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History 11 - Dan Hodge Becomes a Pro Legend

No college wrestler was ever more successful in the professional game than Verne Gagne. As a four-time Big Ten champion and two-time NCAA champion at the University of Minnesota in the late 1940s, Gagne had tremendous wrestling skills. He was also athletic enough to be a star on the Gopher football team and was offered a contract with the NFL upon graduating from college.

But Gagne had wanted to be a professional wrestler since his youth and wrestling was in his blood. Growing up on a farm outside of Minneapolis, his hero was Bronko Nagurski. A legendary football player at the University of Minnesota and with the Chicago Bears, Nagurski also wrestled pro for nearly ten years, even winning the NWA world title in 1939 from Lou Thesz, in a worked match.

With his good looks and great style in the ring, Gagne was one of the biggest sports stars of the 1950s. His success caused many other college athletes to give pro wrestling a serious look, and to try it out. As mentioned in my last column, Dick Hutton, a three-time NCAA champion from Oklahoma A&M;, was one of the best.  Hutton won the NWA world heavyweight tile while Gagne won the world heavyweight title in the competing league, the AWA… which Gagne himself had started.

The State of Oklahoma has experienced a long history with pro wrestling, beginning with Earl McCready in 1932. McCready was the first three-time NCAA champion, winning all three titles for Oklahoma A&M; at heavyweight. He turned pro in 1932 and was on the northwestern circuit for over 30 years.

Other Okies who gave the pro game a brief try were 1932 Olympic champions Bobby Pearce and Jack Van Bebber. In addition, Roy Dunn, AAU national champion while attending Oklahoma A&M; and a 1936 Olympian, was listed as a world champion for a while in the late 1930s. Wayne Martin, a three-time NCAA champion for the University of Oklahoma in the 1930s, and LeRoy McGuirk, NCAA champion for Oklahoma A&M; in 1931, were two of the best.

But the two most successful Oklahoma natives to ever turn pro were Dan Hodge and Jack Brisco.

Hodge was born and raised in Perry, Oklahoma, and had a rough life as a youngster. With troubles at home, he lived above the fire station for part of his senior year in high school, and learned how to fend for himself. After high school, he entered the Navy, and shocked everyone by making the 1952 Olympic team while just 19 years old.

After two years in the service, Hodge enrolled at the University of Oklahoma and began one of the most storied careers in wrestling history. He wrestled 46 times in college and won them all, including 36 by pin. His senior year, he won his third title at 177 pounds and pinned 15 of 16 foes during the season. John Dustin of Oregon State was the only man to go the distance and was beaten 8-0. The referee stopped Hodge’s pinning moves several times when Dustin groaned in pain.

Dan Hodge

“They were legal holds, but he was so strong he was torturing me,” laughed Dustin years later. “Hodge was just too strong for all of us poor college boys.”

In the 1956, Hodge turned in one of the most amazing feats in wrestling history. He won the Big Seven conference tournament with two pins, the NCAA tourney with four straight pins, the national freestyle title with five pins, and then the national Greco-Roman tournament with three more pins. So in the span of two weeks, he won three national championships and a conference title with 14 consecutive pins!

Hodge took a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics, being cheated out of the gold medal by a very controversial call made by a Soviet mat judge when Hodge was holding a comfortable lead over his foe, the eventual gold medallist. He gained further fame on April 1, 1957, when he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated  — still to this day the only amateur wrestler to ever make the cover of the nation’s premier sports publication.

After college, Hodge decided to try boxing and was 22-0 with 17 knockouts as an amateur. He won the National Golden Gloves heavyweight title in 1959 by knocking out the defending national champion before a packed house in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

He tried professional boxing and compiled an 8-2 record but decided to switch to pro wrestling. He called LeRoy McGuirk, who was the top promoter in the Southwest by then, and offered his services. McGuirk jumped at the chance to include the legendary Sooner in his stable of wrestlers. Within a short amount of time, Hodge was selling out arenas all over the territory.

Hodge quickly won the junior heavyweight world title (for wrestlers under 210 pounds) and he became such a huge attraction that McGuirk booked him against Lou Thesz. It was billed as “the world heavyweight champion against the world junior heavyweight champion.” It was a great event at the gate — and Thesz and Hodge became close friends through mutual respect, and their love of wrestling. In the next few years, they wrestled to several hour-long draws, giving the fans a close look at what wrestling was like in the days of Gotch and Stecher — lightning quick moves, great endurance and no punching or taunting.

They went to Japan together on several occasions for tournaments that drew over 50,000 fans. Thesz was considered “the king” over there and his matches with Hodge sold the Japanese fans on Hodge, as well. For decades, Hodge was a top attraction in Japan, thanks to his initial push by Thesz and his own true wrestling skills.

“When I entered the business, I stood in awe of Lou Thesz,” said Hodge, after Lou’s death in 2002.  “He was my hero right up to the very end. He was class, through and through.”

Thesz considered Hodge one of the three or four best wrestlers he ever knew.

“Dan Hodge is a fierce competitor and his hand strength is unbelievable,” said Thesz. “Everyone in the business knew that you didn’t want to push Dan to the limit of his patience. I’ve seen him get angry in the ring a few times, and it wasn’t pretty. Most of the working pros were scared to death of him.”

Thesz said he loved to work matches with Dan because Hodge was always in top condition and they could show the fans what wrestling was really like when two of the best climbed into the ring. Hodge held the world junior heavyweight title for nearly a decade and half, off and on (mostly on).

But his ring career came to a terrifying end after a late-night match in 1976. Hodge was driving to his next booking in Louisiana when he was severely injured in an automobile crash in the wee hours of the morning. As he dozed off, his car went into a ditch full of water and only his great strength and courage saved him from drowning. He broke his back and injured his neck so severely that his wrestling was virtually over at that point.

But his legacy has grown through the years. In 1976, he was written about in the book Two Guys Named Dan (the other Dan being Gable) and in the 1982 book The Toughest Men in Sports.  When the Ultimate Fighting Championships and mixed martial arts contests exploded on the scene in the 1990s, many old-timers said Hodge would have been the king of that competition for years.

He is one of just two men (Dick Hutton being the other) who is a member of the both the national amateur wrestling hall of fame (in Stillwater, Oklahoma) and the professional hall of fame (in Newton, Iowa). Several major amateur tournaments are named for him and he makes appearances at the huge Tulsa nationals and Reno world tournament every year, handing out the awards to thousands of youth wrestlers who idolize him.

In 1995, WIN magazine and the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa, started the Dan Hodge Trophy. It is awarded each year to the top college wrestler of that season. It has been called “the Heisman Trophy of wrestling.”

With his incredible amateur record and his professional reputation intact, Dan Hodge stands tall as one of the greatest overall wrestlers in American history, in a class with legends like Frank Gotch, Earl Caddock and Lou Thesz himself.

His success also paved the way for another Oklahoma product by the name of Jack Brisco.

For a wide range of gift shops items — including books, posters, videos and trading cards for wrestling — be sure and check the web site of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (641-791-1517) in Newton, Iowa. The web site is: www.wrestlingmuseum.org

Story By Mike Chapman, Newton Iowa

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