2020 has been a tough year to be a fan of either amateur or professional wrestling. Both disciplines lost an authentic legend as Danny Hodge, 88, passed away in his home on Christmas Eve.
In the oil fields near Perry, Oklahoma, Danny Hodge’s father taught him work-ethic and perseverance. The elder Hodge worked as an oil casing rigger. Scaling 140-feet up those oil derricks took power and focus. Oil rigging is dangerous work, and the younger Hodge’s fabled grip-strength was honed on those rigs, rather than in a weight room. Opponents would talk about Hodge’s thick hands and his incredible power on the mat. That kind of power served both of the Hodges well in a job where slips and mistakes could sever body parts or send a man crashing to his death.
Danny Hodge was a working-class hero. His work ethic transcended the Oklahoma oil fields and pushed him to become one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century.
While wrestling for Perry High School, Hodge won the famed Geary Tournament Championship twice before capturing the Oklahoma state championship his senior year. Hodge initially decided not to go to college and enlisted in the US Navy, where he continued to wrestle under Naval Academy coach Ray Swarz. At 20, Hodge qualified for his first Olympics in 1952. At the Helsinki games, Hodge lost in the quarterfinals to David Cimakuridze of the USSR. Cimakuridze took the Gold, while Hodge finished fifth.
After finishing his naval service, Hodge enrolled in the University of Oklahoma under National Hall of Fame Coach Port Roberston in 1954. Roberston restarted the OU program in 1947, and by 1951 the Sooners won their first NCAA National team title. Hodge was an instant star on a team that also included fellow Olympians Dick Delgado and Tommy Evans. Hodge’s career at OU was unparalleled. With a career record of 46–0, thirty-six wins by fall, Hodge won three Big Seven (now known as the Big XII) titles and three NCAA Championships at 177 lbs. In all three of his NCAA appearances, Hodge pinned all of his tournament opponents.
Hodge’s records stand out in an era when freshmen weren’t allowed to compete at the varsity level; there is little doubt the 22-year-old freshman wouldn’t have won an NCAA Championship.
During his junior year at Oklahoma, Hodge returned to the Olympic Games in 1956. Hodge pinned his first two opponents before wrestling Nikola Stanchev of Bulgaria in the finals. In the gold medal match, Hodge secured a comfortable lead over Stanchev before being put to his back late in the match. The mat official called for a fall with two seconds remaining, giving Bulgaria their first Olympic wrestling medalist. Hodge was ahead on the scoreboard before the referee called the controversial pin. Hodge’s coaches claimed his back was not flat at any point.
With a career record of 46–0, thirty-six wins by fall, Hodge won three Big Seven (now known as the Big XII) titles and three NCAA Championships at 177 lbs. In all three of his NCAA appearances, Hodge pinned all of his tournament opponents.
After college, Hodge elected not to pursue a third Olympic run. Instead, Hodge competed in boxing. He won the 1958 Chicago Golden Gloves and the National Amateur Athletic Union titles at Heavyweight. After a brief pro boxing career, where he attained a record of 8-2, Hodge returned to wrestling, this time as a professional wrestler. Hodge became the centerpiece of Leroy McGuirk’s NWA Tri-State territory, where he won the NWA World Middleweight title eight times.
Hodge’s strength was legendary. Hodge would often perform stunts where he crushed apples, broke pliers, and tore phone books and card decks in half as a pro. Even into his 80s, Hodge routinely performed these feats on ESPN during their coverage of the NCAA Division I Championships.
Hodge’s legacy as a competitor was unmatched in his era. The legendary Dan Gable fell short of trying to match Hodge’s undefeated three-time NCAA Championship status. His NCAA title record would be matched and later eclipsed by 6x NCAA Champion, the late Carlton Haselrig of Pitt-Johnstown (3x time champion in Division II and 3x champion in Division I) and Pat Smith of Oklahoma State, the first 4x NCAA Division I Champion. His Division I undefeated streak stood until 2002, when Cael Sanderson of Iowa State (now the head coach at Penn State) won his fourth NCAA title, finishing with a record of 159–0. Hodge’s record of never being taken down in a college match still stands.
In 1995, WIN Magazine created the Hodge Trophy, college wrestling’s equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. “The Hodge” is awarded every year to the nation’s best collegiate wrestler. Youth wrestlers from around the US may have never seen Danny Hodge wrestle, but the dream of winning the Hodge secures his name in the annals of amateur wrestling.