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The Midlands: A Winner for 40 Years
Article by Mark Palmer; Photos by Danielle Hobeika

Joe Williams
Joe Williams of the Sunkist Kids (left) made history by becoming the first ever nine time Midlands Champion

Where were you in ’62?

Ken Kraft, former Northwestern University wrestling coach, was driving his team home from a tournament in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in late December, 1962. Somewhere on that long road trip, the idea struck him: Wouldn’t it be great to have a Christmas wrestling tournament closer to home, in the Chicago area?

That was the birth of what has become the Midlands, one of the most prestigious and longest-running major wrestling tournaments in the United States. The 40th anniversary edition was held on December 28-29, 2002 at Welsh-Ryan Arena on the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Illinois, just outside Chicago.

This Christmastime wrestling tradition first hit the mats in December, 1963 at the YMCA in LaGrange, Illinois. The West Suburban YMCA Open (as it was called then) was an immediate hit, with a 132-man field in its first year, including seven individual national champions.

Steve Mocco
Heavyweight Steve Mocco of Iowa (right) was the 40th Midlands Gorrian Award recipient

In fact, it was so popular, it outgrew the "Y" that first year, and found a home at the nearby Lyons High School for the next eight years. The Midlands then moved to Harper College in Palatine for a time before making its home at Northwestern.

In the first 39 years of the Midlands, over 7,500 wrestlers have competed… but only 247 men had taken home titles. An even more elite group of Midlands competitors had joined the "20 in 4 Club" — wrestlers who have won at least twenty Midlands matches in their first four meets. There are fourteen in this rather exclusive group… and only two are undefeated in Midlands competition: Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson. This year, Gable and Sanderson could have been joined by another Iowa State alum, Joe Heskett, who would have needed to win all five of his matches at the 2002 Midlands to join the "20 in 4 Club" undefeated… but Heskett lost in the finals to Illinois’ Matt Lackey 9-5. (Lackey was named Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament.)

Travis Lee
Travis Lee of Cornell (left) defeated Luke Eustice of Iowa (right) in the 125 pound finals and was voted the Champion of Champions

The 40th anniversary edition of the Midlands was noteworthy for a number of reasons:

  • The first ten Midlands champions from 1963 were honored in a special ceremony.

  • 42-year-old Randy Conrad, nephew of 1963 Midlands champion Roy Conrad, attempted to be the oldest wrestler ever to place at the Midlands. He lost in his first-round match to Jeremiah Jarvis of UC-Davis 9-3; in the consolations, he pinned Quinten Bell, then lost to Stanford’s Matt Gentry 4-2.

  • Over 300 wrestlers from all over the country competed, including more than half of the top 200 grapplers in the U.S. Most of the top twenty college programs were represented.

  • Joe Williams of Sunkist Kids won his record ninth straight Midlands title, beating Tyler Nixt of the Iowa Hawkeye team he coaches. Last year, Williams, a three-time NCAA champ, tied the all-time title mark set by Bruce Baumgartner, and also passed Baumgartner on the all-time wins list with 45 Midlands victories.

  • Defending NCAA champs failed to earn titles at this year’s Midlands. In addition to Joe Heskett losing in the finals, Aaron Holker of Iowa State at 141 lbs. placed third… and NCAA heavyweight champ Tommy Rowlands of Ohio State lost to defending 2001 Midlands titleholder and number one seed Steve Mocco of University of Iowa in a finals brawl 4-2.
    Matt Lackey
    165 lb. Matt Lackey of Illinois (right) defeated 2002 NCAA Champion Joe Heskett (left) and went on to earn the Outstanding Wrestler Award


  • The Midlands isn’t just for collegians. In addition to Joe Williams and Joe Heskett , other mat veterans who competed in the final round included 149-pounder John Fisher (who lost to Dylan Long of Northern Iowa 5-3), and Lee Fullhart (who fell to Lehigh’s Jon Trenge 4-1 in the 197lb. class).

Now that the Midlands has concluded its 40th anniversary celebration, there’s just one thing left to say: Here’s to forty more!

NOTE: Fox Sports will televise the 40th Midlands Championships on Saturday, January 11, 2003 from 7:00 — 9:00 p.m. Central. Check your local listings for time and availability in your area.

 

 

jessman Smith v. Clint Wattenberg

Photo Galleries from the 40th Midlands:

Iowa Team Photo



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