EDITOR’S NOTE: This review originally was posted on the Iowa Hawkeyes’ blog BlackHeartGoldPants.com
And what we get is one of the best wrestling documentaries ever.
About a month ago, FloWrestling unveiled their most high-profile video release yet, an 83-minute documentary focused on Terry Brands, the legendary former Iowa and U.S. wrestler and current University of Iowa assistant coach. Naturally, I felt very compelled to watch such a video. So the million dollar question: is it any good? Yes, absolutely. It is very, very good and well worth your time, especially if you have an interest in Iowa wrestling.
The documentary is a fascinating and in-depth look at a storied competitor and coach who is often known as “the other Brands.” (An added bonus of the doc is that it might — MIGHT — make it easier for you to tell Tom and Terry Brands apart. I make no guarantees on that front, though.) The doc spans Brands’ life, from his earliest days scrapping with Tom to his Iowa days to his days as a freestyle competitor in international competitions to his present time as a coach for the University of Iowa (and the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, the group that helps former Iowa wrestlers as they compete in freestyle competitions after graduation).
image via FloWrestling
The doc begins with some anecdotes about Tom and Terry scrapping as kids and their legendary high school careers, as well as the story of how Dan Gable recruited them. Royce Alger has the money quote there:
“And then he brought me to their house. And they were at practice. I went to their house to just make an appearance because I was the defending national champion. I went down into their basement and there was holes in the walls and there was blood on the walls. And Gable goes, ‘What’d you think?’ And there was a horse mat, one of those old ones you get at a gym. And I said, ‘Gable, we’re gonna have to recruit these guys or we’re gonna have to find some way to kill ’em. Because there’s blood down there.'”
From there the doc briefly covers their exceptional Iowa careers and features some outstanding footage of Terry just relentlessly mauling opponents with a non-stop attacking style. Frankly, a hugely entertaining doc probably could have been made of just their Iowa days. But such a doc might have had more limited appeal outside of the Iowa fanbase.
image via FloWrestling
The focus of the documentary is on Terry Brands’ freestyle career and his quest for an Olympic gold medal, a quest that was ultimately unsuccessful. The decision to focus on that quest is smart because there’s a strong narrative arc there: Terry has early success and seems destined to achieve his goal, Terry’s quest is derailed before the goal is achieved, Terry battles back for another shot at his goal. In a storybook narrative, of course, the goal would be achieved in that second effort. That didn’t happen here — Terry Brands never won his Olympic gold medal. But the narrative we do get — of a man whose dream is broken but who rebuilds himself and fights for another chance at that dream — is still a powerful one.
The centerpiece of the documentary is the 1996 Olympic trials, which was the site of Terry’s great failure — when he lost out to Kendall Cross in a bid to make the U.S. team to compete at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Cross made the team and went on to win a gold medal at that event. (Tom Brands also made that team and won a gold medal there, as did Kurt Angle.) The build-up to the trials, the competition at the trials, and the aftermath occupies at least 20-25 minutes and it’s never less than gripping. The documentary cuts between footage from the best-of-three matches between Cross and Brands (and you can see footage of those matches here) and recently-filmed comments about the matches from Cross, Terry Brands, Tom Brands, Dan Gable, Royce Alger, Andy Hamilton, and Mike Duroe, a longtime U.S. wrestling coach.
Brands won the first match in dominant fashion, but made errors that Cross capitalized on in the second and third matches. This sequence also serves to highlight some of the differences between Tom and Terry Brands, namely Terry’s immense stubbornness. Duroe and Alger note that Tom had a bit more guile and could be more tactically-inclined, while Terry was incredibly stubborn and just wanted to “run you over,” to hell with the consequences. Getting Cross’ perspective on these matches proved to be a masterful decision on Flo’s part, as it provides an opportunity to delve into his mindset and his approach to those matches, which was very different than Terry’s.
image via FloWrestling
image via FloWrestling
That ’96 trials sequence leads to one of the best quotes from the documentary (which is saying something, because there are plenty — both Brands boys are eminently quotable and the other guys interviewed get in plenty of good bits, too), from Terry Brands’ father after his loss to Cross:
“You get what you earn.”
It’s a quote that sums up the documentary and Terry Brands’ philosophy and coaching approach perfectly: success isn’t guaranteed or given to you. Success is earned through hard work, dedication, and intelligence. If you don’t put in the effort, you aren’t going to get the reward you desire. It’s not a novel message by any means, but the intensity of Brands and the vividness of his story illustrates it well.
The documentary covers the aftermath of Terry’s loss at the ’96 trials, from his immediate emotional breakdown and rapid departure from the arena — he tried to climb over a 12-foot tall fence to run away from everything and Tom Brands literally had to pull him back down — to the emptiness he felt at failing to achieve his goal (making the Olympic team and winning a gold medal) and the struggle to figure out what to do next. This part of the doc is probably the emotionally rawest and most affecting footage in the entire movie; the combination of the footage from ’96 and the present-day comments from Tom and Terry and Gable do an incredible job of conveying his pain and emptiness. It’s not easy viewing, but it is enthralling.
Ultimately, of course, “what to do next” was a matter of getting back on the horse and competing again. The documentary moves ahead to the 2000 Olympic trials, which is pitched as a chance for redemption for Terry Brands and a second (and final, given his age) chance to chase his dream of an Olympic gold medal. Brands got his redemption at the trials — he won a spot on the U.S. team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Unfortunately, he did not get his gold medal — he fell to Iran’s Alireza Dabir in the semifinals. The documentary skims over the trials a bit, although it highlights Brands’ refined approach to training (smarter not harder) and mental approach (calm) and focuses on the match with Dabir.
Like the matches with Cross, it becomes another situation where stubbornness gets in the way of tactics and ends up costing Terry the match. Tom warns Terry of Dabir’s strong ability to get to the leg and Terry himself even contemplates changing up his stance to make his leg harder to get to; he doesn’t and Dabir gets in deep on a shot in the first thirty seconds. Then he’s able to turn that takedown into four points (via exposure points) when Brands may have been able to escape the situation with fewer points conceded if he had just bailed out instead of trying to fight through the move. That dug Terry a hole that he wasn’t able to climb out of, despite a furious comeback (and a controversial refereeing decision in the final seconds that took a scoring opportunity away from Brands). Said Terry:
“Did I beat him? I beat him. I beat him bad. … But I didn’t him on the scoreboard. I gotta beat him bad and beat him on the scoreboard, and I didn’t do that.”
His gold medal dreams dashed, the only thing left for Terry to do was to get the next best thing available, the bronze medal. It becomes an illustration of the message that Terry (and Tom) have oft-repeated in the context of Iowa wrestlers at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments: how you respond to adversity is what defines you and your success as an individual and your team’s success. The ultimate goal is to be on top of the podium, to be the champion, but what you do when that goal is taken off the table can be just as important. It’s not just what you do on the front side of a bracket (the championship rounds), it’s also what you do on the back side (the consolation rounds). One of Iowa’s most recent national championships (2009) was won in large part due to tremendous efforts from several Iowa wrestlers in consolation matches. So Brands put aside the disappointment of losing his chance for a gold medal and refocused on the bronze medal — which he won, despite a back injury that left him barely able to move before or after the match.
image via FloWrestling
That bronze medal was (and is) very bittersweet, though, and Brands talks candidly (as he does throughout the documentary) about the mixed emotions he felt about winning it. He’s proud to have rebounded and won the medal after the disappointment of losing in the semifinals, but he’s still obviously incredibly disappointed to have never won an Olympic gold medal and that disappointment still eats away at him. He claims that he’s never looked at the bronze medal since winning it; he gave it away shortly after winning it in Sydney. The man he gave it away to returned it to Terry by giving it to his son, Nelson, but Brands says he still hasn’t seen it — and that he doesn’t want to, either.
Structurally, the looks back at Terry’s early years, his Iowa days, the ’96 trials, the ’00 Olympics, and everything else are bracketed by several clips of Terry coaching Tony Ramos and Dan Dennis at the 2015 United States Open last year. Ramos would go on to win the 57 kg championship at the Open and watching that through Brands is an entertaining experience. In fact, it’s so entertaining that it makes a compelling argument for the notion that there should be a camera trained on Terry at all time during meets — he’s loud, animated, and unafraid to share his opinion about, well, anything — his wrestler, the opponent, the referees, the tournament officials, etc.
image via FloWrestling
TERRY is a thrilling and absorbing look at a pivotal figure in the history of Iowa wrestling, a man who achieved tremendous success at Iowa (and beyond), but who may be defined by (and most remembered for) the rare failures in his career. But it’s those failures — and his responses to them — that make his story so interesting and worth telling. The 83-minute runtime zips by and from a pure entertainment standpoint, the documentary delivers in spades — the doc is well-edited around its central narrative and the comments from the Brands brothers, Gable, Cross, Hamilton, Duroe, Alger, and the rest are consistently entertaining, enlightening, and insightful.
It does leave you wanting more — it would have been interesting to get more perspective on Terry as a coach now versus his days as a competitor and interviews with Ramos, Brent Metcalf, Matt McDonough, or some of the current Iowa wrestlers might have been a fun way to illuminate that. In particular, I really would have been interested to hear from Henry Cejudo, who has never been shy about crediting Terry Brands for his impact in helping Cejudo win a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It would have been interesting to hear Brands’ take on that as well — what did it feel like to coach a young man to achieve the dream that Terry couldn’t as a competitor? I spoke with the folks at FloSports about the documentary and they indicated that they did interview Cejudo, but decided to omit that footage to focus on Terry and his story as a competitor and to prevent the length of the documentary from ballooning — which I can certainly understand and respect. At 83 minutes, this documentary is a lean, mean, tightly focused story; I suspect it would still be immensely enjoyable with another 30 or 40 minutes of footage, but it would no longer be lean and mean, and its focus would be a bit more sprawling. Hopefully that other footage finds the light of day in the future.
So is TERRY worth watching? Yes, absolutely. At this time the only way to view the documentary is to subscribe to Flowrestling’s FloPro service, which is available for $20 a month. That’s a steep cost, but it does give you access to Flo’s entire library, which includes several other documentary series (TERRY is a true documentary feature, but they’ve done a shorter series on Tony Ramos and Brent Metcalf, as well as recent series on Kyle Dake and David Taylor) and an immense library of matches from hundreds of events.