Takeaways: Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands explains how the HWC Showdown Open came together
The idea for Sunday’s Hawkeye Wrestling Club Showdown Open was first hatched more than three months ago.
Iowa coach Tom Brands sought a competitive opportunity for his wrestlers, despite them being few and far between. By the time Sunday arrives, it will have been almost eight months since the Hawkeyes last competed — at the Big Ten Championships in March.
So Brands and his staff thought of doing it themselves, not unlike how Flowrestling, Rokfin and others have put on similar events during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been kicking this around since late July,” Brands said Tuesday during a video conference. “This event took a lot of work with our compliance and our administration. A lot of work with a lot of people.”
The result looks like this: An eight-match undercard featuring plenty of Hawkeye wrestlers, young and old, will be the appetizer to Sunday night’s 9-bout main card, which will showcase many of Iowa’s best against some of the best wrestlers on the planet. It will be held at the new Xtream Arena in Coralville and will be streamed live on Trackwrestling.
This isn't the first time Iowa has planned an outside-the-box wrestling event.
There was the Grapple on the Gridiron in 2015, where 42,287 fans watched the Hawkeyes beat Oklahoma State inside Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeye Wrestling Club also hosts a polar plunge fundraiser every year.
But many logistical decisions were worked out ahead of Sunday’s exhibition dual.
Assistant coaches Ryan Morningstar and Bobby Telford worked with compliance staff to ensure athletes wouldn’t jeopardize eligibility. Xtream Arena offered to safely host the event, even during the pandemic. It wasn’t until USA Wrestling brought the U.S. Senior National Championships to Coralville that the idea of fans in the stands even crossed their minds.
“We weren’t going to have fans,” Brands said. “I said that emphatically, but then we saw what Xtream Arena and USA Wrestling did. (Associate head coach Terry Brands) and Bobby Telford were sitting in the back saying, ‘Well, why don’t we have fans?’
“Then it was a done deal.”
Brands helped put the cards together. He knew he could draw plenty of eyeballs with the right matchups. That meant Hawkeyes had to compete.
The main card is tremendous, with six current Hawkeyes, and one alum, taking on an Olympic gold medalist, a two-time world silver medalist, a two-time NCAA champion, a two-time NCAA finalist and other highly-credential wrestlers. It will be streamed via pay-per-view.
The undercard is just as intriguing.
A handful of true freshmen — Patrick Kennedy, Jesse Ybarra, Brelit Reyna — will compete against seasoned veterans. Kaleb Young will wrestle recent Iowa grad Jeremiah Moody.
There’s the Nelson Brands-Abe Assad match, after both competed for the starting spot at 184 pounds last year. Max Murin will get a rubber match against Minnesota grad Mitch McKee, after they split their two meetings last season.
All the matches are freestyle, too — the Olympic discipline that closely resembles folkstyle, which is wrestled collegiately.
“People are hungry to see a guy like Patrick Kennedy on the mat,” Brands said. “Abe Assad versus Nelson Brands comes to mind as a matchup that people want to see.
“The undercard was always part of the plan.”
Sunday’s exhibition will be an exciting way to unofficially kick off the 2020-21 wrestling season. Practices began this month, but competitions aren’t expected to start until January. Schedules will largely consist of duals until the conference tournaments.
It took some heavy lifting to ensure this event took place. For the first time in more than half a year, it’s officially competition week for the Iowa wrestling program. That, Brands said, has everybody excited.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve competed,” he said. “Spencer Lee summed it up very well. He’s just excited to get back on the mat, and that’s really what this is about.”
Iowa women’s wrestling program? ‘Why not?’
This year marks the first that women’s wrestling is classified as an emerging sport by the NCAA. It is one of the largest and most meaningful steps taken in the sport’s overall growth at all levels in the United States.
This weekend’s card features two women’s matchups: Sarah Hildebrandt, a 2018 world silver medalist, is taking on Erin Golston, a three-time Junior freestyle world medalist; and Precious Bell, a U.S. Open champ and U23 world-teamer, will wrestle Jordan Nelson, a senior and All-American at Life University in Georgia.
“We talked to a lot of different partners in the women’s wrestling community to make sure we got this right,” Brands said. “As far as the pay and everything like that, it’s all equal, across the board. That was very important to us as we went forward with this.”
Brands was asked Tuesday about the possibility of a women’s program coming to Iowa in the future. In 2017, he wrote a letter to the NCAA Board of Governors, calling on the collegiate sports governing body to support women’s wrestling.
He kept the same energy.
“Iowa is a trailblazing place, so why not?” he said. “That’s a fun answer for you there.”
He continued: “I know a lot of people that are pushing this, in the NWCA and Sally Roberts, with Wrestle Like A Girl. She’s probably the one I’d look to as the expert on this. It’s headed in the right direction. It’s only getting bigger and better and stronger.”
Hawkeyes going to Junior, U23 national championships
Sunday’s dual may not be the only time Iowa wrestlers take the mat in November.
Brands hinted that a handful of Iowa wrestlers will compete at USA Wrestling’s upcoming UWW Junior and U23 national championships, set for Nov. 13-15 at the Convention Center at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
He did not explicitly mention who would be going, but as he so often does, he offered clues.
“Patrick Kennedy and some of our freshmen on the undercard, they didn’t get to wrestle freestyle this summer,” Brands said. “These young guys, they’re craving it, they’re loving it, they need it.
“If everybody said everything was OK with COVID on Sept. 15, we’d be getting ready for a collegiate season right now. But because we’re not starting until January 1, USA Wrestling put that U23 event in the middle of November.”
Patrick Kennedy, Jesse Ybarra and Bretli Reyna, all true freshmen, are among the 13 Iowa wrestlers competing on the undercard, which was announced Monday. In all, 19 Hawkeye wrestlers will compete on Sunday.
Marinelli plans to ‘wrestle with Iowa for as long as I can’
Earlier this month, the NCAA approved a blanket waiver for all winter sports athletes to receive an extra year of eligibility as a result of the pandemic. It affects Spencer Lee the most, as he now has two years to try and become Iowa’s first four-time NCAA champion.
But much of the same Iowa team that was favored to win the national team title last year before the pandemic is back again for ’20-21. With the NCAA’s announcement, they’ll have the option to return for the ’21-22 season, too.
It sounds like that’s the plan, at least as of Tuesday.
“I plan to wrestle with Iowa for as long as I can,” Iowa senior Alex Marinelli said. “When they gave that year, I was super excited. I want to be a Hawkeye for life. Another year is awesome, and I’m glad they granted it.
“Spencer has a job to do, to be the first four-timer at Iowa. I want to be alongside him and alongside my teammates. It’s fun. Why stop having fun when you can have a blast here?”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.