A minute into Gable Steveson’s first home wrestling match for the Gophers, he took down the No. 3 heavyweight in the country with a near fall, the Maturi Pavilion crowd erupting in cheers while Derek White struggled on his back.
Then in the second period, Steveson danced across the mat, scissor-stepping the iconic Muhammad Ali shuffle while the audience chuckled.
As time expired that November day, the Gophers freshman had one arm wrapped around the Oklahoma State senior, the other raised to the fans, gesturing for them to applaud his 8-2 victory. When the buzzer sounded, Steveson bounced up, flexing his biceps, shouting, “This is my house! My house!”
Pretty bold for an 18-year-old taking on a wrestler five years his senior. But heading into Sunday’s meet against archrival Iowa, all that chest pounding and crowd rousing is just part of what the wrestling world is coming to know as the Gable Steveson Experience™.
To some, he’s entertaining. To others, he’s showboating.
“You get both sides. You get people that love it, and people that don’t,” Gophers coach Brandon Eggum said. “You don’t see it very often.”
College wrestling fans shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, the same athlete who twisted from a cartwheel into a backflip after winning his fourth consecutive state championship with Apple Valley. He capped a 212-3 high school career with a 173-match winning streak, his last loss coming in eighth grade.
He’s won three world championships — two at the Cadet level, one at the Junior level. He’s 19-0 for the Gophers and already ranked No. 2 nationally in the heavyweight (285-pound) division, with sights set on becoming just the 19th true freshman to win an NCAA title.
Never mind that he’ll have to fend off several older competitors, like White, to do it. Steveson has made no secret that his goal is to be a four-time undefeated NCAA champion, along with an Olympic gold medalist, possibly at the 2020 Games.
“He makes me nervous. He’s like a butterfly in my chest because he has these big dreams,” said his mother, Laticia Steveson. “But knowing him, he might just pull it off.”
In a match, Steveson can get caught up in the moment, his emotions overwhelming him. But he said he hopes fans come away thinking, “He’s not how he actually is on the mat. He’s actually a cool kid.”
“You can be both sides,” he said. “You can be chippy on the mat, but you should always show you respect your opponents and not to be more over the top.”
His match last weekend against unranked Rutgers heavyweight Christian Colucci featured less hype. Steveson still put on a show, strutting to the mat to the tune of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa.”
With Colucci soon face down on the mat and not moving, Steveson let go of his hold to shrug in disgust at the referee for not calling stalling. Later, Steveson shook Colucci’s head, trying to encourage the redshirt junior to act.
The fans, at least, seemed to revel in the theatrics, shouting, ‘Wake him up!” and, “Embarrass him some more!” Steveson finished the 17-2 technical fall, waving his arms, imploring the fans to make more noise before hoisting his right fist with his pointer finger raised.
“He’s just intense,” said Bobby Steveson, Gable’s brother and Gophers teammate. “A lot of people just think he’s dirty when he’s not at all. Everything he does is within the rules. Either you want to wrestle him, or you don’t. If you think he’s cocky, and you don’t feel like getting embarrassed, don’t go out on the mat.”
Heavyweight matches often slog along for the full seven minutes, as two big and slower-to-move wrestlers generate smaller point totals. Steveson, though, is a heavyweight wrestler who competes like a lightweight, and his frustration comes when referees don’t call his matches as such, negating his aggressive, attacking style.
Steveson said he deliberately tries to reveal his “inner self” on the mat to make people want to pay attention and even enjoy.
Eggum said he loves how relaxed Steveson is on the mat, and that comfort is part of why he’s so successful. But after the Rutgers dual, the coach pulled his young star aside, cautioning him to “be smart” and not anger the referees, who can easily turn a match against him. Eggum doesn’t want that attitude to blur Steveson’s identity from hero to villain, especially since the Apple Valley grad prides himself on giving kids autographs, T-shirts and posed pictures.
Whether viewing Steveson’s antics as positive or negative, Eggum said Steveson is undoubtedly “great for the sport.”
“No questions about it,” Eggum said. “Everywhere I go in the country, if I’m wearing Minnesota stuff, and they ask about our university, especially if they know anything about wrestling, everyone seems to know about Gable Steveson. They just think he’s electric.”
Steveson’s endeavor to be more modest, however, will bring a tough test Sunday at Maturi Pavilion, which will be sold out for Gophers wrestling for the first time since 2014. This will be his first Minnesota-Iowa dual where he’s not watching as a fan, and the matchup is something he’s been looking forward to “for a long time.”
Before Steveson was even born, he seemed predestined to be an Iowa fan. When his mother was 3 months pregnant, she picked the name Gable Dan Steveson, after Iowa legend Dan Gable, a former coach, NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist.
The Stevesons would often take trips to Iowa for wrestling meets. Both Steveson and his brother had Iowa singlets their father bought them, which they wore for tournaments.
But Bobby Steveson, now a redshirt junior, picked his college first and chose Minnesota. And while his little brother could have gone to any school, he followed his brother to the Gophers. Those Iowa singlets are still somewhere; their mother keeps all their old wrestling gear as mementos. But she shipped off all of her own Iowa apparel to a friend once Bobby committed to the Gophers and has slowly been replacing her wardrobe with maroon and gold.
Laticia Steveson recalled a time when Dan Gable gave a talk at Apple Valley High School, and asked Gable why he wasn’t wrestling at Iowa with a name like his. Just last week, after the Rutgers meet, a fan told Gable that whenever he hears his name he thinks of Iowa.
“Hopefully, I can change that to think it’s Minnesota now,” Steveson said.
This Iowa match had the potential to bring a showdown between Steveson and the No. 1-ranked heavyweight, Sam Stoll, from Kasson-Mantorville.
While both wrestled high school in Minnesota, the two have never actually faced each other. The head-to-head likely will have to wait, though. Stoll isn’t listed as one of Iowa’s probable starters and has wrestled sparingly this season because of an injury.
Still, with the Gophers-Iowa duals notoriously heated, Steveson is sure to entertain regardless of whom he faces.
“I think a lot of people probably think he’s cocky, but I think he’s just confident,” Bobby Steveson said. “… No matter if it’s wrestling or playing video games, he has that ‘I’m going to be the best’ type of attitude.”
Like it or not, that’s all part of the experience.