One could argue that the occurrence of the “upset” is what keeps a sport alive. And I would have to agree with them. If the giant always walked away victorious over the challenger then people would probably lose interest in watching the game. I believe there is a tendency within our human nature to desire the fall of the giant, to see the worthy challenger rise to the occasion. And this is of course true for the sport of wrestling as well. Though we admire the stories of National and Olympic glory, it’s the stories of unexpected defeat that we are drawn to. Dan Gable capturing Olympic gold without surrendering a single point is not as popular as his surprising defeat in his last collegiate match to Larry Owings. It’s the latter story that is so easily remembered over forty years after its occurrence. It’s this story that continues to strike us with awe.

This is not necessarily a sad ordeal, either. I suppose, at first, it might seem unfortunate that our preference is watching great wrestlers succumb to defeat. But don’t forget who’s on the other side of this predicament: the challenger, the wrestler who, with odds stacked against them, achieved enormous victory. The upset carries a double-sided effect: the giant falls, yes; but the challenger unexpectedly rises to the top. And that, in and of itself, is a marvel to see.

This leads me to the following: upsets are good (perhaps even necessary) for the sport of wrestling. What’s more is that the majority of wrestlers assume the status of “challenger” as opposed to being one of the few who have broken away from the pack and stand at the top of our sport.

I realized this in a subtle way years ago when my high school alma mater, Apple Valley, fell to rival Owatonna in the semifinals in 2005 in pursuit of its seventh straight Minnesota state championship. In a dual team format, it all came down to the heavyweight match. The Apple Valley wrestler was top-ranked in the state, and the Owatonna challenger was unranked, unknown, and severely undersized. The task for the Apple Valley wrestler should have been easy. But the Owatonna challenger surprised everyone when he took control of the much larger wrestler and successfully sealed the win.

I watched as the arena erupted. The roar of the crowd was deafening. The excitement was truly overwhelming! Once the crowd’s response to Owatonna’s victory subsided, a strange thought entered my mind: this is good for wrestling. Despite the pain of seeing my team fall, I knew, and could acknowledge, that there was something remarkably good about what had just taken place.

Now, there are obvious levels (or degrees) within the subject of upsets. That is, there are higher levels of impact as well as lower levels. For instance, I would never suggest that my loss in the quarterfinals of the Minnesota state tournament as the #1 ranked wrestler in the state to an unranked opponent was anywhere near the same level as Brent Metcalf’s loss to Darrion Caldwell in the NCAA finals. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that upsets – both big and small – produce excitement for the fans of the sport. It keeps them engaged. The truth that anything can happen – truly anything at all – is what encourages fans to take their seats and glue their eyes to the battles that transpire on the mat. And furthermore, it inspires new challengers to build confidence and take on the noted champions at every level of the sport.

I can relate to the individuals on the losing end of the upset. I’ve been there. I’ve experienced the pain and embarrassment, the tears, the sickness in the stomach, and the unrelenting agony. And yet I can fully acknowledge that my loss, though unbearable for a time, served to keep the sport alive and thriving, if even in a small way. And I can also acknowledge that losses such as these helped mold and shape me into the person that I am today. Would I want to relive it? Absolutely not! But I am who I am today partly due to the experiences of defeat in my life. Moments of defeat do not define us, but they do offer us the opportunity to grow and mature as a result of them. Dan Gable, decades after his loss to Owings, said, “I have to admit to this day, that match made my career, not only in the next two years. It had a tremendous impact on my entire coaching career.” (Bob Sherwin, “Whatever happened to…Larry Owings?” Seattle Times, Friday, April 7th, 2000). Gable would surely agree that he wishes he could go back, redo his match with Owings, correct his mistakes and win. But at the same time, he recognizes what the experience of loss did for him. And what’s more is that he probably would agree that Owings’ upset victory helped the sport in some way.

Finally, and again, most wrestlers do not stand at the top of the sport. Most are found in the large group of wrestlers who are fighting to challenge the best in order to force their way to the top. They’re the ones chasing the “upset”, even if they don’t particularly like the word or term “upset”. Perhaps they expect to win, regardless of who they’re wrestling. Good! But to everyone else…he or she is on the verge of an upset. And yes, it’s marvel to see!


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Michael Fessler

Written by Michael Fessler

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