The Man With the Iron Will


Of all the commanding athletes of this or any other American century, no one has been more dominating, or more unknown, than Dan Gable. That’s right, no one.

As a high school and college champion, Olympic gold medal winner and record-setting coach, Gable’s astonishing career--laced with as many improbable climaxes as any soap opera--has put an unmistakable stamp on a sport that is as drop-dead exciting as it is little known. That would be college wrestling, and if that makes you think about the gang down at the World Wrestling Federation, you couldn’t be more wrong.

For though I’ve always had the upmost respect for the physicality of professional wrestlers ever since one of the legendary Mongols tag team (I can’t remember at this late date whether it was Beepo or Geto) put me in a headlock to make that very point, it’s still true that there is at least as much show as athleticism in that endeavor.


College wrestling, by contrast, is the last pure sport, two men locked in a fatal embrace within a 10-foot circle like Holmes and Moriarty going over Reichenbach Falls. It’s a tense, intense, unforgiving contest, one that frequently reduces its mentally tough, superbly conditioned competitors to tears.

But like any cult worthy of the name, college wrestling does not give up its secrets easily. Which is why “Freestyle: The Victories of Dan Gable,” the fine documentary on college wrestling in general and Gable in particular, Sunday on HBO Signature, is such welcome news. Comprehensive, straight-ahead and unsentimental, it calls for no special knowledge on the part of the viewer yet opens a window on a man who was as fierce a competitor as modern sport has seen.

Created in part by the Video Center at the University of Iowa (where the man coached for nearly two decades), “Gable” was shot during his final season in charge before a hip injury forced him permanently to the sidelines. Directed by Kevin Kelley, it cuts back and forth between the challenges of that particular year and Gable’s legendary past, when he did things no wrestler had ever done before, and most likely never will again.

Clearly someone who would rather act than talk, Gable is not the most articulate of subjects, but this film gets him to open up to an unprecedented extent. It also features interviews with old friends, family, celebrity fans such as Tom Arnold, Al Franken and novelist John Irving, as well as awed fellow wrestlers who still shake their heads at the experience of being on the mat with him.

Even in early photographs and childhood home movies taken while he was growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, Gable looks fierce and committed. He was just starting to wrestle when, in a tragedy that friends say “pushed him over the edge,” his sister Diane was murdered by a neighbor. Gable poured all his grief, his fury, his sense of responsibility and his need to knit his remaining family together into his wrestling.

In a sport where willingness to work hard is a major asset, Gable became legendary for his dedication, for plain and simple wearing his opponents out by out-conditioning them mentally and physically. “I’ve been a fanatic about working out all my life,” Gable says, but that statement barely covers someone who passed up a chance to meet the U.S. president and get a personal tour of the White House because he wanted one more workout that day. Imagine the most intense athlete you’ve ever heard of and square it and you’ll get an idea of what Gable was like.


Clips Show a Glimpse

of Steel Determination

That attitude paid dividends. Gable was unbeaten all through high school, and was headed for a similar collegiate record as the star of the Iowa State team in the late 1960s. In fact, Gable was 181-0 through high school and college until his last intercollegiate match, the 1970 NCAA championship finals. Then, incredibly, he lost.

Gable’s 13-11 defeat at the hands of a super-psyched Larry Owings of the University of Washington is still talked about in awed tones 30 years after the fact, and “Gable” does it justice, interviewing both wrestlers and including generous clips of the riveting action.

While Owings never wrestled at that level again, Gable, as always when faced with adversity, rededicated himself and worked harder. He retooled his abilities for Olympic wrestling, which has noticeable differences from the U.S. collegiate sport and, despite a conscious drive by wrestling powerhouse USSR to find someone to beat him, won the freestyle gold medal at 149 1/2 pounds at the 1972 Olympics without giving up a single point during the entire tournament. No wonder Dick Cavett, who’s seen fooling around with Gable on the mat for his TV show, looks like a rabbit in someone’s cross hairs.

Gable’s next world to conquer turned out to be coaching. He took the top job at the University of Iowa and, between 1978 and 1986, his team won the NCAA title an unprecedented nine consecutive times. As a coach, a colleague says, he ranks with basketball’s John Wooden and football’s Knute Rockne, mentors who “understood the work ethic and were able to reach into the souls of the athletes under their care. No one else is on their plateau.”

Though the largest part of Gable’s life has always been wrestling, he brings the same focus and concentration to his rare private moments, which make him a disconcerting individual even when he’s not trying to be. Near the end of this excellent documentary, Gable is glimpsed taking time out to chop some wood. The wood looks frankly terrified, and it’s easy to see why.

* “Freestyle: The Victories of Dan Gable” will be shown Sunday at 7:15 p.m. on HBO Signature, and at various other times throughout the month.