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Hudson Taylor is a wrestling magician

Before I met Hudson Taylor for the first time, I briefly chatted with the legendary Wade Schalles about one of his pupils. Schalles -- once dubbed "Plastic Man" and "the most exciting" wrestler in the world by Sports Illustrated -- still holds the record for most pins in a collegiate career, and is the namesake for the Schalles Award, given to the nation's top pinner. And he assured me that, even in the quirky wrestling landscape, Taylor stands out.

"When you interview him," Schalles promised, "you'll know you're in the presence of a different type of athlete."

Thirty minutes later, I had learned that Taylor is a gay-rights activist and political canvasser, a former theater student who created his own interactive performance arts major at Maryland, a devoted magician who spends two hours every day with a deck of cards in his hands, and a performer who once instructed teammates to blindfold him, secure him with ropes and watch him escape from bondage, and then edited Gloria Steinem quotes and music over the resulting video footage.

He also happens to be a two-time All-American wrestler who boasts the most wins in Maryland history, the most pins in Maryland history, who's leading Division I in pins this season and who is tied for the most wins in the country.

So yeah, this isn't exactly a "take-it-one-game-at-a-time" story.

"Hudson's probably the most unique person I've ever met," said Steven Bell, his freshman roommate.

"He's just got a funkiness about him that you don't usually see, especially in wrestling," teammate Patrick Gilmore added.

"He's definitely different than what you expect," said his coach at Maryland, former Olympian Kerry McCoy.


If you ask teammates what makes Taylor unique, they might start with his politics. In the world of Division I male athletics, where a certain sort of language dominates, Taylor refuses to use homophobic slurs or abusive slang, saying "if we want to live a good life, how you think about things and how you talk about things is important." He donates to the Human Rights Campaign every month, engages teammates in debates on social issues, volunteered with the Obama campaign in Virginia, and caused a brief stir in the wrestling room by skipping practice to attend the inauguration last winter fall. His teammates and coaches weren't amused, but Taylor said he made the correct choice.

"I felt the cost-benefit analysis favored going to the inauguration," he explained. "I felt like I could go and get a workout in the afternoon. I didn't feel like it was necessary for me to miss something that I would never have an opportunity to do again."

Left-wing politics aren't necessarily a staple in the world of wrestling, so I asked Taylor whether he's converted any teammates.

"My peers...say 'Hudson, go hug a tree," he told me. "But the younger guys, I think, look up to me a little bit more, so I have a little bit more influence on them."


Alternatively, teammates might point to his personal style. He wears dark-rimmed glasses up until moments before he wrestles, once showed up at school with a desk fashioned out of cowboy boots and blue jeans, and has worn around sandals made out of truck tires that he traded for during a month-long trip to Africa.

"They smelled like they had been run through every kind of manure there is," Bell said.

Taylor has visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and China, among other countries, and wishes his schedule allowed him to travel more. His great-great-great grandfather and namesake, it turns out, is one of the most famous missionaries to China. That's why if you Google his name, you don't come up with a wrestler first.


His coach might mention the magic first, and indeed, within 45 minutes of our introduction, Taylor had a deck of cards in his hands and was asking me to pick one. (See above.) His grandfather bought him "some cheesy little box of tricks," when he was a little kid, and he soon started asking everyone he met if they knew any magic they could show him. He's now a member of the Society of American Magicians and goes to monthly meetings with middle-aged professionals in D.C., and thinks he could probably make a living with magic if he wanted.

(I asked if they knew he wrestled; "my ears aren't the most inconspicuous," he pointed out.)

The first time he met McCoy, the Terps coach, he started doing card tricks. The coach promised that Taylor could keep me entertained with magic for an hour.

"You come here, you don''t know what you're gonna get," McCoy said with a smile. "We've got an inflatable turtle, we've got [Robin Ficker] screaming roll 'em over in the clover, and you've got a guy on the side doing magic."


A Maryland staffer might bring up Taylor's major, a combination of art, theater, American Studies and philosophy whose goal is to explore ways to make audience members active participants in the creation of art. He's studied existentialism, read Camus and Sartre and Kierkegaard, and His senior thesis project will include bringing five-foot canvases and buckets of paint to different communities, invite people to express themselves and make a video out of the results, to "get sort of different aesthetic landscapes of different cities."

Steinem features in a lot of his video work. It's just so weird, I said

"I guess it's unexpected, so it's weird," said his fiancée Lia Mandaglio, a GW law student. "But it's good. I think it's so healthy, because I think sports is, especially wrestling, it's almost like being in the Coliseum. It's very reductive, it's very physical. And Hudson's very cerebral, and a lot of his wrestling is cerebral."


Ah yes. Then there's the wrestling: an unconventional style based on leverage and tactics and the ceaseless desire for pins. Taylor--who wrestles at 197 pounds--said most of his teammates are stronger than he is in the weight room. He said he's never been in a fight away from the mat and is opposed to fighting, but he is obsessed with technique, which is the through line with magic. And the ultimate display of technique comes in the pin.

"Pretty amazing," said Gilmore, the teammate. "He wrestles like he is in life, he's a very funky wrestler, very different. Every match he wrestles to pin. I mean, he wrestles to pin the guy, and most of the time he succeeds."

"Sometimes you see it coming, and another time you see it and you're like, 'Where did that come from?' said McCoy, his coach at Maryland. "I don't want to say unpredictable, because that doesn't really do it justice."

Taylor is 35-2 this season, with 22 pins, six more than anyone else in Division I. He has 85 pins in his career, 21 short of the NCAA record. He jokes about it -- "I mean, it's easier wrestling one minute than having to go seven minutes," he said -- but it's a quest for him, the same way it was for Schalles, whom SI called "a con artist and innovator" and a specialist "in improbable pins."

"I'm 60 now, and I can't say I've ever been around a wrestler that asks more intelligent questions, thought provoking than Hudson Taylor," Schalles said. "He'll come over and say, 'Now coach, you said turn your hand left here at a 45-degree angle. It was at least 50, 55.' I'll go what? Then I'll look down and go, Yeah."

Taylor doesn't know whether he'll wrestle competitively after his collegiate career ends this spring; training for the Olympics is a possibility, but as McCoy has told him, he can't just beg off from Olympic training for a week at a time to help in a political campaign or join a theater group. In the meantime, he's fixated on winning a national title; he's finished third two years in a row. He said he doesn't like praising himself on the mat, but he also said the idea of athletic legends is "what gets me going."

"Winning a national championship, if there was an emotion pill, getting high on emotion...." he tried to explain. "As a wrestler, you put so much energy into this sport, so much pain and sweat. It's a pain in the ass. It's a long season, it's a brutal sport. To win a national championship, that's like everything you've ever worked for your whole life coming true. I can only imagine how that feels, how emotional that must be. But again, aim small, miss small. I think I have a good shot of doing it."

(Photo by Greg Fiume - Maryland Athletics)

By Dan Steinberg  |  February 17, 2010; 10:23 PM ET
Categories:  Fighting Sports , Terps  
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awesome! Lets keep track of these guys!

Wheaton MD

Posted by: BushH8er | February 17, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

"We've got an inflatable turtle, we've got [Robin Ficker] screaming roll 'em over in the clover, and you've got a guy on the side doing magic."

Hilarious quote.

Posted by: fushezzi | February 18, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Love the photo of Taylor man-handling some dook nerd....

Posted by: putnam23 | February 18, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Great article, Dan. I hope we can get more coverage of Taylor's quest for a title and for community engagement and interaction through art here or in other Post venues.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | February 18, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to see him, Dominique Foxworth and Seth Stammler form some sort of superhero team.

Posted by: M__N | February 18, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

You've look at the rest and you are writing about the best---Hudson Taylor.

The question is: Does he wanna be a wannabe or is he gonna be a gonna be?

I'm betting the latter!

Posted by: robinficker | February 18, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

this was an awesome story.

thanks dan!

Posted by: elisabeth25 | February 19, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

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