Sesker Slant: AWL makes debut in Iowa

By Craig Sesker For The Predicament

CEDAR RAPIDS – Professional wrestling took center stage on Friday night at the U.S. Cellular Center.

There was no ring, no ropes and no scripted theatrics.

But it was still a good night of wrestling.

This was real professional wrestling when the American Wrestling League made its debut with a 10-match card in Cedar Rapids.

A number of top international wrestlers from the United States, from the men’s freestyle circuit, competed for a chance to win some cash.

Each of the AWL participants collected $2,500 to wrestle in the freestyle wrestling event, which was streamed on Trackwrestling.com. The winners picked up an additional $5,000.

Here are my thoughts on the AWL debut:

You’ve got to love Sammy Brooks. Even when he doesn’t have his mullet. The mullet-less Brooks still put on a heck of a show when the past Hawkeye All-American rallied from a 4-0 deficit to down Nick Heflin 11-4 at 86 kg. Brooks came on strong with a huge second period to prevail as the fans went wild. Brooks pounded his chest after earning the win. He just broke Heflin by setting a torrid pace. “I loved the crowd support here – it was awesome,” Brooks said. “I love the idea of wrestling in an event like this. This is just the beginning. Hopefully, this is a steppingstone for younger wrestlers who can hopefully make a lot of money in this sport.”

Cory Clark put his strength on full display in powering to an 8-0 win over Tony Ramos in a matchup of past Hawkeye NCAA champions. Ramos was unable to generate any offense against the rock-solid defense of Clark, who has a chance to be a factor at 61 kg this season.

The featured bout between Jordan Oliver and Zain Retherford lived up to its billing at 65 kg. Oliver came out firing and led 13-4 at one point before Retherford stormed back. Oliver emerged with a 13-11 win in what may be a preview of the world team trials finals this season. Retherford made the 2017 world team and both wrestlers have won age-group world medals.

You can’t blame Kyven Gadson for being a little distracted Friday. Moments after earning a 5-3 win over Jacob Kasper at 97 kg, Gadson was off to the hospital as his wife was due to deliver a baby girl to their family. Gadson had a good idea of where some of his $7,500 prize money was going. “I think we’re going to be able to buy a lot of diapers,” Gadson said, flashing a smile.

The setup at the U.S. Cellular was excellent. The mat was on a stage in the center of the venue with fans very close to the action. Fans were on the floor on three sides of the stage with the majority of the fans in the regular seats at the venue. It was an intimate setting. There weren’t a ton of fans at the event, but the ones that did show up definitely made some noise.

It was disappointing to not see the top American stars on the mat for the debut of a professional league. World champions Kyle Dake, David Taylor and J’den Cox were all here, but none of them competed. Dake and Taylor were team captains and Cox sang the national anthem. None of the seven U.S. world freestyle medalists from the 2018 Worlds competed. If you’re going to launch a pro league and hope to make a big splash, you need some of your biggest stars on the mat.

Two-time world medalist James Green rolled to a 10-0 tech fall win over former Hawkeye Brandon Sorensen in the night’s first bout at 70 kg. Green is competing next week in Russia. “It’s exciting to have a chance to wrestle here at this event,” Green said. “I had a disappointing performance at the World Championships and I was anxious to get back out here to compete again. It’s great having an opportunity to wrestle in an event like this and put on a show for the fans. and it’s great to have a chance to win some prize money in the process.”

I love the idea of paying these guys to compete. They gave out $100,000 in prize money Friday night, which is awesome. But with the kind of cash you would hope at least a few of America’s best wrestlers would take the mat.

Freestyle wrestling is an entertaining sport and it’s a great product right now that could appeal to fans outside of wrestling’s niche audience. This could be a way to market it and hopefully AWL can learn, grow and evolve from its debut here in Iowa.

The crowd for the event was a little disappointing. There were around 800 fans at an event where the lowest ticket prices were $33 apiece. It was unfortunate to see such a small turnout even with a number of former Hawkeyes competing. The fans that did turn out made some noise, especially when former Iowa athletes competed. I know this is just the beginning and let’s hope there are more events like this.

Again, I’m a big fan of professional wrestling in the U.S. Real pro wrestling. Hopefully, the level of interest in these types of events will grow in the future. These guys wrestle an entertaining style. We just have to figure out a way to get them in front of more fans.

I wish we could’ve seen a match between Dake and Taylor. The fans were calling for it Friday night. Maybe we will see it at the next AWL event. That would be awesome. And maybe they could find a way to get Olympic and world champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder to compete. That would be great to see as well.