Wrestling in Iowa

Five-thousand-year-old rock drawings show that wrestling is one of the oldest sports. It was a part of the ancient Olympic competitions. Wrestling has been the Japanese national sport for centuries. In America, wrestling in the late 1800s and early 1900s was called "catch-as-catch-can." It got this name because the sport began with neighborhood boys who tried to grip and catch their opponent in any way they could.

Iowa Champs

In Iowa wrestling became popular during the 1880s. Wrestlers such as Martin "Farmer" Burns from Wheatland, Iowa, wrestled for money, travelling around, calling for challengers. Farmer Burns later began a school and taught his method of wrestling. He even published a mail order course "Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture." The 12 lessons centered on exercise, wrestling techniques and overall health tips. Burns trained Frank Gotch, who grew up on a farm near Humboldt. Gotch became a world champion catch-as-catch-can wrestler. Gotch was well liked in Iowa. Babies, farm equipment, buildings and toys were named in his honor. He is still ranked among the greatest professional wrestlers in history.

Early Iowa Teams

Because of leaders like Farmer Burns and Frank Gotch, amateur wrestling became an important sport in Iowa. The University of Iowa formed a team in 1911, and Iowa State began one in 1916. The first intercollegiate wrestling team in University of Northern Iowa's history formed in 1923. The first National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Wrestling Championships were held in Ames in 1912.

A Long Tradition of Champs

Many outstanding Iowans have made a mark in the high school and college wrestling arenas since the days of Farmer Burns and Frank Gotch. Gerald Leeman was an NCAA champion for Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa). He won a Silver Medal at the London Olympics in 1948. Glen Brand was an Iowa State University NCAA champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist in 1948. Dan Gable was a star at Waterloo West High School in the 1960s. He ended his collegiate career at Iowa State University with a 118-1 record in 1970 and went on to win a Gold Medal in the 1972 Olympics. Later as head coach at the University of Iowa, Gable guided the team to numerous championships. Chris Taylor was another Iowa State University standout. He was undefeated and won two national titles. Taylor was named All American twice. He also competed in the 1972 Olympics and won a Bronze Medal. Mark Ironside wrestled for the University of Iowa, where he won two NCAA titles and four Big Ten titles. He was a four-time All-American for the University of Iowa. Cael Sanderson was the first four-time undefeated NCAA college wrestling champion. In his career at Iowa State he ended his career with a 159-0 record and won a Gold Medal at the Olympics in 2004.

High school state wrestling tournaments started in 1921 when Cedar Rapids Washington defeated 19 other schools to become state champions. Tournaments have been held every year since then. Since 1926 the tournaments have been sponsored by the Iowa High School Athletic Association. Beginning in 1970 (with the exception of 1971 when it was held in Waterloo) the state wrestling tournaments were held in Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines. Fans and wrestlers filled "The Barn" each spring. Wells Fargo Arena became the site for wrestling tournaments in 2006.

Not Your Typical Competition

Iowa wrestlers have won championships at a wide variety of tournaments at the state, regional and nationals levels for many years. In addition to the typical wrestling tournaments, Iowa wrestlers have built a reputation in a very distinctive area of wrestling competition. In 1951 the Iowa team took first place in the first Midwest Athletic Association of Schools for the Blind (MAASB) Wrestling Championships. Teams competed from all around the Midwest. When the decision was made to split the MAASB into two smaller conferences, Iowa became a part of the North Central Association of Schools for the Blind (NCASB). The first NCASB Tournament was held in 1957 at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton. Nine schools participated.

Wrestling has had a long tradition in Iowa. From its beginnings as catch-as-catch-can to Olympic competitions, wrestling has been an important part of sports programs in Iowa's small schools as well as the state's colleges and universities. Iowa wrestlers have made a mark on the world of wrestling at local, state, national and international competitions.


  • Lisa Abel, “Catch as You Can,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 1 (September 1982): 13.
  • International Wrestling Institute and Museum. http://www.wrestlingmuseum.org/


Iowa has a deep interest and rich history in wrestling. Find out why wrestling is important to Iowans.

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