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By Mike Chapman
I like statues. Always have, always will. There is something about the majesty of the structure itself and the way a person’s life is lionized beyond the years he or she walked the earth, to stand tall and regally for all to see.
A statue provides a window into the lives and accomplishments of great people, and also provides inspiration for people of all ages to strive to be someone worthy of being remembered.
The other day, while reading about a statue of Abraham Lincoln, I wondered how many statues there are of wrestlers around the United States. I could think of only six wrestlers who are so honored.
• Dan Gable leads the way, as he is the subject of three statues. One is at the Iowa Hall of Pride in Des Moines, a magnificent facility dedicated to the accomplishments of Iowans in all walks of life. Another is at West Waterloo High School, where Gable was an undefeated, three-time state champion. And the third stands at the entrance of Carver-Hawkeye Arena on the University of Iowa campus. That one shows Gable as a coach, paying tribute to his incredible record of 21 consecutive Big Ten team titles and 15 NCAA championships.
• John Smith is honored by a statue in the lobby of the athletic field house at Del City High School in Oklahoma, where John is from. The large statue shows John with hands on hips, wearing the two gold medals he won in the Olympic Games (1988 and 1992). “Dare to Dream” is the message, with the words John W. Smith right below. It was unveiled in 1993 and is a magnificent tribute to the six-time World champion, who also won two NCAA titles at Oklahoma State as an athlete and five more as head coach of the Cowboys. The school’s field house is also named after John.
• Doug Blubaugh and Shelby Wilson are honored with statues at Ponca City High School, in Oklahoma. The two legends were teammates at Ponca City High in the early 1950s, and at Oklahoma State just down the road in Stillwater. Then, in 1960, they won Olympic titles at Rome, Shelby at 147.5 pounds and Doug at 160.5. The statues were unveiled at special ceremonies in 2010 and are located in the field house of the high school in a special area, with additional information about the two legends on the walls beside the statues. It is a very attractive display.
• Frank Gotch has a statue in his honor in his hometown of Humboldt, Iowa. Gotch came off a farm near Humboldt to become the top biggest wrestling star of his era, winning the world heavyweight professional title in 1908 and holding it until retiring in 1915. He is considered the primary factor in the state’s love for the sport. The awesome statue stands on the very spot where Gotch once trained for his epic 1911 match with George Hackenschmidt, and was unveiled in the summer of 2010.
• William Muldoon was recognized as world heavyweight wrestling champion in Greco-Roman in the early 1880s and went on to become the best known physical advocate of his era, even training the legendary John L. Sullivan when he was heavyweight boxing champion of the world. One of Muldoon’s matches lasted seven hours and ended up with his foe having half his ear torn off. A man named Scott Burk has renovated the old training barns near Belfast, New York, and in 2011 erected statues of both Muldoon and Sullivan on the site. They are life size and made of marble and sit on pedestals.
So, there are the six wrestlers that I know of who have been the subject of statues. I was a guest speaker at both the Ponca City and Humboldt events and they were truly memorable occasions. I am not aware of any other wrestler statues in America but would love to know if I have left any off the list. Please contact me if you know of more statues honoring wrestlers.
Who are other wrestlers that should be considered for such an honor? How about Bruce Baumgartner, who won an amazing 18 national championships and 15 medals in World/Olympic competition? A statue of Bruce in his hometown of Haledon, New Jersey, would make sense.
Or how about Cael Sanderson in his hometown of Heber City, Utah? Sports Illustrated rated his achievement of 159-0 the second most impressive college sports feat of all time, and since then he has won an Olympic gold medal and coached Penn State to four straight NCAA team titles.
Then there is Dan Hodge in Perry, Oklahoma. He was an undefeated three-time NCAA champion for Oklahoma, is the only wrestler ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and is the only man in history to win national titles in both boxing and wrestling. Add to that the fact that the top trophy in amateur wrestling is named after him, and he looks like a good candidate for a statue.
A Robin Reed statue in Portland, Oregon would make sense. He never lost an amateur match at any time, any place. He won three AAU national titles and won the Northwestern Regional Olympic trials in four different weight classes and then claimed the gold medal at 134 pounds in the Olympics in Paris. He was a huge benefactor of amateur wrestling in Oregon.
Others who might be considered are Bill Smith, 1952 Olympic champion (he has a wrestling room named for him in his high school in Council Bluffs, Iowa, as well as the wrestling mat at University of Northern Iowa); Henry Wittenberg, 1948 Olympic champion from New York, who won over 400 consecutive matches in freestyle wrestling and was a top-level coach; Ed Gallagher, the great Oklahoma State coach in the early 1900s (the arena at OSU is named for him and basketball coach Hank Iba), and Dave and Mark Schultz, the only American brothers to win both Olympic and World titles.
Lastly, I want to thank the coaches at the two Oklahoma high schools for sending the photos you see here, and for honoring these great American sports heroes. Jason Leavitt at Ponca City and Wes Ruth at Del City both understand the value of promoting such icons and the motivational value they have to their young wrestlers.
(Mike Chapman is the founder of WIN, the WIN Magazine Memorabilia Show and the Dan Hodge Trophy. He is the author of 26 books and has been named national
wrestling writer of the year five times. He is a member of six halls of fame.) n