No state in the country can match Iowa’s enthusiasm for the sport of wrestling. Just as Texas adores football and Indiana is devoted to basketball, Iowa residents embrace wrestling with the fervor of a well-executed arm bar. And if you aren’t familiar with that term, you’re clearly not from Iowa, a state whose wrestling lineage is akin to royalty. For starters, the University of Iowa has produced 23 NCAA national championships, second in history behind Oklahoma State’s 34 titles. The Hawkeyes’ rival, Iowa State, has captured eight championships, tied with Penn State for third all time.
While Iowa State may trail their state adversaries in championships, the Cyclones are second-to-none when it comes to producing incredible wrestlers, as two of the greatest wrestlers of all time (Cael Sanderson and Dan Gable) plied their trade at Iowa State, combining to win 276 matches while losing only one, and recording six national titles between them. Once Gable was through pummeling his opponents for the Cyclones, he moved across the state to the University of Iowa where he became one of the greatest coaches in NCAA history, as his teams won 21 Big Ten Conference championships and 15 NCAA Division I titles, and he coached 152 All-Americans, 45 national champions and 12 Olympians.
Not surprisingly, the success of the state’s two major universities has spawned generations of grappling fans, resulting in wrestling tournaments drawing sizable crowds across the state. In 2015, Iowa beat top ranked Oklahoma State 18-16 in the first wrestling meet held in a Division I football stadium, the Hawkeyes’ Kinnick Stadium, a meet that shattered the NCAA wrestling attendance record by drawing 42,287 fans. The previous mark was 15,996 set by Penn State in 2013. The crowd is believed to be the largest to ever witness a wrestling match in the United States. While that event is an outlier with regards to its mammoth crowd, it isn’t a deviation from the norm in Iowa, which hosts some of the biggest wrestling tournaments in the country. Here are some of those events:
USAWrestling Folkstyle Nationals
The USA Wrestling Folkstyle Nationals is the first leg of USA Wrestling’s national Triple Crown (which is awarded to any athlete who wins a USA Wrestling national title in folkstyle, Greco-Roman and freestyle in the same year). It has become one of the most prestigious honors in youth and high school wrestling. The nationals in Cedar Falls features a number of the top youth wrestlers in the country, annually showcasing top-ranked wrestlers in each weight class. In 2017, the event attracted more than 2,800 competitors from 40 states.
“In the Cedar Valley, wrestling events make up approximately 20 to 25 percent of all events on our calendar,” said Ashley Johnson, executive director of the Cedar Valley Sports Commission. “Each brings more than $750 thousand in economic impact.”
NCAA DII National Wrestling Championships
The U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, a city in eastern Iowa with a population of 126,326, hosted the 2018 edition of this tournament. The event featured 160 wrestlers representing 52 institutions, a new high for the NCAA Division II Championships. St. Cloud State won the 2018 national championship, edging out 2017 champions Notre Dame College.
Heartland USA Elementary & Middle School National Folkstyle Duels
This USAWrestling event draws in the vicinity of 40 elementary teams and 40 middle school teams annually to Council Bluffs, a city in southwestern Iowa. Council Bluffs is a part of eight counties in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area, which features a population of 865,350.
The Council Bluffs Wrestling Classic
Thirty-nine teams competed in the 2017 edition of this high school tournament, with five states represented. The event took place at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, a 30,000-square-foot pillar-free, multi-use arena.
IHSAA State Championships
Held annually in Des Moines at Wells Fargo Arena, the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s wrestling finals has sold out for 30 straight years with more than 17,000 fans in capacity. More than 74,000 have attended the event during the last 10 years and 672 wrestlers have competed with 230 different schools represented.
NAIA Wrestling National Championships
Held in Des Moines in 2012, 13, 18 and 19, the NAIA Wrestling National Championships feature more than 200 athletes competing at the Richard O. Jacobson Exhibition Center at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. College athletes from across the country compete in the competition, filling nearly 2,000 room nights. The event won the 2018 NAIA Best Athlete experience by having athletes check in at the Iowa Hall of Pride, where they were able to meet Gable.
USA Wrestling Preseason Nationals
This event, which was held in Cedar Falls in recent years, moved to Des Moines’ Iowa Events Center in 2018. The USA Wrestling Preseason Nationals is one of the sport’s premier preseason wrestling tournaments, as it annually features some of the best youth wrestlers in the country and brings 3,000 athletes to the city. With grade school, middle school and high school wrestlers using the meet as a tuneup for the regular season, the event regularly sells out.
“Wrestling has a big impact on Greater Des Moines,” said Ryan Vogt, national sales manager (sports) for Catch Des Moines, the area’s CVB. “We host annual state wrestling, which is the largest high school championships in the country and we have hosted NCAA Wrestling National Championships and the NAIA Wrestling National Championships. Our wrestling venues at both the Iowa Events Center and the Iowa State Fairgrounds contribute to the continued success of wrestling events in Greater Des Moines.”