Iowa Wrestlers at a Trump Rally: What it Says About Wrestling

Normally when I complain about Iowa wrestling it’s because of their stalling and being exhibit A as to why college wrestling needs a shot clock.  I’m not a complete “Iowa hater” despite not being a fan of their style.  You have to respect the enthusiasm of Iowa fans and the attendance the program gets.

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Several Iowa Hawkeye wrestlers in the background at a Donald Trump rally in Iowa

As a fan of college wrestling and huge supporter of the sport I was utterly appalled by several Iowa wrestlers appearing With Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. This occurrence doesn’t only speak to a lack of political judgment,  which is understandable and what freedom is about,  it speaks to why we can’t grow the sport of wrestling in America. 

Recently an article circulated in Missouri wrestling circles about the decline in participation levels in the sport.  Now, there are a number of factors involved in this decline including specialization and cultural shifts, however race definitely plays a role.  To put it blunt wrestling in America is too white. Wrestling thrives in rural America and exurbia.  In the inner-city,  working-class suburbia,  and communities of color the sport is fringe if it exists as all. I see no reason for this. Wrestling should exist in communities of all races and socioeconomic statuses.

In case people in wrestling aren’t paying attention America is becoming more diverse and less white. This means if wrestling in America is to have a healthy future the sport must become more diverse.  The sport can’t just be strong in a depopulated and deindustrialized rust belt.  These are areas that are losing population as factories close along with family farms.
Within the segment of white America where wrestling is popular Donald Trump also happens to be popular.  Rural and small-town Iowa,  Oklahoma and Pennsylvania and white-flight exurbia like St.  Charles County,  Missouri. To a very large percentage of the rest of America Trump is a truly reprehensible figure.

Donald Trump is a man who began his campaign by slandering hard-working Mexican- Americans. Iowa is a state with a growing Latino population.  It would be great to get some of these Latino youth involved in wrestling.  You know what won’t help that effort?  Hawkeye wrestlers on stage with a bigot who has demonized their families. 

The Latino segment of the American population is growing and in the future this nation will be one-third Latino. Isaiah Martinez,  Jesse Delgado,  Henry Cejudo, and others are just recent high-profile examples of the potential that is out there if we don’t alienate that segment of the population. 

Donald Trump is also a man who has gained popularity by his fear-mongering towards Muslims and his outright Islamophobia. Iowa happens to be the home of the “Mother Mosque” which is the oldest existing mosque in America.  The Muslim population in Iowa is also growing fueled by universities,  the low cost of living,  and a wave of mostly Somali refugees.

I have been trying to sell wrestling to the American-Muslim community for years. Wrestling is a tradition of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. While attending the World Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas I prayed with Russian,  Turkish,  and Egyptian wrestlers.  I’d say Muslim wrestlers took home about half of the medals in Las Vegas and some of the best wrestlers in the world,  including Abdulrashid Sadulaev and Dennis  Tsargush,  are very devout Muslims. 

I’d like to see Muslim kids in Iowa wrestling.  You know what will hurt this effort?  Seeing Hawkeye wrestlers on stage with an anti-Muslim bigot. 

When you take a political stance you have to be willing to take the heat for that stance. When that stance is celebrated because of the celebrity attached to Hawkeye wrestling then prepare to be called out for the damage you’ve done to the image of the sport we all love.

Day 6 of Wrestling World Championships Las Vegas

The 2015 World Wrestling Championships are in the books and they have been great to cover.  There is no better place for these championships to gave occurred than Las Vegas. Six days in the entertainment capitol of the world.  American fans brought their enthusiasm,  international fans brought their flavor, and the wrestlers brought the action. Six days of wrestling at the highest level. 

The last match of the tournament featured America’s best Jordan Burroughs winning by technical superiority and capturing his third world championship with a victory over Unurbat Purevjav of Mongolia.  Burroughs fired on all cylinders the entire tournament and his only real test was world number two Aniuar Geduev of Russia in the semifinals.  Last year Burroughs came to the world championships banged up taking third. This year saw a healthy Burroughs dominate.

Fellow South Jersey native and Nebraska graduate James Green powered his way to a 3rd place finish in his first world championships.  Green started the tournament on fire with explosive takedowns before losing to Iranian Hassan Yazdanicharati in the semifinals.  In his third place match Green regained his explosiveness and pinned Miroslav Kirov of Bulgaria. 

American Tony Ramos at 57kg failed to medal even though he won his first two matches. Zach Rey at 125kg was bounced out after losing his first match. 

Other world championships tonight we’re won by Vladimer Khinchegashvili of Georgia at 57kg, Magomedrasul Gazimagomedov of Russia at 70kg, and Taha Akgul of Turkey at 125kg.  In another impressive feat Dagestani-Russian Bilyal Makhov became the first wrestler in 42 years to place in both the Greco-Roman and freestlye world championships (he finished third in both).

These six days have been great for me.  Seeing great wrestling,  meeting wrestlers from all over the world,  and spending time with friends.  Outside of a teabagger sitting behind me spewing right-wing rhetoric Las Vegas has been perfect.  More great wrestling soon. Pan-American in Frisco,  TX and Olympic Trials in Iowa.  See you then.

Videos from tonight can be found at my Umar Lee YouTube channel and live coverage at my Twitter @STLAbuBadu photos can be found at Instagram @stlublee

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With the Dagestan brothers on the Russian national team staff

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Jordan Burroughs After third world championship win

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Taha Akgul after his world championship win

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Dagestani-Russian Bilyal Makhov became the first wrestler in 42 years to medal in both Greco-Roman and freestlye

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Dagestani-Russian Magomedrasul Gazimagomedov after his world championship win

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James Green after his third place win

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I was gifted a Dagestan Wrestling shirt by Dagestani members of the Russian national team

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Jordan Burroughs calling for fans to cheer in his first match

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Burroughs was cut earlier

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Tony Ramos in action during the world championships

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Zach Rey in his opening round loss

Day 5 of World Wrestling Championships Las Vegas 2015

Today things got a lot better for the American men’s wrestling team. 19 year old Kyle Snyder,  just last year a high school student in Maryland,  captured a world freestyle championship with an upset win over Abdusalam Gadisov of Russia (Dagestan). It was an exciting hard fight contest in which Snyder was the aggressor and Gadisov appeared to be gassed early.  I have a feeling these two will meet again.  Perhaps next year in Rio. 

The other American men didn’t fare so well.  The “Double Leg Ninja” Jake Herbert was bounced out after losing his first match.  He’d looked very impressive leading up to the world championships; but failed to get his offense going. Reese Humphrey won his first match and then list his next two failing to medal.

On the women’s side 35 year old Leigh Jaynes-Provisor took a third-place bronze medal with a solid performance for the United States.  In one of the most touching moments of the championships she was able to celebrate with her daughter after her victory. 

Oksana Herhel of Ukraine captured a gold medal at 60kg in the only women’s weight class of the night.  Haji Aliyev took home gold for Azerbaijan at 61kg.  Abdulrashid Sadulaev of the Dagestan region of Russia captured gold at 86kg by defeating Selim Yasar of Turkey. 

Videos can be found at the Umar Lee YouTube Channel and live coverage at my Twitter @STLAbuBadu photos can be found at my Instagram @stlublee

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With St. Louis native and world Greco team member Spenser Mango

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Leigh Jaynes-Provisor in action

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Nathaniel Rose a Beat the Streets New York product from the Bronx and Buffalo University wrestler in action representing Trinidad

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Reese Humphrey on Mat C and Jake Herbert in the air on Mat D

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Oksana Herhel of Ukraine after her world championship win

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Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan after his world championship win

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Abdulrashid Sadulaev after winning gold

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Abdulrashid Sadulaev puts on the Dagestan Wrestling t-shirt with him on the front

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Kyle Snyder celebrates after his win

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Kyle Snyder stops to pray draped in the American flag

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Turkish Silver Medal winner Selim Yasar

2015 Wrestling State of the Union

The state of the union isn’t strong. That’s the bitter reality that people in the extremely insular and isolated world of wrestling don’t wanna hear. Yes big events are being put on. Yes new stars are on the rise. Yes world wrestling seems to now have better leadership and a greater sense of urgency after nearly getting booted out of the Olympics. The reality is still stark.

Greco and Freestyle

The United States of America cannot succeed and will not succeed in Greco-Roman wrestling until we have kids focusing exclusively on Greco from a young age. That means no folkstyle, no AAU, no high school, and no college wrestling. However, at this time we don’t have serious programs dedicated exclusively to Greco at a young age. That is something I’m working on and I’ll keep you updated.

In freestlye the transition from folkstyle is less severe. I’d say dump folkstyle all together to give America more of a competitive advantage. Although a 19 year old Kid like Kyle Snyder or an Aaron Pico shows this transition can be made even at a young age. Still, focusing on freestlye from a young age will yield greater results. Everyone knows this is the case.  Yet, just as in the case with the metric system America can be stubborn to a system we love.  (For the record I absolutely love folkstyle wrestling I just think dumping it will in the long be best…kinda like a divorce).

Demographics

As I have written about before the sport of wrestling cannot succeed in the future if the sport is not available and prospering among all racial, ethnic and religious groups. Wrestling is an ancient sport. A sport that has been practiced by all people at all times. There is no need in America for the strongholds of wrestling to just be in the heart of white suburbia and rural America. The fact that wrestling is largely absent from our inner-cities and ghettos is an indictment on all of us. Something each of us in our cities and areas should be working to address. I’m happy to be part of such an effort in St. Louis. You can be an agent of change in your area.  Beat The Streets by USA Wrestling provides a good blueprint.

This issue can be addressed in your lives. Does your church or synagogue have space that could house a wrestling program? Here at the world championships wrestlers from Muslim countries are heavily represented. However, I can’t think of a single wrestling program in this country geared towards Muslims youth. Latinos and Asians are the fastest growing segments of our population. Wrestling is growing in Latin America and Asia. No reason it can’t grow within those demographics in this country.

Entertainment, Fan Experience and Geography

Colleges are still cutting wrestling. Outside of a handful of schools there is little ticket demand. Wrestlers mostly train hard and then perform before empty seats. While some schools have been innovative in ways to get fans out most are lethargic. When it comes to freestlyle and Greco wrestling outside of a handful of events a year you can waltz right in and sit on the front row. Even the big ticket sellers like the US Open can get outdrawn by a high school basketball game.

The response from wrestling fans is usually a smug insular shrug of the shoulders oblivious to the world around them outside of their small little clique.

In order to get fans in seats wrestling must be an event. This is something USA Wrestling and schools are already working on. Like it or not there just aren’t enough wrestling nerds who will just attend for the action. You need a DJ, at the senior level you probably need dancers, and in general a page has to be borrowed from MMA and boxing. Flowrestling is onto this idea even if their presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

The 2015 World Championships are hosted at The Orleans Arena and Casino in Las Vegas. To put this in perspective The Orleans is an arena that’s hosts b-level boxing matches. The last one that comes to mind is Zab Judah-DeMarcus Corley several years ago. Thank God it’s not in Iowa. If you’re going to have fans staying somewhere for six days it should be someplace fun. A place where you can take family members, friends and lovers who may not even be wrestling fans. People look forward to spending time in Las Vegas. Outside of hardcore wrestling fans and people working in the corn industry there aren’t too many people that look forward to spending any time in Iowa. Of course it’s an economic concern as well. Places like Iowa are cheaper and they have a large built-in fanbase. That’s good for maintaining the status-quo; but that status-quo isn’t good enough.

On that note I applaud NCAA Wrestling in their ambition as they take next year’s championships to the media capitol of the world. A championship in Des Moines cheapens your brand and puts you on par with Frisbee.  St. Louis and Chicago are ideal cities geographically and work great for the finals; but putting on big events in New York is crucial to the growth and popularity of the sport.  Whether that be the Grapple at the Garden, Beat The Streets in Times Square, or the NCAA Division 1 Championships.

A huge problem for wrestling is people wrestle, they love wrestling, and after they stop wrestling they never pay attention to the sport again or attend an event.  If I attend and NCAA or high school football game I never get asked who I’m related to on the team. When I attend wrestling events I always get asked.  If we could just get ex-wrestlers to buy tickets there would be ticket demand to all wrestling events.

Wrestling is strongest in parts of the country with a stagnant population. Agricultural and industrial areas of the Rust Belt that haven’t fared well in the 21st Century Economy. In other words wrestling has a geography that closely mirrors that of Arby’s. In many vibrant and growing parts of the country the sport is in trouble. Absent from the state university systems in the booming states of Florida, Georgia and Texas. Lagging behind in much of the Northeast and while in better shape in California on some levels the west as a whole is problematic for the sport.  Anything to address these trends (and demography is key in this) should be applauded.

The Positives

Great action, tremendous athletes and the 2015 World Championships have really delivered just as every other major wrestling event this year has.  I don’t know about you but I’m really looking forward to Rio ’16 !