Junior Drake Houdashelt could end each of his matches after finishing his opponents off with his best Russell Crowe impression, shouting, “Are you not entertained?” The “Gladiator” impersonation could suit him well.
But the team captain doesn’t. After some matches, coach Brian Smith said Houdashelt walks into the tunnel and collapses after leaving everything he had on the mat.
Houdashelt is the top-ranked wrestler in the 149-pound weight class and has provided leadership and consistency for the No. 9 Tigers. With one loss on his otherwise perfect record, Houdashelt is putting together his best season of his college career.
He has laid waste to wrestlers from around the Mid-American Conference, as well as four top-10 wrestlers, including Oklahoma’s No. 2 Kendric Maple. On Jan. 2, Houdashelt pinned top-ranked Nick Dardanes from Minnesota at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn., to regain his spot atop the weight class.
Success is not new to Houdashelt, though. He has won two consecutive conference championships and is the favorite to win a third in March, but he finds himself in unchartered waters as one of two returning wrestlers.
“It’s a lot different because last year I was the youngest on the team and this year I’m the oldest,” Houdashelt said. “I really had to step up and become a leader, show by example for all the guys and help them out when they need it.”
He leads a team with many freshmen Smith plans to use to build the program. Houdashelt, he said, is his cornerstone around which he constructs a winner of the team’s 21 freshmen including the nation’s No. 3 wrestler, freshman J’den Cox.
“He came in as a student in high school who didn’t do that much, but he came here and bought into it,” Smith said. “He has close to a 3.0 GPA and does everything, works in the room (and) never opens his mouth. I know J’den looks up to Drake.”
Houdashelt’s example is winning.
In his third season, he has tallied up more bonus-point victories than any other wrestler on the team. While most matches are won by decisions, or fewer than eight points, Houdashelt has 13 decided by eight or more and pinned six opponents.
“He’s just in your face and relentless,” Smith said. “Sometimes it can be boring because he is just dominating. He is beating everyone in the country right now.”
Over the weekend, Houdashelt finished his first opponent from Buffalo with a win by major decision. On the second day, against Eastern Michigan, he won by technical fall or more than 15 points.
“I’m always trying to get bonus points every match because it helps the team out a lot,” Houdashelt said. “It’s good practice for nationals.”
For Houdashelt, a national championship is the last unconquered goal. He left nationals as an All-American and with sixth-place finish.
He tops the record book for the most major decisions in a season with 12, and he is five technical falls away from taking now-assistant coach Sammie Henson’s spot.
“Nobody wants to really work out with Drake,” Smith said. “They may not say it, but Drake is going to throw you into walls and knock you down and run into you. You have to wrestle seven hard minutes when you are with Drake.”