The standard uniform for amateur wrestling creates strong feelings for and against. Those who are in favor of the singlet immediately mention the long tradition of the one-piece singlet being THE uniform for the sport ... and raise concerns about the potential for injuries when wrestlers get their fingers caught in an opponent's two-piece uniform. Those seeking to explore potential alternatives to today's singlet cite negatives such as the revealing nature of the uniform as being deal-breakers for some would-be wrestlers.
The ongoing pro/con discussion about singlets has taken on new energy in recent weeks, thanks to Matt Krumrie's feature article for USA Wrestling titled "Is it time for wrestling to ditch the singlet?" ... and Edinboro University unveiling new two-piece uniforms this season.
That said, the singlet has been a subject of discussion -- and, in some cases, derision -- for years. Some outside the sport have mistakenly called the singlet a "unitard" and an "onesie." In a story about wrestling uniforms from 2005, the New York Times described the singlet as "basically an oversize jockstrap with suspenders" then went on to say, "they may be the most mocked athletic uniform in existence, but they are part of a sport that above all values tradition."
In that same article from more than a decade ago, Brian Smith, head coach at the University of Missouri, offered his opinion: "There is a lot of peer pressure when they are younger, especially in junior high school. We need kids to think of this as a really cool-looking outfit. We need them not to be afraid of coming out for a team because of the uniform."
Contrary to what some may believe, singlets are not as old as the oldest and greatest sport. Jacob did not wear a singlet to wrestle the angel ... nor did a young Abe Lincoln when he took down town bully Jack Armstrong in their match in New Salem, Illinois nearly two centuries ago.
"Despite being all that most American fans know to be the uniform of wrestling, the singlet is not the traditional outfit of wrestling," InterMat columnist T.R. Foley wrote in his Foley's Friday Mailbag a couple years ago. "In fact, in a sport that has spanned more than 9K years of recorded competition, singlets have only been used (for the past) 50 (years)."
In fact, singlets were first approved by the NCAA in the late 1960s. Prior to the early 1970s, high school and college wrestlers in the U.S. had other uniform options to wear onto the mat.
All-time mat legends such as Bill Koll, Dan Hodge and Dan Gable did NOT wear a singlet in their high school and collegiate careers. So what did wrestlers of the past compete in? Here's a look back at some of the uniform options of the past ... which may inspire some great new ideas for what tomorrow's wrestlers may be wearing.
Allie MorrisonBlack Tom
In the 1920s and early 1930s, some wrestlers wore what was called a black outside supporter, or a Black Tom, over full-length tights. A shirt was optional. The guy with the shirt, Allie Morrison, a University of Illinois wrestler who became the first Iowa native to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling, is shown here wearing this type of uniform as a member of the 1928 U.S. Olympic wrestling team.
The outside supporter wasn't limited to the Roaring Twenties. In the photo below, the bare-chested wrestler on the left with the outside supporter/tights uniform is Robert Foster, 1952 Illinois state heavyweight champ from Blue Island High School, shown here on his way to defeating the defending state champ -- and future three-time Big Ten champ and two-time NCAA heavyweight finalist for the University of Wisconsin -- Bob Konovsky.
Robert Foster/1952 Illinois high school state finals
Walt PorowskiTrunks, no tights, no shirt
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, wrestlers at some colleges wore tight-fitting trunks made of wool ... without shirts, without tights. Oklahoma State, the top collegiate wrestling program at time, competed in this uniform right up to World War II ... as did Kent State University in Ohio, including the Golden Flashes' Walt Porowski, who was runner-up at heavyweight at the 1942 NCAAs. (This photo is of Porowski as a KSU wrestler, not as a pro.)
Trunks, tights, no shirt
Dick HuttonMany college wrestling programs did not compete during World War II; the last NCAA championships were held in 1942, and did not resume until 1946. In the years immediately after the war, a large number of college wrestlers wore tight-fitting trunks over full-length tights, stripped to the waist. In this photo, Dick Hutton -- a three time NCAA heavyweight champ for Oklahoma State (1947-1948, 1950) -- is shown wearing this type of uniform which was common at wrestling programs in the Midwest and West. Two other mat greats of the past -- Bill Koll, three-time NCAA champ at Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa) in the late 1940s, and Dan Hodge, also a three-time national titlewinner for University of Oklahoma in the mid-1950s -- dominated their opponents wearing trunks and tights ... usually without a shirt.
Trunks, tights, shirts
Frank BettucciBy the mid-1960s, the NCAA banned shirtless wrestling. Rules required all wrestlers to wear a three-piece uniform, consisting of a sleeveless shirt with long tails that snapped/buttoned at the crotch (much like a diaper), with full-length tights, and tight-fitting trunks made of wool, cotton or nylon. In this photo, Frank Bettucci, Cornell University mat champ of the early 1950s -- and 2015 National Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee -- is shown wearing this type of uniform.
Larry Owings defeated Dan Gable in 1970After being specifically prohibited by NCAA rules for a number of years, one-piece singlets received the official blessing from the organization that governs most intercollegiate athletics ... and started making their appearance on college wrestling mats in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This image from the 1970 NCAA 142-pound finals illustrates the two uniform options at the time. On the left, Larry Owings of the University of Washington, is wearing a singlet with tights (which were mandatory through the 1970s) ... while Dan Gable of Iowa State is wearing his school's three-piece uniform as described in the previous paragraph. This match is considered by wrestling historians to be the greatest upset in college wrestling history; Owings handed Gable his only defeat in college, snapping a 181-match win streak that extended back through high school.
A decade or so ago, the NCAA altered its uniform rules to allow college wrestlers the option of wearing a two-piece, compression-type uniform instead of a singlet. One early appearance: a Lehigh vs. Missouri dual meet in January 2005 at the historic New York Athletic Club where both teams' wrestlers wore custom-made compression-style gear. Later that fall, about a dozen college wrestling programs (out of approximately 200 at the time) had started using the two-piece uniform for their matches, according to the November 2005 New York Times article.
Edinboro's two-piece uniform"Most of the coaches regard the two-piece as more of a practice uniform," Jim Keen Jr., the president of Cliff Keen Athletic, told the New York Times eleven years ago. "The singlet has been part of wrestling for so many years, moving to a two-piece uniform would be like taking away the shoulder pads and helmet of football."
In September 2006, InterMat's Jim Beezer weighed in with a product review of The Double by Double Sport Athletic, a company that was producing two-piece wrestling uniforms at the time.
"On the mat, the Double Sport gear was ideal for high intensity practices in which sweaty T-shirts and baggy shorts would normally hinder the simulation of live match wrestling," Beezer wrote. "The microfiber material enabled more efficient heat/mass transfer, which promoted evaporation and cooling. The tight fitting shirt reduced the incidence of gut burn (rashes that result from repetitive gut wrenches) and allowed for more fluid pummeling drills during Greco Roman practices. The tight fitting shorts provided the comfort and flexibility that were ideal for fast paced drilling from the neutral position during freestyle practices."
Beezer concluded, "Double Sport gear is ideal for training based upon its performance and flexibility. However, the verdict is still out on the newly approved two-piece uniforms for competition purposes."
You may be wondering ...
Shirts vs. skins: Who decided?
It may be a revelation to some fans of amateur wrestling to see photos of past mat greats such as Dick Hutton, Bill Koll and Dan Hodge ready to wrestle, without shirts. However, not all college wrestlers of the past competed bare-chested.
There's some geography in the shirts/no shirts aspect of the uniforms in the past. While wrestlers at many college mat programs in the central and western U.S. did not usually wear shirts, most programs in the East such as Cornell University, Lehigh and Penn State had their wrestlers wear sleeveless jerseys along with trunks and tights.
The NCAA had rules about shirt vs. no-shirt wrestling. For dual meets and tournaments (such as the NCAA championships), the host school determined what the uniform requirements would be, and had to notify the visiting team(s) ten days prior to the event. In a nutshell, schools where the wrestlers normally wore shirts could require visitors to wear them ... while schools that usually wrestled shirtless could not force visitors to strip off their jerseys. In other words, if Penn State hosted a wrestling event, they could require that Oklahoma State wrestlers wear sleeveless shirts at Rec Hall ... while, if Oklahoma State welcomed Penn State to Gallagher Hall (now Gallagher-Iba Arena), the Nittany Lions could keep their shirts on.
Art Baker controls Tim WoodinSometimes, it actually was shirts vs. skins on the mat. For instance, in the 191-pound title bout at the 1959 NCAAs, bare-chested Art Baker of Syracuse takes on the shirt-wearing Spartan Tim Woodin of Michigan State. Because the event was held at University of Iowa -- back when the Hawkeyes usually wrestled stripped to the waist -- individual wrestlers or teams could decide to be shirts or skins, even at the NCAAs. (Baker won the match -- and the title -- becoming only the second African-American NCAA wrestling champ, two years after Simon Roberts of Iowa did it in 1957. Baker went on to an NFL career. Woodin became pro wrestler Tim Woods and masked "good guy" Mr. Wrestling.)
When -- and why -- did shirts become mandatory?
In the 1960s, the NCAA ruled that all college wrestlers had to wear a sleeveless shirt in competition. The 1963 NCAA championships held at Kent State were the last to allow wrestlers to take to the mat bare-chested.
So why did the NCAA require shirts after allowing wrestlers to compete stripped to the waist for a half-century or more prior to the Sixties?
There are at least three reasons given. One, concern about mat burns, rashes and other skin injuries to exposed skin coming in contact with a wrestling mat. Covering wrestlers' torsos with a shirt cut down on the amount of exposed skin. Second, more than one wrestler who competed in the 1950s and 1960s has told this writer that it was difficult to "get a grip" on the sweaty, bare torso of an opponent ... a problem that was solved when wrestlers wore jerseys.
The third reason: to "prevent unseemly exposure", to use a phrase from the NCAA rule books of the early 1960s.
One wrestling champ of the era told InterMat that he had witnessed an NCAA match where the genitalia of one wrestler accidently came out over the top of the waistband of his trunks. (He used more colorful language to describe the scene.) While other college wrestlers of the 1950s and early 1960s interviewed by InterMat over the years did not recall having seen that specific incident, some were aware of it. Presumably it would be nearly impossible for a wrestler wearing the officially-approved NCAA uniform -- trunks, tights and a shirt that snapped together at the crotch, providing at least three layers of fabric coverage over the crotch -- to "expose himself" accidently even in the most intense battle.
Now ... there may be a fourth possibility: making the sport more attractive to some fans. This writer recently came across a brief newspaper article from the 1920s where a coach for a now-defunct college wrestling program in the nation's heartland wondered why women did not attend their dual meets. According to the article, the coach came to the conclusion that perhaps women objected to the wrestlers' attire -- specifically, that wrestlers at that school wrestled stripped to the waist -- so he announced his wrestlers would start wearing short-sleeve shirts during matches. Not sure if he actually implemented the shirt requirement; just about all of the photos from that school's yearbooks of the era show wrestlers in action and in team pics bare-chested.
Revealing concerns about singlets
While singlets may have been implemented to prevent "unseemly exposure" as described to InterMat by the mat champ of 55-60 years ago, ironically, some within the wrestling community who object to today's singlets consider them to be too revealing ... which may be off-putting to some potential fans, and, perhaps more importantly, a deal-breaker for some young athletes who feel singlets leave little to the imagination.
A couple years ago, Joe Reasbeck, former University of Minnesota wrestler and author of the NearFall series of novels featuring young wrestlers, wrote a list of detailed proposals, geared at growing wrestling at all levels. On that list: Eliminate singlets. "There are kids who won't come out for our sport because they don't want to wear singlets in competition. For those of us in the wrestling community, that might seem silly -- but kids are embarrassed because people can see 'everything.'"
InterMat's T.R. Foley was even more blunt in his mailbag mentioned earlier in this article. "Ridiculous as you think it seems, there are wide swaths of humanity who cannot get past the awkwardness of two men in tight singlets rolling around with each other. Call them small-minded, moan till you're miserable, but you are never going to overcome the association between singlet wrestling and negative sexual connotations until the outfits are less revealing in the crotch."
In his article for USA Wrestling, Matt Krumrie quoted Danny Struck, head coach Indiana's Jeffersonville High School, who said, "We need to knock out reasons that kids come up with not to wrestle." He added: "Let's be honest, singlets aren't flattering."
"We recruit 260-pound football players to wrestle and they get in that singlet for the first time ... and they don't want do it," according to Struck.
Krumrie cited a recent survey by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, stating that participants were "overwhelmingly in support" of moving to an alternative uniform option, citing the importance of retaining wrestlers and growing wrestling, said Mike Moyer, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
"What we found was that the singlet was definitely a barrier to entry into the sport," Moyer told Krumrie. "This was especially an issue with first-year wrestlers, and at the middle school level."
"We've heard enough perspective from coaches across the country that they absolutely believe an alternative option would enhance recruitment and retention."
Not all in the wrestling community agree. At the time this InterMat feature on the history of wrestling uniforms was being written, there were approximately 90 comments on Matt Krumrie's article for USA Wrestling two months after it was first posted online. There are strong, impassioned beliefs in favor of "ditching the singlet" ... and equally powerful arguments about keeping the one-piece uniform.
It's a conversation worth having ... as long as everyone realizes that, while the singlet has a long history within wrestling, it is NOT as old as the sport itself. Many all-time wrestling greats never pulled on a singlet ... so reasons such as "it's a tradition" and "it's always been a part of the sport" don't quite hold water.
One other aspect to consider: Matt Krumrie's "ditch the singlet" article for USA Wrestling made a strong case for considering some sort of jersey that wrestlers would wear -- much like athletes in other sports wear in competition -- with replica jerseys being marketed to consumers, so fans could wear the shirts of their individual mat heroes and/or their favorite teams.
"All of that already happens today with NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, WNBA, and MLS jerseys/uniform tops," wrote Krumrie. "Go out to the park, the mall, the grocery store, or the airport -- almost anywhere and you'll see boys, girls, men, and women showing off their support for their favorite teams and players."
"Wrestling fans are passionate about their favorite teams and wrestlers too. But they have no easy way to show it in public.
The time is right to consider possible alternatives to today's singlet that overcome objections to the skin-tight singlet on the part of some would-be wrestlers and their parents ... generate positive interest and greater media coverage for wrestling ... and help grow the sport overall.
Perhaps Edinboro is on the right track in trying out new compression-type shirts and shorts for the 2016-2017 season. Perhaps Matt Krumrie's idea of jerseys a la other sports is the way to go. Or perhaps there's an old-school wrestling uniform featured in this article that may serve as a launch pad to a new uniform that addresses the concerns and objections about singlets among some in the wrestling community, as well as potential participants and their parents.
Want to know more? Check out these InterMat articles: "Major Changes in Intercollegiate Wrestling" ... "Old School Strategy" (how uniforms and other issues had an impact on how wrestlers wrestled) ... and "Could Robes Wrap Wrestlers Again?"