There is a long-standing wrestling tradition that Anthony Robles just might alter.
When an elite wrestler’s career ends, he will often leave his wrestling shoes in the center of the mat after his final match. It signals an end of a career and symbolizes a leaving-everything-on-the-mat mentality.
It’s often a dramatic, emotional moment.
Now picture Robles leaving his one shoe in the center mat after winning the 125-pound national title Saturday for Arizona State.
“If I win the national title, I will have to think about it,” Robles said Tuesday before heading to the NCAA Division I tournament at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
“That would really bring all of it together. I’ll have to think about it.”
Robles, the former Mesa High star who was born without his right leg, hopes his ASU career ends by becoming the school’s first national champion since Eric Larkin in 2003, and the program’s 13th three-time All-American.
The ending begins at 8 a.m. on Thursday (espn3.com) and finishes with Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. finals (ESPN). After Saturday, Robles will call it a career and venture out as a motivational speaker.
Robles, who received national recognition for overcoming his birth defect, has already made some inroads to get his career started.
He’s been working with Joel Weldon, a National Speakers Association Hall of Fame honoree based out of Scottsdale.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot and everyone has been asking me about the Olympics,” Robles said. “As of right now, I think I am content to walk away from wrestling, win or lose at nationals. I think I have accomplished a lot in my career.
“You never know, a few months down the line, maybe I will feel that itch again, but right now I am pretty sure I am done.”
Robles has his first speaking engagement scheduled in April for a Japan-based company, though some ESPN exposure has helped him learn to handle large audiences.
“It is a little bit daunting, but my wrestling career has helped prepare me a little bit,” Robles said. “... With practice I will get better and be ready to start that part of my life.”
If all goes as planned his speeches will include winning a national title. Robles, a two-time state champion and three-time placer at Mesa, is the top seed at 125 and is 31-0 this season.
“What an amazing transformation,” said former Mesa assistant and current Red Mountain coach Dave DiDomenico. “When he first came into the room he would try standing and just get tackled.
“When coach (Bobby) Williams came up with his three-point knee stance, Anthony hated it. He’d go to the far side of the room and stand up and I’d yell at him to get back down and he would kind of glare at me.
“But I guess it has served him well.”
Robles said he owes much of his success to those formative seasons when Williams and DiDomenico, who are going to be in attendance, were figuring things out together.
“If I went to any other high school, I wouldn’t be wrestling in college today,” said Robles, whose style has been mimicked by Arizona wrestlers for years. “Everything they taught me is the basis of what I do today, but I have expanded it.”
His first match is against unseeded Matthew Snyder (23-9) of Virginia. Robles won by technical fall, 16-1, in their first meeting on Jan. 8.
If the seeding holds true, he would take on Old Dominion’s fourth-seed James Nicholson (31-0) in the semifinals. They haven’t faced each other since they were freshmen in 2007 when Robles won 8-3.
The No. 2 seed is Iowa’s Matt McDonough, who many thought should have been the top seed considering he is 23-1 and the defending national champion. Robles has never faced him, but isn’t concerned about McDonough just yet.
“Everyone at nationals is a tough competitor and there are always those guys that come out of nowhere,” Robles said. “I am taking no one lightly and it is a brand new tournament. I have to be at my best. I will take it one match at a time and I want to finish where my seed has me.”
One of the keys to Robles’ fantastic season was taking some time off after finishing a disappointing seventh place last season.
He lost 5-3 in the quarterfinals of the 32-man bracket in the final 10 seconds to Iowa State’s Andrew Long.
He came back and won his first consolation match, but then came across the defending-national champion Troy Nickerson of Cornell and lost, 2-1. He considered it a step back.
Being an All-American wasn’t enough so Robles took a break during the summer. He still lifted and ran — he does a 10-minute mile on crutches — but didn’t step into the Riches Wrestling Complex.
“I needed to get my mind right,” he said. “I came back refreshed and ready to go. I told (ASU coach Shawn Charles) I am burned out and needed some time off. But once I came back, (the disappointing finish) was a driving force. I worked harder than ever.
“Who knows, if I didn’t take that time off maybe I’d be burned out now and not as fresh.”
So he is off to Philadelphia with five teammates, including former Corona del Sol wrestler Luke Macchiaroli (197 pounds), with the hope of coming back a national champion.
A lot of people wondered if his style would work when he got to college.
Others think he has a distinct advantage because his upper body strength (he benches more than 300 pounds) is more like a 157-pounder and his grip, partially from using crutches all of these years, is unmatched.
None of it matters now to Robles, who had to redshirt his freshman year to bulk up to 125 pounds after wrestling as 112 as a Mesa senior. He’ll finish up one of the best careers in Sun Devil history.
“This is how I was born,” Robles said of the sentiment that he has an advantage. “If anything I made it my advantage. I read a quote by Kobe Bryant the other day and what he said was that the only advantage he has is that wants what all men want, he just wants it more.
“I can attest to that. Everyone wants a national title, but no one wants it more. It is what I am going for and I am not going to let anyone stop me.”