(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best wrestlers in Montana history on Jan. 16 with the launch of the #MTTop20. Athletes will continue to be featured until Friday, Feb. 10 when No. 1 is unveiled.)
Top 20 rankings: No. 20 – Jarrett Degen; No. 19 – Luke Weber, No. 18 — Ben Stroh, No. 17 — Curtis Owen, No. 16 — Chris Currier, No. 15 — Chris Nedens, No. 14 — Kyle Smith, No. 13 — Jade Rauser, No. 12 — Scott Barrett, No. 11 — Gary Albright, No. 10 — Turk Lords, No. 9 — Larry Quisel, No. 8 — Tyrel Todd, No. 7 — Reese Andy., No. 6 — Matt Ruppel, No. 5 — Emmett Willson, No. 4 — Brandon Eggum, No. 3 — Mike Zadick, No. 2 — Bill Zadick.
No. 1 – Gene Davis, Missoula County High School
Someone must be the first. Every sport has athletes that pave the way for others after them, setting the bar for that next generation. These trailblazers often serve as mentors for those younger athletes and create milestones for them to pass along the way. Montana’s wrestling community has broken numerous records over the years, but the pioneer that started them all was Missoula County High School star, Gene Davis.
Gene Davis stat sheet
Gene Davis began wrestling during his freshman year, having never competed in the sport. With a lack of youth tournaments and camps in the 1960s, Davis took to the tutelage of legendary Missoula coach Jug Beck, who helped the 95-pounder to the 1960 state championship.
The following year he entered the state tournament in the 103-pound class and again captured a state championship.
Davis climbed to 112 pounds as a junior and carried an undefeated record into his third state championship match, a contest he won to join Terry Foust, Elvan Pashua, Bill Stine and Rex Cates as three—time champions.
As a senior in 1963, Davis kept to his 133-pound weight and battled through the state tournament to qualify for his fourth consecutive state title match. His victory made him the first four-time champion in Montana’s history and capped his high school career at 66 wins and no losses.
Davis joined the Oklahoma State wrestling program and quickly took the nation by storm. At the 1965 NCAA Championships, Davis qualified for the 137-pound semifinals but fell to Lehigh’s Bill Stuart in a 9-4 decision. He fell to the consolation bracket and earned a fourth-place finish and his first all-American campaign.
The following year, Davis entered the NCAA Championships as the No. 3-seed in the 137-pound bracket, with hopes of avenging the loss to Stuart the year before. Davis picked up a 10-2 major decision and 8-3 victory to move back into the semifinals, where he defeated Portland State’s Masaru Yatabe in overtime. Stuart fell to Oklahoma’s Mike Sager in overtime of the other semifinal, and the in-state rivals battled to an overtime match of their own in the NCAA championship. Davis earned a 3-2 victory and became the first NCAA champion from Montana.
The two-time all-American was the top seeded wrestler in the 137-pound division in the 1967 championships and cruised to his third straight semifinal round where he fell to Yatabe, who earned runner-up honors. Davis routed Brigham Young’s Russ McAdams 8-1 in the consolation match to finish in third place and cap a three-time all-American collegiate career.
Davis is one of 56 OSU athletes to earn three all-American honors, and is one of 86 NCAA champions in the Cowboys’ program. He was named the Big Eight outstanding wrestler in 1967 and captured conference crowns in ’66 and ’67. He finished his Oklahoma State career with 62 wins and only five losses and one tie. 18 of the victories were by fall. His .919 career winning percentage ranks 22nd in the program’s history.
In 1971 Davis competed in the World Championships, finishing fourth in the 136.5-point class in Sofia, Bulgaria. Three years later Davis was sixth at the Istanbul, Turkey World Championships after competing at 149.5 pounds. Davis also competed and coached in the 1981 World Championships in Skoplje, Yugoslavia.
Davis became an Olympian in 1972, competing in the Munich Games where he finished in the third round of the 136.5-weight class. Four years later, Davis was back with the U.S. Olympic team and earned a bronze medal in Montreal. He remains the only wrestler from Montana to capture an Olympic medal in the sport.
Davis lives in Colorado Springs and has worked with Athletes in Action for nearly 50 years.
… on Gene Davis
Former four-time state champion, NCAA champion and world champion Bill Zadick: “Gene Davis is (the best wrestler in Montana history). He was the first four-time state champion, undefeated, an NCAA champion, two-time Olympian, Olympic bronze medalist. People might break records because that’s what they’re for, but I don’t think people realize how important the pioneers of our sport are and Gene was the pioneer in Montana.”
Former Helena High wrestler Rusty Harper: “When I was a sophomore, I was cut from the basketball team because I was 5-foot-3, so I went out for wrestling. I was the only kid in the 112-pound class so that meant my very first match ever I would be on varsity against Missoula. Coach was going around to all the different wrestlers saying, ‘Ok, here’s what I want you to try.’ When he got to me he said, ‘Rusty, tonight I want you to go on out there.’ I said, ‘Ok coach. I’ve learned two takedowns, which one do you want me to try?’ He said, ‘Go on out there.’ When it came my time, I went on out there and after six seconds I was on my back, the referee slapped the mat and I came off and said, ‘Coach what happened?’ and he said, ‘Gene Davis happened. He just won a junior national tournament.’
“I gained weight and so did he, so I faced him the next year. My senior year, I gained more weight and so did he. Of his 66 wins, I think seven of them were me.”
“There was no chance in winning, He was so fast he was like a man wrestling little boys. Anything you did he would turn against you. So, my last match my senior year, I said, ‘I’m going to try and go the distance,’ and I did, but essentially by cheating. I would be pushing him away and backing away, and the referee would say, ‘Son, I’m going to call you for stalling,’ and I would say, ‘Yes sir, yes sir.’ Then I would back away and if I went down I would grab onto a leg so he couldn’t pin me. I think he beat me 18-3 and I only got the three points because he got so frustrated that three times he picked me up and threw me down, so I got a point for an escape.”
Is he the best wrestler Montana has ever seen? “Oh yes. No hesitation.”
Former Great Falls club coach Bob Zadick: “I expected him to win that fourth title. He wrestled a kid from Great Falls and his dad owned the Lincoln Mercury dealership. The kid from Great Falls gave him a go for a while but Gene just shifted gears. Actually, it looked like he got mad. He just shifted gears and (it was over). Gene was far away and above everyone else in his weight groups. He did extra things which is what it took to be good. In the summertime, he would go to camps in Oklahoma and different places. If you really want to be good in this sport, you have to do it year-round and he did. Jug Beck was his coach and Jug was the premiere coach in the state at that time, so Gene had good direction and coaching.
“(His bronze medal) wasn’t publicized here too much. I knew about it and there were a lot of people into wrestling that knew about it. But the media didn’t cover wrestling very much then, but it’s much better now with you young fellers. … But he’s the best, fine guy in town. He really is.”
Olympic bronze medalist Gene Davis: “The first wrestling I did, in fact the first wrestling I saw, was the first tournament I was in in Butte, Mont. when I was a freshman. We didn’t have any kids’ programs or anything. I had some extracurricular on the playgrounds which the teachers didn’t always appreciate.
“My brother wrestled before I did and he was five years older than I was, so he took me out on the lawn and showed me a few moves. Jug Beck was our coach and I was really excited for wrestling because I fouled out of every basketball game in grade school and felt good about it. The coach said, ‘You probably better do something different next year like wrestling,’ and that’s what I wanted to do. Jug taught physical education and had wrestling as part of the class, so I used the three moves my brother taught me to beat everyone in the class, even though I only weighed 95 pounds. I kept bugging Mr. Beck and saying, ‘When does wrestling start,’ and he would just say, ‘Oh, it starts in November.’ He saw me wrestle and said, ‘Who have you been working with, anyway?’ so I told him my brother and he said, ‘Wrestling starts on Nov. 17, you be there.’
“I remember (my first match) well. I was scared to death. Yeah, I was scared to death. I wrestled a kid from Butte, I remember his name even: Nick Dinsmore. He was a good wrestler but I caught him and pinned him and thought, ‘Well that’s pretty good,’ because he looked bigger than I was. He had bigger muscles than me.’
“Here’s a fun side story. My folks and my brother and my girlfriend, who is now my wife of 50 years, drove all the way from Missoula to Miles City (for state). Jug said, ‘I think we should charter a plane,’ so we went ahead and chartered a plane and flew out there. My brother’s wife had a baby in the meantime, so I told him, ‘You take my seat on the plane and I’ll ride back with my girlfriend and folks.’ It was a long ride, like a 12-hour drive because there was no I-90 in those days, just two-lane roads so it took us forever to get back.
“Going to Oklahoma State was a big shock. I might have been undefeated for a while in college but I wasn’t undefeated in that wrestling room. We had some good wrestlers. … It was fun wrestling there, people had high expectations of what the team and individuals were going to do and I enjoyed that a lot. I enjoyed the hard work of it and enjoyed going to the NCAA tournaments. I had a tough match against a University of Oklahoma wrestler, Mike Sager. I think I wrestled him five times and he actually beat me down at OU, that was the only dual match I lost in college. The year I won (the NCAA championship) we wrestled in the finals and we went into overtime where I won 3-2 in overtime. Both semifinals were overtimes as well and back then, overtimes were like 12 minutes long. Between those three matches we all wrestled 36 minutes. We were all pretty close there, you know? It could have gone either way.
“I finished at Oklahoma State and my wife and I had been married the summer before, so we went back to Missoula where I got a graduate degree at the University of Montana where I coached the team that year. I hadn’t planned on doing a lot more wrestling, I planned on teaching and coaching and moving on. But I had a chance to join the Athletes in Action team and I competed another 10 years and coached the team for 10 years as well and for six years after that. It was a lot of fun doing all that training, coaching and competing. I hadn’t planned on trying out for world teams or Olympic teams or anything, but I had the chance to do it and thought, let’s try it. Like any sport, it’s a lot of work to compete at that level and stay sharp the whole time. I enjoyed it a lot. I would have rather gotten the gold medal but I gave it everything I had to get the bronze so I thank the lord for that and kept on moving. (The bronze medal) is at home. It’s on a shelf.
“What I’ve learned from wrestling, the unbelievable hard work that it is and I was actually just visiting with Bill (Zadick) and another wrestler who owned the restaurant we were in, he’s from India, and he said, ‘After wrestling all these years, there aren’t many things I don’t think I can do. I think I can persevere through things.’ I think the things I’ve learned that have helped me in life from wrestling and those things that carry over that way.”