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Monday, March 28, 2011

Anthony Robles

                                            SMART MONEY

Wrestling, according to former national champ and Lehigh coach, Greg Strobel, is often simply about "solving the problem" : If his arms are over your arm, you cut away, circling under them and face the guy; If they're under your arms, you work under them, circle out and away, face him. Problem. Solution.

While much of the country, hearing of Arizona State's Anthony Robles for the first time, are blown away at his winning the 125 lb Division I NCAA title,  the wrestling community, if not explicitly having stated it, knew when the two-time high school state champ and senior national titleist was a high school senior, that he could cause his college competition major problems.

The problem for them is, first off, a very technical one: A takedown or reversal requires control and the establishment of control occurs when a wrestler gets behind his opponent and covers his hips. Or  he throws the other guy to his back. Robles, born without a right leg and, more importantly, with no hip bone, offers his opponents a strike zone cut in half.  Throwing the overpowering Robles for control is not really an option, either.

Secondly, is a practical problem: With the missing leg, Robles has some 25-30 lbs  more muscle than his competitors, evenly spread throughout his body; his bulldog stance-chest and arms forward, sole leg shielded - forces the  other man to first take on Robles where they most certainly are out gunned (his upper-body resembles that of a put-together 165lber...which further explains why throwing him is out of the question). They engage him and they are faced with a strength they can't adapt to, and he conducts his own stuff and spin for control.

Most significantly, the problem began for Robles' opponents when they ceased being one for him. Confined to a sitting position or, at times, sprinters' stance, certainly limited his developing a more advanced arsenal of single and double-leg attacks, but it also narrowed his focus: no matter how many hours his competition put into acquiring more sophisticated technique, it would still need to get by Robles' limited but unshakable defense.


In the classic bully comeuppance scenario, Big Joey flips Seymour's tray in the middle of a packed cafeteria, sending Turkey Fricasee flying all over his new Rugby Shirt and glasses.  Inexplicably, and finally, Seymour explodes: He becomes a charging windmill. Joey, with arms by his side (why would he have a fighting stance? That suggests he takes Seymour seriously?), is stung by a glancing fist to the tip of his nose.

Thrust into sudden, unexpected action, Joey gasps to get oxygen circulating. He tires as he tries to take hold of the spastic Seymour and is knicked several more times before a teacher breaks it up.

He tries to smile at the absurdity of the little nerd's outburst, but the squint ekes out a tear from the nose sting  (don't want to look like I'm crying).  Seymour claws to get at him over the teacher's shoulder.  Joey isn't hurt, but he's out of sorts: his breathing, his nose, his eyes and even his shirt( he didn't realize is torn at the collar).

"That blood? Joey's bleeding." Someone says about a hanging drop on his nose.

Word spreads and while no one says the Bully got his ass-kicked, they note that he "didn't look good" or "it was a tie" or "Seymour held his own" or, even, "Seymour just spazzed out". With all of these, things did not turn out for the Bully as he wanted; it's a loss.

Joey lost the fight because his objective was abstract, and so, unattainable: Impress my buddies. How? Isn't impressing them with his coolness in conflict with a fighter's seriousness of mind? Joey had picked a fight that couldn't be won. Seymour's objective was painfully concrete: Swing as hard and as fast as you can. He couldn't help but obtain his objective (and ironically by extension, Joey's objective, too).

The high school All-Star, prep national champ out of Blair Academy can't help but have an abstract objective ("The sky's the limit with this kid...!"): His talent, his wrestling savvy are what all are banking on, not a singular technique, and it is a safe bet that, yes,  his high school success can translate  into college success...but not always and frequently not into national titles. Technique changes, evolves; the high school star can't rely on his old signature power move with stronger competition; being "the best" requires speculation and development and experimentation that can lead the wrestler down the wrong path, or compromise one strength for what they hope is more bankable asset.

Limited by how much technique could be added to his arsenal, Robles' objective was unalterable and simple: stop my opponent from getting behind me. As such, he  never veered from his fighter's stance to try something new or something that he needed to "become the best." As his objective and his stance were never in conflict, he couldn't be misled, he couldn't compromise his strength for a distant one of promise: he held his, and it accrued interest.


The overriding rule of any wrestling room is: the wrestle-off decides the team. Whatever the coach's considered opinion or the team captain's leanings, in the days before the first meet, they are put aside and the entire team  watches (usually with an understanding that support is general and applies to both wrestlers) and whoever scores the most points or pins gets the spot. There are no "cuts" from the team.

I know of no coach who has spent any time in the grind who has not benefitted from the inherent check on their ego; wrestling room walls are lined with the honored names of district, regional and state champions who, if they had been subjected to the first-glance rule of team cuts , would have run winter track.

The drills and exercises, techniques and strategies ultimately are only suggestions. Of course,  wisdom acquired through experience gives the coach an eye for these "comers," but it is a sport, as all fighting arts are, of freaks (and for freaks...of strength, etc). It is a sport where vagaries in temperament or physical oddities are assets: the boy with duckish, "girly" hips and linguini arms can't do a pull-up, but can roll his opponent from anywhere; the gangly plugger is double-jointed and can reverse out of the strongest competitor's advances; the shy boy who walks quietly through the halls with few friends gets hold of the other guy's leg and with no better place to be will endure fatigue and cross-faces to outpoint the favored son.

It is a sport where (as Ellison first called them)  "smart money" hits the canvass on a regular basis, and reminds us as Tommy Lee Jones' character put it in "No Country For Old Men": "Even in the contest of man and steer, nothing is certain."

At 3:23 of his 1976 New Jersey State Finals Match, future Olympian and World Cup Champ is Gene Mills is chided for employing what the commentator found to be " a violation of sound wrestling principles."

 At the time, half-nelsons were thought most effective when thrown on a flattened opponent. Not blessed (or cursed) with a bull's body, Mills wasn't best at bumping the wrestler out of his base and to his belly, so his competition  stayed up. Faced with an opponent on all fours, he used his long arms to sink the half from there, and, he and the rest of the wrestling world discovered, from this position the offensive wrestler's near knee created a wedge in the resistant wrestler's body, immobilized his hips (note: without your hips under you, you're nothing) and he went over easier. Had he been built like a linebacker, the world might never have known the innovation.

Mills' variation on the half helped bring him two NCAA Titles, Two world cup belts, a pan am games gold and a career record of 1356-46-1 (not too shabby).  More, half-nelsons are today almost uniformly taught in way that in 1976 would have been called a "bad tactic"; it is now called "The Mills Half."


In the big matches and fights- center stage of nationals, Main Event in Atlantic City, etc- the fighter is reminded to "stay within themselves"; it is not the time to reinvent your style or game-plan ( some abject contrarians will argue "but some great fighters have let it all hang out in the finals..." True. And that's their personality, style and game plan. It's not time for them to be conservative).

A reminder is needed as the fighter, under the lights, may be tempted to cover up, mask themselves. Inevitably, though, it is all revealed, and some of the most talented wrestlers are exposed each year  in earlier rounds. Under the lights, your limitations are obvious and glaring. It is the courage to take what you've been given and work with it that most impresses and gets the job done.

No matter how talented, no matter how higly touted and whatever  pedigree, the center lights bring out our limitations and  painfully reminds us of  the inequitable distribution of skill. We all, in whatever design you believe, have been nipped here, stunted there, saddle with this or that and we are left to go with what we have. And fighters throughout the years have found the democracy of the ring made an ideal home.

A friend, a world-traveler, had told me that I should consider a cruise she had taken through the Meditteranean and into the Adriatic. From the Islands of Italy to the old coastal cities first across the Adriatic.
   "Serbia? Croatia? The former Yugoslavia?"
   "Yes, it's beautiful."
   "Why not Kabul, too?" I joked. "Haven't those places been ravaged?"
   "Yes," She said, "But they are beautiful because they don't deny their those ravages."

Anthony Robles stood center circle, arm raised, and we celebrated, not because in his stunning achievement we forgot his limitations, but because, like all fighting champions by varying degrees, he faced his ravages.

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