ASU’s new wrestling champs: a strange study in contrast

Anthony Robles and Bubba Jenkins both won national wrestling titles over the weekend.  Both wore the maroon and gold of Arizona State.

But that’s where the similarities end.  Their personalities are as different as the paths they took to their ultimate goal of winning a national championship.

They even won their NCAA crowns in different fashions.

Robles, the top seed in the 125 weight class, scored a take-down just 44 seconds into the match to take a 2-0 lead and then rolled to a 7-1 decision over second-seeded Matt McDonough from Iowa.

Jenkins, seeded fourth at 157, got off to a slow start and finished the first period 0-0 in his match-up against third-seeded David Taylor from Penn State.  Taylor took a 1-0 lead in the second period and Jenkins didn’t win it until he was able to flip and pin Taylor in 4:41 of the final period.

Robles has spent his entire career representing ASU.  Jenkins began his career at Penn State and transferred into Tempe for his final year of eligibility following a dust-up with the Nittany Lions’ new coach.

Their national titles helped the Sun Devils to a sixth-place finish in the NCAA Tournament, giving the school multiple national champions for only the second time; the other time was in 1993.   ASU was also the only program in the nation this year to have multiple champions.

Jenkins wrestles on two legs.  Robles gets the job done on just one leg, after being born without a right leg.

Their approach to winning is also sometimes very different.

Jenkins didn’t try to hide the fact that revenge was one of his motivations when he arrived at the NCAA Tournament.  The man he had to beat for the title was the one who replaced him when he left Happy Valley and headed to the desert to become a Sun Devil.

And he relished the stage that was set for his final match.  Taylor had lost just two matches since his first day in high school, winning four state titles at Cox High School in Virginia and then going undefeated as a freshman this year at Penn State.

He was trying to become just the fourth undefeated freshman champion in NCAA history and was hoping to go undefeated in college, just as he had in high school.

But Jenkins put an end to that dream and, when it was over, took great joy rubbing it in for the Penn State coach who let him go, Cael Sanderson.  “He didn’t think I was good enough,” he reminded everyone.  “He got rid of me.  One man’s trash is a whole country’s treasure.”

His flamboyance doesn’t always sit well with wrestling fans.  He was booed by many of the 17,687 fans more than once during his match with Taylor and has compared himself to NBA star, LeBron James, who is perhaps the best on the basketball court, but is hated by many of the sport’s fans for his much-criticized departure from Cleveland.

The T-shirt that he wore at the nationals, with his picture emblazoned on it, didn’t help with his image.

But Robles, on the other hand, has worked at his image.  He relishes the fact that people look up to him and use his story of overcoming a physical handicap as motivation in their own lives.

He believes that God’s plan for him was to be a wrestler, even though he had to have some serious doubts when he first started the sport as a scrawny 90-pound freshman at Mesa High School.

But his advantage has been a powerful, abnormally large upper body (he bench-presses over 300 pounds) and a vice-like grip that is likely a result of gripping crutches all his life.

Those attributes took him to an incredible high school career that finished with undefeated records in both his junior and senior years, All-American status in college, three Pac-10 titles, an undefeated (36-0) final year… and now a national title.

He is the poster child for perseverance and a symbol of hope for others who are facing their own challenges in life.

But this is the end of the road for Robles.  He has decided he won’t continue wrestling, even for the possibility of Olympic gold.  He wants to be a motivational speaker.

But Jenkins isn’t through yet.  He’s going to roll his wrestling abilities into a mixed martial arts career.  On that mat, he can be brash and talk enough trash to be a good “villain” in the sport.  It will be a show he can really enjoy.

Robles has always said he didn’t get into wrestling for the attention.  He’ll settle for speaking engagements going forward.

But Jenkins has no problem with the attention.  He’s just moving into a new arena that comes with television exposure.

His modest prediction: “The camera’s going to love me.”

(Photo: ASU Athletics/Jason Wise)