InterMat Rewind: Oklahoma Shooter

Mark Palmer

4/26/2009
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Ask a current wrestler or fan about Dan Hodge, and here's what they're likely to say:

"He's the guy whose name is on the Hodge Trophy."

"He's the only amateur wrestler to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated."

"I saw him on the NCAAs a couple years ago, crushing an apple with his bare hand on live TV."

All those statements are true. But there's so much more to the life story of Daniel Allen Hodge, beyond his incredible high school, college and Olympic wrestling career more than 50 years ago. Even the most dedicated wrestling fans may not know about Hodge's boxing career or his nearly twenty years in the professional wrestling ring � or anything about his personal life.

Now they will, thanks to wrestling historian Mike Chapman, who paints a richly detailed portrait of this sports legend in Oklahoma Shooter: The Dan Hodge Story, a brand-new, 197-page book -- including 66 photos, many never before published, by Culture House Books.

(A quick word about the title: It has nothing to do Hodge's skill at scoring takedowns, or with hunting. In pro wrestling, where, as Chapman puts it, "98% of matches have pre-arranged outcomes," a "shoot" is a match wrestled for real. Hodge was revered -- and feared -- by other pros for his actual wrestling skills, speed, and incredible strength.)

Chapman's the man to tell the Hodge story

Mike Chapman has the credentials to write the definitive biography of Dan Hodge. For starters, he's one of the nation's leading wrestling historians, who has written 14 books about the sport, and is the founder of WIN (Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine). He has been named National Wrestling Writer of the Year five times. In addition, Chapman is the founder and executive director of the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.

Perhaps just as significant: Mike Chapman has called Dan Hodge a friend for more than three decades.

"I first met Dan in 1975, when I was writing Two Guys Named Dan (a book about Dan Hodge and Dan Gable)," according to Chapman.

"When I got a hold of him on the phone, he said, 'Come on down' so I drove down to his home in Perry, Oklahoma to meet him in person."

"Early in the conversation, I asked him about the sleeper hold," Chapman continues. "He said, 'See for yourself' and put me in the sleeper right there in his living room, in front of a bunch of neighborhood kids."

"We've been friends ever since."

"I've always wanted to do a book about the guy. A lot of people have asked, 'Why don't you do a book about Hodge?' So, at the opening of our museum in Waterloo two years ago, I made a commitment to write his story."

A sports superstar

For those who may only know Dan Hodge as a name on a trophy, here are just some of the highlights of his amateur wrestling career: 1951 Oklahoma high school state champ. Three-time Big Seven conference champ and three-time NCAA titlewinner for the University of Oklahoma, 1955-1957. A perfect 46-0 record in college, with 36 of those wins by fall. Named NCAA Outstanding Wrestler two times. Two-time U.S. Olympic wrestler, winning the silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

In 2005, Dan Hodge was one of 15 college wrestlers to earn a place on the NCAA's 75th Anniversary list of all-time great wrestlers, in online voting by amateur wrestling fans. He was the oldest wrestler to be so honored, and one of only three who competed before 1970 (along with Yojiro Uetake and Dan Gable).

In addition, Hodge is the only athlete to win titles in both wrestling and boxing.

The one man who beat Hodge

Despite being undefeated on the mat as an Oklahoma Sooner, there is one man who beat Dan Hodge on a regular basis: his grandfather.

"Dan had a very rough background," says Mike Chapman. "He was born in 1932 in Perry, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression, and in the midst of the Dust Bowl. (Oklahoma Shooter does an excellent job of presenting just how challenging life was on the Oklahoma plains 70+ years ago.) His dad was an itinerate oil worker who traveled a lot from job to job, so he wasn't home much."

"In 1939, the Hodge house was destroyed in a fire that seriously burned Dan's mother. She was in and out of hospitals for a couple years. The kids were split up; Dan was sent to live with his grandpa."

Here's how Hodge described his grandfather on page 17 of Oklahoma Shooter:

"Harley Hodge was mean," said Dan, his voice lowering, his face grim, even six decades after moving in with his grandpa. "He was born in 1888 in Kansas, and came to the Cherokee Strip land run. He was also an alcoholic. Always drinking, always mad. He liked to hit me with a cane."

After several years of abuse and hiding from his grandpa, Dan decided he had enough. He left the house for good, determined to find another place to live.


Important introductions in high school

After living in a succession of homes, in his freshman year of high school, Hodge found a new "home", above the Perry Fire Station. He earned his keep by keeping the truck and firehouse clean. On weekends, he worked at a gas station.

In high school, Dan Hodge was introduced to two things that changed his life. First, he met his eventual life partner, Dolores Bradshaw,
sister of one of his teammates, in eleventh grade.
"They dated no one else in high school," discloses
Mike Chapman. Dolores and Dan were married in August 1951,
and, will be celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary
later this year.

In high school, Dan Hodge met his
eventual life partner, Dolores Bradshaw, sister of one of his teammates (Photo/Oklahoma Shooter)
Dan Hodge also discovered the sport of wrestling. As a junior at Perry High, Hodge was runner-up at the Oklahoma state tournament. Vowing to do better his senior year, Hodge was undefeated, and won the 165-pound state title in 1951.

Despite his successful prep career, Dan Hodge didn't attract the attention of the two biggest college wrestling programs in the state, Oklahoma State (then called Oklahoma A&M) in nearby Stillwater, or the University of Oklahoma, 70 miles to the south in Norman. Instead, after graduation, Hodge joined the Naval Reserves � then, later that summer, was sent to boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago. While in the Navy, Hodge developed further as a wrestler, representing the U.S. in freestyle at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he placed fifth in his weight class.

Sooner bloomer

As his two-year commitment to serve in the Navy was winding down, Dan Hodge was actively recruited by Jack Riley, head coach at Northwestern who was a two-time NCAA heavyweight champ and 1932 Olympic silver medalist. Hodge also received a phone call from Port Robertson, University of Oklahoma coach, who had befriended him at the 1952 U.S. Olympic Trials. Hodge told Robertson that Riley had talked about eventually making him the coach of the Wildcats, but, according to Oklahoma Shooter, the Sooner coach replied, "You can't do that. We need you right here at Oklahoma."

At Oklahoma, Dan Hodge became THE dominant wrestler of the 1950s. Wrestling at 177 pounds, Hodge was 46-0, with 36 falls (Photo/Oklahoma Shooter)
With that, Hodge became the greatest wrestler to ever compete for the Oklahoma Sooners, not the Northwestern Wildcats � or the Oklahoma State Cowboys. In Oklahoma Shooter, Mike Chapman tells why Hodge chose to wrestle at the school in Norman, not Stillwater.

In his three years wrestling varsity for Oklahoma (back then, NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from competing intercollegiately), Dan Hodge became THE dominant wrestler of the 1950s. Wrestling at 177 pounds, Hodge was 46-0, with 36 falls -- "the highest pin percentage in college, just a bit higher than Dan Gable's," according to Chapman. He's one of only two wrestlers to win three NCAA titles who won all three championships by pin. He was never taken down in college.

Hodge earned the nicknames "Dangerous Dan" and "Homicide Hodge" because of his pinning power. He was possessed with incredible strength, especially in his wrists (which he demonstrated on the ESPN broadcast of the 2006 NCAAs by crushing apples into applesauce). In college, he defeated some top-ranked stars of the era, including Oklahoma State's 1949 NCAA champ Jim Gregson, 1953-1954 NCAA titlewinner Ned Blass of Oklahoma State, Pacific Conference champ John Dustin of Oregon State, and eventual NCAA champ (and future Iowa Hawkeye head coach) Gary Kurdelmeier.

In Oklahoma Shooter, Chapman describes one of Kurdelmeier's bouts with Hodge, in which the broad-shouldered, hairy-chested Hawkeye became the first wrestler to prevent the lean-muscled Sooner from scoring a takedown in the first period. But, by the second period, the tide had turned, and another great wrestler had fallen to Hodge's pinning power. Just as interesting, in Shooter, Chapman shares Kurdelmeier's insights into what made Hodge so great � and adds his own analysis:

Gary Kurdelmeier
While many fans thought Hodge was just too powerful for most opponents, Kurdelmeier and others who wrestled him knew it was far more than strength that made Hodge such an outstanding wrestler. He was a keen student of the holds and leverage techniques that worked best, and was a fanatical trainer. Hodge ran constantly to work on his conditioning, could walk long distances on his hands, and even do a one-handed stand for long periods of time, showing not only superb strength but great balance.

While in college, Dan Hodge made another run at wrestling for the U.S. at the 1956 Olympics. Oklahoma Shooter goes into heartbreaking detail of Hodge's quest to make the U.S. team then, the injustice that occurred on the mat in Melbourne, Australia that cost him the gold medal.

Putting on the gloves

Dan Hodge (Photo/Oklahoma Shooter)
After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with three Big Seven conference crowns, three NCAA titles, two NCAA Outstanding Wrestler awards, and a cover story in the April 1, 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated (the only amateur wrestler to ever appear on the magazine's cover as an amateur wrestler), Dan Hodge accepted a job as a salesman for a oil drilling company in Wichita, Kansas. The owner of the business -- Art Freeman, a former wrestler at Oklahoma himself -- thought Hodge would be a natural as a boxer. "He won the Kansas Golden Gloves (amateur) title, then won the National Golden Gloves title within a year of graduating college," according to Mike Chapman. "He was compared to Rocky Marciano, the great heavyweight champ who retired undefeated a couple years earlier, always moving forward, willing to take punches."

With his sensational amateur boxing career right from the start -- a 17-0 record, with 13 knockouts -- Dan Hodge was encouraged to turn pro with ultimately disastrous results. Hodge is quoted in Oklahoma Shooter as saying: "It's a rotten business and you can't trust anybody." It's in this section that Chapman's knowledge and passion for combat sports come together to tell an upsetting yet compelling, cautionary tale of a great athlete who was cheated out of all his earnings … but, luckily, got out of the boxing game without disabling injury.

Throwing his hat into the pro wrestling ring

After walking away from boxing, Dan Hodge picked up the phone and called Leroy McGuirk, a 1931 NCAA wrestling champ at Oklahoma State for legendary coach Ed Gallagher, who was now a professional wrestling promoter. Along with McGuirk, Hodge was mentored by another all-time pro wrestling legend, Ed "Strangler" Lewis, who helped the NCAA champ make the transition to the squared circle.

"Hodge was a no-gimmick wrestler," according to Mike Chapman. "He went into the ring and wrestled."

With that straightforward approach -- and reputation as an amateur wrestling champ -- Hodge earned the respect of other pro wrestlers.

Here's just one example from the pages of Oklahoma Shooter:

Like a young Billy the Kid in the Old West, Hodge was marked as a shooter, the real deal. Few had the courage to test him in the ring, but there was an exception or two. One such test came from Wayne Martin, a very aggressive wrestler who had also been a three-time NCAA champion for the University of Oklahoma in the late 1930s.

"Wayne was smaller than me but was very tough," said Hodge. "I think he was jealous of my big build-up, and all that. The first time we tied up, he tried some stuff and I shut him right down. Then he put up his fists like he wanted to slug. I raised mine and said, 'Let's go.'"

"I had to show him who was boss," said Hodge, matter-of-factly. "After that, he was okay and we had some good matches."


Hodge enjoyed a nearly two-decade career in professional wrestling, primarily working the southwest U.S. and Japan. However, that career came crashing down on a road trip in Louisiana in 1976, when his car flipped onto its top in water. Despite suffering a multitude of serious injuries -- including a broken neck -- Hodge used his incredible physical strength and mental toughness to pull himself out of the car through the broken windshield, then made his way up to the guardrail where a trucker found him.

Dan's still The Man

Dan Hodge was possessed with incredible strength (Photo/Oklahoma Shooter)
Despite that near-fatal car wreck, Dan Hodge is not whiling away the time in a rocking chair. He still makes appearances at amateur and professional wrestling events, delighting fans of all ages with his friendly, sincere, down-to-earth attitude and demonstrations of that legendary grip strength he still possesses.

In 1995, Mike Chapman and WIN established the Hodge Trophy, awarded each year to the best college wrestler in the country who embodies all that made Dan Hodge one of the all-time mat greats. Among the winners of the Hodge: Jake Herbert (2009), Brent Metcalf (2008), Ben Askren (2006 and 2007), and Cael Sanderson (2000-2002).

By any measure, Dan Hodge has lived quite a life, as a champion in wrestling and boxing, as a husband, father, and grandfather. Oklahoma Shooter does a great job weaving all the elements of a championship life and career into a compelling read for any sports fan.

To purchase copies of Oklahoma Shooter: The Dan Hodge Story direct from the publisher for $22.95 plus $5 shipping and handling, mail to: Culture House Books, P.O. Box 283, Newton, Iowa 50208 or call 641.791.3072. A limited number of copies signed by Dan Hodge are available.

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