Missouri sophomore Max Askren put Iowa State’s David Bertolino in a half-nelson, rolling him on his back and holding him there for a pin.
As the stunned crowd processed what it saw, Askren rose to his feet, lifted his arms up and flexed his sinewy 197-pound body, yelling, “I’m dangerous” for the entire arena to hear.
The win completed an undefeated record for Askren in Big 12 Conference dual wrestling meets.
But Askren was not having as much fun earlier in the season. After struggling at the NCAA Championships as a freshman, Askren said it was the only time he did not have fun wrestling. He did not improve much in the fall of 2007, struggling with the transition from freshman to sophomore. His older brother, Ben, was no longer on the team and Max Askren faced new expectations.
“At the beginning of the year he would train but it was almost going through the motions,” Tigers coach Brian Smith said. “There wasn’t that passion, and all of a sudden it just clicked.”
Askren began to improve at the National Duals on Jan. 12, winning all three of his matches. Since then, wrestling has been fun again.
In Big 12 competition, Askren defeated four different ranked opponents, including a shutout of No. 5 Joel Flaggert of Oklahoma. His fourth victory was pinning Iowa State’s Bertolino.
“The silence after the pin was hilarious,” Askren said. “Afterwards there was this amazing silence and I felt like I was there by myself. It was fun.”
Sophomore Nicholas Marable and junior Michael Chandler also fought their way to perfect 4-0 records in conference competition. They were the only Missouri wrestlers to do so.
For the Tigers to have a chance at a Big 12 Championship on March 8 in Stillwater, Okla., Smith will rely on the trio to keep winning. All three earned No. 1 seeds in the tournament and enter with momentum and confidence.
“If you’re able to work at something to become better every day, by the time you hit March, you are a confident wrestler and confident wrestlers in March are scary people because they don’t think they can be beaten,” Smith said.
Even though the Big 12 has only five wrestling teams, going undefeated is no easy task. It is considered the second most competitive conference in the nation after the BigTen. All five teams are ranked in the top 20 in the coach’s poll, and in 2007 the Big 12 had the second most All-Americans. Askren said that on a scale of one to 10, finishing undefeated has a difficulty of eight or nine.
“This might be the strongest year ever,” Smith said.
Marable can attest to the strength of the conference. Wrestling at 165-pounds, all four of his opponents were ranked in the top 15 and three were in the top 10. Two of his victories came in overtime, and he never won by more than three points.
With the 165-pound division so competitive, Smith said that it was important for Marable to finish undefeated.
“If he loses half of his one-point matches, and he’s had five or six, he might be ranked 18 right now instead of second,” Smith said. “It’s that much of a difference. But the national tournament is made of guys who can win these close matches.”
While Askren and Marable are ranked in the top 10 in the nation and considered candidates for a national championship, Chandler, who wrestles at 157pounds, has flown under the radar.
Even with a perfect Big 12 record and multiple wins against top 10 competition, Chandler has not risen above his No. 12 ranking. With his confidence as high as it has ever been, Chandler does not worry about it.
“At the end of the day, on the third day of nationals, it all depends on who is wrestling the toughest and who can hang with me for seven minutes,” Chandler said.
His confidence is well founded. He shut out Oklahoma State’s No. 15 Newly McSpadden and gave up just two points to Nebraska’s No. 16 Chris Oliver. He then scored a technical fall, where a wrestler leads by 15 points, against Oklahoma. Chandler finished the Big 12 season with an 11-5 upset against Iowa State’s No. 8 Cyler Sanderson.
Chandler reached nationals the past two years, but said that he is wrestling better this year than before. It is the first time he has earned the top seed for the Big 12 Championships and enjoys knowing that everybody else is coming for him.
“I have a ton of confidence,” Chandler said. “I don’t want to sit here and sound cocky, but I feel like I can win nationals this year.”