Examining Pro Wrestling's Connections to Collegiate Wrestling

David Bixenspan@davidbixFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2014

Kurt Angle of the United States celebrates his gold medal in the 100 kg class of freestyle wrestling at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta Wednesday July 31, 1996.  Angle defeated Abbas Jadidi of Iran.  (AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz)
MICHEL LIPCHITZ/Associated Press

This past weekend saw the NCAA National Wrestling Championship take place in Oklahoma City.  As is now becoming tradition, an Oklahoma City native was there scouting and recruiting talent for WWE.  Jim Ross wrote about the current recruiting system in his latest blog post on his website:

Saw some real studs at the Nationals in OKC the past few days. Jerry Brisco has seen many of these athletes multiple times this season and has a strong group considering WWE as a career choice. When a scholarship athlete makes it to the Nationals one doesn't have to worry about their athleticism so it's their personality that becomes the focus. Plus, it always helps if they are a fan to some degree of the pro wrestling genre. Thanks to Jerry's efforts over the years, the amateur wrestling community looks at a company such as WWE in a new, positive light. In the old days, there was a divide between the amateur's and the pro's.

If just half the kids that have been recruited sign, WWE will have a gifted group of big personality athletes with which to work with in their Performance Center.

There is a long, long history of collegiate wrestlers moving into pro wrestling, but as Ross noted, there was no real formal system in place.  Amateur wrestling community generally shunned pro wrestling.  In the territorial era, there were some regions—like Minnesota—where the local promotion had good relations with the local amateur wrestling scene, but by and large pro wrestling was seen as a disgrace that sullied the name of their sport.  As recently as 2008 in the Orlando Sentinel, you'd still see anti-pro wrestling newspaper articles written by people with amateur connections, though they were exceedingly rare by that point.

Still, nothing else resembled a direct career path into professional athletics for collegiate wrestlers.  Mixed martial arts didn't really exist until 1993 and didn't become a viable career choice until much later.  If you were good enough, you could try to make the Olympic team, but it was still continuing your amateur career. Additionally, wrestlers adjust to a different style, as U.S. collegiate wrestling is very different from Greco-Roman and Freestyle—the Olympic styles of wrestling.

WWE's recruiter, Jerry Brisco, was a great amateur himself at Oklahoma State University and became a great pro; his older brother, Jack, was even better, and won the NCAA Championship as a junior at OSU in 1965.  As good as he was, Jack was just trying to to follow in the path of his idol, Danny Hodge, using collegiate wrestling as a way to "go pro."  He won his first pro wrestling title that same year in his home territory at Leroy McGuirk's promotion that eventually turned into Mid-South Wrestling.

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After moving on to Florida in 1969, he became the pet project of influential promoter Eddie Graham, who had Brisco in mind as the next long-term NWA World Heavyweight Champion.  Brisco was, in fact, so good that it was no surprise he won the title in 1973.  He was a huge draw as champion in spite of being the rare NWA champion to work primarily as a babyface outside of his home territories (most worked as subtle or outright heels).  When he bowed out and dropped the title in 1975, he did so voluntarily: He was fed up with the schedule.

Danny Hodge controlling an opponent as an amateur.
Danny Hodge controlling an opponent as an amateur.Anonymous/Associated Press

Danny Hodge, Brisco's aforementioned hero, was an even better amateur, going undefeated in his collegiate career at the University of Oklahoma and winning three NCAA Championships at 177 pounds.  He's the only amateur wrestler ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Amateur wrestling's equivalent of the Heismann—Hodge Trophy—is named after him.  He went to the Summer Olympics twice as a freestyle wrestler, and won the silver medal in 1956.

He almost didn't become a pro wrestler and first tried his hands at boxing. He won the Chicago Golden Gloves and amassing a winning record as a pro.  This is why he's generally considered the answer to the "Who would have had the most success in mixed martial arts?" question when it comes to athletes from the past.  As a pro wrestler, he won the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship at the tail end of his rookie year in 1960 and dominated the title for most of the next 16 years.

He retired in 1976 after breaking his neck in a car accident.  The junior heavyweight division never recovered from Hodge's retirement, and smaller wrestlers in general suffered in the United States until the WCW Cruiserweight Championship helped the division to its feet 20 years later in 1996.

The best-known amateur stars of the modern era are Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar.  In addition to Angle medaling—gold—in freestyle at the 1995 FILA World Championships and 1996 Olympics, he was a two-time NCAA Division I champion, a runner-up in 1991 and a three-time All-American.  It's well known that Lesnar signed with WWE immediately after winning the NCAA Heavyweight Championship in 2000 as a University of Minnesota's Golden Gopher, but he was also NJCAA Champion in 1998 during his time as Bismarck State College.

It's forgotten now, but there was a huge influx of amateur wrestling talent in the WWE developmental system after Angle broke through.  In addition to Lesnar and Shelton Benjamin—Angle's Golden Gophers teammate, two-time All-American and pretty big WWE star, in his own right—there were a number of wrestlers who didn't make the main roster.  Junior College National Champion Brian Keck turned Pan-Am Gold Medalist Brian Keck, former UFC fighter Ron "H2O" Waterman and others passed through circa 2001.

Notables on the current roster include Nick "Dolph Ziggler" Nemeth and Jake "Jack Swagger" Hager.  Nemeth set the record (since broken) for most career wins at Kent State University, where he was roommates with UFC lightweight Gray Maynard.  At the University of Oklahoma, Hager was an All-American in 2006 and set the record for most pins in a single season with 30.  He placed seventh in the NCAA tournament that year, but he did beat the eventual champion, Dustin Fox.

Obviously, this just scratches the surface. There are more collegiate stars who excelled as amateurs, pros, or both, as well as pro stars who were solid, but not notable collegiate wrestlers.  Members of the latter group include everyone from Rick and Scott Steiner to Bob Backlund.  Obviously wrestlers like the Steiners, Backlund and Mike Rotunda—who really played it up—come to mind the quickest, but there are others who you'd never think of.  Jim "Baron Von" Raschke, for example, was a Big Eight Conference Heavyweight Champion in 1962 at the University of Nebraska and went on to make the Olympic team in 1964, but you'd never guess it from watching him as a wacky German.

Who are/were your favorite collegiate stars who went pro?  Let us know in the comments.

David Bixenspan is also lead writer of Figure Four Weekly. Some of his work can be seen in Fighting Spirit Magazine.