Tuesday, October 24, 2023

MIDLANDS Used to be "The" Tournament

 I'm not telling any of you old timers anything you don't already know. However, it's been quite a while since the Midlands has been "The Midlands" if you know what I mean. There was a time when it was the Olympics of scholastic style wrestling. The NCAA's may have still be the pinnacle, but in many ways at many times, it was harder & more of a challenge to win a Midlands title. I don't know if the younger generations are aware of just how insanely loaded Midlands brackets were at one time. 

There are many ways I could illustrate this point.  I have decided today to illustrate it by looking at a series of NCAA Champions who in the same season, not only didn't win a Midlands title, but lost at least twice in the tournament. I think this drives home the point as to how incredibly tough the Midlands was at one time.  Here are some examples....

Mark Massery
1973 NCAA Champion
1972 5th Midlands 

Mark Massery of Northwestern would end his final season of collegiate wrestling 1972-1973 as the NCAA DI champion at 126 lbs.  However, that same year he was 5th at the Midlands championships.  After dropping a 3-1 semi-final to Billy Martin of Oklahoma State, he would drop a 6-3 consolation semi-final to Mike Downer of Washington.  At the NCAA's Massery would avenge his loss to Martin in a wild 8-8, 6-0 contest in the semi-finals. Martin would finish in 5th place to Massery's title as Downer went a disappointing 2-2. 

Jim Woods
Western Illinois
1974 NCAA Champion 
1973 5th Midlands 

Many things can be said about this particular instance.  For one, the DI school located in Macomb, Illinois with plenty of nearby competition would be doing itself a great favor by restoring their wrestling program. It's also an opportunity to be able to point out just how good former Ohio State head coach Russ Hellickson was on the mat.  He is after all one of the wrestlers to defeat Woods at the Midlands the season he won the NCAA title.  Hellickson defeated Woods 6-3 in the quarter-finals.  Woods was again be defeated in the consolation semi-finals by Tom Hazel of Oklahoma State.  The NCAA's would be a different story however.  Woods was on fire, pinning his way through the quarter-finals. A tough semi-final, he won the final with relative ease.  Hazel on the other hand slipped to 6th after a heartbreaking loss in the semis. 

Evan Johnson
1976 NCAA Champion
1975 6th Midlands 

It's results like these that make me such a strong advocate to bring post-grads back to Midlands competition. Evan Johnson won an NCAA title during the '75-'76 season that featured a bracket consisting of both Frank Santana and Bud Palmer.  Yet earlier that season he was defeated 3⃣ times in Midlands competition, finishing in 6th place.  Ben Peterson a multiple time NCAA champion for Iowa State himself, bested the Golden Gopher 4-4 tiebreaker in the quarterfinals.  Johnson then dropped a tight 4-3 decision to Chris Campbell, who would drop down a weight class later that season to win an NCAA title of his own.  In his final match of the tournament, Johnson lost a 0-0 rideout to Laurent Soucie, who had finished up his final season of eligibility the season before placing 3rd at the NCAA's.  Now think about this for a second.  In one bracket, you have an Olympic Gold Medalist in Ben Peterson, plus two more guys who would win NCAA titles that season! Not to mention the guy who had taken 3rd at the NCAA's the previous year!  When I say the Midlands brackets used to be frickin' loaded I mean it! 

Jimmy Jackson
Oklahoma State
1976 NCAA Champion
1975 4th Midlands 

'76, '77 & '78 between the NCAA & BIG 12, Jimmy Jackson more or less ruled the roost of collegiate wrestling. The only place he wasn't able to strike gold during his collegiate career was at the Midlands. In his sophomore season, the year before he'd win his first NCAA title, he was upended in the semi-finals 4-2 s.v. by former Northern Iowa Panther Mike McCready.  McCready was an NCAA DII champion for UNI in 1972, also winning an NCAA title in track & field.  When he defeated Jackson, he was redhot off of a winning a gold medal at the PAN-AMERICAN championships.  Jackson would then lose in the consolation finals to Tom Hazel 1-1 tiebreaker.  Hazel ironically enough, a former Oklahoma State Cowboy himself, was one of Jackson's coaches! 

Winning a second NCAA title in 1977, Jackson wasn't able to win a Midlands title that year either. It'd be Harold Smith of Kentucky who bested the Cowboy 7-3 in the finals. At the NCAA's when Jackson won his second of what would eventually be three titles, Smith finished a match short of All American honors.  

Although Jackson was unable to win a Midlands title during his time at Oklahoma State, post graduation he did win a Midlands title in 1979.  For the record, Smith performed well at the Midlands post his graduation as well.  This included a 3rd place showing & two runner-up finishes. 

Lou Banach
1983 NCAA Champion
1982 4th Midlands 

To put it into perspective of just how good Lou Banach was, in December of 1982 he was only three months shy of winning his second NCAA DI title in March of 1983.  Come a little over a year later, he'd be bringing home Olympic Gold.  Yet at the Midlands tournament, the man who would win NCAA gold & Olympic gold, finished in 4th place.  It was former Arizona State Sun Devil/future MMA superstar Dan Severn who stopped the Hawkeye dead in his tracks in the quarter-finals with a 4-4 tiebreaker rideout.  Banach would then work his way back to the consolation finals where he defaulted to Harold Smith whom I mentioned earlier. 

Bill Hyman
1985 NCAA Champion
1984 4th Midlands 

Harold Smith makes yet another appearance in this article.  I bet you never knew the University of Kentucky produced such a stellar HWT did you?  It was the Wildcat who stopped that season's NCAA DI champ in the semi-finals with a 4-2 decision.  Hyman was then defeated again in the consolation semi-finals by a man I consider one of the best of all time to never make All American honors, as well as one of the best of all time to never win an EIWA title.  Syracuse's Andy Schwab, a three time EIWA runner-up.  The Orangeman defeated Hyman by an impressive 7-2 score.  Hyman would avenge that loss in the EIWA finals 3-2. 

Jon Llewellyn
1991 NCAA Champion
1990 4th Midlands 

Let's talk about the late Jon Llewellyn for a second. The legendary Fighting Illini was a three time All American for Illinois during his collegiate career. In his senior season of '90-'91 he was the guy that kept Olympic legend/WWE superstar Kurt Angle from winning an NCAA title his junior season. That's how good Llewellyn was.  Yet in that same season he was pinned in just 1:27 by Tom Erickson (a HWT legend in his own right) in the Midlands' semi-finals. He then dropped another match to Dan Severn in the 3rd place bout. 

Mark Kerr
1992 NCAA Champion
1991 6th Midlands 

No post-grads to discuss in this one. Simply two incredibly tough brackets, one Midlands and the other NCAA, that featured the best collegiate wrestler's the '91-'92 season had to offer.  Mark Kerr of Syracuse dropped a 2-0 s.v. semi-finals to Iowa's Todd Fiser & then dropped a 6-5 decision to Ohio State's Rex Holman in the 3rd place bout.  At the NCAA's Kerr would avenge his loss to Holman with a 10-6 victory.  Winning the NCAA title, Holman finished in 3rd place & Fiser took 5th. 

Daryl Weber
1996 NCAA Champion     
1995 5th Midlands

Much like the example above, we're talking about two loaded brackets that featured the same outstanding collegiate wrestlers. One was the Midlands in December and the other was the NCAA's in March.  At the Midlands, champ Daryl Weber was bested by Marcus Mollica of Arizona State in a 10-6 decision in the semi-finals. He would then lose again in the consolation semi-finals by a 6-4 decision to Boise State's Charles Burton 6-4.  Weber would take revenge against Mollica in the NCAA semi-finals with a 6-4 decision of his own.  Burton would defeat Mollica for 3rd place at the NCAA's. 

To give you more of an idea how just how loaded the Midlands bracket was that season, Weber defeated future Olympic Gold Medalist Brandon Slay for 5th place! The 1997 NCAA champ Barry Weldon of Iowa State finished in 7th! 

Nate Carr
Iowa State
1981 NCAA Champion
1980 5th Midlands

The 1988 Bronze Medalist who won NCAA DI titles in 1981, 1982 & 1983 only lost 20 times against 117 victories during his time as a Cyclone for Iowa State. Two of those losses were at the Midlands in the season that he would win his first NCAA title.  In the semi-finals he was defeated by 1980 NCAA champion Andy Rein formally of Wisconsin 6-4. Then in the consolation semi-finals in what I believe to be the only time he was even pinned during his collegiate days, Reggie Thompson of San Jose State registered a 3:52 fall against the Cyclone.  The Spartans may not have much many remember since discontinuing the sport, but I think Thompson pinning Carr is something worth remembering. May I also note that Thompson had a losing record at the time & he himself was only a one time NCAA qualifier. 

Chris Bono
Iowa State
1996 NCAA Champion     
1995 4th Midlands

As the years progressed it'd be Chris Bono who would don the title of "post-grad" who would whip up on collegiate stars as he made five Midlands finals, winning four Midlands titles post his time as an Iowa State Cyclone. However in his junior season of '95-'96, it'd be Bono who would lose in the semi-finals to former Oklahoma State Cowboy Alan Fried 10-4. Bono would then drop a tight 2-1 tiebreaker to Russ Hughes of Penn State in the 3rd place match. Later that season as Bono won the NCAA title, Hughes finished in 3rd place. 


Are there more examples I could give you? Sure, but I think I more than made my point. The Midlands is still a great tournament, but it used to be THE tournament.  As in like in many ways, tougher than the NCAA's. The "Olympics" of our version of folkstyle wrestling if you will. This was because at one time you often had the best college wrestlers in the nation not afraid to go toe to toe before the big dance. There wasn't this namby-pamby horse manure of trying to protect seeds. It was our nation's best going to war.  The other reason of course is because of the participation of post-grads.  I realize that for many reasons we'll probably never see post-grads at the Midlands again.  I've written about my frustration and disappointment with this before.  I think in today's internet age, with the growth of wrestling's popularity, it'd be a prime time to make the Midlands like it used to be. 

I gave plenty of examples, and I have more.  The Midlands used to be "it." It truly did. 

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