Once amateur wrestling, at least for the uninitiated, was about as stirring a spectacle to watch as water freezing. But not since Dan Gable, a mild-mannered student at a large, rural university, has been stripping off his street clothes and bounding onto the mat as—Superwrestler! And not since wrestling matches have come equipped with brass bands, cheerleaders and pretty girls known as Mat Maids who keep score, time and even devotedly serve snacks to the wrestlers.
Due in part to this hoopla (which is quite a different thing from the debasing fakery of the pro game), wrestling has been booming. For those who have not heard the reverberations, 8,000 high schools and 500 colleges now have wrestling teams, triple and double, respectively, the number in 1959. The finals of the NCAA championships, which will be contested next week at Brigham Young University, have been televised nationally since 1963, and in Oklahoma bidding for the TV rights to the Oklahoma State-Oklahoma matches has been something fierce. "Four years ago," says Oklahoma State Coach Myron Roderick, "we just let a station put the matches on for nothing. Now three stations bid, and for our match against OU last month there were 500,000 viewers."
But wrestling's biggest draw is Dan Gable. When not competing, Gable is a meek, quiet 19-year-old junior at Iowa State who, like Clark Kent, peeks out at the world through horn-rimmed glasses. But in his red uniform, with the big gold "I" on the chest, he has so aroused wrestling crowds they have been known to chant, "Kill! Kill! Kill!"
Indeed, Gable is the most exciting wrestler since Dan Hodge came out of Oklahoma in 1955. For openers, he has won 139 straight bouts in nearly six years of high school and college. But what sets Gable apart is how he wins, which is by pinning his opponent's shoulders to the mat rather than straining to a decision. Few can appreciate the subtle variations on stasis which comprise a typical bout, but a pin, like a knockdown, is, in effect, part of the lingua franca of sport. In high school Gable pinned 26 of 64 foes. At Iowa State he has flattened 49 of 75, including 17 of 19 this season. "Pinning is what the game is all about," says Gable, which for him is a mouthful.
Even when describing one of his most memorable pins, he refuses to embellish. "The other guy went off the mat," he begins. "I was on my knees adjusting my headgear. It was over my eyes and I had my head down as I fixed it. I heard the other coach yell, 'Get him. He's not looking.' I looked up and saw this guy coming. I grabbed him and really pancaked him."
Gable's metamorphosis into Super-wrestler begins five hours before a bout, when he shows up for the weigh-in, scaling a few ounces under his 137-pound limit. In the previous 48 hours he has suffered off 10 pounds by not eating and by working out in the wrestling room, where Coach Harold Nichols keeps the temperature at 95°. Then he undergoes three hours of volcanic final preparation. It starts in his room, where he begins to pace like a restless cat, pausing only to go through an elaborate series of exercises. An hour before the match he arrives in the Iowa State dressing room. There his pace becomes almost frenzied. In quick succession, he runs in place, pushes against his locker as if to drive it through the wall, tugs at the coat-rack, flops to the cement floor to do pushups, rolls on his back and touches his toes behind his head, bounds up and paces back and forth. Then he tugs at his uniform, pushes against an oversized wastebasket, loosens his wrestling robe, jiggles his hands as he does a dance step, ties his robe in place, straddle-jumps, jogs in place, bends over to touch his toes and exhorts his teammates to"Be ready to give it all you've got right from the start."
Explains Gable, "It's my way of getting psyched up. I like to get really nervous. I'm not ready unless my hands are icy. My Dad gets nervous, too. He used to take movies of all my matches, but he got too nervous and always wound up taking a lot of pictures of the ceiling. He even hired a professional photographer to take movies of me and he got pictures of the ceiling, too."
Such shots are entirely understandable once one has seen Gable perform, for when he gets those icy hands of his on an opponent the opponent usually winds up flat on his back, gazing at that oft-photographed ceiling.
Since graduating from West High School in Waterloo, Gable has not taken a break from wrestling. In fact, he is called The Machine. During the past 32 months he has spent 3,000 hours training and wrestling, and he concedes that his interest in the sport borders on obsession. "But I want to win two more national titles and be on the Olympic team," he says. He won his first NCAA championship a year ago by beating defending titlist Dave McGuire of Oklahoma.
Bobby Douglas, the 1968 Olympic team captain, is sure Gable will make it. "I'm 26," he says, "and I look at him and I realize I'm getting old and tired. He's the best I've ever seen in college."
No one has been closer to Gable in recent years than Tom Peckham, a fourth-place finisher in the 1968 Olympics. "We traveled together all over Iowa one summer refinishing wrestling mats," he recalls. "No matter where we'd go, he would always be thinking about wrestling. He'd always do the physical labor the hard way, figuring it would make him tough for wrestling. And every night that we had to stay in a hotel he would go into the bathroom, stuff towels under the door, turn on the hot water and steam off a few pounds. We were also together at the Olympic training camp last summer. He was working out with a wrestler one day, and the other guy was having such a hard time against Dan that he punched him right on the chin. Dan just looked at him and said, 'Why did you do that?' "
Says Gable, "I didn't punch back because I wouldn't want to hurt anyone in practice. And I was a lot smaller than he was." Superwrestler is, obviously, not half-bad at ordinary logic.