So I am here at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield for the 2014 CIF Boys’ Wrestling Championships, 1,146 matches over two long days. The short straw? Punished for insubordination? Perhaps. While I’m here, largely to see whether Cardinal Newman senior PJ Klee can bring home a state championship at 152 pounds, let me offer an outsider’s view of wrestling’s strengths and weaknesses.
* Really nice kids, and accommodating coaches, too, because they don’t get enough publicity.
* I cover a lot of high school sports, and I don’t think any kids are better conditioned than the wrestlers. Below, say, 195 pounds, I dare you to find a percentage point of body fat. In fact, if you combine strength and stamina (and eliminate the need for exceptional hand-eye coordination), grapplers are probably the best athletes in prep sports.
* You get to use “grapplers” in print.
* This is a pure and ancient sport — the main reason it was so offputting when the IOC threatened to eliminate it from the Summer Games. The techniques and conditioning have no doubt changed along the way (and the singlets have gotten more colorful now that they don’t have to make the dye from urchins), but wrestling probably doesn’t look a whole lot different from what they were doing 5,000 years ago in Greece. You need zero equipment to stage a rudimentary wrestling match.
* The sun never shines on wrestling. This is a sport for gym rats, which is why most wrestlers tend to have the skin tone of a “Twilight” extra. The arenas and, especially, the practice rooms are swabbed in sweat. If staph infections had an odor, they would smell like wrestling.
* Though the rules are clear, this sport is scored by referees. Like boxing, gymnastics and figure skating, that makes wrestling vulnerable to the whims and subjective interpretation of individual judges.
* Because it’s such a tough sport, there is a grimness to wrestling that is difficult to enjoy sometimes, especially when you’re talking about high school kids. The punishment absorbed by boys who lose wrestling matches isn’t just psychological. They get physically pounded sometimes. Their legs get twisted. Their ears swell. And this suffering takes place in a one-on-one crucible, with friends and family watching. It’s what makes sport compelling. It’s also why wrestlers generally don’t seem very loose before a tournament.
Here’s a link to my roundup from Friday night if you think the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.