He chats with me with a casual ease, talking about his life growing up in his home town of Oura, Gunma, while overlooking the training of high school wrestlers. Suddenly, his eyes sharpen, he shouts out words of encouragement, and then returns to the reminiscing.
Yojiro Uetake Obata, bantamweight freestyle gold medalist at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, has returned to his hometown to coach at Tatebayashi High School in Gunma. This is where he tried to find his way with judo, but was believed to be too light to compete against competitors of all weights. Wrestling, which divides competitors into weight classes, allowed Uetake to find his life sport. Before long, Uetake was a national high school wrestling champion. Little did he know that wrestling would take him to a far off land called Stillwater.
While teenage Uetake was dreaming of going to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the commissioner of the Japanese Wrestling Federation, Ichiro Hatta, was working on fulfilling a promise to Myron Roderick, American Olympian at the 1956 Melbourne Games and in the 1960s, and head coach of the Oklahoma State University wrestling team that would dominate NCAA wrestling in the United States throughout the remainder of the 20th century. After sending a strong Japanese wrestler to the United States in order to compete for Roderick at OSU, the wrestler went to Brigham Young University instead after being heavily recruited. According to the OSU sports magazine, Posse, “It made Mr. Hatta mad and he told Myron not to worry, that he would send him a better wrestler; that’s when Yojiro showed up.”
Yojiro, or Yojo, as the Americans called him did not really want to move to the US. After all, he couldn’t speak English at all. But at least Stillwater, Oklahoma had the small town feel he was familiar with in Gunma – people were friendly. And he liked the food – particular hamburger steaks and gravy, fried chicken and ice cream!
Fortunately, Uetake know how to control his weight so he could compete for the Oklahoma State University Cowboys. And compete he did, like no other Cowboy in its hallowed history. Yojiro Uetake never lost a match, winning three straight individual Big 8 and NCAA wrestling championships from 1963-1965, going an incredible 58 – 0 in collegiate competition. In between, he also picked up a gold medal for Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
What was the secret to his success?
Uetake had a great relationship with his coach, Myron Roderick. “He was a very strong wrestler,” Uetake told me. “He was passionate, strong in fundamentals and technique, and I really liked his focus on getting take downs. ‘Take ’em down and let ’em go’, he would say about how to get two points quickly.” The admiration was mutual. Roderick’s wife Jo Ann was quoted as saying, “Myron always said that Yojiro had natural talent, and was by far the best wrestler he ever saw or coached.”
Uetake also had a great relationship with the OSU football team, taking health and physical education courses with them, including future Dallas Cowboy star fullback, Walt Garrison. “He was one of the greatest athletes I ever saw,” Garrison said in this article. And apparently Garrison and his teammates saw a lot of Uetake because the coach not only allowed him in the practices, he allowed him to practice with them. Uetake credits football training, like running inside ropes, hitting tackling dummies in quick succession, moving side to side, fast-paced push-ups and sit-ups. “Tackling from a squat is great for wrestling as we are in the same stance, where we need to be ready to attack, hit, and get back and get ready again,” Uetake told me.
Living in America had a profound effect on Uetake. Not only was he coached by Roderick, and taken under the wing of the OSU football team, he learned how to build his own style of training. At the time, the NCAA did not allow coaches to train their wrestlers during the summer season. Instead, Uetake had to work to supplement his meager funds. “I would go to the Delta and Grand Junction in the Colorado mountains, which was like a desert. I worked on building irrigation pipes. And to keep in shape, I’d come up with ways to train.” Uetake told me that he would have to lift very heavy hay, but he’d do it in a way to work on specific muscles. He also maintained his feel for combat by actually tackling trees.
If he was in Japan, Uetake Obata told me he would be wrestling all the time, and following the directions of his coach. And he would never have developed his own way of training, and never really learn how to best take advantage of their own body and physical gifts. “I did this myself,” he said. “Roderick taught me how to focus, but I learned a lot on my own.”
On Monday, August 3, 2015, Yojiro “Yojo” Uetake Obata was finally inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. As he said in his acceptance speech, nothing gives him more pride. “I have always loved Oklahoma. Every time I come back to Oklahoma I look down at the red ground through the window of the airplane and think, ‘Oh boy, I am back in Oklahoma.’ I scream in my heart every time. I get off the plane and I smell the Oklahoma wind, and see the big land. What a beautiful country it is.”
What’s the definitive proof of Uetake Obata’s Oklahoman roots? Watch this interview of Uetake below and appreciate the drawl.