Editor’s Note: For many wrestling fans, the legend of Dan Gable began at the 1966 Midlands where he won the first of six championships as a freshman at Iowa State. Gable, who saw his Iowa wrestling team capture over 10 team titles at the Midlands, recently spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about the tournament, where his name is now associated with the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler Award.
WIN: What can wrestling today take from a tournament like the Midlands?
GABLE: When I look at events that help our sport more, it seems like the biggest impacts on the sport come when you created something in a large city, a very popular city. Look at New York City and the impact that Beat The Streets has made the last four or five years in New York City, especially where you have events like USA vs. Russia like what we’ve seen in Times Square the last couple years.
So when I think of the three biggest cities in America, it’s New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, which was really big for me growing up in the Midwest. When I went to the Midlands as a college freshman, the Midlands were not excited that Dan Gable was coming to wrestle in the Midlands. But I was excited to wrestle in Chicago and I knew about the Midlands.
WIN: Other than beating the likes of Don Behm and Masaaki Hatta, great college wrestlers of that era, in the 1966 tournament, what do you remember about your first Midlands?
GABLE: To show you how much of a nobody I was my first time in the Midlands, one of the guys — Paul Barrow of Southern Illinois — who lost to me early, checked out and went home because back then I needed to make the finals in order for him to wrestleback. I’m sure he thought no college freshman was going to make the Midlands finals, especially considering I had to wrestle Don Behm in the semifinals. The next day, he picked up the paper and saw that I was in the finals and he ended up forfeiting his consolation match.
I remember it was then held at LaGrange High School and was a crowded event. I also remember the Chicago Tribune put my name in headline that I made the semifinals as a freshman. When I saw that, I remember saying, ‘Whoa.’ I couldn’t believe they even know me. From that moment, the growth for me came from the Midlands tournament.
WIN: Did those wins over Behm and Hatta prove to you that you could be the best?
GABLE: I never really doubted my abilities before that. I just wasn’t sure of the outcome. And the pressure of those moments didn’t bother me. The first big match of my college career was against Behm in the semifinals and I wasn’t that nervous about the potential outcome.
It was like the first wrestling match I wrestled as a seventh grader at Logan Junior High in Waterloo as a seventh grader, when I came off the mat and my forearms were unbelievably swollen and tight. I had to find a drinking fountain because I was so parched but I could hardly even turn the knob because my muscles were so tight.
I was ready to go against Behm, but after the match, I remember walking over and my forearms were unbelievably tight again. I felt the same way that I did after my first match as a seventh grader.
I remember back then there were certain things you had to do to prepare yourself. There was no question I was going to compete hard and be ready to go. The only question was the outcome. I never thought about losing. If it was going to be a loss, it would be a loss and I was going to lay it all on the line.
I felt the same way about the finals. What I remember about the Hatta match was that the crowd stood up and applauded after every period we wrestled. He was from the Chicago area and (the fans) appreciated this good match and this young kid was giving this “old timer” who was still very talented, a tough match and good show.
WIN: There was a time when a lot of former college stars continued to wrestle in the Midlands. Unfortunately, that does not happen as much today. What are your feeling about that?
GABLE: Back then, wrestling’s governing body did not have as much of a national coach and training organization like it does today. Back then a lot of Olympic-caliber wrestlers used the Midlands because it was one of the highest level of competitions they could find that time of year to prepare yourself for future World/Olympic events.
For our sport right now, and for our top-level individuals who want to show they are capable of winning at any level, I still think they should wrestle in events like the Midlands. I say that even with the system that is set up now where wrestlers can find plenty of tournaments to compete. I think these individuals need to prove they can walk into any wrestling tournament in America, whether it’s a takedown freestyle tournament or college tournament, and win that tournament easily.
Wrestlers don’t have to go that route anymore, but I believe it would be good for the sport if (2012 Olympic gold medalists) Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner wrestle in the Midlands again. People would come out of the woodwork to watch that and that would be good for our sport.
It would also be good for those guys’ minds. I know it’s a different style but if you are an Olympic champion, you should be able to be any collegian. I don’t care how different the styles are. It’s not that different. A takedown is a takedown. A pin is a pin. Even if I was a women’s world champion, I’d like to think that I can beat some of these college guys.
I know the Midlands brought back (Jake) Herbert and (Ben) Askren to wrestle in an exhibition in 2010. But why didn’t they just enter the tournament?
WIN: In the 1970s and ‘80s, many wrestling clubs — like the Sunkist Kids and Hawkeye Wrestling Club — around the country fared well against college teams in the Midlands. There are a growing number of USA Wrestling regional training centers around the country. Is there any way, these training center teams could compete against each other at events like the Midlands?
GABLE: Yes and once again, I’m not sure why our freestyle wrestlers don’t want to wrestle in a college folkstyle event. You are limiting the full potential of an athlete. The more you can dominate something, it gives you an even bigger edge.
WIN: You basically are saying wrestling is wrestling. How can folkstyle continue to help a freestyle wrestler or even a Greco wrestler?
GABLE: The thing you have to remember about freestyle and Greco is that FILA is always changing the rules of those styles … sometimes without really letting American wrestlers know. That could happen now and our wrestlers have got to learn to adjust to those rules changes and be adaptable.
What I like about going to the Midlands is that it teaches our wrestlers to be even more adaptable … so that if they eventually go overseas and FILA changes the rules, our guys will be adaptable for that. I know in 1983 in Kiev, I was training a team that showed up but they changed the rules in how much mat time they allowed but they didn’t let us know until we got there. We ended up doing well because we had guys like Dave Schultz who were able to adapt to changes.
WIN: There are some who are concerned about the future of this event when many great wrestling programs are choosing to wrestle in other holiday tournaments or forced to focus more on their conference dual season. It appears that coaches and wrestlers are finding more alternatives to the Midlands when it comes to preparing for their season-end goals. Is that good?
GABLE: Alternatives are fine as long as they fit the needs of a coach and wrestler. You have to decide what will help you peak at the correct time.
As a wrestler, I learned the hard way when I peaked for (former Oklahoma wrestler) Mike Grant in February (1970) instead of for Larry Owings (later that year in the NCAA final).