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Weigh-in dramatics reveal more about the athletes, college wrestling

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There’s drama in just about any weigh-in, especially for athletes concerned whether they will make weight. However, what has been a behind-closed-doors activity in amateur wrestling is now very much a public spectacle for major mixed martial arts events… complete with dramatics beyond what the scale says. And that may be seeping over into some new-school amateur wrestling events, such as Agon Wrestling, and this past weekend’s Grapple at the Garden 2.

Traditional college and high school wrestling weigh-ins are conducted out-of-sight of cameras... even major events such as the NCAA championships. For wrestling fans who weren’t wrestlers, our notions of what weigh-ins look like are shaped by rare old-time photos (such as the one in this article, from Amateur Wrestling News, of the 1957 NCAA weigh-ins) or dramatic scenes in movies such as “Vision Quest” and “Legendary.” (The element of mystery even carries over to the weigh-in results; it’s very rare to make wrestlers’ actual weights public. In fact, it was something of a revelation when the NCAA revealed the actual figures for the 33 heavyweights who weighed in at the 2010 nationals.)

By contrast, weigh-ins for MMA events are media spectacles, captured on camera, and in the words of the attending press. There are dramatic elements designed to attract public attention: sexy ring girls and contestants showing off their physiques are standard; trash-talk between contestants, as well as fighter face-offs that sometimes degrade into shoving or punches being thrown, are strictly optional.

The weigh-ins for the Agon Wrestling I event in Las Vegas in November had many of the elements of a big-time MMA match – glitzy hotel ballroom filled with fans, reporters and cameras, and decorated with ring girls – without incorporating fighting words or actual fisticuffs.

This history of out-of-sight weigh-ins for college events made the photo posted by Frank Molinaro of his face-off with former Penn State teammate Bubba Jenkins after weighing in for their co-main event wrestling match at Grapple at the Garden 2 in New York’s Madison Square Garden all the more dramatic… and revealing.

Leading up to the Molinaro-Jenkins match, there was plenty of evidence that there was some, um, tension between the two… not just in their pre-match comments in the official announcement of their bout (which sounded more like the stuff of a top-of-the-card mixed martial arts event than amateur wrestling), but also in what Jenkins posted in his Twitter account @2sinsurrJenkins a couple days before their match: “I hate that they put me and Frank the skank in the same sentence. I don't even like 2 see his name next to mine. #karmacoming4yoass.”

It’s hard to imagine wrestlers of 50 or more years ago making pre-match statements such as Jenkins’. For instance, in researching and writing about two college wrestling rivals of the late 1950s, Oklahoma’s Dan Hodge, and Iowa’s Gary Kurdelmeier, I never came across any quotes from the Sooner superstar saying something like, “I’m gonna make that Kurdelmeier wish he never set foot on the mat with me.”

So what’s the difference between Jenkins-Molinaro, and Hodge-Kurdelmeier?

It might be that the 1950s were indeed a kinder, gentler time. More likely, however, it was way before today’s wrestling websites, online forums and social media where wrestlers and fans can be as disclosing and honest as they want… even if their words might be used as “locker room inspiration” to fire up an opponent.

Another factor: the media had a very different way of presenting sports. Look back at sports stories of the past – or college yearbook write-ups about teams and athletes – and reporting was much less confrontational or controversial… what an archivist in charge of the sports collection at a major U.S. university called the “gee-whiz” era of sports reporting, where athletes and teams could do no wrong. According to him, this all changed in the late 1960s, with the advent of athletes such as Joe Namath and Jim Bouton who broke from convention and spoke their minds to the press.

About the same time, in college wrestling, University of Washington’s Larry Owings took a cue from Namath and Bouton in his somewhat brash statements to the media at the 1970 NCAAs, saying he had purposefully dropped down to the 142-pound bracket with the sole purpose of defeating Dan Gable, the then-unbeaten senior from Iowa State. In fact, Owings’ act of weighing in at 142 was a revelation of its own, given that he normally competed in a higher weight class… which told the assembled wrestlers and the media that the Washington Husky sophomore had his sights set on Gable.

There has been talk among some in the college wrestling community, urging that weigh-ins be conducted matside, in the view of the public, no more than an hour before a dual meet. The thinking is to prevent wrestlers from gorging themselves after weigh-ins… make the process all the more transparent… and, perhaps for some, provide an opportunity for additional dramatics and promotional opportunities for college wrestling. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that matside weigh-ins would resemble either the old-style, naked weigh-ins like those pictured above from the 1957 NCAAs (a relic of the past), or the Jenkins-Molinaro weigh-in from last Sunday’s Grapple at the Garden 2… but they may provide some revealing theatricality of their own.

Weighing in on a couple other "weighty" matters: Check out College Wrestling Examiner's recent article on NCAA.com and InterMat's T.R. Foley writing about historical weight-cutting issues... as well as features on actual weights for college heavyweights from 1928-1960, and since 2000.

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