Olympic gold medalist will wrestle one more season at Minnesota before joining pro ranks full-time
It’s likely to be at least seven months before Gable Steveson has his first match with World Wrestling Entertainment.
That’s because he wants to defend his NCAA heavyweight championship first.
“Gopher responsibility is No. 1. That’s what we talked about with the WWE,” Steveson said at a news conference Monday where he discussed his unprecedented deal to join the WWE while competing one more year as a collegiate wrestler at Minnesota. “Being able to compete here was my last goal. I feel like I owe all the fans that show up and want to watch me.”
It was announced Sept. 9 that Steveson signed a multi-year contract with WWE that allows him to return to the University of Minnesota to wrestle in 2021-22. The arrangement was made possible by NCAA rule changes that allow student-athletes to monetize their NIL (name, image and likeness) rights while retaining their eligibility to compete.
The 2018 Apple Valley High School graduate won the 2021 NCAA 285-pound championship, going 17-0. He then swept through the U.S. Olympic Trials, outscoring opponents 42-4, to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. His come-from-behind 10-8 victory over three-time world champion Geno Petriashvili earned Steveson the 125-kilogram freestyle gold medal.
Steveson, 21, is the first Olympic wrestling gold medalist WWE has signed since Kurt Angle, who won his Olympic championship in 1996.
The contract allows Steveson to appear on WWE programming while he competes at Minnesota, but he’s not expected to wrestle for the organization until he completes his 2021-22 season with the Gophers. The organization is scheduled to bring its live “WWE SmackDown” show to Xcel Energy Center on Dec. 17, and it’s difficult to imagine Steveson not being involved in some way.
According to ESPN, WWE is expected to supply a training facility for Steveson near campus. He also would have access to WWE facilities in Orlando, Florida. Steveson’s brother Bobby, a former Apple Valley High School and University of Minnesota wrestler, is training in Orlando after signing with WWE recently.
Last weekend Steveson teased his WWE signing, announcing on Twitter he had signed a contract without saying where.
“I didn’t understand contracts like that take weeks at a time,” he said Monday. “I thought it was going to be a one-day thing because everybody knew I wanted to go to the WWE. I just like the acting part, the showmanship.
“It was like my calling to go there.”
He said Monday he had been planning for some time to return to Minnesota for one more season but admitted he held off on announcing it to build suspense.
“Me being able to come back is what I really wanted,” Steveson said. “I didn’t want to leave the university. I wanted to spend my four years and leave my legacy.”
Once he joins the WWE full-time, speculation will focus on when Steveson will face former Gopher Brock Lesnar in the ring. Lesnar, who won the NCAA heavyweight championship in 2000, has had a long and successful career in pro wrestling. Steveson first met Lesnar following his final high school season at Apple Valley and considers him a mentor.
“Ever since then he’s been a figure I could talk to, a person who guides me in the right direction because he’s been in all the heavy spots,” said Steveson.
Steveson also tried to squelch talk of a possible rift with Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, which reportedly had been interested in signing him. Steveson was in Las Vegas last month for a WWE show but did not talk with White while there (the UFC’s headquarters are in Las Vegas).
“There was no conflict with me and Dana White,” Steveson said. “I was in Vegas to see WWE. You can’t see two major corporations in a day.”
He even toyed with the idea of joining the University of Minnesota football team and
He was 212-3 as a high school wrestler, including 173-0 in his final four seasons. Steveson won four individual state championships and helped Apple Valley win three Class 3A team championships.
Steveson has a 34-match college winning streak dating to the 2019 NCAA semifinals. He was undefeated (15-0) in the 2019-20 season but the NCAA tournament scheduled for U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis was canceled because of the pandemic. He’s 67-2 as a college wrestler, a .971 winning percentage that is the best in University of Minnesota history.
The NCAA gave athletes that competed in the 2020-21 school year an extra year of eligibility, meaning Steveson technically could compete two more years with the Gophers. But he confirmed Monday that 2021-22 will be his last college season.
“After this Gopher season I’m all tuned in with (WWE) 100 precent,” he said. “It’s going to be sad I have to hang up my wrestling shoes, but I did all my jobs here at the university, I did all my jobs on the USA Wrestling circuit. My time has come.
In the 2021-22 season Steveson will try to become the sixth Minnesota wrestler with multiple NCAA championships.
Minnesota’s 2021-22 wrestling schedule has not yet been announced. The NCAA Division I tournament will be March 17-19, 2022, in Detroit, Michigan. Steveson said the Gophers have enough returning wrestlers to possibly make a run at the NCAA team championship, which Minnesota last won in 2007.