COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — More than four decades separate the high school wrestling experience of Anthonee Ouk and Chris Raleigh, but they might as well be teammates next Wednesday.
“I’m excited and nervous,” said Ouk, a junior at Brighton High who will wrestle at 126 pounds in one of the state's oldest rivalries next week when Hillcrest visits Brighton for the 50th Battle of the Ax wrestling meet at 7 p.m. “It’s really important for us as a team. It really does bring us closer together, but it also unites us with teams in the past. It’s just something I always look forward to. It’s the most nerve-wracking, but always the most fun dual because of the energy.”
When Ouk takes the mat against a wrestler from Hillcrest, he will be representing a lot of men in the stands like Raleigh, who wrestled for the Bengals from 1976 to 1978.
In 50 years, a lot has changed.
Computers fit in a pocket and phones no longer need a cord. Entertainment is on demand, and cars drive themselves.
The one thing that has not changed is how two communities feel about a rivalry started 50 years ago by a couple of guys hoping to promote the sport of wrestling.
“Aside from region and state, it was the highlight of the year,” Raleigh said of his time representing the Bengals. “There was always quite a high level of competition and expectation.”
Weston Shumway doesn’t know Raleigh, but he echoed those sentiments, even though the event doesn’t draw the thousands of people it once did.
“We all come into it with an attitude,” said Shumway, a Brighton captain who will wrestle at 160 pounds next Wednesday. “You want to keep the flow going from all the other generations. We have to uphold our name.”
And the one thing Shumway doesn’t want to be is the senior class that failed to win the Battle of the Ax.
“We definitely don’t want to be that class,” he said. “It’s not just another meet. It’s something that’s been going on for 50 years.”
The event began in 1969 when Brighton head coach Don Neff approached Hillcrest wrestling coach Tex Castro to see if they could start something that would generate excitement and support for their teams. It worked.
The two coaches will be at Wednesday’s meet, and every wrestler competing will receive an engraved coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of the rivalry dual.
Brighton has dominated the event and the program has earned 13 state titles, including the Bengals’ first state title in any sport in 1974.
Mark Montague never wrestled, but he was recruited by Neff to hand out flyers to drum up support in 1970, his junior year.
“I was a skier, and Don Neff came to me and said, ‘I need someone to help promote wrestling,'” Montague said. “He sent me to Gygi Printing, and I printed like 600 or 700 flyers. I’d get my friends together and we’d hand out these flyers about four or five days before.” It worked, and thousands packed the gym. Regardless of whether the event was at Hillcrest or Brighton, the support was almost overwhelming.
“We’d have to turn people away,” said Montague, who began coaching wrestling alongside Neff when he returned to Brighton as a government teacher. “Wrestling slowed down a bit when a lot of the colleges didn’t offer it. As they started taking it out of the colleges, that really hurt the programs. But it’s still a big deal in Utah. And as far as the rivalry, I’ve never seen a rivalry in basketball like what happened with Battle of the Ax.”
Montague and Raleigh are among the alumni who will be on hand to watch guys like Shumway and Ouk compete.1 comment on this story
Senior Jaxson Wilde has been wrestling since he was in elementary school, and he said the event means more to the team than everything except region and state.
“It’s one of the funnest meets I’ve ever been a part of in the last four years,” he said. “It’s important to do your best in this meet not only for the current team members, but for those from the past.”
Wilde said they feel nervous anticipation for the opportunity to win the ax once again.
“It’s been going on for 50 years,” he said. “I do feel lucky. I feel like it’s awesome to be on a team with so many great legends.”