Flo’s Top 100: Being Fair to Our Greatest: Part 3

By | June 23, 2023

As I’ve mentioned throughout the first two installments of challenging Flo’s Top 100 is the importance of weighing the many variables, that it appears weren’t taken into account when the list was made.

In case you’re wondering what, those variables might be . . . here’s a list of the ones that I feel are important to remember, in spite of some reoccurring senior moments.

Before I start, I want to be fair to the author of Flo’s Top 100; Kyle Klingman. Kyle did an excellent job of compiling the list, given the information he didn’t have, and I would imagine, the political pressure he felt from some of the those who were mentioned, and from some who weren’t so fortunate.                                     

There was a time at the elementary level when . . .  

There was no such thing as youth clubs, or programs where little guys could gather. Wrestlers up into the 1970s didn’t lace up their first pair of wrestling shoes until they were at least in junior high. Events like the Tulsa Nationals, the Reno World Championships and the Tournament of Champions simply didn’t exist. Nor were there any local events being offered during those years.

So, to compare an athlete’s pedigree by comparing his results from one decade to another isn’t fair, nor is it possible.

But at the end of this series, I’ll provide you with the help that’s necessary to decide for yourself who the Top 100 Greatest of all time were.

To make this easier to understand, how many matches do you think that Cary Kolat or Jordan Burroughs had before winning their first or second NCAA tournaments? Most likely, well into the hundreds. And conversely, how many “oops’” do you believe they might have had on their way to that point in their career?

We all had them, but not everyone.

In the reverse, is it fair to place either one of those individuals behind someone who only won one NCAA title and wrestled in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s?

On the face of it, most everyone would vote for greatness by the numbers.

But when you hear, that earlier wrestlers didn’t start their careers until 10th grade, and they wrestled maybe 75 matches in their entire careers, does that open any new doors of thought for you?

Now, I’m not trying to say who’s better here, well, not yet anyway. But I do want to make you aware that there are always multiple scenarios to consider before deciding who deserves to make any ‘best ever’ list.

There was a time in scholastic wrestling when . . .

There were very few ‘How to’ books prior to 1970, even less instructional video tapes until the 1980s and instructing by way of today’s streaming services only became possible since the 2000s. So, one can see how tough it was, yet again, to compare one decade of performances against another when there is no one is still around to sing their praises, nor are there any videos to watch So, one can see how tough it was, yet again, to compare one decade of performances against another when there is no one is still around to sing their praises, nor are there any videos to watch of our past greats in competition.

Then, during most of the 1900s, with very few exceptions, the best any high school wrestler could do was win 3 state high school championships. The why is easy, because schools back then were divided into junior highs (7th through 9th) and senior highs (10th through 12th). And, athletes had to be at least in 10th grade before they could compete for a state title.

Eventually, things changed toward the middle to late 1970s with the creation of middle schools (6th through 8th) and high schools (9th through 12th). That’s when the sport began to see the emergence of four-time state champs.

And, at times, five and six-time state champions because in a few states, if the middle school and high school were under the same roof, and there wasn’t a middle school wrestling program, younger athletes could move up to varsity.

So, to compare a four, five or even a six-time state champion against someone who only won three state titles in an earlier decade is neither fair, nor reasonable. One of those great scholastic wrestlers was Mark Hall, a Penn State grad, who won 6 Minnesota state high school championships after becoming a state runner-up in Kentucky the year before moving to MN.

And for those who might not remember; during earlier times, if you lost any of your matches at the sectionals, districts, or regionals, you were out of the running for a state title. There was no such thing, as there is today, of sending the top three finishers from the sectionals to the districts, or the top three from districts to the regionals, or the top three from the regionals to states. It was one and done for about 70 years. I wonder how many of the more current state champions wouldn’t have won had they competed under this different set of rules?

Does anyone remember, up until the 1970s, national events for high school aged wrestlers simply didn’t exist. There was no way a young man could sharpen his skills on a larger stage like Fargo, or the Super 32 in preparation for collegiate wrestling.

And that might be why there were no four-time NCAA champions until Pat Smith did it in 1994. Freshman were exactly that, fresh behind the ears. They never had a chance to finetune their techniques on a national stage, or become battle weary veterans, prior to entering college. And it was during this period when you’d hear upper classmen whisper in the ears of freshman; “Welcome to college wrestling young man,” as they laughed.

As you can see, it’s a little more difficult to separate the greatness of athletes based solely on the number of state titles, or individual bouts won.

There was a time collegiately when . . .  

Things were constantly changing. When comparing athletes from any decade to another was next to impossible.

For one year in the early 1960s, the first takedown in a match was worth 2 points, and all subsequent takedowns were worth 1 point. I wonder how someone like John Smith, who as everyone knows was tremendous on his feet, would fair during that season when he would be trading a 1-point escape for a 1-point takedown? Knowing him, he’d figure it out rather quickly. But you see how any change in the rules can throw a monkey wrench into the evaluation process.

Then there was a time when, at the beginning of the second period, an athlete had to choose either top or bottom? He wasn’t given the option of going neutral. The same was true in the third period, when the other athlete had to choose between those two options. Would any of that have made a difference in the outcome of any of today’s matches, and if so, alter the perceived greatness of a wrestler?

As to NCAA titles that I wrote about in Part 2; prior to 1969, collegiate athletes were only allowed to wrestle in three NCAA tournaments, their sophomore, junior and senior years plus a considerably paired down dual meet schedule. Freshmen didn’t become eligible until 1970.

So, given that information, it might be disingenuous to say that all four-time NCAA champions are superior to those who only won three NCAA titles. Is Pat Smith’s four titles double the greatness of Dan Gable who only won two? I’ll let you answer that, but I believe I already know how you’d vote.

And today, with the results of the COVID pandemic still lingering, athletes can, and some have, split their NCAA careers to span a 7-year period, and with it, the possibly of winning five NCAA titles. There’s the regular red shirt year an athlete can take, there’s a gray shirt year, 2 Olympic red shirt years and as I mentioned above, an extra year for COVID.

So, is a five-timer, five times greater than someone who won but one? Probably, maybe, I’m not sure.

Next, do you remember there was about a 45-year period that a person had to lose to an NCAA finalist if they were going to be given an opportunity to wrestle back to become an All-American? How many great wrestlers, most likely during their freshman year, didn’t get a shot at All American honors, and as a result were eliminated from being mentioned in the debate for greatness?

Now, let’s count the number of matches an athlete had from the various decades that often becomes the deciding factor in any debate of distinction. Danny Hodge only won 46 matches in three years of college wrestling, and he never missed a match! Whereas Cael Sanderson won 159 matches, but did have a loss on his record during his freshman redshirt year. So, who’s better? Most people would say; the person who won over three times as many bouts? Maybe, maybe not. Who had the loss? I honestly don’t know which of those two is greater, but to me, they’re both a legend’s legend. And I’d be willing to pay $500.00 for a ticket to watch those two square off.

Then there were times when the length of the periods varied extensively. Again, to the peril of those who are trying to create a greatest of all-time list. As an example, there was a time when matches used to be one 15-minute period. And, (this is a huge and) points weren’t part of the outcome. Winning was based solely on who had the most riding time and if that was tied or no one had a takedown, the referee would determine who won the match based on aggressiveness.

Then, were you aware, there was another cluster of years when, if you were pinned at say the 2:43 mark in a match, wrestling continued after the clock was reset. Then, if you could pin your opponent in less time than it took him to pin you, you’d win the match.

There was also several decades where athletes had to maintain a 2.0 academic average to maintain their eligibility. Today, an athlete only has to be making “normal progress” towards graduation. There’s a big difference between the two, which makes me wonder if there’s anyone on Flo’s Top 100 list that might not be there had they wrestled under the more challenging of the two regulations?

How about Prop 48 that ran from 1986 to 2010? This was a collegiate regulation that averaged an incoming athlete’s grade point average and standardized test scores to see if he qualified to receive any athletic scholarship aid, and if they didn’t, the person became ineligible his freshman year? And, for those who didn’t make that cut academically, it meant they only had three years of eligibility remaining. No doubt, there were some very blue-chip athletes who might have won an NCAA title right out of the gate, but weren’t given the opportunity.

Then we have the debate about wrestling records; who has the most wins without a loss, or just the most wins, or the most pins, or was the most exciting, or won the most tournaments? This makes deciding the greatness of a person extremely difficult.

But to do the process justice, everyone should take into account the decade the athlete wrestled in, and under what rules? And remember, prior to the 1980s, collegiate losses to post graduates during the season counted as losses on an athlete’s record. That makes the records of current wrestlers look even better when you compare them against their older counterparts.

Before 1950, here are a few of the greats I mentioned in Part 2 of this series. And, along with them, an equal number of greats from the last 30 years. When you read the next paragraph, ask yourself how you perceive the athletes who had 3 to 4 times as many matches as those “old timers.” It’s just human nature to go with those who had more. Until, someone points out that’s not a reasonable apple to apple comparison.

Buddy Arndt, who only had 23 matches in college, was never defeated and won three NCAA titles. Royce Alger by comparison had 131 wins. Who’s better, the wrestler with 131, or the one with 23?

Bill Koll only had 36 matches, all victories, and three NCAA titles whereas Ben Askren had 153 wins. That’s over 4 times as many. So, who’s better? The athlete with the numbers, or one you may not have heard of given main street media’s aversion to amateur wrestling?

Jack Van Bebber won all 22 of his college matches and won three NCAA titles. If we compare him to Nate Carr who had 122 collegiate wins with the same number of NCAA titles the comparison doesn’t seem fair.

Bill Smith had 34 victories, whereas Kerry McCoy had 150 wins.

Lowell Lang had 31 wins, and three NCAA titles, yet there are 28 athletes on Flo’s Top 100 list who never won an NCAA title. How can that be?

And, just because someone has current name recognition over someone from 100 years ago, that shouldn’t be used as a yard stick either. Especially when I tell you that each of the current wrestlers I just mentioned had a few losses mixed in with their achievements.

Part four of this series, which I didn’t know I was going to write, will be out next week. It will answer the question everyone wants to know; “who were the greatest?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.