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Wrestling rings: an old-school tool to keep action on the mat, limit stalling

On the left: Oklahoma State's raised wrestling ring with coach Ed Gallagher; on the right, Oklahoma State wrestler Jack VanBebber
On the left: Oklahoma State's raised wrestling ring with coach Ed Gallagher; on the right, Oklahoma State wrestler Jack VanBebber
Photo on left from 1938 Oklahoma State Redskin yearbook; Jack VanBebber image from Oklahoma State, used with permission

Stalling tactics would seem to be as old as the sport of wrestling itself. It’s been an ongoing problem in college wrestling for decades, one that the NCAA has addressed with four new experimental rules to reduce stalling, reward aggressive wrestling, and keep the action on the mat. Yet the NCAA could also take a look at a proven, old-school solution that hasn’t been seen in college wrestling since World War II: the roped-off wrestling ring.

Wrestling rings – like those we now associate with pro wrestling, boxing and some mixed martial arts events – were used by a number of colleges especially in the Midwest and west right up to the early 1940s, when the NCAA prohibited them. At most colleges, the ropes surrounded mats on the gym floor; however, at some schools, such as Oklahoma State, the rings were elevated up off the floor, replicating that “it’s fight night in Vegas” look long before Las Vegas became a glittery gaming/sports/entertainment mecca.

So why is College Wrestling Examiner even mentioning the idea of wrestling rings for college, an idea that hasn’t been used in nearly 75 years?

Some of you may be having a strong sense of déjà vu, remembering this writer’s April Fool’s Day article purporting to present ideas for commemorating the 85th anniversary of the NCAA Wrestling Championships in 2015 by incorporating 1928 NCAA rules, uniforms and, yes, wrestling rings, into the finals.

So why would I even revisit this seriously old-school, rule-breaking idea? Call it a collision of factors that came together in working on various projects regarding the issue of stalling… and what college wrestling was like decades ago.

A stalling solution with a familiar ring

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been researching and writing about the NCAA’s new anti-stalling rules. First was a College Wrestling Examiner article in late June, announcing the four new experimental rules – two to be in effect for the entire 2014-15 season, and two others to be put to the test for only one night, at the 2014 NWCA (National Wrestling Coaches Association) All-Star Classic in November, the annual event that (ideally) brings together the two top wrestlers in each weight class in exhibition competition. A few days later, I wrote a follow-up article for, citing the opinions of a former NCAA All-American wrestler-turned-wrestling-writer, a former NCAA champ, and a college wrestling official. Then, to get an inside perspective on the new rules, I interviewed Ron Beaschler, Secretary and Editor of the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee. That article was posted at the amateur wrestling website InterMat Thursday. So, as you can imagine, I’ve had the subject of stalling on the brain.

At the same time, I’ve been also conducting preliminary research on another project involving college wrestling in the pre-World War II era. I’ve been rereading the book “A Distant Flame”, a memoir of Jack VanBebber, three-time NCAA champ for Oklahoma State who won a gold medal in freestyle at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. In many of his accounts of his college matches, he casually mentions the wrestling ring that was a hallmark of Cowboy home dual meets. But what really jumped out at me was his recollection of a match at the NCAA championships where his opponent kept backing off the mat and otherwise fleeing the wrestling surface. In his book, VanBebber openly expressed his wish that the match with the fleeing opponent were held back in Stillwater, in that familiar raised ring, where there was no backing up (unless you wanted to get rope burns) and no escape (unless you wanted to fall 3-5 feet to the floor).

Until I wrote the April 1 spoof about using a raised, roped-off ring at the 2015 NCAA Division I finals, I hadn’t really given much thought to the possible original thinking behind using ring ropes around a wrestling mat in college. Then it occurred to me: a wrestler can’t back up or take the action off the mat – with the idea of stopping the match and gaining a breather, or to pick up an advantage in the start-over – when the mat is surrounded by multiple strands of ropes. For that April Fool article I even “quoted” a fake wrestling historian who said, “A number of participants in these discussions felt that, in addition to providing today’s wrestlers and fans with a first-hand appreciation of the challenge of wrestling in a confined space, that the raised ring would force the action to the center of the mat, eliminating ongoing issues with wrestlers fleeing the mat.”

Wrestling fans can only hope that the new NCAA anti-stalling rules will encourage aggressive action towards the center of the mat, without the wrestle-the-edge, step-out-of-bounds-when-you-could-use-a-break stalling tactics that causes delays and leads to fan frustration. If not, the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee might want to dust off the idea that putting college wrestling “inside the ropes” might actually encourage action and reduce stalling.

About the photos: On the left, legendary Oklahoma State wrestling coach Ed Gallagher instructs one of his Cowboys in the raised-off-the-floor wrestling ring that was a hallmark of home meets in Stillwater up to World War II. (Photo from the 1938 Redskin yearbook.) Right, Jack VanBebber in his Oklahoma State wrestling gear of the late 1920s and early 1930s. (Photo from Oklahoma State.)

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