To look at Dan Hodge, you'd never suspect him of being a wrestler-least of all, a top one. The tall (6'2"), lantern-jawed grappler has the quiet, solemn manner of a preacher and dresses to fit the role. Even more deceptive is his spare, angular, smooth-muscled frame, which seems curiously out of place in a sport which abounds with bulging bruisers. But when Danny Boy whips off his dark blue robe and leaps at his opponent, the only picture that sticks in your mind is that of a lean, hungry tiger on the loose. With his two deadly holds-the Oklahoma Roll and the Knee Lift-Hodge has crashed his way to the world junior heavyweight title, and is now rampaging for the heavyweight crown. Those who known him best-and they include such famed veterans as LeRoy McGuirk and Ed (Strangler) Lewis-are confident that Dan can realize his biggest ambition: to hold both the junior and heavyweight diadems at the same time. "This boy," says the Strangler, "is so strong he can do anything he sets his mind on." McGuirk agrees: "I've never seen anybody like him."
Is Dan Hodge that good? Can he run roughshod over the mighty muscle men who bestride his path, and become the first man in history to wear both crowns at once? Many experts predict it's only a matter of time before he rules the heavyweight roost. "And when he does," one observer remarked with conviction, "he'll hang onto it longer than Lou Thesz did."
Mention of the ex-champion's name brings up an ironic incident. It was Thesz who tried to interest Dan into turning pro after the University of Oklahoma wonder boy had beaten everybody in the collegiate ranks and had won berths on the 1952 and 1956 Olympic teams.
"Not for me," said Dan politely. He wanted to emulate John Devine, his wrestling coach at the high school in his native town of Perry, Okla.
Thesz could tell championship quality when he saw it. And he saw plenty of it in Hodge. Recently, Lou had occasion to back up his original estimate of the 30-year-old sensation. He did it in a most unusual way: by taking a beating! Now, granted, that's an old way to prove a point. But it's exactly what happened. Recently, Lou wrestled Dan in Chilhowee Park Amphitheater in Knoxville, Tenn., and lost by a disqualification.
With Hodge, winning titles is an old habit. He was a skinny, 13-year-old cotton-pickin' farm boy when coach John Devine saw him flatten a bully on the high school grounds. "M-m-m," said Devine, poking Dan's scrawny ribs with fatherly concern. "Don't know how you beat that tough kid. You look like a good wind could blow you over." Devine took an immediate shine to the sharp-faced youngster. He learned that Dan had been living a rugged existence, kicking around from relative to relative. One day, he called Dan over. "Got a job for you down at the gas station," he said. "And I've worked out a deal for you to sleep at the fire house."
Dan showed his gratitude by winning the state school wrestling championship and then going on to capture the regional tournament three years in a row. By the time he got to Oklahoma U., he was a hard-bellied, slope-shouldered, 177-pound package of dynamite. He promptly set to work toppling the best college stars in the country.
Rex Peery, coaching the University of Pittsburgh mat team, caught several flashes of the Oklahoman in action and summed him up in these words: "He's too good for college boys."
Dan's teammate, George White, agreed. White, who was supplanted as Oklahoma's first-string 177-pounder when Dan came along, sampled a bit of Hodge's dynamite in practice sessions. "He's a strong man," he commented, rubbing his bruises. "Strong as maybe three men, in fact." Working under coach Port Robertson, Hodge astounded collegiate circles by capturing every amateur title on the books. In winning 41 straight matches, Dan set a record that was even more astonishing because it included 32 pins, the last 19 of them in succession. (A pin is a rarity in college wrestling.)
In his quiet, methodical way, Hodge added more icing to his cake by holding three national titles in one year -- 1956. These were the NCAA (collegiate), and two AAU championships (standard and Greco-Roman forms). As if these laurels weren't enough, the unbeaten collegian copped the NCAA crown in 1957 for the third year in a row - - an incredible feat in itself-and was hailed as America's greatest amateur wrestler.
With this background, where else could he go but up? Dan mulled over his future after getting his B.A. in industrial arts in 1957 and flabbergasted everybody by deciding against a professional mat career.
Oh, he liked wrestling well enough. But he was a married man now, having just tied the knot with his high school sweetheart, Dolores, and he had to think about getting a steady job until he could land a teaching position. He got one, as a $500-a-month oil salesman. But it was a "package deal" which included a boxing career. It must have taken some doing to change Dan's plans. But, then, Art Freeman is a mighty persuasive man.
It was Art, a former Oklahoma U. wrestler-boxer, now an independent oil operator in Wichita, Kansas, who swung the deal. "We'll start you off in the amateurs and the $500 will keep you going until you hit it big as a pro fighter," he told Dan.
Hodge was apprehensive when he made his boxing debut in Convention Hall, a grimy brick building in Hutchinson, Kansas, againt a 208-pound Negro laborer reputed to have fought 65 times as an "amateur."
He needn't have been. Dan decked his foe, one Raymond Scott, so many times that ringside reporters lost count. A flurry of blows finally dropped Scott for good at 1:35 of the second round.
Dan's wife, who had shared his apprehension, was jubilant. "If I'd known it was going to be this simple," she burbled, "I would never have worried for a minute." If Dan were a drinking man, he would have celebrated. But this church-going athlete is a teetotaler as well as a non-smoker and he did the next best thing-he went on to win the Kansas amateur heavyweight title with three straight K.O.'s.
He then captured the National Golden Gloves heavyweight crown in Madison Square Garden in March of 1958, coming up from the floor to flatten 212-pound Fred Hood of Washington, D.C., in two rounds. It was his 12th K.O. in 17 consecutive wins.
Art Freeman now figured his boy was ready for a taste of pro money-and away they went, accompanied by "adviser" George Gainford, manager of Ray Robinson, trainer Charley Goldman and Sugar Ray Robinson himself. Hodge took on Norm Jackson in Scranton, Pa., on June 10, 1958, and polished him off in 1:12 of the first round. Except for one loss, which he soon rectified, Danny riddled seven more foes, including Garvin Sawyer, a prominent heavyweight.
But Danny, a man of great rectitude, was fast becoming disillusioned with the fight game and he wisely stepped out after the Cuban bomber, Nino Valdes, stopped him in eight rounds.
It was a peculiar bout. Dan still doesn't know what happened. "When Valdes knocked me down," he says, "they told me to go to my corner and then they stopped the fight although I wasn't hurt at all."
Some two years ago, the Oklahoma strong man returned to his first love, wrestling. Since then, he has fought more than 300 times and has been doing phenomenally well in the money department-so much so that he is expected to rake in about $80,000 this year!
That ought to be enough to make up for all the hurt he suffered in his boxing career-and he owes his good fortune, in large part, to Strangler Lewis and LeRoy McGuirk.
Will he hit the top? The Strangler says nothing can stop him: "It's doubtful if there's anyone at any weight who could beat him right now."
That kind of talk usually kicks up a beaut of an argument in mat circles. But maybe Strangler is right. Maybe Dan can add the biggest title of all to his long list. It will take a man of extraordinary strength to do it. Dan is such a man. If you need convincing, all you have to do is watch him tear a Manhattan-sized phone book in half without using tricks. Or crush a pair of steel pliers in his vise-like mitts. That's a tough feat in anybody's book. Besides, Dan has a lucky number going for him -- 13. He weighed 13 pounds at birth. He was born on the 13th of the month (a Friday, too!). And he began wrestling at 13. How can he miss?