Iowa vs. Oklahoma State is always good for a bit of chatter and a bit of extra effort, but in 2017, it was all about Nick Piccininni vs Thomas Gilman.
In a sport based on physicality, dominating an opponent and imposition of will, wrestling doesn’t have the post-match shoving matches and competitor resentment the way one would expect. The sport is founded on a base layer of class and respect that allows for “a little extra” as long as hands are shaken and heads are held high afterwards.
That being said, you never quite know what you’re going to get when you throw ten Cowboys out there with ten Hawkeyes.
“There will never not be bad blood between Iowa and Oklahoma State,” Piccininni firmly said. “There will never not be. It goes back to John Smith and the Brands and Eric Guerrero and the Brands. Leroy Smith, it goes back generations. It’s not just my era. It’s bigger than me. That’s why I say that. Oklahoma State and Iowa might be the best rivalry in college sports ever, historically.”
After a regular season dual between Oklahoma State and Iowa, Piccininni and Gilman met in the handshake line, where Piccininni famously told Gilman he’d see him at Nationals. Gilman, being Gilman, took exception to the comment and gave Piccininni, Coach Smith and everybody else listening a piece of his mind, setting the table for a trip to St. Louis to remember in March.
Make no mistake about it, Piccininni wasn’t in the mood for Gilman’s barking after the dual, but the heat was turned up a little bit higher when the freshman heard the Hawkeye going after his coach.
“I hold the most respect for Coach Smith for what he did for the program in Oklahoma State and the sport of wrestling,” Piccininni said. “You don’t disrespect a dude like that, and you don’t disrespect my coach. That’s a dude I’d go to war for. That kind of pissed me off.”
The stars aligned and the two would meet up twice at Nationals. Once in the NCAA quarterfinals and one final time in the third-place match.
In his freshman season, Piccininni would give the Hawkeye legend enough hell to invoke the most viral of interviews from Gilman, including a challenge to take the physicality into the parking lot. It may be the lasting memory of the event between the two, but what wasn’t caught on camera was Piccininni’s hunt for Gilman that night to take him up on his offer.
“Funny thing about that, later that day, after him saying that, it’s funny, after NCAAs we go out,” Piccininni said. “The guys celebrate. If you All-American and you do well, you go out and celebrate with your team and I actually went out looking for him. It was me and Kyle [Crutchmer]. We actually went out looking for him, and funny enough, we ran into his dad and he came up and said nice things about me. He was a good dude.”
Meeting Gilman’s dad would ultimately mark the end of Piccininni’s hunt for the man who challenged him hours earlier, and for Piccininni close the door on the rivalry. Unfortunately for him, the couple month stretch in his first season would leave an impact on the sport and rivalry as big as his pin over 125-pound legend Spencer Lee.
At the time, Gilman left the situation appearing to be the odds-on favorite if the two were to have met in the parking lot. He went 3-0 against Piccininni in wrestling on the season, was older and had more experience, but a different picture is painted now with Piccininni looking to push his MMA record to a perfect 4-0.
“He’s a lot of talk; he’s all talk,” Piccininni said. “He talks a lot, which isn’t bad. It’s what he’s known for. He’s a good wrestler, silver World medalist, Olympic medalist, his wrestling accolades speak for themselves, but he talks about fighting a lot. You don’t fight.”
To Piccininni, the rivalry was over hyped by the wrestling community. He and Gilman don’t represent the faces of the bad blood between the two schools, but if Gilman ever comes into MMA and an organization is ready to pony up, it’s a fight he’ll gladly take.
“The dude’s got a family, he’s got a wife and kid. He’s got a life. It doesn’t make sense for him to fight, and if he was going to fight it would have already happened or was about to happen,” Piccininni said. “You never know. Seems like he’s doing well. He’s probably getting paid decently to train and live so I don’t know if he needs to fight. That’s going to be a lot of eyes. People are going to want to see that. Depending on what was offered, I think that would be a great storyline. I think it would be a seller. I think he would say yes to grappling. I don’t think he would say yes to a fight, but grappling I could see him say yes for sure.”
As Piccininni explained, the two met three times and went their separate ways. He would go on to have one of the biggest moments in OSU history with his pin over Spencer Lee, multiple wins over Pat Glory and many more before stacking up three MMA wins with eyes on the UFC. Gilman would go on to win bronze at the Olympics, gold in Worlds and Pan Am Championships, and then move on to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
It was a brief clash, and the worlds will likely never overlap again, but what a treat for the wrestling community and what a chapter in the Oklahoma State vs. Iowa story.
Catch the return of Nick Piccininni at Fury FC 72, LIVE from Houston, ONLY on UFC FIGHT PASS!