By Bob Sherwin
Seattle Times staff reporter
It’s never going to leave, that painful image of defeat. Not in Dan Gable’s mind, not in this lifetime. He won’t allow it. He clings to it like a drowning man trying to stay afloat, because he understands what once had defeated him also made him a champion.
It doesn’t matter that it’s been 30 years. Time heals nothing, not the memory, not the legend and not the gap between the two men, Iowa State’s Dan Gable, the greatest wrestler of all time, and a confident University of Washington sophomore named Larry Owings.
“I don’t think he’s out of my head even today, “Gable said recently.
Their epic match 30 years ago altered the lives of both in ways not anticipated and provided the sport with a story to pass down through generations on the scope of a Biblical parable.
“People are still talking about it, “said Ron Good, editor of the Amateur Wrestling News. “It’s the biggest upset ever in the sport, and it’s a fascinating story.”
Owings and Gable, forever linked, met in the NCAA final for the 142-pound weight class. Gable never lost before he faced Owings in that match, nor after it. But in the final 30 seconds of a close, intense, exhausting match, Owings slipped underneath Gable’s arms for a leg lift or sweep, putting the erstwhile invincible Gable on his back for the winning points. “It was a move, “Owings said, “I had never done before or since.”
Gable was told Owings’ comment and said he didn’t realize the infamous leg sweep was not a practiced move.
“If he had never tried that before, then that tells me it’s desperate. Desperation is something that brings out unusual things, “Gable said. “I had never heard that before. That makes it worse now from my point of view. I kind of wish he had gotten me with his best move.”
It happened March 28, 1970, at McGaw Hall, an 8,800-seat fieldhouse on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill.
Gable was (and is) the god of the sport, a no-nonsense, punishing force who may have been the world’s best-conditioned athlete. He would get up in the middle of the night to do pushups, knowing his opponent still slept.
His physical makeup was legendary, his results extraordinary. He went 64-0 at Waterloo (Iowa) West High School and 117-0 in three years at Iowa State (freshmen could not compete then) with NCAA titles at 130 and 137 pounds. He was going for his third title at 142 pounds, and virtually everyone thought he was a lock.
Michael Jordan is the Dan Gable of basketball.
“He was a good, solid all-around wrestler who did not make a lot of mistakes, “said Owings, now director of facilities for the Molalla (Ore.) School District. “He was in excellent condition. In that way, he and I were similar. Conditioning was a big part of my preparation.”
Owings ran three miles every morning around the Husky Stadium track, averaging six minutes a mile and sprinting the final quarter-mile in less than a minute. Then he would wrestle two hours a day. He was as relentless and as conditioned as Gable was.
Owings had one more thing Gable didn’t have – implacability. He was driven. The pair had met two years earlier, at the 1968 Olympic Trials when Owings was a senior at Canby (Ore.) High and Gable was a sophomore at Iowa State. Gable won 13-4 and went on; Owings never forgot.
“I knew who he was, “Owings said, somewhat disingenuously. If there was one code Owings lived by then, it was a desire to have a second chance against anyone who had beaten him. Gable was one of the few.
Owings had his first chance at the 1969 NCAA Championships but, as he would later regret, decided to wrestle at 130 pounds, avoiding Gable’s 137-pound class. That wouldn’t happen in 1970. Owings told UW Coach Jim Smith that he was aiming directly at the legend. He would drop down two weight classes, from 158 to 142, just to have a shot at Gable at the NCAAs. Smith would rather have Owings wrestle at 150 pounds.
Smith successfully argued with the seeding committee for his wrestler, who would finish 33-1 that year, to get the second seed behind Gable. It meant that when they met, it would be for the national title – Gable’s final college match.
Mike Gerald, who now lives in Austin, Texas, wrote a book on Owings when the two became acquainted in Oregon. He describes Owings as a “Charles Lindbergh persona, quietly confident, “who believed he could equal Gable’s strength and conditioning.
When Owings arrived, the mind games, so subtly important in this sport, began. He was interviewed by a Chicago newspaper about his chances against the invincible one, and Owings didn’t demur. “I’m not going to this tournament to be a national champion. I’m coming here to beat Gable, “he was quoted.
Gable said a teammate showed him the article. He was intrigued by Owings’ swagger. No one had ever said something that, at least no one who could back it up. He took notice of the young Husky, perhaps more than appropriately.
“When I got to the tournament, I still felt fine – that I could win and do everything I thought I could do, “Gable said. “But I was distracted by Larry Owings. It was a name I had not come across too much ahead of time, but I began paying more attention to him. I don’t know if he planned it or not, but he got inside my head.”
Gable began scouting Owings’ matches. He noticed that the UW wrestler was making “all kinds of mistakes but still ended up pinning his opponent. “The pins were accomplished by Owings’ best move, an inside reverse cradle that left his opponent unable to escape.
Lyle Ballew, a teammate of Owings’, reported back to Owings that during the Iowa State practices, Gable would work with teammates on every possible countermove to the cradle. “It was an indication, “Gerald said, “that Gable was taking him real seriously. He respected his pinning ability.”
Both wrestlers advanced through the tournament by pinning each of their opponents. However, Gable had to deal with more distractions than Owings. He was presented with the Man of the Year award during the championships, the media sought him out before and after every match, and he was struggling under the burden of a 181-match winning streak.
Then, just an hour before the match, ABC-TV convinced him to do a short promo advancing the telecast, which would be shown a week later, by having him tell the viewer to watch him finish his career 182-0. The promo never ran.
“There was probably not 10 people in that crowd of 9,000 or so who would have bet on Owings, “Oklahoma State Coach Myron Roderick said. “I thought it would be a contest. Larry was tough. He wasn’t scared and had nothing to lose. Dan had a lot of pressure on him. It’s hard to win a third NCAA title. Larry took the match to him.”
The house lights were dimmed, with only the overhead lights framing the mat in the center of McGaw Hall. The crowd edged forward. Owings wore a black singlet with white trim, while Gable was in cardinal and gold. Each wore white headgear and white kneepads. This was the featured match of the tournament. Of the century.
It was close throughout the three-period match, and the constant crowd noise was deafening. Within the first 30 seconds, Gable got up 2-0 with a takedown, but Owings came back on a takedown and escape to lead, 3-2. By the end of the second period, Owings had stretched the lead to 7-2 and the crowd was hysterical. Referee Pascal Perri described the noise as “comparable to Niagara Falls during the spring thaw.”
Gable, who admitted he was uncharacteristically worn down as the match dragged on, remembered telling himself, “Don’t get caught in the cradle. Don’t get caught in the cradle. “He could’t believe he was the one affected by his opponent’s reputation.
But Gable made a gritty comeback, as his fans expected him to, late in the match. With less than a minute remaining, the scoreboard showed Owings leading 9-8, but Gable actually had a 10-9 lead. He had two points in riding time that would be rewarded at the end by Perri.
Only 30 seconds remained in the match; and Gable, despite the fact that he could coast to a one-point win, continued to stand up and circle with Owings.
“I had two minutes more riding time, so I was pretty much in control of the match, “Gable said. “(But) I got greedy.”
He tried an arm-bar move, coming over Owings’ shoulder in an attempt to lock him up and take him down. This was Owings’ opportunity, the fateful moment when his never-used leg sweep caught Gable by surprise.
Gable said when Owings grabbed his leg “it was kind of like a slow-motion fall. I didn’t know how the referee would score it.”
Perri had given Owings two points for the takedown and two for a near-fall, as Gable’s shoulders were briefly exposed to the mat. The scorer had not seen the near-fall signal because a TV cameraman had jumped in the way, so Perri stopped the match to explain.
Iowa State Coach Harold Nichols protested. Gable, then and now, says the near-fall was “a judgment call.”
Perri brought the two wrestlers back with 17 seconds left for a final grab-and-hold.
“At that point, once I saw the score and only three seconds left, I knew he couldn’t get two points, “Owings said.
Owings had won, 13-11.
“Stunned was the word, “Owings said of his first moments as the giant-killer. “He (Gable) was dazed and confused. He was stunned he had lost. We were on our knees at the end of the match. We got up, and he offered me his hand and we shook.
“It was bedlam. They shut down the whole tournament for 15 minutes. The roar of the crowd was unbelievable. It was probably the match of the century. We went at it tooth and nail.”
Smith, a man not quite 5 feet tall, ran over and bear-hugged and hoisted his champion. Owings was the first UW wrestler to win an NCAA title, but what mattered was that he had upset a man the Russians reverently called “The Machine, “a man who had won 181 straight matches, 108 by pins.
The fans, said Roderick, “were in shock, as well as excited seeing history. A sophomore had beaten the giant.
“The American people like the underdog, but at the same time there was sadness. Gable was heartbroken. During the award ceremonies, his real feelings came out. Dan stood there crying. It was one of the most emotional scenes I can ever remember.”
Gable was given a four-minute standing ovation during his introduction as the ceremonies stopped.
Iowa State had won the national team championship, but Gable’s loss dominated the headlines. It also dominated him. He had a chance to face Owings again three weeks later, then again seven months later, but Owings lost in the preliminary round. Gable remembers wrestling an opponent while at the same time watching Owings lose on an adjacent mat.
The match at Northwestern had its impact on both wrestlers. Owings, who said, “I did not really realize the scope of what I accomplished, “never again won the championship, losing in the NCAA finals his final two years. He wrestled Gable one more time, in the 1972 Olympic Trials, losing 7-1. As lopsided as that score was, it was the only point allowed by Gable during the trials or the Olympics.
Owings briefly wrestled internationally and retired in 1973 to his home in Oregon. He coached for a while, then settled into obscurity of teaching and administrating.
Gable’s career soared. After his Olympic title, he coached the Iowa Hawkeyes to 21 consecutive Big Ten titles and 15 national championships in his 21 years as head coach, going 355-21-5. He now does university fund raising and works with the U.S. Olympic team.
“After that match, it took me a long time to really admit a lot of things, “Gable said. “I really didn’t want to see it or talk about it much. But I have to admit to this day that match made my career, not only the next two years. It had a tremendous impact on my entire coaching career.”
Gable said he learned not to take an opponent lightly, to eliminate distractions and accentuate an aura of invincibility and intimidation toward an opponent, just as Owings had done to him.
Gable is in the U.S. Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla. Owings, despite a national title and an 87-4 record at Washington (52-1 in dual meets), is not.
“Probably some day, “said Roderick, who is president of the museum. “You can’t put someone in because of one match. If he had won two national championships it would be easier, but he never went to the Olympics and didn’t do much international wrestling.”
But Owings has a prominent spot in the Hall, with a large picture of the match and some mementos. It is annually the most viewed element in the Hall. Moderator: When I visited the Hall in 2006, Owings’ singlet worn in the match was on display, right next to Gable’s Iowa State uniform, right in the lobby.
Owings has not talked to Gable since 1980, and that was a brief conversation to ask him to consider looking at a wrestler in his district. During the conversation, neither mentioned the match. They haven’t talked to each other since.