IOWA CITY – One of the most storied college wrestling programs will compete at one of the world’s most storied sports arenas.
The University of Iowa will play a part in displaying its wrestling exploits and demonstarting the excitement of college wrestling in front of a new audience on a new stage.
The fifth-ranked Hawkeyes (7-0) will wrestle Hofstra (0-9) and Bucknell (2-1) in the inaugural “Grapple at the Garden,” a 14-team dual competition that marks the first college wrestling event at the world famous Madison Square Garden. The competition, brought to you by MSG Sports and Suplay.com, begins Sunday at 9:30 a.m. (Iowa time) and also includes Bloomsburg, Chattanooga, Cornell, Drexel, George Mason, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Rutgers.
More than 65 ranked wrestlers are expected to compete in the event that will feature appearances by the legendary Dan Gable, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs and former NCAA champion Bubba Jenkins.
The sport can benefit from the spotlight MSG can provide. The opportunity for the sport and the Hawkeyes’ program is a good thing.
“We always talk about exposure,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “Now, we’re on the world’s stage, so you know what, let’s do something exciting.”
The success of the event will depend on the results Sunday. Exposure to new spectators has no impact unless you can generate enthusiasm with your product. Brands shared an anecdote about former Iowa Coach Gary Kurdelmeier’s promotion to give out a free hamburger for every pin. It gets fans in the door at first, but they will only return if you have get pins and give them a reason to come back.
“Exposure just because you’re in the environment, I don’t buy into that,” Brands said. “I buy into the fact that you have to create fireworks and keep it going. We’re on the stage so let’s go out and perform like it’s big time.”
Brands said he wanted to fit it in the schedule as soon as he was approached to participate. On of the toughest tasks was getting the top programs to commit to a date. The conference schedule, pitting Iowa and Ohio State on Jan. 4 that forced the Midlands Championships out of the picture, allowed the Hawkeyes to get on board.
“I don’t know if we would have went on this date if we were at Midlands,” Brands said. “It worked well because of the situation of the Big 10 scheduling. We weren’t going to Midlands. It worked well for us.”
New York has been home to some big-time events and promotions. Wrestling events have been held in Times Square and on an the aircraft carrier Intrepid. MSG hosted the 2003 World Championships.The Hawkeyes will spend time at the New York Athletic Club.
“The thing about being in New York is how they host you,” Brands said. “They’re just over the top.
“They’re going to meet us at the airport. They’re going to make sure we’ve got everything we need. … That’s always been the New York trademark.”
First and foremost, the Hawkeyes need to focus on the task at hand, which is Hofstra, Bucknell and a separate dual Monday at University of Buffalo.
“We’re going to be prepared and ready to go,” Iowa 133-pounder Tony Ramos said. “It’s not just a trip to go out there and have fun or go sightseeing. Definitely, business to take care of.”
Ramos said it is exciting to be able to wrestle at MSG. It’s also great for college wrestling.
“It means a lot to me, for me,” Ramos said. “Something you grow up dreaming about. You always hear Madison Square Garden. You’ve got famous artists sell it out (and) basketball teams. Big events, that’s usually the only things that are there.”
Iowa’s top-ranked 157-pounder Derek St. John, who earned Big Ten Wrestler of the Week honors last week for a decisive 6-0 win over Lehigh’s then-No. 4 ranked Joey Napoli, guessed Muhammad Ali and basketball as MSG staples.
“I have no idea, to be honest,” St. John said. “I never really thought of it.”
He has never visited New York City. If time allows, St. John has an idea of what he’d like to experience.
“Statue of Liberty,” St. John said. “I think it’d be pretty cool.”
For some Hawkeyes, the weekend serves as a homecoming. Sophomores Mike Evans and Bobby Telford wrestled as a prep on the East Coast. Evans is from Enola, Pa., and wrestled at New Jersey’s Blair Academy. Telford is from Hockessin, Del. Iowa assistant Kurt Backes is a native of Neshanic, N.J., and was a three-time national prep champion at Blair Academy.
Evans said he expects many friends and family to attend.
“It’s going to be nice to wrestle in front of a lot of people that watched you grow up,” Evans said. “That’s kind of cool if you really don’t get to do that here.”
Evans has never been to the famous facility. He recalled imagining what it would be like to wrestle there after viewing a scene from a movie.
“I watched ‘Cinderella Man’ before. That was pretty cool,” Evans said. “I thought it would be awesome to compete in a place like that. It’s going to be awesome to compete in the Garden, but it’s a lot more fun to compete in Carver (Hawkeye Arena).”
Backes, on the other hand, has more personal memories of the arena, which sparks initial thoughts of the New York Knicks, although Backes is not a fan. He said he watched a dual between USA and Russia and a musical performance there.
“I watched my first AC/DC concert there when I was in high school,” Backes said. “I’ve seen a wrestling match and a concert.”
The event will allow college wrestling and the Hawkeyes to showcase its product to an Eastern audience. Backes is excited to coach a team at the well-known sports venue, especially near his former home.
“It will be great,” Backes said. “It’s always good to go back East and see some fans, friends and family.”
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