Gable: America’s best should be the best at every style

Updated: January 13, 2012

    Editor’s Note: In many people’s minds, Dan Gable’s wrestling career started at the Midlands where he won six folkstyle championships, including in 1971 between winning both the 1971 World championship and 1972 Olympic gold medal in freestyle. Recently, Gable, who also excelled as a coach on the NCAA and international level, spoke with Mike Finn about why the Midlands still matters and why wrestlers should still try to mix styles while they train.

Dan Gable

WIN: Why do the Midlands mean so much to you?
GABLE: I remember when the Midlands started. I was in high school and Bob Buzzard came back to Waterloo. I was not following college wrestling that much, but I can remember this was the biggest thing to hit wrestling in a long time; just because we didn’t have a lot of these situations. Before this, you might have a conference tournament and the Nationals. You didn’t have a (regular-season) tournament of high quality. I remember the conversation that Buzzard and his dad had with my dad. It would turn your head because this was like a mini-Olympics. It got people really excited early on in the season.
By the time I got to college in the fall of 1966, I was not eligible to wrestle for the (Iowa State) team, but I could compete in the Midlands, which was the talk of the wrestling room. It didn’t take me long to know that the Midlands was the first big tournament of my career.
I was a kid who was not well known. I was doing better than most freshmen in the country and looked like a factor in the future of wrestling. All of a sudden, a few of my buddies made up a jingle. They were talking about a kid in my weight class who was well known: Don Behm of Michigan State.
The jingle went like this: “Behm, Behm, the wrestling machine. Gable on the Behm.”
That fired me up and I used to say it to myself as I trained for my first big tournament. All of a sudden I’m there against Behm in the semifinals and he takes me down twice in the first period. But in the second period, I hit him with a fireman’s carry and beat him to make the finals, where I beat Masaaki Hatta (the NCAA and Midlands champion from Oklahoma State and 1964 Olympian). That’s where I opened the eyes of the wrestling word.

WIN: With fewer non-collegians wrestling in the Midlands, there are fewer chances for fans to see such moments. What are your thoughts about Olympic hopefuls passing on the Midlands compared to the past?
GABLE: Times are different today and our USA national wrestling governing body allows for that difference. They have made great strides in how we take care of our Olympic-level athletes who have a chance to focus on a specific style of wrestling. From an experience point of view, it’s a very positive thing. But does that mean that their athletes can’t stay in the American wrestling circuit? I personally think that both styles add expertise to the sport of wrestling. I know there are things that I did in the collegiate-style of wrestling that helped in my freestyle and I know there were things I did in freestyle that added to my scholastic style of wrestling.
For me, it was a natural thing wrestling in the event. It was probably the toughest scholastic-style tournament at that time. And I felt that I could go and wrestle either scholastic or freestyle and be effective. I don’t feel like we train that way today and I don’t think today’s wrestlers have that flexibility in their minds.
I don’t see any reason why some of our big-name athletes wouldn’t help the sport by making some appearances in competition. For example, Jordan Burroughs, our World champion, should be competing across the United States in tournaments like the Midlands. It would help the draw and in the publicity of our sport.
Instead, people ask why would a World champion want to go back and lose at a Midlands? No he wouldn’t. But I think that would be OK. I just can’t imagine Jordan Burroughs not winning that event. I don’t see a problem, but it’s not the route that we (USA Wrestling) are taking now.

WIN: Because these Olympic-level athletes no longer compete in such Open tournaments, there is a disconnect with fans. Some simply stop following these past college greats, even Jordan Burroughs, who is one year removed from winning a Midlands?
GABLE: I think he would likely be effective in the Midlands as opposed to if he were out for four to five years. I also feel that there are a lot of kids training in scholastic wrestling only on how to get out from the bottom. From my time in freestyle — where most of my time on the bottom dealt with being defensive — I also training scholastically at the same time to get off the bottom. I also learned how to avoid getting turned while I did that. I stayed away from things that might cost me in freestyle but would help me in folkstyle to move and learn position.
In the U.S., we may not be taking advantage of all of our firepower now for the good of our sport.

WIN: What does a veteran wrestler in freestyle get out competing in such a folkstyle event? And what does a young guy get out of wrestling a veteran?
GABLE: It’s a competition that a wrestler does not have to travel overseas and competition is competition, no matter if you go to a takedown tournament. If the Midlands was a takedown tournament, you might see more Olympic-level guys going to it because many of these guys have a fear of being on the bottom.
Guys like Burroughs can get a lot out of tournaments like the Midlands because the more you can win — no matter the style — it adds to your toughness. Wrestling is wrestling. You basically take a guy down to the mat, turn him over and pin him.
Unfortunately, most people don’t see wrestling as wrestling. They differentiate the two styles and rightly so, somewhat they are quite a bit different. There are major differences but from my point of view, there is not such a difference that I couldn’t win at both.
People today are more protective, more scientific with full-time coaches at USA Wrestling with full-time (competitive) tours for the athletes. That’s progress, which is good. But don’t forget about the mind of a wrestler. No matter the style of wrestling, including Greco-Roman, Jordan Burroughs should be able to go out and win all three styles.
WIN: Talk more about the mind. Aren’t you talking about developing a better mental edge?
GABLE: Exactly. It’s that mental edge that is harder to get now for most people because of the strings that are pulling them in a certain direction. Instead of having the sport of wrestling, we have three separate forms of wrestling that everyone is an expert in. I don’t have a problem with that, except the guy I want on my team is the one who believes that he can in any style because they train using skills from all styles. I did that when I wrestled. I used to like to Greco-Roman wrestle.
When I was practicing, it wasn’t just folkstyle or freestyle or Greco. It was a combination. I used to look at a guy like Tom Peckham who used to just throw guys down, ride them and try to pin them.
When you are learning skills from Greco-Roman, when you are learning skills from intercollegiate or freestyle, you are developing your wrestling abilities and potential to a higher degree. You are prepared in so many ways that it’s going to be tough to beat you.

WIN: Are you saying that wrestling is too specialized right now?
GABLE: That’s science. I’m not against science. I like the other attitude that wrestling is just wrestling. You don’t burn out because you constantly have that much more to learn.
What it really did for me was that it gave me a bigger volume for being a coach. All of a sudden I had these kids coming with different styles and I was prepared for whether the kid was good at upper-body moves, lower body, rode with legs and was good or bad on the bottom. I felt that I was really familiar with all those different aspects of the sport. I felt like I had more to offer all my wrestlers and what your opponents had to coach against.
We started with limitations in our sport but it evolved into coaching where a guy like me had all these different athletes.     But often today we put too many limitations on ourselves and it ends up costing us. When you come out of your comfort zone, it can cost you if you are not ready.
Competing in tournaments like the Midlands proves that any wrestler is the complete package.