Behind the Psychology of a Great Upset

One of the greatest upsets in sports history took place 44 years ago, when Larry Owings defeated Dan Gable in the finals of the NCAA wrestling tournament. 

This remarkable result actually began to take shape before the bout, and derived more from the wrestlers’ psychological interaction than from any specific event on the mat.

Gable entered the 1970 finals match for the University of Iowa as the two-time defending NCAA champion with a combined high school and college record of 181-0. He was not only undefeated, he was utterly dominant — he pinned 83 of 118 collegiate opponents, 24 in a row, and 56 of his last 64. Outstanding wrestlers (including Owings in 1969) moved out of Gable’s 142-pound weight class, even up a weight class, to avoid defeat. 

Although far less heralded than Gable, Owings capped an outstanding 1970 dual-meet season for the University of Washington with a Pac-8 tournament title, establishing himself as a serious contender for the national championship at 158 pounds. Then, Owings dropped two weight classes to challenge Gable at the national tournament. Losing so much weight at season’s end qualified as odd; to wrestling aficionados, targeting the seemingly invincible Gable added foolish to odd. 

In fact, two years prior, Gable easily defeated Owings, 13-4. Owings seemed to be giving up a good shot at a national championship for a fanciful hope of revenge.

How did Owings defeat Gable?

The victory owes to the sheer audacity of the idea, which empowered Owings and disturbed Gable. Owings somehow convinced himself that he would win. He publicly announced it, and conducted himself as if he had the 181-0 record. Then, he wrestled the part — he began the match against Gable aggressively, shooting multiple takedown attempts; he tried to turn and pin Gable; he rarely took a backward step. 

In contrast, with Owings so surprisingly bold, Gable’s steely confidence wavered. Why, he wondered, is this strange guy tracking me like I’m prey? Gable broke from his usual routine by scouting Owings (Gable never bothered to scout opponents) and practicing against his signature cradle move. Gable then carried these worries (and the weight of the 181-0 streak) onto the mat. He later noted that “when we started (the match) all I was thinking was ‘God, don’t get caught in his cradle.’ ” 

Gable’s uncharacteristic fretting diminished his performance. He felt “dead tired within the first minute.” This helped Owings jump out to a 7-2 lead, including a penalty point against the usually hyper-aggressive Gable for stalling (passivity). Gable’s lethargic start made it a match.

Gable returned to form, dominated the mid-match and took the lead, 10-9, with less than a minute left. But with victory in reach, the fatigued Gable committed two critical mental mistakes. First, he made an ill-advised takedown attempt when his late lead dictated a defensive posture. Then, when Owings countered, Gable hung on too long trying futilely to prevent a takedown, exposing his back to the mat. The needless back exposure gave Owings the deciding two points in his 13-11 victory. In the last few seconds, Owings, rather than the trailing Gable, made the final takedown attempt. Gable admitted that at the end, “I gave up. I was disgusted”. 

Great upsets sometimes seem less imposing in retrospect. For example, the 1969 New York Jets turned out as good or better than the Baltimore Colts; Muhammad Ali greater than Sonny Liston. Owings’ victory, however, remains shocking. He never won another NCAA title, never made the national team or the Olympic team, and was trounced (7-1) by Gable in a rematch two years later.

Gable, in contrast, moved on to even greater things. He won a World Championship in 1971, then a prestigious international tournament in the Soviet Union (Tbilisi) in 1972. His international dominance riled the Soviet Union Wrestling Federation, whose members considered Soviet wrestling supremacy virtually a birthright. The Soviet national coach announced a nationwide search to find and train someone to defeat Gable.

At the 1972 Olympics, however, neither the Soviet wrestler nor anyone else defeated him. Despite an injured knee, Gable won the gold medal without giving up a single point in six matches, fortifying his status as the USA’s greatest wrestler ever.

But he lost the last match of his collegiate career. He did not succumb to bad luck, or to a referee’s call, or because his opponent displayed more strength or better technique. He lost because the lesser wrestler, Larry Owings, brazenly decided he was the superior wrestler and competed in a manner befitting his arrogance. That threw the great Dan Gable’s psyche off kilter.

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