Gold medal in front of US flag

The Curious Case of Gable Steveson

Gable Steveson’s WWE career will likely be seen as one of the most misaligned promotions in company history.

On the Mat, Gable Steveson was One of America’s Top Wrestlers

On January 16, 2019, the University of Minnesota posted a video of promising freshman heavyweight Gable Steveson training with combat sports icon Brock Lesnar.

For Lesnar, the training session marked a return to his alma mater, where he won the NCAA Division I wrestling title during his senior year.

For Steveson, however, the star power of Lesnar drew eyes to his already impressive amateur career. Before starting his collegiate debut, Steveson was a junior world champion, two-time cadet world champion, and a four-time Minnesota high school state champion, finishing his time at Apple Valley High was a combined 210-3 record.

In the following months, Steveson went on to earn runner-up status at both the 2019 Big Ten Championships and NCAA Championships, losing to Penn State’s Anthony Cassar in the finals of both events. He also suffered an international defeat (a 12-0 decision loss) to Uzbekistan’s Khasanboy Rakhimov (who was stripped of his gold medal after an anti-doping violation) and two losses at the annual Final X event to American Nick Gwiazdowski.

After these losses, Steveson rebounded to become arguably the most dominant super heavyweight in the world. His folkstyle career (the type of wrestling generally seen in youth, high school, and collegiate wrestling in the United States) saw three straight unbeaten seasons, three Big Ten championships, and two NCAA champions. His college career ended with a record of 85-2. For folks doing the math, that’s 295 wins and 5 losses combined between high school and college.

Note: Steveson would have been the favorite to win the NCAA title in 2020, but the season was cut short just prior to the national tournament due to the pandemic.

In the midst of his outstanding collegiate run, Steveson dominated 2024 national champion Greg Kerkvliet and the aforementioned Gwiazdowski in freestyle competition en route to a spot on the Olympic team in 2021.

In Tokyo, he outscored opponents 23-0 before competing in the finals against reigning world champion Geno Petriashvili of Georgia. In one of the most thrilling endings in freestyle wrestling history, Steveson beat Petriashvili to become America’s youngest super heavyweight Olympic freestyle champion at 21 years of age.

The victory placed Steveson into an elite category of Americans who won Olympic gold – arguably the highest achievement possible in the sport. Based upon the reaction of his family, teammates, and coaches, it is clear this was a monumental moment for both Steveson and American wrestling. For many analysts and enthusiasts, there was a belief that the U.S. might be looking at its top super heavyweight for the next decade.

Shifting Focus

Wrestling shoes sitting on a mat
Wrestling Shoes Retirement

By the time Steveson competed in the 2022 NCAA Championship, it was clear that his prioritizes had shifted. He had returned to Minnesota on an NIL deal, dominated throughout the regular season, and dismantled high-level competition before toppling Arizona State’s Cohlton Schultz 6-2 in the finals.

Steveson then left his wrestling shoes on the mat (after performing his signature handspring/backflip celebration), ushering in the end of his amateur career. He would briefly end his retirement in 2023, first competing at the US Open Wrestling Championships, then at the Final X event. At the Open, Steveson defeated both Gwiazdowski and 2024 Olympic team member Mason Parris, and at Final X, Steveson pulled two additional wins over Parris.

The allure of big money in WWE, however, was enough to see Steveson once again leave his amateur career. Much like Lesnar, Kurt Angle, Jack Brisco, Verne Gagne, Danny Hodge, and Sylvester Terkay – one of these names is unlike the others – Steveson dedicated his efforts moving forward into the wild world of professional wrestling.

As it turns out, though, he might replace Terkay as the clear outlier on the list above.

Setting the Bar Too High?

Kurt Angle is often credited as being one of the most natural studies professional wrestling has seen in the modern era, transitioning to high-level television matches with minimal training. Lesnar, too, skyrocketed to the top of WWE within months of his national debut, defeating established talents like Rob Van Dam and the Hardys before taking the WWE title from The Rock at SummerSlam 2002.

Other former amateur stalwarts like Shelton Benjamin, Nick Nemeth (Dolph Ziggler), Bobby Lashley, and Chad Betts (Chad Gable) were able to become dynamic performers throughout their careers, often being considered among the top performers on the WWE roster at any point. Brothers Drew and Jacob Kasper (Brutus and Julius Creed) have recently carried on the tradition of excellence on the mat transitioning to the squared circle.

Even Steveson’s own brother Bobby (NXT’s Damon Kemp), who qualified for the NCAA tournament during his time at Minnesota, has shown promise during his brief time in the ring.

Steveson’s lone match on WWE television suggests that expectations might have been far too high for the grappler, however.

What Was Missing?

When Steveson appeared at Wrestlemania 38 and suplexed Chad Gable, many hoped the moment would be one of many highlights for the Olympic gold medalist – maybe something akin to a young Kurt Angle flinging anti-American antagonist Tiger Ali Singh around the ring during an episode of Sunday Night Hear in early 1999.

In hindsight, it is easy to look at the showdown with Chad Gable and point out Steveson’s “greenness.” In fairness, Angle sounded rigid on the mic in 1999 despite looking physically dominant in the encounter with Singh. Steveson’s appearance during a segment on the July 4, 2023 episode of NXT suggested that the former Gopher had some potential, though, as he initiated a high-intensity suplex clinic, tossing numerous competitors with ease.

It wasn’t until Steveson’s ill-fated NXT The Great American Bash 2023 bout with Baron Corbin, however, that perceptions really began to sour.

First, many fans were already critical of WWE’s decision to sign and platform Steveson pending his June 2019 arrest for alleged sexual assault – a charge that was ultimately dropped due to “inadequate evidence to fairly charge and prosecute” the case.

Second, the hype surrounding Steveson, especially during an era in which performers like Will Ospreay, Kenny Omega, Bryan Danielson, Zach Sabre Jr., and others have effectively redefined what high-level, hard-hitting technical professional wrestling can look like, may have been both unwarranted and shortsighted. Again, there was never a guarantee that Steveson’s success on the mat would translate to similar success in the ring.

During the bout, despite Steveson displaying athletic offense for a 260-pound rookie, the NXT crowd broke into a chant of “you’re not Angle.” The match had moments of flourish but was heavily maligned. Journalist Dave Meltzer awarded the contest 1.5 stars (out of 5) and Cage Match readers gave it an average of 2.25 stars (out of 10). After the “no contest” finish, Steveson did not compete in any further televised matches for the company.

Clips of house show bouts – like this one against Cameron Grimes – continued to showcase his athleticism while indicating that he was not developing into a main event-level talent as quickly as many would have liked.

An Inevitable Release and Questionable Timing

WWE released Gable Steveson in May 2024. The decision is not entirely unexpected as the company has platformed numerous young talent – Ilja Dragunov, Carmelo Hayes, Trick Williams, Bron Breakker, Solo Sikoa, Dominik Mysterio, and Logan Paul – as future main eventers.

The timing, though, is curious.

On April 19-20, the US Olympic Team Trials took place at Penn State University. The winners in each weight class secured the opportunity to compete at the Summer Games in Paris. It is uncertain whether WWE would have allowed Steveson to compete, but Dave Meltzer noted that the timing of the release was “especially cruel” as the grappler would have been the likely favorite to secure the spot.

It is worth noting that “the spot” went to Mason Parris, whom Steveson has defeated convincingly numerous times over the past several years, While Parris has been the most dominant U.S. heavyweight outside of Steveson over the past two years, it remains to be seen how he will fare as the American representative this summer.

Fun aside: Mason Parris was also signed to a WWE NIL deal in December 2021.

What comes next for Steveson remains to be seen. Reports have indicated a meeting with the Buffalo Bills. Could Steveson be following the Brock Lesnar path from NCAA wrestling to WWE to the NFL? Could a run in MMA be on the table? Considering there were rumblings that Steveson would be returning to Minnesota for a final year of college wrestling this past summer, perhaps all rumors should be taken with a grain of salt until they materialize.

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