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Wrestling: 'The Grudge Match' has all the makings of a classic rivalry

Rivalries make sports. The world of athletics would look drastically different without the countless battles between the Yankees and Red Sox, North Carolina and Duke, Michigan and Ohio State, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, Celtics and Lakers – the list goes on.

A rivalry is characterized by a mutual disdain for an opponent and a level of deep respect. While there is no love lost between Ohio and Kent State, the respect and admiration of the other program exists in full. 

Ohio Coach Joel Greenlee holds that mutual respect for his counterpart at Kent State, Jim Andrassy. The two are some of the longest-tenured wrestling coaches in the Mid-American Conference.

Andrassy has the upper hand over Greenlee in the head-to-head matches with a 13-7 record, including a stretch from 2003 to 2017 where Kent State won 12/15 matches. That trend, however, has flipped in recent years. Ohio has won three of the last four meetings, including a 28-9 win last season. 

As the rivalry has grown, so has the relationship between Greenlee and Andrassy. The two have a complicated relationship, albeit one that has become less complex recently. 

“I think we pretty much hated each other early on,” Greenlee said. “I think we have kind of become friends over the course of the last few years.” 

A major part of the rivalry that keeps it going is the passion of the athletes. The familiarity between the athletes is stark. The teams will participate in the same tournaments and wrestle common opponents. The familiarity creates tension, the tension creates hard feelings and the hard feelings create a heated battle on the mats. 

“I don’t like to lose to anybody in the MAC,” Greenlee said. “They’re all our rivals, but (Kent State) is probably the biggest one. We recruit the same kids, all that stuff. It’s just more important for us to win that match.”

Like many famed ones in sports, the rivalry is not without its special trophy. The winning team in "The Grudge Match" will take home a metal plaque that is passed between the teams and resides in the locker room of the victorious team until the next meeting. A few years ago, when the trophy was in the possession of Kent State, it was stolen, prompting Greenlee to outsource for a new one. 

Greenlee said a former wrestler, Zeb Miller, helped come up with the idea after Miller, who teaches at Paintsville Riverside High School, had a shop teacher create a plaque for the wrestlers’ locker room. After the plaque was stolen, Greenlee commissioned one for Ohio’s team.

"A guy that I have known for years has a metal work business,” Greenlee said. "I came across one of the things that he made and was like ‘That’s pretty cool. I bet he could do that for us.’ I called him up and said, ‘What do you think? This is the old one.’ He said, ‘I can do better than that.’” 

The plaque is easily the most notable aspect of the rivalry from an outsider's point of view. Greenlee says that he likes the plaque because it does a great job of motivating the team. 

"The Grudge Match" trophy is the only thing on a shelf in the Ohio locker room, and the absence of that trophy is noted for the next calendar year. 

This season, Ohio will make the three-hour drive north to Kent State. After last season’s 28-9 win, Ohio and Kent State had to forgo the handshake line after words were exchanged following the final bout.

This year, Ohio prepares to make the trip to enemy territory, where Kent State will be hungry to avenge the big loss. With a large crowd set to pack the MAC Center, Greenlee emphasizes the emotions and crowd. 

“It is going to be our biggest crowd of the year,” Greenlee said. “When we go up there, we’re going to get a huge crowd because 80% of our team through the years has been from the Cleveland area … I never squish emotion much because you have to realize that wrestling is an emotional sport.” 

Like any rivalry, Greenlee hopes that his Bobcats not only defeat the Golden Flashes, but dominate them. He is looking for a clean sweep in his favor, all 10 bouts going the Bobcats’ way to leave no doubt about which team owns the rivalry.

The mission for the Bobcats is to make it a business trip: go on the road, beat their rivals and return to Athens with the trophy. However, in "The Grudge Match," there are no guarantees, only winners and losers. 


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