When old-time sports enthusiasts think of wrestling at “The Garden” they think of Gorgeous George, Gorilla Monsoon, Andre the Giant, or maybe the first WWE WrestleMania in 1985.
Professional wrestling became a part of weekly television viewing in the early 1950s thanks in part to a cast of characters that ranged from the flamboyant to the All-American hero.
On Dec. 16, some of the nation’s top collegiate wrestlers will get a chance to entertain when the inaugural Grapple at the Garden is held inside Madison Square Garden. Fourteen programs, including the two most dominant in the history of the sport — Oklahoma State and Iowa — will compete.
There will not be any flying off the top rope or any masked mystery men. But then again, who knows?
“It’s Madison Square Garden, not much else needs to be said,” said Oklahoma State head coach John Smith, whose second-ranked squad will face Chattanooga and No. 8 Cornell. “It’s an opportunity to compete as a college wrestler in an arena that has a lot of history.”
That history includes some of the most memorable boxing matches of all time. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier squared off in 1971 in what would be the first of their three epic fights. Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title seven times in “The Garden” and was knocked out by Rocky Marciano in his final fight as a 37-year-old in 1951.
Led Zeppelin. John Lennon. NBA and NHL champions. A six-overtime college basketball game. Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The list is endless.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Maryland head coach Kerry McCoy, a native of Middle Island, N.Y. “You’re in the world’s most famous arena, where so many great athletes have been able to compete and participate; guys like Muhammad Ali, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in basketball, all these different great athletes that were able to compete in this arena, among other famous people, entertainers, sports figures.
“Anything that’s ever been exciting, everything important has had a chance to be in the Garden.”
McCoy won a silver medal in freestyle at the 2003 World Championships inside Madison Square Garden in front of one of the largest crowds to ever watch international wrestling.
While most of the wrestlers are thinking about making weight and finding ways to beat a pair opponents, a few are thinking about the bigger picture. Competing in one of the world’s largest media markets gives a fringe sport such as collegiate wrestling a chance to perhaps pick up a few new fans. Slow-paced 2-1 and 3-2 matches might not get that done and certainly isn’t what the event’s promoters had in mind when the Grapple in the Garden was first announced last summer.
“The bar is very high,” said Noel Thompson, an organizer for the event. “You can fit about 20,000 people in there and our goal is about 10,000 and I think we will get there. But our biggest goal and the reason why we are going through this exercise is to make sure that we get the NCAA championships to New York. We want wrestling to be at the forefront of America, not a secondary sport, but first-class and in front of everybody, not letting any more programs get cut, helping the women, helping everyone.
“This takes us to the next level. The more things that can happen in New York City in regards to wrestling, the better.”
“It’s going to be fantastic,” said Iowa head coach Tom Brands. “This is the world’s stage. You are in a marquee facility and you’re putting wrestling on that stage. It has been marketed and promoted in a first-class way.”
Brands and Iowa are all about winning, but Brands knows there is more to this Sunday than just getting your hand raised.
“There has to be fireworks involved and we have to do our job, too,” he said. “It’s about putting a high-powered team on the mat and everybody is trying to score points up and down the lineup. Don’t get conservative and win 3-2. It’s about the pin. That’s how you create a buzz.”
Iowa will face Hofstra and Bucknell. Other programs involved are Drexel, George Mason, Rutgers, Nebraska, Ohio State, Missouri, and Bloomsburg.
Those with the task of creating fireworks include:
- Cornell’s Kyle Dake, a three-time NCAA champion who is 100-4 for his career. He is expected to face Oklahoma State’s Tyler Caldwell, a two-time All-American in 2011 NCAA runner-up, in a 165-pound bout.
- The Cowboys also have three-time All-American and 2011 NCAA champion Jordan Oliver, unbeaten at 149 this season.
- The Hawkeyes feature Matt McDonough, a two-time NCAA champion 125-pounder who has won 35 consecutive matches.
- Ohio State’s Logan Stieber is unbeaten at 133 this season after winning the 2012 NCAA title as a freshman.
- Missouri’s Dom Bradley is among the nation’s top heavyweights.
More 75 of the student-athletes call New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania home.
The dual format will have eight mats and two sessions on Sunday morning. The atmosphere will not be smoke-filled or feature any Cold War drama. But then again, who knows what might happen when there is wrestling at “The Garden.”