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The Marciano-Ali Debate of Penn State Wrestling

The Marciano-Ali Debate of Penn State Wrestling

May 18, 2010 7:00 AM
by Joe Bastardi

My dad grew up in a tough part of Providence, R.I., known as Federal Hill. I once mentioned to George Paterno that my dad grew up on "the hill," and he mentioned Brown's line could have used guys like my dad, guys who knew how to fight. Back then, fighting was a big part of line play. In fact, Joe Paterno once said the holding penalty would be unnecessary if players didn't have face masks are could take care of infractions their own way: If you held, you got punched in the face.
Boxing was king in those days, and my dad loved boxing. In fact, he saw Rocky Marciano's first eight fights, and "The Rock" was the hero of the Italian community in that part of New England. My dad remained objective though, and he told me one of Marciano's first fights was against a light heavyweight named Ted Lowry. Marciano never caught up to the faster, slicker Lowry, he said, but Marciano won that fight (and the next) by unanimous decision. Both fights were held in Providence, Marciano's town.

Marciano was arguably the greatest pound-for-pound hitter in the history of the sport, but there was always a debate about him and Muhammad Ali. And this same debate can be held about Penn State wrestling. When watching our coaches, I am watching the wrestling equivalent of Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio, or Sugar Ray Robinson.

Everyone knows about Cael Sanderson. His brother, Cody, is the associate head coach and a hammer in the lighter weights. Troy Letters works with the mid and upper weights. But the one I wonder about the most is assistant coach Casey Cunningham, and so I'm using him for my Marciano-Ali debate -- Andy Matter vs. Casey Cunningham.

Casey Cunningham

Cunningham has only improved since he won his national title by beating our own Clint Musser. I have also become close friends with him and lift weights with him quite a bit. He is as strong with weights as anyone in that weight class, which is interesting since his wrestling style is slick and technique-oriented – rather than "might makes right" – making him even more dangerous on the mat and capable of getting better. He is a long, strong wrestler.

Andy Matter

Then there was Andy Matter, also a "long, strong wrestler." Coach Bill Koll once said Matter was the best wrestler he ever saw (including when he looking in the mirror). What people don't realize is that he improved in his college years so much that he was untouchable for years after. I saw him school an Olympic bronze medalist in takedowns at a clinic well after his career was over (this was in 1977) to a point where Coach Koll's assertion that Andy would have won the gold medal if he chose to freestyle was not only believable, but seemed to me a given. I have seen a lot of wrestlers in the 167 and 177-lb weight classes through the years, and I always thought Matter at his prime could beat all of them.

But in Cunningham, I see someone that could match up with Matter in a way that would be, for me, the dream match-up of wrestlers – The Ali-Marciano argument. Of course almost everyone thinks Ali would have won, and on paper he had to be favored since the one fighter who gave Marciano the most trouble was that speed and finesse fighter, Ted Lowry. But there will never be another Andy Matter, so Cunningham is now in mighty high company.

So who would win? This is a forecast even I can't make.

With Matter, there are ties that bind me that have grown through the years. His willingness to work with anyone in the room as long as they would fight meant he spent a lot of time with guys like me. Plus, like Cunningham, as tough as he was on the mat, he was a class act everywhere else, never thinking he was a big shot, but always wrestling like one. And he was a friend. I am still looking up to him, knowing I could never match him in the wrestling room, but perhaps I can be as good a husband and father. To put it bluntly, in the world of Penn State wrestling, Andy Matter is royalty. And while one can rightfully argue that there are wrestlers who have had greater careers, Andy was a boy who was still growing when he was wrestling (heck, he still looks like he is young now), but at the end of his college days, he was as good as anyone that ever stepped on a mat.

Then there is Cunningham, with whom I have become close friends. He has the same kind of class and humility as Matter. He's the father of three, has a wonderful family and is simply untouchable in the room, except with Cael Sanderson. It's as if our wrestlers have an Andy Matter to wrestle every day in those middle to upper weights. I watch Cunningham hammer every middleweight at will in the room, but only Quinton Wright will really fight him. When I was here, Jerry Villecco and Jerry White would get into it all the time with Matter. You can see all the things I saw in Matter, both in wrestling and class, in Cunningham.

Interestingly enough, both Matter and Cunningham got better by coaching than they did by wrestling. And while there is no way to prove that with Matter today, Cunningham has all of the tools right here in Happy Valley to make an Olympic run without having to travel the world until the games. I do believe Matter, as Koll said, could have won the Olympics if had chosen to compete, and I am trying to convince Cunningham he can do it in 2012.

I now know what it must have been like for my dad's generation when they watched great boxers. We have these great coaches who are still great wrestlers, as good or better than when they competed. And since Cunningham and Matter will never compete, I think Penn State sports should take a picture of Cunningham, Wright and David Taylor (all long, strong wrestlers) beneath a photo of Matter in the wrestling room, and include it in the media guide. No caption would be necessary; a picture is worth a thousand words.

Every now and then, when I see that photo of Andy Matter looking down on Casey Cunningham helping make the kids tougher, it looks like he approves of what he sees.

And I guess that's what "Matters" most.

Tags: Cael Sanderson, Casey Cunningham, David Taylor, Joe Paterno, Troy Letters


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