With memes abound depicting the tirades of a few, it can feel like wrestling is siloed, destined to be a sport that graduates aggression before tactic. And it's true that for the past 20 years the wrestlers climbing to the top of the political junk heap have tended to be hyper-conservative and not altogether that compassionate, thoughtful, or jacket-wearing.
But it wasn't always that way.
Before since-disgraced former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert was elected to his vaunted title in 1999, the most well-known wrestler-turned-politician was something of a people's warrior. A champion of equality, someone with a fire in his belly, not for support of the gun lobby or oil companies, but for people. The middle class. You. Me. A politician who was simultaneously recognized for his once-adept physical combativeness, but also his ever-present compassion and thoughtfulness.
Paul Wellstone was raised in Arlington, Virginia, and wrestled on scholarship for the University of North Carolina in the mid 1960's. After earning his B.A. and ACC Conference title, Wellstone went on to earn his Ph.D., From there he moved to Minnesota with his wife to teach and start a family.
From the time he arrived at Carleton College, Wellstone was a dogged advocate for workers' rights. He was known to support picketing staff and rally local labor unions. Largely on the back of the energy he created in supporting these issues, he ran for U.S. Senate in 1990 as a member of the (I kid you not) Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.
Wellstone would go on to win the race, and then reelection in 1996. He became a powerful voice in Washington, never backing down from a confrontation. In one instance he broke protocol when visiting George H.W. Bush at the White House and confronted him about the U.S. involvement in the first Iraq War. He often called himself the "Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party."
In 2000 he was asked by a friend to explore running for president, but after a series of early tours pulled his name from consideration. At the time he cited an old college wrestling injury that had given him severe back discomfort, but later it was revealed he had Multiple Sclerosis.
The Wellstone story ends in 2002 when along with his wife and one of his children, he died in a plane crash while headed to the funeral of a local union organizer. The crash happened only a few weeks before what was likely to be Wellstone's election to a third term in the U.S. Senate.
What separated Wellstone from so many of his colleagues was an unflappable determination to fight for what was right for all people. He opposed NAFTA and ANWR, fought special interests, and was the only Senator in a tight re-election campaign to vote against the resolution to go to war in Iraq. Wellstone was convinced that Big Oil, Pharma, and the Gun Lobby had someone fighting for them. His role was to fight for the rest of the country.
Wellstone left a legacy of thoughtfulness that resonated at his funeral. During his eulogy Sen. Tom Harkin said of Wellstone, "He may have had a bad back, but he had a spine of steel."
A wrestler's grit. An unconquerable desire to protect and advocate for those in need. A spine of steel. Wellstone is every wrestler's best representation of what we can be as leaders. The fight for the people and passion with good intention, devoid of the chicanery and two-bit histrionics of today's most powerful former wrestlers in politics.
Victories on the mat should never give license to a leader to flex muscles and scream wildly in the berating of others. Toughness learned in our sport should be deployed in the defense of those who need a megaphone on the national stage -- never as the bully, but always with passion.
And nobody advocated for the less fortunate better than the late Senator Paul Wellstone.
To your questions …
Anthony Echemendia after winning a Fargo title in freestyle (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)
Q: What are your thoughts on Anthony Echemendia committing to Ohio State? He has limited folkstyle experience but is very good in freestyle and Greco. Have you watched him much? What kind of college career do you think he will have if he suits up for the Buckeyes?
-- Mike C.
Foley: I've only seen a few of the matches. Given the excitement of the Division I coaches I tend to think there is a huge potential. When you can throw anyone you want on their head, but you can also defend your legs there isn't much reason to think collegiate success is out of reach.
The one concern for international wrestlers making the switch from freestyle is the transition to the mat. If you look at Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov he cut a similar path as Echemendia, getting only a few years of mat experience at the JUCO level before testing it out at the Division I level. Overall he performed very well, though the issues on the mat probably kept him off the top of the podium.
Echemendia is in a great position at Ohio State. J Jaggers will take responsibility for teaching him how to ride and how to avoid being ridden. Tom Ryan will provide the direction he needs to stay focused off the mat and make large goals for his career.
I'm guessing that if all else goes well he could win an NCAA title before he graduates at Ohio State.
Q: Bo Nickal plans to open an MMA gym and to compete in MMA. Do you think he will be as successful in MMA as other wrestlers have been?
-- Gregg Y.
Foley: Yes. Bo Nickal announced he was opening an American Top Team affiliate in State College and was going to run a wrestling team out of the space, too. The Marcelo Garcia black belt in me is excited, since he'll be an Alliance competitor should he go into jiu-jitsu. The business brain in me is also very excited for him, since opening a BJJ school in a wrestling-rich area like State College is sure to draw big, big numbers. And the MMA fan in me is excited because I think he will be a top-flight competitor.
Will he be successful? Probably very successful, but these things take YEARS to happen. Look at how many of our sport's top stars are still grinding away, toiling to make it onto main cards. There are some very obvious success stories, but often it seems to take as much luck and marketing as it does in-the-cage competence.
Overall, a very good business idea. Will be interested to see it develop!
Q: Who are your top three women's wrestlers heading into 2020?
Yui Susaki won her first senior world title in 2017 at the age of 18 (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Foley: The best wrestler in the world is probably Yui Susaki (Japan) who has yet to secure her place on the Japanese roster or qualify her weight category for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. If Yui can beat her in-country opponents it seems inevitable that she'll win the 2020 Games with little outside challenge.
In terms of results, Adeline Gray (USA) is almost without peer. She's won the last two world championships after sitting out in 2017. And while her lackluster outing at the Rio Games was disappointing, it seemed that her mental lapses have mostly been corrected. She's beaten the best competition in the world again and again.
If anyone would challenge Gray for pound-for-pound No. 1, it's defending Olympic champion and three-time world champion Risako Kawai whose only losses in recent years came to four-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho and a since-suspended Orkhon Purvedorj who tested positive immediately following her victory over Kawai at the 2018 Asian Games.
What's so compelling about the women's side of the sport is the constant expansion of the sport into new territories, some of which haven't seen prior success in men's wrestling. The stars of the sport are coming from Mongolia, India, Nigeria, and Kyrgyzstan -- nations where options for women are limited and the sport can provide upward social mobility.
To me it's almost certain that the biggest wrestling story of the 2020 Olympics will be a woman and that will help our sport continue to grow through even more opportunities for women in even more wrestling-interested nations.
Remembering Paul Wellstone
Highlights of women's wrestling at the 2019 World Championships
Q: What excites you most about the Bill Farrell Memorial this weekend? Any potential matchups you're excited to see?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Honestly, the fact I only have to travel a few stops on the subway and that I can bring my daughter to the action. The weight classes are pretty loaded for a Bill Farrell tournament and I wonder what it will feel like to see Snyder wrestling in an NLWC singlet and being cornered by Cael Sanderson.
Also, Vicky Anthony moved to Canada for her training, so I'm interested if that switch has helped her development. It's only been a short time, but her locking into a solid training situation could equate to a tough 50-kilogram situation back on home soil this spring.
Q: How do you expect the United States will do at the Women's World Cup this weekend?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Strong second.
Q: With Aaron Pico having a fight on Jan. 25, do you think that means he won't be competing for an Olympic spot in 2020?
-- Mike C.
Foley: I don't think that date would adversely affect his training. The whole deal is being able to transfer nationalities (December 2019) and to register for the Pan Am Qualifier in March. Then it's about placing in the top two in the qualifier which he's probably better than 50/50 to do even without year-round wrestling training.
Wil he do it? Unclear at the moment. The MMA career has had a few fits and starts and that should remain his focus, but the point is clear that he can easily make the Olympics and then from there it's anyone's guess what he can do once he makes it onto the mat in Tokyo.