During my senior year of college I took an English literature course with a fairly legendary professor. Though I desperately sought the professor's regard and approval, I could not overcome the fact that I was an utter jackass, and I would find myself challenging his authority and rudely mouthing off at him. This did not sit well with the professor who sported a bit of an ego, and had no patience to suffer the disrespect of a young fool like myself. On a number of occasions during the semester I would show him excessive cheek, and he would order me to stand at attention for the rest of the class with my nose stuck in the corner of the room.
During one miserable lecture I spent with my back to the class and my face stuck against cobwebbed plaster, I remember hearing him discussing the poetry that could be found in watching someone like Michael Jordan play basketball. He said something to the effect that manner the manner in which Jordan soared through the air represented poetry in its truest sense, and this same poetry could be found watching other great athletes perform at the highest level.
Great teachers like this spawned in me a youthful interest in poetry. Unfortunately, this interest mostly died when I learned that the poems which I actually understood and appreciated were not viewed highly by the true connoisseurs of the art. As it turned out, most poetry deemed great by the arbiters of literature read like pretentious gobbledy gook which I had no time to figure out. Any remaining interest I had in poetry dispersed when I heard the arguments by aestheticians over the art form's actual definition. Apparently, in the postmodern artistic landscape, words cut out of a newspaper and hand gestures signaling resignation have been presented as forms of poetry. I find trouble in maintaining enthusiasm for a thing if I do not know what that thing is, or whether or not it is actually a thing at all.
Every now and then, however, I think about what the words that old literature professor spoke as the smell mildewed dry wall filled my nostrils; I think about the poetry contained within great feats of athleticism. I can see it regularly in combat sports when two opponents create something seemingly mystical emerging from the physical components of two fighter's muscle, sinew, bone and blood, like conciousness arising from brain tissue. I particularly see it in wrestling, where exquisitely executed techniques can move my very soul.
One such technique occurred this past weekend. In a dual meet between Stanford and Nebraska, Stanford's All-American 133 pound senior, Ryan Mango hit one of the most impressive throws that I have ever seen.* What makes the throw even better comes from the fact that he achieved the hold from which hit the throw directly from a successful defense of a single leg.
At the start of this sequence Nebraska's Colton McCrystal has Mango's leg elevated in a single between his legs. Mango uses a whizzer to stabilize himself while fighting to place his leg on the outside of McCrystal's near hip (it's hard to properly finish a single when the leg is on your near hip.
Mango then overhooks McCrystal's other arm, locks his now double overhooked hands and pressures his chest into McCrystal's face, helping him free his leg by stamping it to the mat. Mango maintains the locked double overs, and this leads McCrystal to lock his hands around Mango's back in a bear hug and pressure into him. The forward momentum allows Mango to hit a devastating salto which places McCrystal right on his back.
Notice the throw is propelled by Mango's hip pop on the left leg of McCrystal. Customarily, when this throw is taught, throwers are taught to pop on the leg on the side to which they intend to throw their opponent; this makes the throw easier as the thrower can launch his opponent over his planted knee (demonstrated here by Olympian Heath Sims). Mango pops on the other leg, but does so with such incredible force that one of McCrystal's legs gets flung over the other, and it appears that the first part of Mango's body which touches the mat is his forehead. McCrystal lands on his back, and Mango quickly ends the match by securing the pin.
I watch wrestling like this and have to agree that amazing athletic displays, like this one from Ryan Mango, contain something undeniably poetic.
*Ryan Mango is already a two time All-American for Stanford and next week should be ranked second in NCAA Division I at 133 pounds. This past summer he narrowly lost in the finals of the U.S. Greco-Roman World Team Trials. His brother, Spenser, is a two time Olympian. Mango's story is worth reading and provides a very real example of the difference wrestling can make in someone's life.