This time of year, with the college basketball season at the peak of its popularity, “March Madness” re-emerges as the premier sporting event in early spring, captivating the American sports audience since its inception. However, there is a small fraction of sports lovers that enjoy a different sporting event that reaches its finale in the month of March.
The NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championship, much like the basketball championship, features some of American universities’ fiercest athletes vying to be crowned the nation’s best in their sport. This year’s annual championship featured perennial powerhouse Penn State University capturing its fourth straight national championship, coached by Olympian Cael Sanderson, and led by national champion and All-American hero of the wrestling mat, David Taylor. But, besides ESPN’s coverage of the event, this tournament has yet to even slightly compare to the popularity experienced by college basketball. Why is this?
Wrestling is one of the oldest sports known to man. Both the Bible and the Torah tell a story of the prophet Jacob wrestling with a man of superhuman powers, who some scholars believe to be a manifestation of God himself: “Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak . . .” (Genesis 32:24). The first Olympic wrestling competition was recorded in 708 B.C., and it was widely heralded as the most prominent event of the ancient Olympic games. Additionally, in Arabic literature, there is evidence of the prophet Muhammad being a talented wrestler. Finally, in Greek Mythology, Zeus comes to power by defeating his father, Cronus, in a wrestling duel. As well as infamous mythological legend, Hercules was known for overcoming man and beast with his wrestling ability.
With such an old and storied history of wrestling, why does it still not garner the same amount of respect as much younger sports? The answer may never be known.
The disrespect for the sport of wrestling isn’t contained within the borders of the United States. Last year, in a decision that left the international wrestling community shocked, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to drop wrestling from the list of sports taking place at the 2020 Summer Olympic games. The backlash from wrestlers and lovers of the sport was heard from every corner of the globe.
The countries most adamant about seeing wrestling return to the Olympic games organized an event aimed at protesting the IOC’s decision. Teams of wrestlers from Russia, Iran, and America all gathered in New York City’s Grand Central Station to host what was known as “Rumble on the Rails.” The event featured matches of wrestlers from those countries and speeches demanding the IOC reverse their decision. No, this is not a typo. Russian, American, and Iranian wrestlers and citizens came together in a unified and civil manner for a greater good. How is it that wrestling communities of these respective nations can cordially discuss and come to an accord when the governments cannot? Wrestling actually got Iranians, Russians, and Americans to sit down at a table as equals and discuss an issue. This isn’t Dennis Rodman visiting North Korea and giving drunken press conferences (side-eyeing the basketball community).
In addition to these global events, FILA, the international governing body of wrestling, made substantial alterations to the sport, including much-needed rule changes to make the sport easier for the spectators to understand, instituting more women in crucial decision making positions, and electing a new president. After the overwhelming efforts of the international wrestling community, the IOC voted to re-include wrestling for the 2020 Summer Olympic games.
Although the wrestling community at large is appreciative of the IOC’s decision to reinstate wrestling as an Olympic event, personally, I can’t help but still be annoyed by the audacity of dropping the sport to begin with. Wrestling has been a staple of the Olympics since its beginning. The lack of respect and understanding for the sport of wrestling remains an undertone for anyone interested in sacrificing blood, sweat, and tears to be an accomplished wrestler.
As a wrestler, throughout my whole life, I’ve personally endured the second-hand attitude that wrestlers have just grown to deal with. In high school, I was at one point a nationally ranked wrestler, yet there would be no more than 15 people at our weekly duel meets. We, as a team, consistently finished in the top 10 teams in the state, yet besides family, there was hardly anyone ever there to support the Dublin High School wrestling team. At the time, I tried not to think much of it, but now, looking back, it bothers me. We broke bones, sweated until there was a thick fog in our wrestling room after practice, and bled rivers from cracked noses or open cuts, yet we did not receive one-tenth of the recognition of any of the “major” sports at our school.
My senior year of wrestling, I was fortunate enough to finish second in my weight class. The next week at school, I was happily telling everyone of my success. Well, one employee of the school blatantly told me she wasn’t even aware I was on the wrestling team. Instances like that dictated my wrestling career. Participants in popular sports like football, baseball, and basketball don’t have to worry about performing in front of an empty gymnasium, or not having enough funding to buy crucial equipment. I did not much think of the lessons that wrestling taught me, but now, being a sophomore in college, I look back on one of the most important lessons wrestling taught me: to be self sufficient and personally responsible.
When I wrestled, I didn’t do it for the thousands of people cheering me on (because there weren’t any), I did it for the sheer glory of having my hand raised above another person. I did it so I could individually and personally know that I put in the work and effort I had to in order to be better than that person on that given day. Now, in my life, when I have an impressive accomplishment or personal victory, I don’t look for the approval of others or the congratulations from the masses. I’m able to look to myself and say, “Ben, you did a good job.” And move on.
Wrestling taught me many lessons in life. Most of them I wasn’t even aware I was being taught. I’m excited to see where the future of wrestling is headed. Nothing makes my heart happier than seeing two little kids line up across from one another and shake hands, preparing to do their best to pin each other. In my perfect world, spectators would look forward to filling out a wrestling bracket and trying to crack the code and determine national champions of wrestling just like they do for basketball. My perfect world is March Matness and March Madness. There is room for admiration and respect for man’s oldest sport; we’ve just got to give it a shot.
If you’re reading this and you have never been exposed to the magical world of wrestling, go out and watch a local high school match, Google Olympic wrestling matches (I’d suggest Nate Carr 1988 Bronze medalist, my personal hero and coach for years), or get your family members (boys and girls can wrestle) involved in the best sport ever invented. The sport of wrestling can change the world we live in, literally. Give it a shot.