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Playing (Sun) Devil's Advocate: Anthony Robles And Why The Ass-Kicking Contest Occasionally Favors The One-Legged Man

You may have already heard a bit about Anthony Robles, the 125-pound wrestler from Arizona State who just won a national championship on March 19. Winning a national championship in wrestling is a very, very difficult untertaking, no matter what Cael Sanderson tells you.  So it's a borderline superhuman feat that Robles finished his senior year undefeated and beat the defending national champion, Matt McDonough of Iowa, to win his title. But people will be talking about Robles not so much for that accomplishment but because he did all this with only one leg.

Don't get me wrong, it's also a superhuman feat that Robles made himself into an elite athlete despite an obvious handicap. But being a one-legged wrestler and being a championship wrestler are two different feats, not two aspects of the same story. 

As a former wrestler (and a thoroughly mediocre one at that), I always end up siding with the other wrestlers in stories like this one, or in the occasional story where a male wrestler is forced to face a female wrestler and controversy ensues*.  So while it's incredible to me that Anthony Robles dedicated himself to a sport and reached the pinnacle as a senior, let's not pretend like he didn't have some natural (and unintended) advantages along the way.

* - There's a lot of nuance to that story that I'm not about to get into here, but my bottom line is that no high school kid should be forced to live out the gender equity debate while wearing lycra in front of his parents.

An undervalued aspect of wrestling (and MMA, not that it matters here) is the difference between someone's natural weight and their fighting weight. Wrestlers at the elite level will suck down to as many as 20 or 30 pounds below their "healthy" normal weight to compete in a smaller weight class. The thinking is that if I weigh 145 pounds walking around and I can get down to 125 pounds to weigh in for a match, that's about 20 pounds of muscle I have over my opponent by the time we step on the mat. Trouble is, it's hard to lose those 20 pounds in a healthy way; often you end up sacrificing strength because your body is exhausted from the cut.

A cursory search around the internet says the human leg weighs between 10% and 20% of your overall body weight.  So that means that Anthony Robles, at the same percentage of body fat/muscle that he had at "fighting weight" but with two legs, would weigh between 139 and 156 pounds, roughly. In NCAA wrestling terms, it means he has the strength of a guy between two and four weight classes above 125.  This is especially important because the most dangerous aspect of Robles' game was on the mat; he is able to hold his opponents down for an entire period and collect the critical "riding time" advantage that determines a lot of matches at the collegiate level.

Extra wrinkles I'm not considering here: that Robles probably still cuts weight to get to 125 and thus may have a "two-legged" weight higher than the 139-156 range; that because he's relied on his arms for so much through his remarkable athletic career, his upper body is probably stronger than most wrestlers in that adjusted range.

Besides the strength advantage, there's a strategic aspect that's getting overlooked as well.  It's not as if Robles began his wrestling career and then lost his leg; because he lost it as a child he's only ever known how to wrestle on just one. His techniques are already tuned to his unique condition. On the other side of the mat, his opponents have their own aresenal of attacks that is immediately cut in half. However, I'm gonna kinda glaze over this one because at the championship level, odds are that most of Robles' opponents had competed against him before and had a clear idea of what they were getting into. I just want to be clear on this: facing someone with one leg does NOT present you with any advantages, especially when that someone understands how to control his body (something all wrestlers are trained to do).

I'm in the extreme minority here, but I wish there was a disconnect between Anthony Robles' battle to overcome his handicap and his amazing run through the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, most people wouldn't care about his 36-0 season and stellar tournament run if he had two legs (just ask fellow 2011 champions Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Dake and Zach Rey, or 2010 champions Jayson Ness or Max Askren, or 2009 champion Darrion Caldwell, or...).  Despite being a sport built around tremendous personal dedication and achievement, wrestling only gets noticed on "freak show" stories (see also: Kyle Maynard, whose limited success was almost entirely due to the aforementioned strength advantages).  

I won't be surprised if Robles is able to flip this into an MMA career or a movie about his life story (and more power to him if the opportunity is there), but I hope that any continuation of this narrative about the one-legged kid in the ass-kicking contest paints with some more narrow strokes than what we've seen so far. 

Posted in: Sports