Danny Hodge: What might've been?

Dave Meltzer
Yahoo! Sports

With mixed martial arts in North America being a relatively new sport, there is always speculation on how different people from the past would do if the sport was a lucrative endeavor in their lifetime. Probably the most talked about names thrown out are Bruce Lee or a young Mike Tyson.

But if you talk with anyone who has spent any time around the wrestling community – and that's both the college wrestling community and the entertainment-style pro community – one name always tops the list: Danny Hodge.

"I wish it had been around when I was young," said Hodge, now 77, who in 2000 was listed by Sports Illustrated as one of Oklahoma's greatest athletes of the 20th century.

Hodge is well aware of mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. As chairman of the Oklahoma State Athletic Commission, he's overseen both UFC and Strikeforce events over the past year.

He thought about how great it would have been if there were competitions with almost exactly the same rules back in the Fifties, but none existed. He even recalls seeing something approximating MMA on television more than 40 years ago.

"The first time I saw it was in 1968 in Tokyo," said Hodge, who was touring Japan at the time as a pro wrestler in an industry where he was and remains a backstage legend. "I saw them doing takedowns. I watched it on television. It was called kickboxing in those days."

Hodge's credentials in wrestling read almost like a myth. To some, he's the Babe Ruth of his sport. Arguably the most physically dominant college wrestler of all time, Hodge went undefeated en route to three NCAA championships at 177 pounds for the University of Oklahoma from 1955 to 1957.

Freshmen weren't eligible for varsity competition in those days or he'd have likely become the first four-time undefeated champion in history, as he went to the Olympics the first time right out of high school. Hodge still holds the all-time college record with pins on 78 percent of his opponents. Most unprecedented of all, he was never taken down in his entire collegiate career, something even competitors such as Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson can't boast.

Hodge won a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. He was ahead 8-2 in the championship match with seconds remaining; while rolling through on a move, his shoulders touched the ground and it was ruled a pinfall, in what was considered one of the worst referee decisions in international wrestling of its era.

To this day, he's the only amateur wrestler to be on a Sports Illustrated cover (right before the 1957 NCAA tournament) – something no major MMA name today has been able to achieve. The sport's awards for the best college wrestler and best prep wrestler each year are called The Hodge Trophy and Junior Hodge Trophy, respectively.

"Do you know what the average time was in my matches for three years in the Big Seven tournament?" he asks before answering himself. "One minute, 33 seconds. Some were a little longer, some were a little shorter."

But it doesn't end there. After he finished wrestling in college, he turned to boxing. In one year, he went undefeated as an amateur, going 17-0 with 12 knockouts en route to winning the national Golden Gloves championship in Madison Square Garden when that was still a major sporting event.

Hodge turned pro as a small heavyweight, although that made for a bitter experience.

"I won eight out of ten fights but never got paid," he said.

Just a few months into his career, his people were in talks about a championship match with then-champion Floyd Patterson, showing how badly he was being rushed because he had a name from wrestling and the Olympics. He took a savage beating from Nino Valdez, a one-time top heavyweight contender, just 13 months after his first amateur boxing match and never fought again.

"Then I went into pro wrestling. Leroy McGuirk [a former NCAA wrestling champion who was a promoter in Oklahoma] gave me an opportunity to make money. In nine months, I was world junior heavyweight champion."

He became one of the biggest names in the entertainment wrestling world during the 1960s, and was still a major star until having to retire in 1975 after breaking his neck in an automobile accident.

Hodge knew submissions as well, but was best known for his supernatural grip strength. In fact, at 77, he still has it. A few years back, on live television at the NCAA tournament, this man who could be mistaken for anyone's grandfather grabbed an apple, squeezed, and easily turned it into apple sauce.

In his prime, Hodge would go into hardware stores, ask for the sturdiest pair of pliers, squeeze, and snap the pliers in two.

"I learned hooks [the terminology for submissions in those days] from Strangler Lewis," he noted. Lewis was the biggest pro wrestling star of the Twenties, a man whom historians and old-timers rank as one of the best legitimate pro wrestlers ever.

Jeff Blatnick, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in wrestling who analyzes and judges MMA events, noted that Hodge was so strong he could take moves that would not be submission holds for anyone else and apply a level of pressure that they would be for him.

"I was always in shape," Hodge said. "Being in shape is one of the biggest advantages in sports.'

Watching Matt Hughes dominate the welterweight division for years as someone who largely relied on power wrestling always made those familiar with wrestling wonder: What if you took a guy with far more power, a higher level of wrestling technique, and throw in boxing ability and a guy who today would be a welterweight who had knockout power in the heavyweight division, and include submission ability?

When Hodge graduated college, he felt compelled to make a living. There were strict rules of amateurism in sports. Once he turned pro in boxing, he was no longer eligible for the Olympics. Even doing entertainment pro wrestling meant he could no longer compete in the sport he dominated.

"Things were different in those days," he said. "Today, people get paid to train for the Olympics. In my day, they were so strict I couldn't even let people buy me a meal."

If he came along 50 years later, he'd be making millions.

"Do I have any regrets? Yes."

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