HITTING THE MAT: The Making of A State Champ or At Least A Good Man! (Blog 39)

Blog 39

Junior Year

Well, it’s Christmas again, and still no wrestling. Last year at this time, Dakota’s sophomore year, he shared with me how badly he just wanted his knee to be fixed up so he could be back on the mat. I shared with him that in this sport you never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. An injury can happen at any time that will sideline you. As a matter of fact, I know he’s shooting to be a state champion his senior year. But to be on the safe side, I told him to shoot to do it his junior year just in case an injury or something else unforeseen keep him out of competition during that week of States his senior year.

Now we are in Dakota’s junior year, and we had no way of knowing that during this Christmas week, instead of going to practice every day and multiple tournaments, there would be a pandemic that takes wrestling away from us. Even though Dakota’s knee is better, we have yet to step on a high school wrestling mat this season. They’re telling us that we might start the season on January 19th with no contact or competitions… That doesn’t really feel like wrestling to me. Only time will tell what’s really going to happen this year in New England… They say the U.S. is approaching 400,000 deaths from this pandemic. That’s around the same number we Americans lost during the 4 years of WWII.

In the meantime, we’ve been trying to stay positive. I’ve been working with Dakota a little bit in our basement. But, it’s hard to do much down there in our cold unfishished basement with its concrete floor and walls. We mostly work on stance and motion and do some hand-fighting. Dakota’s stance has been improving, and so has his hand-fighting. He’s not leaving many opportunities open to get inside on him. And he’s in way better shape than me, so he wears me out pretty quickly. I wish I was in better shape, so I could do more for him.

However, sometimes I do frustrate him, and he complains that hand-fighting with me is like hand-fighting with a fire hydrant. I take that as a compliment as I remind him that I am the old champ. And even if I’m not in great shape anymore, I still have my good stance, and I can still remember how to hand-fight and be on the inside. These two simple things make it very difficult for my opponents, including Dakota, to have many openings to score on me.

Although my fire hydrant style has frustrated Dakota, it has also forced him into a better stance and better hand-fighting. When he finally does retake the mat, it’s going to be hard for his opponents to get inside on him and get good shots. Dakota won’t be easy to score upon if he doesn’t let the pressure get to him and just does what he knows.

The last two years of Dakota’s high school wrestling has put me back in touch with many of my old wrestling friends and acquaintances. It felt like I had come back home to my old wrestling family that I had been away from for so long. However, this Covid 19 or Coronavirus has taken that away this year. My family and I have been stuck in our home for almost a year now with very little human contact. I miss people, and I miss my old wrestling family that I’m supposed to be hanging out with right now at very long Christmas tournaments. And I know Dakota misses his teammates and all the wrestling friends he has made all over the state, too.

Thankfully, Dakota and I have had one saving grace that has made these very difficult times a tad bit easier. You may remember way back during Dakota’s freshman year, some old guy grabbed Dakota at a wrestling practice during the off-season and said, “Long time ago, I wrestled your dad. Now, I wrestle you!” That man was Shirzad Ahmadi. He is an old friend and mentor who I respect dearly. And I am so grateful that he sought out Dakota and worked with him back then.

Well, guess what? Shirzad, who is something like a 23X World Champion, and the only American to ever win the World’s in both Greco and Freestyle in the same week, lives practically right down the road. And he has a wrestling room inside of his house. We have a good relationship with Shirzad, and he knows that Dakota and I have been home and not out running around; Dakota does school from home. He allows Dakota to come over every couple of weeks to workout with him. These occasional workouts have been heaven-sent.

Shirzad, who is 70-something, has a very different style than me. I was a super intense wrestler who very athletic and went 110 miles per hour all the time. Dakota is very athletic, and I taught him some of that intensity, too. Now, Shirzad, a much more relaxed and calculating wrestler, teaches Dakota how to be a patient wrestler and not be in a rush out there on the mat. Shirzad emphasizes stance, hand-fighting, and taking the time to develop an opening for a good shot. He teaches how to be relaxed and only to attack when one has an opening.

It’s different than my style, but who am I to argue with a 23X World Champion and a 70+-year-old man who is still wrestling and still winning World Championships. He’s the Mr. Miyagi of wrestling. And my son, Dakota Daniel Blanchard, seems to be the new “Danielson” of this era. He’s the lone wrestler training with the old master. Maybe I’m romanticizing this a little bit. But it seems like a pretty cool story, doesn’t it? The Karate Kid of wrestling… Hey, why not? After all, they do now have that modern-day spin-off of the Karate Kid called “Cobra Kai.”

Shirzad’s winning ways and longevity are to be envied. Like I already said, his methods are different than mine. He drills more than he LIVE wrestlers. I was always the opposite. I just wanted to go into full combat. However, the older and wise me is now coming around to seeing the logic in what Shirzad talks about in not being a bull out there. Rather, emphasizing technique and strategy while avoiding injuries so one can continue to wrestle for many years.

In addition, Shirzad also thinks outside of the present-day wrestling box, as I do. We both feel some of today’s coaches are boxing kids in too much on what they allow their wrestlers to do. Many of today’s coaches only teach a few moves for wrestlers to master. Shirzad, like myself, believes that a third-year wrestler with only a double leg takedown, going against a 13-year wrestler who has been drilling that double leg a lot longer, will have a hard time scoring. Shirzad and I both believe that a wrestler needs to be more well-rounded and have multiple tricks in his or her bag to go to for scoring.

In addition, Dakota, being a teen boy, has been feeling caged in our home for much of this last year. I have seen him pacing the house looking for something to do. He looks like his teen male testosterone is about to rip out through his skin. The small amount of time he is spending wearing himself out with Shirzad is much needed. Thanks, Shirzad. You are the good man that the rest of us younger men aspire to be.

And for me missing my wrestling family this year, well, at least I have Shirzad… my friend, my coach, my mentor. And now, so does Dakota.


Click here to learn more about the wrestling book Dan Gable and Larry Owings wrote the Foreword and Introduction for:

Hitting the Mat: The Making of A State Champion or at Least Good Man