Jan. 9, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the mail one day, UVa head wrestling coach Steve Garland received a highlight video from Martin Butler, the father of a high school standout from Illinois.
“I watched about two minutes of it and said, `I don’t have time for this,’ ” Garland recalled recently.
The wrestler was Blaise Butler, from Boylan Catholic High in Rockford, Ill., about 85 miles northwest of Chicago.
“We knew nothing about him,” Garland said. “We never get Illinois guys. We have no track record there. We have no connections there.”
Martin Butler, who had wrestled at Amherst College, persisted. About a month later, Garland came across an email from the elder Butler. Garland decided Blaise deserved another look and popped the video back in.
“This time I watched the whole thing,” Garland said, “and I sprinted into [then-assistant coach] Alex Clemsen’s office and said, `Alex, you gotta watch this guy. This kid’s a freak. I know he doesn’t have a great rÃ©sumÃ© on paper, but, man, he has moves that most people can’t hit.’ “
Clemsen, too, liked what he saw on the highlight video, so Garland telephoned Martin Butler, a radiologist. They talked for about 45 minutes, Garland said, “and I remember thinking, `Well, now I definitely have to have [Blaise]. I fell in love with his father right away, and I felt like if he’s anything like his dad, we gotta have this kid.”
The Cavaliers, of course, landed Butler, who as a redshirt junior has established himself as one of the nation’s best 174-pounders. Heading into the Virginia Duals, which start Friday morning in Hampton, he’s 9-1 this season and ranked No. 5 by InterMat.
UVa, ranked No. 16 nationally, is the defending champion at the Virginia Duals.
Butler, the ACC champion at 157 pounds last year, stamped himself as an NCAA title contender at his new weight class with a breakthrough performance Dec. 5 and 6 at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.
In the semifinals, Butler rallied to defeat Minnesota’s Logan Storley 9-7 in sudden-victory time. In the championship match, Butler fought through a knee injury before losing 6-2 to Nebraska’s Robert Kokesh.
In the latest InterMat rankings, Kokesh is No. 1 and Storley is No. 3 at 174 pounds.
“To be honest, up until that point, up until maybe halfway through that match [against Storley], I saw myself as an All-American, but I don’t know if I saw myself as a [potential] national champ,” Butler said. “After winning that match, it kind of made it real. It’s something that I could do.”
Garland said: “His weight class is arguably the toughest in the country, but what he showed out there was he can absolutely wrestle and beat anyone on any given day, so that gives him a chance to win [an NCAA title]. And there’s not a lot of kids that can say that.”
Butler, who grew up in Belvidere, Ill., has ties to this state. He was born in Newport News and lived in that Tidewater city for three years before the family moved to Illinois.
He was unfamiliar with UVa as a boy, Butler said, but his father “knew how great of a school it was, and he knew that the wrestling program was on the rise. It’s been on a steady rise since I’ve gotten here. He knew it was a good place to look at, and it ended up being the right place.”
Butler followed his father into wrestling, but he’s not likely to follow him into medicine.
“I’ve been to work with him before, and it didn’t interest me too much,” said Butler, a history major for whom business school is a possibility.
Butler enrolled at the University in the summer of 2011 and joined the wrestling program as a 157-pounder. He redshirted his first season, when Jedd Moore was the Cavaliers’ starter at 157. In 2012-13, as a redshirt freshman, Butler posted a 13-6 record but couldn’t beat out Moore for the starting spot.
“What people don’t realize, is Blaise started off pretty humbly,” Garland said. “He had his growing pains like everybody. The point is, and I try to tell my guys, it doesn’t just happen over night. You’re not just either born good or born bad. Obviously certain people have certain gifts, but you can develop your gifts, you can develop wrestling skills, you can develop mat sense. These are all things Blaise has developed since he’s been here.”
In 2013-14, Blaise took over as Virginia’s starter at 157 pounds and posted a 22-8 record. He won the ACC title and qualified for the NCAA championships, where he went 2-2.
At times last season, the 5-foot-9 Butler had struggled to make weight at 157, and it was unlikely he’d be able to compete there again in 2014-15. The ideal option probably would have been 165 pounds, but the `Hoos had a returning ACC champion and All-American, Nick Sulzer, at that weight.
And so, after conferring with his coaches and Randy Bird, UVa’s director of sports nutrition, Butler decided to move up two classes.
“We know fast he is, we know how explosive he is and we know [about] his muscle mass,” Garland said. “The bigger thing is, we knew how disciplined he was. He’s a guy we could trust to do everything right to keep the right weight on, the right way.”
His role, Bird said, was to make sure Butler put on pounds “correctly. It’s real easy for a guy to blow up and put on the wrong weight, because they’re so used to cutting, so used to having to lose the fat, make the weights, that when they’re told they can gain weight, they go to town on the food and overdo it.”
Butler started the process early. By doing so, Bird said, Butler “maintained his athleticism, he maintained his quickness, and he gained strength.”
New to Garland’s staff this season is assistant coach Keith Gavin, a Pittsburgh graduate. Gavin began his Pitt career as a 157-pounder before moving up two classes to 174, where he won the NCAA title in 2008. He was confident Butler could handle himself at 174.
“It doesn’t matter how much you weigh,” Gavin said before the season, “it’s a how-strong-you-are type deal. We talked about that, and I think his speed and explosiveness are going to help him wrestling the bigger guys, because they’re not used to that. And so he’s going to be able to exploit that a little more than he could at 157.”
Garland said: “I think that was the deciding factor in why we encouraged him and supported him to go up. We just felt like the higher you go up, let’s face it, the less athletic [wrestlers are] and the less moves you see hit … We just felt like if he keeps that same skill set he had at ’57, and then wrestle like a ’57-pounder up at that weight, it’s got to give him an advantage.”
That all made sense to Butler. Still, he said, “I was worried if I was going to be too small. I’d never competed in a match at that weight, so I didn’t even know what it would be like. I kind of felt like I had to prove myself all over again. And even though coming out of the gate, they ranked me top 10 at 174, there was still that little bit of doubt.”
Those concerns proved short-lived. In his debut at 174, Butler pinned VMI’s Mark Darr. Later that day, he earned a major decision (15-3) over George Mason’s Ryan Forrest.
Victories over then-No. 14 Kurtis Johnson (North Dakota State) and then-No. 13 Mark Martin (Ohio State) followed in November, as Butler grew more comfortable at his new weight.
“I try to play to my advantages,” Butler said. “A lot of the bigger guys will try to tie you up and slow you down, but I’ll try to keep my distance and use my speed. That’s the game plan.”
His practice partners include Gavin, a member of the U.S. national team who now competes at 189 pounds.
“The first time I wrestled with Gavin, he whupped me worse than I’ve ever been whupped in my life,” Butler said, smiling. “It made me wrestle a little differently. It kind of changed some things, and I’ve slowly been able to make gains. Keith Gavin still puts it on me, but I definitely feel like I’ve been getting better just from working with him every day.”
Butler was about 8 years old when he began wrestling. He also was a talented soccer player, but by his senior year of high school Butler had locked in on wrestling.
The sport’s appeal to him?
“It’s hard work,” Butler said. “There’s everything we put in behind the scenes, and when you lose, it makes that feeling so much worse, just because you’ve put so much into it. But vice versa, after putting in all that work and achieving your goals, it’s one of the best feelings ever. Just knowing that you worked for that. It didn’t just come. You earned that.”