Sesker Slant: World Cup in Iowa offered unique experience

By Craig Sesker For The Predicament

IOWA CITY – I’m a huge fan of the World Cup.

Not the soccer extravaganza, but the annual international dual meet event for wrestling.

I covered the World Cup in Los Angeles in 2014 and 2015, so I was excited to hear that the 2018 World Cup for men’s freestyle wrestling was going to be held at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Carver-Hawkeye was an awesome host venue for the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. The Iowa fans are some of the most knowledgeable and passionate in the world.

For me personally, it was awesome to have a major wrestling event just 30 miles from where I grew up in Tipton, Iowa.

Here are my thoughts and reflections from this year’s World Cup:

If you weren’t at this year’s event, you missed out. The star-studded American lineup was one of the best this country has entered in a World Cup in decades. The U.S. team was loaded with Olympic and world champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder leading the way along with five world medalists. In addition, you had Hodge Trophy winners David Taylor and Kyle Dake. Taylor and Dake put on a show with their entertaining, aggressive style of wrestling.

Not only are the American athletes very good wrestlers, they also are great ambassadors for the sport as well. The U.S. athletes also are great to work with from a media perspective. They are candid, articulate and cordial. It’s a great group to have an opportunity to interview. Burroughs is the best I’ve ever seen when dealing with the media.

The format for the World Cup is excellent. All of the focus is on one mat and the crowd zeroes in on each mat. The size of the crowds was decent, but not great, in Iowa City. There were 6,388 fans here Saturday, which is about half the capacity at Carver-Hawkeye. I expected to see crowds closer to 10,000 for each session. To their credit, the fans that did show up were loud and enthusiastic. The arena was rocking on both days. The patriotism was also out in full force with numerous chants of U-S-A, U-S-A. The American wrestlers loved the support they did receive.

What also makes the World Cup unique is the way this country comes together. Where else can you hear Iowa fans cheering for guys who wrestled at Penn State and Ohio State? It is neat hearing the support for Taylor, Snyder and Logan Stieber, who wrestled for those rival Big Ten schools. It also was interesting to hear the Hawkeye crowd going crazy when Kyle Dake executed back-to-back five-point moves in beating a world silver medalist from Japan. It didn’t matter than Dake beat two Hawkeye wrestlers in the NCAA finals. Dake was wearing a USA singlet and the Iowa fans were totally supportive of that. And these fans also understand and appreciate good wrestling.

There is no doubt the World Cup was hurt by the absence of Iran, Russia and Turkey. Iran has won this event the past six years, Russia is the most successful freestyle team in the world and Turkey has been strong in recent years. Iran was invited, but elected not to attend the event and Russia had issues obtaining visas. Wrestling is one of the best sports at bringing all of the countries together despite political differences. It just didn’t happen at this event. It was great that India and Mongolia were able to come here at the last minute to fill the void from the countries that didn’t come to the U.S.

There were still some very good teams here. Azerbaijan, Cuba, Japan and Mongolia all brought strong teams with numerous world medalists competing in Iowa City. Azerbaijan has been a world power in freestyle for a number of years now.

There were some issues with the ticket prices. An all-session ticket for the two-day event was $75, which was viewed as high by some people. But for the entertainment value, and to see these highly skilled athletes, it seems more than reasonable to me. Trust me, if you haven’t been to the World Cup you need to check it out.

Another issue some of the fans had was with the long break between USA dual meets Sunday. There were more than four hours between the two American duals on Sunday. Some of that was related to the event being televised by NBC Sports Network. Not sure exactly how to make that better, but it made for a long day at the arena Sunday.

The folks at the University of Iowa certainly know how to run a wrestling event. Kudos to them, United World Wrestling and USA Wrestling, for all of their efforts in making the World Cup a success. It would be fun to see the event come back here in the near future.

And Dan Gable was here. The Hawkeye legend, an Olympic gold medalist who coached Iowa to 15 NCAA titles, excelled in his role once again as the top ambassador for the sport. It was great to see Gable’s close friend, Cornell college coach Mike Duroe, here as an honorary coach. Duroe, who also is a top international coach, is battling brain cancer. Gable and Duroe are two of the best people I’ve met in wrestling.

The best part of the weekend was that the U.S. won its first team title at the World Cup since 2003. The U.S. also won the team title at the 2017 World Championships with Russia, Iran, Turkey and everyone else there. The U.S. is on top right now and may have the firepower to stay there for a while.