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(Originally published in the March 31, 2006 issue of W.I.N.)
By Bryan Van Kley, W.I.N. Publisher
The most anticipated finals match-up of the Division I Championships resulted in a 14-2 blow-out. Missouri’s top-ranked Ben Askren dominated undefeated Jake Herbert (No. 2 seed) of Northwestern. For his efforts, Askren was named the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler and now has added wrestling’s top individual prize to his trophy case: the 2006 Dan Hodge Trophy.
Wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy is awarded annually to the most dominant collegiate wrestler by the International Wrestling Institute & Museum and W.I.N. Magazine.
The 174-pounder finished the season 45-0 with an impressive 25 pins. Of the other 20 wins, Askren had nine technical falls, five majors, an injury default and a forfeit, leaving only four bouts in which he failed to score bonus points. In addition to his convincing 12-point victory in the NCAA finals, he also defeated Lehigh’s Travis Frick (19-3) and Hofstra’s Michael Patrovich (21-6) in the quarters and semis, respectively.
“It’s a great honor to win the award, because of Dan Hodge and all the other great wrestlers that have won it,” Askren said. “It’s been a goal of mine to not only be the best in my weight class, but the best in any weight class, period.”
Criteria for the award include: record, number of pins, dominance, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart.
Other finalists for the award were four-time Div. II national champion Les Sigman of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Iowa State’s Nate Gallick, Minnesota’s Cole Konrad and Boise State’s Ben Cherrington.
Sigman, who was wrestling unattached the first semester, was 43-0 with 19 pins. Gallick, who beat defending national champ Teyon Ware four times, was 36-0 with two falls. Konrad was 39-0 with 14 pins, downing defending titlist Steve Mocco four times. Cherrington finished his senior campaign 20-0 with three pins.
Missouri head coach Brian Smith said fans won’t find a more worthy recipient than his national champion junior.
“I’ve never been around anybody like him,” Smith said of his team captain. “I think he’s going to be the new torch-holder for our sport. I knew that when I recruited him.”
Anyone who’s around Askren can tell immediately the Tiger junior doesn’t fit the typical mold of a wrestler or an average college student for that matter. Not having cut his hair in two years, Askren competes with a huge afro hair style which comes out of the straps of his headgear in every direction.
And don’t expect many typical 3-2 decisions from Askren either. He revels in the chance to entertain fans and put on a show.
“A lot of people complain about wrestling’s (media) coverage. Then they go out and take one or two shots in seven minutes. I hate when people do that. A decision is not satisfactory in my books. The ultimate goal is to pin someone. That’s what I go after every match,” the three-time finalist said.
The wrestling community often describes Askren as unorthodox. He’s perfectly fine with that. He’s also widely known as the best scrambler in the college wrestling. But Smith warned not to mistake Askren’s style for a lack of technique.
“If you sat down with Ben, he’d teach you the eight stages of funk,” Smith said. The Tigers’ head man also stressed his star pupil is a tireless student of the sport, studying films on various Russian and other international wrestlers to pick up new techniques. And to go along with the long hours studying the sport, Smith said Askren has an incredibly good work ethic and a happy-go-lucky attitude.
Minutes before his finals match, ESPN showed a clip of Hodge crushing an apple with his hand. Smith had to remind his finalist to stay focused as Askren was laughing watching the television in the tunnel saying how cool that was.
During a break in the action in the finals, Askren heard the Ford Center crowd cheering. Television cameras then caught him trying to get a peak at the screen on the main scoreboard above him to see what had gotten everyone’s attention. He found out later that ESPN had found a few of his friends in the stands who had on colored afro wigs to show their support.
The two-time Wisconsin state champ said he always had short hair in high school. Once it started growing out in college, people started giving him a hard time, saying wrestlers shouldn’t do that. Askren set out to prove to people you could have fun in the sport and still be successful.
“People were saying wrestlers aren’t suppose to have goofy hair and you’re supposed to be serious. I enjoy bugging people a little bit and getting under their skin. So I let it grow,” he said, adding that he planned to get it cut this week.
Smith noted an autographed photo of the boxer Muhammed Ali in the Askrens’ basement while on a recruiting trip to their Hartland, Wisc. home. Askren informed Smith that Ali was one of his heroes. He now tries to emulate the manner in which Ali carried himself, taking seriously the responsibility of an athlete to entertain the fans. Askren also added that he wanted to just be himself in front of media, not just telling reporters what they want to hear like so many athletes do.
“If he wasn’t such a hard worker and wasn’t doing so well in the classroom, I’d say, ‘Hey, you can’t talk like that,’ ” Smith said. “But that’s Ben.”
Askren excels off the mat as well. The geography major carries a 3.2 GPA and was named an academic All-American his first two years. He also volunteers to read to grade school kids and “absolutely loves it,” said Smith.
Smith said don’t be surprised if you see Askren, who won the Pam Ams this summer, making a U.S. World Team very soon.
“He’s going to make an Olympic team,” Smith said, when asked how far the Dan Hodge Trophy winner could go. “Once he gets that, I think he’s going to get a gold medal. That’s a goal of his and he’s achieved everything he’s gone after. He finds a way to get better every day.”
The award will be officially presented to Askren, April 22, at the team’s wrestling banquet and publicly next fall at one of the home football games.
The following is a breakdown of Ben Askren’s career at Missouri:
|Season||School||Year of Eligibilty||Weight||Bouts||W||L||T||Falls||W Pct.||All-American|