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In trying to solve one problem, wrestling singlets create another

Revealing singlets: 2003 NCAA 197-pound finals match between Minnesota's Damion Hahn (gold) vs. Lehigh's Jon Trenge
Revealing singlets: 2003 NCAA 197-pound finals match between Minnesota's Damion Hahn (gold) vs. Lehigh's Jon Trenge
Photo courtesy of Danielle Hobeika of AmateurWrestlingPhotos.com, used with permission

In the past year or so, there’s been considerable discussion on whether singlets, the one-piece uniform that’s been a standard uniform for just about every level of amateur wrestling from youth through international competition, have outlived their usefulness and should be replaced.

One common thread to some of the opposition to singlets: they are too revealing.

Incredibly, it was concerns about “revealing too much” that helped fuel NCAA rule changes in the mid-1960s that ultimately led the move to singlets later in that decade.

Until about fifty years ago, the standard wrestling uniform in high schools and colleges was trunks, with shirts and tights optional. At the time, singlets were not permitted by NCAA rules or governing bodies of prep sports in most states. However, it was in the early 1960s that the NCAA mandated that wrestlers wear shirts. The 1963 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Kent State University in Ohio was the last to allow wrestlers to compete stripped to the waist.

By the late 1960s, one-piece singlets with tights started to make an appearance in college wrestling. (Look at the uniforms of the two wrestlers in the 142-pound title match at the 1970 NCAAs between University of Washington’s Larry Owings and Iowa State’s Dan Gable. Owings wore a singlet; Gable, a sleeveless shirt, trunks and tights.) The singlet-with-tights uniform quickly became the standard in high school and college in the mid-1970s.

What was the problem?

What drove the decision to require shirts? Two great wrestlers from the late 1950s provided this writer with different reasons for the rule change that sprang from concerns about being too revealing.

Shelby Wilson, 1960 Olympic freestyle gold medalist and, before that, Oklahoma State All-American, said, "I don't know what the reason for the changes. I've heard different reasons thrown out there. One I heard was that we needed to be more modest and that we were showing too much skin. To use the word modesty for the reason for the change seems ridiculous in light of what athletes wear at swim meets and track meets."

Another great wrestler of the era, Les Anderson, provided an even more direct explanation for why the rules may have been changed. The two-time NCAA champ for Iowa State (1958, 1960) recalled seeing a heavyweight match where one of the wrestler’s genitals were exposed (though, in keeping with Anderson’s tell-it-like-it-is style that was a hallmark of my talks with the wrestler-turned-Cyclone-assistant coach, he used more colorful, slang terms to describe what he – and the fans – witnessed).

The explanations provided by Wilson and Anderson correspond with the wording used by the NCAA in its rule requiring shirts, “to prevent unseemly exposure.”

The irony is that some of today’s singlets may be nearly as revealing as any mid-match “wardrobe malfunction” like that described by Anderson. Today’s synthetic fabrics, especially in some colors such as gold or white, leave little to the imagination in terms of a wrestler’s, um, equipment, as seen in the above photo from the 2003 NCAA 197-pound finals.

Almost exactly one year ago, the idea of replacing singlets gained considerable media coverage. In mid-May 2013, in its efforts to return wrestling to the Olympics, FILA, the international governing organization for wrestling, had proposed to the International Olympic Committee that Greco-Roman wrestlers compete in trunks or fight shorts, without shirts, in an attempt to help differentiate that form of wrestling from freestyle, and perhaps take advantage of the exploding popularity of mixed martial arts competition (think UFC -- Ultimate Fighting Championships – and other MMA promotions) where trunks, no shirt is the uniform of choice. FILA president Nenad Lalovic said of the idea of bare-chested Greco grapplers, “We think it will be more interesting and better for the spectators.” At the same time, two former wrestlers-turned-wrestling-writers – InterMat columnist T.R. Foley, and novelist Joe Reasbeck – both weighed in with their reasons as to why it’s time to ditch the singlet, and perhaps go back to a uniform that resembles what the all-time great wrestlers up to the 1960s wore on the mat.

NCAA: A history of changing rules to fix problems

The NCAA nixing shirtless wrestling – while changing its mind about singlets to permit the once-banned uniform for use in collegiate wrestling – is just one example of how the organization has had a history of revising rules to solve a perceived problem.

Back in the 1930s, the NCAA outlawed the keylock which had been a painful hold used by two-time NCAA heavyweight champ Jack Riley of Northwestern (1931-1932) to force opponents onto their backs for a pin. In the late 1940s, the NCAA implemented what became known as the Koll rule after Bill Koll, three-time NCAA champ at Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa), would lift opponents high overhead then bodyslam them onto the mat, sometimes knocking them unconscious. About the same time, the NCAA changed the rules to allow off-the-mat officials to override a referee decision they considered to be wrong, after a referee denied defending NCAA heavyweight champ Dick Hutton a last-second takedown, and his third title, at the 1949 NCAAs. (Back then, if there was a tie score at the end of regulation, the ref determined the winner. There was no overtime.)

Sometimes, the rule change may not be in response to a specific individual or incident, but what is viewed as a larger problem. In the early 1960s, a number of Oklahoma State wrestlers tended to rack up the score with their “take ‘em down and let ‘em up” style, rather than maintain control of their opponents on the mat. The NCAA decided to reduce the value of each takedown after the first one in a match from two points down to one point. The one-point takedown rule was in effect only about three or four years, with all takedowns restored to full two-point value.

The drive to revise wrestling rules continues. In the past year or so, the NCAA has presented proposals for new rules to reduce stalling and encourage more offensive scoring, as well as plans to incorporate a dual championships (in addition to the existing Division I Wrestling Championships) to help determine team titles.

This is not to say there’s anything wrong with the NCAA revising rules to solve a perceived problem. It may be no different than, for example, a local community lowering a speed limit in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents on a particular road, or a governmental body enacting laws to combat a specific type of crime. However, new laws or rules can sometimes have unintended consequences.

About the photo: This image captures the 197-pound championship match at the 2003 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships between University of Minnesota’s Damion Hahn (gold singlet) vs. Jon Trenge of Lehigh University. Trenge had been winning when Hahn scored an edge-of-the-mat takedown with three seconds left to take the lead, win the match, and his first of two national titles.

The photo also shows just how revealing modern synthetic-fabric singlets can be, especially in colors such as gold, white, silver or light gray, where the material can be more translucent than opaque. Factor in sweat, and the fabric almost becomes see-through, resulting in the dreaded “unseemly exposure” that was a reason that the NCAA eliminated shirtless wrestling in the mid-1960s.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Hobieka for AmateurWrestlingPhotos.com, used with permission.

Meet the people and the gear mentioned in this article: Take a look at the evolution of the exposure factor of amateur wrestling uniforms over the years, with this photo-album…

Gary Kurdelmeier: No shirt, no tights
Gary Kurdelmeier: No shirt, no tights Photos from "Coaching Wrestling Successfully" book and Amateur Wrestling News, used with permission;

Gary Kurdelmeier: No shirt, no tights

Up into the early 1960s, wrestlers at a number of major college mat programs stepped onto the mat dressed like University of Iowa’s 177-pounder Gary Kurdelmeier, a 1957 Big Ten champ and 1958 NCAA titlewinner who later launched the Hawkeye wrestling dynasty as head coach in the 1970s.

Back when Kurdelmeier wrestled, the Hawkeyes – and some other schools -- often wrestled in trunks, without shirts, and without tights… just as Kurdelmeier is shown here. One can imagine that, in the heat of battle, it might be possible that a wrestler’s genitalia might find its way over the waistband or through a leg opening, resulting in what the NCAA referred to as “unseemly exposure” in its rules prohibiting shirtless wrestling.

A two-time Iowa state champ from legendary Cresco High, Kurdelmeier lost only a handful of matches in his impressive University of Iowa wrestling career; two of those losses were to University of Oklahoma mat great Dan Hodge, who won 36 of his 46 college matches by fall. In the lower photo, Hodge is working Kurdelmeier towards a pin.

About the photos: Top image of Gary Kurdlemeier – sans shirt and tights -- from Dan Gable’s “Coaching Wrestling Successfully”, used with permission. Lower image of Dan Hodge about to pin Kurdelmeier is from the author’s collection of Amateur Wrestling News.

Dan Hodge vs. Jim Gregson: No shirt, with tights
Dan Hodge vs. Jim Gregson: No shirt, with tights Photo from Amatuer Wrestling News, from the author's collection

Dan Hodge vs. Jim Gregson: No shirt, with tights

Not all wrestlers of the 1950s and early 1960s wore trunks without tights or shirts, as seen in the previous photo of Iowa’s Gary Kurdelemeier. This image shows two NCAA champs – Oklahoma’s Dan Hodge (in control) and Oklahoma State’s Jim Gregson – tangling in a 1956 Bedlam Dual meet. Both the Sooner and the Cowboy are wearing trunks and tights, stripped to the waist… a standard uniform for college wrestling programs in the heartland.

Hodge was a three-time NCAA titlewinner at 177 pounds in 1955-1957. Undefeated in college, he won 36 of 46 matches by fall, for one of the highest pin percentages of all time. His name graces the Hodge Trophy, presented each year to the nation’s best college wrestler… and he is the only amateur wrestler to have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as an amateur wrestler (April 1, 1957).

Gregson won his NCAA title at 175 pounds at the 1949 NCAAs. He then left Oklahoma State for military service, returning for the 1955-1956 season, where he was runner-up at 191 pounds at the 1956 NCAAs. He owns the distinction of having the greatest number of years between NCAA finals appearances (seven years)… and as the only wrestler who wrestled Hodge more than once and not be pinned.

About the photo: Dan Hodge controls cross-state rival Jim Gregson in one of their two Bedlam Series dual meets in early 1956. Hodge won both bouts, but failed to pin the 1949 NCAA champ from Oklahoma State. Image from Amateur Wrestling News, from the author’s collection.

Shirt, trunks, tights: Layers to prevent unseemly exposure
Shirt, trunks, tights: Layers to prevent unseemly exposure Photo from 1963 Wrestling Guide,from author's collection

Shirt, trunks, tights: Layers to prevent unseemly exposure

This 1963 Sand-Knit ad shows what Dan Gable and other wrestlers who competed in shirts wore onto the mat. Starting at the top: a sleeveless shirt that came together at the crotch with snaps. Then the wrestler pulled on tights… then trunks. Underneath all that: an athletic supporter (jock strap). There were at least four layers of fabric covering a wrestler’s crotch, assuring that his “private parts” remained private, and avoiding what the NCAA rules referred to as “unseemly exposure.”

About the photo: Full-page Sand-Knit ad from the 1963 edition of the Official Scholastic-Collegiate Wrestling Guide, an annual publication with results and photos from high school and college wrestling. From the author’s collection.

Owings vs. Gable: Singlet vs. trunks, tights, shirt
Owings vs. Gable: Singlet vs. trunks, tights, shirt Uniform photos from the author; wrestling image from WashingtonWrestlingReport.com, used with permission

Owings vs. Gable: Singlet vs. trunks, tights, shirt

In separate surveys of wrestling historians and wrestling fans, both groups named the 142-pound title bout at the 1970 NCAAs to be the greatest upset ever in the national championship finals, if not all of collegiate wrestling. On that March night, University of Washington sophomore Larry Owings handed senior Dan Gable of Iowa State his first – and only – loss of his entire high school and college wrestling career.

The match has added significance, as this photo shows that the two wrestlers also demonstrated a “changing of the guard” in terms of wrestling uniforms. Gable is wearing the trunks/tights/shirt uniform that had been standard issue gear for the ISU Cyclones for a decade… while Owings is wearing a one-piece singlet, approved by the NCAA only a few years’ earlier, along with tights.

Want to know more about Gable-Owings? To read about The Upset, check out this historical feature at InterMat.

About the photos: On the left, a color photo of the actual shirt, trunks and tights worn by Dan Gable as an Iowa State wrestler, on display at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.; photo taken by author. In the middle, an image from WashingtonWrestlingReport.com captures the action from the 142-pound title bout between Gable (left) and Washington’s Larry Owings in a singlet with tights at the 1970 NCAA finals. On the right, Owings’ navy blue college singlet, also on display at the Stillwater Hall of Fame; photo from author.

Shelby Wilson weighed in on uniform changes
Shelby Wilson weighed in on uniform changes Photo from 1957 Redskin; Shelby Wilson; Web's Best of Amateur Wrestling website, all with permission

Shelby Wilson weighed in on uniform changes

Shelby Wilson, who offered his insights as to why singlets ultimately replaced shirtless wrestling in a 2007 interview with InterMat, is arguably one of the greatest wrestlers in U.S. history who never won a state title in high school, nor an NCAA championship in college… but brought home a gold medal in freestyle at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Raised on a farm outside Ponca City, Okla., Wilson was a two-time Oklahoma state tournament runner-up. He headed south to Oklahoma State, where he was a two-time NCAA runner-up (1958, 1959). However, he earned a place on the U.S. freestyle team for the 1960 Summer Games… and joined Terry McCann and fellow Ponca City High/Oklahoma State grad Doug Blubaugh as an Olympic gold medalist.

Want to know more? Check out this InterMat profile on Shelby Wilson... and another InterMat story about the 1960 Olympics.

About the photos: The first image is an edited version of the 1957 Oklahoma State wrestling team photo, showing a bare-chested Shelby Wilson (from the 1957 Redskin yearbook, from the author’s collection). The middle photo shows Wilson throwing “Doc” Northrup at the 1960 U.S. Olympic Trials, from Shelby Wilson’s collection, used with permission. The right photo is a collector card of 1960 Olympian Shelby Wilson, from Tom Fortunato’s website, the Web’s Best of Amateur Wrestling, used with permission.

Les Anderson on why wrestling uniforms changed
Les Anderson on why wrestling uniforms changed Photo courtesy of Jim Gibbons, with permission; 1958 The Bomb yearbook, from author's collection

Les Anderson on why wrestling uniforms changed

Leslie Anderson was one of Iowa State’s great mid-century wrestlers who later served as an assistant coach at his alma mater. Anderson, an Iowa state champ for Clarion High, was a three-time NCAA finalist for the Cyclones, winning the 130-pound title at the 1958 NCAAs, and the 137-pound crown in 1960.

In my multiple interviews with Anderson, I could always count on him for being unfailingly polite -- and direct. One prime example was his explanation as to why shirtless wrestling was outlawed by the NCAAs by the mid-1960s, for an article I wrote for InterMat, saying that a heavyweight’s “c*** and b**** popped out.”

About the photo: On the left, an image that shows Les Anderson’s powerfully-built upper body in his collegiate prime; from fellow Iowa State mat champ Jim Gibbons, with permission. On the right, Anderson controls Oklahoma’s Stan Abel in this image from the 1958 edition of Iowa State’s yearbook, The Bomb, from the author’s collection.

Rule-changers: Jack Riley, purveyor of the now-banned keylock
Rule-changers: Jack Riley, purveyor of the now-banned keylock Original source of photo unknown

Rule-changers: Jack Riley, purveyor of the now-banned keylock

Despite not having wrestled until he arrived at Northwestern University, Jack Riley managed to win back-to-back NCAA heavyweight titles for the Evanston, Ill. school in 1931 and 1932… and a silver medal in freestyle at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. He later served as head wrestling coach at his college alma mater.

One of Riley’s keys to victory was the keylock, which he used on a number of his opponents to force them to roll over onto their backs for the pin. This painful submission-type hold was soon banned by the NCAA once the Wildcat big man had graduated.

About the photo: Jack Riley demonstrates the keylock on an opponent. Original source of the photo is unknown.

Rule-changers: Bill Koll, inspiration for the Koll rule about bodyslams
Rule-changers: Bill Koll, inspiration for the Koll rule about bodyslams Photo courtesy of Jay Hammond, used with permission; 1947 Old Gold yearbook, from author's collection

Rule-changers: Bill Koll, inspiration for the Koll rule about bodyslams

Bill Koll is arguably one of the all-time great college wrestlers of the pre-1950 era… and one of the most feared. A three-time NCAA champ at Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa), Koll was known to lift opponents high over his head, then slam them to the mat, sometimes into unconsciousness. A perfectly legal move while Koll ruled the mats; however, after he graduated, the NCAA adopted what many refer to as the “Koll rule” which requires the wrestler in control to drop to one knee before bringing his opponent to the mat.

Bill Koll went on to become head coach at his college alma mater, then at Penn State. He is the father of Rob Koll, long-time coach at Cornell University.

Want to know more? Check out an InterMat feature on the father-son duo of Bill and Rob Koll.

About the photos: On the left, a close-up of Bill Koll from the 1948 U.S. Olympic wrestling team, courtesy of the late wrestling historian Jairus Hammond, with permission. On the right: Koll wasn’t just about bodyslams; he was also known as a prolific pinner, as in this photo from the ISTC's Old Gold yearbook.

Rule-changers: Dick Hutton, who got off-the-mat officials to weigh in
Rule-changers: Dick Hutton, who got off-the-mat officials to weigh in Photo courtesy Jay Hammond, used with permission

Rule-changers: Dick Hutton, who got off-the-mat officials to weigh in

Dick Hutton suffered only one loss during his college mat career at Oklahoma State immediately after World War II… and that loss was under questionable circumstances. At the 1949 NCAAs, the two-time heavyweight champ scored a takedown at the very end of the title match vs. Minnesota’s Verne Gagne… but the referee claimed it wasn’t in time, resulting in a tie score in regulation. Back then, there was no overtime; ties were broken by the mat official… and he awarded the match – and heavyweight title -- to Gagne.

Hutton and his coach, Art Griffith, weren’t the only ones who thought a mistake had been made. In the off-season, the NCAA changed the rules to also include off-the-mat officials in determining the winner in tied-up matches. Thankfully for Hutton, the rule was in effect at the 1950 NCAAs, where the Cowboy big man again found himself with a knotted-up score vs. his finals rival (not Gagne) at the end of regulation. The referee – the same official who awarded the title to Gagne in 1949 – said that Hutton’s opponent won. However, all the off-mat officials said Hutton wrestled the better match, overruled the referee, and declared the Cowboy the winner. Later Hutton said something to the effect of “I don’t think that referee liked me very much.”

Had things gone differently at the 1949 NCAAs, Richard Heron Avis Hutton might well have become the first four-time NCAA champ, decades before Pat Smith, Cael Sanderson and Kyle Dake.

Despite being college rivals, Hutton and Gagne shared some things in common. Both were World War II veterans who were well into their 20s when they wrestled in college. Both wrestled for the U.S. at the 1948 Olympics in London. Both went on to become professional wrestling champions.

Want to see more? Check out this slide show of images relating to the 1949 NCAA heavyweight finals match between Dick Hutton and Verne Gagne... and a College Wrestling Examiner story from 2012.

About the photos: On the left, Oklahoma State’s Dick Hutton; on the right, Minnesota’s Verne Gagne. Both from the 1948 U.S. Olympic team photo courtesy of Jay Hammond, used with permission.