From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat
This post about wrestling and another post today about boxing may be the final two installments from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends to make it to my blog. The series originally ran in 2004-2005 in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and I’ve been looking for ways to reporpose the work ever since. Presenting the stories on this blog is the first attempt to find a new audience. The next goal is to package the stories, along with new ones, in a book I plan to publish by 2015. The Olympic wrestling gold medal won over the weekend by American Jordan Burroughs, a former University of Nebraska mat great, is what motivated me to post this wrestling installment. I encourage you to check out the other stories from the series. You can find the Out to Win series stories in the Categories drop down menu or by typing the title in the Search box.
From My Series Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness, The Grapplers – Masters in the Way of the Mat
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In Nebraska, one family stands apart in wrestling: the Olivers of Omaha. Masters of the grappling art, they form a two-generation mat dynasty whose story is still being written.
First there are the accomplishments of brothers Roye, Marshall and Ray, each a prep stud and college All-American in his day. Then the ongoing achievements of Ray’s son, Chris. Victorious in 568 straight matches in Nebraska dating back to the fourth grade, Chris capped his amazing run at Omaha Creighton Prep, where he was coached by his father, by winning a fourth state title this past season. In the process, he became only the third Nebraska schoolboy to go unbeaten in a four-year career. The prized Nebraska recruit is wrestling at 157 pounds for No. 3 rated NU and appears poised to surpass his father’s and uncles’ own impressive records.
But the story doesn’t end there. Five brothers in all wrestled. Roye, Marshall and Ray all competed overseas. Roye was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and now, at age 47, he’s made a dramatic comeback from double knee surgery to win the U.S. Veterans Nationals title at 187.4 pounds in Las Vegas this past April. He qualified for the September world championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia but was unable to attend.
Roye also coaches. He assisted Mike Denney with the perennial Division II power University of Nebraska at Omaha program. He coached with USA Wrestling. He’s worked with select junior national teams in Nebraska and California, where he recently moved. Ray, co-head coach at Prep, started working with Chris when he was 4 and he now schools a nephew, Malcomb McGruder, who’s a highly-regarded junior-to-be at Prep. And the word is a promising new generation of Olivers is developing their moves on the mat at the bantam-cadet levels.
This past summer, the Oliver clan was inducted in the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame for their many wrestling feats.
Wrestling for the Olivers is more than tradition. It’s a way of life and an act of faith that got its start, aptly enough, with their own prophet, Ecclesiastes, the oldest brother and, like his siblings, the son of a preacher man. Originally from Brewton, Ala., the family migrated to Omaha in 1962 when their minister-father felt called to come here.
Ecclesiastes took up wrestling at the north Omaha boys club, where Ron McGruder was the coach.
“He came home and demonstrated some of the techniques to my older brothers Roye and Marshall,” said Ray, “and later on when I got old enough, at about five years of age, they demonstrated the techniques to me and my younger brother Bobby. And that started off a milestone and legacy of us becoming great wrestlers in the state of Nebraska and around the nation.”
Just because their daddy preached didn’t make the Oliver boys immune to the less savory elements around the Pleasantview housing projects, where they lived, which is why their parents approved of wrestling’s structure and discipline.
“Instead of hanging out, my brothers and I would go to the boys club and wrestle,” said Ray. “It offered an outlet.”
Ecclesiastes didn’t so much sell the sport for its character-building attributes, as he later did, but rather as a means “to get tough and to win trophies,” Ray said. “He’d come home with trophies and we’d go, ‘Whoa, we want to do that.’ Winning trophies was the most important thing.” At home and at the club the Olivers often tangled, brother on brother, in a ritual of honing skills and testing limits. Wrestling each other helped to forge the Brothers Oliver into the hard-edged competitors they became. “It pushed us,” Ray said. “It helped us strive for higher heights and to learn how to refuse to accept losing as motivation to improve.” Naturally, the brothers developed a signature style.
“We had a lot of similarities with respect to position and stance and maneuvers and techniques,” Ray said. “I’d say we scored more on our feet than we did anywhere else, but we knew how to pin on top using the different pinning combinations, as we were all excited about using the cradle and the three-quarters. And we knew how to escape on the bottom using switches and stunts and stand-ups.”
The brothers came of age in the 1970s at Omaha Technical High School. Roye and Marshall made the Olivers’ first big splash by winning individual state titles in 1973 under head coach Milt Hearn and top assistant Curlee Alexander, a former Tech wrestler and UNO national champion. Ray won an individual title and served as captain for Tech’s 1978 state championship team coached by Alexander.
In the 1970s, the brothers made several memorable trips behind the Iron Curtain — Roye and Marshall in Bulgaria and Roye and Ray in Poland. Only in their mid-teens at the time, the Olivers squared-off with grown men in their 20s and 30s.
“Back in our day, if you were even 15-, 16-, 17-years-old, you wrestled everybody, regardless of how old they were,” Ray said. “That’s not like the way they have it structured today, where they have junior world and cadet divisions. Still, I was 8-0 over in Europe. We went to these great, unique places. It was a great cultural and wrestling experience.”
Roye and Marshall went on to Arizona State University, with Roye earning All-America honors three times and Marshall once. Ray followed his big brothers to ASU, but after only a few months the homesick wrestler transferred to Nebraska, where he wrestled four years. After a slow start that saw him qualify for nationals once out of his first two years, Ray hit his stride as a junior, when he was 32-7 and ranked third nationally. But an ankle injury suffered in the Big 8 championships prevented him from competing in the NCAA tourney.
Determined “to prove to all my competitors I was just as successful as they were,” Ray said, “I came back with a strong attitude and a good regimen, and bounced back my senior year to excel.” He went 34-5 in qualifying for nationals, where he finally joined his brothers in making All-American.
After college, Roye became a world-class freestyle wrestler with the U.S. national team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Yet he couldn’t dislodge the men ahead of him at 163 pounds, the legendary Lee Kemp and Dave Schultz. He hoped the veterans world championships would finally net him his first world title, but he couldn’t get enough time off to go compete.
This fall and winter, the Olivers have their collective eyes trained on Chris as he tries to add to his niche inthe family’s elite wrestling heritage. The Oliver he’ll most likely be compared to is his dad, who notched a name for himself in Husker wrestling lore. For his part, Ray hopes his son surpasses him.
“My picture hangs on the conference champions wall down at the Bob Devaney Sports Center,” Ray said, “and I’m pretty excited about that. Hopefully, my son will make his mark and get his picture up there, too, only on the national champions wall.”
Ray said his son is humble about his emerging place in the Oliver wrestling tradition.
“He knows the things we’ve done, and the things he’s done so far are a great achievement, but he’s learned to put it in the right perspective.” For his part, Chris has no interest in competing with his family’s legends. “I mean, I would love to be an All-American,” he said, “but as I enter into wrestling in college, my own personal set of goals are to not really worry about what my relatives did, but just try to go out there and make my own home there.” Beyond admiring their wrestling props, Chris learned from his father and uncles by going one-on-one with them on the mat to soak up some hard-earned wisdom. “It’s been really great to have a chance to pick and choose and learn from all of them,” he said, “because they know a lot.”
Ray feels Chris is well beyond where he or any of his brothers were at a comparable age. “On a scale of one to 10, we were probably a seven and he’s probably a 10. He’s got the ability to be a great one,” he said. The father said he knew Chris was gifted early because even at age four or five he showed a knack for the sport’s intricacies and its heart-of-a-warrior mentality. “I saw his learning ability as far as picking up moves and techniques and as far as being combative. He didn’t mind getting in there and just mixing things up and being physical.”
Chris first stamped himself a top prospect when, at age 6, he finished second in the Tulsa Nationals, a prestigious youth tournament that he won the next year. As he’s evolved into the consummate, dominating wrestler he is today, when he routinely breaks his opponent’s will in the first period, his passion for the sport remains strong.
“I just love the sport of wrestling and all the competition and camaraderie that comes with it,” he said. “I love going out there and having fun. It’s a really tough sport and you gotta be disciplined. You gotta work hard at it. But I think probably the main thing for me is having fun.”
Having fun. That’s what his uncle Roye also referred to ashe continues competing as a middle-aged man in the demanding sport. “It’s still fun,” Roye said.
And so the Oliver wrestling saga marches on. “Our family has paved the way for the sport of wrestling in Neraska,” said Roye, who expects great things from Chris and his younger nephews. “You ain’t heard the last of us yet.”
More Notable Wrestlers
The Olivers are among many inner city wrestling legends.There was Tech High’s Fred Brown, one of only a few four-time state champions in Nebraska prep history. South High’s Richard Brown (no relation) was a four-time Nebraska state finalist and three-time champion in the late 1950s. A promising collegiate career was cut shortwhen Richard Brown dropped out of school to start a family. He’s been active as a youth wrestling coach the past 35 years.
North High has produced several multiple champions, including Dick Davis in the ‘60s, Antoine Parker, Duaine Martin and Darrious Hill in the ‘80s, and Chauncey Parker, Willie Hill, Eric Hill and Curlee Alexander, Jr. in the ‘90s. A former Northern Iowa University All-American, Martin still competes internationally at age 36. He recently vied for a berth on the U.S. Olympic Greco Roman Wrestling team.
Creighton Prep’s Ben Perkins won three state titles and made All-America at Iowa State. Dante Lewis won a title at Omaha Benson and two at Bryan. Two-time state champs include Tech’s Joe Crawford and David Washington and Central’s Pernell Gatson. Prep’s Brauman Creighton never won a state title but won a pair of Division II national titles as a UNO Maverick.
Many of the area’s finest coaches have hailed from the inner city.
Charles Bryant was a tenacious, tough-as-nails football-wrestling standout at South High. Bryant’s life has been one long fight against exclusion. He found an unwelcome climate at NU but he persevered and helped change attitudes, earning All-Big Seven honors in the process. When denied a teaching-coaching job with the Omaha Public Schools, he made his own success in the Bluffs public school system, where he was the architect of a 1960s mat dynasty at Thomas Jefferson High School. He took satisfaction in his T.J. teams regularly thumping Metro Conference squads from OPS. He ended up with OPS, on his own terms, as an administrator and athletic director. A fine sculptor, the retired Bryant pursues his art while battling cancer.
Similarly, Don Benning has never said no to a challenge. Growing up in a white east Omaha neighborhood, he was the target of racial slurs that prompted him to fight. Proving himself almost daily with his brains and brawn, he became a top student and gridiron-mat star at North High and UNO. A bright young teaching candidate who was unable to break through the OPS color barrier, Benning was ready to leave for Chicago when he was convinced to take a graduate fellowship and assistant coaching job at UNO in the early 1960s. When asked to take over the school’s struggling wrestling program, he became the first black head coach at a mostly white university. By decade’s end, he led his team to an NAIA national title before he embarked on an OPS administrative career distinguished by his integrity.
When he began wrestling in the early ‘60s, Curlee Alexander, Sr. showed such little promise that his assignment in high school duals was to avoid getting pinned, thus saving his team points. A hard worker, Alexander got better and by his senior year at Tech he finished second at state. It was in college that he really blossomed. Competing for Don Benning at UNO, he was a four-time All-American, and as a senior he helped UNO claim the 1969 NAIA team title by winning the 115-pound championship at nationals.
Alexander then followed his mentor, Benning, to become a top educator and coach. He led his alma mater, Tech, to a state championship and added six more team titles as North High’s head coach. The retired teacher now serves as North’s associate head coach. He remains the only black head coach to guide a school to a Nebraska team state wrestling title.
And then there was Joe Edmonson. They called him Little Joe, but his presence loomed large. Confined to a wheelchair his entire adult life after a trampoline accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Little Joe stood figuratively tall. Whether pitching his gruff voice to instruct or squirming in his chair to demonstrate a hold, he held the rapt attention of the many youths who came to learn life and wrestling lessons from him. They always looked up to him.
By the time he died at age 54 in 2002, Edmonson’s Exploradories wrestling club, which got its start in the laundry room at old Immanuel Hospital, had been transformed into the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center in the Fontenelle Park Pavilion. Recognized in 1991 with a Daily Point of Light award from then-President George Bush, one of many honors Joe and his work received, the YMCA-affiliated center offers children athletics, reading enrichment and computer training.
A former wrestler at Tech, where he was a city and state champion at 95 pounds, Joe used wrestling and his own perseverance to deliver a message about enduranceand achieving against all odds.
In the preface of one of his clinic brochures, he spelled out his philosophy: “Everyone, no matter who he is, has potential. While teaching the techniques of wrestling to him, we are also instilling in him the plain simple truth that he is somebody.”
Edmonson produced winners. Scores of his wrestlers earned medals in local, regional, national and international competitions. Perhaps the highlight of his coaching life came as head coach of the USA School Boys Wrestling Team that competed in Mexico City in 1978 and 1980, when he led his charges to third and first place finishes, respectively. Making this showing even more impressive was the fact his teams were community-based squads comprised solely of his own club wrestlers, who more than held their own with opponents drawn from select state and national teams. In 1983, he guided the World USA Greco School Boy Wrestling Team to the World Greco Team championship.
Dozens of state high school champions and collegiate All-Americans came out of his program, including Duane Martin and Ben Perkins. Former North head coach Curlee Alexander said Little Joe’s prodigies were “tough. Whenever I got one, I didn’t have to worry about him folding on me.”
- Burroughs of US wins wrestling gold (nbcolympics.com)
A few years ago two very different Omaha theater companies did a twinning in the same space to help save costs. The Blue Barn Theatre is known for cutting-edge contemporary work. The Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company specializes in classics. During this pairing of convenience each organization remained autonomous. The arrangement and relationship proved satisfactory and in short order the Brigit Saint Brigit found enough support to go its own independent way, producing at a revolving slate of sites with the hope of finding a permanent home. The Blue Barn meanwhile consolidated its strong niche in the community and is well positioned for the future. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the afterglow of the twinning experiment.
A Theater Twinning
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The venues comprising Omaha’s theater scene have their own identities, each as recognizable as any character or setting in a play.
The grand dame of them all is the Omaha Community Playhouse. She’s the well-heeled matriarch and life-of-the-party who throws sumptuous bashes in her plush digs. Her costumes and decorations are to-die-for but that glitter is sometimes more show than substance. Love her or loathe her, you must give the old gal her due. Secretly every ham desires to shine on her stage.
The other extreme is represented by the intimate Shelterbelt, a small, plucky poverty row entree that wears its penchant for arresting new work on its sleeve. This classic overachiever does wonders despite limited resources, consistently garnering top Theatre Arts Guild awards. The John Beasley Theater & Workshop is in a category all its own as Omaha’s only dedicated African American dramatic arts forum. While the shows aren’t always as polished as they could be, no one can question their heart or authenticity.
Then there’s the bohemian Blue Barn Theatre, which enters its 20th season as this burg’s undisputed home for cutting edge contemporary work, and the aristocratic Brigit Saint Brigit Company, now in its 16th season of presenting classics from the American and Irish stage. Although they seemingly focus on incompatible ends of the spectrum both are committed to professional quality theater. They also share a decidedly serious approach to everything from the fringe to celebrated standards of the theater canon.
Despite glowing reputations the Blue Barn and BSB have always just struggled by. That comes with the territory but things are tougher in these hard economic times. As a way to hedge their bets this pair of Omaha theater fixtures has joined forces to secure their present and realize their ambitious vision for the future.
Last summer the Blue Barn was in debt. The Old Market-based theater held an Aug. 25, 2007 fundraiser to help get its financial house in order. Supporters turned out in droves. Contributions poured in. The immediate threat was resolved but Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, along with her board, sought a long-term alternative to what she called the theater’s “treadmill” existence.
“We’ve dealt with debt before. But after 19 seasons it was time to either grow into something new or to stop,” she said. “I talked to the board and to the founding members. None of them were willing to come back and get back on the treadmill either. So we made the decision that if things did not change, if we did not change our view of what we could be, that we would close.”
Around this same time BSB contemplated losing its home at the College of Saint Mary, which gave the company until mid-2008 to find new quarters. Financially healthy but with no permanent facility lined up for its 16th season, doubt hung in the air. Artistic director Cathy Kurz and executive director Scott Kurz searched for a new home. Wherever the couple looked they found sky high rent. Nothing fit.
That’s when Clement-Toberer called with a solution to both theaters’ dilemmas. She proposed partnering by sharing residence in the Blue Barn space at 614 South 11th Street. The principals were already friends and colleagues who shared a similar forward-thinking, dream-big mindset. All parties concerned viewed it as a good fit aesthetically, philosophically and financially.
Teaming up, as Scott Kurz noted, only made sense. “It’s a win-win. Everybody comes out ahead,” he said. “I think it’s not just smart in a business sense but as an opportunity to present the entire gamut of theater in one place and to see both companies flourish in a way that supports the people who are creating the art.”
This marriage between two of Omaha’s most respected theaters got a dry run during a combined production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Playhouse this past spring. BSB’s Scott Kurz and Amy Kunz starred and the Blue Barn’s Clement-Toberer directed.
With the 2008-09 theater season kicking off this month, the two organizations will soon find out how their partnership is received in a space that, until now, has been associated with the Blue Barn. In recognition of the bookend theaters operating out of the same location the shared collaborative site is now called The Downtown Space, lending it a fresh, neutral name in what is a new beginning for each organization. A new sign out front announces the change.
With the two companies under the same roof, using the same stage, will this union dilute the audience base for one or both or will it rejuvenate things and grow audiences? No one knows.
Such questions are important in light of a long term goal the two theaters have of founding a combined professional repertory company in a new space. It was a goal each theater was independently desiring already. Now that they’re partners it’s only natural they pursue this vision together.
“The vision came out of a place of stagnation,” Clement-Toberer said. “We were no longer willing to produce theater in the treadmill way.”
BSB artistic director Cathy Kurz said, “We’re wanting to establish a repertory company where actors and other artists are paid an honorable wage.”
It’s rare, BSB executive director Scott Kurz said, that theater artists can make a living in Omaha practicing their art. “And that’s what we’ve both been working towards as companies since the very beginning. It’s the reason we started doing it because it’s our career, it’s not just a hobby.”
Despite the theaters being in the same physical space it doesn’t mean they’ve merged. The artists describe their union as “a partnership,” which has to do with cooperation and sharing resources. The theaters are not morphing into some hybrid that negates or obscures their signature brands. They remain artistically and administratively autonomous but in a mutually supportive environment.
Each theater is keeping its own identity, maintaining its own budget and retaining its own board and membership base while alternating shows in their respective schedules and collaborating on select other shows.
They have their own separate contacts for both individual show tickets and season subscriptions. They have their own distinct web sites.
The theaters share administrative, storage, technical space and pool some resources to effect cost savings. To accommodate BSB’s office-costuming needs some physical changes have been made to the site’s back stage area.
Along the way, it’s meant “figuring out the new rhythms” of two theaters working side by side.
Clement-Toberer said the new model brought about by the relationship offers a best of both worlds scenario. “We stay separate entities creating theater under the same roof and creating a vision to grow towards a true repertory company.”
For Scott Kurz, it’s all about freedom and possibility. Each theater, he said, retains “the flexibility to do the things we do best. The cool thing about where we are right now is the future is ours. It’s a blank piece of paper and we can incorporate any way we see fit. The benefits to the community we provide in terms of art and theater are only enhanced by our independence. That independence will be used as a selling point because you’re getting two for the price of one.”
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Cathy Kurz said.
Combining the seasons of two companies has meant some adjustments — the end result being more theater opportunities for audiences. The BSB is now running each of its productions four weekends instead of three and adding Thursday shows to its usual Friday-Saturday-Sunday mix.
Programmatically, the theaters’ alternating productions offer a diverse lineup of old and new classics.
BSB presents: Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams, Sept. 4-27; The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, Feb. 5-28; and The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, April 23-May 30. The Blue Barn presents: The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee, Oct. 16-Nov. 8; Wit by Margaret Edson, Mar. 19-April 11; and Reefer Madness: The Musical, book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, June 18-July 11.
A collaborative holiday production by the two theaters presents Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple Nov. 28-Dec. 20. The schedules do reflect a broad sampling of theater.
Clement-Toberer said the partnership is already paying dividends in the overwhelming response being felt from the theaters’ patrons. “It’s a very smart business deal,” said Clement-Toberer, who reports “increased” individual and corporate support. The theaters are exploring joint venture grants.
For the first time in either theater’s history, endowments are being started to provide the kind of long term security they’ve never known before.
As Clement-Toberer said, ticket sales alone “do not keep your doors open. In order to grow and to be able to continue to produce theater you have to have donors.”
People are jumping on the bandwagon, the artists say, because they see two established theater companies taking steps to assure their sustainability.
“If one thing has staved both theater companies to the longevity we’ve had it’s been the reputation for the work we do,” Scott Kurz said. “I think we’re finding more doors are open to us because we’re together. The idea of an artistic venue being smart and responsible enough to pool their resources and move forward is a good indicator to corporations and larger foundations that we’re serious about what we say.”
“There are so many true philanthropists that are behind both theaters and they’ve very excited,” said Cathy Kurz, adding that each company brings “credibility” to the table.
It’s a fact of life that small theaters struggle. But none of these artists was willing to settle anymore for what Clement-Toberer described as a “hand-to-mouth” scramble to just get by. Being on that treadmill was exhausting.
“Money never leaves your mind. It’s like a vacuum and it’s sucking out your creativity,” Cathy Kurz said. “So then the thing that is your vocation becomes less fulfilling.”
“The vision had to change to get us out of that rut and that’s what happened,” Clement-Toberer said. “The vision became broader and more direct into what we wanted to do and become.”
Money is being raised. A new space is being sought. Chances are it will be an existing site that’s renovated for reuse. Whatever happens though, the two theaters will continue moving ahead together towards their vision.
‘Experience has shown that it’s always about moving forward,” Scott Kurz said.
“There’s a unique energy that’s coming together. It’s a renewal. It’s like a rebirth,” Cathy Kurz said. “We’re actively looking at our own future,” Scott Kurz added, and that future, Clement-Toberer said, “is bright.”
“We’re going to produce great theater here this season — both companies — and I think possibly some shows better than we’ve done before because we’ll be collaborating,” Clement-Toberer said. “We are going to grow into the premier regional professional company in the Midwest. I see that happening.”
- Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lara Marsh’s Breath of Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- You: Critic’s Notebook: The joys and challenges of the L.A. small-theater scene (latimes.com)
- Shakespeare Theatre Company Sues to Stay in Building (legaltimes.typepad.com)
From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Alexander the Great’s Wrestling Dynasty, Champion Wrestler and Coach Curlee Alexander on Winning
I first met up with Curlee Alexander for the following story, which appeared about eight years ago as part of my series on Omaha Black Sports Legends titled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. Alexander was a top-flight collegiate wrestler for his hometown University of Nebraska at Omaha but he really made his mark as a high school coach, leading his teams to state championships at two different schools – his alma mater Technical (Tech) High School and North High School. He is inducted in multiple athletic hall of fames. Then, about three years ago I caught up with him again in working on a profile of his younger cousin Houston Alexander, a mixed martial arts fighter Curlee trains. You can find on this blog most every installment from the Out to Win series as well as that profile I did on Houston Alexander. More recently yet Curlee came to mind when I did a piece on the 1970 NAIA championship UNO wrestling team he helped coach as a graduate assistant and that he helped lay the foundation for as a wrestler under coach Don Benning. You’ll find that story and a profile of Benning, who is one of Alexander’s chief mentors, on this blog. The UNO wrestling program made a great impact on the sport locally, regionally, and nationally but sadly the program was eliminated a year and a half ago and now the legacy built by Alexander, Benning, and later Mike Denney and Co. can only found in record books and memories and news files. My story about the end of the program is also featured on this blog.
From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Alexander the Great’s Wrestling Dynasty, Champion Wrestler and Coach Curlee Alexander on Winning
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Short in stature and sleek of build, Curlee Alexander still manages casting a huge shadow in Nebraska wrestling circles even though the largely retired educator is now a co-head coach. Seven times as head coach he led his prep teams to state championships, six at Omaha North and one at Omaha Tech. Twice, his North squads were state runners-up. Four more times his Vikings finished third. Dozens of his athletes won individual state titles, including three by his son Curlee Alexander Jr., and many had successful college careers on and off the mat.
In the wrestling room, Alexander’s word is law because his athletes know this former collegiate national champion wrestler once made the same sacrifice he asked of them. Following an undistinguished high school wrestling career at Omaha Tech, his persistence in the sport paid off when he blossomed into a four-time All-American for then-Omaha University. UNO wrestling’s rise to prominence under coach Don Benning was rewarded when the team won the 1970 NAIA team title and Alexander took the 115-pound individual title in the process.
Like most ex-wrestlers, Alexander’s keeps in tip-top shape and, even pushing 60, he still demonstrates some of his coaching points on the mat with his own wrestlers — going body to body with guys less than a third his age and often outweighing him. In the old days, he pushed guys to the limit and, in wrestling vernacular, “beat up on ‘em,” to see how they responded. It was all about testing their toughness and their heart. It’s the way he came up.
Proving himself has been the theme of Alexander’s life. He grew up in a north Omaha neighborhood, near the old Hilltop Projects, filled with fine athletes. Being a pint-sized after-thought who “was always trying to catch up” to the other guys in the hood, he searched for a sport he could shine in. “I was small and weak and slow. I had to start from scratch to develop my athletic skills,” he said. “Wrestling was about the only thing I could do and I was really not very good.” To begin with.
He learned the sport from Tech coach Milt Hearn. In classic apprentice fashion, he started at the bottom and worked his way up. “When he got me started wrestling, I was used as a doormat,” Alexander said. “All I was required to do was save the team points by not getting pinned. If I could do that, than I did my job. As a junior, I got beat out by two freshmen. I was always fighting an uphill battle. I could never let up. I could never be comfortable. I knew I had to work hard. I knew I had to work harder than most of ‘em just to be successful.” Despite this less than promising debut, Alexander said he “kept getting after it. I started buying a lot of weight training-body building books and started weight lifting. By the time I got to be a senior I didn’t wrestle anybody that was any stronger than me. I finished second in every tournament I entered my senior year. I never won a championship in high school. The first championship I won was when I reached college.”
Sparking his evolution from designated mop-up guy to legitimate contender was the motivation others gave him. “I had a lot of good role models, one of which was my father. He always preached athletics to us.” Where his father encouraged him, his brother dis’d him. “My brother was a much better athlete than I was, so I was always trying to do things, more or less, to impress him. I’d come home after losing and my brother would make comments like, ‘I knew you weren’t going to win,’ and so I picked up the I’m-going-to-show-you attitude. I was never the athlete he was, but I accomplished a lot more in the athletic arena than he ever dreamed of.”
Then there were the studs he grew up with in the hood, guys like Ron Boone, Dick Davis, Joe Orduna and Phil Wise, all of whom went onto college and pro sports careers. If that wasn’t motivation enough to hurry up and make his own mark, there were the reminders he got from friend and Omaha U. classmate Marlin Briscoe, who was making a name for himself in small college football. “I tried out for the wrestling team and there was a returning wrestler who beat me out. I saw Marlin at the student center and he asked, ‘How’d you do?’ I told him I got beat by this guy and he said, ‘Man, that guy’s no good…he got beat all the time last year.’” And that guy never beat me again. All I needed to hear were little things like that.”
Fast forward a few years later to Alexander’s national semi-final match in Superior, Wis. His opponent had him in a good lock and was preparing to turn him when Alexander recalled something former Tech High teammate, Ralph Crawford, told him about the winning edge. “He told me, with emphasis, ‘Give him nothing,’ and because of that little inspiration I knew I had a little extra to do, and it made a difference in my winning that match and going on to be a national champion.”
There was also the example set by his UNO teammates, Roy and Mel Washington, a pair of brothers who won five individual national titles (three by Roy and two by Mel) between them. “Probably the one I learned the most from, as far as determination, was the late Roy Washington,” who later changed his name to Dahfir Muhammad. He was just a great leader. Phenomenal. I watched him. Everything he did I tried to do and it made all the difference in the world. He knew how to work. He knew what it took. He just refused to get beat. He was real mentally tough,” Alexander said. “If you’re weak-minded, you can forget it.”
Finally, there’s Don Benning, whom Alexander credits for giving him the opportunity and direction to make something of himself. “He’s the reason I have a college degree and was able to go on and teach and coach for 30-odd years. He gave me a chance where I had no other chance,” he said. “He made you believe you could achieve. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve nearly as much success if I hadn’t been under his tutelage. As far as coaching, I basically followed his philosophy. Hard work. Refuse to lose. Being the best on your feet. I built on that foundation.”
Surrounded by superb tacticians, Alexander drew on this rich vein of knowledge, as well as his own from-the-bottom-to-the-top experience as a wrestler, to inform his coaching. “I took a little bit from everybody and applied it. In dealing with kids I tell them I know what it’s like to be weak and not have any athletic ability, and yet go to the top. I teach kids what they need to do in order to improve, to stay dedicated, to be successful and to be champions. What I strive to do as a coach is lead by example. I work out with them to show I’m not afraid to work.”
Much like Benning, whom he coached under as a graduate assistant, Alexander doesn’t try fitting athletes into a box. He lets them develop their own style. “If I’ve got a kid who’s got some decent ability I don’t tell him he’s got to wrestle this way or that way. We try to get what he’s got and improve on it and try to impress upon him to keep working until he understands what it takes to be a champion.”
A young Curlee Alexander in his UNO wrestling singlet, ©UNO Criss Library
Champions. He’s coached numerous team and individual titlists. As satisfying as the team wins are, he said, they “don’t compare to the individual ones. The kids put so much effort into it.” He said a coach must be a master motivator to figure out what makes each individual tick. “All the time, I’m looking for angles to get into a kid’s head to get him to believe,” he said. “What separates a lot of coaches is getting those kids to believe your philosophy is correct. It boils down to being able to communicate and to have kids want to succeed for you and themselves.”
He makes clear he expects nothing less than champions. “I’ve got a lot of guys that have placed at state, but if they didn’t win a state championship, their picture does not go up on the wall in my office. That might be kind of harsh, but it’s reality. That’s what we’re trying to get our kids to strive for and win. Championships are what it’s all about.” He said his favorite moments come from kids who aren’t talented, yet get it done anyway and claim a championship that lasts a lifetime. North High heavyweight Brandon Johnson is an example. “He wasn’t really a good athlete. Overweight. He had to cut down to 275. But he was a hard worker and he had a big heart,” Alexander said. “And, boy, when he won state in 2001, I had tears in my eyes for the first time. I didn’t even cry when my son won, because it was understood he was going to win. But with this guy, it really wasn’t expected. It was just a culmination of all the hard work he gave.”
The hardest part of coaching is seeing “kids do all that hard work and then, when they get right there to the doorstep” of a championship, “they don’t win it.”
The heralded prep coach began as an assistant at Tech, whose wrestling program he took over in the mid’70s. He remained at Tech until it closed in 1984, when he went to North, where he’s remained until retiring from teaching full-time in 2002. The next year he stepped down as head coach to serve as associate head coach and lately he’s added Dean of Students to his duties. As co-head coach, he’s freed himself from all the red-tape to just work with the wrestlers. When his mentor, Don Benning, recently expressed surprise at how much passion Alexander still has for the sport, the former student replied, “I still enjoy it. I enjoy the strategy. I enjoy the competition. I enjoy working with the kids. They keep you young.” He said matching Xs and Os with coaches during a match never gets old. “I really think I’m very good at it and, boy, when I’m successful at it, it’s exhilarating.”
Alexander’s been a pioneer in much the same way Don Benning was at UNO in the ‘60s and Charles Bryant was at Abraham Lincoln High School (Council Bluffs) in the ‘70s. Each man became the first black head coach at their predominantly white schools, where they established wrestling dynasties. In more than 75 years of competition, Alexander is the only black head coach in Nebraska to lead his team to a state wrestling title (and he’s done it at two different schools). Along the way, he built a dynasty at North, which in all the years previous to his arrival had won but a single state wrestling championship. He had six as head coach. Through it all, he’s defied expectations and overturned stereotypes by doing it his way.
- Closing Installment from My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, An Exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Can Houston Alexander Break Gilbert Yvel? (mmaggregate.wordpress.com)
Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
Never is anyone simply what they appear to be on the surface. Deep rivers run on the inisde of even the most seemingly easy to peg personalties and lives. Many of those well guarded currents cannot be seen unless we take the time to get to know someone and they reveal what’s on the inside. But seeing the complexity of what is there requires that we also put aside our blinders of assumptions and perceptions. That’s when we learn that no one is ever one thing or another. Take the late Charles Bryant. He was indeed as tough as his outward appearance and exploits as a one-time football and wrestling competitor suggested. But as I found he was also a man who carried around with him great wounds, a depth of feelings, and an artist’s sensitivity that by the time I met him, when he was old and only a few years from passing, he openly expressed.
My profile of Bryant was originally written for the New Horizons and then when I was commissioned to write a series on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, I incorporated this piece into that collection. You can read several more of my stories from that series on this blog, including profiles of Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers.
Charles Bryant at UNL
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons and The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“I am a Lonely Man, without Love…Love seems like a Fire many miles away. I can see the smoke and imagine the Heat. I travel to the Fire and when I arrive the Fire is out and all is Grey ashes…
–– “Lonely Man” by Charles Bryant, from his I’ve Been Along book of poems
Life for Charles Bryant once revolved around athletics. The Omaha native dominated on the gridiron and mat for Omaha South High and the University of Nebraska before entering education and carving out a top prep coaching career. Now a robust 70, the still formidable Bryant has lately reinvented himself as an artist, painting and sculpting with the same passion that once stoked his competitive fire.
Bryant has long been a restless sort searching for a means of self-expression. As a young man he was always doing something with his hands, whether shining shoes or lugging ice or drawing things or crafting woodwork or swinging a bat or throwing a ball. A self-described loner then, his growing up poor and black in white south Omaha only made him feel more apart. Too often, he said, people made him feel unwelcome.
“They considered themselves better than I. The pain and resentment are still there.” Too often his own ornery nature estranged him from others. “I didn’t fit in anywhere. Nobody wanted to be around me because I was so volatile, so disruptive, so feisty. I was independent. Headstrong. I never followed convention. If I would have known that then, I would have been an artist all along,” he said from the north Omaha home he shares with his wife of nearly hald-a-century, Mollie.
Athletics provided a release for all the turbulence inside him and other poor kids. “I think athletics was a relief from the pressures we felt,” he said. He made the south side’s playing fields and gymnasiums his personal proving ground and emotional outlet. His ferocious play at guard and linebacker demanded respect.
“I was tenacious. I was mean. Tough as nails. Pain was nothing. If you hit me I was going to hit you back. When you played across from me you had to play the whole game. It was like war to me every day I went out there. I was just a fierce competitor. I guess it came from the fact that I felt on a football field I was finally equal. You couldn’t hide from me out there.”
Even as a youth he was always a little faster, a little tougher, a little stronger than his schoolmates. He played whatever sport was in season. While only a teen he organized and coached young neighborhood kids. Even then he was made a prisoner of color when, at 14, he was barred from coaching in York, Neb., where the all-white midget-level baseball team he’d led to the playoffs was competing.
Still, he did not let obstacles like racism stand in his way. “Whatever it took for me to do something, I did it. I hung in there. I have never quit anything in my life. I have a force behind me.”
Bryant’s drive to succeed helped him excel in football and wrestling. He also competed in prep baseball and track. Once he came under the tutelage of South High coach Conrad “Corney” Collin, he set his sights on playing for NU. He had followed the stellar career of past South High football star Tom Novak – “The toughest guy I’ve seen on a football field.” — already a Husker legend by the time Bryant came along. But after earning 1950 all-state football honors his senior year, Bryant was disappointed to find no colleges recruiting him. In that pre-Civil Rights era athletic programs at NU, like those at many other schools, were not integrated. Scholarships were reserved for whites. Other than Tom Carodine of Boys Town, who arrived shortly before Bryant but was later kicked off the team, Bryant was the first African-American ballplayer there since 1913.
No matter, Bryant walked-on at the urging of Collin, a dandy of a disciplinarian whom Bryant said “played an important role in my life.” It happened this way: Upon graduating from South two of Bryant’s white teammates were offered scholarships, but not him; then Bryant followed his coach’s advice to “go with those guys down to Lincoln.’” Bryant did. It took guts. Here was a lone black kid walking up to crusty head coach Bill Glassford and his all-white squad and telling them he was going to play, like it or not. He vowed to return and earn his spot on the team. He kept the promise, too.
“I went back home and made enough money to pay my own way. I knew the reason they didn’t want me to play was because I was black, but that didn’t bother me because Corney Collin sent me there to play football and there was nothing in the world that was going to stop me.”
Collin had stood by him before, like the time when the Packers baseball team arrived by bus for a game in Hastings and the locals informed the big city visitors that Bryant, the lone black on the team, was barred from playing. “Coach said, ‘If he can’t play, we won’t be here,’ and we all got on the bus and left. He didn’t say a word to me, but he put himself on the line for me.”
Bryant had few other allies in his corner. But those there were he fondly recalls as “my heroes.” In general though blacks were discouraged, ignored, condescended. They were expected to fail or settle for less. For example, when Bryant told people of his plans to play ball at NU, he was met with cold incredulity or doubt.
“One guy I graduated with said, ‘I’ll see you in six weeks when you flunk out.’ A black guy I knew said, ‘Why don’t you stay here and work in the packing houses?’ All that just made me want to prove myself more to them, and to me. I was really focused. My attitude was, ‘I’m going to make it, so the hell with you.’”
Bryant brought this hard-shell attitude with him to Lincoln and used it as a shield to weather the rough spots, like the death of his mother when he was a senior, and as a buffer against the prejudice he encountered there, like the racial slurs slung his way or the times he had to stay apart from the team on road trips.
As one of only a few blacks on campus, every day posed a challenge. He felt “constantly tested.” On the field he could at least let off steam and “bang somebody” who got out of line. There was another facet to him though. One he rarely shared with anyone but those closest to him. It was a creative, perceptive side that saw him write poetry (he placed in a university poetry contest), “make beautiful, intricate designs in wood” and “earn As in anthropolgy.”
Bryant’s days at NU got a little easier when two black teammates joined him his sophomore year (when he was finally granted the scholarship he’d been denied.). Still, he only made it with the help of his faith and the support of friends, among them teammate Max Kitzelman (“Max saved me. He made sure nobody bothered me.”) professor of anthropology Dr. John Champe (“He took care of me for four years.”) former NU trainers Paul Schneider and George Sullivan (who once sewed 22 stitches in a split lip Bryant suffered when hit in the chops against Minnesota), and sports information director emeritus Don Bryant.
“I always had an angel there to take care of me. I guess they realized the stranger in me.”
Charles Bryant’s perseverance paid off when, as a senior, he was named All-Big Seven and honorable mention All-American in football and all-league in wrestling (He was inducted in the NU Football Hall of Fame in 1987.). He also became the first Bryant (the family is sixth generation Nebraskan) to graduate from college when he earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1955.
He gave pro football a try with the Green Bay Packers, lasting until the final cut (Years later he gave the game a last hurrah as a lineman with the semi-pro Omaha Mustangs). Back home, he applied for teaching-coaching positions with OPS but was stonewalled. To support he and Mollie — they met at the storied Dreamland Ballroom on North 24th Street and married three months later — he took a job at Brandeis Department Store, becoming its first black male salesperson.
After working as a sub with the Council Bluffs Public Schools he was hired full-time in 1961, spending the bulk of his Iowa career at Thomas Jefferson High School. At T.J. he built a powerhouse wrestling program, with his teams regularly whipping Metro Conference squads.
In the 1970s OPS finally hired him, first as assistant principal at Benson High, then as assistant principal and athletic director at Bryan, and later as a student personnel assistant (“one of the best jobs I’ve ever had”) in the TAC Building. Someone who has long known and admired Bryant is University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling Head Coach Mike Denney, who coached for and against him at Bryan.
Said Denney, “He’s from the old school. A tough, hard-nosed straight shooter. He also has a very sensitive, caring side. I’ve always respected how he’s developed all aspects of himself. Writing. Reading widely. Making art. Going from coaching and teaching into administration. He’s a man of real class and dignity.”
Bryant found a new mode of expression as a stern but loving father — he and Mollie raised five children — and as a no-nonsense coach and educator. Although officially retired, he still works as an OPS substitute teacher. What excites him about working with youth?
“The ability to, one-on-one, aid and assist a kid in charting his or her own course of action. To give him or her the path to what it takes to be a good man or woman. My great hope is I can make a change in the life of every kid I touch. I try to give kids hope and let them see the greatness in them. It fascinates me what you can to do mold kids. It’s like working in clay.”
Since taking up art 10 years ago, he has found the newest, perhaps the strongest medium for his voice. He works in a variety of media, often rendering compelling faces in bold strokes and vibrant colors, but it is sculpture that has most captured his imagination.
“When I’m working in clay I can feel the blessings of Jesus Christ in my hands. I can sit down in my basement and just get lost in the work.”
Recently, he sold his bronze bust of a buffalo soldier for $5,000. Local artist Les Bruning, whose foundry fired the piece, said of his work, “He has a good eye and a good hand. He has a mature style and a real feel for geometric preciseness in his work. I think he’s doing a great job. I’d like to see more from him.”
Bryant has brought his talent and enthusiasm for art to his work with youths. A few summers ago he assisted a group of kids painting murals at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He directs a weekly art class at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, where he worships and teaches Sunday School.
Much of Bryant’s art, including a book of poems he published in the ‘70s, deals with the black experience. He explores the pain and pride of his people, he said, because “black people need black identification. This kind of art is really a foundation for our ego. Every time we go out in the world we have to prove ourselves. Nobody knows what we’ve been through. Few know the contributions we’ve made. I guess I’m trying to make sure our legacy endures. Every time I give one of my pieces of art to kids I work with their eyes just light up.”
These days Bryant is devoting most of his time to his ailing wife, Mollie, the only person who’s really ever understood him. He can’t stand the thought of losing her and being alone again.
“But I shall not give in to loneliness. One day I shall reach my True Love and My fire shall burn with the Feeling of Love.”
–– from his poem “Lonely Man”
- A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Green Bay Packers All-Pro Running Back Ahman Green Channels Comic Book Hero Batman and Gridiron Icons Walter Payton and Bo Jackson on the Field (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
This blog recently featured my story “Requiem for a Dynasty” about the UNO wrestling program being eliminated. The story allowed longtime head coach Mike Denney to reflect on the proud legacy of brilliant achievement he helped build. That legacy ended ignominously, not because of anything he or his athletes or coaches did, but because of decisions made by University of Nebraska at Omaha officials and University of Nebraska regents to unilaterally cut a program that did everything right in pursuit of higher revenue Division I athletics. The action sent a disturbing message to anyone in the university system: namely, that dollars trump integrity and standards. The following three-part series on UNO wrestling was originally published in 1999 by The Reader (www.thereader.com), when I followed the program for an entire season. This experience put me in close proximiity to Denney, his coaches, and his athletes, thus giving me an inside perspective on how he conducts himself and his program, and I walked away from the experience with great admiration for the man and his methods, as virtually everyone does when they get to know him. Now as he starts a new chapter in his athletic coaching life at Maryville University in St. Louis, where he is leading a start-up program with a band of brothers he’s brought with him from UNO, I know that he will have the same impact there he had here.
A Three-Part UNO Wrestling Retrospective-
Part I: Way of the Warrior
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Near dusk on a Saturday in southwest Minnesota, ten samurai-like warriors lick their wounds after valiantly waging battle an hour before. Officially, they comprise the starting lineup for NCAA Division II’s No. 2-ranked University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team. But, in truth, they ply the ancient grappling arts in service of a master-teacher, Coach Mike Denney, whose honor they must uphold in extreme tests of skill, will, endurance.
Move over Magnificent Seven. Make room for The Terrific Ten.
Only they’re not feeling so terrific after losing a dual 23-16 to St. Cloud State, a North Central Conference rival UNO usually pummels. Having lost face in this Jan. 16 rumble up north, the Mavericks are bowed and beaten warriors whose dreams of a national championship lay temporarily dashed. Huddled in the close confines of the 28-foot Ford Chateau motor home the team travels in, the men sit in cold stony silence, awaiting their master’s arrival, and with it, hoped for redemption.
Losing hurts enough, but how they lost really grates. The St. Cloud debacle comes 18 hours after UNO defeats Augustana 25-11 in Sioux Falls, S.D. in what is a solid if unspectacular showing for a season-opening dual. Versus St. Cloud the Mavs build a 16-11 lead entering the next to last match, in which UNO’s stalwart 125-pounder Mack LaRock, a returning All-American, holds a 12-4 edge near the very end. But then, all at once, LaRock loses control, gets himself turned on his back, his shoulders driven into the mat and pinned with four seconds left, sending the crowd in cavernous old Halenbeck Hall into a frenzy and putting SCSU up 17-16 with one match to go.
Shellshocked, LaRock lingers on the mat, alone on an island of pain. Wrestling leaves no time for wallowing in defeat, however. Even when humiliated like this you must pick yourself up and shake hands with your victorious opponent, whose arm the referee raises overhead, not yours. As you skulk off in defeat, the next match begins.
Unfortunately, the Mavs’ entry in this Last Man Standing contest is 133-pounder T.J. Brummels, a weak link who quickly folds under the pressure and is pinned too, capping a stunning series of events that leaves Coach Denney staring out at the mat long after the final whistle.
A half-hour later the still brooding Denney tries absorbing what transpired and how to use it as a lesson for his team. He tells a visitor, “Wow. I don’t think I ever had one turn that quickly. I really don’t. We were in complete control. Mack’s just killing his guy…on his way to a major decision that would put it out of reach. Then it kind of just happened. It was like a knockout punch. I think I’ll tell my guys that back in 1991, the year we won the national championship, Augustana beat us with a team that wasn’t as good as this one. But from that point on our team said, ‘We’re not going to be denied.’ We’ll see what this team does.”
Later, in the motor home, LaRock, propped atop a cooler, head buried in his hands, sobs in front of his teammates, saying, “I’m sorry I let you guys down.” Albert Harrold (174) tenderly rubs his back, telling him, “Hey, when you lose, we all lose with you. We’ve all been there.” Others comfort him too.
As time drags on and the sting of losing burns deeper, the guys grow anxious over what Coach will say when he appears. Not because he’ll go off on some expletive-filled tirade. That’s not his nature. No, because they love him and feel they’ve let him down.
R.J. Nebe, former UNO wrestling great and assistant under Denney and now co-head wrestling coach at Skutt High School, says, “He’s a great motivational coach. The eternal optimist. He’s always upbeat, always supportive, no matter what happens. As much as you want to win for yourself, you want to go out and win for him. Anybody you talk to will say he’s kind of like a father figure. I know that’s a cliche but he truly is an amazing individual and you really do want to make him proud of you.”
Senior Mav Jerry Corner, the nation’s No. 1-rated heavyweight, says he appreciates the strong brotherhood Denney engenders. “Coach Denney impresses upon us to care about the guys we wrestle with. We’re not afraid to say, ‘I love you,’ and openly show some emotion when things don’t go right or when they do go right. That says a lot about the character and nature of the team. Coach Denney is the most positive coach I’ve ever been in contact with. He’s a coach, and then he’s a friend.”
For Denney, in his 20th season at the UNO helm, the role of friend and mentor is not one he feels obligated playing. It is genuinely how he sees himself in relation to these young men. He and his wife Bonnie are parents to three grown children — sons Rocky and Luke and daughter Michealene — and surrogate parents to 30 wrestlers. Serving youths is his fervent calling.
“I have a passion to work with young men and to help them along their journey. To guide them. To get them to get the best out of themselves. To gently nudge them and maybe not so gently sometimes. What I can bring to them is only experience and encouragement. They don’t have to listen to me. Some don’t. They learn the hard way. I don’t have great wisdom to share, but I do have great desire and I do care about them. It’s all teaching,” says Denney, who holds a master’s degree in education from UNO.
His desire to be a positive force in young people’s lives is partly a response to not having had a stable male role model while growing up on his family’s 160-acre farm in the shadows of the Sand Hills near Clearwater, Neb. His late father, Duke, was an alcoholic who abandoned Denney and his younger brother Dave and was abusive to their mother Grace. Filling the void were several key men in his life, among them his high school and college coaches. “They were all great role models. They had a big influence on me. They saw some good in me and kept encouraging me,” he notes.
He tries being this same nurturing figure to the athletes he coaches by creating “a family away from home” for them, especially those from single-parent backgrounds like his own. The “We Are Family” theme is one he and his wrestlers often reference. This sense of sharing a special bond is something he’s borrowed from his old high school coach, Roger Barry.
When Denney finally does climb aboard the motor home in St. Cloud, his big solid body filling the door frame, he speaks with the quiet authority and gentle compassion of a father consoling and fortifying his hurt sons.
“We didn’t give Coach Higdon a very good birthday present did we?” he says sardonically, referring to top assistant Ron Higdon, who stews behind the steering wheel, having turned 32 but feeling 72 . “What happened today I’ve seen happen to us before.” He goes on to tell about the ‘91 team rebounding from an unexpected loss. “And as we look back at that year, it was the best thing that could have happened. If it hadn’t happened, we probably wouldn’t have taken it up to another level.”
His dejected young charges listen carefully, fighting back tears.
Weeks earlier Denney confided he thrives on moments like these: “I honestly think I do the most good when they are at their lowest, most vulnerable. It’s when I can really make a difference with my guys. I actually like to see it happen because I think it’s then you can do so much building and can make a lasting impression. I try to be real sensitive to that.”
Back on the motor home Denney places a hand on LaRock’s shoulder, saying, “Nobody feels worse than this guy. Raise your hand if you’ve been there before.” The rest raise their hands in a show of solidarity. “It wasn’t like we performed terribly, but it’s going to take each one of us to get a level higher in conditioning. I see that. We have to do it. We’re going to do it. It can be just what is necessary for us to take the next step.”
Denney speaks in a deep voice whose easy cadence is soothing, almost mesmerizing. Then, like the taskmaster he must sometimes be, he promises he’ll push them in practice into the region he calls “Thin Air,” where they will train beyond exhaustion, beyond self-imposed limits, to reach the next highest rung. They will gladly endure it too.
“Be prepared men. We’re going to get after it. I’m going to take you until I see some of you over the trash can. I’m not doing it to be an a-hole. I’m just trying to take you to another level. I gotta do it. I just gotta do it. We have to push. We’ve got to get to Thin Air, when you don’t think you can make another step, but you can. And you will. So that when you get in the 3rd period or that overtime you’ve got something left.”
With his guys still smarting, he ends on a motivational note.
“You’re only one performance away from feeling good. We can’t really spend a lot of time feeling sorry for ourselves. Now let’s pull together and feel thankful. There were no injuries. This wasn’t the end. We’re not sitting here feeling like this after the national tournament. Be thankful for that. Be thankful there’s two months left. Be assured, all is well.”
Then, en masse, they kneel in prayer, holding hands. After being braced by their coach’s words and sated by a meal the sullen team loosens up on the drive back home, playing rounds of Spades, laughing, joking, being care-free kids again. They’re young, resilient. Yes, all will be well.
True to his word, Denney takes his team into Thin Air at practice the following week and, as predicted, a couple guys hurl from sheer burn-out. “It was one of the hardest practices I’ve ever had,” he says. “They were hurtin’, but they just wouldn’t let themselves break. Nobody hit the trash can until it was all done. They want to do well and know they can prevent what happened up there by being in better physical condition than anyone they go against. It gives each of them confidence that if it gets down to sudden victory, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve been in Thin Air.’ It can only help.”
The benefits of all that work show up in the Mavs next competition, Jan. 22-23, at the National Showdown Duals in Edmond, Okla., where UNO squares-off with four elite teams, finishing 3-1, advancing to and losing in the championship round to top-ranked Pitt-Johnstown 21-16. Bolstering the attack is junior Boyce Voorhees, a returning All-American, who goes 4-0 at 149 pounds in his first action since an early season injury. Voorhees is an intense wrestler capable of lifting an entire team with his dynamic style. The Mavs gain confidence coming so close to the No. 1 club without senior stud Braumon Creighton, the nation’s top-rated 141-pounder and a returning national champ, who injures a knee and forces UNO to forfeit his match.
Following another Thin Air day, the Mavs maintain their momentum Jan. 29 with a 21-18 win over No. 5 Central Oklahoma that is not as close as the score indicates since LaRock, nursing torn rib cartilage, forfeits. He also misses the next evening’s dual against the University of Nebraska-Kearney, which UNO runs away with 30-10. But Creighton returns triumphantly and he and his mates exude confidence that comes with Thin Air days being a weekly fixture. It’s all about keeping an edge.
The Mavs, with seven of their starting ten rated nationally, are back. Their aim on a national title still true. Denney feels good: “In some real close matches we’ve stayed confident, stayed strong, stayed focused. I like that. We now seem to have the reserve at the end to be able to do what we need to do. This team is on a mission.”
When the Mavs butt-kicking ways end abruptly in a Feb. 19 home dual loss to long-time nemesis North Dakota State, Denney isn’t so sure anymore. “As a team we have to hit on more cylinders. We have to perform better. It’s in us…but, I don’t know, maybe our expectations are just too high.”
After the less-than-inspired showing versus NDSU Denney issues an uncharacteristic in-your-face challenge to his slackers. “I wanted to shock them a little bit. They don’t see that side of me, but I needed to challenege them, and they responded — they really stepped up.” The Mavs respond with a 24-17 win over Div. I Northern Iowa to end the dual season 10-3.
The days leading up to the NCC tourney include intense practices that leave Denney feeling secure once again: “Honestly, that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked a team — but they took it. I’m really confident we’ll perform better. On paper North Dakota State’s the favorite, but we have no fear.”
Steeled by grueling workouts and bolstered by LaRock’s return the Mavs outlast the Bison 78-77 and win the NCC. In the process they regain face and inch closer to wrestling nirvana.With nationals a week away Denney likes how his team refuses to let injuries, forfeits or losses become distractions. “Those things are going to happen but I’m pleased with how our guys aren’t worrying about it. Each guy is staying focused,” he says.
Focused best describes Denney during a match. He never sits. Instead he prowls the sidelines, intently watching his men in action. He raises his voice to offer instructions (“Finish strong,” “Break him down,” “Let it flow”). His expressive face says it all, ranging from a pinched death mask to an open Irish mug. He’s the first one to congratulate his guys after victory
and to offer solace after defeat. After a rough outing he takes a wrestler aside to whisper encouragement– to put things in perspective.
“I tell our guys when they lose to not get that tied in with their self-worth. It’s got nothing to do with it. It’s completely separate.”
After home duals he works the crowd like a seasoned politico, pressing the flesh with boosters, fans, alums and other members of his extended wrestling family. His charismatic side shines through then. When greeting you he makes you feel you are the only one in his orbit. It’s the way he sidles right up to you with a sloppy grin splayed on his face, the way his big warm paw grasps your arm, the way his kind eyes meet yours, the way his “Aw Shucks” manner strikes instant rapport. But like any driven man his extreme focus sometimes catches up with him, putting him in a black mood.
His magnetic presence dominates team practices, which unfold in a sleek retro-style room brimming with banners, posters, plaques charting the program’s storied history. The room reflects different facets of the man, serving for him as training center, tabernacle and sanctuary all in one. With almost ministerial zeal he demands, prods, preaches adherence to the sport’s strict regimen. Indeed, Denney, active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and in ecumenical outreach activities, regards the room as “the Lord’s House” and himself as its “watchman” (his church’s pastor blessed it). He even lays hands on his wrestlers with a healer’s touch.
In a space dedicated to mastering the rigors of the mind and body, he is a high priest in this Temple of Fitness. A Master in the Way of the Mat training young ascetics to develop the gift of serenity and the art of physical combat. He is, in fact, a longtime martial arts practitioner, owning high black belt ranks in judo and jujitsu, and incorporates aspects of these Eastern disciplines in the wrestling program, such as greeting visitors by bowing and saying, “Welcome to the dojo,” or his disciples adopting as their mantra, “Ooosss.”
His men are models of cool, calm, collected poise. They accept cutting weight, the bane and burden of all amateur wrestlers, with stoicism.
Finally, Denney is a sentinel keenly attuned to all around him. A most honorable sensei seeking to embolden and enlighten each of his warriors.
“I make it my goal every day at practice to touch every one of my guys physically, with a pat on the shoulder, and to do the same with a positive statement. I like to circulate through the whole group so I can sense when somebody needs a little extra help. I try to catch them doing something right and reinforce that. As a coach you have to focus on doing that because you can get caught up in the other side of it — the negative side. Very seldom to people react well to negativity. I never did,” says Denney, an ex-college and semi-pro athlete and a still accomplished sportsman today. “My philosophy is that so much of the stuff outside of this room is negative that I try to have a positive atmosphere and environment, and it starts with me.”
When he spots one of his guys is down he has him home for dinner or takes him to church. To build togetherness he holds retreats and gets feedback from a team unity council. To help his wrestlers keep a mental edge and handle the pressures of being student-athletes he has two sports psychologists work extensively with the team. To make them better ciitzens he has wrestlers make goodwill visits to hospitals, nursing homes and prisons and assist with youth wrestling clinics.
“I believe in the whole person approach to coaching,” he says.
His wife Bonnie, who is quite close to the program, says he has the tools necessary for this empathic approach: “I think he’s a great communicator and is very wise about what a person is all about. He can listen and read a person and see where they need to be directed. He can motivate them. And he cares. It’s not fake either. He really cares.”
But don’t confuse caring for softness. His practices are pictures of hard work. He’s always pushing for more. More effort, more desire, more, focus, more tenacity, more commitment. He demands nothing more than he does of himself. At 51 he still works out religiously every day, stretching, hitting the treadmill, pumping iron. He refines his judo and jujitsu skills by training with the U.S. National Team at the Olympic Training Center in Boulder, Col., and still mixes it up in martial arts competitions. In 1982 he won the national masters judo championship at 209 pounds. He teaches judo at UNO and self-defense for area law enforcement agencies.
During the season he regularly works 12 to 15-hour days. Hard work and long hours are old hat for Denney, who from the time he was a boy did most of the farming on his family’s spread, where they grew corn, alfalfa, rye and vetch and raised livestock.
“I worked the fields. I helped cattle and sheep deliver their calves. My brother and I milked cows every morning before we went to school. We broke horses. When I began driving a truck and tractor I had to sit on a crate to see over the steering wheel.”
Minus a TV, he and Dave made their own entertainment. “Looking back, I suppose it was a meager existence, but we never thought so.” He variously rode a horse or drove a tractor to the one-room schoolhouse he attended. The school doubled as the community church. His mother taught Sunday School there. He and Dave didn’t dare miss.
Denney concedes his mother, who still lives on the farm at 84, has been the greatest influence in his life. “My real hero is my mother. She’s a rock. She had it real tough raising us on her own and just scratching out a living, but we never wanted for anything. She’s a woman of strong faith and positive attitude. She’s an inspiration to me. She’s amazing.”
Bonnie feels her husband owes much of his iron will and true grit to Grace. “His mother’s a marvelous, strong individual. He got from her a strong character and work ethic that you can’t believe. Nobody will outwork him. He just covers every base. He puts his entire self into it.”
He admits it’s easy losing one’s bearings amid coaching’s endless demands. “In this profession you can get your priorities mixed up pretty easily. It can really consume you. There’s always somebody else you can recruit. Always something else you can do. You really have to work at keeping a balance in your life. My wife has really helped me a lot on that.”
His Never-Say-Die credo served him well during UNO Athletics’ lean times. In the late ‘80s state funding was cut, resulting in severely trimmed budgets, some men’s programs relegated to club status and pickle card sales begun as a last ditch revenue-making source. And until last year’s long overdue fieldhouse renovation Denney got by with second-rate facilities. The old wrestling room, charitably remembered as “a hole in the wall,” was so bad he steered recruits away from it.
“When UNO athletics went through that down period it had a negative effect on all the men’s sports, except wrestling. One of Mike’s supreme accomplishments was to keep right on winning championships. He had no facilities but the man never came to me with anything even resembling a complaint. The truly amazing thing was him getting quality athletes under those conditions. He’s a terrific salesman and has the insight to find the right young men who fit our program. Plus, he’s a great motivator,” says former UNO Athletic Director Don Leahy, now Assistant A.D. at the school.
Assistant Ron Higdon says the new facilities bring higher expectations and added “pressure” for Denney. “He doesn’t look at it like, ‘We’ve got it made, but more like, ‘We don’t have any excuses any more. Let’s not leave any rock unturned. We don’t want any regrets.’” He’s tightened the screws.
Bonnie Denney says her husband thrives on adversity. “He likes it tough. His whole life philosophy is: ‘Get out of the comfort zone in whatever you’re doing. That’s when you will grow.’” He simply says: “I like challenges.”
It’s the same resolve he showed farming and as a football-wrestling standout at both Neligh High School and Dakota Wesleyan, the NAIA college (in Mitchell, S.D.) he attended and whose Athletic Hall of Fame he’s inducted in. As a college lineman he played both ways, often never leaving the field. When the gridiron season ended he went right into wrestling. “One day off was enough. It was a year-round deal,” Denney recalls.
After graduating with a teaching degree his goal was making it in the National Football League. It was 1969. The Vietnam War was hot. The military draft in effect. His kid brother, then an Army grunt in ‘Nam, wrote home warning to “stay out of this mess.” Luckily, Denney got a deferral upon landing a contract with the Omaha Public Schools. When the NFL did not beckon he signed with the Omaha Mustangs, a semi-pro football club popular with area fans in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even after moving to Omaha with Bonnie, whom he married that summer, he kept alive his NFL hopes.
“I spent a number of years on that mission.”
Life in the ‘70s revolved around teaching (math) and coaching (wrestling, football, track) — first at South High and later at Bryan — and playing ball. He paid a steep personal price for the grueling schedule.
“I’d go early in the morning to lift weights, then teach all day, then coach and then practice with the Mustangs all night. I’d travel on the weekends. There were times when I never saw our first son awake. I really neglected my family. I don’t know why my wife stayed.”
Despite the costs, he would not be deterred from his dream. “Playing with the Mustangs filled the need I had to still compete and play. It was my NFL. I loved it.” He played seven years and concedes only the club’s folding prevented him from continuing. Judo then became his competitive outlet.
What is the appeal of athletic competition? “Unlike the corporate world, you have instant feedback with it. It tells you right away how you did. You can look at wins or losses. Or, like I do, you can base it on performance. The real opponent is yourself — trying to get the best out of yourself.”
He could have coached football in college but chose wrestling. Why?
“You look for vehicles to teach and build and what a great vehicle wrestling is because it’s so demanding. It takes so much discipline, dedication and commitment. You’re going to get beat right out in front of everybody. You can be humbled at any time and very quickly. It brings out the best and the worst in you. And you get so much closer to your athletes in wrestling.”
He finally did get his shot at the big-time via a free-agent try-out with the Chicago Bears in the mid-70s. He was among the final players cut.
“I worked so hard at it and spent so many years pursuing that mission, but in the end I was a marginal player. I faced that fact. And I realized the NFL was not the ultimate answer to my needs. The Lord had other plans for me…much better plans than I could ever have imagined.”
Those plans brought him to UNO in 1979 when Leahy, who saw his work ethic up close as a Mustangs coach, hired Denney, despite no prior college coaching experience, to lead an already respected program.
“Mr. Leahy took a chance on me,” he says, “and I’m forever thankful for that. It was a tremendous opportunity.”
Denney’s made the most of the opportunity by taking UNO wrestling to new heights, annually contending for the title. The year UNO won it all, ‘91, posed a severe trial for him and his family. First, a former Mav wrestler he was close to, Ryan Kaufman, died in a car accident. Denney calls him “our guardian angel.” Then Bonnie, who has multiple sclerosis, fell gravely ill, enduring a lengthy hospital stay. She fully recovered and is healthy today. She says the experience deepened the family’s bond and faith.
Also deepened is her husband’s outlook on athletics. “He used to have a terrible time dealing with losing,” she says. “But now the process has become as important as the result. He’s discovered the joy is in the journey.” Indeed, he preaches to his troops, “Respect the journey, but don’t sell your soul for it.” It’s why he emphasizes the values and lessons to be gained from competition over records and wins. It’s about helping young men “feel somebody cares about them. That there’s an investment in them. That they have some worth. Basically that’s what we’re all looking for,” he says.
It’s a message he delivers in public motivational talks. It’s why he calls his job “a privilege” and twice turned down the head coaching post at Division I Wyoming. Why he is at home with his wrestling family. “I honestly think I’ve been put here as the watchman. I’ve been assigned this. It’s meant to be.”
Championship banners hanging in the UNO wrestling room
Part II: House of Pain
Destiny seems on the side of the No. 2-ranked University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team entering the NCAA Divison II national championships Friday and Saturday in Omaha: UNO’s nine individual qualifiers match the most of any team; the school is hosting the finals in it own Sapp Fieldhouse on the UNO campus; and the tourney will coincide with Head Coach Mike Denney’s induction into the Div. II Wrestling Hall of Fame.
It is, as Denney’s fond of saying, a time “to shoot for the stars.” The source of UNO’s tempered-steel toughness is forged not in the stars, but in the inferno of practice and in the heat of battle. In a journey through pain.
A UNO practice resembles a “Guernica-like” scene with its entangled heaps of twisted, wreathing bodies and flushed, grimacing faces belonging to a sect of athletes who endure punishment as a badge of honor. Some lay sprawled on the mat, limbs clenched in a contortionist’s nightmare. Others crouch in a gruesome dance, pushing and pulling like territorial bulls.
More than any other sport, wrestling is a survival contest. Technique, fitness, power are all vital qualities but when these things are relatively equal, as they often are, it ultimately comes down to a test of wills. A confrontation to see who can withstand more, who can outlast the other.
Wrestling is a sport of resistance, using the body as a pinion and vice to gain leverage and control. It’s countering your opponent’s moves with ones of your own. It’s long stalemates followed by lightning quick reversals, take-downs, pins. One tiny slip in concentration can prove your undoing.
In the heat of action bodies become locked in vicious embrace. One torso tightly wound around another. A leg wrapped around a neck. Arms ratcheted back from the socket with enough torque to tear ligament and snap bone. Tongues hang out from sheer exhaustion. Sweat runs off in sheets. The thud of bodies on the mat mixes with anguished cries and grunts. As if this agony isn’t enough, there’s the bane of all wrestlers — cutting weight. Truly, it’s as much penance as sport.
Welcome to the House of Pain. Every wrestling club or program has one. It’s often only a ratty old mat in a cold dark gym. Until this season UNO made do with a pit too small to accommodate a full practice. For years its teams trained around the school’s other sports, carting and rolling out mats onto the fieldhouse floor and rolling them up and carting them back off when done. With the completion of a multi-million dollar fieldhouse renovation last year, the Mavs finally have a training facility all their own and one commensurate with the program’s powerhouse status.
Located in the northeast corner of the fieldhouse’s top floor, the UNO wrestling room, a.k.a. the dojo, is a 5,000-plus square-foot facility where all 30 wrestlers can work out in at once. It includes a kick-ass mat, a video station, a digital scale and a sound system. It’s clean, well-lit, ventilated. It’s also where guys shed sweat, blood and tears and gasp for air.
On “Thin Air Days” UNO coaches push their athletes past fatigue, past the breaking point — all in an effort to build mental-physical endurance. A trash can stands nearby for those who get sick. On those days practice begins at 3 and goes full bore past 5. One drill immediately follows another, pairing wrestlers off on the mat as coaches hover above goading them on.
“Your body can do it,” assistant Cory Royal shouts at a prone wrestler one recent practice. “It’s mind over matter.” With that, the spent lad drags himself to his feet and gets after it again. There’s always more to give.
To cap off practice the team runs stairs. The late afternoon session is in addition to a morning workout and individual running and lifting drills. On competition days the demands only increase. In tournaments, such as the nationals, entrants may wrestle multiple matches on day one and still run that same night to ensure making weight for day two’s action.
“In no other sport do athletes have to put themselves through what wrestlers put themselves through,” says top UNO assistant coach Ron Higdon. “As coaches it’s what we love about this sport.” Denney says, “You look for vehicles to teach and build and what a great vehicle wrestling is because it’s so demanding. It takes so much discipline, dedication and commitment. You’re going to get beat right out in front of everybody. You can be humbled at any time and very quickly. It brings out the best and the worst in you. I like these challenges.”
Why do athletes do it?
“I don’t know, maybe I’m a masochist, but I love it. Wrestling is a sport that’s so demanding. It takes the mind, body and soul. It takes everything that you can possibly muster and I guess that’s the challenge I really enjoy,” says senior Jeff Nielsen, (133 pounds), who went 0-3 in the NCC tourney.
There’s more to it than that. It’s being cast alone on an island of pain and using every ounce of courage and skill to try and best your opponent.
Senior Mav Braumon Creighton, a national champion at 134 pounds last year and top-seeded at 141-pounds this year, is a fluid methodical performer who appreciates wrestling’s intricacies.
“I like the science of the sport. The leverage, the speed, the techniques and the type of physical attributes you need to be a good wrestler. I like the mental preparation that goes into it. I like the battle. I like the nervousness. I like how it’s a chess match out there and you’ve got to make the right moves. I love everything about it except the cutting weight part,” Creighton says. “And when the lights go on it’s my opportunity to put on a show. To say, ‘Look at me. Look at how good I am. Look what I can do.”
For two-time All-American Boyce Voorhees, a junior contending for the 149-pound crown this weekend, it’s “the competition.” He adds, “The best part about it is it’s just one guy against another. It’s you against him. Nobody else has anything else to say about it. You have no excuses.”
“It’s a great challenge every time I wrestle,” says junior Chris Blair, a two-time All-American competing at 165 pounds in the NCAA finals, “It’s a test of all my training methods and everything I believe in. When I win, everything about me wins. When I lose, I lose all that stuff. In order to be a champion you’ve really got to work hard at it every single day.”
For motivation UNO ‘s athletes need only look at the wrestling room’s walls adorned with banners and plaques honoring the program’s many All-Americans, national titlists, Hall of Famers and championship teams.
The swank new room has made a deep impression on the team, serving as inspiration, validation and challenge. For senior Jose Medina, a returning All-American and a national qualifier this year at 197 pounds, the space is a source of good vibes. “The room has so much character and Coach Denney’s put all that character in there with the All-American plaques and the banners listing the national champs and the records. It’s awesome to be around all that.”
Sophomore Scott Antoniak, a national qualifier at 184 pounds, says, “We walk around with a bit of added confidence. We have our own room. We have something to be proud of. It gives us something to brag about.”
Blair feels the room sets a serious, no-nonsense tone: “Having something like this makes you feel like you’re in an elite program. It really helps mentally coming into a place everyday that’s this businesslike and professional. It gives us added confidence and strength.”
“I can’t even tell you all the things it does for us,” says sophomore Mack LaRock, a national qualifier at 125 pounds. “It gives us a home, for one. I think it also raises the expectation level of ourselves. We feel we’ve got to rise to the occasion and perform, almost as if we’ve got to earn what we’ve been given.”
Indeed, Higdon says the new facilities have added “pressure” on the coaching staff. “Coach Denney doesn’t look at it like, ‘Ah, we’ve got it made, but more like, ‘We don’t have any excuses anymore. Let’s not leave any rock unturned. We don’t want any regrets.’”
Reminders of UNO’s high expectations are everywhere. Banners displaying each wrestler’s personal symbol of commitment hang from the ceiling. Ringing the mat are nine plastic cones spelling out the team’s keys to achieving its mission. Far from arbitrary words, these mottoes grew out of a preseason November retreat with a decidedly martial theme at which the team set team objectives, ideals, rules, et cetera. Blair says the messages represent “what UNO wrestling is all about. We can see it every day. We can be a part of it every day. I look up and see all these different symbols and it’s who we are. It’s the heart and soul of every single guy on this team.”
That the retreat resembled boot camp is no accident. Military themes are commonly applied to competitive athletics. After all, a solid platoon and an effective team both require discipline, loyalty, unity, commitment, physical fitness, mental rigor, honor, duty. Both require a warrior’s mentality. Even the way teams practice is patterned after the army or marines, with coaches putting their warriors through training “drills” like any DI bastards.
Thus, UNO turned the Old Country Buffet on Dodge Street into a war room one fine November morning. Setting the tone was Denney, who fittingly wore camouflaged fatigues and a painted war face. Several troops followed suit. Together, they plotted strategy for the upcoming campaign. Later, they went to a camp grounds near Plattsmouth to play paint ball.
The idea, Denney told his warriors that day, “is establishing our destination — where we’re trying to get to — and our compass for getting there. It’s kind of what we’re all about and what is necessary for our team to accomplish its mission. We’ll organize and execute practices around that.”
The annual retreat is among many traditions he’s added to the program. He’s found such activities effective ways of building a solid group identity and bond. He uses these sessions as teaching opportunities. At one team meeting he did a “Home Improvement” routine — complete with tool belt, framing hammer, nails and two-by-fours — to make the point that in order to be “straight and strong every practice and every match” his team must “hammer” and “push” themselves through the whole season. After hammering home some penny nails he brought out some rusty ones and said, ‘If you guys are coming in rusty…you’re going to bend.’”
For Denney the demonstration was fun but its message dead serious. “I challenged our guys to be straight and strong because for us to effectively perform we’ve got to challenge ourselves. This is athletics. You can’t be in the comfort zone too long. I need to challenge myself, too, to be more of a hammer as a coach. Sometimes I’m almost a little bit too understanding.”
Mastering the mental game is something Denney constantly emphasizes. “I tell our guys we’ve got be strong in three areas. Physically, mentally, spiritually. As you get closer to competition the importance of the mental part increases. Those people that can stay confident, stay calm, stay relaxed, stay focused — all those things — have an advantage. We try to get our guys to look forward to competition and not dread it. Sometimes though you get anxious about failing. We try to instill the attitude, ‘I can’t wait to get out there. I practiced for it, prepared myself physically for it and now I want to do it.’ You’ve got to be confident you can perform well and perform well against good competition. It’s actually not directed at the opponent. It’s trying to get yourself to perform well. It’s a battle with yourself.”
To help instill such poise Denney has two prominent area sports psychologists, Dr. Jack Stark and Dr. Todd Hendrickson, work with the team. As Denney sees it, it’s all about helping athletes find avenues that best reduce anxiety and maximize effort.
“The whole thing is not on winning, it’s on performance,” he says.
Consider the scene in the visiting locker room at Augustana College shortly after UNO’s 25-11 dual victory over the Vikings on Jan. 15. Denney singled out Antoniak for praise despite his having lost in overtime: “It shows here,” Denney said, holding up the scoring sheet in his hand, “he lost 3-1, but I don’t even look at that. I look at performance. He performed. He
wrestled with heart.” Later, Antoniak said how much his coach’s words meant: “What means more to me than a win or a loss is knowing I didn’t disappoint Coach Denney. I know he’s still proud of the way I performed.”
Higdon, who wrestled for Denney and has coached under him for seven years, says, “One of the reasons he’s so good at getting guys to perform well is that they’re not only performing for themselves but they honestly want to do well for him too. When you disappoint him, oh, the guilt is unbelievable.”
R.J. Nebe, former UNO wrestling great and one-time assistant under Denney and now co-head wrestling coach at Skutt High School, says, “He’s a great motivational coach. The eternal optimist. He’s always upbeat, always supportive, no matter what happens. Anybody you talk to says he’s kind of like a father figure. I know that’s a cliche but he truly is an amazing individual and you really do want to make him proud of you.”
The late R.J. Nebe
Massaging hurt egos, boosting flagging spirits, instilling guilt. It’s what coaches do in their role as amateur psychologists. What often separates a mediocre wrestler from a superb one is the mental factor. Higdon says some wrestlers shine in practice but wilt in competition: “Some guys are great practice room wrestlers — they’re unscored on and can’t be taken down. But when they have the pressure of being in the starting lineup or in a tournament they don’t wrestle near as well. That gets down to mental toughness. The sports psychologists we work with are really good at making our guys believe in themselves. One guy may need this. Another guy may need something totally different. As a coaching staff we try to
provide all those different atmospheres. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but once you figure it out, it’s half the battle.”
As Denney says, “We try to get each athlete to develop a ritual at practice. It’s finding ways of preparing mentally and physically that help you perform well at every practice and then carrying that over into competition. It’s a trial and error thing finding what works for you. It takes lots of repetitions. Part of it may be your diet or isolating what things are producing anxiety. The way one guy prepares may not work for another.”
Virtually all UNO wrestlers use visualization, along with deep breathing and other relaxation techniques to get ready for matches. Sometimes, all the preparation in the world doesn’t prevent a poor showing.
“You’re going to have times when you just don’t perform well. I’ve been coaching 30 years and every individual, every team has hit one real low every season,” Denney notes. “I’ve found if you have work ethic and perseverance you’re going to endure through those ups and downs. You can’t replace it. Our work ethic is good. We have good leadership too.”
Denney’s a master at sensing the psyche of his team. How he handles his wrestlers, especially how he prepares and motivates them for competition, reveals much about him, his athletes and his program. He circulates through the wrestling room to drop a positive word here, a does of constructive criticism there. He lays hands on his men like a healer. His door is always open for consultation. His charismatic presence and caring demeanor create a powerful Brotherhood of the Mat.
“Coach impresses upon us to care about the guys we wrestle with. We’re not afraid to say, ‘I love you,’ and openly show some emotion when things don’t go right or when they do go right. That says a lot about the character and nature of the team,” says senior heavyweight Jerry Corner.
While wrestling is a series of one-on-one competitions, a single stunning win or loss can spark or deflate an entire team. The chemistry of a squad and the support of teammates are crucial performance factors. Denney’s teams are known for their togetherness. “It’s a family. It’s a real close-knit group. Coach Denney promotes that. He’s like a second father. And all those guys in the locker room are like my brothers,” Nielsen says.
Denney says camaraderie is vital given wrestling’s severe demands.
“It’s a long season made even longer because we beat on each other so much. It’s such a physically and mentally demanding sport. And at the end they’re going to raise just one hand. Even when our guys have been working hard and doing the right things there’s still going to be adversity. They get injured. They don’t perform the way they want. Something bad happens back home or their girlfriend leaves them. They need the support of their teammates when they’re down. They need positive reinforcement.”
He likes the way his current squad senses when a teammate is low and tries picking him up. He says his guys have done a great job of helping pull Medina, Voorhees and LaRock out of deep funks this season.
“I see our team helping each other out by sitting and talking with guys who’ve hit a low point. I like that. We’re totally a family here.”
He likes the way Voorhees and LaRock, two mainstays sidelined by injuries earlier this year, responded to their tough luck. “They stayed positive. They were up at the fieldhouse every day doing everything they could even though they couldn’t wrestle. They ran every day. They went to every meeting. They’ve been great examples of how to handle adversity.”
Denney, a Power of Positive Thinking disciple, says maintaining an upbeat attitude is not just mental window dressing but a prerequisite for reaching peak performance. “Losing doesn’t mean we’re failures. We don’t even talk about that. We talk about making adjustments to do better next time. In the scheme of things a disappointing performance is not that big a deal, except we’ve been blessed with some abilities and we want to make the most out of them. Performing well shouldn’t be an option. Not with this team and the way we work our butts off. It should be a responsibility.”
He has approached this season as a journey and each segment as a various leg on the trek. UNO’s journey began with five early open meets pitting Maverick wrestlers against top competitors from Div. I and II. Unlike many programs UNO waits to wrestle duals — when teams must settle on 10 starters — until the second semester, preferring instead to throw everyone into the mix in open competition.
“What it does is offer everybody an opportunity to compete and make the varsity,” Denney explains, “and that kind of determines who filters to the top and who redshirts. It takes wrestlers about 20 matches before they really start refining things, so I tell them to be patient.”
He sees the open part of the season as a time for experimenting too. “We actually tell our guys to open up and try some things. To make adjustments and find what works for you.”
In the Nov. 15 season opening Central Missouri State meet UNO recorded the most place finishers (18) and most finalists (six) it’s ever had in the annual competition. Three Mavs won their weight classes. Although UNO had no individual champions the Mavs held their own at home in the Nov. 21 Kaufman-Brand Open, the largest open meet in the nation, as Creighton and LaRock went a combined 9-2 against top-flight competition.
UNO followed with a disappointing showing in the Dec. 9 Northern Iowa Open but, as has been characteristic of this year’s team, rebounded strongly in the Nebraska-Kearney Open and in its own Brand Open. Once the Mavs started their “big push” the second semester, Denney returned again and again to such key themes as “No regrets” and “Start strong, stay strong, finish strong.” The dual season found UNO on the road most of the time. Following a devastating loss at St. Cloud State, Denney assured his team “all is well” but promised to take them “into Thin Air” as a way of deepening their conditioning and will. He did, too — working them until some hurled from sheer burn-out.
The benefits of all that work showed up in the Mavs next competition, Jan. 22-23, at the National Showdown Duals in Edmond, Okla., where UNO squared-off with four elite teams, finishing 3-1, advancing to and losing in the championship round to top-ranked Pittsburgh-Johnstown 21-16. Bolstering the attack was Voorhees, who went 4-0 at 149 pounds in his first action since an early season injury. The Mavs gained confidence coming so close to the No. 1 club without their stud, Creighton, who injured a knee and forced UNO to forfeit his match.
With Thin Air days a weekly fixture, the Mavs won a Jan. 29 home dual, 21-18, over No. 5 Central Oklahoma that was not as close as the score indicated since LaRock, nursing torn rib cartilage, forfeited. It marked the first of five straight dual wins the Mavs reeled off, prompting Denney to say: “In some real close matches we’ve stayed confident, stayed strong, stayed focused. I like that. We now seem to have the reserve at the end to be able to do what we need to do. This team is on a mission.”
Yet when the Mavs butt-kicking ways ended abruptly in a Feb. 19 home dual loss to long-time nemesis North Dakota State, he wasn’t so sure anymore. “As a team we have to hit on more cylinders. We have to perform better. It’s in us…but, I don’t know, maybe our expectations are just too high.”
After the less-than-inspired showing versus NDSU Denney issued an uncharacteristic in-your-face challenge to his slackers. “I wanted to shock them a little bit. They don’t see that side of me, but I needed to challenge them, and they responded — they really stepped up.” The Mavs responded with a 24-17 win over Div. I Northern Iowa to end the dual season 10-3 overall and 4-2 in the North Central Conference.
The days leading up to the NCC tourney included intense practices that left Denney feeling secure once again: “Honestly, that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked a team, but they took it. I’m really confident we’ll perform better. On paper North Dakota State’s the favorite, but we have no fear.”
In the postseason the starters become the sole focus. They get all the reps, all the performance enhancement goodies. Denney assigns each “a commission” that lets them know what’s expected at crunch time. He makes-up T-shirts with the wrestlers’ nicknames and slogans on them.
During the Feb. 28 NCC tourney in Brookings S.D. the Mavs, almost to a man, fulfilled their commissions. LaRock “fueled the fire” as team igniter at the top of the lineup, decisively winning his opening round match en route to earning a wild card entry at nationals. Creighton modeled “consistency” in going 3-0 to win his third individual NCC title. Voorhees lived up to his “cool, calm, confident” assignment in nailing down a runner-up finish.
Blair, UNO’s Iron Man award winner his first two years, took “the ultimate warrior” tag to heart by claiming third place. Albert Harrold, earned his “mentally strong” stripes with a runner-up finish at 174. Antoniak epitomized “showtime” by advancing to the finals, only losing the title on criteria. Medina showed “no fear” after a disqualification (for slamming)
forced him into the consolation bracket, where he came back to win a crucial third place match. Corner displayed “amazing power” in capturing his first NCC title in the final and deciding match, giving UNO a one-point winning margin (78-77) over NDSU in the team title race.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” a drained and emotion-choked Denney said afterwards. “They wrestled so hard. They gave everything they had. It was just a war. It went back and forth. One team would get ahead and the other would bounce right back. We were behind and had to win the last two matches. I’d never seen it come down to the end like that.”
With the NCC title secured, one last destination awaits the Mavs on their most excellent journey. In team meetings Denney’s comparing UNO’s quest for the pinnacle of collegiate wrestling to a Mount Everest ascent, saying, “When the oxygen gets really thin it then becomes a mental thing. Totally mental. Your body can endure anything you want it to. It’s mind over matter. You have to push through the pain. The key is working together and pushing each other to reach a common goal. You’re lost without that.”
Mack LaRock is reminding his mates to lay it on the line, as the summit may not be this close again. “We may never have a chance to be part of a team like this that has a chance to win nationals at home. Let’s not let this one get by. It’s all laid out for us. Let’s seize it. Let’s seize the day.”
Denney wants his charges to keep their edge during the climb and ensure they make the most of their opportunity: “Respect the journey. If you don’t respect the journey, you don’t prepare for it. When you step on the mat, be prepared. When you look back, you want to be sure there’s no regrets.This is something you will not be able to play over again.”
His team embarks on its “final assault” — the national championship — Friday and Saturday at UNO. Opening-round matches start at noon on Friday, followed by an evening session at 7 p.m. Semifinal and consolation matches being at noon on Saturday, followed by the Parade of All-Americans at 7 and the finals at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the UNO Athletic Office and through Ticketmaster outlets. For more tourney information, call 554-MAVS.
Part III: Day of Recknoning
The University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team’s day of reckoning finally arrived last weekend when UNO hosted the NCAA Division II wrestling tournament. In the ultimate setting for this on-the-edge sport, the team title race fittingly came down to a pair of head-to-head matches between No. 1 Pittsburgh-Johnstown and No. 2 UNO, the two squads that led the pack all season long and dominated the March 12-13 tourney.
Holding a four-and a-half-point lead entering the championship round, UNO needed to at least split the two finals pitting Maverick wrestlers against their Mountain Cat counterparts. In the first meeting, UNO’s Mack LaRock, a sophomore from Lawton, Okla., was pinned by Johnstown’s No. 1-seeded Jody Strittmatter in the 125-pound title match. The fall, worth five points, dropped UNO into second place, half-a-point behind the Cats.
That put added pressure on UNO’s third championship qualifier Braumon Creighton, a senior from Millard North High School, who responded, becoming the lone Mav finalist to prevail, by decisioning Paul Konechne of South Dakota State 12-6 at 141 pounds. That victory earned Creighton his second consecutive national championship (He was the 134-pound champ last year.) and canceled out a Johnstown win at 133 pounds, keeping UNO within easy striking distance.
Creighton’s win made the 165-pound championship, the last head-to-head dual between the two title contending teams, the swing match. And it was here that UNO’s dogged, year-long quest to scale the wrestling heights fell just short when Mav junior Chris Blair dropped an 8-4 decision to Johnstown’s Troy Barbush. In the short seven-minute span it took to complete the match UNO went from the sweet anticipation of celebrating a title before family, friends and hometown fans to a feeling of bitter regret.
Blair, an Omaha Gross High grad who sat out last year to rehabilitate a surgically-repaired knee, fought hard, fell behind midway through the 2nd period and could not rally at the end. The loss secured the Cats’ team championship over UNO. In one of the tightest competitions in recent tourney history, Johnstown finished with 110 points to UNO’s 105.5.
Before the finals, Johnstown Coach Pat Pecora called the two-horse title chase “a classic,” adding, “In any other given year either one of us would have had the title clinched by now but this year we have a great team race. The way the fans have packed each session, they deserve a down-to-the-wire battle.”
The margin of victory at this level of competition is often decided by intangibles that coaches are fond of repeating like incantations. Following the tourney’s opening day sessions, UNO Coach Mike Denney described the intangibles that carried his wrestlers to a first place standing: “A lot of times it just comes down to heart. It’s not technique. It’s not coaching. It’s not anything. It’s just heart. It’s reaching deep inside for more They just fought so hard. They just stayed strong. They wouldn’t break.”
The next night, after seeing his team come agonizingly close to grasping the crown before fumbling it in front of the hometown fans, Denney retreated to a corridor of the fieldhouse and, feeling the weight of disappointment in letting it all slip by, slumped against a wall, where his oldest son, Rocky, consoled him. Later, a still reeling Denney said his team showed the heart of a champion despite losing the national championship:
“When we bid on hosting the nationals two years ago it was our dream to wrestle before this kind of crowd with an opportunity to win the national championship. We put so much work into it. Our guys came to wrestle. They fought. They wrestled with heart. We went for it and we didn’t get it, but I don’t look at it like we failed. It was a great battle, but we just came in second. You’ve got to give credit to Pitt-Johnstown.”
Destiny seemed on the side of tourney host UNO entering the finals. The home fans turned out in droves and lent their vocal support to the cause. Local dignitaries — led by Mayor Hal Daub and his wife and UNO Chancellor Nancy Belck — showed up to confer an official seal of approval on the event. Tying the past to the present was a parade of greats from UNO’s 30-year tradition of mat excellence, including the man who put the school’s wrestling program on the map, Don Benning.
Finally, the UNO team answered the challenge again and again, performing well enough to put themselves in position to win. They ended day one with a four-point edge on Johnstown (41.5 to 37.5), rebounding from a mid-round slump to advance all nine wrestlers to the second day semifinal and consolation rounds, ensuring each All-American status. UNO’s school-record nine All-Americans led the 36-team field.
Then, on day two, the Mavs maintained their advantage by going a combined 11-7 in semifinal and consolation matches. While Johnstown sent four men to that evening’s finals compared to UNO’s three, the Mavs still held a four and-a-half-point lead (101.5 to 97). In the end, the difference was Johnstown winning the pair of meetings with UNO in the finals.
The NCAA wrestling tournament, the fourth hosted by UNO over the years, proved a showcase for a sport little appreciated or understood outside the wrestling community and one often relegated to “Extreme Games” status. Consider wrestling for a moment and you soon see why its harsh aesthetic and strange dichotomy make it a sport apart. Consider the monastic discipline required to master its calm mind set, stiff work ethic and strict weight control, but the fierce warrior’s heart needed to compete in such physical one-on-one competition. Consider how a wrestler is a lone wolf on the mat yet a teammate on the sideline. How so brutal a sport is still couched in fine technique. How it rewards control yet penalizes passivity, encourages aggressiveness but frowns on violence.
Collegiate wrestling, with its sober blue-collar mystique, is an entirely different breed from the WWF sideshow. The amateur version is authentic regulated competition. The real thing. The pro game is a bastard, no-holds-barred knock-off. A fraud. The bleachers at any collegiate meet are filled with fans who know the sport inside and out — including past and present wrestlers, coaches and officials. They know the price these athletes pay in dedicating themselves to the grueling training process wrestling demands.
The crowd at the recent national tourney was educated enough to cheer a good move or deride a bad call when they saw it and to recognize which matches meant the most in the team race.
The tournament’s many upsets, comebacks, pins, thrills and spills were witnessed by an SRO crowd of wrestling buffs who found UNO’s Sapp Fieldhouse given an Olympic-style makeover for the event. NCAA regalia hung everywhere. Bunting-draped awards platforms stood tall at one end. A two-tiered scoring table at the other end accommodated event staff and media. A big Daktronics message board flashed the latest standings.
The first day of competition saw simultaneous action on six mats, making for a blur of interlocking bodies. A miked announcer hyped the goings-on with a running commentary that jumped from one match to the next. There was often a pin in progress on one mat, a stalemate on another, an injury time out on a third, and so on.
After his team’s solid opening day showing Coach Denney gathered his warriors in a circle in their fieldhouse sanctuary — the UNO wrestling room — to tell them: “I want you to relax like a bunch of puppy dogs tonight. Get a good night’s sleep. But then come out tomorrow like a pack of wolverines. You guys have got to love this. You have the opportunity with every match to make a difference. So savor it.”
Living up to UNO’s “There’s A Fire Burning” motto and his role as team igniter, Mack LaRock got the Mavs off to a fire-breathing start in the Mar. 13 afternoon semifinals by pinning his man. Moments later, after running into the stands to embrace family members who drove up from Oklahoma, a still delirious LaRock tried describing what happened: “I was in on a deep single. The opportunity was there and I just got it (the pin). Oh, man, it’s a rush. I never thought it would feel this way. The way my year’s been going, with so many ups and downs, I think it’s all going to work out.” Although LaRock lost in the finals that night, his mere presence there as a sixth seed was a victory of sorts itself.
Creighton, operating from his customary low crouch, looked sluggish until winning his semi’s scuffle 7-4 and securing a spot in the finals. Later, he said, “At the beginning I wasn’t focused at all. I just had to regain my focus. It’s a matter of being in those scramble positions and coming out on top.”
By warding off his foe off at the end — refusing to be taken down — Chris Blair earned a berth in the finals with a 7-4 decision. After a short celebration he described how watching his mates’ earlier matches motivated him to nail his opponent too: “I saw Mack and Braumon win and that got me going. I dug deep and put the guy on his back.”
Meanwhile, the Mavs fared well in the consolation bracket: junior Boyce Voorhees advanced to the third 3rd place match, where he lost a tough 2-1 decision to finish 4th at 149 pounds; sophomore Alan Cartwright captured 7th with a 12-5 decision at 157 pounds; senior Albert Harrold pounced on his opponent in the waning moments to clinch a 7-5 win that gave him 5th place at 174; and sophomore Scott Antoniak claimed 7th at 184 when his opponent forfeited.
After being on the wrong end of a pin in his 197 pound semifinals match, Jose Medina recovered from that devastating loss to perform well in the wrestlebacks, winning the crucial 3rd place match to help UNO stay in the title hunt. Medina, a senior from Chicago, said the winning difference was “knowing that I had to beat him to keep the team race close.”
Denney’s team finished second in 1999, but he led UNO to multiple national titles in the ensuing years
A costly defeat came at heavyweight when No. 1 seed senior Jerry Corner suffered a sudden-death overtime (2-1) loss in the semifinals to long-time arch nemesis Ryan Resel of South Dakota State. Corner, who twice beat the two-time defending national champion Resel during the regular season, explained afterwards how “hard” it is “to beat a quality competitor over and over again.” With his right eye red and puffy from the fray, Corner, from Wichita, Kan., spent little time sulking over losing his last title shot. Instead, he came back strong — practically crucifying his first consolation opponent to the mat, then advancing to and winning the 3rd place match with a 5-0 decision.
Corner wasn’t the only bruised and battered Maverick. Voorhees hurt a shoulder. Cartwright sported a bloody nose. Harrold threw up. Antoniak took stitches above an eye. Medina got scratched on the hand. “Yeah, but you should have seen the other guy,” goes the sport’s macho creed. Wrestlers like it tough. They thrive on their high pain threshold.
For the finals the fieldhouse became, for one night anyway, a coliseum reveling in the ancient grappling art and its warrior tradition. With the lights dimmed over the stands, the spotlight literally shone on the young men in singlets comprising this Samurai Brotherhood. Like gladiators of old they engaged in hand-to-hand combat that, while not mortal, tested their resolve and preparation through a primal meeting on the mat.
The Mavericks came away from this nearly 400-match wrestlerama with one individual champion, nine All-Americans and a team runner-up trophy, UNO’s 12th Top 3 finish under Denney. UNO’s undisputed star was its lone champ, Creighton, who stalked his finals’ opponent with predator-like cunning, shooting low single leg attacks he turned into points.
Soon after winning his title Creighton, whose mother is KMTV-Channel 3’s Trina Creighton, said, “It’s the best feeling in the world to do it here in front of all your family and friends. I’m proud to be part of UNO history and to be considered one of the greats among those who wrestled here.” Denney, who dubbed him “Mr. Consistency,” said, “He’s an ultimate competitor. He dominated the field. He’s a great ambassador for our wrestling program. I’m proud of him.”
Graceful and grateful even in defeat, Denney summed up the tourney and season-long journey with: “The thing I feel really good about is we were able to provide nine All-Americans and a national champion in our own gym, in front of an electric crowd, in an exciting atmosphere. It was great for our guys. I’m proud of the commitment they made. I’m proud of their work ethic. I’m proud of the kind of people they are. I can’t fault our effort. We performed. We we were just four-and-half-points short. And it’s not like the cupboard’s bare. We return five All-Americans. We’ll be all right.”
Now it’s on to recruiting for Denney. His talent search marks the start of the next journey for him and his band of warriors. Let the quest begin.
This will likely be my last word on the demise of the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program. As some of you may know from reading this blog or from following other media reports on the story, the program did nothing to contribute to its demise. Quite the contrary, it did everything right and then some. UNO wrestling reached the pinnacle of NCAA Division II competition and maintained its unparalleled excellence year after year. Yet university officials disregarded all that and eliminated the program. The action caused quite an uproar but the decision stood, leaving head coach Mike Denney, his assistants, and the student-athletes adrift. In a stunning turn, Denney is more or less taking what’s left of the orphaned program, including a couple assistants and 10 or so wrestlers, and moving the program to Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. The following story for the New Horizons is my take on what transpired and an appreciation for the remarkable legacy that Denney, his predecessor Don Benning, and all their assitants and wrestlers established at a university that then turned its back on their contributions. It’s a bittersweet story as Denney closes one chapter in his career and opens a new one. It is UNO’s loss and Maryville’s gain.
Mike Denney exhorting his troops to keep the faith
Requiem for a Dynasty:
Mike Denney Reflects on the Long Dominant, Now Defunct UNO Maverick Wrestling Program He Coached, Its Legacy, His Pain, and Starting Anew with Wife Bonnie at Maryville University
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in the New Horizons
The For Sale sign spoke volumes.
Planted in the front yard of the home Mike and Bonnie Denney called their own for decades, it served as graphic reminder an Omaha icon was leaving town. The longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling coach and his wife of 42 years never expected to be moving. But that’s what happened in the wake of shocking events the past few months. Forced out at the school he devoted half his life to when UNO surprised everyone by dropping wrestling, he’s now taken a new opportunity far from home — as head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo.
The sign outside his home, Denney said, reinforced “the finality of it.” That, along with cleaning out his office and seeing the mats he and his coaches and wrestlers sweated on and achieved greatness on, sold via e-Bay.
On his last few visits to the Sapp Field House and the wrestling room, he said he couldn’t help but feel how “empty” they felt. “There’s an energy that’s gone.”
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the golden wrestling program and its decorated coach.
But this past spring the winningest program in UNO athletic history, fresh off capturing its third straight national championship and sixth in eight years, was unceremoniously disbanded.
Denney’s teams won two-thirds of their duals, claimed seven national team championships, produced more than 100 All-Americans and dozens of individual national champions in his 32 years at the helm. At age 64, he was at the top of his game, and his program poised to continue its dominant run.
“Let me tell you, we had a chance to make some real history here,” he said. “Our team coming back, I think we had an edge on people for awhile. We had some good young talent.”
UNO celebrates its 2010-2011 national championship
A measure of how highly thought of Denney is in his profession is that InterMat named him Coach of the Year for 2011 over coaches from top Division I programs. In 2006 Amateur Wrestling News made him its Man of the Year. That same year Win Magazine tabbed him as Dan Gable Coach of the Year.
Three times he’s been voted Division II Coach of the Year. He’s an inductee in both the Division II and UNO Athletic Halls of Fame. UNO awarded him its Chancellor’s Medal for his significant contributions to the university.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness”
Yet, when all was said and done, Denney and his program were deemed expendable. Suddenly, quite literally without warning, wrestling was shut down, the student-athletes left adrift and Denney’s coaching job terminated. All in the name of UNO’s it’s-just-business move to Division I and the Summit League. The story made national news.
Response to the decision ranged from incredulity to disappointment to fury. To his credit, Denney never played the blame game, never went negative. But as print and television coverage documented in teary-eyed moments with his wrestlers, coaches and wife, it hurt, it hurt badly.
“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness,” he said.
The closest he comes to criticism is to ask accusingly, “Was it worth it? Was the shiny penny worth it? Or are people worth it? What are you giving up for that? Your self? Your soul?”
Referring to UNO officials, Bonnie Denney said, “They’re standing behind a system that treats people very disrespectfully. You just don’t treat people like that, — you just don’t. We’ve got to put it in God’s hands and move on. We’re not going to let it pull us down. We’re going to keep our core and take it someplace else.”
Nobody saw it coming. How could they? Wrestling, with its consistent excellence and stability, was the one constant in a topsy-turvy athletic department. The decision by Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts to end wrestling, and along with it, football, was inconceivable in the context of such unprecedented success.
Unprecedented, too, was a university jettisoning the nation’s leading program and coach without a hint of scandal or mismanagement. No NCAA rules violations. No financial woes. It would have been as if University of Nebraska-Lincoln higher-ups pulled the plug on Husker football at the height of Tom Osborne’s reign of glory.
An apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps, except the only difference between NU football and UNO wrestling is dollars and viewers. The Huskers generate millions in revenue by drawing immense stadium crowds and television audiences. The Mavericks broke even at best and drew only a tiny fraction of followers. Judging the programs solely by winning and losing over the last half-century, however, and UNO comes out on top, with eight national titles to NU’s five. Where UNO won minus sanctions, NU won amid numerous player run-ins with the law.
Noted sports psychologist Jack Stark has said Denney’s high character makes him the best coach in any sport in Nebraska.
Denney and Dustin Tovar
USA Wrestling Magazine’s Craig Sesker, who covered Denney for the Omaha World-Herald, said, “He is a man of the highest integrity, values and principles. He’s an unbelievably selfless and generous man who always puts his athletes first.”
“He has a unique way of treating everybody like they’re somebody,” said Ron Higdon, who wrestled and coached for Denney. “He physically found a way to touch every guy every day at practice — touch them on the shoulder, touch them on the head. I learned so much from him. I have such incredible respect for him.
“One of the reasons I never left is I felt it was a special place. I felt such a connection that I felt this was the place for me. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”
The influence Denney has on young men is reflected in the 60-plus former wrestlers of his who have entered the coaching profession.
“They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did”
Denney created a dynasty the right way, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that its seeds were planted a decade earlier, by another rock-ribbed man of character, Don Benning. In 1963 Benning became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university when he took over the then-Omaha University Indian wrestling program. Having already made history with its coach, the program — competing then at the NAIA level — reached the peak of small college success by winning the 1970 national title.
Once a UNO wrestler or wrestling coach, always one. So it was that Benning and some of the guys who wrestled for him attended the We Are One farewell to the program last spring. The UNO grappling family turned out in force for this requiem. In a show of solidarity and homage to a shared legacy lost. wrestlers from past and present took off their letter jackets, vowing never to wear them again.
“Wrestling is kind of a brotherhood. It was my life, and so I had every reason to be there,” said Benning. “There was a lot of hurt in seeing what happened. It was devastating. We felt their pain.”
Benning said the event also gave him and his old wrestlers the opportunity to pay homage to what Denney and his wrestlers accomplished.
“It was a chance for us to say how much we appreciated them and to take our hats off to them. They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did.”
Benning left after the 1971 season and the program, while still highly competitive, slipped into mediocrity until Denney arrived in 1979.
For Denney, Benning set a benchmark he strove to reach.
“When we came one of the first things I said was we want to reestablish the tradition that Don Benning started.”
A farm-raised, Antelope County, Neb. native, Denney was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and at Dakota Wesleyan college. He played semi-pro football with the Omaha Mustangs. He became a black belt in judo and jujitsu, incorporating martial arts rituals and mantras into his coaching. For example, he called the UNO wrestling room the “dojo.” He has the calm, cool, command of the sensei master.
He taught and coached at Omaha South and Omaha Bryan before joining the staff at UNO, where in addition to coaching he taught.
With his John Wayne-esque swagger, wide open smile, genial temperament, yet steely resolve, Denney was the face of an often faceless UNO athletic department. In a revolving door of coaches and ADs, Duke, as friends call him, was always there, plodding away, the loyal subject faithfully attending to his duties. You could always count on him. He modeled his strong Christian beliefs.
Under Denney UNO perennially contended for the national title and became THE elite program at the Division II level. He led UNO in organizing and hosting the nation’s largest single-day college wrestling tournament, the Kaufman-Brand Open, and a handful of national championship tournaments.
He was particularly fond of the Kaufman-Brand.
“I loved that tournament. It was a happening. Wrestlers came from all over for that. It was a who’s-who of wrestling. I mean, you saw world, Olympic and national champions. Multiple mats. Fourteen hundred matches.”
“We were a positive force…”
With everything that’s happened, he hasn’t had much time to look back at his UNO career. Ask him what he’s proudest of and he doesn’t immediately talk about all the winning. Instead, it’s the people he impacted and the difference his teams made. His guys visiting hospitals or serving meals at homeless shelters. The youth tournament UNO held. The high school wrestling league it organized. The clinics he and his coaches gave.
“We were a positive force in the wrestling community. I think its going to hurt wrestling in the area. We provided opportunities.”
Then there was the annual retreat-boot camp where his wrestlers bonded. The extra mile he and his coaches and athletes went to help on campus or in the community. The Academic All-Americans UNO produced. All the coaches the program produced.
Then, Denney gets around to the winning or more specifically to winning year in and year out.
“I think one of the most difficult things to do in anything is be consistent. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think that consistency, year in and out, in everything you do is the biggest test.”
In its last season UNO wrestling went wire to wire No. 1. “Staying up there is the toughest thing,” said Denney.
“People don’t realize how difficult what they did really is,” said Benning, who knows a thing or two about winning.
Benning thinks it’s unfortunate that local media coverage of UNO wrestling declined at the very time the program enjoyed its greatest success. “They kind of got cheated in regards to their value and what they accomplished.”
“Whether it was on our terms or not, we went out on top. No one can ever take away what we accomplished,” said Ron Higdon.
Highs and lows come with the territory in athletics. Win or lose, Mike and Bonnie Denney were surrogate parents to their “boys,” cultivating family bonds that went beyond the usual coach-player relationship. Parents to three children of their own, the couple form an unbreakable team.
“When you do anything that takes this amount of time, you gotta have a partnership,” said Denney, who said he often asks Bonnie to accompany him on recruiting trips and invites her to get to know student-athletes.. “She’s a recruiting asset. She’s kind of a second mother to them. They get to know her.”
Bonnie said she learned long ago that “if I wasn’t going to join him in this I was going to lose him – wouldn’t have a husband.” Therefore, she said, “it’s a shared mission.”
There’s been hard times. She survived a multiple sclerosis scare. They endured the deaths of UNO wrestlers Ryan Kaufman, R.J. Nebe and Jesse Greise.
Next to all that, losing a program pales in comparison.
“We kept this in perspective because we’ve been there when the parents of former wrestlers had to pull life support,” said Denney. “To be in a hospital room and to see a former wrestler take his last breath, to be there with the parents and the wives, this (wrestling getting cut) is not in that same category.”
That didn’t make it hurt any less. The coach and his boys didn’t go down without a fight, either. Denney, his assistants, his wrestlers and his boosters held rallies and lobbied university officials to reconsider, but they could not sway NU regents to reverse their decision.
Denney keeping things positive
What cut deepest for Denney is that no one in a position of power took wrestling’s side. No decision-maker spoke up for the program.
“There wasn’t anybody that thought we were valuable enough to fight for us,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that cared. At Maryville, they care, they value us.”
Two men Denney counted as friends, Christensen and Don Leahy, who hired Denney at UNO and whom Denney regarded as a father figure, were not in his corner when he needed them. It stings, but Denney’s refrained from name-calling or recrimination.
Following the lead of their coach, UNO wrestlers took the high road, too.
“One of the things that made us really proud of our group is how they handled all this,” he said. “They really, I thought, did a nice job of showing dignity and class and poise.”
Just like he taught them.
“We always talk about teaching and building …that we’re teachers and builders. Immediately when this went down, I thought, How can we use this? Well, it starts with the family-the team pulling together, supporting each other, picking each other up, and then modeling and displaying character under adversity. It’s easy to do it when everything’s going good. But things are going to happen in life.
“Obviously, we got hit. we got blindsided. We had no idea this was going to happen, no indication. It was a cheap shot.”
On the mat or in life, he demanded his guys show grit when tested.
“I created a family with high expectations for how you acted. You demonstrated character under adversity. You had to be tough. You had to demonstrate moxie. You had to bounce back. If you got knocked down, you had to get up.”
“I kept saying… to expect a miracle”
His boys didn’t let him down. But as hard as they were hit with their team and dream taken away, they were crushed. Naturally, in the aftermath, they looked to their coach for answers. Denney said, “They gave me this look like, ‘Fix this coach.’” Starting the very night the team got the heartbreaking news, right on through the regents sealing its fate, Denney kept his troops together.
“We tried to meet every day and just talk about things,” he said. “It was a significant kind of thing, really.”
In the process, he tried to give his guys some hope.
“I kept saying — and I don’t have any idea why, except I was just trying to keep them up I think — to expect a miracle. First of all, I said, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this for all these years.”
Denney admittedly walked a fine line between keeping things positive and offering false hope, but he wasn’t going to rest without exhausting every opportunity to maintain his program — whether it be at UNO or somewhere else.
“Our whole thing when this first happened, our prayer was, let there be some way that we could somehow continue this thing,” he said. “So, I kept telling them, ‘Expect a miracle.’ They’d kind of look at me like, What are you saying that for? I was kind of having fun with it, keeping things light. You know, we’ve hit some adversity, but we can still laugh, we can enjoy each other, we’re going to make the best out of this deal.”
But it wasn’t only about staying upbeat. Even before the regents made it official and unanimously endorsed UNO’s decision to cut wrestling and football, Denney sent out feelers to other universities to try and find a new home for his program.
Creighton University, it turned out, might have been able to add the program if the timing had been different, but as it was CU was in a budget cutting mode. There were also tentative discussions with Bellevue University and Benedictine (Kansas) College.
Denney and wife Bonnie consoling each other after the Regents vote; photo from Lincoln Journal-Star
Just when it appeared all might be lost, Maryville University approached Denney. After much soul-searching and many exploratory visits, now he, Bonnie, a couple assistant coaches and 10 former Maverick student-athletes, plus some new recruits, are taking what’s left of the UNO wrestling brand to inaugurate that small private school’s first entree into varsity wrestling. It’s the only time in NCAA history one university has essentially adopted another university’s athletic program.
“This is a miraculous kind of story really,” said Denney. “That’s why we have to go there. Because of all the things that have happened to set this up, it’s almost like we’re divinely guided to go there. So, I guess, be careful what you ask for.”
Thus, at a time when most couples their age prepare for retirement, the Denneys find themselves starting all over again, at a new school, in an unfamiliar city. Except, they have been made to feel so welcome and wanted there that they expect the transition to calling Maryville and St. Louis home will be easier than they ever imagined.
Recently, the Denneys shared how the Maryville option came into focus and what it’s like to be moving onto this new, unexpected chapter in their lives.
It all began with a phone call, which is ironic because once the news broke about UNO wrestling being cut, Denney’s office phone was so deluged with calls neither he nor the message system could keep up. He hardly ever caught a call.
One day, he’d just finished meeting with his team, he said, “when I walked into my office and the phone was ringing and I thought, Well, at least i can get this one. So I picked it up and it was someone saying, ‘I”m Jeff Miller from Maryville University in St. Louis. I’m representing Maryville president Mark Lombardi.’” Miller told Denney that as part of Maryville moving from Division III to Division II it sought to add wrestling and saw UNO’s orphaned program as a ready-made fit.
Denney was skeptical at first. “I said, ‘If this is one of my friends, this is a cruel joke.’ About four times during the conversation, I said, ‘Who really is this?’”
The more Miller, a Maryville vice president, laid out his university’s interest, the more convinced Denney became this was no joke. Miller came right out and said Maryville wanted not only Denney but as many of his coaches and student-athletes as he could bring to come there and start a wrestling program.
“I was like, ‘Really?’”
The clincher, said Denney, was when Miller told him he was flying “up there” — to Omaha — to talk things over.
“So he flew up and we spent time talking at Anthony’s (the venerable southwest Omaha steakhouse that’s long been a UNO hangout). He said this opportunity has presented itself.”
“From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us”
The more Miller talked, the more Denney was convinced this was a one in a million chance come true to salvage a bad situation with something clear out of the blue.
It soon became clear to Denney Maryville had done its due diligence.
“This Jeff Miller studied our program,” he said. “They actually looked at some other things but they just didn’t feel like they fit. They felt like this fit for them somehow. From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us.”
After the rejection at UNO, it felt nice to be appreciated again.
“Since the new AD (Alberts) came, these last couple years we really felt we weren’t being embraced, let’s just put it that way. We just kind of pulled back into our own area,” said Denney. “But they (Maryville) did embrace us. It was kind of a great feeling. It felt really good, actually.”
In terms of facilities, Maryville can’t match UNO, at least right now. When the deal was struck with Denney, Maryville didn’t even have a wrestling room. A meeting room is being converted into one. By contrast, UNO had a state-of-the-art wrestling room built to Denney’s specifications and that he was justifiably proud of.
Bonnie said what Maryville lacks in tangibles it makes up for with intangibles.
“It is a change to go from UNO to that environment, but there’s something about that spirit and environment that makes you feel valued.”
Besides, it’s not so different from when Mike started at UNO. The facilities were so bad his first several years there he purposely avoided showing them to recruits. Over time, things improved. Bonnie sees the same thing happening at Maryville.
“I think it will be kind of fun to see it grow and change,” she said.
For a UNO wrestler or recruit to buy in to a start-up program in a new locale, “it took some imagination,” said Mike, to visualize what things will look like in the future.
Committing to wrestling is a big thing for Maryville. First, the school already had a full complement of sports. Next, as a D-III school it offered no athletic scholarships and its coaches were part time. Now, in D-II, it’s granting partial scholarships to student-athletes and its coaches are closer to full-time.
“They’re making a real step and you can feel the energy on campus,” said Denney, who’s been impressed on multiple visits there by the buildings going up and the programs being added. “They’ve got a little money and they’re looking for every way they can to build their university. It adds to their campus, it adds exposure for their university.”
Besides, he said, an athletic program can be a revenue producer simply via the out-of-state tuition it generates.
“It actually can be a profitable thing for them. They’re figuring out this is a good business venture. If you look at it business-wise, if you bring in 30 scholarship student-athletes, with an annual out of state tuition of $31,000 each…”
Denney’s miracle was delivered in a most unexpected way
Still, Denney said he wasn’t prepared to accept Maryville’s offer unless Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed to the move.
“First of all, I had to recruit her,” he said. “She’s the one who’s going to give up everything. She’s gotta leave everything — all of her friends, our church, our house of 35 years.”
Bonnie knew Mike wanted it, but everything was happening so fast she wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do.
“I didn’t want him to rush into anything,” she said. “We were still in shock, and they (Maryville) were coming on so strong. It’s like it had a life of its own. He took me down there and you get to this campus and the people down there are warm and nice, and I thought, You know, this is possible — I know it’s going to be difficult, but I feel it.”
And so she consented to the move with a philosophical attitude: “You have to say farewell to have that new beginning.”
“‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’”
Denney liked the idea of playing the Pied Piper, but first he needed assurance enough of his guys were willing to follow him there to make it worthwhile.
“I kept telling Jeff (Miller), ‘We’re willing to go, we’re willing to do this thing, we feel like we’re called to do that. But I’m not going to do it if it’s just my wife and I. I’m not doing it just for us.’ I mean, really, we could just ride off into the sunset. We could make it. There’s a lot of things I could do, and we got offered some things to do, but none that I felt called to do.
“It’s not like I was looking to build up my resume.”
His passion to teach and build good people still burns bright, however.
“He’s no where ready to retire,” said Bonnie, adding he outworks assistants half or a third his age.
The Pied Piper next had to re-recruit his own wrestlers and their parents, or as many as he could, to make this leap of faith with him.
“We kind of sold them on it,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’ I had to sense our guys wanted to help start the fire. I don’t know if you call it an obligation, but I want us to do well. They’ve been so good to us. I want us to make an impact on campus.
“We always said, ‘Let’s be a positive force.’ We’re going to do the same thing down there.”
After 32 years at UNO, Denney now heads the Maryville Saints wrestling program
Denney led several UNO contingents to visit Maryville, whose officials always took time to express how much they wanted them there.
Many factors went into determining whether it made sense or not for a UNO student-athlete to take the plunge. For example, geography. St. Louis would put some athletes an even longer distance from home and family. Too far in some cases. Then the academics had to mesh. One of UNO’s best returning wrestlers, Esai Dominguez, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility in order to remain at UNO and finish his engineering degree. And then there was cost. Maryville tuition is higher than UNO’s.
Transplanting the program is historic and given how stringent NCAA rules are, Denney said, “we’re starting to figure out why” it hadn’t been done before. UNO officials worked closely with their Maryville counterparts to make it work.
“Now get this, Maryville sent a whole team of admissions/financial aid people to Omaha,” said Denney. “We met at Anthony’s, and all day long our guys came in with their transcripts, and we tried to get all this to match up.”
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization”
While Denney tried retaining as much of his wrestling family as possible, “the vultures” — recruiters from other programs — circled about, pouncing on UNO strays who were uncommitted or undecided. He finally had to release his wrestlers to talk to other schools and to make visits. Some of his best returnees left for other programs.
Most of his assistant coaches couldn’t justify the move either between career and family considerations.
In the end, Denney’s brought fewer with him than he would have liked, having to say goodbye to about two-thirds of his former team.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s hard, but you’ve just got to let them go,” said Denney. “Here’s what we feel good about though — we offered everyone of them an opportunity to go.”
Still, he’s brought with him a a stable of wrestlers and coaches who have competed at and won at the highest levels. It’s a transformational infusion of talent, attitude, standard and expectation at a school whose teams have mostly endured losing seasons.
Denney expects to win right away but is enough of a realist to say, “We’re back into a building process here.” It took years to build UNO into D-II’s preeminent program and it won’t be done overnight at Maryville.
He leaves no doubt though he’s committed to making the Maryville Saints wrestling program an elite one. And he seems to be giving himself eight years to do it, saying he’s always envisioned coaching and teaching 100 semesters or 50 years (high school and college combined), a figure he would reach at age 72. Beyond that, nothing’s for sure.
“As long as we can handle it,” said Bonnie. “As long as we don’t fall over at some tournament.”
Ron Higdon can hardly believe what his close friend and old boss is doing. “I have a whole new respect for what he’s taking on and the way he’s handled it and the energy he’s putting into it, because it’s unbelievable.”
Make no mistake about it, Denney’s heart still aches over how UNO did him and his program in, but he has moved on. He does, however, offer a cautionary note for those who so cavalierly discarded the legacy of UNO wrestling.
“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization,” he said. “You must keep it, you must do everything you can to keep it. You’re going to see the long term effects of this later on. That culture won’t last.
“What happens when you lose your tradition, your history, and you forget about it — then you don’t recognize it. You lose something, and sometimes you’ll never get it back.”
- Former UNI wrestler has Olympic goals after prison (thegazette.com)
- Two high school wrestlers post bond, released in sex assault (ajc.com)
- World medalist wrestler dies at age 36 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Wrestling Futures (deegeesbb.wordpress.com)
- Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness) (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Filmmaker Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, Makes Lucha Libre a Way of Life and a Favorite Film Subject
When I read about filmmaker Charles Fairbanks for the first time last year I was immediately taken by his story: how a rural Nebraska student-athlete turned artist become enamored with and immersed in the world of Mexican professional wrestling known as Lucha Libre, which he’s made the subject of some of his short films. Then when I delved further into his story, by exploring his website and watching some of his work, I knew I had to write about him. We met last summer, when his disarmingly sweet personality and thoughtful responses made me immediately like him. The following story I wrote about Fairbanks and his work appeared just before this year’s Omaha Film Festival, where one of his Lucha Libre films, Irma, was shown. Fairbanks is a serious artist whose work may or may not ever find a wide audience but is certainly deserving of it. I plan to follow his career and to see much more of his work as time goes by.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).
Amid a world of masked figures with exotic alter egos, Fairbanks performs as the One-Eyed Cat. It’s not what you’d expect from this cerebral, soft-spoken, fair-skinned rural Nebraska native. Then again, Fairbanks is an adventurous artist and art educator, which explains why he’s devoted much of the last nine years to Lucha Libre’s high-flying acrobatics and soap opera melodramatics.
Fairbanks, whose pretty boy face and chiseled body are in stark contrast to Jack Black in Nacho Libre, is a photographer and short filmmaker who loves wrestling. Naturally, then, he combines his passions as self-expression. He’s gone so far as affixing a video camera to his mask to record the action.
“Oh, I look silly,” he says of his third eye. “Other wrestlers laugh out loud but they’re always very welcoming. I make sure to establish a relationship before I walk in with a camera on my head.”
His documentary short Irma, an Omaha Film Festival selection, lyrically profiles Irma Gonzalez, a hobbled but still strong, proud former wrestling superstar and singer-songwriter who befriended him at Bull’s Gym on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Last fall Irma won the Best Short prize at the Coopenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. It’s shown at festivals worldwide, as have other works by Fairbanks, some of which, like Pioneers, have nothing to do with wrestling.
Intense curiosity brought him to Mexico in the first place. Oddly, he’d just abandoned organized wrestling. He was a state champion grappler at Lexington (Neb.) High, where his artistic side also flourished. His mat talent and academic promise earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he wrestled two years before quitting the team.
He was touring Mexico on a rite-of-passage mission of self-discovery and enlightenment when he saw his first Lucha Libre match. He soon started shooting and practicing. He made still images that first trip and has since used video to capture stories.
“I just fell in love with this spectacle,” he says.
Bull’s Gym, located on an upper floor of a hilltop building, is his main dojo, sanctuary and set. It overlooks a cinematic backdrop.
“There’s something powerful for me in looking out at the miles of humble cinderblock housing spread out and up the ridges around Mexico City,” he says. “That view is very beautiful. With all the pollution the sunsets are very colorful. The airport is nearby and so you see the airplanes taking off.
“For me all of this magnifies and modulates the gym’s energy, which is really pretty fervent. There’s often boxing and wrestling going on at the same time in the same room. With all the activity, the ambient noise is really a roar.”
Lucha Libre has a near mystical hold on him now but he admits he originally regarded it as a lovely though bastard version of the wrestling he grew up with.
“At the time, as most competitive wrestlers in the U.S., I denied the connection,” he says. “I said, This is totally different. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept the real links between competitive wrestling and show wrestling.”
Fairbanks, a Stanford art grad with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, takes an analytical view of these kindred martial arts.
“There is a lot of overlap but at the same time I think they have very different philosophies embedded in them.”
Asking if Lucha Libre is fake misses the point. The visceral, in-the-moment experience is the only reality that matters.
“In my experience of Lucha Libre the matches themselves are not staged — you don’t know who’s going to win. You still maybe want to win, but it’s not just up to you,” he says. “You can’t just go for a pin. You really have to try to entertain. It’s very much like a dance. There’s a certain repertoire of moves my opponent and I know how to do together, and if I start to do one move you recognize this move and you actually respond in a certain way to help me do it more spectacularly.
“And then there are variations, where you’re doing something defensive that’s changing me, so it’s not my move anymore. As we go through this back and forth we establish these sort of rhythms.”
The unfolding dance, he says, is also “an improvised drama” marked by “waves of tension” and “a building of energies. One wrestler is dominating but then the tides turn and the other wrestler comes back. It’s not something scripted but you feel your way through.” The improvisation, he adds, extends to the referee, who “plays his part,” and to the crowd, “who play their part.”
Reared in the no-frills tradition of amateur wrestling, he says “it’s been really hard to learn this completely different way of thinking or feeling reality. I’m the first to say I haven’t mastered Lucha Libre. I’m not trying to make it big as a wrestler in Mexico. I’m trying to learn about wrestling.” He’s also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He’s learned about Lucha Libre’s “built-in codes of honor” and “certain ways people present themselves publicly or don’t.” The wrestlers aren’t supposed to reveal their identity outside the ring. He’s made himself an exception.
“I feel OK transgressing this because I’m already marked as Other.”
In his Flexing Muscles some native wrestlers half-kiddingly harangue this outsider. “It’s very important to me they’re calling me gringo and saying, ‘Go back to your damned country,” he says, as it makes overt his interloper status. As deep as he’s tasted Mexican culture he knows he remains a visitor and observer.
“I’m really conscious of my differences from most of the people there in terms of nationality and economics,” he says.
He’s acutely aware too of his privileged “ability to come in and do this and then leave and go back to the States and make art out of this experience,” adding, “With my movies in a certain sense I try to build in the story of my being there and my relationship to the subjects.” He’s struck by how generous his subjects are in opening their lives and homes to him even as they struggle getting by.
Stranger or not, he engages the culture head-on.
“I do try to immerse myself very much in that world I’m living in, but without losing who I am. I never try to pretend to be Mexican. I try to get as close as I can and I try to understand, but from my point of view.”
Despite the obvious differences between Fairbanks and his fellow performers, he feels a reciprocal kinship, adding, “there’s a certain kind of camaraderie I feel with wrestlers anywhere.” Wherever he’s traveled, including Europe and Asia, he’s wrestled.
Fairbanks has seen much of Mexico but is largely centered in Mexico City and Chiapas, where he teaches filmmaking. He says, “I love to stay with families, I love to have local people to learn from and to interact with.”
Moments of zen-like meditation and magic realism lend his work poetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity. Irma‘s tough title character sings a ranchero in the ring while her circus performer granddaughters romp. In Pioneers Fairbanks lays hands over his father’s ailing back in a shamanistic healing ceremony. Enigmatic stuff.
“I like to make movies that invite more questions,” says Fairbanks, who participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and cut his chops working with veteran filmmakers in Brussels, Belgium. “I like to have the films be a process of discovery for the viewers — to not tell the viewers how to see this world — but also a sense of discovery for me as I’m making the films.”
Authenticity is his goal.
“For me it’s important I’m making movies in Mexico that convey a part of experience not covered by our news media.”
As for the future, he says, “I have very specific stories I want to tell in Mexico and in other countries, some related to wrestling, other types of wrestling, some not at all related to wrestling.”
Irma‘s Omaha Film Festival screening is 6 p.m. on March 3 at the Great Escape Theatre as part of the Striking a Chord block of Nebraska documentary shorts.
- WWE News: Has Mexican Lucha Libre Star Averno Signed with the WWE? (bleacherreport.com)
- Lucha Future Mexican wrestlers storm The Roundhouse (vidalondon.net)
- Behind the mask – lucha libre wrestlers tap into Kitsap (pnwlocalnews.com)
- Offbeat Wrestlers Celebrate Cinco De Mayo ‘Lucha Libre’ Style (weirdnews.aol.com)
Fighters have always had a certain appeal, whether doing their fighting in the street or in the ring or, since the advent of mixed martial arts events, in the octagon. Houston Alexander of Omaha has pretty much done it all and he’s turned his talent for fisticuffs, combined with his good looks and charisma, into a bit of a run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, although he ended up losing more than he won. He’s also a radio DJ, graffiti artist, self-styled hip-hop educator, and man-about-town, making him more than the sum of his parts. The following story I did on him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) hit just as he was on his way up, and even though his star has since dimmed, he’s a survivor who knows how to work his image. He and his family didn’t like some of the things in my story, but he also knows that comes with the territory.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Ultimate fighter Houston “The Assassin” Alexander of Omaha is being a good soldier for the photo shoot. Stripping down to his trunks, he poses in the middle of a south downtown street one late summer afternoon. He’s asked to look menacing, hardly a stretch for the chiseled, tattooed, head-shaved graffiti artist-street thug turned Ultimate Fighting Championship contender. He remarks about “those guys looking out those windows” at his half-naked ass, meaning inmates at the Douglas County Correctional Center peering out the razor-wired windows of the facility just down the block. He once peered out those same windows upon this very street.
“I was inside the cage in ‘97. I just got through beating up a cop and they took me down,” he says matter-of-factly. “The cop tried to grab me and I swung back and hit the guy. It was illegal what he was trying to do to me in the first place. He was trying to beat me up. I didn’t get charged for hitting a cop. I got charged for something else. I did like six months.”
It’s not his only run-in with the law. He alludes to “a whole bunch of domestic,” referring to disturbances with a woman that police responded to.
The fact he has a record only seems to add to his street cred as one tough M.F.. His fans don’t seem to mind his indiscretions. Passersby shout out props. “What’s up, Houston Alexander?” a guy calls out from his sedan. Another, on foot, invites him to a suburban sports bar where, the homey says, “they all love you out there.”
Now that Alexander is a certified UFC warrior, he’s handling all the hoopla that goes with it like a man. He seems unfazed by the endorsement deals, sponsorships, personal appearance requests, interviews, blog appraisals and fan frenzy demands coming his way these days.
Increasingly recognized wherever he goes, he eagerly acknowledges the attention with his trademark greeting, “What’s up, brother?” and firm handshake, giving love to grown men and boys whose star-struck expressions gleam with admiration for his fighting prowess. The African-American community particularly embraces him as a home boy made good. A strong, hard-working single father of six who came up an urban legend for his scribbing and street fighting. He’s one of their own and it’s them he’ll most be representing come next fight night.
Barely three months have passed since his furious UFC debut on May 26, when the light heavyweight put an octagon whupping on contender Keith Jardine at UFC 71 in Las Vegas. After getting knocked down in the first 10 seconds, Alexander quickly regrouped. His relentless pressing style backed Jardine against the fence, where he unleashed a flurry of knees, elbows, uppercuts and hooks to score a technical knockout. Now Alexander’s primed for his next step up the sport’s elite ladder.
He and his local coaching-training team led by Mick Doyle and Curlee Alexander, the same men who got him ready for his dismantling of ”The Dean of Mean“ Jardine, left for Great Britain on Monday to make final preparations for a September 8 clash with Italian Alessio Sakara on the UFC 75 card at London’s O2 Arena.
Doyle, a native of Ireland, is a former world champion martial arts fighter. His Mick Doyle Mixed Martial Arts Center at 108th and Blondo is the baddest gym around. He’s trained and worked the corner of several world champs. Curlee Alexander, a cousin of Houston’s, is a former NAIA All-America wrestler at UNO and the longtime head wrestling coach at North High School, where he’s produced numerous individual and team state champions.
Houston Alexander when to North, but other than brief forays in wrestling and football, he didn’t really compete in organized sports, unless you count weight lifting and body shaping. He was a two-time Mr. North. There was never enough money or time, he explains. By high school he was already a burgeoning entrepreneur with his art and music. Besides, he said, “I always had responsibilities at home.” But everyone knew he was gifted athletically.
The way Doyle puts it, Alexander’s “a freak” of nature for his rare combo of power and speed. The 205-pounder can bench press more than twice his body weight, yet he’s not muscle bound. He’s remarkably agile and flexible. Alexander came to him a “raw” specimen, but with abundant natural talent and instincts. Alexander knows he has a tendency to resort to street fighting, but Doyle recently reassured him by saying, “Everything we’re showing you sticks because it’s brand new. It’s not really replacing anything that anyone else taught you.” A blank slate.
“He wants to learn,” Doyle said. “He’s very confident, but he’s grounded. It’s a joy to coach someone like him.”
Curlee Alexander, a lifelong boxing devotee, has rarely seen the likes of his cousin, who’s made this old-school grappler a UFC convert. He, too, tells Houston not to change what’s worked, street fighting and all, but to harness it with technique. When Houston came to him eight months ago asking that he condition him, Curlee was dubious. Houston’s work ethic won him over. “He’s certainly determined.” His dismantling of Jardine convinced him he was in the corner of a special athlete.
“It was the most amazing night as far as being a coach I’ve ever had. All the things we had worked on were coming to fruition. He was doing it. He put all this stuff together at that moment. Incredible.”
For his part, The Assassin credits his coaches with getting him to the next level.
“Without Mick and Curlee, there’s no me. I had the raw skills, but they’re fine tuning what I have to turn me into this champ I need to be,” he said. “I love those guys. They’re the real deal. No joke. They know what they’re talking about. I do whatever they tell me to do. There’s no getting away with anything, brother, believe me. But I wouldn’t want to cheat myself anyway.”
With their help, he said, “I’m more technical and all the power and strength I have is programmed a whole different way. More controlled. But don’t get it twisted. If I need to turn it up and go hard in the paint, it can easily change.”
A win Saturday night should put the fighter in the Top 10 and that much closer to what some anticipate will be a world title challenge within a year. Doyle told Alexander as much after an August meeting to breakdown the tape of the Jardine fight. “I told you this would be a two-year process. We’re only three months into this deal and look how much better you’ve gotten. Just think in another year where you’re going to be. You’ll be able to get in the ring with Wanderlei Silva (the legendary Brazilian world champ, late of the PRIDE series, now a UFC star).”
“We understand the window of opportunity on this thing is short,” Doyle said. “We want to get it there.” Asked if Alexander’s age, 35, is part of the urgency, he said, “Maybe some of it. If he gets an injury he’s not going to heal like a 25-year-old. He’s got some years left, but let’s get him the money. He’s got six kids.”
The Sakara-Alexander tussle is key for both fighters. Doyle calls Sakara “a stepping stone” for his fighter, whom he said must “prove the Jardine thing wasn’t a fluke.” He describes it as “a make or break fight” for Sakara, who’s coming off two straight losses at 185 pounds. “He’s gotta win to stay in the UFC. Sakara’s in the way of bigger and better things, so he’s gotta go.”
Cool, suave, laidback, playful. Quick to crack on someone. Alexander’s extreme physicality manifests in the way he grabs your hand or brushes against you or delivers none too gentle love taps or engages in horse play. When he needs to, he can turn off the imp and attend to business. He’s all, ‘Yes, coach…‘Yes, sir,’ with his trainers, putting in hour after hour of roadwork, skipping rope, weight lifting, calisthenics, stretching, grappling, sparring and shadow boxing under their watch.
For months he’s trained three times a day, up to six to eight hours per day, six days a week, devoting full-time to what not long ago was just “a hobby.” He’s disciplined and motivated enough to have transformed his physique and refined his fight style. After years of itinerant club fighting, all without a manager or trainer, only himself to count on, he began formal, supervised training less than a year ago. He worked with Doyle a few weeks before the Jardine clash, which also marked the first time he prepped for a specific foe and followed a nutritional supplement regimen. By all accounts he followed the strategy laid out for him to a tee.
“I have no problem working,” he said. “I’ve been working all my life.”
Doing what needs to be done is how he’s handled himself as an artist, DJ, father, blue collar worker and pro fighter. Whatever’s come down, he’s been man enough to take it, from completing large mural projects to getting custody of his kids to donating a kidney to daughter Elan to breaking a hand in a bout yet toughing the injury out to win. “Most people don’t know I’m fighting with one kidney,” he said. He’s paid the price when he’s screwed up, too, serving time behind bars.
The UFC is all happening fast for Alexander, which is fine for this dynamo. But the thing is, he’s come to this breakthrough at an age when most folks settle into a comfortable rut. No playing it safe or easy for him though. The truth is this opportunity’s been a long time in the making for Alexander, who enjoyed local celebrity status way before the UFC entered his life.
The veteran Omaha hip hop culture scion, variously known as Scrib, FAS/ONE and The Strong Arm, has always rolled with the assurance of a self-made man and standup brother. All the way back to the day when he protected the honor of his siblings and cousins with his heavy fists, first on the mean streets of East St. Louis, Ill., then in north O, where his mother moved he and his two younger siblings after she left their father. Alexander was all of 8 when he became the man of the family.
“I’m the oldest, so I was always expected to be the leader of the whole bunch. See, I’ve fought all my life, and that’s no exaggeration. It was always a situation where I couldn’t walk away, like somebody putting their hands on my girl cousins. I got into a lot of fights because of my brother,” he said. “I don’t interfere with no one’s business, but if you put your hands on my family, then it becomes my business. A lot of people got beat up because of that.”
Respect is more than an Aretha Franklin anthem for him.
“I don’t go around disrespecting people unless they disrespect me. There’s always a line you can’t cross.”
Growing up in a single-parent home, he started hustling early on to help support the family. What began as childhood diversions — fighting and music — became careers. When he wasn’t busting heads on the street, he was rhyming, break dancing, producing and graffiti tagging as a local hip hop “pioneer.” His Midwest Alliance and B-Boys have opened for national acts. He had his own small record label for a time, His scrib work adorns buildings, bridges and railroad box cars in the area. He mostly does murals on commission these days but still goes out on occasion with his crew to scrib structures that just beg to be tagged.
It wasn’t until 2001 he began getting paid to fight, earning $500-$600 a bout. He estimates having more than 200 fights since then, of which he’s only been credited with seven by the UFC, sometimes getting in the ring multiple times per night, on small mixed martial arts cards in Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux City, Des Moines. These take-on-all-comers type of events, held at bars (Bourbon Street), concert venues (Royal Grove), outdoor volleyball courts, casinos, matched him against traditional boxers as well as kickboxers, wrestlers and practitioners of jujitsu and muay thai.
“I fought everybody, man. I fought every type of fighter there is,” he said. “Fat, short, tall. I fought a guy 400 pounds in Des Moines. Picked him up from behind and slammed him on his neck and beat him senseless. I’m a street fighter, man. When you street fight you don’t care what size and what style. It don’t matter.”
There were times he’d MC a rap concert and fight on the same venue. “Dude, it was funny, man, because first people would see me on stage saying, ‘Hey, get your hands in the air,’ and then five hours later I’m kicking somebody’s ass in the ring.”
MMA promoter Chad Mason, who promoted many of Alexander’s pre-UFC matches, confirmed the fighter saw an inordinate amount of action in a short time.
“Sometimes he was doing two-three fights in a night. He’d do ‘em in Des Moines and then turn around two days later and go to Sioux City and fight a couple more times there. So there were times he probably had six fights in a week,” Mason said. “Of course everybody he fought wasn’t top of the line competition, but he was beating Division I college wrestlers, pro boxers, pro kick boxers, guys that had years of experience. They could come out of the woodwork to just try against Houston, and he’d beat ‘em. I mean, he’d knock ‘em out.”
By Alexander’s own reckoning his personal record was fighting and winning five times in one night in Sioux City.
“I was feeling it that night. It was just crazy, man.”
He began fathering kids 15 years ago and now has custody of his three boys and three girls, by three different mothers. Four of the kids are from his ex-wife of 10 years. He, his kids and his hottie of a new girl friend, Elana, share a three-room northwest Omaha apartment until he finds the right house to buy. He has the perfect crib in mind — a three-bedroom brick house with wood floors.
As a single daddy he has a new appreciation for raising kids. He makes it work amid his training and other commitments with some old-fashioned parenting.
“My kids have structure. It’s all military style. We have to do everything together. We all have breakfast together. We all sit down at the table together for dinner. It can’t work any other way,” he said.
Between school and extracurricular activities, he said, “I try to keep them as active as I can.” He helps coach his boys club football team, the Gladiators. One girl’s in ballet, another in basketball. “I’m always moving, so they’re always moving.”
He vows his children, ranging in age from 15 to 4, are his prime motivation for making this fight thing pay off.
“I want to win to secure a financial future for my kids’ college education. Again it always goes back to the kids.”
To makes ends meet he worked on highway construction crews for nearly 10 years. Until the UFC discovered him, he was perhaps best known locally for his radio career, first at Hot 94.1 and now at Power 106.9, where he does everything from sales to promotions to engineering to hosting his own independent music show on Sunday nights.
He’s also an educator of sorts by virtue of his long-running School Culture Shock Tour that finds him presenting the history of hip hop to students.
Whatever it takes to put food on the table, he does. “I’m a hustler, man. This is true. That’s why I have Corn Hustler on my forearms,” he said, brandishing his massive, graffiti-inked limbs. “That’s a street term. I stay busy. I have always kept busy.”
He strives to be “well-rounded” and therefore “I’m always in that mode to where I’m doing something to better myself.”
Always looking for fresh angles, a pro sports career is right up his alley with its marketing possibilities and mix of athletics and entertainment. Besides catching on like wildfire, the sport is a crowd-pleasing showcase for men wishing to turn their cut bodies, mixed martial arts skills, macho facades, charismatic personalities and catchy names into national, even international, brands. Having built to this moment for years, he leaves little doubt he’s ready to take advantage of it, confident he will neither lose himself if he succeeds nor crash should he fail.
“I give myself five or six years, maybe more than that if I keep training and don’t get hurt. (Randy) Couture is 43 and he fought a younger guy and whupped his ass. If it doesn’t work out with the UFC, who cares? I was never a UFC fan anyway.”
Would he ever return to those $500 paydays in Sioux City? “Yeah, in a hearbeat. Why not? I love fighting, man. That’s the whole thing — I love fighting.”
What is it ultimately about fighting that’s such a turn on?
“I think it’s the rush,” he said. “I know have the ability to beat the guy, but it’s still the rush of not knowing. You’re out there to prove to this guy that you know how to whip his ass. You think Jardine had remotely in his mind he was going to get done like that? I don’t think so. But I knew. Because I know deep down in my heart what type of abilities I have.”
As he says, the UFC was never really his goal until promoter and friend Chad Mason hooked him up with fight manager Monty Cox. What little Alexander’s seen of the competition out there doesn’t impress him. No high octane attacks like his.
“I never really watched the UFC. When I started watching it all I saw was this assembly line of guys. I really haven’t seen anyone come with it or bring it. Maybe the guys they bring in are not as passionate about it as I am. I really love fighting. When I get in the ring I love doing it, so I’m going to bring it to the guy 110 percent. If a guy’s trying to slack off on me and he wants to me wear me down, nu-uh, we’re going to pick up the pace a little bit and we’re going to go at it.
“If you want to try to wrestle and do all that, OK, that’s fine, but you’re going to get kneed and you’re going to get elbowed and you’re going to get disrupted.”
Mick Doyle’s Kickboxing and Fitness Center
Disruption could be his alter ego name inside the octagon. It’s a mantra for what he tries to do to opponents. “Always disrupt, man, always disrupt,” he said. “To where they can’t think, because if you can’t think, you can’t react. That’s been my concept through the years,”
He said a quick review of the Jardine fight will reveal “I had hands in his face all the time. I was so close to him to where he couldn’t use those long arms, and I kept applying the pressure. Like my coaches said, ‘Always apply the pressure,’ and that’s what I did with that guy. I kept him disrupted.”
Alexander puts much stock in his “explosiveness.” “Once a guy tries to attack me,” he said, “my counter moves are so swift and fast and powerful, that definitely we’ll take the guy out. They’re all in short bursts.”
Doyle doesn’t even want Alexander thinking about leaving his feet. He wants him to dispatch Sakara on Saturday night the same way he did Jardine — standing straight up, his trunk and feet forming a triangle base, throwing blunt force trauma blows with knees, elbows and fists. Back in July Doyle told his fighter, “Just like in the Jardine fight, you don’t need to go to the ground. We’re going to knock the guy out or make the referee stop it. That will get you a title quicker. He’s gotta go.”
“That’s our motto for 2007 — he’s gotta go. He’s in the way. The Italian guy has got to go. Chow, baby,” Alexander said of Sakara. “I really want to go in and knock this guy out or really do something bad to him. I want people to be scared when they look at the footage. I want to show them what I’ve got.”
In his soft Irish brogue Doyle explained to his fighter how keeping an element of mystery is a good thing.
“Dude, if you go out there and knock this guy out, people are still going to wonder, What else can Alexander do? You know what, let them try to find out. If we can finish this guy on our feet, let’s do it. You don’t need to show people any more of your game than what is necessary to get the job done — until you come up with an opponent who makes you show more,” he said. “Keep it simple.”
Doyle, a Dublin native who came to America in ‘86, has tried to prepare Alexander for any technical tricks opponents might try to spring on him. He’s had him go toe-to-toe with athletes skilled in boxing, wrestling, kicking, you name it, bringing in top sparring partners from places like Chicago and sending him to Minneapolis to work with world-class submission artists good enough to make him tap out.
The fighter will have seen everything that can be thrown at him by fight night.
“They’ll get that move on you one time, and that’ll be the last time,” Doyle told Alexander. “That way when you step in the ring, and a guy goes to make his moves, you’ll feel ‘em coming, you’ll see ‘em coming, you’ll know what to do.”
Doyle and his team have spent much time honing Alexander’s footwork and stance, making sure his weight is balanced. It’s all done to harness his natural power, which becomes “more dangerous” when leveraged from below. The uppercuts that devastated Jardine were practiced repeatedly. The force behind those vicious shots, Doyle reminded him, comes from “using your legs,” which is why he harps on Alexander to maintain the foundation of a solid base.
To improve his quickness, Alexander often spars with lighter, faster guys and wears heavy gloves, so that when fight time arrives his hands and feet move like lightning.
The gameplan with Sakara is to pepper him with double jabs, then push off or slide step in to follow up with an arsenal of kill shots. For all his bravado and bull-rush style, Alexander is all about “protecting myself,” which is why a point of emphasis for the Sakara fight has been to keep his hands up against this classical boxer.
“As long as you keep your hands up you’re not going to get hurt,” Doyle said after an August sparring session. “None of the guys out there are just like that much better than you. But if you give them a mistake, they are more experienced and more technical to capitalize on it than you are right now. In a year, it’s all going to be different. Just like this guy Sakara, we’re going to make him give us a mistake.”
Sakara’s habit of keeping his hands low is one Alexander expects to exploit.
One thing Alexander said he’ll never be is intimidated.
“It’s important to inject fear. Everyone gets scared of the way a guy looks. I truly believe that half these people get scared by looking at the guy in the ring. I think Jardine beat a lot of people by the way he looked,” he said. Not that it was ever a possibility in his own mind, but Alexander said Jardine lost whatever edge he might have had when he heard him give an interview and out came a voice that didn’t match the Mr. Mean persona. “There’s no way I’m going to get my butt kicked by a guy that sounds like Michael Jackson,” he said.
Jardine’s comments leading up to the fight led Alexander and his camp to believe the veteran UFC fighter took the newcomer lightly. Alexander warns future foes not to make the same mistake.
“If anybody approaches me the same way to where they’re not taking me serious, that’s what’s going to happen. Every time. I’m going to be passionate about it. I’m going to be right or die with it. That means I’ll die in the ring before I actually lose. That’s how I feel about winning. Winning is everything, I don’t care what nobody says. If I hadn’t of won…you wouldn’t be talking to me,” he told a reporter.
It’s not hard to imagine Alexander gets an edge, both by the ripped, powerful figure he projects, and the calm demeanor he exudes. His serenity is no act.
“I’m mentally prepared for this thing,” he said. “I’ve always been mentally strong…tough. Make no mistake about it, the mental game I have down. No one’s going to out-mental me. No one’s going to deter me left or right, forward or back, because I have it down. Guys ask me, ‘Are you going to be nervous going out in front of 50,000 people?’ No, because I’ve done it before. I’ve done it with concerts. I’ve hosted concerts with 10,000 people. I do the school thing every week with 700-800 kids. Kids are the worst critics ever. If you can’t get kids’ attention, you’re garbage, and every week I get those kids’ attention. My working in radio, having 30,000 people listening every time I crack that mike, that’s pressure. So for me being in front of a crowd is nothing.”
Like all supreme athletes, Alexander exudes a Zen-like tranquility. His senseis — Mick and Curlee and company — have brought out the samaurai in him. It’s why he’s such “a calm fighter” entering the octagon.
“What it comes down to, you just have to play it out all the way and see where the chips fall,” Alexander said. “Everything happens for a reason. It is what it is.”
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