Dan Gable, Street Fights, and Mental Toughness

by | Apr 6, 2021

Once upon a time, on a warm humid night in Iowa City, I came upon an unusual street fight outside one of the larger student bars in that small college town. It was unusual because it was one short and stocky Japanese fellow against half a dozen much larger opponents. It was also unusual because the Japanese guy was destroying his six opponents.

I loathe bullies and cowards, and this small guy just handed a six-pack of Bully their collective asses. I’m a fan of a good fight and skilled fighters. This guy destroyed them without throwing a single punch. Being an old judoka I recognized the reaps and throws and arm bar that probably broke a bone, and I laughed at a picture perfect shoulder throw that landed one bully onto the hood of a parked car.

I recognized some rich street obscenity in Japanese. I called to him in Japanese and told him the cops were enroute, and if he wanted to avoid arrest he should come with me.

We made haste away. I took him to a quieter place and we chatted. It turned out he was a Japanese wrestler who had come to Iowa City to train with legendary wrestling coach Dan Gable who was then the wrestling coach at the University of Iowa. Out of gratitude for saving him an embarrassing arrest, he invited me to come to the wrestling team workout and introduced me to the coach.

We only spoke for a few minutes. Of course I didn’t mention how I’d met his visiting VIP. My impression of Gable upon meeting was FIGHTER. I say that instead of competitor because there was an edgy street-savvy aspect about him that hinted at something more than domination on the mats. He wasted no time on me and immediately kicked off one of the most grueling workouts I’ve ever witnessed. An hour of calisthenics and stretching that segued immediately into two hours of non-stop grappling with only 30 second breaks between. The wrestlers wore plastic sweat suits and puddles of sweat streaked the mats. No water allowed. 

What struck me was the brutality of the workout. No slack, no rest, constant pressure, continual thermal stress, no hydration. No quit. Gable didn’t baby his wrestlers. He was brutal with them. After an hour I slipped away after waving good-bye to my new acquaintance. I didn’t find out till some months after that he’d won a Gold Medal in the Olympics. A reminder of the humility of world-class fighters, and Gable’s motivational quote in this video is a good one: “Win with humility. Lose with dignity. But damn it, NEVER LOSE!”

This YouTube interview with Gable by Joe Rogan, who is himself a tough fighter, reinforces my long ago impression of Gable and offers some great insights in a short time frame.


Some takeaways:

  • Mental toughness starts at home.
  • It’s recognizable in childhood.
  • Skill at violence correlates to previous exposure to violence. One doesn’t have to grow up in a violent environment to be good at violence — but it helps. It fosters a familiarity with violence discoverable in selection, assessment and training if not already discovered (and perhaps hidden) by the student. It needn’t be street fights — combat sports and contact sports can provide a context.
  • Comfort in the unrestricted primal violence of previous real street fights is a big indicator of success with professional violence.
  • One of the best indicators/predictors of successful professional violence is the satisfaction, enjoyment, even glee, one takes in righteous violence executed in an appropriate context.