling.

“From the outside, it may seem fast,” Assad says. “But for me, no. It doesn’t seem fast. All those hours I’m putting in, all those practices, all that training — I think I’ve earned this. Work hard, and good things will come.

“I need to keep a level head and keep wrestling hard and not get overwhelmed by the situation. I need to just take it one match at a time, one practice at a time. It’s been a long journey, but really, I’m just getting started.”

Nearby, Brands smiles.

“That’s a pretty good 184-pounder,” he says, “don’t ya think?”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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Wrestling: No. 1 Iowa vs. No. 3 Ohio State

  • WHEN: 8 p.m., Friday
  • WHERE: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
  • WATCH: Big Ten Network