New York is the home of the big event. Heck even the small events sometimes seem big in The Apple, and one sport that has never been given short shrift in New York is wrestling. From the days of Bruno Sammartino to Chief Jay Strongbow to Wrestlemania, the biggest and the brightest of wrestling have owned New York, usually at Madison Square Garden. So it should come as no surprise that Times Square, “The Crossroads of the World,” came to a near standstill last Thursday night for a wrestling event. The surprise? It was not THAT wrestling, it was the wrestling of the Olympic and amateur and high school kind, which drew a bigger stage and even bigger bucks than the WWE on its best night.
The event was called “Grapple In The Apple,” and it was the brainchild of the grassroots wrestling group “Beat The Streets,” chaired by Wall Street honcho Mike Novogratz (head of mega-hedge fund Fortress). The schedule started at 1:00 amidst bright sunshine, featured the U.S. Olympic freestyle team heading to London for the Olympic Games, added a three man “wrestle-off” for the final spot on the Olympic Team, brought in the World Champion Russians, and ended with a gala at the world famous Roseland ballroom honoring the young people who excelled in the sport and in education in programs across the City of New York. The best part; the total take for “Beat The Streets,” on the evening, an amazing $1.4 million dollars, which goes directly into the organization to fund wrestling programs at the grassroots level around the city, the lifeblood for a sport that is long on accomplishments but way short on funding in New York and many surrounding communities.
It was the third straight year of such an extravaganza put together by “Beat The Streets,” and the second year that wrestling was brought to “The Crossroads of The World.” the first year the event was staged on the deck of the USS Intrepid and pulled in close to a million. Last year it paired USA and Russia, albeit in a non-Olympic year, and went just north of a million. This year, with the Olympic spot on the line and a year’s worth of hype, traffic literally came to a standstill in Times Square as Oklahoman Coleman Scott defeated Shawn Bunch just after 8:00 to take the final spot on the team for London, just minutes after his future teammates had defeated Russia 4-3 to take the dual meet. Tourists, cabbies, even patrons across Broadway in McDonald’s got caught up in the Olympic moment, right there in Times Square, chanting USA, USA. Any athlete, from Michael Phelps to Hulk Hogan, would have been amazed.
More importantly than what happened on the mats of Times Square was the dollars raised to grow a sport that is huge in the burbs and the grassroots but not in the inner city. Leading the charge to change that is Novogratz and the team of staff and volunteers who are loyal to the sport as a way out. “Sometimes when I was a kid other people looked at me and wondered what I was doing wrestling and not playing football or baseball,” said Jordan Burroughs, a world champion from Camden who might become one of America’s media darlings in London. “However without wrestling I would be nowhere. I like the other sports…I’m a huge Phillies fan…but wrestling has taught me so much about life and led me to so many places I would never have gotten to. I think I can help other young people do the same, and this is the biggest of events to show what we can do as a sport.”
For his part, Novogratz, who has made millions in the hedge fund business, will do whatever it takes to help wrestling re-emerge to help kids as a way out of the inner city, whether it is New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland or any other place where the sport has been cut from the varsity level. “Wrestling teaches so many life skills, and those who have gone through the sport take those skills into whatever they will do in their careers,” he said. “What we have done here is to create a great way to show the amazing power the sport has and then take that power and put it back into the grassroots to fund the programs for young people. It is very rewarding and very worthwhile for all of us.”
So while it is true that those who wore the red, white and blue and heard the USA chants of almost 20,000 will go on to a global stage later this summer, they may have already had their greatest experience, on a mid-June evening in Times Square. “There is nothing like this, and it is a memory we will all have for a lifetime,” added freestyle coach Zeke Jones, himself a world champion and an Olympian.
For one night at least, the “fake” wrestling took a back stage to the real kind in Gotham, and probably helped forge the future for some others whp would not have gotten the chance to partake in the sport without their assistance.
Therefore, “Grapple In The Apple” was an event of Olympic proportions for young people, with an impact that may just rival what will be felt in London. WWE, move over.