Somewhere in the cold Bronx on January 25 was a wrestling tournament where the atmosphere was warm and the sound of the wind was replaced by the thumping of elbows on mats and the shouting of coaches on their knees. There were hundreds of fans and hundreds of wrestlers packed into a crowded space at Harry S. Truman High School, where the Mayor’s Cup, the premier New York wrestling tournament of its kind, was just barely getting under way.
The tournament, which features high school wrestlers from public, Catholic, and independent schools in the five boroughs, really gets moving this weekend, when the varsity and senior novice wrestlers - part of an estimated 800 competitors in all - suit up at the Harlem Armory. Nevertheless, the scene at Truman High, where simultaneous matches were spread across six adjacent mats, was vibrant. Part of the excitement, no doubt, came from a good cause.
The Mayor’s Cup is sponsored by the Metropolitan Wrestling Association and a group called Beat the Streets Wrestling, Inc., which aims “to use wrestling as a catalyst to teach kids the life skills to go to college and to succeed … to teach these boys how to become young men,” according to Brian Giffin, its president and executive director. Beat the Streets runs summer camps and youth programs and sponsors hundreds of middle school and high school wrestling teams all across the city; the group recently helped raise 2 million dollars for its cause.
“Our big goal is to bring wrestling to every high school in New York,” Giffin said, pointing to a recent spurt from 23 to 79 programs. “The individual nature [of the sport] really builds your self-confidence. … There is a great camaraderie. You don’t see one program that has animosity for any other.”
“Wrestling teaches you hard work, discipline, dedication. It gives you these tools for the rest of your life,” said Ryan Cooley, a BTS employee who coaches at Hunter College and used to wrestle for NYU. “Hopefully we can make the rest of these kids’ lives easier.”
In other words, they can help students “beat the streets” with the aid of an inexpensive, beneficial sport.
Giffin and Cooley were managing the action on Sunday along with a few dozen other staff members, including John Welch, president of the MWA. Welch, a former Air Force wrestler and a longtime high school coach and USA Wrestling figure, has been heading the six-year-old Mayor’s Cup for four years. He is charged with expanding the tournament and is constantly reaching out to schools and media to boost the event’s profile; he envisions a Mayor’s Cup where students wrestle for the pride of their borough, not just their school.
“When you get rivalries and passion, people put much more time into it than they do for economic gains sometimes,” Welch said.
He also envisions a system in which former high school wrestlers build an infrastructure for the younger generation.
“Developing a fan base, and bringing back coaches to teach their younger brothers and sisters, kids from their school,” are among his ambitions, he said.
Under Welch’s watch, the Mayor’s Cup has grown from a single-level, one-day varsity tournament with a 12-man bracket to an 800-man festival spread across two weekends. Among the event’s four divisions is one for girls, 30 of whom are scheduled to participate on Sunday, February 1. They have their own division, but are also given the option of wrestling with the boys. Some have won.
“By sparking girls’ interest here, hopefully we can create a situation where colleges have full-on girls’ wrestling programs,” said Drew Zambrotta, coach of the 7-0 Queens Vocational Tigers, one of the 16 development PSAL programs started by Beat the Streets this year.
“This tournament’s gonna do nothing but grow bigger and bigger and bigger. There’s a lot of pride to say, ‘I’m a New York City wrestling champion,’ ” Welch said. “When this becomes the biggest tournament in the world, then I’ll be satisfied.”
If the words of Flushing High School sophomore Dalvin Tavarez, a first-year wrestler, are any indication, Welch’s plan seems to be coming along nicely.
“This is definitely the biggest tournament that I’ve gone to,” Tavarez, who reached Sunday’s 140-pound quarterfinals, said. He picked up the sport because “I actually like bodybuilding, weightlifting, so I decided to give it a shot and I love it. … I’m having a very good time.”
“The quality of wrestling in the city is starting to get a lot better,” Cooley pointed out.
Tavarez was among more than 250 wrestlers in attendance on Sunday, all of them visibly bearing a Beat the Streets logo on the back of their uniforms. Those with borough rivalries on their mind would be happy to know that Tavarez’s Flushing team earned a third-place finish in the form of 285-pounder David Brown, while Aviation, Bryant, Francis Lewis, Horace Mann, Lexington, Long Island City, Martin Luther, and Thomas Edison all placed top-four wrestlers on Sunday.
Mann’s Justin Hilston, Andrew Catomeris, and Muizz Salami; Luther’s Stephen Lorenzo; Lexington’s Franyoli Almonte; Lewis’ Thomas Escotto; and Edison’s Abdul Alami are all among those who will wrestle in the final round on Sunday.
There were also some students - in the kitchen at Truman High - who should be pleased with their performance. One of the fringe beneficiaries of the Mayor’s Cup was the school’s Culinary Arts Program, whose chef-hat-wearing students cooked for Giffin, Cooley, Welch, Zambrotta, and the rest of the staff members. They were just one small part of a young program that is already doing so much for so many.
“For someone to make this kind of commitment to New York City kids, it’s a tremendous boon to the sport,” said James Regan, coach at Martin Luther.