Outdoor wrestling was once a thing of the past

Updated: October 21, 2015

By Mike Chapman

Iowa and Oklahoma State, the top two programs in college wrestling history, are on track to make even more history.

On August 6, Tom Brands, head wrestling coach at the University of Iowa, announced that the Hawkeyes would host a dual meet on Nov. 14 in Kinnick Stadium in an effort to set a new all-time college wrestling record for attendance. Kinnick Stadium, named for Iowa’s legendary Heisman Trophy winner of 1939, is where the Hawkeyes play football and has a seating capacity of 77,000.

kinnick wrs with bufferIn his press conference, Brands was quick to give credit to John Smith, OSU coach, for seeing the potential of such a matchup and jumping at the opportunity. OSU is the all-time leader in NCAA team championships with 34, while Iowa is second at 23. No other school has more than seven titles.

The day after the press conference, I happened to be in the Iowa practice room with two friends, watching assistant head coach Terry Brands put some freestyle wrestlers through a tough workout session.

After the practice, Terry sat down to talk with me, Raul Ramirez and Curran Jacobs, two “catch wrestling” experts who came from Los Angeles to visit the Iowa room. I told Terry what a great marketing idea it was to have the dual meet outside, with the goal of attracting about 20,000 to 30,000 fans.

“Didn’t Frank Gotch once wrestle in front of 30,000 fans in Chicago back in 1911?” asked Terry.

Being a native Iowan, both Brands brothers are familiar with the story of Frank Gotch, who came off a farm near Humboldt, Iowa, in 1908 to win the World heavyweight championship and help put Iowa on the track to wrestling supremacy for a century. His rematch with former champion George Hackenschmidt was held Sept. 4, 1911, in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, and drew an estimated 31,000 fans.

The fact is that many professional wrestling matches were held outdoors in the early 1900s. Gotch had his first recorded match on a cinder track (ouch) in tiny Laverne, Iowa, in 1899, and I recently came across a remarkable photo of him wrestling outdoors in Forest City, Iowa, in 1904.

For many years, pro wrestling matches were held in small baseball stadiums around the country. Lou Thesz, considered by many to be the top professional heavyweight champion of the past 75 years, told me that he wrestled in baseball parks many times in the early stages of his career, in the late 1930s. And one of his biggest bouts ever came on May 21, 1952, when he faced Baron Michelle Leone in a minor league baseball park in Los Angeles, with 25,000 fans in attendance.

On June 30, 1961, two of pro wrestling’s biggest stars, Pat O’Connor and Buddy Rogers, drew 38,622 fans for their world championship match in Comiskey Park, breaking the record set by Gotch and Hackenschmidt 50 years earlier.

Bill Smith, who won two NCAA championships for Iowa State Teachers College before claiming an Olympic gold medal in 1952 at Helsinki, Finland, remembers wrestling outdoors at a baseball stadium in Yokahama, Japan.

“It was during a U.S. tour in 1950 and I don’t know the exact size of the crowd but it was pretty darn big,” said Bill recently.

Russ Camilleri was a member of the 1960 Greco-Roman Olympic team that competed in Rome.

“We wrestled in what was an old building not far from the Roman Coliseum,” he said. “The roof was gone and some of the walls were gone, too. Due to the condition of the building, I would say it was more outdoors than indoors.”

The facility was called Bascilica of Maxentius and dates back to 306 A.D. Russ said that there wasn’t much of a crowd as there simply wasn’t room for fans at the ancient site.

“By the time you got all the wrestlers in there and all the officials, there wasn’t much space left…. maybe 300 people were in there,” he said.

take it outside (with buffer)            On the same date that Iowa and OSU tangle in Iowa City, California Baptist University (CBU) in Riverside, Calif., will be wrestling outside for the second straight year. Lennie Zalesky, the Lancers’ head coach, has done research on outdoor meets and believes his team now holds the record in that area, when it took on Stanford last year.

“To the best of our knowledge, we set the outside dual meet record last year with 2,600 fans,” said Lennie, a three-time All-American at Iowa in the early 1980s. “I called several others that had outside duals prior to that and the most was an estimated 1,000 at Cal Poly versus Oregon State. CBU took care to count this past year against Stanford. To the best of our research here, we could not find any outside dual college meets in any other states other than Arizona and California.

“We are trying to break the record again with wrestling Bakersfield outside on Nov. 14th,” said Lennie. “But I understand that if it is a warm day in Iowa, that may shatter every college wrestling attendance record that exists.”

Wrestling outside in an effort to attract larger crowds and media attention is a wonderful marketing concept and I salute coaches like Lennie Zalesky and Tom Brands for coming up with such an innovative plan. Wrestling needs more such bold ideas and ventures.