If it seemed like the atmosphere was charged, that’s because it was – charged with the kind of electricity only combat sports mixed with national pride can produce, the kind of raw energy generated from the United States’ best struggling with the elite of Iran and Russia. It was Wednesday afternoon, at Beat the Street’s “Rumble in the Rails” event, featuring amateur wrestling of the freestyle and Greco-Roman variety on a single mat set up in a cavernous hall within New York City’s the always-bustling Grand Central Station. It was nation versus nation, broadcast live on NBC, before a packed audience who paid no less than $1,000 for a seat in the bleachers and cheered raucously at each point scored. And for the first half of the event, the U.S. of A was getting their ass kicked – a fact that only served to make the stakes higher with each subsequent match, and make the victories, when they did come, that much sweeter.
The first installment of Beat the Streets was held in 2010 at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum – which is essentially just a converted aircraft carrier moored on the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side – while the two subsequent editions were held in the middle of Times Square. But this one was special, more exclusive, perhaps made so by the marble floors and massive chandeliers overhead and the notion that no pedestrian eyes would be gazing upon the action. There were no curious passersby. Everyone there was there because they wanted to be.
Which meant that when Iran’s 55kg warrior Mehdi Taghavi began to take control of the American Obe Blanc, scoring again and again, the partisan section of the crowd waving Iranian flags turned frenzied, grew almost deafeningly loud.
To say that this is a troubling time for wrestling would be to understate the wound the sport recently suffered when its status as an Olympic event was put into question. But the athletes, officials and fans have rallied to save Olympic wrestling, and through a campaign of increased public awareness and lobbying, are attempting to keep their shoulders off the mat to avoid the finality of a pin. Because a pin – the nixing of wrestling in Olympics – would deal a crippling blow to the sport that’s practiced all the way from grade school on up to college. Take away the Olympics as a goal and, for many, you take away wrestling’s raison d’etre.
With each successive match came another loss for Team USA. “The American’s are letting them have too much head-control,” said an avid wrestling enthusiast next to me. He went on to explain how the Iranian’s vastly greater experience with this particular set of rules gave them an advantage.
And then Kyle Dake stepped onto the mat, Dake the storied wrestler from Cornell, whose accomplishments thus far have pegged him as the next big thing.
Dake. Blond and young and so American-looking it wouldn’t be surprising if he crapped whole apple pies. This was Dake’s first taste of international competition, and with Iran steamrolling over his teammates, it was hard to imagine the drama getting any higher.
He faced his 74kg opponent, Hassan Tahmasebi, and the two shook hands. They had been all smiles as they posed for the cameras at the press conference the day before, but now it time for business.
And some long minutes later, after a high-amplitude takedown that forced from the crowd a collective gasp, business for Dake was good. Very good. Team Iran would go on to win the rest of the matches, but Dake’s victory kept it from being a clean sweep. (When the U.S. would face Russia a few hours later, the home team would win eight out of nine bouts.)
Yet regardless of who won and who lost, the real battle was about educating the masses, and bringing the sport to those who’d otherwise never really know it existed.
By that measure, Rumble on the Rails was a big win for everyone.