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What you don’t see makes wrestling artistic
By Kyle Klingman
Expectations can be risky, especially this college wrestling season. Glancing through preseason rankings — team and individual — gives a feeling of unpredictability.
Rankings attempt to bring numerical clarity to what has happened throughout the season. Preseason rankings use last year’s information and apply it to this year.
Rating a team or individual based on wins and losses is a bit lifeless though. This sport is about ingenuity, not numbers.
Wrestling is art … and art preserves life. If you understand the nuances, there is an art to every match.
Stalling — some will say the vilest of all wrestling sins — has an artistic quality. How does a wrestler get the referee to believe he is doing something when he really is not? Leg slaps, half shots, and circling back to the center of the mat are popular. Tying shoe laces and fake injury timeouts can be artistic only if the acting is superb. Trainers playing along make it comedy.
Heavyweights are the exception. There is a mutual acceptance that most heavyweights cannot change levels and shoot. So fans sit patiently for the second tiebreaker to begin. This is drudgery.
A coach arguing a call with a referee takes artistic skill. The coach (subjective) and the referee (objective) are engaged in a psychological battle.
True, a coach may be disgusted by what he perceives to be a poor call. But the coach is trying to get the referee to think, which is the cardinal sin in officiating. A referee is supposed to analyze the information in front of him (or her) without emotion or sentiment.
Referees, nevertheless, are still fallible. The coach wants the referee to believe he did something wrong, which could pay dividends later in the match or, at best, later in the meet. Make-up calls might be a referee’s deepest internal struggle.
“I warned that wrestler for stalling so I better warn the other wrestler for stalling too. But is he really stalling. These fans hate me. That guy in the front row has been yelling at me all night. All right, I’m going to do it…”
By questioning a call, the coach is telling the athlete … and the team … that he’ll stick up for you. It gets the fans excited too.
A sideline argument can also buy time for a tired wrestler. Coaches cry foul on stalling and blown calls but they are savvy for their own wrestlers.
Good coaches know when and what to say to a wrestler. Sometimes saying nothing is better than cheap commentary like “get aggressive.”
There is even artistry in pre-meet handshakes. Some like to charge to the center, slap hands quickly, and exit stage right. Others will walk slowly to the center and give a lifeless and limp handshake. Both groups are trying to say something nonverbally.
Line-up changes and seeding meetings are dying art forms.
A coach that weighs in multiple wrestlers for a dual is playing mind games with the opposing coach. Moving wrestlers up or down a weight class (moving down a weight is less common with the new weigh-in rules) is a strategic way to win a dual meet that may have otherwise been lost.
Seeding meetings require manipulation. Each coach is trying to paint a mental picture of how good his wrestler is, even if he is not that good.
Pinning, however, is the highest form of art in wrestling. Turning someone over … against one’s will no less … takes skill.
Renowned artists can be unconventional, even eccentric. Great pinners are no exception. They possess imagination and creativity to explore positions that the mind’s eye can’t conceive. Good scramblers do the same.
The wrestling mat is an empty canvas.
Perhaps this season will be a masterpiece.