Ben Askren is the 2006 Dan Hodge Trophy recipient, and Dan Hodge, 74, is glad.
The Hodge Trophy is considered the “Heisman of wrestling” and honors the most dominant collegiate wrestler each year.
The award, in its 12th year, is named after Hodge and his three national titles during three years at the University of Oklahoma (1955, ‘56 and ‘57). Hodge finished his collegiate career with a 46-0 season. Askren just finished his junior season 45-0.
When Hodge saw Askren wrestle at the NCAA Championships, he was invigorated:
“I said, ‘There’s someone like me,’” he said. “I just knew that he was a great athlete, but something like this (award) happens when you bring the whole season and tournament together.”
And Askren definitely had that kind of season after recording the Missouri record for a winning streak, as well as pins (25), in a season.
Because of that, Bryan Van Kley said Askren basically won the Hodge Trophy before he arrived at the NCAA championships. Van Kley sits on the award’s nomination committee and is the publisher of WIN Magazine. WIN Magazine and the International Wrestling Institute and Museum determine the award’s annual recipient.
“It was quite honestly one of the easiest decisions we’ve had ...” Van Kley said. “I think it was a situation that even prior to the NCAA tournament, the people on the committee were fairly certain that the person who won at 174-pounds would be the next Hodge Trophy winner.”
Van Kley expected Askren to win the title but
thought it would’ve been a close match. Askren’s 14-2 major decision win over Northwestern’s Jake Herbert made the committee’s decision even easier.
Even so, WIN Magazine’s editor Mike Finn more or less asked Askren whether he deserved the Hodge Trophy immediately following the championship match, after Askren became the first wrestler at Missouri to win a national champion.
“Do you think you’re the best wrestler pound-for-pound in the country at this level?” Finn asked at the March 18 press conference.
Askren’s response was instant, although a bit reserved considering who asked the question.
“Um ya, I’d like to think so. I think your magazine is going to determine that in a couple of months,” he said.
Roaring laughter interrupted Askren, who sat smiling on a stage above a room full of reporters. He tried to continue, but it took a moment for the laughter to die down.
“I just know what I’m looking forward to, I’ve worked long and hard, not to be the best wrestler in my weight class, but the best wrestler in the nation, period,” he said. “I try to go out there and make it exciting every time for the fans and give them what they want.”
Now Askren has been recognized as the best collegiate wrestler pound-for-pound.
Van Kley said Askren’s wrestling style (always going for the pin) and season-long dominance earned him the award.
Hodge compared this approach to his own in college.
“Every time he steps on the mat, he’s exciting,” Hodge said. “He’s not only a good athlete, but he goes for falls, I was never happy with a win, I always went for a pin.”
Although wrestling doesn’t have a reputation as a spectator sport, Van Kley said Askren’s approach challenges that, which he thinks is refreshing.
Spectator interest in Askren became obvious at the NCAA championships when one fan yelled, “I want to be a funk machine,” referring to Askren, and was likewise evident when one spectator at the match jeered, “Beat that hippie,” referring to his long, floppy hair.
The Hodge Trophy will be officially presented to Askren at the wrestling team’s banquet on April 22. Hodge said he is trying to clear his schedule so that he can travel from his Oklahoma home to attend.
“I hope to be up there to present it to him,” he said.
Now, Van Kley said the only obstacle in Askren’s path this year will be transitioning from folkstyle to freestyle wrestling for the summer. High school and collegiate wrestling are folkstyle, and place more emphasis on control than freestyle does.
When Askren competes at the World Team Trials in Sioux City on May 27-28, he will face wrestlers, such as Chris Pendleton, who defeated Askren at the NCAA championship in ‘04 and ‘05. The latest freestyle ranking released by themat.com on Feb. 27 listed Askren at No. 8, behind Pendleton at No. 4 at 84 kg.
Much of Askren’s competition this summer will be individuals who have practiced freestyle year-round, while Askren will be making a transition after the past season of folkstyle wrestling.
Even so, Van Kley believes in Askren.
“I think his potential technically on the mat is limitless. I really feel that he could be even more successful in freestyle than he is in folkstyle,” he said. “I think the goals that he’s going to accomplish once he graduates from college are limitless. I think Ben Askren is a name that is going to be around amateur wrestling for a long, long time.”