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FIRE AND BRIMSTONE
College wrestling, to its participants and its fans, is not so much a sport as a secret religion, a calling, a fanatical sect that captures you body and soul.
— Kenneth Turan
As I drove through a snowy wasteland to Waterloo, Iowa, I could feel the emptiness stretching away, across Canada, to the North Pole. It was cold, about three degrees without wind chill, and the snow fell dense and light, too cold and windy for it to stick to the windswept road. Thin snakes of curling snow twisted back and forth across the highway. Bodaciously cold. The rental car was cozy, my little cocoon of traveling heaven.
Waterloo is a small industrial town, and my destination was easy to find, right off the highway. The car crunched through the ice in the parking lot, empty save for one other car. I parked near it for warmth.
The Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum was chilled and clean. It felt deserted, complete with echoing footsteps. And then a thin, serious young man came out, Kyle Klingman, whom I knew only electronically. He helped run the museum (though he's since moved on) and he was my link to the greatest living American wrestler, Dan Gable. Interestingly, Kyle is not a wrestler, but he had the burning intensity of something, some kind of athlete. I later found out he was an ultrarunner.
I wandered through the museum, catching up on wrestling, pro wrestling history, and all things Gable. Actually, I was pretending to catch up; in reality I knew very little about collegiate or Olympic wrestling, the wealth of names. Signed pictures of Olympians covered the walls. The museum was bigger than I expected, and well organized, although there wasn't much but photos. The pro wrestling section was small but fascinating, a little-known slice of history. It hadn't always been dominated by fake, theatrical matches. There was a large picture, a black-and-white framed photo of a stadium in the 1930s, packed with 14,000: folks in suit and tie, ladies in hats, all for a wrestling match. Kyle informed me that into the '50s some pro wrestlers would actually wrestle for real, in private, to decide who was better, and then they would "work" (fake) the public event, with the real winner prevailing in "the work." Otherwise, an overly technical match might be boring for the crowd.
I sat in Frank Gotch's favorite chair. Gotch was the "greatest American wrestler ever," competing at the turn of the century when professional wrestling was primarily real. Wrestlers traveled the world and competed in bullfight rings in Spain and stadiums in Russia; Gotch was considered an icon in the early days of the twentieth century and wrestled in front of a crowd of 30,000 at Comiskey Park.
Gotch had studied under Farmer Burns, another great American catch-wrestler. These guys were doing submission wrestling with key locks and chokes before the Gracies learned jiu-jitsu. Burns wrote things that sound suspiciously like Eastern philosophy; he advocated the practice of deep, studied breathing, flowing like a river — meditation by another name.
I realized long ago that modern MMA had been deeply shaped by American wrestlers, who had found a professional avenue for their refined and savage arts. I was here at the beating heart of American wrestling to explore the wrestler mentality, with the hands down greatest living American wrestler. Many of the fighters I was interested in, Pat Miletich and Randy Couture, had set out to emulate Dan Gable. So here I was.
Gotch's leather chair was comfortable, with excellent lower back support. If I'm ever a millionaire I'll have a furniture maker copy that chair for me. A burly older man came out to say hello. His name was Mike Chapman and he'd read my book. He was an interesting guy, a professional journalist who'd written sixteen books, a combat sport enthusiast who'd practiced wrestling, judo, and sambo, and a historian — he'd just written a book about Achilles.
Mike and Kyle were excited I was interviewing Gable the next day. They had set the whole thing up, as I could never get Gable to respond to a phone call. Kyle and Mike wondered if I was nervous about meeting Gable. I hadn't been before but now I was getting there.
Dan Gable is nothing less than a living legend. He seemed unbeatable as a young wrestler. He went 183–1 in high school and college, pinning twenty-five consecutive opponents. He won gold at the 1972 Olympics without getting a single point scored on him. If you don't know wrestling it's very hard to appreciate the surreal quality to that achievement. It's one thing to win a gold medal; it's something entirely different to dominate a sport as completely as that. It demonstrates not only greatness but a kind of monstrous determination, a drive to a killer instinct on a completely different level.
As a coach, he won twenty-one consecutive Big Ten titles and nine consecutive NCAA titles (with a total of fifteen) from 1978–1986, in what is known as the "Gable Era." Gable wasn't just great — he was dominating, not only as a wrestler, but as a coach, too. And that domination was very famously and publicly born of insanely hard work. Dan Gable trained much, much, much harder than everyone else. He worked out five or six times a day; he ran from class to class with ankle weights strapped on. He's the definition of driven. For Dan "more is more." His drive, his fanatical devotion to the blue-collar philosophy that "harder work means better results," coupled with his unprecedented success has made him a mythical figure in his own time. Hard men gush like teenage girls when they talk about him.
At its heart, wrestling is about intensity and pure conditioning. There is always a body on you, continuously in contact. The whole point is to dominate physically, and there aren't a lot of ways to rest in a match — basically you're going the whole time, all six or nine minutes. Wrestling is more tiring than fighting because it's pure, and it's more exhausting than grappling because it's so positional. It's a battle of will, and nothing destroys will like fatigue. Mike Van Arsdale, an Olympic wrestler who fought extensively in MMA, told me how much harder wrestling is, cardiovascularly, than fighting. In wrestling, you're not going to get punched, you'll just be dominated. Of course technique and strategy figure in but they are distant stars to strength and conditioning.
What Gable brought to the table — what made him different — was his fanatical drive. It allowed him to push a dominating, tireless, relentless pace in practice and in matches. "Fanatical" is a clichéd concept in sports, but for Gable it seems like one of the only appropriate descriptions. He pushed so hard no one could keep up. He brought a whole new level of conditioning to the sport. He improved constantly, he studied diligently, he refined his game. Through example, Gable brought all that intensity along with him into his coaching career, and it paid off: his teams dominated and annihilated the competition for most of his career.
I drove back down to Iowa City the next morning for my interview with the great man, through a complete white-out blizzard. Seven inches fell in a couple of hours. My friends and family would have been scared if they could have seen it. Only three or four really close calls. Who needs coffee when you've got adrenaline? But I wasn't going to miss my interview, not now. Gable would have driven through the snow.
The Gable homestead is a beautiful place, twenty-odd acres in the country. Most of Iowa is flat but where Gable lives there are rolling hills, timber, a sense of wilderness. I parked and walked across the snow to his office, a cabin he had built out back of the house. He had a fire glowing in the iron-and-glass woodstove. I was jealous — it would make a great writing studio, with a big full bathroom, a sauna, and a small gym.
By now I was a little intimidated to meet the man. For wrestlers, Dan Gable is Jesus and Buddha. Douglas Looney, in Sports Illustrated, had called him "America's Ultimate Winner." Wrestlers will say he's the Greatest American Athlete in History and they will be fighting serious — wild-eyed — when they say it. Wrestlers carry Dan Gable in their hearts. I didn't know what to expect, and I wondered if he'd be annoyed by some snot-nosed nonwrestler asking questions.
The man himself is just that, just a man dealing with his legend. Dan is of medium size and build, still thick in the shoulders and hands, his hair gone thinning and nearly bald, big glasses, light Irish complexion. He's in his fifties and has had to pay the price for his unrelenting workout routines and wrestling schedules, with dozens of minor and major surgeries, hip replacements.
He shook my hand and launched into a quick, decisive interrogation. Who was I, where was I from, what was I doing, where did I live now? I had the sense that Gable was holding me up to the light like a jeweler, examining me carefully with those big eyes behind his thick glasses. He needed information to assess me, and he got it quickly and without stopping — he was intense and it was no act. In fact, there was almost an air of apology to it, as if he was aware that some consider him too intense, but he couldn't do anything about it.
He gave me a tour of his house, showed me some things he'd won, the Gold Medal. We ambled back to his office, woodstove ticking warmly, and sat down. Dan launched into the interview, without me asking a question. In fact, I think I managed one question during the whole interview. He told me what was what, and I hoped my tape recorder was working.
Dan wanted to be clear. "Here's where I come from," he said with no prelude. "I'm a little fanatical. I'm on the extreme. If we had a thousand athletes and ranked them, and number one is the most disciplined and extreme, well, I'd be ranked right up there. I never changed my career, and my whole life was preparation for my profession."
Dan started in at the YMCA at four years old and mentions that he was already a little fanatical. He swam as a kid and won local meets; he played every sport that little kids play and then he found wrestling. "I had a mom and dad who were intent on making this kid special, on giving him good advice. I heard good things from everyone around me." It was "do as I say, not as I do," but "their credibility stayed high because it was a blue-collar town, everything was pretty routine — smoking and drinking and family fights." Frank Gifford wrote a book in 1976 about courage, in which he profiled Dan Gable. Gifford recounts how Dan's mother, when she found out that Dan was nervous about an upcoming wrestling match (at age twelve), said loudly to him that she would take away his wrestling shoes and get him some ballet slippers. She was apparently famous for comments like that.
In junior high, Dan went from the Y into school athletics. He had great success in other sports — he was the quarterback on an undefeated football team — but "wrestling was an unbelievable commodity in Waterloo at that particular time, so I was closest to that." There were some big name coaches in town, and kids were winning state championships. Dan fondly recounts how his eighth-grade math teacher (who was also a wrestling coach) got him on the right track with his academics. "But my academics was my wrestling — my other academics were an education for me, sure, but I wasn't going to have to use any of that. Not like I was going to use my wrestling. I had my major going from the beginning."
We sat companionably in front of the fire but I rarely got a word in. Dan has a terrible earnestness, a ferocity of concentration that swells into an almost frightening intensity and then fades back to normal. It warms my heart to realize that his interview is like his wrestling: it's relentless. His voice is rough, coughing and growling.
As a kid he was something of a terror, with dozens of tales of "Dennis the Menace"–type shenanigans — chasing cats up trees and over the roof, feuding and battling with his parents and the world around him. In an interview with ESPN, Dan laconically said to the interviewer, "When I was a little kid, if I came in here I'd be looking to tear the place apart." Gifford wrote, in his purple prose, "When Dan was a boy he was well on his way to becoming a Class A monster ... his language was blue and his misdeeds violent."
In high school, during his sophomore summer, while Dan and his parents were away on a fishing trip, Dan's older and only sister, Diane, was raped and murdered at the family home. A lot is made out of this tragedy, how it drove Dan, but I suspect that Dan's character was already firmly in place. The terrible, unthinkable horror simply revealed a little more of his iron nature. Dan took it personally. He kept his parents from selling the house and moved into Diane's room. He'd already lost his sister, and he decided he wouldn't lose his house. He fed the event to the hunger inside him.
Between his tenth-grade year and all the way through college, Dan won 181 wrestling matches. He was considered unbeatable. And then, in 1970, for his last match ever in college, for his third NCAA title, the unthinkable: Dan lost to Larry Owings, a good, tough sophomore from the University of Washington. Gable went on to a pinnacle of greatness, but thirty-eight years later he is still thinking about Owings.
"No matter what you do, you never forget certain things. People think that loss is over and done with?" He snorts derisively. "That's never over, that goes to my grave with me ..." he trails off, then continues, mellower, wiser. "Even though I have kind of figured it out, I know how I should have won that match. But that's not the most important factor. The most important thing is: Could I have won that match and gone on to the levels I reached in the Olympics and coaching?" Here Dan is haunted, his thoughts far away. "I should have been able to do that, but I haven't convinced myself I could have."
These things plague him even now. He has a further, secret confession to make. "Here's something I realized in the last two months: I've been disappointed in my athletic career by a few things. Beyond losing that Owings match, I was always somewhat disappointed in the way I won the world championships and the Olympic games. Even though I was unscored on, in the last two minutes of that match I coasted."
Dan is incredulous, having a hard time believing it himself. Yes, it's true. The shame of it, coasting.
"I have been trying to figure out why I coasted to victory, because as a coach I don't preach that. I always say when you get up, build-build-build on your lead." He sighs, disturbed deeply by his own allegations.
"It goes back to this Owings match, when I didn't wrestle a good match. I was distracted, hearing things around me in the stands. I fought my way back into the match, came from behind, and pulled ahead. I was ahead by two points with thirty seconds left. But me, winning by two points? C'mon, I win by fifteen points or a pin!" The disgust rises in his voice. "I pin people! It wasn't good enough to win, I had to pin him. So I went for the pin again. However" — and Dan grows wise again — "I didn't read the match. I didn't read the history of it. Twice before I'd tried to pin him and he'd escaped both times. I'd use arm bars and he had real loose shoulders and he could gumby out of there. It was just natural for me to try to dominate." He growls, exasperated, "Yeah, coaching was involved but it was just my way. I went for the fall. He had the opportunity to score and he did by escaping. There was the referee's call but I lost that match. What did that match do for me? CHOOM!" He makes his arm take off like a rocket. "It shot me up. I improved in the year following that loss as much as I had in the previous seven years.
"But now, here's the point. In the finals of the World, in '71, the last period, I'm up by five points, and the athlete I'm competing against stops wrestling. Now it could have been a false thing, trying to lull me, but I had been really working on my mentality since the Owings match. When you're beating somebody, you keep adding on. But now, when he shut down, I shut down, too. I coasted to victory. The only way he could win was if I gave him the opportunity to pin me. So I didn't give it to him. At the time I couldn't say why. When I wondered at it afterward, and analyzed it, me being overly aggressive was the only way I could lose. That Owings match taught me to do what I had to do to ENSURE victory."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fighter's Mind"
Copyright © 2010 Sam Sheridan.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Another must read. . . . Sheridan never gets bogged down in psychology, rendering his book accessible even to non-fight fans. The lessons handed down from the book’s subjects are fleshed out on their own and by Sheridan, painting a complete picture of the pain and joy it takes to get to the top, stay there, and eventually surrender the crown.” FIGHT! Magazine
“Fantastic One of the best MMA books I’ve ever read, and I’ve certainly read my fair share.” Eric O’Brien, “Way of the Warrior,” ESPN radio
“You don’t have to care about fighting, or even know that MMA stands for mixed martial arts, to find insights into human behavior in Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter’s Mind.”Bloomberg
“In tasking himself with peeling back the layers of a complex and multifaceted activity, [Sheridan is] raising the bar for everyone else. . . . If you want a better grip on a sport even some of its participants may not fully understand, his work is quickly becoming required reading.” Jake Rossen, ESPN.com
“The Fighter’s Mind is an entertaining and enlightening read and is a worthy addition to any MMA fan’s bookshelf.” Dave Doyle, Yahoo! Sports
“Sheridan wrote one of my favorite books of recent times, The Fighter's Heart, and is one of those writers who could write about getting the oil changed in his car and still make it riveting So it comes as no surprise that The Fighter's Mind is a terrific read.”Jeff Fox, MMA Manifesto
“A must-read for fight fans.” Evan Holober, The Queensberry Rules
"Tirelessly curious and game, deftly sidestepping pretentiousness and macho posturing and all the other usual traps that snare writers who delve into the form and meaning of fighting, Sam Sheridan seeks out fearsome teachers and comes away with a rare prize: a deep understanding of the mental aspect of the fighter's craft and what it can teach us about howand how notto live." Carlo Rotella, author of Cut Time, An Education at the Fights
“Having opened up professional fighting worldwide in the best-selling A Fighter’s Heart, former Merchant Marine and Harvard grad Sheridan here plumbs the mental side of the sport. this should be a knockout with fight fans.” Library Journal
“As accurate and perceptive an account of what makes top fighters tick as I have seen. Sam Sheridan is a great observer and with his profiles of some the top names in MMA, he cuts through the clutter and highlights what it is about these men's psychologies and thought processes that has made them so dominant. There is so much valuable information in this book that I read it once and then went back through it again with a highlighter. The chapter on legendary trainer Greg Jackson alone makes the book worth purchasing."Donovan Craig, Editor In Chief, FIGHT! Magazine
“Relevant for fighters and non-fighters alike, [The Fighter’s Mind] creates new bridges between the fight community and the rest of the world.”Lockflow.com
“In Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter’s Mind you are taken on a journey that starts in the mind of wrestling great Dan Gable and meanders through the inner psyche of today’s fighters. Paradoxically, the knowledge illuminated from this fascinating journey remains timeless and true, reflecting the wisdom of the archetypal ancient warriortruly a great contribution to the field of mental athletic peak performance.” Michael Lardon, M.D., sports psychologist and author of Finding Your Zone