InterMat Rewind: Old School Strategy

Mark Palmer

8/28/2008
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Wrestlers wear one-piece singlets and headgear, and wrestle on foam mats.

Even folks who don't know a takedown from a touchdown recognize these basic elements of amateur wrestling. That's all most of us have ever known. These elements have been "standard equipment" for U.S. high school and college wrestling for the past 40 years or more.

Things weren't always so. Singlets first made their appearance in U.S. high schools and colleges about 1970. Headgear was strictly optional -- and a rare sight -- until the late 1960s. Today's foam mats were introduced in the late 1950s.

What was it like for wrestlers who competed before these changes? What kind of impact did old-school mats and gear have on the way they wrestled? And what about those who wrestled in the late 1950s into the 60s, who experienced first-hand the revolutionary changes to the mats, and in what wrestlers wore out onto those mats?

Before we suit up …

Even as someone who writes about wrestling as it once was -- and has interviewed more than a few wrestlers of the past -- I really hadn't thought that wrestling gear and mats would have much of an impact on the way wrestlers wrestle. (Putting aside all the advertising messages that claim wrestlers will be invincible if they wear the latest headgear, singlets, or shoes.)

Jack Marchello
That all changed during a phone interview with Jack Marchello, two-time Big Ten champ for the University of Michigan in 1956 and 1958. I was working on a profile on Gary Kurdelmeier, University of Iowa champion wrestler who later became head coach of the Hawkeyes in the 1970s. I wanted to talk to someone who had wrestled Kurdelmeier. In reviewing the Iowan's mat record, only a handful of wrestlers had defeated him in college. One was Jack Marchello. Leah Howard, sports information director at Michigan, put me in touch with the Wolverine champ.

Marchello was able to paint a detailed picture of his 1956 Big Ten 177-pound title match with Kurdelmeier, mentioning matter-of-factly that, because his Hawkeye opponent's shirtless upper body was sweaty and hard to grip, he instead attached the legs which were covered in wool tights. Sweaty bare torsos? Wool tights? Today's wrestlers don't grapple with these challenges in a typical match.

I wanted to know more … and Jack Marchello was the right guy to ask. At age 72, he is still actively involved in the sport, designing wrestling headgear for Cliff Keen Athletic, and attending wrestling events in the Ann Arbor area on a regular basis. In high school in Illinois, and in college at Michigan, Marchello normally wrestled in wool tights, oftentimes without a shirt or headgear, on cotton, flannel or vinyl-covered mats filled with anything from cotton to horsehair to shredded straw.

Our conversation got me thinking about what it must have been like to wrestle with equipment very different than we know today. So I contacted other former wrestlers who put time in on the mat in the late 1950s and 60s. Some experienced tremendous changes in their mat careers, recalling various types of uniforms, or the first time they wrestled on Resilite (which, for the wrestling world, has almost become a generic name for any brand of foam-core mat featuring a bonded vinyl surface, as you'll see in some of the quotes in this article … much like Kleenex = tissue.)

No singlets, no shirts … no problems?

Today's one-piece singlets have been standard equipment in amateur wrestling events for nearly forty years. Yet, before the early 1970s, there were no singlets in high school and college wrestling; in fact, well into the 1960s, singlets were actually banned by the NCAA and state high school athletic associations that govern prep wrestling.

So what did high school and college wrestlers wear onto the mat? From World War II up to the mid 1960s, most wrestlers wore full-length tights under tight-fitting trunks, sometimes with sleeveless shirts. Yes, shirts were optional. In much of the country during that time - especially the west and Midwest -- it was common for wrestlers to compete bare-chested. (The NCAA required shirts of all college wrestlers in 1965, and state high school athletic associations quickly followed suit.)

Jack Marchello says, "At Michigan, we usually wrestled in tights only, no shirts."

"Because most opponents wrestled shirtless, it wasn't long before both of our bodies were very sweaty, which made it harder to get a grip."

"When I wrestled at 177, I usually gave away ten pounds on an opponent, so I wasn't going to go attacking his upper body," according to the two-time conference champ for the Wolverines. "I became more of a leg wrestler. I took advantage of the wool tights. Even when the tights were soaked in sweat, it was still easier for me to grab the legs than the upper body."

"I wrestled in tights, shorts and no shirt," says Shelby Wilson, a two-time NCAA finalist at Oklahoma State (1958, 1959) at 137 pounds who went on to win a freestyle gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. "That's what I wore all through junior high, high school and college. I never gave it a second thought."

"It was only when I wrestled freestyle that I wore an international-style singlet."

Les Anderson's experience was similar to that of Marchello and Wilson. Anderson, a two-time NCAA champ (1958, 1960) for Iowa State at 130 pounds, usually wrestled in trunks and tights, stripped to the waist. "It was what we and most of our opponents wore. It's what we knew. We didn't question it."

Changing uniforms in Illinois …

While wrestlers like Jack Marchello, Shelby Wilson and Les Anderson wrestled their prep and college careers in the trunks-and-tights, no-shirt uniform, some amateur wrestlers competed in various types of uniforms during their mat careers.

Denny McCabe
Dennis McCabe is one. He wrestled at Maine Township East High School in north-suburban Chicago (alma mater to Hillary Clinton and Harrison Ford) in the late 1950s and early 60s, then continued his wrestling career at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale into the mid 1960s … then in the U.S. Army in the late 60s. (McCabe was the 190-pound champ at the very first Midlands tournament in 1963.)

"When I started wrestling, we were bare-chested, with tights," recalls McCabe. "It affected strategy. It was hard to grip a guy who was 'greased up' with sweat."

"Those first tights were wool. Funky feeling, hard to pull off after a match when they became all sweaty."

While still in high school, McCabe's team switched from wool to tights that he describes as "silky cotton, like women's nylons -- slick-feeling, slippery. They looked nice, and felt great. Because they were slick, it was easier for the wrestler on the bottom to escape."

While we can't give full credit for the uniform … in his junior year, Denny McCabe placed third in the 165-pound weight class at the 1960 Illinois High School State Tournament.

In his senior year at Maine East -- and throughout college at SIU -- McCabe wore a third type of wrestling uniform that consisted of three pieces -- trunks and tights, plus a singlet-type, sleeveless shirt that buttoned together underneath at the crotch - "sort of like a diaper" says the former Saluki, now retired to the Tucson area, and a frequent poster to TheMat.com forum as "Denny." McCabe describes the shirt as being "cotton but silky. It absorbed the sweat generated during the match."

While at SIU, Denny McCabe was one of the top-ranked 191-pounders in the U.S., expected to be in the thick of the battle at the 1964 NCAAs with guys like eventual finalists Jack Brisco of Oklahoma State, and Ohio University's Harry Houska. Sadly, just two weeks before the national championships at Cornell University, McCabe blew out his knee, and was forced to watch from the sidelines.

After college, McCabe served in the U.S. Army, where he was an All-Army and All-Service Champ in 1968. At this point of his wrestling career he was introduced to the one-piece singlet much like those that are now standard equipment in high schools and colleges today.

In talking about wrestling uniforms of his era, Denny McCabe recalls yet another variation: the gear Illinois prep powerhouse Reavis wore during the 1961 season. "They were singlets, cut like the ones wrestlers used to wear in international competition until a few years ago, with a narrow section of fabric down the middle of the body, revealing more of the chest and back," says the Chicagoland native. "I don't know if that was an experiment or test or what. I don't remember any other school wearing them that year, or afterwards."

… and in Massachusetts

The changeover in uniforms wasn't limited to Midwestern matmen. Jack Alkon was a member of the first-ever wrestling team at Brookline High in Brookline, Massachusetts (home town of President John F. Kennedy) which had a practice season during the 1962-1963 school year. "That year, we wore cotton tights, no shirts …"

When asked whether wrestling bare-chested opponents posed any challenges or changes in strategy, Alkon responds, "My wrestling was in its infancy. It really didn't have any affect on what I was doing … Once the adrenaline's pumping, what you're wearing doesn't really have much of an impact."

Jack Alkon (Photo/Tufts)
In Jack Alkon's second year at Brookline, the school upgraded to nylon tights and singlet-style shirt. "It was a two-way stretch fabric. Much more comfortable."

"The nylon tights were slipperier than wool or a bare leg," adds Alkon, who is now a dentist in Connecticut, posting to TheWrestlingTalk forum as "Spider." "Shoot for a double, and your hands would slide down the fabric."

Upon graduation from high school, Jack Alkon wrestled at Tufts University in Massachusetts from 1965-1969. As a freshman in college, Alkon recalls gear consisting of tights and shirts that were made from wool. "We referred to that uniform as 'wooly bully.' I remember the wool being itchy. You wanted to pin the other guy right away and get out of those as quick as possible."

"After freshman year, we wore not-so-great cotton."

To bring things full circle, Alkon says he wore a singlet just once -- when he stepped out onto the mat to wrestle as a 31-year-old.

Under it all …

In talking about their high school and college wrestling gear, both Denny McCabe and Jack Alkon also disclosed what they wore underneath their uniforms.

"We wore jockstraps. Never wore a cup out onto the mat, just for football," according to McCabe, who played both sports at Maine East. "With all those layers of clothing that all came together down there -- the shirt, then the tights, then the heavy, cotton trunks -- it seemed like we already had layers of protection."

Jack Alkon shares his experiences: "One teammate in college wore a cup. I think a cup would get in the way. In my wrestling career, I took only a couple shots to the crotch… Back then, a jockstrap was pretty standard. Nowadays, a lot of guys wear underwear or compression shorts."

Why the changes? Wrestlers weigh in

When asked why the NCAA changed the rules to require shirts -- and later, eliminated its ban on one-piece singlets -- Shelby Wilson says, "I don't know what the reason for the changes. I've heard different reasons thrown out there. One I heard was that we needed to be more modest and that we were showing too much skin. To use the word modesty for the reason for the change seems ridiculous in light of what athletes wear at swim meets and track meets."

Modesty may have indeed been a factor in changing the uniform rules, at least according to some wrestlers of the past. More than one wrestler I've talked to over the past few years has said that they're aware of incidents where, in the heat of battle, fans in the stands saw more than a bare chest; genitals were exposed. (In fact, some wrestling rules of the 1960s seem to be written with this in mind, stating that shirts and tights are mandatory "to prevent unseemly exposure.")

As for the possibility that the rules changed because it was difficult for wrestlers to get a grip on a sweaty, shirtless opponent, Shelby Wilson says, "Slippery bodies seem to me to just be a part of (wrestling) competition. If our reason for putting on more uniform is to give better grip to the wrestlers, it doesn't seem like a valid reason."

Jack Marchello offers a somewhat different perspective: "I swear that requiring shirts really changed wrestling. I think it helped even things out for wrestlers who weren't as strong in the upper body."

One last uniform observation …

Denny McCabe provides one last recollection regarding bare-chested wrestling: "Back when I was in high school, you were able to see the muscles of your opponents because they were shirtless."

"Realize that back then, only a few wrestlers lifted weights. For strength, we did pull-ups, sit-ups. So it was rare to see a truly muscular wrestler."

"I remember being at the 1961 Illinois high school state tournament when Joe James took to the mat. He had the Chicago City heavyweight title, and, even in high school, he was 6'3" and 220 pounds. As soon as he took off his jacket, the crowd went 'ooh.' They were blown away by his incredible physique. Most had never seen anything like it." (James placed third at the Illinois state championships that year. He then continued his wrestling career at Oklahoma State as the first African-American starter for the Cowboys, winning the NCAA heavyweight title in 1964.)

Headgear … or bare-headed?

Cauliflower ears may be considered to be a "badge of honor" with some wrestlers. However, to prevent damage to the ears -- as well as other head injuries -- there's protective headgear (referred to as "earguards" in current and past NCAA rules; some old-time ads call them "helmets"). Headgear has been mandatory for scholastic and collegiate competition in the US since the late 1960s and early 70s… but it hasn't always been so. Although early forms of head protection were available even in the 1920s and 30s, headgear was a very rare sight up into the 1950s and early 60s, though earguards were "highly recommended" in the 1963 "NCAA Wrestling Guide."

"I started college in 1955, and at that point of history, we had headgear," says Shelby Wilson. "Not everyone used them because there was no rule saying you had to. The only one that I saw during those days was called the Wolverine and it was nearly the same as we have today, but different straps and other material. All headgear does the same identical job and that's to protect the ears. There's not a lot you can change except material, snaps, Velcro, pretty colors, etc."

"In 1955, I saw Terry McCann (two-time NCAA champ for University of Iowa, and fellow Olympic gold medallist in Rome in 1960) wearing a Wolverine headgear at the NCAA tournament. I do not remember if he wore it in the finals but I know for a fact I saw him wear it in the semifinals against Dick Delgado (University of Oklahoma 115-pounder). I wore one some, but probably not often enough."

"I recall the headgear of my era," says Denny McCabe. "They were the same for many years, with plastic straps. Then came those Japanese, black-cloth jobs … We used them in the meets. Must not have been mandatory, though. As I recall, many wrestlers whipping them off their head and into the corner. Myself included. That's why my ears look so cool … not!"

Jack Alkon reports that "I never wore headgear, and I never wrestled anyone who wore them."

"Headgear would probably make me feel confined. I can't imagine wearing one."

"That said, headgear is very important to the safety of wrestlers," Alkon adds. "Badly-fitting headgear would be the most important impediment to a kid's performance."

Jack Marchello offers a unique perspective on headgear. As a wrestler, he usually didn't wear them -- "they were strictly optional in college." However, for much of his professional life, he has designed wrestling headgear … and he sees this head-and-ear protection device as a two-edge sword.

"There are negative aspects to headgear … It gives your opponent a platform, a way to get a better grip on your head, potentially controlling and battering you."

"Over the years, the general trend in headgear design is to make it lighter, smaller, with less for an opponent to grab onto. However, more recently, it seems that many younger wrestlers are interested in something bigger, bulkier. For some, they want something that looks like it came out of "Star Wars" -- something tough-looking. Others seem fascinated by older-style headgear. They seem to like the retro look."

Putting your best footwear forward

Flip through any amateur wrestling magazine, and you'll see an overwhelming array of ads for wrestling shoes, many bearing the name of all-time mat greats, all promising winning performance during a match. Shoes have undergone tremendous changes over the years, in terms of design, construction, features … and price. Even with all these changes, the NCAA and high school athletic association rules governing the footwear a wrestler wears onto the mat have remained pretty much the same over the years: Wrestling shoes must be light in weight, heelless in design, cover the ankles, and not have any metal eyelets or other sharp parts to potentially injure an opponent.

Jack Alkon says, "I don't remember my high school wrestling shoes. In college, I wore canvas shoes with flat, thin rubber soles. Kind of like P.F. Flyers (a popular all-purpose canvas sneaker) -- heavy, kinda crappy."

"I've worn modern wrestling shoes," Alkon adds. "I don't think anyone's lost a match because of their shoes."

"I think all shoes are pretty much similar quality, equally as good. What feels good, works."

Denny McCabe recalls his wrestling footwear: "In high school, we wore high-top canvas wrestling shoes. They were lighter than typical shoes. We thought they made you faster."

"At SIU, we were issued black nylon wrestling shoes. They had very thin soles, made of very thin rubber."

Here's how Shelby Wilson describes the footwear he wore as an Oklahoma State Cowboy: "We wore the old canvas Converse shoes and never gave it a second thought. They were the most durable shoes ever produced for wrestling. Today everyone wants to look cool so we have competition to see who can make the coolest equipment."

"You are either a good, tough wrestler, or you are not, and $100 shoes are not going to make you any better."

Taking to the mats

The 1950s were a decade of incredible innovation. Things we take for granted today -- space exploration, commercial passenger jets, color TV, video recording, the Interstate highway system, fast-food restaurants, indoor shopping malls, consumer credit cards -- were all products of this era.

In the late 1950s, innovation also hit amateur wrestling, in the form of foam mats… and, in terms of on-the-mat performance and safety, the sport was never the same again.

Les Anderson
Les Anderson, two-time NCAA champ at Iowa State (1958, 1960) and long-time assistant coach for the Cyclones, says, "You could say that foam mats were the biggest change in wrestling in the past 50 years."

In an interview for InterMat Rewind about the 1958 NCAAs held at the University of Wyoming, Anderson recalls many details about the venue, the War Memorial Fieldhouse -- especially the mats. "They had the new foam mats, Resilite, round ones … Iowa State had purchased one that year, so we were used to competing on them."

"Most wrestlers were used to wrestling on the old horsehair mats, so the new mats at the NCAAs were a huge change for them."

Jack Marchello remembers his first experience with the new mats: "Sophomore year, Michigan got its first rubber mats, made by Uniroyal."

"These new mats changed the way we wrestled. It increased a wrestler's ability to shoot takedowns. The foam mats made it easier to move on the mat. It became a much faster, quicker sport than it had been."

"Foam mats were safer, too," Marchello adds. "They absorbed shock better. They cut down on knee injuries. You were less likely to be injured when taken down hard."

"Mat burns were no longer as common with the foam mats. Skin infections were also reduced. It was easier to keep the new mats clean, to disinfect them."

Jack Alkon wrestled all his high school and college matches on Resilite-type mats. However, "our practice mats were cotton mats, covered in vinyl, tied together… I got knocked out once on an old cotton mat."

One of Alkon's mat memories: "I've wrestled on a mat with a square painted on it, instead of a circle."

Denny McCabe shares his experience with various types of mats: "I was considered to be an early starter, taking up the sport at age 11. I wrestled in the Chicago Park District. Their mats weren't Resilite; (instead, they were) canvas and cloth, padded with cotton, about two or three inches thick. They didn't cushion much of a fall."

"By high school and college, I was wrestling on Resilite mats pretty much exclusively."

Want to know more?

Now you have a better idea of what it was like to wrestle 40-50 years ago. To learn even more about wrestling gear, mats and rules of the past, check out Major Changes in Intercollegiate Wrestling as part of the InterMat Rewind series.

Special thanks to each of the men who graciously shared their memories here. For more photos of these wrestlers, their gear and mats, visit the Old-School Strategy photo album at the Amateur Wrestling Fan Addicts Photo Annex Yahoo group.

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