In the high schools and colleges of the state of Oklahoma amateur wrestling is a sport, sure enough, but it is as catching as a disease. More boys per crew cut go out for wrestling in Oklahoma than in any other state, and those who make a team wear their puffed ears as proudly as a Heidelberg duelist displays his scars.
Oklahomans have good reason to be proud. The state's two top colleges have won the national intercollegiate title 29 of the 33 times it has been wrestled for. Last week, thanks largely to the two determined Cowboys pictured in action below, the Oklahomans did it again. With the University of Oklahoma only 29 points behind in second place, Oklahoma State won its 24th NCAA title in the massive, splendidly appointed gymnasium of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell would dearly love to do as well in wrestling as the Oklahomans but, like most eastern colleges, it must draw its candidates from an area that is relatively apathetic about the sport. Pennsylvania is the only area in the East where wrestling enjoys genuine stature.
Eastern collegiate athletic directors, content to let this state of things go on, might do well to consider the crowds that jammed the Cornell gym for the three days of the wrestling tournament last week. Despite the fact that Cornell's undergraduates were departing on spring vacations, hundreds remained in Ithaca to be turned away on the night of the finals, even though the Oklahoma State victory was a foregone conclusion. The heavily favored Cowboys justified all expectations with a tournament score of 87 points, a new record that broke two they had previously held. Urged on by the coyote yips of Coach Myron Roderick, himself a three-time champion in the nationals and a competitor in the 1956 Olympics, they presented finalists in six of the 10 weight divisions after coming out of the semifinals with an insuperable team total of 75 points.
Of the six Oklahoma State finalists, however, only two—Yojiro (Yo-Jo) Uetake of Japan, in the 130-pound division, and Big Joe James, in the heavyweight division—succeeded in taking firsts. This means that Oklahoma State, which accounted for two of the three U.S. gold medals in wrestling at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, will have formidable competition for Olympic berths this year in Tokyo. After all, Uetake, who is probably State's best wrestler, can compete only for Japan—which leaves James as the lone Cowboy NCAA champion automatically eligible for the Olympic tryouts. Officially chosen as the outstanding wrestler in this meet was the defending NCAA champion in his division, Colorado's sensational young 177-pounder, Dean Lahr, who is also the AAU titleholder.
Final selection of the Olympic wrestling team will not be made until after tryouts at the New York World's Fair in August. Before that, however, there will be Olympic regionals and the AAU championships, in all of which wrestlers must compete under Olympic rules.
Although we have changed our collegiate wrestling rules since the Rome Olympics so that they correspond somewhat more closely to Olympic regulations, there are still important differences. Olympic rules', too, have been changed to eliminate the par terre, in which one wrestler assumes the down position and the opponent has him as a captive, striving to prevent him from scoring a reversal. This may or may not be a help to U.S. prospects. It does put a premium on takedown ability; the winner of the trophy for most takedowns in the least time last week was Leonard Kauffman of Oregon State, who scored four falls in a total of 16 minutes 54 seconds.
Before Oklahoma State grabbed the brass ring at Cornell there was an unusual number of upsets, for in wrestling the results generally follow form. The defending NCAA heavyweight champion, Jim Nance of Syracuse, went out in the quarter-finals, victim of a thick-waist-ed sophomore from Moorhead State named Bob Billberg. This heavy-thewed challenger seemed to care little that Nance was defending champion or that he had gone without defeat in 78 bouts, 38 of them in the toughest kind of college competition. Billberg played his formidable opponent like a master, using his 255 pounds of weight and the strength of his powerful legs to offset Nance's superior speed and grace. It was not a pretty match, and there was little scoring. The end came from an incident in the third period, when Billberg made a single-leg tackle. Nance backed off the mat in order to prevent a takedown and consequent loss of two points, and the referee thereupon awarded a point to Billberg, making it 2-1 in his favor. That was the way it was when the final buzzer sounded 31 seconds later.
Nance remains eligible for the Olympic tryouts, of course, but indications are that he will not enter them. His ambition is to play professional football, and the Olympics cut into the football season this year.
For another upset, there was the 2-1 semifinal victory of Michigan's 137-pounder, Gary Wilcox, over hitherto unbeaten, top-seeded Bob Buzzard of Iowa State. Wilcox had had to defeat a sophomore teammate in preliminary wrestle-offs the week before to qualify for the team, and he came up against Buzzard with a modest dual-meet record of three wins and two losses. In the end Wilcox was eliminated by Oklahoma's Michael Sager.
And Syracuse's 157-pound Dick Slutzky scored an escape and takedown in his final minute of the semifinals against Bill Lam of Oklahoma, who had himself surprisingly disposed of Jack Flasche of Colorado State in the quarter-finals. Flasche had been 1962 NCAA champion and was heavily favored. Then Slutzky himself was defeated by Iowa State's Gordon Hassman 9-7.