In largely rural Oklahoma, amateur wrestling was less an inheritance from ancient civilizations and more a product of high spirits, brawny young men, and barnyard scuffling. It became a singular sport for a rowdy young state. Farmhands called it "catch-as-catch-can" and gladly graduated to roped rings with rough canvas mats, long before the advent of high-tech mats and protective headgear.
Over the last eighty years traditional wrestling has brought Oklahoma more national and international wrestling medals, trophies, titles, and championships than any other state. Since 1932 twelve Oklahomans have stood on the top step to receive Olympic gold medals. Oklahoma State University (OSU) wrestlers have brought home nine and University of Oklahoma (OU) three. These included Wayne Wells (Oklahoma City), Bobby Pearce (Cushing), Frank Lewis (Cushing), Shelby Wilson (Ponca City), Doug Blubaugh (Ponca City), Jack Van Bebber (Perry), Yojiro Uetake, Dave Schultz, Mark Schultz, John Smith (Del City), Kenny Monday (Tulsa), and Kendall Cross (Mustang). Thirty-two men from OSU and nineteen from OU have made U.S. Olympic teams.
The sport of wrestling has a long and noble history. Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, and Peter the Great enjoyed and encouraged it. George Washington, Zachary Taylor, and Abraham Lincoln relished their wrestling victories. Oklahoma's Carl Albert also distinguished himself in the sport. Wrestling historian Mihaly Biro asserts that abroad, wrestling is deemed "a living antiquity . . . linking the past, present and future of all cultures" and celebrated in art, poetry, and history. In Oklahoma wrestling matches do not use historical practices such as the ancient Greek method of urging wrestlers on with a whip or early Chinese wrestling attire of ornate masks. Opponents do not bite, use weapons, grease the body, or grab an opponent's belt. The victor receives no laurel wreath nor pheasant feather.
Nevertheless, fans have never complained about the lack of pageantry. If not as colorful as in other cultures, modern-day Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling remain every bit as intense. Those in the stands often have all the excitement they can handle when Oklahoma collegiate wrestlers take to the mat. Knowledgeable fans can prove a major force in a close match as they respond to the action with roars of encouragement. In the Sooner State fans wait anxiously for the Bedlam Series (matches between OU and OSU) and then display the results on bumper stickers or license plates.
In 1915 Oklahoma A&M Coach Edward C. Gallagher, a superb athlete himself, used his engineering training to develop wrestling in "Cowboy Country." The sport was one of many he managed as athletic director. Gallagher is said to have pioneered more than four hundred holds. He took a sport admired for individual prowess and melded it into a team sport. At his death in 1940 the New York Times called him "the Dean of Collegiate Wrestling." His successor, Art Griffith, had powerhouse teams that constantly claimed victories with a fluid style. No two of his men wrestled alike, posing a dilemma for opponents in an era in which most teammates used the same predictable holds. Griffith's unique point-scoring system was accepted across the nation and made matches easier to follow.
The state's mastery of collegiate wrestling exploded into national prominence in the 1930s and has continued, spirited and undiluted. Cars and travel were limited, and a paved road was a rarity. Recruiting was unknown, and grapplers were all homegrown. Backbreaking labor in wheat and cotton fields provided both the physical strength and the psychological determination that is today honed in the weight room. As the sport was never heavily funded, wrestling coaches pinched pennies during the Great Depression. College teams often shelved cross-state rivalries, worked out together, shared cars, and traveled together out of state. Typically, the Oklahomans wore cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats, and other western finery that startled East Coast tournament hosts. Performances were equally flamboyant, with Oklahoma wrestlers capturing medal after medal and winning thousands of fans.
In the 1950s and 1960s Myron Roderick of Oklahoma State University tapped promising international wrestlers when no one else noticed them. Roderick fielded seven National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship teams. Wrestlers trained by Tommy Chesbro and Joe Seay found coaching jobs around the nation and built teams capable of battling back at the OSU dynasty. At the University of Oklahoma the respected Port Robertson and Tommy Evans also created All-Americans, Olympians, and future coaches.
With thirty team victories since 1928 Oklahoma State leads all other colleges in NCAA championships. Rival Iowa holds twenty, and the OU Sooners have seven. In individual NCAA titles OSU leads seventy-four universities with 122 individual NCAA titles. OU has 62. During brief membership in the NCAA, Central State University, now the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), and Southwestern Oklahoma State College, now Southwestern Oklahoma State University, each earned 2. UCO continued to be a dominant national force. OSU has produced 382 All-Americans. OU has had 238, Central State 7, and Southwestern Oklahoma 18. Fourteen student athletes from OSU have been named NCAA tournament Outstanding Wrestlers, with six from OU. At the same time, wrestling has fostered strength, drive, endurance, confidence, and self-discipline.
College wrestling is fed by a sturdy system of junior and senior high school, hometown club, and Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) programs. In the early years organization was needed, and in 1911 Oklahoma educators pulled together the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA), a central oversight group for youth activities that ranged from marching band to fine arts to all sports. Rapid expansion continued under the leadership of Lee K. Anderson from 1927 to 1967. Annually there have been thirty-two different state championship activities in both athletics and nonathletics. Since 1918 eighty-one state high school wrestling championship tournaments have been held. Sixteen wrestlers have claimed four-time state titles. Two of those have completed four years of high school competition undefeated.
In 2002 the OSSAA launched an innovative thrust in health care for wrestlers. It applies a workable, scientific approach to the sport's top problem, weight management. Key elements include teaching good nutrition, toughening rules on "pulling" weight, moving weigh-in times to within an hour or two of competition, and stressing wrestling close to the athlete's natural weight.
Another organization that started small was the United States Wrestling Federation (USWF), which settled in Stillwater in 1971. The USWF guides amateur wrestling at all levels. It was designed to unify rules, refereeing, pairings, and tournament operations across America, so that each region operated in the same way. Vigorous educational efforts increased the growth of the sport nationally and abroad. USWF's dynamic growth evolved into the present national governing body for the sport, USA Wrestling. It is now headquartered in Colorado Springs, where Olympic-caliber wrestlers train year around.
Stillwater's sprawling National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum stresses national heritage. Displays honor distinguished wrestlers, coaches, and contributors to the sport, and a library houses national and international wrestling publications and a significant collection of rare volumes dating back four hundred years. Also on view is a life-size statue, The Wrestlers, a copy of an original by ancient Greek sculptor Cephisodotus.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century wrestling no longer resembles the scuffling popular in prestatehood years. Summer tournaments and training camps sharpen skills, building tomorrow's champions, but academic accomplishment is also emphasized. Wrestling has faced shaky times in recent years. When Title IX enforced equality of sports for women, more than a hundred universities and junior colleges complied by closing wrestling programs shifting funds elsewhere. In Oklahoma, however, the sport of wrestling has endured and flourished, heartened by a bountiful harvest of state, national, international, and Olympic titles.
Mihaly Biro, The Roots of Wrestling (Budapest, Hungary: LAMA Printing and Distributing Co., Ltd., 2001).
W. G. Brown, NCAA Wrestling Record Book (N.p.: N.p., March 2002).
Doris Dellinger, Intercollegiate Athletics (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1987).
Doris Dellinger, Ride'em, Cowboys! The Story of Wrestling's Dynasty (Stillwater: Cowboy Wrestling Club, 1977).
Otis Wile, "Oklahoma State Sports Memoirs: The Chronological Story of Sports at Oklahoma State University From the Beginning in the 1890s through the 1960s [Manuscript]," Special Collections and University Archives, Edmon Low Library, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater.
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Doris Dellinger, “Wrestling,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=WR001.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.