InterMat Rewind: The Midlands

Over the years, the Midlands wrestling tournament has become a much-anticipated after-Christmas present for amateur wrestling fans. However, when the wraps were taken off the very first Midlands in suburban Chicago the last week of December 1963, the nation can be forgiven if it didn't immediately sit up and take notice. After all, the country was still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy one month earlier. The sports pages were dominated by coverage of the NFL national title game between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants. (The first Super Bowl didn't take place until January 1967.)

With all that was going on at the time, the 1963 Midlands got very little media attention. And it's hard to imagine that any of the participants, fans in the stands, or even the organizers could have dreamed that this Christmastime classic would become one of the longest-running and most prestigious events on the college wrestling calendar forty-five years later.

The driving force behind a great idea

Midlands founders from left to right: Bert Kraus, Jack Heiner, Dick Coldren, and Ken Kraft
The idea of the Midlands was born on a long road trip in late December 1962. Ken Kraft, the head wrestling coach at Northwestern University at the time, was driving his team home from the annual Wilkes tournament. Somewhere on the road between Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and Evanston, Illinois, the idea struck coach Kraft: Why not have an end-of-year wrestling tournament closer to home, in the Chicago area?

The Christmastime tradition now known as the Midlands first hit the mats in December 1963 at the YMCA in LaGrange, Illinois outside Chicago. The tournament was an immediate success by any measure, with a 132-man field in the first year, including seven individual national champions, and post-collegiate wrestlers preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

In fact, the first event was so popular, it outgrew the Y that first year, finding a home at the nearby Lyons High School in LaGrange for the next eight years. In 1972, the Midlands moved to the Northwestern campus in Evanston, where it has been held every year since -- with one exception: in 1982, when the university's arena was being completely rebuilt, Harper College in suburban Palatine, Illinois hosted the tournament. Despite these various venues, the Midlands has remained a uniquely Chicago area institution for nearly a half-century.

One of the original champs remembers

Dennis McCabe remembers that first tournament as if it were yesterday. Denny, who wrestled at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, made history by being crowned the 190-pound champ at the very first Midlands in 1963.

"First of all, it wasn't called the Midlands in the first year," recalls Denny in a 2002 interview with this writer for an article for the Amateur Wrestling website. "It was called the West Suburban YMCA Open, and it truly was an 'open' where anyone could show up and compete. By contrast, I'd describe today's Midlands as being an 'open invited.'"

"They had no idea how many wrestlers would show up that first year," according to Denny. "The gym at the Y wasn't much bigger than your typical high school gym, and, with three mats on the floor, there wasn't much room left over for the wrestlers and the spectators. It was wall-to-wall people. There really wasn't any room to work out or warm up. In fact, I remember having to almost fight my way through the crowd to get to my matches."

When asked why the event was so popular in its first year, Denny McCabe says, "There had never been a holiday wrestling tournament in our part of the country."

Denny McCabe with Dan Gable
"The timing was great. For those of us from Illinois, it was a chance to compete while we were home for the holidays," according to the graduate of Maine East High School, which is not too far from the YMCA hosting that 1963 tournament.

Yet another reason for the event's success right from the start: The University of Michigan's long-time, legendary coach Cliff Keen (yes, the same guy whose name is on the wrestling gear supplier) brought his Big Ten champion Wolverines to the inaugural event.

The first Midlands champs

To claim his 190-pound title at the 1963 Midlands, Denny McCabe wrestled four matches in that crowded Y gym … culminating with his 7-2 victory over Michigan's Joe Arcure in the finals.

(Sadly, that Midlands title would be the highlight of Denny's 1963-64 college season. A knee injury prevented the SIU-Carbondale 190-pounder from competing at the 1964 NCAAs. However, after serving in Vietnam, Denny McCabe won the inter-service championship in 1967.)

Larry Kristoff (left) won four consecutive Midlands titles
In addition to Denny McCabe, SIU claimed three other champions at the 1963 Midlands: Terry Finn, who won the 126-pound crown by defeating Northwestern's Dave Kreider in the finals… Don Schneider, who beat Michigan's Bill Johanaeson in the 134-pound finals … and heavyweight Larry Kristoff, who claimed his first of four consecutive Midlands individual titles with his referee's decision over Moorhead State's Bob Billberg in the finals. (Kristoff went on to wrestle freestyle for the U.S. at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics.)

The University of Michigan brought three individual titles back to Ann Arbor: Mike Palmisano defeated Stan Korona of Northern Illinois University to take the 118-pound crown … Cal Jenkins got the win over Lee Grubbs in the 142-pound finals … and team captain Rick Bay beat Northwestern's Stu Marshall in the 167-pound title bout.

1963 Midlands champions
The Big Ten conference could claim two more 1963 Midlands champs. In the 150-pound finals, Jerry Torrence of Northwestern defeated Dick Smith… while, at 158, Purdue's Dave Gibson earned the title with a win over Sam Ward. In the 177-pound finals, 30-year-old Roy Conrad of the Irving Park YMCA -- a graduate of Northern Illinois University, and 1960 NCAA champ at 177 -- got the victory over SIU's Don Millard. (Don't feel bad for Millard; he came back to win the 1964 NCAA title at 167 lbs.)

Taking home team titles

Despite SIU-Carbondale having four individual champs to Michigan's three, the Wolverines claimed the inaugural team title at the 1963 Midlands … and earned that honor again in 1964.

The Midlands grew in stature and significance as additional colleges made it part of their schedules. Michigan State participated in its first Midlands in 1965, followed by the Iowa State Cyclones in 1966. By 1970, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, and the Oklahoma State Cowboys had joined in on the action.

From 1965 to 1973, two schools battled back and forth for the Midlands team title: Michigan State and Iowa State. In 1973, Oklahoma State rode off with the team championship. Starting in 1974, Iowa pretty much locked up the team title through the rest of the 70s and into the early 1980s. For the rest of the 80s, team championship honors went to Sunkist Kids, Arizona State and North Carolina various years. For a time in the early 1990s, there were no team titles awarded…but, once the team championship was resumed, the Hawkeyes laid claim to the honor for the rest of the decade. In the new millennium, team honors have gone to Iowa State, Minnesota, Illinois (with three straight from 2003-2005), and, most recently, Iowa in 2007.

Midlands matmen with the "mostest"

In all the years of the Midlands tournament, over 8,000 wrestlers have competed… yet only 295 have won individual titles. Some participants deserve special recognition:

The "20 in 4 Club": One measure of elite status at the Midlands is for an individual wrestler to earn twenty wins in the first four years of competition at the event. Of the thousands of wrestlers who've stepped onto the mats at the Midlands, only sixteen have accomplished this feat. Dan Gable was the first, getting 20 wins at the 1966-1969 Midlands. Other members of the "20 in 4 Club" include John Bowlsby, Barry Davis, Andy Schwab, Cary Kolat, Joe Williams, Charlie Branch, Mark Ironside, Wes Hand, Jody Strittmatter, Doug Schwab, Yoshi Nakamura, Mitch Clark, Cael Sanderson, Joe Heskett, and Tommy Rowlands.

At the 2007 Midlands, Iowa's Mark Perry came close to joining the "20 in 4 Club." The four-time finalist has tallied a total of eighteen wins. However, the 2007 Midlands was a special year for Perry; the Hawkeye 165-pounder won the Outstanding Wrestler award and all other individual honors except for Fastest Fall.

No average Joe: In addition to being a member of the "20 in 4 Club", former Iowa Hawkeye wrestler and Chicago area native Joe Williams can also claim some other Midlands "mosts." He has the most wins of any Midlands competitor, with 55. Williams also has the most consecutive victories, with 51. What's more, he also has the most individual championships, with ten.

Most outstanding: Each year since the 1964 Midlands, tournament referees and members of the media have declared one competitor to be the Outstanding Wrestler of that particular year. Among those who have won the award more than once: two-time winners Masaaki Hatta, Wade Schalles, Bruce Baumgartner, Cary Kolat and Joe Williams. However, one man earned OW honors an incredible five times in six appearances as a wrestler. His name is Dan Gable, and now the award bears his name.

Most "durable": You can count on the fingers of two hands all the men who've wrestled at the Midlands over the course of three separate, consecutive decades. Competing at the Midlands in the 1960s, 70s and 80s: Russ Hellickson, Verlyn Strellner, Tom Minkel and Leo Kocher. Stepping onto the Midlands mats in the 70s, 80s and 90s: Fred McGaver, and Jim Zalesky… while Phil Rembert, John Fisher, and Kevin Vogel wrestled in the tournament in the 1980s, 90s and the new millennium:

Roy Conrad (left) was the 177-pound champ at the very first Midlands
High school highs: Over the years, most of the competitors at the Midlands have been college wrestlers … with a few post-collegiate veterans sprinkled among the field. In the 45 years of the Midlands, only four high school mat stars have been invited to compete: Jimmy Carr and Cary Kolat (both Pennsylvania preps), Alex Tsirtsis (who wrestled at Griffith HS in Indiana), and, after considerable battles with the governing body of New York State high school athletics, Corey Jantzen of Shoreham-Wading River HS on Long Island who wrestled at the 2006 Midlands.

At the other end of the age spectrum … At the 2002 Midlands -- the fortieth anniversary edition -- Randy Conrad took to the mats at age 42 … making him the eldest wrestler to compete in the history of the tournament. Interestingly, Randy is the nephew of Roy Conrad, the 177-pound champ at the very first Midlands.

Pinning down some impressive honors: Like many tournaments, the Midlands maintains meticulous records on just about everything that can take place during an amateur wrestling event… especially pins. There's the Gorriaran Memorial Trophy that, each year, honors the one wrestler who gets the most pins in the least amount of time. Among the men who've earned this trophy twice: Dan Gable, Wade Schalles, Mike Lingenfelter, Tom Erikson, Royce Alger, and Stephen Neal.

The Midlands record books also list the competitors with the most pins in their appearances over the years at the tournament. Mike Schmidlin takes the prize as the top fall guy, with 25 pins in all his Midlands appearances. Dan Gable got 22 pins, while Tom Erikson had 19. Erikson also claims the honor of getting the fastest fall in the history of the tournament. In 1991, he pinned an opponent in just eight seconds!

From Midlands to the Olympics

The Midlands was held at Harper College before finding its long-time home at Welsh-Ryan Arena (pictured)
During the Midlands 45 -- held December 29-30, 2007 -- Midlands veterans who also competed in the Olympics were honored at a special banquet and presentation ceremony before the finals on Sunday evening the 30th.

In the 45-year history of the Midlands, an incredible 92 individuals who had competed at the Christmastime classic went on to wrestle at the Olympics, representing five different nations. Of these, eighteen earned Olympic gold medals for the U.S.: Dan Gable, Ben Peterson, John Peterson, Randy Lewis, Bobby Weaver, Ed Banach, Lou Banach, Bruce Baumgartner, Steve Fraser, Dave Schultz, Mark Schultz, Kenny Monday, Kendall Cross, Tom Brands, Kevin Jackson, Rulon Gardner, Brandon Slay, and Cael Sanderson.

In addition the gracious assistance of Denny McCabe and Ken Kraft, source material for this InterMat Rewind historical profile came from an article in the 2002 Midlands program, "1963: It Was A Very Good Year" by Tom Tomashek (as well as statistical charts in the 2002 and 2004 Midlands programs) … and from Mike Chapman's book "From Gotch to Gable: A History of Wrestling In Iowa."


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