Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!
Already a subscriber? Log In
FloSports content manager Kolby Paxton oversees six verticals, including FloFootball and FloRugby, but the former college football player was a stranger to wrestling—until now.
Paxton joined the FloWrestling team for the 2019 Big Ten Championships in Minneapolis, Minn., and agreed to journal his experience in what serves as an outsider’s perspective on the event and the sport.
My travel bag weighs 51 pounds.
The gentleman behind the Delta Airlines ticket counter is subtle about it, which I appreciate. This is a new personal record that I’m not proud of. He slips the overweight tag of shame around one of the handles and nods, with an amused grin, in the direction of the nearest security line.
I’m headed to Minneapolis, where just under a foot of snow is expected to fall during my stay. I’m loaded down with coats and hoodies and pants and boots. I’m ready to take on the frigidity of winter time in the great white north.
I’m not prepared for the Minnesota wrestling room.
Wrestling With My Own Ignorance
We didn’t have wrestling in Arkansas when I was growing up. If we had, I’m guessing I’d have gotten into it, but it wasn’t a thing.
I became aware of it in college, if only because I attended the University of Oklahoma, whose in-state rival up the road, Oklahoma State, has one of the premier programs in the country. But I never attended a wrestling event. Never really gave it a second thought, to be honest.
It wasn’t until I made my way to FloSports, where FloWrestling is king, that my general exposure to the sport spawned a little genuine curiosity. In November, we began collectively discussing whether my traveling with them to an event would be professionally valuable.
While I ultimately agreed that it would, if I’m being honest, I never actually expected to enjoy spending an extended weekend at a wrestling tournament.
Days before we left Austin for Minneapolis, a couple of the guys made a suggestion: Provide an outsider’s perspective on the sport.
I liked the idea, but it’s a broad initiative—particularly for someone with a very limited notion as to what, exactly, he’s getting himself into. My strategy, then, was simply to approach the weekend without pretense. Relax and observe. Make note of what feels noteworthy. See what happens.
My first note: I didn’t need 51 pounds of gear.
Sweatin’ To The Oldies
Turns out, wrestling rooms are hot—and maybe that should’ve seemed obvious to me, considering the fact that they’re filled with athletes trying to make weight, but I still find myself taken aback by it initially. The banishment of air-conditioning is far from the only thing to catch me by surprise, though.
For starters, can we just spend a brief moment on the subject of music?
The wrestling room playlist is eclectic to say the least. And that detail cannot be attributed solely to the Gophers. Over the course of two days leading up to the Big Ten Championships, every team in the league took their turn on the mats—each with its own DJs—and we heard virtually every genre imaginable.
The transition from Meek Mill to Jason Aldean? Sure. The transition from Kanye to Britney Spears … to Whitney Houston … to Major Lazer … to Red Jumpsuit Apparatus? Remarkable.
Every time I thought we’d stumbled upon, say, Lady Gaga by accident, I’d look around the room to see guys vibing to it.
Oh, and that’s the other thing. There’s never a hard stop for one team ahead of the next. No one ever arrived to an empty room. Illinois started its workout on top of Michigan, who started on top of Purdue, who started on top of Michigan State.
Not only was diverse musical taste evident for all parties involved, there was no reservation or hesitation in drilling right next to a rival program.
For someone whose background is football—where common offensive philosophies are treated like heavily guarded military secrets—seeing wrestlers from opposing programs share mat space on the eve of their conference tournament was surprising.
If there was bad blood, it was hidden. If there was animosity, it was drowned out by Kendrick Lamar. Just guys being dudes. Logos on their sweats be damned.
Nothing Personal, It's Just Business
Sebastian Rivera is draped all over one of his teammates.
“That’s the No. 1 125-pounder in the country,” I’m told, as Rivera—known within the wrestling community as ‘Sea Bass’—looks every bit the part. He isn’t letting the kid breathe. It feels particularly relentless considering this is practice and his victim, for the time being, is presumably an ally.
At least, he was 10 minutes ago.
The sport of wrestling isn’t just physical, it’s personal.
Uh-oh Spencer Lee with the assassin. pic.twitter.com/3A2LMxFQ6u— FloWrestling (@FloWrestling) March 8, 2019
I’ve often marveled at the willingness with which my co-workers seamlessly transition from a conversation about content strategy to a friendly physical encounter. But, short of their simulated bouts, I’d never legitimately seen wrestling up close.
I played safety in high school, linebacker in college. Generally speaking, contact is not a foreign concept to yours truly, but this is something else. Football is physical, sure, but altogether different. I wanted off of blocks. Collisions, particularly for a linebacker, are frequent, but brief.
The physicality in wrestling is sustained. It’s seemingly never-ending. In earnest, I struggle to comprehend how two friends go live in practice together and remain congenial on the other side of it. There’s an evident numbness to the constant encroachment.
As practice ends, the same guys who were, for the past half-hour, ripping the concept of personal space to shreds, are now seated next to each other, backs against the wall, discussing spring break plans.
As I observed this over the course of one day and into the next, the bouts that routinely break out in the living rooms of my colleagues started to make more sense.
Williams Arena was constructed in 1928 and, frankly, being inside this place is the closest I’ve ever come to time travel. It feels like Norman Dale should be making his way from beneath the bleachers at any point.
I’d use a wrestling reference for that imagery if I could, but, as has now been well-established, I cannot. So, ‘Hoosiers’ it is.
It’s a decidedly charming venue, though I suspect the charm resonates a little less with the reluctant occupants of obstructed-view seats behind the row of pillars that line the lower level of both ends of the field house.
This afternoon's view. pic.twitter.com/JgHRJAEbLt— Big B10gger (@SpeyWrestle) March 10, 2019
Those ticket holders may have caught an unlucky break on their seat number, but they’re lucky to be in the building at all. Williams Arena is sold out.
I’ve been amid sellouts before at various sporting events, from the World Series to the Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl. But, when it comes to wrestling, even the crowd feels different.
The loyalty in the bleachers rests, predominantly, with Minnesota and Iowa. When either team is on the mat, the relatively quiet atmosphere begins buzzing. In stark contrast to, say, football, the crowd reaction throughout each bout is measured and intelligent. And, finally, when Gable Steveson delivers a thunderous takedown or Spencer Lee breathes, their respective fan bases explode.
Wrestling fans probably don’t realize how unique and nuanced their version of a sellout crowd is, but, trust me, it’s something different.
The Sneak Attack
Chad Red is really good at standing on one leg.
I learned this while watching him defy the laws of physics and reasonable expectations for human flexibility as he inexplicably avoided a takedown that would’ve tied things up late in his quarterfinal victory over Illinois’ Mike Carr.
For me, this represented the beginning—not just of Red’s eventual run to the NCAA Championships, but also of something altogether less tangible; something that caught me completely by surprise.
The combination of athleticism, strength, and showmanship that I witnessed in the 141-pounder from Nebraska was world class—and, by complete accident, on the verge of falling off the edge of my seat, I suddenly realized what’d happened: He got me.
I liked watching a wrestling match.
The first #1 seed of the tournament goes down as Chad Red gets revenge on Mike Carr. pic.twitter.com/THS54vJalO— FloWrestling (@FloWrestling) March 9, 2019
At this point, I saw no cause for alarm. CJ Red is special, I figured; a one-off exception to my undoubtedly well-founded disinterest in the sport. But, while I was right about the former, I was wrong about the latter.
Rivera was universally spectacular. With the home crowd behind him, Minnesota’s Steve Bleise gutted out a victory in the best match of the first session. Myles Martin displayed unparalleled power and control. Nick Suriano and Austin DeSanto provided the fireworks in one of the most anticipated bouts of the tournament.
Red—who met his match in the form of Ohio State’s Joey McKenna—is special, but he’s not a unicorn.
The more I watched, the more obvious that became.
The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. So, here it is: I thought wrestling was a boring sport full of relatively unimpressive athletes.
I was very, very wrong.
Just as the physical makeup of basketball players differ from football players, the physical makeup of a wrestler is, for the most part, altogether unique. No one questions the athleticism of a point guard or a running back, but, if I’m being honest, I was pretty skeptical about the college wrestler.
Nick Suriano has no place on a football field—even at Rutgers—but, there’s not an individual on the football team that wants to see Suriano on the mat. They do not want that smoke.
Some of the best athletes I’ve ever seen—Suriano chief among them—were on the floor of Williams Arena this weekend.
Ok, so I went to a wrestling tournament. I observed. I was reformed. That’s great. But my key objective, here, was to provide some sort of outsider’s assessment. So, here we go:
1.) Nobody Likes Singlets
Might as well just get this one out of the way. You knew it was coming. But, listen, I’m not coming at this from the angle you might expect. I’m a huge baseball fan—a sport in which guys still wear belts and polyester and managers dress like they’re going to pinch hit in the eighth inning.
No judgment, here. I just don’t get it.
It’d be one thing if everyone was aligned in support of the singlet, but it sure didn’t feel that way. I observed a reluctant sensitivity amongst fans, a sort of, “We know they look ridiculous … Just don’t mention it.”
Meanwhile, the athletes repeatedly went to noticeable lengths to rock the suspenders as briefly as possible, pulling the top-half up as they approached the mat, and tossing on a T-shirt immediately afterwards.
LET’S GO! pic.twitter.com/MLbbcbXE8T— FloWrestling (@FloWrestling) March 10, 2019
What’s more, most wrestlers don’t even practice in a singlet, which was surprising to the new guy, here, who just assumed it was a necessary evil. It’s like forcing basketball players to wear joggers in games despite the fact that everyone is wearing shorts in practice.
Why not put these guys in the same sort of performance gear that their peers are wearing at the NFL Combine? Not only would it update the look of the sport—which is important, by the way—but it would also create an opportunity for jersey sales.
Guessing Dick’s probably isn’t moving too many singlets off the racks.
2.) Grow The Sport
I see this on social media all of the time: “If Flo really wanted to grow the sport …”
I have to be honest, a lot of times, it feels like Flo is the only organization whose primary objective is to ‘grow the sport.’ And that’s not me being a company man, that’s me keeping it as real as humanly possible.
Amongst some fans and coaches, there’s an obvious reluctance to really lean into the star power. And, perhaps, due at least in part to that, there is also a collective indifference for wrestling across the national sports media landscape.
To help solve for the latter, I’d strongly urge some evolution as it pertains to the former.
Suriano, Lee, Rivera, Martin, DeSanto, Hall, Steveson—these guys are each phenomenally entertaining for a host of their own reasons. There are heroes and heels. There are talkers and silent assassins. There are renegades and dudes you hope your daughter brings home during fall break.
Do more to make these guys the face of your sport, just as Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray and Zion Williamson became the face of theirs.
3.) Welcome To The Main Event
Lastly, and on a similar note, this whole thing where we wrestle for third place and fifth place right next to the championship bout is mind-numbingly stupid.
I understand that it’s different at NCAAs, and that’s great, but, universally, can we all agree to a ‘main event’ at the tail end of the tournament? Knock out those third, fifth and seventh-place matches however you see fit, but, when two individuals are wrestling for a conference title, they shouldn’t be sharing the stage.
On Sunday, more than once, Minnesota (or Iowa) fans were so locked into watching their guy wrestle for third that the championship bout taking place just feet away was a complete afterthought.
Suriano won his first Big Ten Championship and the crowd roared … for Gopher Ethan Lizak, who’d just beaten Iowa’s DeSanto one mat over.
That’s not how you honor a champion. That is how you end up with a meaningless Iowa-Nebraska basketball game taking precedent over Rivera vs. Lee for the 125-pound crown.
Count Me In
In any case, I now understand my friends’ passion. I share their interest, though obviously to a far less-informed degree.
A special thanks to Christian Pyles for chaperoning the trip and to Kyle Bratke and Andrew Spey for enduring my stupid questions all weekend.
Red got my attention. Suriano, Rivera and Martin—among others—kept it. As a result, my first wrestling tournament will not be my last.