OKLAHOMA CITY -- Either you love him or you hate him. Opposing fans cannot stand him, but would love to have him on their team.
The last time the NCAA Wrestling Championships were held in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma State's Johny Hendricks had a similar relationship with fans. A two-time national champion, Hendricks, who won a UFC title last weekend, often played the role of villain to those outside his own program.
Tony Ramos, a two-time All-American for Iowa, produces similar feelings among fans. Like Hendricks, Ramos sets the tone for his squad.
"I really don't like him," said a fan after Thursday's first session. "But the kid wrestles hard, brings a level of intensity to the mat. He's that guy you want on your team, but can't stand if he wrestles for the other guys."
Entering the 2014 NCAA Championships, Iowa is among a group of teams trying to chase down Penn State, winners of three consecutive team titles. At the Big Ten Championships two weekends ago, Iowa, and Ramos, proved they could contend this week.
"I think the boost it gave me is just getting over the hump of not coming in second all the time," said Ramos, who won the Big Ten title at 133 pounds. "It was a relief and it was a weight lifted off my shoulders. I think it is going to let me open up here and be a lot tougher and just let it fly in this tournament."
While sporting a black T-shirt with "I will dominate" written across the chest on Wednesday, Ramos added, "I want to run through the tournament. I don't just want to win, I want to dominate everyone. I want to dominate every match and I still think I can do that against anyone I wrestle."
Thursday's first session proved the battle to come is not going to be easy.
Ramos, a senior from Carol Stream, Ill., toughed out a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh's Shelton Mack in a first round match. Tied at 1-1, Ramos, a finalist at the 2013 NCAA Championships, scored the decisive takedown late. It was the senior's fifty-eighth win in sixty-two matches over the last two seasons.
Former Hawkeye Mark Ironside is among the list of prototypical "Hawkeyes," an in-your-face, intimidating presence on the mat.
"When it comes to this team, I think Tony is the guy that best fits the style," said Ironside before Thursday's first session. "Being confident is important."
Iowa head coach Tom Brands echoed Ironside's thoughts, "Tony is a confident guy."
A sophomore campaign produced a 33-4 record and a bronze medal at the NCAA championships. Last March, he took Ohio State's Logan Stieber to the wire before falling on the big stage of the finals. Stieber, a two-time champion, vacated 133 for 141, putting Ramos at the top of the rankings when the season started.
However, a pair of losses dropped from the top rung of the ladder. Edinboro's A.J. Schopp, the second seed this week, beat the Hawkeye, 3-2, and Northern Iowa's Joe Colon, the top seed in Oklahoma City, pinned Ramos in the finals of the Midland Championships in December. Since that loss, Ramos has won fourteen straight, including Thursday's narrow victory over Mack. Illinois' Zane Richards is next up for Ramos.
One of the toughest brackets of the ten, Colon, Schopp, Oklahoma State's Jon Morrison, Wisconsin's Tyler Graff … and Ramos … are all contenders for the top spot at 133 pounds.
The road to Saturday night's finals will require plenty of confidence.