NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Why Danny Hodge's legend extends beyond OU, Olympics and pro wrestling: 'That's Jim Thorpe stuff'

Danny Hodge, who was the dominant wrestler in the 1950s, died Christmas Eve at age 88 in his hometown of Perry. Broadcaster Jim Ross believes most Oklahomans today are not truly aware of the legend the state lost. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]
Danny Hodge, who was the dominant wrestler in the 1950s, died Christmas Eve at age 88 in his hometown of Perry. Broadcaster Jim Ross believes most Oklahomans today are not truly aware of the legend the state lost. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

The hardware store employee in Westville had heard of Danny Hodge's exploits. Of how the three-time, unbeaten NCAA champion and now professional wrestler could break a pair of pliers by merely squeezing them.

Jim Ross, the Oklahoma native and longtime WWE (and now AEW) commentator, had taken Hodge with him to Westville, Ross' hometown, to help sell tickets for a pro wrestling benefit. Ross was making the rounds with Hodge, introducing him to the people in town, when the doubting Thomas at the hardware store greeted Hodge with a test of strength.

"'So you're the guy that is supposed to break pliers, huh?'" Ross said the man asked Hodge. "He then pulls out a box of miscellaneous-size pliers from underneath the counter and says, 'I would like to see you try to break some of my pliers.'"

Hodge proceeded to break a dozen of them as easily as a pretzel stick before the man grabbed the box, stuffed it back under the counter and started cursing the manufacturer for sending him a defective product.

"He's not even acknowledging that Danny is a freak of nature," Ross said. "So Danny sticks a paw out to shake hands. I knew exactly what was going to happen, what deserved to happen. He squeezed this guy's hand until I thought the guy was going to urinate himself."

Hodge, who was the dominant wrestler in the 1950s, died Christmas Eve at age 88 in his hometown of Perry. Ross believes most Oklahomans today are not truly aware of the legend the state lost.

Hodge finished 46-0 in his Sooner career with 36 falls. No collegiate opponent could ever get him off his feet. No takedown was ever scored against him in college. Hodge won three national championships at OU and helped the Sooners win the 1957 team title, earning the most outstanding wrestler honor in the 1957 championships.

He won a silver medal in wrestling in the 1956 Olympics, and many think he was robbed of the gold medal on a controversial fall call. Hodge is the only man to win a national wrestling and boxing championship, capturing a Golden Gloves title in 1958. He was 17-0 as an amateur boxer.

"That's Jim Thorpe stuff," Ross said.

In addition to his three NCAA titles, Hodge also won two National Amateur Athletic Union wrestling championships and a national Greco-Roman title. Hodge was the first wrestler, and still the only amateur wrestler, to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. Hodge was on the April 1, 1957, cover with the headline: "Oklahoma's Dan Hodge. Best U.S. Wrestler."

Hodge considered trying out for the 1960 Olympics in boxing and wrestling, but decided to turn pro to earn a living. Hodge boxed professional for a short time before spending 18 years as a professional wrestler.

"I have always felt the state of Oklahoma, because Danny was in pro wrestling, kind of cooled off on him," Ross said. "Just look at his accomplishments. It's not about the show-biz world of wrestling. Everybody who wrestled Danny Hodge (professionally) knew he could kick their ass if he wanted to. They all knew Danny Hodge was the guy."

A powerful man

The stories of Hodge's strength abound. He could crush an apple in his hand with his powerful grip, and was still doing so even at the age of 80 on the floor of the state Capital in Oklahoma City.

Former OU wrestler Wayne Baughman, who turns 80 on Monday, was a three-time Olympian from John Marshall High School who idolized Hodge growing up. Baughman wrestled at OU from 1959 to 1963, after Hodge had left school. But Hodge often returned to the university in those years to workout and play handball, Baughman said.

When Hodge would show up in the wrestling room, Baughman's teammates were always trying to provoke a match between the two.

"I had a reputation for being strong," Baughman said. "He would come to the room and all my teammates would yell, 'Hey Danny, Wayne wants to try you out. He thinks he can beat your butt,' all this kind of stuff."

One day, the two were about to "roll around a little bit" on the mat, as Hodge called it, until OU wrestling coach Port Robertson put a stop to it.

"What are you thinking? He is dangerous," Robertson told Baughman. "He could hurt you bad. You can't work out with him until your eligibility is up. When your eligibility is up, I don't care."

When Baughman's collegiate career had ended, he finally got on the mat with Hodge in the OU wrestling room. Hodge was recovering from a bout of hepatitis and looking for a workout partner that day.

Baughman, who was at OU training for the world championship tryouts, became the sacrificial lamb.

"I was humbled quick when I got on the mat with Hodge," Baughman said. "I have wrestled some strong guys, but nobody has come close to the power he had. He could have wadded me up like a paper cup."

Crimson and (Ice) Cream

In 1974, Ross entered the pro wrestling business as a gofer for promoter Leroy McGuirk. Among his first duties was chauffeuring Hodge to the wrestling events, and Ross quickly learned about Hodge's vociferous sweet tooth.

"The one thing I learned early on was that you need to know where all the Dairy Queens are in every city," Ross said. "Because when Danny's sweet tooth went off, he had to have a milkshake, and the worst thing you would ever want happen to you in your lifetime is having him reach over from the passenger seat, grab you by the wrist while you were driving and put that grip on you. I am not exaggerating."

Ross called Hodge his guardian angel in the early days of his career in professional wrestling.

"We traveled thousands of miles together when I was in my early 20s," Ross said. "He made sure I wasn't taken advantage of. I will never forget that. I can't thank him enough. I love the guy."

Off the mat, friends described Hodge as a gentle giant.

"Thank god that the lord blessed Danny Hodge with a good heart," Ross said. "He didn't have one single bully bone in his body. But if you provoked him, and intentionally got under his skin, you would soon find out you pushed him too far."

Like pro wrestler Dick Murdoch did one night in the Tulsa Fairgrounds Pavilion locker room.

It was a Monday night, two days after Texas had beaten OU in football. Murdoch, whose wrestling names included Captain Redneck, was a rabid Longhorns' fan and would not stop taunting Hodge about the Sooners' loss, Ross said.

"So I am sitting there, and one of Danny's old buddies, Skandor Akbar, said 'C'mon kid, you don't need to be in here for this.' I didn't have any idea what he was talking about. I thought it was some kind of Mafia code or something," Ross said.

Ross left the locker room as suggested "but then I hear Murdoch screaming, like he'd just been killed. Bad things are happening to him. I got to go see what is going on and Danny had Murdoch in a double-wrist lock. That was his go-to move when times got bad, a double-wrist lock. Murdoch would just not let up until it was too late."

'A complete wrestling machine'

After his retirement from wrestling, Hodge stayed close to the sport. He often passed out trophies at youth wrestling events. One trophy, the Hodge Trophy, is awarded to the best collegiate wrestler in the country.

Current Perry High School wrestling coach Ladd Rupp said Hodge never missed a home match during his four years of wrestling for the Maroons from 2005 to 2009, four of the 43 state championship years for Perry wrestling.

Rupp now coaches Hodge's great-grandson in high school. Another great-grandson is on the junior high team, Rupp said.

Hodge was always willing to share his wisdom with young wrestlers in Perry, Rupp said, no matter when or where. As a sixth-grader, Rupp was in the local grocery store with his mother when they bumped into Hodge in the aisles. Hodge immediately started to show the young Rupp some single-leg techniques.

"I didn't realize he was going to take me all the way to the ground," Rupp said. "The next thing I know, I am on the ground in the middle of the local grocery store from a single leg, and I remember him saying, 'You always got to be ready, whether in the grocery store or on a wrestling mat.' I have always taken that to heart."

As a third-grader, Rupp got to see Hodge break a pair of pliers for the first time. Rupp was standing in the checkout line at the local hardware store with his father. Hodge was in front of them.

"There are a pair of pliers sitting on a rack by the cash register," Rupp said. "He knew I was behind him and a little youth wrestler and I remember he looks at me and grabs those pliers and he goes, 'Watch this.' He squeezed them and broke one of the handles. Then he tells the guys at the cash register, 'I will take those, too.' I was in awe."

Rupp then turned and asked his father if he could do that. It was an unfair comparison because there is only one Danny Hodge.

Baughman said he attempted the feat once, unsuccessfully, and his hand was bruised for a week.

"I don't think there will ever be another Danny Hodge," Baughman said. "All the genetics came together as perfect as they can come together for a complete wrestling machine."

A story worthy of the big screen

Over the years, many of Hodge's fans would drop by his home in Perry to meet him. He was always willing to take photos, sign autographs and share stories with them.

"He loved his fan base, almost as much as he loved Braum's," Ross said.

Many of his friends wonder why the Danny Hodge story has never been made into a movie. His early upbringing is well-documented. His home burned when he was young and he was sent to live with an abusive grandfather. He eventually found refuge in the Perry firehouse where he slept on a cot and swept the floors and polished firetrucks.

"The town took care of him," said 86-year-old Ed Corr of Norman, Hodge's wrestling teammate at Perry High School and OU. "If you stayed in high school in Perry when I was growing up, the town would take care of you."

In 1976, Hodge fell asleep at the wheel and his car veered off a bridge into a Louisiana creek. Holding his broken neck with one hand, Hodge used the other arm to pull himself through the broken window and reach the surface, before struggling to the creek's bank. Hodge even called it nothing short of a miracle.

Lee Roy Smith, former OSU wrestler and now executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Stillwater, calls Hodge a superhero.

"His legend will live on with us," Smith said. "I can't say enough good things about Danny Hodge and what kind of person he was and what he was willing to do for wrestling. He was such a humble guy. I just wish more people knew about his career and his contributions.

"How do we get him remembered? Maybe Hollywood will help us."

Related Photos
<strong>Daniel Hodge, left, sensational OU 177-pound wrestling champ, poses with his family March 11, 1957. Shown are his wife, Dolores Hodge, right, son Daniel Allen Hodge, Jr., 3, and daughter, Linda Marie Hodge, 20 months. [AP Photo]</strong>

Daniel Hodge, left, sensational OU 177-pound wrestling champ, poses with his family March 11, 1957. Shown are his wife, Dolores Hodge, right, son Daniel Allen Hodge, Jr., 3, and daughter, Linda Marie Hodge, 20 months. [AP Photo]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4846aefd47455769d5fbde0b584d2bf4.jpg" alt="Photo - Daniel Hodge, left, sensational OU 177-pound wrestling champ, poses with his family March 11, 1957. Shown are his wife, Dolores Hodge, right, son Daniel Allen Hodge, Jr., 3, and daughter, Linda Marie Hodge, 20 months. [AP Photo] " title=" Daniel Hodge, left, sensational OU 177-pound wrestling champ, poses with his family March 11, 1957. Shown are his wife, Dolores Hodge, right, son Daniel Allen Hodge, Jr., 3, and daughter, Linda Marie Hodge, 20 months. [AP Photo] "><figcaption> Daniel Hodge, left, sensational OU 177-pound wrestling champ, poses with his family March 11, 1957. Shown are his wife, Dolores Hodge, right, son Daniel Allen Hodge, Jr., 3, and daughter, Linda Marie Hodge, 20 months. [AP Photo] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-fce1a98d6ad17012fa7f41255510932b.jpg" alt="Photo - Danny Hodge, who was the dominant wrestler in the 1950s, died Christmas Eve at age 88 in his hometown of Perry. Broadcaster Jim Ross believes most Oklahomans today are not truly aware of the legend the state lost. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES] " title=" Danny Hodge, who was the dominant wrestler in the 1950s, died Christmas Eve at age 88 in his hometown of Perry. Broadcaster Jim Ross believes most Oklahomans today are not truly aware of the legend the state lost. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES] "><figcaption> Danny Hodge, who was the dominant wrestler in the 1950s, died Christmas Eve at age 88 in his hometown of Perry. Broadcaster Jim Ross believes most Oklahomans today are not truly aware of the legend the state lost. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-aa07f7b32e2b9a0601b3f07e64402255.jpg" alt="Photo - Danny Hodge, left, receives the Outstanding Wrestling Award from Ray Jenkins, president of the American Wrestling Coaches Association, on March 31, 1957, in Pittsburgh. It was the second straight year Hodge won the award, and the third time the Sooner claimed the 177-pound crown. [AP Photo/Walter Stein] " title=" Danny Hodge, left, receives the Outstanding Wrestling Award from Ray Jenkins, president of the American Wrestling Coaches Association, on March 31, 1957, in Pittsburgh. It was the second straight year Hodge won the award, and the third time the Sooner claimed the 177-pound crown. [AP Photo/Walter Stein] "><figcaption> Danny Hodge, left, receives the Outstanding Wrestling Award from Ray Jenkins, president of the American Wrestling Coaches Association, on March 31, 1957, in Pittsburgh. It was the second straight year Hodge won the award, and the third time the Sooner claimed the 177-pound crown. [AP Photo/Walter Stein] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-71efbaef9424ca37fe68b76343fd7c6d.jpg" alt="Photo - American Danny Hodge (white shirt) is shown beating Russian G. Skhirtladze in the final round of Olympic freestyle middleweight wrestling on Dec. 1, 1956, in Melbourne, Australia. In the final placing, the American was second and the Russian third. [AP Photo] " title=" American Danny Hodge (white shirt) is shown beating Russian G. Skhirtladze in the final round of Olympic freestyle middleweight wrestling on Dec. 1, 1956, in Melbourne, Australia. In the final placing, the American was second and the Russian third. [AP Photo] "><figcaption> American Danny Hodge (white shirt) is shown beating Russian G. Skhirtladze in the final round of Olympic freestyle middleweight wrestling on Dec. 1, 1956, in Melbourne, Australia. In the final placing, the American was second and the Russian third. [AP Photo] </figcaption></figure>
Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›

Comments