Nick Marable has emerged as a legitimate World medal contender for the United States in freestyle wrestling. Tony Rotundo photos.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Think battling Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs is tough?
Try running the football against a team led by a massive defensive lineman named Michael Oher.
Nick Marable has experienced both, and come away a winner against both.
Marable’s wild athletic ride has matched him against some of the best athletes in the world, and his perseverance has landed him a spot on his first U.S. World Team in freestyle wrestling.
Marable was an all-state football player and two-time state wrestling champion for Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tennessee.
A decade ago, Marable’s high school team faced a team led by Oher, whose remarkable story earned national acclaim in the Academy Award-winning movie, “The Blind Side.” Oher went on to win a Super Bowl title with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013.
During that high school game, the 5-foot-6, 180-pound Marable took a handoff from his fullback position and looked for an opening.
But there was no opening. The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Oher was blocking his path.
“I ran right into Michael Oher and he stopped me – I didn’t go anywhere,” Marable said with a laugh. “He was so big that I ran right into his legs and then got tackled. His legs were the size of my whole body.”
Marable did have the last laugh that night.
“We won the game,” Marable said. “And I did score a touchdown in the game.”
A decade later, Marable has become a human roadblock of his own on the wrestling mat.
Opponents of Marable now bounce off his massive legs in frustration as they try to attack one of the most powerful and best defensive wrestlers on the planet.
That was evident when Marable dominated the competition in winning the U.S. Open and U.S. World Team Trials at his new weight class of 70 kg/154 lbs.
Marable elected to drop down from 74 kg/163 lbs. to the non-Olympic weight class of 70 kilos shortly after FILA, wrestling’s international governing body, changed the weight classes and expanded to eight weight classes in each style.
“I was going overseas in February to wrestle in France and Turkey, and I was going to go 74 kilos in those two events and then drop down to 70,” he said. “I think 70 kilos is my weight class, and I believe it’s the weight class I can compete best at.”
Before making the drop to 70 kilos, Marable stunned many in the wrestling world in his last two tournaments at 74 kilos.
One week after winning the Grand Prix of Paris, Marable stepped onto the mat to battle Burroughs in the quarterfinals of the Yasar Dogu International in Istanbul, Turkey.
Burroughs, who won his first of two World titles in Istanbul in 2011, was riding an American record 69-match winning streak.
Burroughs entered the bout with two close wins over Marable – a 0-3, 1-0, 3-0 win in the 2011 U.S. Open finals and a 1-0, 1-1 victory in the 2012 Cerro Pelado International in Cuba.
“My mindset was the same for that match,” Marable said. “I was thinking about staying in good position. We had a couple of close matches before. I was trying to keep my focus and follow my game plan.”
Marable held the lead late in the match before Burroughs stormed back to tie the bout 4-4 in the closing seconds. Marable won the match on criteria, on the basis of scoring on a pair of two-point moves, and went on to win the tournament.
Marable showed no emotion after the win over Burroughs as his hand was raised in victory. Burroughs came back to make his third World Team at 74 kilos and is now 88-1 on the Senior level.
“After I won, I actually felt really bad,” Marable said. “I was happy I won, but Jordan’s such a great guy and he’s trying to do something great for the United States. It kind of sucked in a way to put a roadblock on his legacy, and to be the guy that gave him his only loss. It was great to win and it’s a great achievement, but it was still tough for me. Now he’s my teammate, and I’m looking forward to training with him.”
Marable first competed at 70 kilos during March’s World Cup in Los Angeles. He had a two-kilogram allowance for that event.
He then made scratch weight at 70 kilos for the U.S. Open and U.S. World Team Trials.
“At the World Cup, that was the lowest I had weighed since I was a sophomore in high school,” Marable said. “It had been a while. My first time making it was rough. I felt a lot better at the U.S. Open.
“It’s not too hard now. I had to shrink my body down. I’m still big for the weight class. I have to stay very disciplined, and do more running and more cardio. I’m in better shape and I don’t get tired in matches. My legs feel good from all the extra running that I do.”
Marable also has changed his diet.
“I eat six or seven small meals a day, and that boosts my metabolism really high,” he said. “Two weeks out from competition, I cut back a little bit on how much food I eat. I keep a lot of water in me and then drop some water out in the days before weigh-ins. After weigh-ins, I do a good job of hydrating myself. (World silver medalist) Helen Maroulis helped me with a plan to do that, and I’ve done it the last two times I competed and I felt really good.”
Marable didn’t start wrestling until he was in eighth grade, but he picked the sport up quickly.
Just over two years after his first match, Marable walked into the Fargo Dome to test his skills during the 2003 Cadet Nationals freestyle competition in Fargo, N.D.
“I kept hearing all this stuff about how big Fargo was, and it really is,” he said. “My bracket was taller than I was. I went in there and won the tournament. It was awesome and I started thinking about wanting to be on the Olympic Team. I actually like freestyle better than folkstyle.”
Marable’s older brother, Michael, wrestled for the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga for two-time World champion Terry Brands.
“I figured I would just follow my brother there,” Nick Marable said. “It was close to home and not a lot of colleges had come after me.”
That changed when Marable competed in a high school tournament his senior year in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
“I wrestled a guy named Bobby Conn, who had already signed with the University of Missouri,” Marable said. “He was one of their top recruits. After I beat him in the finals, (Missouri coach) Brian Smith called me and asked me to come in for a visit.”
Marable said he didn’t follow the sport closely at the time, and that’s when he first learned about Missouri star Ben Askren. At the time, Askren was a two-time NCAA runner-up who was entering his junior season.
Askren went on to win two NCAA titles, become a two-time Hodge Trophy winner and make the 2008 Olympic Team.
“The first time I wrestled Askren, it was rough,” Marable said. “I found out right away how good he was. He never took it easy on me and that helped me a lot. Wrestling Ben and (All-American) Matt Pell at Missouri really helped me a lot.”
Marable was part of a recruiting class at Missouri that included Max Askren and Mark Ellis. Both became NCAA champions as Missouri became relevant on the national level.
Marable was a two-time All-American and three-time Big 12 champion for Missouri. He was a member of a Tigers team that earned the best team finish in school history after they placed third at the 2007 NCAAs.
“When I was at Missouri, I really learned how to train,” he said. “And that’s when I really learned how to wrestle.”
Marable has continued to thrive under the coaching of Sammie Henson, a World champion and Olympic silver medalist for the U.S.
Marable and Henson started working closely together when Henson joined the Missouri staff as an assistant coach. Henson was recently hired as the head coach at West Virginia and Marable has joined him there as an assistant coach.
“Sammie really knows how to train guys,” Marable said. “He really instills confidence in his athletes. He helps you believe in your training. I never doubt whether I’m the best guy when I go out on the mat.
“Before Sammie came to Missouri, I was at a Sunkist Kids camp and he came up to me and said, ‘Hey man, if I get a hold of you and I can train you, with your abilities I can help you beat Jordan Burroughs.’ This was before Brian Smith offered him a job at Missouri. That was a bold statement.”
Henson said Marable has the potential to make a big splash at the World Championships, set for Sept. 8-14 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
“With Nick’s power and strength, 70 kilos is just a better weight class for him and it’s showed,” Henson said. “His counter offense is unbelievable. We definitely need to attack more at the beginning, and have Nick more on his offense earlier in his matches.
“I think he has as good of a chance as anybody to be the best guy in the World. I think he’s one of the best wrestlers in the World. He just needs to keep his head on straight and stay focused. I told him to act like you’re never going to be here again because you never know.”
Henson said the victory over Burroughs has done wonders for Marable.
“That win was huge for his confidence – he realized he was doing the right things,” Henson said. “Jordan Burroughs is one of the greatest wrestlers to ever live and Nick has great respect for Jordan. That win let Nick know he can trust his training and now he believes he can beat anybody.”
Marable is believed to be the first wrestler from the state of Tennessee to make a U.S. World Team in wrestling.
“It’s really cool to be able to do that,” he said. “I’ve received great support from fans in Memphis and in the state of Tennessee. Hopefully, it will inspire some more kids from Tennessee to wrestle.”
Marable is part of a strong U.S. freestyle team led by Burroughs and fellow Olympic champion Jake Varner. The U.S. team is in the midst of its final World Team Camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
“Our team has some of the best guys in the World,” Marable said. “I can train with Jordan and Brent Metcalf and some of these top guys on our team. This camp is a great opportunity to get some real good workouts. I hope I get to wrestle Jordan, and I hope he doesn’t beat on me too bad.”
Marable’s sights are set on winning a World title.
“I feel like this is my time,” he said. “It’s exciting to have this opportunity. I just have to stick to my game plan at Worlds. I have to stay focused and be real disciplined with my weight and my approach. I'm not thinking about winning the World title, I'm thinking about training for the World title. If I take it day-by-day and step-by-step, follow my plan and not think about the end result, I am going to finish with the end result that I want.”