Top recruit David Carr could have gone to other schools, but his family's legacy at ISU and the chance to build something bigger than himself led him to Ames. Brian Powers, firstname.lastname@example.org
The nation’s most prestigious high school wrestling showcase started in a Texas office.
Willie Saylor, a writer and editor at Flowrestling, was talking with Martin Floreani, then the CEO and one of the founders of what’s become FloSports, the Austin-based sports content and streaming website. It was either in late July or early August of 2013, Saylor recalls — normally a dead period for wrestling.
“It would be great if we could do something exciting before the college season gets here,” Floreani suggested to Saylor.
The latter's response: “Yeah, we should put a high school all-star dual together."
At the time, Saylor had put out his national high school rankings ahead of the 2013-14 season. He put Johnny Sebastian, then a senior at Bergen Catholic in New Jersey, at No. 1 at 182 pounds, and Michael Pixley, the Junior freestyle national champ that summer from Missouri, at No. 2.
Midwest wrestling fans were giving Saylor grief over the decision, so he took it to Floreani.
“I don’t care who the No. 1 guy is,” Saylor remembers saying. “I’m just going off wins and losses. It’s a tough call. I wish we could have a match and let them decide it.”
Floreani’s head perked up.
“He’s like, ‘That’s (bleeping) awesome, man,’” Saylor says now. “'We should totally do that.'
“That’s sort of how it was born.”
That small conversation blossomed into Flowrestling’s Who’s Number One, a dual-style competition featuring the nation’s best high school wrestlers. This year’s competition is set for 5 p.m. Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
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What is 'Who's Number One'?
The premiere high-school wrestling showcase event is now in its seventh year. The winners will begin the coming season as Flowrestling’s No. 1-ranked wrestler at their respective weights. This year's 22 competitors are coming from 14 different states.
“I knew that it could be big,” Saylor says. “Flo had such a big platform, but also, kids wanted to be No. 1. Maybe in another sport, it wouldn’t have worked, but in wrestling, you either want to be No. 1 or you want to defend it. That’s just how they’re built.
“I was confident we could get the best guys, and I was confident that we would show them a good time and put on a good production that the kids sitting at home would want to be part of this moving forward.”
This was something of a vision come to life for Saylor. Before Flowrestling, the Pennsylvania native worked for The Open Mat, another website that covers wrestling at all levels. At both stops, he regularly published national high school rankings, and he always saved a document that listed his “dream matchups.”
That first event was a far cry from what will be on display Saturday. Not all the No. 1-ranked guys competed that year, and only eight weights were contested. It was held at Lehigh’s Grace Hall — also known as “The Snake Pit.” It all came together in about two months, Saylor says.
But once the matches started, the dream became a reality.
Fredy Stroker, then a Bettendorf prep, beat Seth Gross and Michael Kemerer to emerge from a four-man bracket as the winner at 132 pounds. Jason Nolf, a four-time NCAA finalist and three-time champ at Penn State, clobbered New Jersey phenom Joey McKenna. Ryan Millhof scored on a duck-under to beat burgeoning star Jered Cortez.
And Sebastian controlled Pixley from start to finish in a 7-2 victory.
A showcase for future stars
The event captured the attention of fans and wrestlers across the country. The 2014 edition saw 10 weights contested, and each featured the No. 1-ranked wrestler. Nick Suriano defeated Daton Fix in a match that included a 30-minute sudden-victory overtime. Zahid Valencia, a national finalist at 126 pounds the year before, grew to 182 and beat Myles Martin.
Many of those names should sound familiar, because Who’s Number One has become something of a preview for future success. Consider:
- 32 past Who’s Number One wrestlers have gone on to become Division I All-Americans;
- Nine have won individual NCAA titles;
- 24 have won age-level world medals;
- Nine have won age-level world championships;
- Two — Fix and Mason Manville — have made Senior world team;
- Stroker has been the only Iowa high-schooler to compete, but a handful of Iowa and Iowa State wrestlers have been past participants — Kemerer, Gavin Teasdale and Abe Assad for Iowa; and Sam Colbray, David Carr, and Austin Gomez for Iowa State. (A former Northern Iowa wrestler, Rudy Yates, competed in 2015, and Pixley eventually spent time at Grand View.)
Of the 22 expected competitors this year, 13 have already committed to a Division I wrestling program. That total includes two Iowa recruits — Jesse Ybarra, competing at 120 pounds, and Patrick Kennedy, who’s wrestling at 170 — as well as Iowa State signee Anthony Echemendia, who is slated to wrestle a freestyle exhibition.
Bringing the event to Carver
For the first six years, Saylor kept the event at Lehigh, mostly out of convenience. He worried about taking the event to a larger venue and not being able to put butts in seats. It helped, too, that the Lehigh Valley area is full of knowledgeable wrestling fans — and, well, many of the wrestlers competing were from the East Coast.
But after pressure from other Flo employees this past summer, Saylor gave it serious thought. He sent a tweet, which sparked plenty of reaction. He received calls and emails, narrowed a list, and sent a request for a proposal to a couple different venues. He settled on Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Carver made sense for a lot of reasons. There’s a strong track record for attendance, as Iowa wrestling has led the nation in that category for for 13 straight years. Even more, the 2012 Olympic Trials shattered attendance records when at Carver, as 54,766 attended over two days. Another 12,766 came to watch the UWW Men’s Freestyle World Cup last year.
But the history helped, too. When Carver first opened its doors in 1983, the first event held there was a wrestling dual — Iowa over Oklahoma State, 35-7. The Hawkeyes have won 23 NCAA team titles, the second-most in Division I history. Many of wrestling’s memorable moments happened on Carver’s floor.
Saylor hopes more will unfold this Saturday. He believes the wrestling crowd will create the atmosphere he’s hoping to provide the competitors. He also said he’s not opposed to regularly moving the event until he finds a venue he likes.
But he also knows the matchups will always be what draws the crowd and interest, and the matchups are why Who’s Number One has grown into the giant it is today. Saylor is impressed by how far it’s come, from a document to a full-blown production, and can’t wait to see where it goes.
“We’re just now getting to where high school wrestling is being covered nationally as well as it should,” Saylor says. “Everybody knows Spencer Lee, or Daton Fix, or Yianni Diakomihalis — before they even step foot on a college campus, and that’s a great thing.
“That’s why Who’s Number One is so successful. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t have this event because you don’t know who the guys are. Now, we do. You look at the cards every year, and I don’t think there’s any dispute that it’s the best high school wrestling dual in the country.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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Flowrestling’s Who’s Number One
When: 5 p.m., Saturday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, IA
Tickets: Click here.