Gable Steveson knew his life had changed after he won Olympic gold. The Minnesota star remains shocked by how wrestling fans have celebrated him this season during what has amounted to a college farewell tour.
He drew a standing ovation at the Big Ten Tournament after he was announced the heavyweight winner. He didn’t even have a championship match -- he won by injury default. Still, the fans took advantage of one of the final chances they’ll have to let him know how much they have appreciated the dominance, showmanship, athleticism and celebratory backflips that have made him unique.
“It’s weird,” Steveson said. “I don’t know, it’s odd to have that love from everybody, every single fan base. You know, people are supposed to root for their team, and they’re out here -- I go out there and get a forfeit and they’re on their feet going crazy ... It’s outrageous.”
Steveson also received a standing ovation at Iowa — one of Minnesota’s longtime rivals — in January. Fans at road venues such as Michigan lined up after duals to get his autograph.
The tour has one more stop — Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, where he can put a memorable final touch - a repeat national title — on one of the most impressive collegiate seasons ever when he competes at the NCAA championships this week.
Steveson is 13-0 this season, having foregone competing in tournaments. But it’s not the wins, it’s how he’s done it, that has left people in awe. He has outscored his opponents 205-64, with all but one of his opponents’ points coming by escape. He’s looking to become the first Division I wrestler to finish a season with a perfect bonus rate -- that is, winning every match where a bonus is possible by at least eight points. Penn State’s David Taylor was the closest to achieving the feat when he finished with a 92.75% bonus rate in 2012.
Overall, he is on a 47-match win streak. Steveson is aware of the numbers, but is most concerned about winning a second national title.
“I would love to go out there and do a 100% bonus rate for the whole season and be that legend that has done it, and the only person has ever done it,” Steveson said. “But at the end of the day, it’s postseason and everybody is going to give you the best.”
The fact that Steveson is even wrestling in college surprised some, given the options he had. When he announced he was returning, he also announced that he had signed an name, image and likeness deal with World Wrestling Entertainment. He also drew interest from mixed martial arts organizers before making his decision.
Ultimately, NIL might be what kept him in school.
“There’s a lot of money on the table there,” Minnesota coach Brandon Eggum said after the announcements were made. “I think that there were opportunities that have been very difficult for him to pass up as a 21-year-old kid ... Without NIL, I think the chances of him returning would have been small.”
WWE capitalized on Steveson’s popularity, which shot up after his last-second win over Georgia’s Geno Petriashvili in the gold-medal match.
“Everybody in wrestling knows Gable Steveson,” Eggum said. “But after the Olympics, it was amazing walking through the airport or just in different areas -- people that were never fans of wrestling, the amount of people that are reaching out to us and are impressed ... I’m hearing from people that were getting up at 5 in the morning to watch that gold medal match.”
Steveson said he will attend WrestleMania in April, though he would not say if he’ll be involved in any way. He is committed to being the showman who drew WWE’s interest.
“I think it’s really important just go out there and be a heavyweight and take a lot of shots and do what I do -- scrambles and jumping over people and the back flips (after matches) and stuff,” he said. “It’s just like a whole like complete show that you can see. And when Gable steps out on the mat, you’re going to get that every single time.”
Last year, the NCAA meet did not have a crowd because of the pandemic. This year, Steveson expects a big crowd. And that’s what he lives for.
“You know me,” he said. “When that crowd hits, the best version comes out. I feel like last year with the with the silence, you’re just trying to get through the tournament, you’re trying to just win. But with this crowd, I love feeding off it. When they cheer, that level steps to a new area. So I feel it’s going to be something crazy. I know it is.”