In Nick Gallo’s wrestling heyday, Madison Square Garden was synonymous with Knicks and Rangers games. For Tom Ryan, MSG meant performances by the Harlem Globe Trotters and Neil Diamond.
But wrestling, these Long Island legends will tell you, was certainly not on the venue’s radar at the time.
“No, I wasn’t real sure about it ever being here,” Gallo said Wednesday at a press conference at the Garden in advance of the 2016 NCAA wrestling championships, “but I’m so glad it is.”
It is the first time in the Garden’s 135-year history that it will host the event. For local wrestling greats, the significance runs deep.
“It’s here for a reason,” said Ryan, a 1987 graduate of Wantagh High School, a two-time Big Ten champ at Iowa and the current head wrestling coach of Ohio State. “And that reason is that people will come because people love this sport in this region. It’s going to be huge for the exposure of the sport here.”
Since the inaugural meet in 1928, college wrestling’s biggest tournament has been held in New York State three times before: at the Times Union Center in Albany in 2002, and at Cornell’s Barton Hall in Ithaca in 1955 and 1964. But traditionally, the NCAA wrestling championships are a Midwest event; last year, it was held at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
“Years back, the Midwest kind of felt like they were the heartbeat of wrestling,” said Gallo, a graduate of Deer Park High School in 1973 and the only national champion (1977) in Hofstra’s history. “We always knew we had great states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, and great wrestling that came out of this area.
“For me, we didn’t have large crowds. I never wrestled in front of 17,000 people. [My national title] was out in Oklahoma . . . When I tell people, ‘The Division I College Nationals are at Madison Square Garden in New York City,’ they’re like, ‘Really?’ They’re surprised. And a lot of people are coming because of that, because they never got a chance to get to an NCAA tournament.”
There are six competitors with Long Island ties in this year’s championships, which will run from Thursday to Saturday.
“For athletes to compete here at the Garden, especially for New Yorkers and Long Islanders, it’s unbelievable,” said Kerry McCoy, a 1992 graduate of Longwood High School, a two-time Olympian and the current head wrestling coach of Maryland. “With the number of great wrestlers that are on the East Coast, the pendulum is shifting as far as the talent and the level of success . . . It’s a long time coming to get it here and really showcase the world’s greatest sport in the world’s greatest arena.”
For Ryan, the bar is still set by that Neil Diamond concert he went to with his Iowa buddies way back when.
“It was spectacular,” Ryan recalled with a laugh. “But won’t be as good as the wrestling this weekend.”
The LI contingent
Six competitors have Long Island ties in this year’s NCAA wrestling championships at Madison Square Garden, which run from Thursday to Saturday
Rutgers’ Sean McCabe (Connetquot High School)
Nebraska’s Anthony Abidin (Hills East)
Hofstra’s Jamel Hudson (St. Anthony’s)
Cornell’s Dylan Palacio (Long Beach)
Binghamton’s Steven Schneider (MacArthur)
Hofstra’s Mike Hughes (Smithtown West)