InterMat Rewind: Minnesota's heavyweight legacy

The phrase "heavyweight champ" carries a lot of weight in the world of sports. For example, at one time it held special glamour in the world of professional boxing. And it still has critical importance in college wrestling, where, in a close dual meet or tournament, it's often up to the big man in the final match to determine which team comes out the winner.

In the more than 75 years of NCAA wrestling championships, a number of big men have found fame beyond winning at least one heavyweight title. For some, success comes from within the sport -- for example, Olympic medallists Bruce Baumgartner, Lou Banach and Chris Taylor, or coaches Kerry McCoy (Stanford), Kirk Trost (Michigan) and Charles McDaniel (Indiana). Others have become famous beyond the mat: NFL stars Stephen Neal, Carlton Haselrig, Curley Culp, Jim Nance and Jess Lewis … professional wrestlers Kurt Angle, Sylvester Terkay, Dick Hutton, Dale Lewis and Earl McCready … and even a larger-than-life movie star (Tab Thacker of Wildcats and the Police Academy series).

As you might expect, the school that has won the most NCAA team titles Oklahoma State -- also leads the way in producing the most NCAA heavyweight champs, with ten. However, the school that's second in NCAA heavyweight titlewinners is the University of Minnesota, with five: Tony Nelson (2012 and 2013)... Cole Konrad (2006 and 2007) … Brock Lesnar (2000) … Verne Gagne (1949) … and Leonard Levy (1941).

Let's take a look at the accomplishments of each of these Golden Gopher heavyweight champs:

Leonard Levy

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Leonard "Butch" Levy was a two-sport star at the University of Minnesota, making a name for himself on the football field and on the mat. He was an All-Conference lineman for the Gophers during their undefeated 1941 season, when the team outscored its opponents 186-38 on its way to an NCAA national championship.

1941 was a great season for the Minnesota matmen as well. The team compiled a 6-1-1 record, losing only to perennial powerhouse Oklahoma State, and tying the University of Northern Iowa. In the thirteen-man heavyweight bracket at the 1941 NCAA's held at Lehigh University, Butch Levy was seeded second, behind Oklahoma State's Loyd Arms. On his way to the finals, the 6', 260-pound Gopher defeated John Kearns of Penn State 3-2, then got a 4-2 victory in overtime over Lafayette's John Thomas, the third seed. In the title bout, Levy met up with fourth-seeded Larry Pickett of Yale, who had pinned two of his opponents and shut out the third 7-0. However, the Gopher prevailed over the Yale man 5-2, becoming the first NCAA heavyweight champ from the University of Minnesota, and only the third national titlewinner for the school.

Leonard Levy
Sadly, Levy's college mat career was cut short by a broken foot midway during the 1941-42 season, according to the 1942 Gopher yearbook, and he was unable to compete in the Big Tens or the NCAA's. Apparently Levy recovered from the injury; later that year, in the NFL draft, he was selected by the Cleveland Rams. However, he delayed his professional football career until 1945 to serve in the Navy for three years during World War II.

At the end of the 1948 NFL season, Levy retired from football and became a professional wrestler in the American Wrestling Association in the Twin Cities. He was an NWA Tag Team titleholder on two occasions with two Minnesota gridiron/grappling alums: first, with Verne Gagne, then later, with Leo Nomellini. Levy passed away in 1999 at age 78.

Verne Gagne

Born on a Minnesota farm in 1926, Verne Gagne lost his mother at age 14. He moved in with family near Robbinsdale High School, a wrestling dynasty in the 1940s… and a great mat career was launched. Weighing in at 185 pounds, Gagne was a two-time Minnesota high school state champ at heavyweight in 1942 and 1943.

Gagne was also an all-state star on the gridiron for Robbinsdale, and was recruited to play football for the University of Minnesota in 1943. However, wrestling quickly became Gagne's main college sport; as a freshman, he won the 1944 Big Ten conference championship at 175 pounds. After that first season, Gagne left campus to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps at El Toro, California for two years during World War II, where he played football and taught hand-to-hand combat. He returned to Minnesota in 1946, and wrote the second chapter of a very successful amateur sports career.

In March 1947, Gagne won the Big Ten heavyweight title; then, at the 1947 NCAA's, he lost to eventual champ Dick Hutton of Oklahoma State in the semifinals. The following season, Gagne - now a junior -- won yet another Big Ten title (this time at 191 pounds), then, a couple weeks later, claimed the title in the same weight class at the 1948 NCAA's at Lehigh. He also was an alternate for the US team at the 1948 London Olympics.

Gagne's senior season was the cherry on top of a stellar college career. He was undefeated in regular dual-meet action, and won his fourth Big Ten title - the first wrestler from any school at any weight to do that. Gagne, now a heavyweight, qualified to compete at the 1949 NCAA's at Colorado State where he was seeded second behind defending champ Dick Hutton. The Cowboy was a big bear of a man, who, at 5'10" and 245 pounds, outweighed the Minnesotan by about thirty pounds.

Verne Gagne
It was destined that the two would meet in the finals. Gagne pinned Brigham Young's Alvin Dailey in the first round, defeated Iowa's Bob Geigel 5-1 in the quarterfinals, and got a 4-2 victory over Homer Barr of Penn State in the semis. In the heavyweight title match between Gagne and Hutton, the score was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, despite the Cowboy scoring a takedown at the end… but there was a question as to whether Hutton had gained control before the clock ran out. Under the rules of the time, the officials declared Gagne the winner based on a few seconds' advantage in riding time … denying Hutton his third title, and the chance to be the first four-time NCAA champ. (Hutton won his third championship the following year, also on a referee's decision!)

After graduating from Minnesota, Gagne played professional football for the Green Bay Packers until a legal dispute made him hang up his helmet and enter the world of professional wrestling, where he enjoyed a career in the American Wrestling Association that spanned four decades and included numerous individual and tag-team titles. He still resides just outside the Twin Cities.

Brock Lesnar

Brock Lesnar shares some common points with Minnesota's two heavyweight champs before him. Like Verne Gagne, Lesnar grew up as a farm boy. As with Levy and Gagne, Lesnar was a two-sport star, playing football and wrestling in high school at Webster, South Dakota. And, like the other Gopher heavyweight champs before him, Lesnar too became a professional wrestler. However, at 6'4" and 285 pounds and with a 20" neck, 52" chest and a physique that Dan Gable declared "turns more heads than Cindy Crawford in a thong" -- Lesnar was quite a bit larger in size than his Minnesota predecessors (and many of his opponents). In fact, it's safe to say that the massive, muscular Minnesotan became the biggest thing to hit college wrestling in years.

Lesnar's college career started at Bismarck Junior College in North Dakota, where he dominated the National Junior College Athletic Association competition, racking up an incredible 56-3 record in his two years at BJC, culminating with the 1998 NJCAA heavyweight championship.

Brock Lesnar's physique and take-no-prisoners wrestling style turned more than a few heads … including that of J Robinson, University of Minnesota's head coach, who brought the South Dakota native to the Golden Gophers for his junior year where he built up a near-perfect 24-1 regular-season record against Division I competition. Lesnar claimed the 1999 Big Ten heavyweight title by shutting out Illinois' Karl Roesler 7-0. The massive Minnesotan was seeded second at the 1999 NCAA's, where, on his way to the finals, he pinned one opponent in just 22 seconds and held the other three to just four points vs. his 26. However, in the finals, Big Brock met his match in top-seeded Stephen Neal; the defending champ from Cal State Bakersfield defeated Lesnar 3-2.

Senior year was pretty much a replay of the previous season, with Lesnar losing only one regular-season bout, to Iowa's Wes Hand. However, two weeks later, in a bit of payback, Lesnar defeated the Hawkeye big guy in the finals of the 2000 Big Tens. It would not be the last time the two rivals would do battle. At the 2000 NCAA's in St. Louis, top-seeded Brock Lesnar pinned three of his four pre-finals opponents to find himself going for the heavyweight title against familiar foe Wes Hand. The Iowan just missed winning the match in regulation, lacking just four seconds of riding time. Instead, in the tiebreaker, Lesnar escaped from Hand in 21 seconds to win the match - and the 2000 NCAA title - 3-2 TB.

Brock Lesnar
After college, Brock Lesnar considered a career in freestyle wrestling, or the NFL… but chose professional wrestling. After two years in the "minor leagues" Lesnar was introduced to WWE fans as "the next big thing." A few months later, he beat The Rock for the WWE heavyweight championship, the youngest man (age 25) to win a WWE title.

In 2004, Lesnar left pro wrestling, and, after trying out for the Minnesota Vikings, then entered mixed-martial arts competition, culminating in the UFC Heavyweight Championship. In 2011, Lesnar retired from the UFC, and has returned to WWE.

Cole Konrad

Cole Konrad enhances the University of Minnesota's reputation for producing big men of championship caliber, by being the first Golden Gopher to win not one but two NCAA heavyweight titles. (Verne Gagne also won two national collegiate titles; in addition to his 1949 heavyweight title, he claimed the 191-pound crown in 1948.)

"King" Cole was born in Wisconsin in 1984. He attended Freedom High School - the same school as Garrett Lowney, Minnesota's heavyweight prior to Konrad - where he compiled a 101-15 overall record, with 65 of those wins by pin. Konrad completed his prep career by winning the 2002 Wisconsin high school state title, along with the freestyle and Greco-Roman titles at the 2002 Junior National Championships.

Quoting the 2006-2007 Minnesota wrestling media guide, Cole Konrad "came to Minnesota a bit under the radar but had the desire to carry on the tradition of great Gopher heavyweights." Elsewhere in the media guide, the 6'3", 280-pound Konrad is described as "destined to go down as one of the greatest wrestlers in Minnesota history."

Now that Cole Konrad has completed his career as a Golden Gopher, his mat accomplishments back up that statement: A 154-13-0 overall record (second greatest number of wins in school history), with 50 of those pins by pin. Undefeated his junior and senior seasons, racking up the longest win streak in school history at 76. A three-time Big Ten heavyweight champ. A four-time NCAA All-American (only the fourth in school history). A three-time NCAA finalist… and two-time NCAA heavyweight champ.

At Konrad's first NCAA's in 2004, the fifth-seeded sophomore placed fourth after losing to Oklahoma's Leonce Crump in the semifinals. The following year, Konrad, seeded second, lost a heartbreaker to his main college nemesis, Oklahoma State's Steve Mocco, in the finals 3-1, SV 1.

It was after this loss -- the third to Mocco during the 2004-05 season -- that Konrad started to turn things around his Cowboy rival. During the 2005-06 season, Konrad beat Mocco at the All-Stars, and in an end-of-match stunner, pinned him at the National Duals finals. It all culminated in one last showdown in the finals of the 2006 NCAA's. The Golden Gopher got a 5-2 double tiebreaker victory over the Cowboy big man to end Konrad's perfect season on a perfect note.

Cole Konrad (Photo/John Johnson)
Starting his senior season, there was considerable pressure on Cole Konrad's broad shoulders to maintain perfection … and he did, winning all his matches, including his third Big Ten title. At the 2007 NCAA's at Auburn Hills, Michigan, the defending champ iced his college career by pinning finals rival Aaron Anspach of Penn State (the man Konrad beat two weeks earlier in the Big Ten finals) at 1:53 in the first period.

What could make Konrad's senior year any sweeter? He was named University of Minnesota 2007 Male Athlete of the Year.

Having graduated from Minnesota with a degree in business and marketing education, Cole Konrad wrestled freestyle for a time, and even accepted an invitation to try out for the NFL New York Jets. In early 2010, Konrad launched his career in MMA, and, later that year, won the Bellator Heavyweight Championship.

Tony Nelson

At the 2012 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Anthony Nelson became Minnesota's fifth-ever heavyweight titlewinner, defeating the defending champ Zack Rey of Lehigh, 4-1, in the 285-pound finals... then successfully defended his title by beating Big Ten rival Mike McMullan of Northwestern, 6-2, in the title match at the 2013 NCAAs, joining Cole Konrad as a two-time NCAA heavyweight champ.

Tony Nelson celebrates after winning the NCAA title (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Nelson joined the elite club of Golden Gopher heavyweight champs as a sophomore, bringing a 31-2 record and the 2012 Big Ten 285 lb. title to the national championships. He also grabbed the heavyweight titles at the Southern Scuffle and Bison Open. For all these accomplishments, Nelson was selected the University of Minnesota's 2012 Male Athlete of the Year, and was in the running for Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year.

As a freshman, Nelson earned All-American honors by placing seventh at the 2011 NCAAs.

A 2009 grad of Cambridge-Isanti High School north of the Twin Cities, Nelson was a two-time Minnesota state champ, at 197 pounds and at heavyweight. In high school, Nelson compiled an impressive 141-18 overall record, with an incredible 80 pins. He won the 2009 National Wrestling Championship at 215 pounds, and was considered to be the nation's top prospect at that weight. Nelson also earned honors on the gridiron as a defensive end and linebacker, and an Academic All-American for his success in the classroom.

Nelson differs from previous Minnesota heavyweight champs in terms of how he's put together. Standing 6'2" and weighing in about 225 pounds, Nelson does not have the sheer heft of a Cole Konrad, nor the carved-from-granite musculature of a Brock Lesnar. Rather, Nelson's background as a lighter-weight wrestler has helped him overcome bulkier opponents with greater agility and endurance.

More to come?

In terms of producing top-flight big men, the University of Minnesota has had more than its fair share of success over the years, starting with Clifton Gustafson, 1937 Big Ten heavyweight champ and two-time NCAA All-American heavyweight in 1937 and 1938.

In the more than 80 years of NCAA championships, of the Minnesota wrestlers who have won at least one NCAA title, more than half weighed in at 175 pounds or more. And, if anything, Minnesota's success in the upper weights seems to have been growing stronger in recent years.

Among the Minnesota heavyweights since 1990 to have been All-Americans but did not win an NCAA title:

Billy Pierce -- three-time NCAA All-American (1993, 1995 and 1996), 1993 Big Ten heavyweight champ

Shelton Benjamin -- two-time All-American (1997 and 1998)

Garrett Lowney -- two-time All-American (2001 and 2002), 2001 Big Ten heavyweight champ, two-time Olympian (2000 and 2004, winning the bronze medal in Greco-Roman competition at the 2000 Sydney Games before wrestling his first match as a Golden Gopher).

What accounts for this success? Ask the man who was an NCAA champ for Minnesota at 177 in 1991, Marty Morgan. The three-time All-American is now an assistant coach at his alma mater, focusing on working with the big men. In an earlier interview InterMat, when asked why the Golden Gophers seem to have great success with their heavyweight wrestlers, Marty Morgan replied, "When we train heavyweights, we expect them to do everything the lighter-weight guys do. There's no slacking off, no cutback in the amount of running or weight work or practice matches. We want our heavyweights to go the full six minutes without slowing down."

The legacy of great Golden Gopher heavyweights started 70 years ago shows no signs of ending anytime soon.


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