The term “G.O.A.T” gets tossed around almost too frequently nowadays. Although some are deserving, what truly classifies one as the Greatest Of All Time?
I recently had the privilege to speak with Lee Roy Smith, the Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (NWHoF), brother of Oklahoma State Head Coach John Smith, and a heavily decorated wrestling advocate. You can read more about his background (HERE).
In what was an educational conversation, Smith (no relation) laid out the groundwork of what wrestling is all about and how each individual associated with the sport has their own way of reaching certain levels of success.
Founded in 1976 by a group of volunteers, wrestling advocates, and leaders from coaches at all levels, the NWHoF is a 15,000-square-foot facility located in Stillwater, Oklahoma. It is a non-profit organization that gets a majority of its funding from donors who are invested in the wrestling world. In the words of Lee Roy, the appreciation runs deep for the Hall, “Thanks to the communities, thanks to the schools, thanks to the clubs, thanks to our leadership that manages the sport at the national governing body level, USA Wrestling level, thanks to the coaches association, thanks to many, many organizations and clubs and programs around the country. It’s really a sport that is supported by its own (people). It’s not going away because these people are going to support it. They always have.”
He also added, “We’re the beneficiary of that as a Hall of Fame. We’re supported by donors all over the United States, people who get honored and who learn about the work we do. We have a mission statement that we preserve the heritage of the sport, we recognize excellence, and we inspire future generations. So our PRI, preserve, recognize, and inspire, are the mission tenets of why we exist.”
As there are many different museums, seemingly unlimited amounts of artifacts and memorabilia run deep within the Wrestling Hall. Medals dating back to the 1920s from some of the first NCAA Championships, Olympic medals, as well as LeRoy Neiman art pieces. Smith noted, “We have just a lot of different varieties, artifacts, and memorabilia. It’s everywhere.”
While technology and modernization wait for no one, the Wrestling Hall itself has pushed itself toward the new age with its displays. Lee Roy explained, “We did a complete renovation between 2016 and 2018 and went to a lot more digital technology instead of walls and putting things on walls, (we) recognizing people more or less with their bios and their names and that type of information all digitally now. That has helped us preserve our space, our square footage because you know you just can’t keep growing and growing.”
As far as what stands out most to Lee Roy Smith personally, he informed me, “I would say that our statue that really became our brand, our logo, it’s a granite statue that weighs over a ton.. that beautiful statue is incredible... All the granite plaques are so beautiful that the honorees receive and that are placed on the wall and one of my favorites is a singlet by the giant heavyweights of the day that used to wrestle were well over 300 pounds. Those are some good-sized singlets. Those are pretty fascinating to look at.”
What makes wrestling special?:
With more of a light starting to shine as to why these athletes are selected in the Wrestling Hall of Fame, we reached a moment of realization that some don’t see as an outsider looking in on wrestlers. There is dedication, work ethic, blood, sweat, and tears that go into such a grueling and demanding sport.
Lee Roy gave his insight into why this sport is so special. He looked deeper into why the opportunity and growth from those who battle inside the circle develop into role models not only on the mat but in the real world. “It takes so much commitment to participate in something that’s so challenging and so hard to do... hopefully you’re throwing somebody down rather than being thrown down, but you do have to get back up and keep coming. One of the biggest things in the sport of wrestling that we explain to the public is that this provides you with a discipline that can benefit you your entire life. Now, can you lose that discipline? Of course, you can, but more often than not it sticks with them.
He added, “In wrestling, you’re taught to endure, you’re taught to become sustainable, out of the grit and the drive that it takes to compete. As a result of that, you have what I would call you’re learning these traits that go on with you for the rest of your life so that you can have success in other walks of life.”
Women in Wrestling:
This in turn also brought in the conversation of change that is starting to take place in the wrestling world. The ever-growing development of women’s wrestling has begun taking the sports universe by storm and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. “The thing I really enjoy right now, I not only enjoy but seeing occur, is the cultural change that’s going on in the sport as a result of women’s wrestling. These women are going to be able to take this sport and leverage it.. We’re going to see extraordinary success from these women beyond wrestling in the future. It’s a great contribution to our society. I just wish more people really, I wish we could get the word out and learn about it.”
For example, Smith put into perspective a recent story. “A world champion, female, who just gave birth to a baby and almost within the year of when she came back and made a world team and beat a 17, 18-year-old young superstar to do it... It is an incredible story but it just goes to show you when you’re passionate about something, what you can do.”
Tiger Style in the HoF:
Many followers of wrestling and Mizzou sports, in general, are familiar with the name Brian Smith. Head Coach Brian Smith is amongst the greats when it comes to Mizzou but also when it comes to Wrestling as a whole. Lee Roy was well aware of his success as I asked him, “What about Brian Smith, have you heard his name echo in the Hall?”
To many Tiger Style fans’ delight, his response was very rewarding when he stated, “Yeah, he’s on the ballot... Brian Smith, one of the great coaches of all time, you know, he’s on the ballot and I think it’s only a matter of time. He’s certainly qualified with what he’s been able to achieve at the University of Missouri.”
He then added, “As are a few of the wrestlers. I mean, Ben Askren’s on a ballot as a wrestler primarily. And, you know, J’den Cox, someday.”