Flo’s Top 100: Being Fair to Our Greatest? Part 1

By | June 4, 2023

Last year Flo Wrestling ran a story regarding who they believed were the sport’s Top 100 Greatest Wrestlers of All-Time. Granted, what they created was very informative for the curious, and a great starting point for what will become the basis of some memorable discussions.

And, I’m sure a lot of work went into the creation of this list, but not nearly as much that will come out of it on the debate side.

I say this because it seems the rankings relied almost solely on world performances as Flo’s go-to factor. Which makes perfect sense; if they were interested in identifying who the Most Accomplished wrestlers of all time were.

But clearly not the Greatest.

To me, greatness is the continuing dominance over the opposition given the decade in which each athlete competed, and the obstacles they had to overcome. Making this list should be about a wrestler’s total body of work.

Were you aware that 25 of the 87 men that are part of the Top 100 list never won an NCAA Championship. That tells me something’s amiss because I don’t believe it’s fair to use international successes as a criteria for the athletes who competed in the first 80 years of wrestling in America.

Why’s that? Because the United States had only hosted the Olympics twice, from the late 1800’s when the modern-day Games began, until the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984?

Why is that important? Four reasons.

Number one; because travel was so financially prohibitive during the early and middle 1900’s that if someone could afford to train, which most couldn’t, they’d end up struggling to find suitable work-out partners who had enough money to train.

Of course, that’s not a problem today with our best athletes making well over a quarter of a million dollars a year in the sport they love.

As an example of costs, which I’m sure you’ll find interesting, if not surprising, up until 1972, athletes were expected to pay a large portion of their way to the Games, and, get this, they had to buy the very singlets and warm-ups they were required to wear.

That was one of the many straws that broke the camel’s back, and begin the alphabet soup wars of the 1970’s. Ultimately, pushing the AAU out of power and recognizing a new national governing body, the USWF, now USAWrestling.

Number two; how many of you knew that the first World Freestyle Championships didn’t occur until 1951. Which means, there were over a half dozen decades of American greats that didn’t have the opportunity to win a world title that the Top 100 list is built around.

Number three; for those who did have an opportunity to go to one of the Olympic Games, given that American wrestling during the first 60 plus years was totally a folkstyle based sport, finding knowledgeable freestyle coaches, or even access to the rules, was next to impossible.

Number four; if we add the absence of any books on technique, or instructional videos that might help an athlete; things got even tougher. As to Greco-Roman partners, coaches, or any form of information about that specific discipline; good luck.

So, to judge the performances of athletes of yesteryear against today’s champions can’t possibly define greatness, especially when today’s wrestlers have access to more resources than any other country in the world.

We have twice as many world class facilities as any other country, infinitely more access to sports psychologists and sports medical professionals, plus top of the line nutrition supplements and the undeniable availability to more cash.

If you think I’m wrong about judging one decade against another, look at how many of those listed in the Top 100 didn’t win their first world title until they were over the age of 24? That’s most of them.

Had they competed in the sport’s golden years, you wouldn’t have even known many of their names.

Take for example Dan Gable. He hung his shoes up at 23, which was the average retirement age of all our legends up until the late 70’s and early 80’s.

The point of this article is to say there are differences in each decade that aren’t being considered. And I’d like to know, why isn’t Dan #1 on Flo’s list?

He should be there.

I’ve seen most all of our greats, at least from 1960’s forward, and I can tell you there were none better. I would marvel at watching Dan in practice, even well into his 30’s, thump all of our World and Olympic champions. Some of them two and three weight classes above where he wrestled.

As to numbers, Dan was 181-1 during his high school and college days. At Iowa State, he defeated five NCAA champions, including three 2-timers in Dale Anderson, Dave McGuire and Mike Grant. Regarding his lone loss, if you were in McGaw Hall as I was, you would have witnessed the incredible amount of media pressure he was under. ABC Sports had been following him around like a puppy dog for three days. They even interviewed him just before his match with Ownings.

Dan didn’t just beat people; he trounced people. His junior season as an example, he went 31-0 with 29 pins; 24 of them at one point were in a row.

Internationally, he tore through the World Championships to win the Gold Medal when he was 22 years old. And remember, during the 70’s, there were probably twice as many “serious” countries wrestling as there are today.

At the regional trials to make the team, he outscored the opposition 121-0 before pinning all six opponents. In the final trials, he outscored 6 more wrestlers 76-1.

At the Games in Munich, Dan was 6-0 without giving up a single point, despite a bad left knee and a split eyebrow that he got in his first match from a head butt, requiring six stitches. And all this was after the Soviet Union had declared publicly that its top priority was to defeat Dan Gable.

Name one Olympic or World Champion that’s listed in the Top 100 that has done anything like that before they were 23?

I get it. Compiling a list, any list, and ranking athletes isn’t simple. But I believe you have to dig down further than Flo did if you want to be fair to all the greats who have worn a singlet.

The second installment of this three-part series will be posted in a week or so.  

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