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How would today’s star do against yesterday’s legends?
By Kyle Klingman
Jack Spates thinks his strongest ally is film. He says the farther you delve into the past, the stronger his case gets.
Spates also says that a champion is a champion. That no one should diminish the incredible feats of a bygone era.
Because he is speaking philosophically about generational greatness, Spates, the current head wrestling coach at the University of Oklahoma, is wise to examine all angles of the argument. And he feels he has.
So are today’s wrestlers as good as they have ever been?
Spates says yes. So do Cornell University head wrestling coach Rob Koll and Northwestern head wrestling coach Drew Pariano.
Their argument stems from logic, modern science, and volume. Wrestlers today are better trained, better prepared, and more knowledgeable than ever before.
A college wrestler from the 1950s may have wrestled 50 college matches in a career. Youth wrestlers today often wrestle over 100 matches … in a season.
Every other sport has evolved, why wouldn’t wrestling?
But comparing eras, at least for this argument, is about using a time machine. How would a wrestler from another era, without the benefits of modern training and technological advances, fair against a wrestler from today?
Could Dan Hodge — NCAA champion for Oklahoma from 1955 through 1957 — be transported into the 2011 NCAA tournament, as is, and win it all?
Would Dan Gable—NCAA champion for Iowa State in 1968 and 1969—dominate today’s wrestlers using only the skills and knowledge he had at the time?
No on-line videos. No protein shakes. No personal club coaches. No state-of-the art equipment.
Or would adjustments need to be made? Would Hodge and Gable only be successful on a mat today if they began at age zero and trained using contemporary methods?
“As great as Dan Gable was, I don’t believe that, transported by a time machine, he would beat the top wrestlers of today,” Spates said. “There are just too many advantages in terms of the progression of technique, nutrition, strength training, and video. That’s not to diminish his brilliance or everything that he’s accomplished.
“On the other hand, put Dan in a modern environment and he would, no doubt, be even more dominant. His relentless determination to succeed would guarantee excellence in any era”
So what or when are we comparing today’s wrestler against? 10 years ago? 25 years ago? 50 years ago? 75 years ago? A generational argument gets complicated.
Spates also points out that wrestlers like Doug Blubaugh, NCAA champion for Oklahoma State in 1957, worked on the farm to build strength. Jack Van Bebber, NCAA champion for Oklahoma State in 1929, 1930, and 1931, wrestled through the Great Depression. Both may have performed better under modern conditions.
Still, in a straight up generational battle, our era vs. your era, our technique vs. your technique, Spates has no doubt that today’s wrestlers win out. And that is why Spates suggests watching video if you think he is wrong.
Randy Lewis, NCAA champion for Iowa in 1979 and 1980, thinks Spates is wrong … sort of.
Lewis says a great wrestler will win under any rules or any condition, but only going back to the early 1970s. He never saw Dan Hodge or Dan Gable wrestle, and will only comment about an era he knows.
“Wrestling is not a measurable sport like track or swimming,” said Lewis. “Wrestling is all about rules changes and how they interpret it. People get better in what the rules require of them.
“If you transported the guys today back to 1980 every single one of them would get cautioned. Over 50 percent of them would get cautioned out of the NCAA finals because of the way they wrestle. They might beat us because we might get overaggressive but you take them back to our era and they would get cautioned out.
“Guys today are better in a smaller area, but there are a lot of positions they never get in because they stay out of them.”
If a wrestler from another era is transported to today, it is only fair to ask how well today’s wrestlers would fair under primitive conditions. How would it feel to put on a wool singlet and wrestle on a horse hair mat? And what if there was no trainer waiting in the corner for a shoulder massage?
Guys were tougher back then, right?
“Every generation is going to talk about how their generation is the toughest,” said Koll. “I think it’s bunk. I think we have more kids wrestling today than 50 years ago and we have better athletes. The rules are what have allowed our wrestlers to not be as tough. Referees call potentially dangerous every time the kid has a hang nail. It’s ridiculous.”
It is hard to argue that a wrestler from the 1920s or 1930s is comparable to a wrestler from today. With limited opportunities and limited matches it is difficult to know how good Harlod DeMarsh, NCAA champion at the 1928 NCAA tournament in a five-man bracket, really was.
Koll would also like to take post-World War II wrestlers out of the discussion. Not only were they older — many were in their early 20s as freshman — but their way of thinking makes a comparison tricky.
Rob’s father, Bill Koll, stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day. Bill won NCAA titles in 1946, the first tournament after the war, 1947, and 1948 for Iowa State Teachers College (now Northern Iowa). He never lost a match in college.
“You have to take that group of people out of the mix because they were trained killers, and it was a kill-or-be- killed attitude,” said Rob Koll. “They started the slam rule because of (my dad). He picked (his opponent) up and slammed him as hard as he could on the mat to try to knock him out.
“His thinking was ‘Who cares if I knock a person out because I’ve killed people and I’ve been around people who have had their arms and legs blown off. Big deal, you get a little concussion.’ It was just a different mentality. If you can have a person with that sick mentality on the mat, you don’t want to be there with them.”
Perhaps a consensus will never be reached, and that is the point. This debate is about broadening the question, not answering it.
Still, there are select wrestlers who elevated the sport through their greatness. Those wrestlers, regardless of era, transcend any generational argument.
“John Smith revolutionized the sport with the low single and his low shots,” said Lewis. “I can absolutely guarantee you this: there is nobody today that could touch John Smith.
“You put John Smith from 1988 (when he won an NCAA title and Olympic title in the same year) into today and nobody could beat him. Twenty years from now there isn’t going to be anyone as good as Cael Sanderson. No one will ever work harder than the Brands boys.
“The great ones are always great.”