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Danny Hodge Was the Last of the ‘Natural’ Strongmen

The 1956 Olympic wrestling silver medalist, three-time NCAA wrestling champ and longtime pro wrestler’s feats of strengths were as legendary as Paul Bunyan’s. Except his were real

Danny Hodge died on Christmas Eve at the age of 88, a fact that surprised many followers of Hodge’s career because if anyone was ever too tough to die, it was him. Hodge had receded from public view in recent years, dealing with the effects of dementia, but it still seemed easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the Oklahoma native’s life. He was harder than hell, harder than heaven and surely harder than the Grim Reaper himself. 

If you grew up during the 1950s and dreamed of dominating your foes on the mat or playing field, Hodge was your Paul Bunyan, your Pecos Bill. His crushing grip bent steel pliers, made a Soviet wrestler squeal like a pig and even broke the spirit of 500-pound Victor, one of a handful of legendary wrestling bears who toured the country during the three decades after the end of World War II. 

“There have only been two genuinely bad men in my lifetime: Danny Hodge and Jim Brown,” my father, a bruising collegiate athlete in his own right, used to tell me and my siblings, his harsh tone softened by reverence for the wrestler as well as the Cleveland Browns running back. “Everyone else is just a pissant like the rest of us and at best a 50/50 proposition.” 

My dad had played football against a litany of the greats — Mike Ditka, Alex Karras, Ernie Davis — but they were just men, and men could be beaten. But he had watched the superhuman Brown plow through hapless opponents from the relative safety of the West Virginia sidelines, and listened to longtime University of Pittsburgh wrestling coach Rex Peery regale his athletic-club buddies with stories of Oklahoma Sooner Hodge, three times the NCAA wrestling champion between 1955 and 1957 at 177 pounds and so ridiculously overpowering that he pinned 78 percent of his opponents and was never taken down once during that span, the last of these win-by-falls coming at Fitzgerald Field House on Peery’s home turf in Pittsburgh. 

Peery, an Okie whose pint-sized sons Hugh and Ed were the two greatest wrestlers in Pitt history, went on the record about Hodge in a 1957 Sports Illustrated story, entitled “The Man to Beat,” devoted to contextualizing the exploits of the only amateur wrestler to grace that publication’s cover in its 70-year history. “He’s head and shoulders ahead of anything we’ve got,” Peery told writer Don Parker, who grappled a bit with Hodge and wound up “forced to chew on my own arm” for 15 minutes.

Danny Hodge is, and likely will remain, the only amateur wrestler to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The origin story of Danny Hodge is that of all the origin stories of tough-as-nails athletes wrapped up into one. He was born dirt poor amid Dust Bowl conditions in Oklahoma. His father was an alcoholic who worked sporadically in the oil fields, his mother suffering from chronic depression after nearly burning to death when the shack where they were living caught fire. They were hard times in the way such times are always hard — no running water, no refrigerator, no conveniences of any kind. 

When talking to historian Greg Oliver, Hodge, who often went without shoes or boots during his childhood, recalled walking around in “gunny sacks” that he wrapped around his feet with the same wire used to bale hay. For fun, he’d use his bare hands to rip round rings off wagon wheels, then run untold miles just to get away or have something to do, often running with a towel across his mouth to prevent himself from swallowing too much dust. After his family’s house burned down, Hodge went to live with his grandfather, another alcoholic in a hopelessly impoverished world and found himself on the receiving end of innumerable beatings and canings. 

His exit from that unremitting misery was simple enough: He left that home at the age of 15 and moved into the top floor of a fire station in Perry, Oklahoma. He had moved to Perry to focus on wrestling, because Perry’s high school had a strong wrestling program in a state that was full of them, and paid his rent by washing fire trucks and performing other janitorial tasks. “People don’t know what it’s like growing up in the atmosphere like this,” he told Oliver. “I thought to myself then, ‘Is this all the world I’m going to see?’”

It wasn’t. Hodge got out of Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma the way only a lucky few others could — by fighting for his life. Journalist Mike Chapman, who wrote Hodge’s biography, Oklahoma Shooter, learned that Hodge’s pride would endure no further beatings. “He said, ‘Mike, I made up my mind that I was never going to lose a fight again, ever,’” Chapman says. “I think he was born, and it was nurtured by his upbringing, never to lose a fight.” 

Hodge trained the way rawboned, powerful poor kids did in those days: Running exceptionally long distances, bending steel, performing fingertip pull-ups, dunking his hands in buckets of sand and squeezing to increase his crush grip, crumpling up entire newspaper sections one finger at a time to build strength in the individual fingers. The result of this training regimen — “aside from too much potentially joint-damaging distance running, as effective a routine for long-term strength and durability gains in the skeletal muscle as any program on the books today,” fitness journalist and former collegiate wrestler Anthony Roberts tells me — was a body that let Hodge achieve his childhood dreams of not merely defeating would-be assailants but obliterating them. 

His bulldozing style was hardly subtle, but he definitely understood strategy, too. “When I stepped onto the mat, when I shook hands with you, it was limper than a dishrag, but when I grabbed you, I’d see the expression come over your face and you’d know why I’m here and I want all these people to let you watch the ceiling,” Hodge explained to Oliver. 

This was the method that brought Hodge unprecedented success. He qualified for the 1952 Olympics at 19 — the youngest wrestler in U.S. Olympic history and barely a year out of high school — and somehow finished fifth despite having only a dim understanding of the difference between collegiate folkstyle and international freestyle wrestling. In those days, the chief difference that hampered American collegians was the fact that the slightest touch of the shoulder to the mat resulted in a pinfall victory for the opponent, a fact that referees with Eastern Bloc sympathies often exploited to hand cheap victories to their countrymen — most notably seen in the 1956 Olympics to the detriment of Hodge, when he and his Bulgarian opponent shook off each other out of a tie-up, hit the ground and Hodge, who was rolling without so much as touching his foe, was given a pinfall loss because his shoulder grazed the mat. He rebounded by brutalizing USSR wrestler Georgy Skhirtladze in the silver medal match, locking him in a three-quarter nelson, one of the go-to moves for a wrestler with superior grip strength, and pinning him in summary fashion.

Hodge at work (courtesy of National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum)

The 1956 silver medal and the three NCAA titles marked the apex of Hodge’s athletic career. He would have almost certainly won four titles had he not spent what would have been his freshman year in the Navy, since he easily dispatched the previous NCAA champion in his weight class, Ned Blass of rival Oklahoma State, in his first collegiate dual-team match. Four titles would’ve diminished the accomplishment of Iowa State’s undefeated star Cael Sanderson nearly four decades later, but three titles and a Sports Illustrated cover outstrips just about anything that anyone else ever did in the sport. 

Hodge’s other endeavors earned him plaudits, but nothing on the order of his amateur wrestling glory. He went 22-0 in the Golden Gloves, winning a national heavyweight title in Madison Square Garden, before going 7-2 in a pro career that ended with an eighth-round defeat to the more experienced and much larger Cuban heavyweight Nino Valdes. Hodge had toughness on his side, but with his crushing paws hidden behind 10-ounce boxing gloves, the wrestler absorbed far too many powerful blows and the fight was stopped due to the cuts he had sustained. He made so little money during his nine-fight career that, despite talk of eventually challenging for a title on name recognition alone, Hodge sued his promoters to recoup his earnings (he never received them) and decided to take up a job offer from Oklahoma pro wrestling territory owner Leroy McGuirk, himself an NCAA champion two decades before Hodge.

During Hodge’s two decades in pro wrestling, the outcomes of the bouts were predetermined, but more often than not, the fit 200-pounder, whose “torso rose in a V to powerful shoulders and a corded neck” in the words of SI writer Parker, wore the National Wrestling Alliance’s junior heavyweight championship around his narrow waist. Mixed martial arts wasn’t even in its infancy, so Hodge’s fabled toughness became just that, the stuff of fable, rather than something that could be put to the test in actual combat the way pro wrestlers like Brock Lesnar, Kazushi Sakuraba, Bobby Lashley and Jake Hager have done during the past two decades. 

But oh, the fables with which we were left. “I’ve never heard a bear scream so loud [as when Hodge was wrestling it],” Jerry Brisco, himself both a pro wrestler and an Oklahoma amateur wrestling great, remembered. “Little did I know that 15 years later when I was in the ring with him, I’d know why the bear was screaming.”

Wayne Baughman, 16 times a national champion wrestler and the great amateur star of the era immediately following Hodge’s, recalled him as someone who simply couldn’t be beat. “I think that Danny was a better wrestler than people give him credit for,” Baughman told Chapman. “The common comment was he was all power and didn’t have any skills, really. His power was magnified by his position, by his leverage, by the way he applied the power, by the way he blocked you where you had nowhere to turn except your back. I don’t think we’ve had anyone that could come close to him.” 

“He could hurt you with his hands,” recalled Lou Thesz, himself a well-regarded “hooker,” or submission wrestler, who held the NWA World Title for most of the 1950s. “Most of the pros were scared to death of him, and in some areas, he had a hard time getting matches because of his reputation for wanting to wrestle with no frills, and for his strength. No one that I’m aware of ever tested Dan in the ring.”

The only thing that could stop Hodge was himself, and that’s how his pro wrestling career came to an end in 1976 — at the bottom of a frigid river into which he’d crashed his car while driving late at night. He somehow survived a significant neck injury and escaped the car through a crack in the windshield, then dragged himself ashore, where he was later found and taken to a hospital. However, his days as a full-time competitor capable of absorbing the wear and tear of the professional ring, taking the “bumps” that selling an opponent’s offense demanded of him, had come to an end. 

Crushing an apple in front of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, 2013 (courtesy of National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum)

Hodge, of course, still had many decades ahead of him as an ambassador for amateur wrestling and as a paragon of old-man strength, crushing apples with his bare hands to the delight of all, including a session of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2013, when he was 81. It was in this capacity of crushing apples, strangely enough, that Hodge has had his greatest impact on my own strength-oriented life, in which I crush apples to the delight of my wife, daughter and other bemused family and friends. 

Hodge in 2016 (courtesy of Kyle Klingman)

However, as I came to know more about his story, I realized that he stood for so much more. He was, to my father and Rex Peery and other contemporaries, a colossus around whose feet everyone else had scampered. But for me he represented something else. I had been a good wrestler, not a great one, propelled by the same fury to fight and squeeze and crush that animated Hodge and perhaps most other beaten-down, beaten-up kids who refuse to roll over and play dead. I fought because I refused to let anyone hurt me ever again. Yet even as I fought, I understood that I was really fighting against men like my father and my father’s father and most of all Danny Hodge, that bygone generation of strong men who even in defeat — if such a thing could be imagined — would cling fast to your neck as they dragged you with them to the grave.

“I’ll let you choke me,” a then-77-year-old Hodge, as full of calm resolution as ever, told Sports Illustrated in 2009. “Before you know it, your wrist is broke — if I want. I take what you give me, but in the long run, I make you give me what I want.”