The Michigan wrestling team prepared to host one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports this Friday night. For the first time since 1983, Big Ten rival Iowa owner of nine out of the last 10 NCAA championships and 26 of the last 27 Big Ten titles visited Ann Arbor.
And to the Wolverines” delight, 2,050 wrestling fans packed into Cliff Keen Arena to commemorate the biggest meet in years.
At the same school that routinely draws 110,000-plus to Michigan Stadium every Saturday afternoon, in autumn, 2,050 may seem like a paltry figure.
But in light of the fact that Cliff Keen”s capacity is listed at 1,800, the positive effects of such a turnout cannot be overestimated.
“They obviously have huge crowds out there in Iowa City,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said of Iowa”s Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which has seen a national record 15,291 attend a dual meet. “That”s a tough place to wrestle. So I was hoping that we were going to create an atmosphere that would be tough for them to wrestle in.”
Michigan succeeded in knocking off the No. 3 Hawkeyes 18-16, and the advantage created by the Michigan faithful was too great to be measured.
The arena”s gates closed 20 minutes before the meet even began. After hospitably begging people to come watch volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling for years, on this night, old Cliff refused to let anyone else in.
“We got here 45 minutes early and we were fighting for a seat,” said Terry Weatherholtz, a 1986 Michigan graduate who drove three hours from Cincinnati, to attend.
“It was fantastic,” McFarland said of the evening”s atmosphere. “There were times I couldn”t hear myself talk. Those upper weights getting us started off on the right foot got the crowd into it, got them enthused because we jumped out to a lead, and we were able to hold on.”
After his 10-1 major decision gave the Wolverines an early 8-0 lead, Andy Hrovat stood on the mat for a few seconds longer, gesturing to the crowd, working it into a deafening frenzy, and like the Wolverines, the crowd never lost its intensity.
“The crowd was right on top of the mat,” McFarland said, and indeed, hundreds of latecomers stood crowded behind the Iowa bench, hoping for a glimpse of history in the making.
Michigan did not disappoint, treating its fans to a thriller that wasn”t decided until the final minute of competition.
“The crowd was awesome,” Michigan freshman Pat Owen said. “I could tell all the wrestlers fed off that crowd energy. You could feel them getting psyched up.”
In a night filled with thunderous eruptions and standing ovations, the noise level reached its ear-drum-shattering apex during 141-pounder Clark Forward”s inspiring 9-8 loss to No. 1 Doug Schwab.
“You hear it getting louder in the back of your head, and you”re like, “that”s our fans,”” Forward said. “It was awesome, especially since they told me that my match was the loudest one.
“Having everybody root for you makes you block out your lungs burning, your legs burning, it makes you block that out and think “these fans came to watch wrestling, and damn it, I”m going to show them some wrestling.” You can”t ask for a better crowd.”
Undoubtedly, 2,050 fans left Cliff Keen Arena satisfied with the wrestling they had seen. And the Michigan wrestling team left elated by the support of its fans.