The NCAA Wrestling Championships this weekend might be the end of heavyweight Gable Steveson’s career as a Minnesota Gopher, and if so, he’s working to make sure he goes out with a bang.
Steveson is the undisputed favorite to win his first national title at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, with the opening rounds on Thursday morning through to championship matches on Saturday night.
If the junior from Apple Valley captures the NCAA title, then qualifies and competes well in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, that run of success could spell the end of his amateur career.
“The questions are all in the air with that,” Steveson said last week. “I love the WWE. I love the organization and what they bring to the table, and it’s going to be a hard process. There is going to be a lot of opportunities for me to go through, but right now, I’m sticking with staying here and staying active in the wrestling scene. We’ll see what happens at the Olympics.”
In the Big Ten Championships in early March, top-ranked Steveson dominated No. 2 Mason Parris of Michigan to win 12-4 in the finals. Those two remain the top two seeds this weekend, but that’s only on paper.
“This ain’t no rivalry,” Steveson told Big Ten Network after winning the conference title. “I came in to do my job, and I’m 2-0 against him. I’m going to see him (at the NCAAs). I’m not worried about nothin’. I put my skills on display right here. It’s going to happen again.”
Former Gophers heavyweight Tony Nelson, who won NCAA titles in 2012 and ’13, has been training with Steveson the past few years. Nelson, another Olympic hopeful, has seen a different gear from Steveson this season.
After finishing third in the NCAAs as a freshman in 2019, Steveson’s perfect season a year ago ended when the national tournament, set to be held at U.S. Bank Stadium, was canceled due to the pandemic.
“I’ve seen an ultra focus,” Nelson said of Steveson. “Last year, he was winning matches easily, but he wasn’t doing what I believe he was capable of doing. This year he has been focused on winning that Hodge Trophy. You can see how he’s going out there to be dominate. Every match hasn’t even been close. He’s really got that in mind, and he’s going after it.”
The Hodge Trophy goes to the top collegiate wrestler in the nation each year, and only one Gopher has won it: 133-pounder Jayson Ness in 2010.
The reigning Hodge winner is Iowa’s 125-pounder Spencer Lee, and he’s the one wrestler Steveson doesn’t want to face — even in a fictitious matchup where Lee gained or Steveson lost weight to meet at a some weight class in the middle.
“Keep (Lee) at 125, I don’t want any part of him!!” Steveson tweeted back in January.
Last week, Steveson added, “I love watching Spencer Lee. The way he wrestles and how he takes care of his business on the mat is phenomenal. He’s separated himself so deeply in the 125 field that there’s literally no other person that can compete with him overall, and everyone believes it, too. I want to take what he has done and put it into the heavyweight division.”
Steveson’s 12-0 record this season hasn’t had a close match, and he was named the Big Ten’s Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Championship — a distinction he got over Lee.
BTN analyst Tim Johnson said before the Big Ten tournament that Steveson’s attack efficiency rate is roughly 75 percent. Johnson then put that number in perspective. “If you are completing 50 percent of your shots, you are going to have a lot of success,” he said.
Steveson’s outlandish success comes from a quickness and athleticism rarely seen in a heavyweight. To show the 285-pounder could still do it, Steveson recently did a backflip in Minnesota’s wrestling room.
“A lot of it goes back to when he was younger” in Apple Valley, Nelson said. “He’s always attacked a lot. Even when I got to work with him when I was just got out college and he was still young in high school, being Minnesota guys, he’s always firing off shots (for takedowns). I think he has wrestled a way that has allowed him to develop and continually increase his scoring rate.”
Steveson’s impressive career — which now stands at 62 wins, 2 losses — could soon have that elusive national title. Will it be his swan song in a Gophers singlet?
Gophers coach Brandon Eggum, of course, hopes that’s not the case. He has talked to Steveson about how the WWE can wait, while college and Olympic wrestling is only around for so long. .
“The big part is building your resume,” Eggum said. “For those guys and what they want to sell (in WWE), the more accolades that you have, the better the draw is for them. He has a small window of time where he can compete and win three national titles.”
With Nelson and Cole Konrad each winning two NCAA championships for the Gophers, that’s Eggum challenging Steveson to be the best of the best at “Heavyweight U.”
GOPHERS HWT. NATIONAL CHAMPIONS
Tony Nelson — 2012, 2013
Cole Konrad — 2006, 2007
Brock Lesnar — 2000
Verne Gagne — 1949
Leonard Levy — 1941