I have been covering wrestling and the combat sports for many years now, being, I believe, the only person ever to win awards in wrestling, boxing, and MMA journalism. I have earned such titles as “the conscience of combat sports”, “the godfather of MMA media”, and, more recently, “the voice of catch wrestling”. And I truly feel that none of this would have been possible without the experience of having wrestled from grades nine through 12. But how I chose to wrestle, and some of the off-mat lessons I learned from wrestling, are stories unto themselves.
In the fall of 1963, while a ninth-grader at what was then called Lynbrook South Junior High School in Long Island, New York, the first day of wrestling practice came and went. And I was not there. I was a good student academically and involved in many after-school activities and sports, and even watched my share of the staged pro “wrestling” on TV. I thought about going out for the team, even though there were no other wrestlers in any generation of my family, but when the time came to hit the mat for the first time, I just said, “Nah.”
Instead, on that first day of practice, when three o’clock rolled around, I hung out at the schoolyard with some friends. We engaged in some friendly horsing around, including rolling around on the ground, sort of wrestling with each other. I found it to be fun, and even felt I might be good at it, as I easily escaped a pal’s grip (more on that later). So, I figured, why not do it the right way?
Fortunately, my one day’s absence from practice did not disqualify me from joining the team, and I thus began a long journey which both transformed my body and fortified my mind.
Back in the seventh grade, I took part in a physical fitness test which included doing pushups. I succeeded in completing a grand total of one. By the 12th grade, in another such test, I did the maximum number of pushups allowed in the time allotted: 40. And I could have kept going.
Nonetheless, I was never much of a wrestler. I usually had a losing record, even though I managed to earn a starting spot my junior year at Lynbrook High School before having to sit out a few months from an injury, and again starting my whole senior year. Our coaching was often not the greatest, but even if I had had the best — anyone else remember Sprig Gardner? — I just would never have been particularly good at it.
Yet wrestling did more than put me into shape and reconfigure my growing body. I stood taller and did everything in life with more confidence, knowing that I could approach each challenge just like a wrestling match, but with far better skills and tools than I had on the mat. I graduated high school with honors, did my undergraduate work at Columbia and graduate work at NYU, and have had a lifetime of accomplishments in many areas. And for all of them, I had at least in the back of my mind, go for the takedown and then the pin.
Those young people reading this who are considering going out for wrestling may or may not have the ability to be the next Jordan Burroughs, Cael Sanderson, Kevin Jackson, Adeline Gray, or Dan Gable. It’s great if that is realistic for you. But the vast, vast majority of you will never get close to that level on the mat.
No matter. If you wrestle, if you follow through on it, and if you are in at least a fairly decent program, you will lay a basis for improving yourself in just about any area you desire off the mat.
Wrestling will not give you all of life’s lessons, but the lessons it does provide are essential to learning the rest of them.
So when the wrestling season comes around in America in the next few weeks, and if you have never set foot on a mat or had given it up at some point, do what you can to become a wrestler. No matter how long you compete and how well you do in the sport, you will always be a wrestler, for life. You will be better equipped than otherwise for whenever you are proverbially taken down in life, and have to get off your back and struggle to succeed. You will be better able to win, regardless of the struggle.
Yes, when we are young, we sometimes have critical choices to make. We also can have second or third or even more chances to make those choices and correct previous mistakes. But at some point, we must actually make that choice.
I hope everyone who can makes the proper choice. I did 51 years ago, and although I obviously have learned an enormous amount and have changed since then, I have never, ever regretted the choice to wrestle.
(Eddie Goldman is host and producer of the No Holds Barred podcast, at EddieGoldman.com.)