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Ode to the Big Men: Did college wrestling hurt itself in eliminating the unlimited weight class?

By Roger Moore

“No other sport discriminates. Wrestling always talks about having a spot for everyone, so I was a bit surprised when there was no push-back from anybody about the change. When I talk to kids about the benefits of wrestling I always have to add that footnote, that you have to stay under 285 (pounds) now.”

Those are the words of Lou Banach, a two-time NCAA champion who negotiated the days of an unlimited weight class in wrestling.
The change he spoke of came in 1987 when the NCAA went from an unlimited (heavyweight) class to 275 pounds and eventually to the current 285-pound division.
Banach, a 210-pounder, negotiated brackets that included plenty of 300-pounders. At the 1982 NCAA Championships, the Hawkeye pinned 350-pound Tab Thacker in the second round. At the 1983 Championships Banach beat 400-pound Mitch Shelton in the semifinals on his way to a second NCAA title.
“I looked forward to going against those big guys,” said Banach, who also claimed a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. “You had to do some things differently. I attacked them a certain way, really focused on my conditioning and trying to wear them down.
“I think the fans really got into that David vs. Goliath story. I was fortunate to have success against those guys most of the time.”
The 1982 NCAA unlimited bracket included Thacker, Shelton, 300-pound Gary Albright of Nebraska and Steve “Dr. Death” Williams of the University of Oklahoma. Bruce Baumgartner of Indiana State was the champion, beating Williams in the finals.
“I miss those guys; a lot of people miss those guys,” said Oklahoma State head coach John Smith. “They brought something extra to our sport.
“I think fans really enjoyed watching those guys who weighed 215-225 pounds taking on those behemoths. It was fun to watch. When they changed the rules they took something away from the sport.”
Smith grew up in an Oklahoma where one of the top sports stories in the state’s history was a 1982 match between Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. The Cowboys, in need of a miracle, got one when the mammoth Shelton, who pinned Williams in front of a standing room only Gallagher Hall crowd.
Thacker won a national title for North Carolina State in 1984 and went on to have a small career in Hollywood, starring in Clint Eastwood’s City Heat and two Police Academy films. He died in 2007.
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum will honor the biggest of the big in 2012 when they induct Chris Taylor as a Distinguished Member.
While competing at Iowa State, Taylor claimed two NCAA titles (1972 and ‘73) and won 87 of his 88 matches. The one blemish was a draw. The 400-pounder made the U.S. Olympic squad in 1972 and brought a bronze medal back from Munich. Taylor died in 1979.
“Chris Taylor wasn’t a bad wrestler,” said Dave Martin, a national champion for Iowa State in 1970 and sometimes roommate of Taylor as an assistant. “There were a lot of guys back then who were huge and didn’t do anything, but Taylor could really move. But you never wanted to give Chris a ride unless you had a pickup truck because if you put him in your car and he leaned back he would snap the seat. We didn’t have extended cabs back then.
“A lot of people would argue that they added something to wrestling. It was certainly fun to watch. Jimmy Jackson was another big man who could really move.”
Les Anderson won two NCAA titles for Iowa State and served as Dr. Harold Nichols’ assistant from 1964-74. Anderson was also on the ISU staff from 1979-92.
“The rationale used, I guess, was that (the big guys) were hurting people,” said Anderson. “A committee decided that a change needed to be made when, in all my years, there were very few injuries concerning the big heavyweights. It just wasn’t true.”
Wrestling may have been at its most popular in the early 1970s. Dan Gable, Wayne Wells and Ben Peterson won gold medals at the ‘72 Olympics. Taylor earned his bronze and was part of one the most famous photographs in wrestling’s history — Taylor was suplayed by West German Wilfred Dietrich.
In 1976, the Americans brought back six medals in freestyle from Montreal.
“People came to see Chris Taylor,” said Anderson. “And the great thing about Chris was that he would stay around after his matches and sign autographs, every autograph until the last person was gone. There were plenty of times when we were in airports and (Dan) Gable and Chris would be together and the kids, not wrestling fans, would want Chris’s autograph.
“To some he was certainly a novelty, but Chris understood that he brought attention to wrestling. And people don’t realize how good of an athlete he really was.”
“Chris was such a nice guy,” said Martin. “You see somebody that big, somebody that intimidating, and you expect him to have this big, scary voice. But he didn’t have the voice to match his big body. He really was a sort of gentle giant and he really had a sense of humor to go with it.”
In a world of fantasy sports junkies it doesn’t hurt to ask:
How would Lehigh’s Zach Rey do against Thacker? How would Alan Gelogaev attack a 400-pounder? What if, in a down-to-the-wire dual, a 197-pounder like Cam Simaz bumped up to face Shelton?
We can dream can’t we?

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