IOWA CITY, Iowa — To list all of Iowa’s wrestling rivals, one could simply check off every dual opponent on the schedule.
No matter how many years since the Hawkeyes have earned a national title, they get every opponent’s best shot. Opposing gyms are filled to watch their teams battle the legendary Iowa wrestling program. That’s something former Minnesota wrestler and current Iowa assistant Ben Berhow has noticed in his four years with Iowa.
“What I’ve learned is teams get up for Iowa because of the name recognition and history of our program,” Berhow said. “They have us on their calendar and we have to be ready for them with everything they’ve got week in and week out, especially during this stretch of the season, because guys are looking to knock off Iowa.”
That especially includes his alma mater, for which he participated in three NCAA tournaments.
“There’s that buzz in the room leading up to Iowa,” Berhow said.
Of Iowa’s primary wrestling rivals — Oklahoma State, Penn State, Iowa State, Minnesota — its series with the Gophers is the oldest and perhaps most intense. There’s smack talk and history. Legends were made on both sides of the border and the dual meet result often was reversed at the NCAA Tournament.
It’s what makes rivalries special. Plus, they compete for a trophy known as the “Border Belt,” which looks like a WWE-style belt. It was introduced Feb. 1, 2002, by then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
“I think it’s something you see a lot in football and you don’t see it a ton in wrestling,” said Minnesota assistant and former national champion Luke Becker. “So I think any time you do a traveling trophy it does mean something. No doubt about it, our guys think about it.”
As the teams enter their 103rd dual against one another at 8 p.m. CT Friday, it’s more than just a rivalry. It carries the same sizzle as its football counterpart with more in-your-face theatrics.
“They do not like us up there, and that’s OK. I’m good with that,” said Iowa radio broadcaster Mark Ironside, a former two-time national champion with the Hawkeyes. “As we saw last year when we went up there and [Thomas] Gilman almost got beat by [Ethan] Lizak, their fans loved it. They love to beat Iowa. Obviously there’s a little extra emphasis when we come to town up there.”
This time, the No. 17 Gophers come to Iowa City to face No. 7 Iowa. While neither team is a national title contender, it won’t lessen the energy in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“Everybody hates Iowa,” Iowa heavyweight Sam Stoll said. “There’s always that rivalry. We’re border states.”
Remembering a classic comeback
Few collegiate wrestlers in recent memory were as demonstrative or polarizing as Gilman.
During starting lineups, Gilman would sprint to his opponent’s huddle rather than meet him at the center of the mat. The brash and eccentric Gilman, now an Iowa graduate and U.S. national champion, used that tactic to intimidate opponents. It all started as a sophomore against Minnesota.
“It’s kind of funny, the Dardanes twins [Chris and Nick] now are up here [with the Hawkeyes Wrestling Club]. They were the ones kind of instigating it and trying to push me out of there,” Gilman said. “That kind of got me fired up. I said, ‘Let’s keep doing this.’ Then we wrestled them here [in Iowa City] and it’s kind of hostile for them here. But then we went back up there last year, and it was a hornet’s nest. I dug myself into a hole, and they were pretty excited about it.”
Last February in his final season with the Hawkeyes, Gilman was top-ranked and unbeaten at 125 pounds. Iowa headed north to battle the Gophers and Gilman’s match with then-No. 6 Ethan Lizak was a showcase matchup. But Lizak dominated the first two periods and built an 8-0 lead.
Gilman relentlessly attacked Lizak in the third period and won by fall in 5 minutes, 58 seconds.
“It was stressful for a little bit, but it was fun,” Gilman said. “In the end, hearing that crowd go from really loud because they wanted me to lose more than anything — they think I’m a little cocky — but shutting them up, that felt good.”
Although the wrestling series began in 1921, the ferocity ramped up in 1986 when the Gophers hired J Robinson as coach. Robinson was an assistant under Dan Gable at Iowa from 1976 through 1984 and served as Iowa’s interim coach in 1984 when Gable led the Olympic team. Robinson also was an Olympic assistant.
“I remember him and Gable were legendary for being compatible,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “You can say legendary now because it was so long ago, 30 years ago or more. There’s a lot of qualities there that are similar.”
Robinson brought Iowa’s aggressive, fast-paced intensity to the Gophers and built the program in Gable’s image. It took 10 years to take Minnesota from second tier to the brink of national title contention. Two years after Gable’s retirement in 1997, the Gophers ended Iowa’s 25-year stranglehold on the Big Ten Tournament title. But the Hawkeyes still claimed the 1999 national title, topping Minnesota by 2 points.
In 2001, it clicked for the Gophers. At Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Minnesota ended Iowa’s six-year NCAA title reign with a national championship. Robinson won again in 2002 and 2007. That elevated the series for both sides. And it was intense.
“When they’re competitive, they don’t hold back,” Brands said. “I remember some of my best memories as a coach was meeting J Robinson in the middle of the mat when I was the assistant or the head coach. All the sudden you’re there and you don’t know how you got there. He was there and he was probably a little bit more under control than I was and he probably remembered how he got there. But we were both after the same thing. At the end, J Robinson could put it aside and put it under the rug, and I could do the same.”
They also targeted many of the same athletes. Mack Reiter was one of Iowa’s greatest prep wrestlers at Gilbertville Don Bosco in the early 2000s and won his final 162 matches. He opted for the Gophers. As an assistant in the late 1990s, Brands targeted Minnesota prep Luke Becker, who stayed home. Stoll, who is ranked No. 3 and 13-1 overall, hails from Kasson, Minn.
Robinson, who left Minnesota in 2016, was known for turning the Iowa-Minnesota dual into a fierce battle.
“It was definitely something he was excited for,” Becker said. “He wanted to go in there and prove he had built this Minnesota program to a national contender and we could go down there and we could win, really to beat Iowa in Carver-Hawkeye. It was a little more intense for him to go down there and wrestle.”
“I remember J talking that if you go to this arena, you’re going to have to be ready to move because when that whistle blows and you’re not ready to wrestle, you’re going to get pushed around this mat,” Berhaw said.
— Minnesota Wrestling (@GopherWrestling) January 29, 2015
In 1998, Iowa dropped the National Duals title with an 18-17 loss to Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Five days later, the Hawkeyes returned to Minneapolis and beat the Gophers 20-12.
One of the greatest matches in NCAA Tournament history featured Minnesota heavyweight Brock Lesnar and Iowa counterpart Wes Hand for the 2000 title. The match went into double overtime where Lesnar barely pulled away from Hand for an escape and a 3-2 victory. That win took place about a month after Hand took Lesnar to his back and won 5-3. Iowa’s 20-13 victory propelled the Hawkeyes to a 18-0 overall record and 8-0 in Big Ten duals, while Minnesota was 17-2 and 7-1.
In 2015, No. 1 Iowa traveled to No. 2 Minnesota in the 100th dual between the rivals. Iowa rolled to a 23-12 victory. Gilman encouraged some back-and-forth with fans by holding up the Border Belt after the victory.
“I had a couple of fans come up to me and they say there’s all that animosity between us, but they love wrestling us because it’s a rival and there’s history there,” Gilman said. “When you’re on that mat, there’s not a lot of respect. But off the mat, yeah, for sure.”
The intensity between the foes won’t lessen one ounce as they battle Friday. For Iowa, it’s more than just another dual. For the Gophers, beating the Hawkeyes could make their season.
“This is one that our guys know is on the calendar every year and whether it’s here or there, we’re excited because it does mean a lot to our guys,” Becker said. “Iowa is our biggest rivalry that we look forward to every year and it’s important to them. These guys want to go down there, they want to compete well.”
“I recruited Luke Becker and he would have fit in great here,” Brands said. “I don’t want to sit here and give too much credit to our opponent in a way that might worry some of the guys. We’ve got to work on our psyche a little bit because we’ve got to have every edge. But I tell you what, you’d better pull your singlet up and you’d better tie your shoes tight. That’s a good compliment, I think.”