“I haven’t been a good guy for a long time and I don’t plan on changing. I guess I won’t be a good guy until we start losing. I thank God this isn’t professional wrestling because if it was, I would probably get chairs cracked over my head from people coming out of the stands. I would need to wear a crash helmet.”
Dan Gable after his University of Iowa team won its eighth NCAA title in a row in 1985.
By Kyle Klingman, W.I.N. Columnist
Other than a sign that read “Jensen will Jack you up at 184”, this year’s Big 12 wrestling tournament didn’t look much like a pro wrestling match. Yet there were certain times where it felt like one.
That’s because the two biggest names in college wrestling Johny Hendricks of Oklahoma State and Ben Askren of Missouri provided matches that were getting wrestling fans jacked up at 165 and 174.
Professional wrestlers are generally separated into two distinct categories: baby faces (good guys) and heels (bad guys). And if Askren and Hendricks ever decided to go pro they would already have their roles down pat.
Askren is currently playing his role as a baby face to perfection. This guy can do no wrong. He goes for the pin, his style is unbelievably entertaining, he plays to the crowd, he slaps hands with everyone in sight and he’s great with the kids. What more could you want?
He’s even started wearing a tie-dye shirt with a picture of himself sporting an Afro. Underneath his picture it simply says: Funky.
The reaction Askren received from fans after being introduced before the Iowa State meet on Feb. 11 reached monumental proportions. The place went crazy for the guy.
After he scored a first period fall during the dual meet he gave fans his traditional double twirl of the fingers. After he scored a major decision in the finals of the Big 12 meet he blew kisses to the hometown crowd. Both times he was greeted with roaring applause.
Fans love Ben Askren. Many fans, on the other hand, wouldn’t list Johny Hendricks on the top of their favorites list.
To watch the Cowboy wrestle is like watching an expert heel work the crowd. He walks around the mat with a swagger, he always has a smirk on his face, and he is constantly getting into slapping matches with someone (usually Iowa State’s Travis Paulson). Then, following a win, the Cowboy senior laughs and gestures to the crowd when they start booing him.
Yet the most frustrating part for that don’t like Hendricks is this: Just when you think he’s going to finally get beat; just when you think he’s finally going to go down, the Cowboy senior finds a way to win one-point matches against the very best competition every week has wrestling some fans wondering if this guy will ever lose. And often not having fans’ support is a big sign of being a perennial winner, people love to cheer against the guy or team on top.
During the semifinals of this year’s Big 12 tournament, Hendricks’ stock as a villain reached new heights (and I never thought that was possible after last year’s NCAA finals match with Ryan Churella). While wrestling Stephen Dwyer of Nebraska, Hendricks held a commanding 6-1 lead but was reversed and put to his back. Claiming he was being choked, Hendricks tapped out to escape the hold and a possible pin.
This did not go over well with the fans.
“Way to cheat, you big baby,” yelled a Nebraska fan at Hendricks. As he walked off the mat the Cowboy senior began motioning for those booing him to calm down and be quiet. Fans eventually gave Hendricks a nickname: Johny Tap-out.
“Yeah, I’m the most hated man in wrestling,” said Hendricks of his status as wrestling’s villain. “But this is what I want wrestling to be; I want it to be entertaining. It’s fun for me because I’m not wrestling well but I’m still keeping it entertaining. I can’t worry about the fans any more. I need to worry about going out there and doing what I need to do. By doing that it will bring the fans into this sport.”
So at the conclusion of 2007 NCAA tournament college wrestling will be faced with a dilemma: Who will replace seniors Ben Askren and Johny Hendricks? Because the entertainment value that these two wrestlers provide is extremely rare.
“I have been having fun for a long time,” said Hendricks. “I’m glad to see other people are doing it. Someone has to take my place. That’s something that brings people to this sport. People came up to me after last year’s (NCAA) finals and said ‘we know nothing about wrestling but you were so exciting just to watch.’”
Said Ben Askren of the prospects of a replacement: “Hopefully, there will be a new one. Hopefully, there will be someone who wants to have fun and go after it.”
I hope there is someone out there who will replace these guys too, but let’s be realistic here. Who is going to grow out his hair to monumental proportions until he wins an NCAA title? Who is going to lead Cowboy fans in an OSU chant after a come-from-behind victory in the NCAA finals?
I’m afraid the answer is nobody will.
That these two diametrically-opposed personalities would wrestle the same four years of college together in consecutive weight classes could be considered the Halley’s comet of wrestling. Because it may be another 76 years before we get two college careers like the ones we just had.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever coach another competitor like Ben Askren,” said Missouri head coach Brian Smith. “He makes people stop and watch him wrestle. If we had more people like him we’d fill these arenas. When Ben gets out there you can feel the energy in the building. We need more of that. Sometimes people get on those guys but if we had more of that we’d be filling arenas.”
Occasionally, athletes are given a sixth year of eligibility for injury hardship. I propose we check into getting Askren and Hendricks a sixth year of eligibility on an entertainment hardship. Things won’t be the same next year without them.
(Kyle Klingman is the associate director of the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum, located in Newton, Iowa. He can be reached via email, firstname.lastname@example.org.)