Freestyle wrestling: Before Gable, there was Abe - honest


Dear Eddie:

Did you know that Abe Lincoln was a freestyle wrestler?

He wasn’t the only president who wrestled. Andrew Jackson wrestled. Why do you think they called him Old Hickory?

Zack Taylor wrestled. Ulysses S. Grant. Chester A. Arthur. And Big Bill Taft. Taft had this move called the “Flying Marc” in which he “savagely would flip an opponent to the ground.” I think Oklahoma State might have offered him a full ride.

But Lincoln supposedly was tougher. Log cabin upbringing. All arms and legs, like an octopus. Wiry strong. Plus he had that beard, so when he put you in a cradle hold, sweat would drop from his whiskers and get in your eye.

Sports Illustrated said in a 1995 story that the Great Emancipator could dispose of an opponent “with a single toss.” A store clerk in New Salem, Ill., said he watched Lincoln “whip all comers” this one day in 1831. That Lincoln could “outrun, outlift, outwrestle and throw down any man in Sangamon County.”

But Eddie, you know as well as I that Sangamon County is not Black Hawk County in Iowa. Black Hawk County has Waterloo for a seat, and Waterloo is where Dan Gable is from.

It’s been awhile since I heard Dan Gable’s name. But I still remember it. If you asked me for the names of two wrestlers when I was young, I probably would say Dan Gable and Baron von Raschke.

In looking up Gable’s age, I discovered he is now 64. I also discovered that people in Iowa refer to Michael Jordan as the Dan Gable of basketball. But because Dan Gable wasn’t around in 1860, the people of Iowa voted for Abe Lincoln for president.

Spielberg must have cut the wrestling scenes from the movie.

And so now Count Jacques Rogge and the International Olympic Committee are of the mind that archery and modern pentathlon and rich guys jumping over stuff on horseback are more popular sports than wrestling. So it has proposed that wrestling be eliminated as an Olympic sport beyond 2016.

People in Iowa have their singlets in a bunch. This was worse than the news that pork bellies no longer would be traded at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

You were there in London, Eddie. You probably heard the rumblings.

So when you were off looking for Grecos and Romans, I found this freestyler with a haircut like Curly Howard from the “Three Stooges.” Only he had rippling biceps and, like you said, virtually no neck to speak of. He looked to be from Bulgaria or one of those other European nations.

His name was Tervel Diagnev and, sure enough, the publicity guy from USA Wrestling said he was born in Bulgaria, but that he moved to Texas when he was a little boy. Which, judging from the biceps and the neck muscles and the finely chiseled 120 kilograms — 264.5 pounds — was a long time ago.

Now he mostly wrestles Russian bears, and bears from countries whose names end in “stan.”

So I asked the man from USA Wrestling if he would accompany me down to the mats, so he could explain what I was seeing, which was mostly the points on Diagnev’s side of the scoreboard increasing, and those on his opponent’s side remaining on zero.

“Single-leg takedown ... gut wrench ... near fall ...” the man from USA Wrestling said as the referee kept flashing fingers to the scoreboard guy. Then the referee was raising Diagnev’s arm to those in the bleachers. It was over quickly.

Diagnev said afterward that if wrestling is eliminated from the Olympics it would be a death knell more ominous than the one sounded by Title IX, which has resulted in wrestling mats having been permanently rolled up on all but 78 college campuses.

“College programs look at revenue sports and Olympic sports, and if you knock yourself out of both categories, it’s gonna look kinda slim for you,” said the man with the buzz cut and tightly packed kilos who occasionally will allow himself a cheeseburger, but only the organic kind one finds at grass-fed beef joints.

“Programs might stop dropping.”

When I asked Tervel Diagnev what he would like Count Jacques Rogge and other people who don’t follow freestyle wrestling to know about his sport, he said this:

“It teaches you humility. It’s a very personal sport. It’s a sport that makes you delve deep to find confidence and reason to do it. It exposes you. Not only does it expose you to the public, it exposes you to yourself.

“People on the outside don’t see that.”

As this outsider watched the freestyle wrestlers out there on the mat, alone, trying to twist each other into the shape of a pretzel, I thought of Charles Dimry, the former UNLV defensive back, trying to cover Jerry Rice during that game in which Rice twisted Dimry into the shape of a pretzel, catching five touchdowns.

Freestyle wrestling is like trying to cover Jerry Rice, I thought. You’re out there on an island, alone. Except in football, sometimes Joe Montana would hand off to one of his running backs, and then you wouldn’t have to worry about covering Jerry Rice for a couple of plays.

It’s not like that in amateur freestyle wrestling, Eddie. In amateur freestyle wrestling, it’s always third and long.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.