If the smoke, fire and lightshow at the Bryce Jordan Center dual last weekend is any indication, increased entertainment value is gradually becoming more and more a part of college wrestling.
As wrestling is competing with other sports for fans, TV and online viewers — and even for its place in the Olympics — more is being done to hype up individual matchups, and broaden the sport’s scope to attract a wider audience. Individual wrestlers have also taken the entertainment value into their own hands, with post-match antics and celebrations, and calling the competition out on social media.
But for Penn State’s no-nonsense, straight-faced head coach Cael Sanderson, all those things are just distractions, and something he wouldn’t have even thought about while wrestling himself.
“I’ve never believed in celebrating,” he said Tuesday at the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex in Rec Hall. “I think if you’re authentically excited, that’s different, but be respectful to your opponent.”
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Post-match antics have been in the news lately, with some wrestlers embracing “super villain” personas, reminiscent to what’s seen in the WWE. Iowa suspended its 133-pounder Austin DeSanto for one match on on Tuesday, after he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for the third time in four matches at the conclusion of his bout Sunday against Nebraska’s Brian Peska. In all, DeSanto has cost his team several points due to his antics.
DeSanto lifted Peska over his shoulder, carried him over to the Iowa bench and flashed a thumbs up before throwing him to the mat to secure the technical fall. The 2017 PIAA champ then turned to Nebraska’s bench, lifted his finger to his lips as to “shush” them. Then he stood in the middle of the mat and raised his arms, taunting the Nebraska fans to a shower of “boos.”
Earlier in that match, Nebraska’s 157-pounder, Tyler Berger, also made a gesture toward the opposing team’s bench, when he blew a kiss after topping Kaleb Young in sudden-victory overtime.
That kind of celebrating is something Sanderson said “wasn’t an option” for him growing up, having a high school coach for a father. It wasn’t something Sanderson said he even thought about, as he was always focusing on the next match, the next tournament, the next challenge.
“It’s about respecting your opponent, one,” he said, “and two, why motivate anyone else to want to beat you even worse? Because you’re going to have to turn around and beat that same guy again. This is wrestling. It’s supposed to bring the best out in people not the worst.”
Sanderson, however, did acknowledge that his Nittany Lion wrestlers can also be prone to doing some celebrating of their own.
Junior Mark Hall is known for his “Fortnite”-inspired celebrations, like “dropping the hammer” last year against Iowa. He also broke out the air guitar this season after upending top-ranked Zahid Valencia at Rec Hall, and gave his biceps a quick kiss after defeating Michigan’s Myles Amine at the BJC last Friday.
Bo Nickal lost a team point at the NCAA Championships last season when he spiked his headgear in the corner after pinning Ohio State’s Myles Martin in the finals to clinch the team title for the Nittany Lions. But Nickal chalked that up to heat-of-the-moment excitement, knowing that meant his team just won.
“It’s pretty easy to get emotional when you’re out there competing, and at the end of the day, it’s just sport and entertainment,” Nickal said. “We have thousands of people come to watch us, and I think there’s a lot of entertainment value in wrestling.”
Sanderson agreed that the culture around college wrestling had changed since his competition days. He lays some of the blame for that change on video games — such as “Fortnite,” which many Penn State wrestlers and Sanderson himself have spent a lot of time playing.
Just like in wrestling, Sanderson isn’t too fond of those celebrations, either.
“Part of ‘Fortnite’ now is if you have some success, you take a moment and you dance around, well then somebody smokes you while you’re celebrating,” he said. “But that’s just what people do. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but kids are kids.”
The entertainment, however, doesn’t just stop once the match is over and the arena’s cleared out. With the prevalence of social media, the discussion continues online as media outlets and fans start posting photos, videos and reactions as soon as a bout is done, then immediately turn to looking ahead, sharing opinions on and predictions for upcoming battles.
All that stuff does not go unnoticed by the wrestlers, Sanderson says.
“You got websites and other media hyping matches up, and that adds to that, too, because those kids, unfortunately, they’re reading that stuff,” Sanderson said. “And they’re on social media reading about people doubting them and saying you can’t do this, you can do that.”
Seeing their names tagged in tweets, and hearing people doubting them, some wrestlers have even taken to joining in on the chatter — and some even calling out others.
That happened to Penn State’s Jason Nolf a few weeks ago, when Berger, having just lost to the two-time national champ 10-4, tweeted he’d be “taking five heads home with me after the NCAA tournament and yes, that includes Jason Nolf’s.”
That tweet elicited comments from several of Nolf’s teammates, who weren’t as confident in the Cornhusker’s claim.
“Social media, it’s got its place and there’s a purpose for it, but I think you’ve got to be very careful with it,” Sanderson said. “It’s definitely not something that brings the best out of people in general, and it’s not a key to success, that’s for sure.”
But injecting another layer of entertainment into wrestling isn’t all bad. The smoke and lightshow at the BJC may be nothing more than a distraction to wrestling purists, but can help pull in enough fans to nearly fill a 16,000-seat arena for wrestling.
For Nickal, there’s nothing wrong with that.
“I think anybody, no matter how much experience they have with the sport, could come to that and really enjoy it and have a lot of fun there,” Nickal said of the BJC dual. “So the more matches we get like that, I think the more new fans will be brought into the sport. “
He added: “That’s exciting to think about and exciting for me to see. So hopefully wrestling can continue to put on events like that.”