Lights. Camera. Action. NCAA wrestling tournament delivers high drama at world's most famous arena
NEW YORK — The lights dimmed at Madison Square Garden. Sirens blared. Smoke billowed out of the fog machines. Flame shooters shot up in the air.
No, it wasn't an introduction for a New York Rangers or Knicks game. It was the NCAA wrestling tournament, which was held this past weekend at The World's Most Famous Arena, where all six sessions of the three-day tournament were sold out.
In the final match of the tournament, fans finally got to see one of the most anticipated matches in the history of the sport. North Carolina State's Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time defending national champion at heavyweight and winner of 88 consecutive matches faced off against Ohio State's Kyle Snyder, the 20-year-old who became the youngest World Champion in USA wrestling history last summer and gold medal favorite for the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero.
The red carpets led to a raised wrestling mat at the center underneath the Garden's iconic roof. And the 19,270 fans in attendance got so loud that it rivaled any rock concert or the waning seconds after the Rangers score a goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was impossible not to get goosebumps.
Snyder won in a 7-5 sudden-death overtime thriller after coming back from three points down in the final seconds to send the match to overtime. When Snyder came back to force overtime with a takedown in the final seconds, the crowd rose to its feet.
"It was incredible, it was so much fun," Snyder said of the atmosphere. "It's hard to really tell when you're wrestling just how much the fan's are getting into it. You can kind of hear them, but everything's kind of not as loud as it would normally be if you were just sitting there listening. After the match was over, I could really hear the crowd yell, and look up to the Ohio State section and it was pretty special."
The clash between two of the sports goliath's capped off an eventful three-day weekend in perfect fashion. Even though college wrestling was born in New York City—when Columbia took on Yale on March 21, 1903—it marked the first time The Garden has hosted the NCAA tournament. It did not disappoint.
Each section in the crowd was a collage of the respective school's colors. In one corner, the rowdy and noisiest group of blue and white-clad Penn State fans let their presence known with "We Are Penn State" chants, especially once the Nittany Lions claimed the team title. But they weren't the only ones to paint the Garden's seats with their school colors. There were the black-and-yellow clad fans from Iowa, the orange from Oklahoma State, red from Cornell and Ohio State and every other mix of college colors in different pockets.
"This is just a huge social event, the same people come back, take their vacation time, this is like Super Bowl week," Missouri coach Brian Smith said. "They're here not only to watch the wrestling but to see people, it's that same group of people and everyone knows each other, so it's fun."
And with every takedown, tilt and pin, that wrestlers' section would erupt. While some wrestlers tried to ignore the crowd and atmosphere, others reveled in it all, like Cornell's 133 pound national champion Nahshon Garrett, who pointed over towards the Cornell fans and pumped his arms up as the Big Red faithful completely deafened out the arena.
"You're closer to the people, you're closer to the crowd, you're closer to the excitement [at MSG]," Garrett said. "For me, I love feeling like I can compete and wrestle to the best of my ability and just put on a show for people. So the closer people are, the better I feel, like, oh, wow, it's a performance."
And just like the Broadway performances down the street, the tournament had a little mix of intensity, humor, excitement and of course, the climatic finish.
"I think that will go down as one of the most exciting heavyweight matches in NCAA history," Snyder said. "And obviously I'm happy that the end result was to get my hand raised, so that was fun."
Standing on a raised stage underneath in the iconic arena, it was impossible not to have fun. As Snyder had his hand high, he was met with a standing ovation and the Buckeyes' famous "O-H-I-O" chant.
All he could do was smile.