by David Taub
With every escape, with every takedown, the anticipation built in the crowd. The cheers grew louder building for the moment that hadn’t been seen or heard in 11 years.
When freshman Khristian Olivas scored the first home match win for the reinstated Bulldog wrestling team, the crowd popped loud and long, as if John Cena won the WWE title.
The barking returned at the Save Mart Center on Friday night (Nov. 17). The fans flocked to watch something that should have never been taken away. Fresno State wrestling returned, fulfilling a promise and making right a terrible injustice.
Forget the fact that 14th ranked Illinois won the dual meet, 33-10. Wins and losses are beside the point. Wrestling is back. Fans and alumni are happy. All is right with the world.
Friday’s atmosphere resembled a WWE event. The mat was laid across an elevated platform in the middle of the arena. The lights were turned down, save for a few spotlights focused on center stage. Fresno State wrestlers emerged through a red tunnel with entrance music and smoke, slapping hands with the adoring audience. The band played between matches; cheerleaders on hand to encourage their team to victory.
The crowd responded—6,840 fans showed up, the third largest turnout of all-time for a Fresno State wrestling event at Save Mart Center. That figure is greater than the average men’s basketball attendance last season.
They consisted of wrestling royalty like three-time former NCAA champion and Olympic silver medalist Stephen Abas. Many youth wrestling teams came out to watch how the big boys play. Some fans were just as happy to collect a foam finger tossed into the crowd.
I asked longtime wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter about how this turnout compared to the WWE at Save Mart Center. Meltzer keeps track of such metrics and said the event was better attended than most regular WWE shows in the arena (but not as large as for TV tapings).
Even with the energized crowd, coach Troy Steiner wants more. “I said all along that I wanted eight to ten thousand, so I am a little disappointed that we didn’t reach that. I know this place can draw people. We have been fighting to get this program back and now it is back. I will continue to say, ‘you need to support it now,” he told the media after the matches.
When Joseph Castro spoke with the media after being announced university president in 2013, I asked him two questions. First, when will he get a Fresno State tie? That situation was quickly remedied. Second, when will wrestling return? Instead of faking his way through an answer, Castro genuinely understood the athletic and cultural importance of wrestling to the Red Wave and the Valley as a whole. He promised to bring it back. Four years later: mission accomplished.
Certain parts of the country excel at certain sports. Think Texas and football; Minnesota and hockey; and the Central Valley and wrestling.
It is the ultimate sport: two men compete using every muscle and all their energy in a seven-minute war. There are no timeouts; no water breaks; no reliance on teammates. It is a one-on-one battle of strength, skill and mental toughness.
Fresno State cut wrestling as part of a Title IX purge. The idea was to provide equal opportunity for women’s athletic programs, a noble goal. But equality does not mean taking away, especially from a program so successful and so entrenched in the Valley’s culture.
High school programs continued to thrive as they always had. Buchanan vs. Clovis consistently draws top crowds for their annual dual meet. The talent never left, just a local collegiate program where athletes could continue competing in front of local fans. One example of a top Valley talent who was forced to ply his trade elsewhere: Lemoore native and two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez. He returned to the Valley Friday night with Illinois, registering a technical fall victory.
There is something fun about watching a program from scratch. While the Bulldogs may take their time catching up to the nation’s elite, they are not starting over. They are just resuming their history, tradition and culture after an 11-year pause.