When speaking about the sport to which he has dedicated much of his life, wrestling historian and best-selling author Mike Chapman is immensely energetic and captivating. The enthusiasm with which Chapman tells stories about himself and historical figures involving wrestling implies he could go on for days.
Chapman spoke at the Newton Public Library on Monday night to a group of mostly older enthusiasts of the sport he loves. Chapman spoke about the history of wrestling in Iowa. He offered his view on how Iowa, above all other states, became the heart of the wrestling world in America.
“Think about the people that had to cross the Mississippi River back in the 1800s. You had to be tough, and you had to be able to carry on through everything,” Chapman said. “These people put their whole family on a raft along with everything they own, their families and everything, and they had to cross that river themselves. And once they got across, Iowa was 70 percent forest. These are the people that built the state of Iowa, and when you think about wrestling, it’s not for everybody because of the amount of dedication it requires. That dedication is something that has always been a part of this great state.”
Continuing on about why Iowa rather than Nebraska or Minnesota became the center of wrestling, Chapman also revealed a bit of his childhood idealism.
“The reason Iowa became the state of wrestling was because of one man and my childhood hero — Frank Gotch,” Chapman said.
Gotch was a native of Humboldt and is widely considered the greatest wrestler in American history. With a tear in his eye, Chapman ran through a brief biography of Gotch, capped by how Gotch met his tragic end at the hands of a disease when he was only 39. He went on to explain how Gotch influenced the wrestling world.
“Gotch was Babe Ruth. I grew up on an Iowa farm and all my dad ever talked about was Frank Gotch. Gotch was without question the number one athlete in America when he won the heavyweight title,” Chapman said. “When he wrestled at Comisky Park in front of 30,000 people, the driver had to let Gotch out of the car so he could walk the last block because the crowds were so intense. Paul Scott, who took Cornell College to the national title in 1947, did so because he said ‘Frank Gotch was my hero.’ Dave McCuskey, who took Iowa Teacher’s College to the national championship in 1950, said the same. Gary Kurdelmeier, who took Iowa to its first NCAA title said the same thing.”
The second part of Chapman’s speech focused on the recent decision by the IOC to remove wrestling as a core sport from the 2020 Olympics. Chapman spoke about the history of wrestling in the Olympics. He talked about how the most celebrated Olympians in history were wrestlers. So with all that in mind, how could they not include wrestling as a core sport?
“Because wrestling got lazy,” Chapman said. “When the IOC held its meeting, a month long meeting, that would decide which sports they would include in the 2020 game, the governing body of wrestling didn’t send a representative because they thought that the IOC wouldn’t dare cut wrestling, but all those other sports that wanted to get in did send representatives.”
Additionally, Chapman talked about the amount of global outrage brought on by the IOC’s decision. He said that when the decision was originally announced, he thought wrestling had a very slim chance of making it back into the games, but due to the amount of outrage along with the fact that former wrestler and wrestling enthusiast Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is hosting the meeting where all of this will be decided, there is now a good chance wrestling will be in the 2020 games.
“If they don’t put it back in the games, they might not get out of St. Petersburg.” Chapman said jokingly.