Where have all the big guys gone

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Collegiate wrestling always claims to have a place for everyone — short, tall, heavy or light.

Too small to play football? Join the wrestling team. Too short for basketball? Try on a wrestling singlet. Not fast enough for the track squad? Wrestling has a place for you.

But in 1987, the NCAA made a change that eliminated a small group who brought big attention. For the first time since 1928, the heaviest weight class in collegiate wrestling was 275 pounds, eliminating the unlimited class.

The stories are legendary and the pictures don’t lie.

“I miss those guys; a lot of people miss those guys,” Oklahoma State head coach John Smith said. “They brought something extra to our sport.”

That “extra” wasn’t just in pounds.

Mitch Shelton weighed in at 400-plus pounds during his two years at Oklahoma State in 1982 and 1983. Ask most wrestling fans in the state of Oklahoma and they will argue that the 1982 Bedlam dual when Shelton pinned Oklahoma’s Steve ‘Dr. Death’ Williams in Gallagher Hall ranks as perhaps one of the top sports moments in the state — in any sport.

At the 1982 NCAA Championships in Ames, Iowa, the unlimited bracket included Shelton, the massive Tab Thacker, 300-pound Gary Albright, Williams and Hall of Famers Bruce Baumgartner and Lou Banach.

Banach, all 210 pounds of him, pinned Thacker in the second round.

Taylor dominated at Iowa St. in the early 1970s.
Iowa State Athletics

“I liked going against those big guys,” said Banach, an NCAA champion in 1981 and ’83. “I think the fans really got into that David versus Goliath story. I was fortunate to have success against those guys most of the time.”

At the 1983 NCAA Championships, Banach beat Shelton in the semifinals and pinned Iowa State’s Wayne Cole in the final.

Banach, like many, was surprised when the weight classification was changed.

“No other sport discriminates,” he said. “And wrestling always talks about having a spot for everyone, so I was a bit surprised when there was no push-back from anybody about the change. When I talk to kids about the benefits of wrestling I always have to add that footnote, that you have to stay under 285 [pounds] now.”

Thacker won a national title for North Carolina State in 1984 and went on to have a small career in Hollywood, starring in Clint Eastwood’s ‘City Heat’ and two ‘Police Academy’ films. He died in 2007.

The National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum will honor the biggest of the big in 2012 when it inducts Chris Taylor as a Distinguished Member.

While competing at Iowa State, Taylor claimed two NCAA titles (1972 and ’73) and won 87 of his 88 matches. The one blemish was a draw. The 400-pounder made the U.S. Olympic squad in 1972 and brought a bronze medal back from Munich. Taylor died in 1979.

“Chris Taylor wasn’t a bad wrestler,” said Dave Martin, a national champion for Iowa State in 1970 and sometimes roommate of Taylor as an assistant coach. “There were a lot of guys back then who were huge and didn’t do anything, but Taylor could really move. But you never wanted to give Chris a ride unless you had a pickup truck because if you put him in your car and he leaned back, he would snap the seat. We didn’t have extended cabs back then.

“A lot of people would argue that they added something to wrestling. It was certainly fun to watch. Jimmy Jackson was another big man who could really move.”

Les Anderson won two NCAA titles for Iowa State and served as Dr. Harold Nichols’ assistant from 1964-74. Anderson was also on the ISU staff from 1979-92.

“The rationale used, I guess, was that [the big guys] were hurting people,” Anderson said. “A committee decided that a change needed to be made when, in all my years, there were very few injuries concerning the big heavyweights. It just wasn’t true.”

Wrestling may have been at its most popular in the early 1970s. Dan Gable, Wayne Wells and Ben Peterson won gold medals at the 1972 Olympics. Taylor earned his bronze and was part of one the most famous photographs in wrestling’s history — Taylor was suplayed by West German Wilfred Dietrich.

“People came to see Chris Taylor,” Anderson said. “And the great thing about Chris was that he would stay around after his matches and sign autographs, every autograph until the last person was gone. There were plenty of times when we were in airports and [Dan] Gable and Chris would be together and the kids, not wrestling fans, would want Chris’s autograph.

“To some, he was certainly a novelty, but Chris understood that he brought attention to wrestling. And people don’t realize how good of an athlete he really was.”

In a world of fantasy sports junkies, it doesn’t hurt to ask about the sport’s current stars:

How would Lehigh’s Zach Rey do against Thacker? How would Alan Gelogaev attack a 400-pounder? What if, in a down-to-the-wire dual, a 197-pounder like Cam Simaz bumped up to face Shelton?

Oh, the possibilities.

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