Iowa's Biggest Wrestling Fan

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People, Sports
on December 30, 2001

When Mike Chapman was 10, he read a story about wrestling star Frank Gotch of Humboldt, Iowa—the winner of 154 of his 160 professional bouts and the World Championship in the early 1900s. That simple account ignited an enthusiasm in Chapman for the sport that continues to burn strong in him today.

“There are accounts of wrestling matches 4,000 years ago, making it the oldest sport,” says Chapman, 57, executive director of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa. “And it’s the only sport mentioned in the Bible: when Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord.”

In 1998, Chapman, who also is publisher of the Newton Daily News, led a force of more than 100 volunteers to fulfill his lifelong dream of creating a museum dedicated solely to the sport of wrestling. The museum displays wrestling artifacts and memorabilia collected by Chapman over the years and is the embodiment of his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport.

Most of the displays cover amateur wrestling, from ancient Greece and the bouts of a young Abraham Lincoln to present-day collegiate and Olympic champions. About a quarter of the museum is dedicated to professional wrestling and an entire wall is devoted to Gotch, who, in Chapman’s opinion, is the greatest wrestler who ever lived. A life-size photo cutout of the international star stands near the half-size wrestling ring in the middle of the room.

“It’s unbelievable for someone to have such a passion to collect this memorabilia and to have it all in one place,” says Rod Brown, the museum’s associate director. “This whole thing wouldn’t have happened without Mike.”

As he walks through the museum, Chapman’s pride is evident as he tells how the 7,000-square-foot building was a restaurant and stood empty for three years before it was converted into an attractive showcase of wrestling icons such as Joe Stecher, Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, and Ed “Strangler” Lewis.

“At one time there were 60 (high school and college) wrestlers working on the shingles,” recalls Chapman, author of a dozen books about wrestling and his other loves—ancient Greek history, boxing, and Tarzan movies. “And then there was another time that my wife, Bev, and I worked 27 hours straight and fell asleep on the floor.”

Chapman, after a lifetime of sports writing and newspaper management in other parts of the Midwest, initially moved to Newton in 1997 to retire. However, the strong presence of wrestling in Iowa—where the state high school wrestling tournament regularly sells out and up to 15,000 fans watch matches between collegiate wrestling giants University of Iowa and Iowa State University—re-ignited Chapman’s desire to create a museum devoted to the sport.

Not only has the museum increased awareness of wrestling, it also has brought attention and visitors to Newton (pop. 15,579), a town long known as the headquarters of appliance maker Maytag Corp.

“Newton was already known for its passion toward football, and Mike built upon that passion for sports to complete the museum,” says Mayor Dave Aldridge. “In turn, the museum has rekindled a great spirit in Newton, creating more interest in sports.”

Chapman, who has a solid physique, wrestled as an amateur and also competed in judo and sombo (combat wrestling), but he did not wrestle as a professional. Still, his passion for the sport has earned him recognition from wrestlers such as Dan Gable, who won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, coached three U.S. Olympic teams that won seven medals, and coached the University of Iowa’s wrestling team to 15 national titles in 21 seasons.

“Wrestlers admire him and his wife for what they’ve done,” Gable says. “He’s definitely a candidate in the eyes of the wrestling world for being one of its champions.”