“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
That’s perhaps the most memorable quote from the underrated 1993 gangster movie “A Bronx Tale.” Robert DeNiro’s “Lorenzo” is a hard-working, honest bus driver who preaches this to his son, Calogero, who grows into a teenager intrigued by the Mafia lifestyle in the neighborhood surrounding his home. Lorenzo doesn’t want Calogero to fall victim to the ugly elements that can go hand-in-hand with the glitz and glamor of that type of life. He never wants Calogero to waste his talent.
If you follow wrestling message boards or social media, typical topics that are hashed and rehashed are “The Biggest Flops in College” or “Top Recruits that Never Panned Out,” or something along those lines. The prospect that never worked out tends to make for fun discussion pieces.
But, just for once, what about the bluest of the blue chips recruits that panned out? What about the wrestlers that had all of the hype in the world, yet lived up to their lofty billing? What about the recruits that developed into more than we actually anticipated?
Back in the fall of 2017, Gable Steveson was just starting his senior campaign at Apple Valley High School. He would sign with the University of Minnesota and be labeled as the top wrestler in the Class of 2018. For most, that’s enough pressure. On top of being deemed the top wrestler in his respective graduating class, Steveson was given the title by some as the “Best recruit ever” or the “Best heavyweight prospect ever.”
As someone who tries his best to steer clear of hyperbole and a recency bias, titles like those immediately brought out the skeptic in me. In 2005, InterMat released an article ranking the 20 best high school wrestlers of the last 20 years. That list became as “official” as any at trying the unenviable task of ranking high schoolers from different eras. The top heavyweight on the list was Steve Mocco at #4. Could this young kid from Minnesota really be better than the four-time finalist, two-time champion and Olympian that Mocco turned out to be? Sure, they both had eye-popping high school numbers and Steveson had two Cadet world titles and a Junior world championship at the time of his signing, but comparing him to Mocco or even Cary Kolat, #1 on the list, seemed blasphemous.
Fast forward to more than four years later. We are less than two weeks removed from Steveson leaving his shoes at the center of the mat in Little Caesars Arena and two days from when he was named the Dan Hodge Trophy winner for a second time. After seemingly wrestling his last collegiate match, Steveson had actually realized the potential many saw in him as a high school senior. Even more impressive is that he actually surpassed those expectations.
Steveson jumped into the lineup immediately for Minnesota during the 2018-19 season. The baby-faced, true freshman didn’t hesitate to make his presence known. In his first dual meet, Steveson downed one of the top returners in the nation, Derek White (Oklahoma State). Later in the first semester, Gable dominated the field at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, with a 9-3 win being his closest contest. Steveson’s physicality and attitude, in addition to his technical savvy, were my main takeaways from seeing him in person in Vegas. Under rare circumstances, are true freshmen ever able to match up from a physical standpoint at 285 lbs, against opponents four and five years their senior. Steveson seemingly wanted to send a message that he wasn’t intimidated by his seasoned competition and was just a little extra brutal in the hand fights, tie-ups, and on the edge.
Hype surrounding Steveson grew as he went into the Big Ten finals before suffering his first collegiate loss, a 4-3 decision to Penn State’s Anthony Cassar. That put the two on the same side of the NCAA bracket and he would fall by an identical score to the Nittany Lion veteran in the semis, before bouncing back for third.
For most other wrestlers, I may have prefaced the remainder of his career by saying, “little did we know, the Cassar loss in the 2019 NCAA semis would be his last,” but I think many suspected that could be the case, at the time. After losing to Cassar, Steveson would finish his collegiate career on a 52-match winning streak.
Like hundreds of other wrestlers, in 2020, Steveson was robbed of a shot at a national title, as the NCAA Championships were canceled at the outset of the Covid pandemic. He was seeded first headed into the tournament and was fresh off an 8-6 win over Mason Parris (Michigan) in the Big Ten finals.
Parris would be a recurring obstacle for Steveson, one he never faltered against in five tries. In fact, as Gable and Parris competed more, the Gopher star tended to open up the gap between the two. One of the more impressive faces of Steveson’s tenure in college wrestling was that the talent in the heavyweight class had never been better. His 2022 bracket featured four other wrestlers (Parris, Cohlton Schultz, Greg Kerkvliet, and Tony Cassioppi) that have won world championships at age-group levels. In addition, Lucas Davison, Jordan Wood, and Zach Elam have won medals on the age-group level. Finally, Tate Orndorff, Wyatt Hendrickson, Luke Luffman, and Brandon Metz have competed at the Junior or U23 World Championships. While Steveson has separated himself from the rest of the 285 lb field, it’s a group with plenty of capable competitors, many of who could have won titles in previous years.
Recently, someone asked me how future generations will judge Steveson. 20 years from now, two NCAA titles, three Big Ten crowns, and a 50-plus match winning streak, will look impressive, but is it “all-time great” impressive? On paper, does he really stand out from recent heavyweight stars like Steve Mocco, Cole Konrad, or Nick Gwiazdowski? My answer was that the Olympic gold medal was all he needed to separate himself from the other greats.
Oh yeah, the Olympic gold medal. That Steveson even made the Olympic team while in college was a remarkable feature. He knocked off the favored Gwiazdowski, a two-time world medalist, with surprising ease. That type of win, combined with a throttling that Gable put on at the continental championships, showed he was a medal contender in Toyko. Suddenly, he jumped into favorite status after a one-sided victory over the legendary 2016 Olympic gold medalist Taha Akgul (Turkey).
Steveson made the mainstream sports media take notice after his remarkable rally in the final seconds against Geno Petriashvili (Georgia) in the gold medal match. His late heroics, combined with his post-match flip and some great soundbites, were the things stars are made of. The casual sports fan may have just realized this in Tokyo, but the WWE has long had their eyes on Steveson. With NIL changes on July 1st, 2021, Steveson had already been able to capitalize on his relationship with the sports entertainment giant.
Since his finals win in Detroit, Steveson hasn’t necessarily slammed the door shut on a possible return to the wrestling mat; However, we did see his shoes on the center of the raised mat and knew he’s headed to the WWE.
If he never competes again in a competitive wrestling match, what’s Gable’s legacy? Olympic gold medalist, two-time Hodge Trophy winner, the crisp technique combined a rarely-seen-before-athleticism and a mean streak (on the mat), the flips?
For me, the defining factor of Gable’s legacy is more of an intangible one. He was supposed to be an all-time great before he ever stepped foot on a collegiate wrestling mat. Anything less would have led to anonymous internet experts calling him overrated and a bust.
In sports, athletes tend to thrive off the underdog label. How many individuals or teams have seen accomplish a great feat and then that “nobody believed in us/me?’ It’s fun to be David against Goliath.
Underdog stories are enticing, see them every year at the NCAA Tournament and they never get old. But, in this case, let’s salute the guy with the sky-high expectations, Gable Steveson, as he was not phased by such expectations and praise. He didn’t buy into his own hype; he didn’t rest on his laurels after a really good freshmen campaign. Every year, he presented a better version of himself.
The bar was always high for Gable; However, he continued to raise it and jumped over it. Perhaps with a backflip.
If “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent,” maybe one of the greatest things to see is someone with all the talent in the world, who realizes said talent and makes the best of it.