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When the ring was the thing in college wrestling

The oldest and greatest sport has undergone significant changes since it first arrived on college campuses in the early part of the 20th century.

Over the years, uniforms have changed ... rules have been revised ... and a point-scoring system has been implemented.

However, for today's wrestling fans, the most startling difference may be that, prior to World War II, a number of colleges conducted their wrestling events in a roped-off ring like we associate with boxing or professional wrestling.

UNI wrestling ring (Photo/NWHOF Dan Gable Museum)

A couple weeks ago, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa shared on its Twitter account a 1933 photo of a wrestling ring at the University of Northern Iowa. This writer retweeted the image ... stirring up more retweets -- and questions.

With all the interest and curiosity generated by that photo, it seemed appropriate for InterMat to serve up a College Wrestling Rings 101 in words and images.

What do you mean by "a wrestling ring"?

Photos indicate that there were basically two types of wrestling rings used at some colleges more than 75 years ago.

The most common type of ring set-up appears to have been square wrestling mats placed on the gym floor, surrounded by multi-tiered wrestling ropes connected together with a ring post in each of the four corners of the mat. This describes the ring pictured in the 1930s photo from UNI posted on social media by the Hall of Fame.

Coach Ed Gallagher with Oklahoma State wrestlers in a ring (Photo/Life Magazine)

Then there's the wrestling ring this writer has seen in photos of the same era from Oklahoma State that look like what we would expect from a professional wrestling or boxing match, with the ring raised up off the floor approximately three-to-four feet. (Take a look at the photo -- supplied by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame -- from a 1939 Life magazine photo-shoot at the then-new Gallagher Hall (now Gallagher-Iba Arena), showing Oklahoma State wrestlers working out inside an elevated wrestling ring.)

Did every college wrestling program have a ring?

Iowa wrestling ring
No. In more than a decade of conducting research for InterMat Rewind historical features, I have come across photos of wrestling rings from a number of colleges, most of them in the Midwest. In addition to Northern Iowa and Oklahoma State, other schools that had wrestling rings included University of California-Berkeley, University of Oklahoma, University of Illinois, Indiana University, University of Iowa, Iowa State, University of Minnesota, and Northwestern University.

As you can see, most of these schools are in the midsection of the country. What about other parts of the country? I have not seen photos of wrestling rings at Eastern colleges such as Penn State, Lehigh, or Cornell University ... nor have I seen similar images at schools in the far west (other than Cal, which no longer has wrestling), including Stanford or Oregon State. (Note: My list is incomplete; if you are aware of college programs that wrestled in rings and have visual evidence -- a photo, or a link to an article or yearbook page with a photo, or to online film/video -- please email me.)

What were the rules regarding college wrestling rings?

Want to know the rules governing college wrestling in the past? Take a look at the Official Wrestling Guide, published each year by the NCAA. These Guides provided explanations and photographs to illustrate wrestling rules, legal uniforms and more ... along with results from the previous college wrestling season. These compact booklets were used by wrestling officials, athletic directors, wrestling coaches and wrestlers to make sure they were in compliance with the latest rules and requirements. (PDF files of most of these guides going back to the late 1920s are available for viewing and downloading at no charge at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame website.)

The 1939 Official Wrestling Guide featured nearly two full pages on nothing but college wrestling rings, starting on page 5. In addition to detailed text, there are drawings of regulation rings, complete with dimensions/measurements.

Here is the entire text from the 1939 Guide regarding rings:

"1. The area of the mat shall not be less than 20 feet by 20 feet and this dimension shall be considered the standard size when ropes are used. When ropes are not used, a 24-foot by 24-foot mat shall be considered standard. The 'roped in' area, when used, shall conform to the following specifications:

  • Three 1-inch ropes shall be tightly stretched 2 feet, 3 feet and 4 feet, respectively, above the mat. These ropes shall extend in from four supporting posts which shall be placed at least 18" back from (each of) the (four) corners of the ring. Cotton ropes are recommended but if manila or sisal ropes are used, they must be wrapped in bunting or other soft material to avoid 'rope burns.' To prevent the spreading of ropes during bouts, they shall be securely fastened together by 12 vertical 3/8" ropes, there of which shall be placed equidistant on each side of the ring.

  • Raised platforms are not recommended and should not be used without ropes. Even when used with ropes, the platform should extend at least six feet beyond the ropes on all sides of the ring.

    "It is recommended for competition and for practice that the wrestling mat be covered with a Canton flannel cover sufficiently large enough to fold under the mat. This cover should be stretched tight and may be held in place by horse blanket safety pins fastening the cover to the underside of the mat."

    To provide some perspective, let's compare today's wrestling mats to those used 80 years ago:

  • Today's NCAA rules require a larger wrestling area for college wrestlers compared to what's used by high school wrestlers, which leads to a slightly larger mat. College wrestlers must have a minimum of a 32-foot-square wrestling area, which requires a mat that is at least 42 feet on each side. In the 1930s, the surface area college wrestlers wrestled was required by NCAA rules of the era to be 20-feet square at minimum in a roped-off ring, or 24-feet by 24-feet square without ropes ... a significantly smaller wrestling area than mandated today.

  • Today's foam-core mats with a bonded vinyl surface (often referred by the wrestling community by one iconic brand name, Resilite) first appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In other words, today's modern mats were not available to wrestlers in the era of roped-off wrestling rings eight decades ago.

    In other words, today's college wrestlers not only have a larger area in which to wrestle, but a safer surface than what their grandfathers used. For starters, today's foam-core mats provide better impact absorption, thanks to the foam-core construction (compared to mats of the 1920s and 1930s that were stuffed with anything from shredded cotton to straw to newsprint) ... while the non-porous vinyl surface is much easier to clean and disinfect than old-time mats with canvas or flannel surfaces that not only held germs (making infections more likely), but had a rough surface more likely to cause mat burns and skin rashes.

    What about rules for what wrestlers could do in the ring?

    The typical NCAA Wrestling Guide of the 1920s and 1930s had incredibly detailed rules about how to build a college wrestling ring ... but nothing specific about how wrestlers were supposed to behave inside the ring that would be different than wrestling on a mat on the floor without ring ropes.

    "The Cowboys Ride Again!" -- a history of Oklahoma State wrestling by historians Doris and Bob Dellinger, published in 1994 -- describes a couple incidents involving Cowboy wrestlers in a roped-off ring that might provide some insight as to what might have been allowed -- or forbidden.

    In an account of a 1932 "Bedlam Series" dual between Oklahoma State and the University of Oklahoma held at the Armory in Stillwater (home gym for the Cowboys until Gallagher Hall was dedicated in 1939), the Dellingers paint a word picture of a seesaw battle between Cowboys and Sooners ... with the winner to be determined in the last match of the evening at heavyweight. The home team was down four points, with a multi-year win streak going back more than a decade on the line. Realizing his predicament, legendary Oklahoma State coach Ed Gallagher put in defending 155-pound champ LeRoy McGuirk in against "massive Sooner heavyweight" Ellis Bashara. For Oklahoma State to win, McGuirk would have to pin Bashara.

    Here's how the Dellingers described this battle between cross-state rivals with at least a 100-pound weight difference:

    "Aggressive at once, the fiery McGuirk drove Bashara to the ropes, switched behind and took the Sooner to the mat. Bashara also knew the score and had prepared accordingly. Those who saw the historic bout say Bashara, out to hand his team a triumph that had been denied all American teams since 1921, squatted like the Rock of Gibraltar, legs spread, arms wide ..."

    "Bashara had only to last out the 10 minutes, his massive limbs immobile. The whistle sounded; the final score was 13 ½ to 12 ½, Oklahoma."

    In this account, it would appear that Bashara was thrown/forced into the ropes by McGuirk who then brought the giant Sooner down ... without the referee stopping the match or penalizing -- or disqualifying -- the undersized Cowboy. To this writer, it seems that using the ropes as a springboard was not against the rules ... though it didn't lead to a victory for the home team. (By the way, both Bashara and McGuirk became pro wrestlers after college.)

    The same book also tells about a bout at an AAU (American Athletic Union) championship in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1920s (prior to the first NCAA wrestling championship, held at Iowa State in 1928). The match in question featured two top middleweights of the era: Oklahoma State superstar Guy Lookabaugh taking on Eino Leino of Finland, who eventually became a four-time Olympic medalist.

    "Lookabaugh began his match by throwing Leino over the ropes, climbing over after him, and pinning him to the floor. The referee ruled that was not a legal fall, and the angry Finn returned to the ring to pin Lookabaugh after a hard fight."

    From this write-up, a reader could deduce that throwing your opponent over the top rope -- or through the ring ropes -- was not a legal way to win a match.

    Any of us who've watched pro wrestling have seen the ropes used to advantage by a "heel" -- using the ropes to attempt a chokehold, or getting the "good guy" tangled up in the ropes so he can't move. However, unlike professional wrestling, it appears that the ropes in a college wrestling ring could not be used in any way during the match; a wrestler could not gain leverage from the ropes, "rebound" off them, or duck through them to take a break. Even in the 1920s and 30s, there were strict rules against using chokes or other intentional efforts to injure an opponent whether the match was held inside a roped-off ring ... or on mats on the floor without ring ropes.

    A model of a wrestling ring donated to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame by Clara and Rex Peery, legendary Oklahoma State wrestler of the 1930s and University of Pittsburgh coach (Photo/NWHOF)

    What happened to wrestling rings?

    According to "Cowboys Ride Again!" ropes and rings became illegal in 1942, the last full season of college wrestling before the sport took a three-year break for World War II. (All able-bodied athletes were needed as soldiers -- or as instructors to teach hand-to-hand combat to soldiers new to wrestling.) In the 1947 Official Wrestling Guide, in the rules section titled "Mats, Ropes and Costumes" it states in large, bold type: "Ropes and Raised Platforms are Illegal." Unlike previous editions of the Official Wrestling Guide, there are no drawings or explanations-in-words regarding the requirements for a college wrestling ring as featured in the 1939 Guide.
    This writer has not been able to find an explanation as to why the NCAA outlawed wrestling rings for college. In my years in researching and writing about U.S. amateur wrestling history, it often seems to be the case that rules are changed because of a series of injuries (for example, rules outlawing full overhead bodyslams) or a specific incident (one late 1950s/early 1960s college wrestler who told this writer that the NCAA started requiring college wrestlers to wear shirts after he witnessed a match between two bare-chested heavyweights where one of the wrestler's genitalia came out over the waistband of his trunks).

    In my research, I have not come across any account(s) of incident(s) where wrestlers were injured in a wrestling ring in a way that would have led the NCAA to ban roped-off rings.

    It's possible the reason rings went away is as simple as ... it must have been expensive to purchase the equipment to build a wrestling ring (especially one with a raised platform), and time-consuming to set up a ring and make sure everything is safely assembled.

    Stanley Henson
    Sadly, to my knowledge, no one who ever wrestled in a college wrestling ring is alive to tell us his experiences. The last collegiate mat champ to step inside "the square circle" in his home gym was Stanley Henson, three-time NCAA champ at Oklahoma State in the late 1930s for coach Ed Gallagher, with only one loss in his entire collegiate career. Henson died on January 30, 2018 at age 101; at the time of his passing, he was believed to be the oldest living NCAA champion in ANY sport.

    There's the classic photo of a young Henson in the Oklahoma State wrestling ring, in the uniform he wore as a Cowboy matman: wool trunks, without a shirt. Arguably one of the all-time greats of the pre-World War II era, and one of the last collegiate wrestlers to do his thing in a wrestling ring.

    Help solve the riddle of the college wrestling ring

    As you can see, there's a lot we don't know about the era when some colleges wrestled in roped-off rings. Perhaps you have some photos or old-school yearbooks with images of matches conducted in a ring. Maybe you've seen vintage films of college wrestling in a ring. Or you have stories to share from your dad, granddad, uncle or family friend. If you have images, articles or memories to share, please contact the author at mark@intermatwrestle.com.
  • Comments

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    LaurenDesouza (1) about 9 months ago
    LaurenDesouza (1) about 9 months ago
    I am big fan of wresting and enjoyed treading this college wrestling story on college campuses in the early part of the 20th century.

    Lauren,
    https://www.cvfolks.co.uk/
    LaurenDesouza (1) about 9 months ago
    I am big fan of wresting and enjoyed treading this college wrestling story on college campuses in the early part of the 20th century.

    Lauren,
    www.cvfolks.co.uk