For Iowa and Oklahoma State, Bout at the Ballpark is another opportunity to grow wrestling
Strange but true: Michael Kemerer wrestled his first college match on Nov. 7, 2015, when Drake Ayala, Iowa’s star true freshman, was just a 13-year old middle-schooler, and now they’re in the same Iowa lineup.
This is the new reality for Kemerer, the Iowa wrestling team’s grizzled seventh-year senior. He’s the old guy now, complete with the “Grandpa Mike” nickname that’s been printed on shirts and the crux for jokes throughout the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex.
“I find myself watching the news and going to bed early,” Max Murin, Iowa’s starting 149-pounder and fellow Pennsylvania native, said recently with a laugh. “I've definitely lost some of my street cred since I moved in with Kemerer.”
By virtually every measure, the 25-year-old Kemerer is young, with a full life waiting on the other side of his sensational wrestling career. By the standard of college athletics, he’s the venerable veteran of this Hawkeye squad, the returning NCAA team champions.
The longevity of his stay in Iowa City means many things, including another fun fact: Kemerer was one of two current Iowa wrestlers on the roster in 2015 (the other: Vince Turk), when the Hawkeyes held the Grapple on the Gridiron at Kinnick Stadium.
With 42,287 fans inside Kinnick Stadium — the NCAA’s single dual-meet attendance record — Iowa beat Oklahoma State, 18-16, on that balmy November day in 2015. Both Kemerer and Turk redshirted that year, but the experience stuck with them.
“That was my first Iowa dual meet as a member of the team,” Kemerer said this week. “That was within our first couple of months on campus. Pretty good way to start things.”
On Saturday, the second-ranked Hawkeyes and fifth-ranked Cowboys are running it back on another unique wrestling stage. Instead of a football stadium, these two titanic wrestling programs are competing at Globe Life Field, the billion-dollar home of the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. Flowrestling will stream the dual on Saturday night at 8 p.m. CT.
The folks at REV Entertainment, an event business created by the Rangers, dubbed this event the Bout at the Ballpark. The night will include a men’s freestyle dual, pitting some of the United States’ finest against an assortment of international opponents, as well as a handful of women’s freestyle matches and one Greco-Roman bout.
But the main draw is the clash between Iowa and Oklahoma State, the two most-storied college wrestling programs in the country. These two schools have combined to win 58 NCAA team titles. This will be their 55th head-to-head meeting. The Cowboys own the all-time series advantage, 29-23-2, but Iowa has won five of the last seven.
“The awesomeness of college wrestling affords big programs these environments,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said this week. “We’ve been to a sold-out Bryce Jordan Center. We’ve been to a sold-out Gallagher-Iba Arena. Those aren’t friendly places to wrestle. We’ve been to Kinnick Stadium. Pretty friendly place. Huge, huge crowd.
“Now we’re going to Texas to wrestle Oklahoma State. I know Hawkeye fans are going to travel well. It’s going to be a great event in a brand-new stadium. We’re going to be in a world-class facility and on a world-class stage. We’re fired up about it.”
In many ways, there is a straight line connecting the Grapple on the Gridiron and the Bout at the Ballpark, if only because wrestling has grown tremendously since that November day in 2015.
The sport’s popularity is at an all-time high. Last month’s Iowa-Penn State dual was the most-watched dual in Big Ten Network history. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA Wrestling Championships had sold out every year since 2010, prompting the NCAA plan to host the 2020 tournament in a football stadium for the first time.
“I love seeing the sport grow,” fellow senior Jaydin Eierman said. “I remember watching those and I felt good about the sport and its progression to bigger and better things. As time goes on, it might become more popular and regular around the country.”
Wrestling’s increased coverage and marketability piqued the interest of Sean Decker, president of REV Entertainment. He and Oklahoma State athletic director Chad Weiberg originally kicked the tires on the Bout at the Ballpark idea. Decker ultimately wants to bring the NCAA Championships to Globe Life Field.
“(Bout at the Ballpark) is really an opportunity for us to show how big wrestling is here in Texas,” Decker said in October, when REV formally announced the event. “We want this to be a huge celebration of the sport.”
One man’s celebration is, in the eyes of the two head coaches, an opportunity for many men.
“This is a big stage to promote yourself,” Brands said. “Our guys are wired to wrestle in environments that force people to turn their head and pay attention … this shows how important college wrestling is.”
“This is what you come here for, these opportunities,” added Oklahoma State coach John Smith. “I don’t think there’s ever been a better time in college wrestling history … and these opportunities continue to create interest in your own communities.”
Both Iowa and Oklahoma State continue to trend near the top of the heap in college wrestling. Starting with the 2007 NCAA Championships, the Cowboys have produced nine top-five finishes in the past 14 national tournaments. Only two teams have more in that span: Penn State, with 10, and the Hawkeyes, with 13.
Saturday's dual has the potential for some serious fireworks, even with Oklahoma State star AJ Ferrari still sidelined after a car wreck. There could be 19 out of 20 possible ranked wrestlers on the mat, using InterMat’s latest Division I poll, including 11 ranked 10th or better, with three potential top-10 matchups:
- 133: #2 Daton Fix (OSU) vs. #3 Austin DeSanto (IA)
- 165: #5 Alex Marinelli (IA) vs. #8 Travis Wittlake (OSU)
- 174: #2 Michael Kemerer (IA) vs. #10 Dustin Plott (OSU)
When two big-time programs meet up like this, in an environment like this, it doesn’t matter that Oklahoma State has lost three of its last four duals — at least not in Smith’s eyes.
“We’ve been hit a little bit and smacked around a little bit, but you know what, let’s just be a man and go prepare properly this week,” Smith said. “Take an attitude that maybe we haven’t had all year as we head down there. Something bigger and better.”
While growing up in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, Kemerer always admired the Iowa-Oklahoma State rivalry. He enjoyed the iconic matchups, and the fiery passion from both Brands and Smith. He has excelled in his opportunities since joining the Iowa program, with a perfect 4-0 record against Cowboy wrestlers throughout his career.
Kemerer may not have competed on the Kinnick Stadium turf all those years ago, but Brands did put the entire team through preseason workouts on the football field in the lead-up to that dual. He’s ready for his shot this Saturday, but even more, he’s excited to see how this can spur more growth in the years ahead.
“The bigger the stage, the more fun it is for us,” Kemerer said. “You can feel that when you’re a competitor. We’re excited to see it continue to grow with events like this one, too.
“We love wrestling the best guys and best teams, and (Oklahoma State) is a perennial program. We’re excited for that.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.