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The City Journals

Brighton wins Battle of the Axe with dramatic last second finish

Jan 24, 2019 06:54PM ● By Justin Adams

It was the kind of dramatic finish that most people only see in the movies. The two teams are virtually tied in the last match of the night. Neither fighter is initially able to claim victory. It enters an overtime period. Fighting for the home team is a freshman heavyweight who only started wrestling that year. The pressure of a 50-year storied rivalry is crushing down upon him, not to mention the opposing wrestler that nearly has him pinned to the ground. Every person in the arena is screaming as loud as they can. “Take him down!” yell the visiting fans. “STAND UP!” yell his teammates. There is only one thought that’s going through Tyler Knaak’s mind.

“Don’t [expletive] give up,” he thought.

Wrestling in the 285-pound weight class for Brighton High School, Knaak has mostly gone up against juniors and seniors this season. Though they might be the same size, he’s been going up against wrestlers with years more experience than him. At the beginning of the year, he didn’t think he would win a single match, he told the City Journals.

But when it mattered most, Knaak did what he had to do. He escaped the grip of Hillcrest High’s Jason Barnes and stood up, denying his opponent a potential victory for his team - a victory that Hillcrest has only claimed a couple of times in the rivalry’s 50-year history.

“Brighton’s kept it most years to be honest, but our kids don’t want to be the ones to lose it,” said Brighton’s head wrestling coach, Mitch Stevens, following the match.

Not only was the match significant for it being the 50th installment. It’s also marking the end of an era for both schools. Both Brighton and Hillcrest are undergoing complete rebuilds, so this match was the last one to be fought in either school’s historic gymnasiums that had seen the previous 50 matches.

Chris Raleigh wrestled in three of those previous matches, from 1976 to 1978. He, along with many other former wrestlers and coaches attended the 50th anniversary match.

“Coming down to the final match tonight was just remarkable,” Raleigh said. “In 1977 in this very gym it came down to the exact same way, the two heavyweights wrestling for the win.”

Raleigh says back then, wrestling was the “biggest thing in town” and that they used to have up to 4,000 people in the stands. “It was pretty amazing,” he recalled.

That’s a far cry from the couple hundred people that attended the Battle of the Axe on Wednesday night, though it certainly sounded like thousands of people. This reporter has covered major college football and basketball games from the sideline, and has never experience a more deafening amount of noise than the wave of cheers and screams that filled the Brighton High gym when Knaak finally managed to stand up and keep the match alive.

“It was crazy. It was really hard to try to coach our wrestlers because everyone in the stands was so loud,” said Anthonee Ouk, who wasn’t able to wrestle because Hillcrest didn’t have a wrestler in his weight class. Despite not getting onto the mat himself, Ouk said the match was “an amazing experience,” and maybe the best one he’s had in his wrestling career.

But as electric as the crowd was, Brighton’s Knaak couldn’t really hear them. All he knew was that he needed to score just one point. And that’s what he did.

Without warning, Knaak charged and performed a takedown that brought his opponent to the ground. It was enough to award Brighton a point. The match was over. Knaak was swarmed by his teammates and together they lifted the traveling Battle of the Axe trophy in celebration.

“I haven’t won a lot, but to win this one really means a lot,” said Knaak, who credited his teammates and coaches for pushing him to get better and keep going in every match throughout the season.

“That boy’s life changed tonight,” said Jerry Christensen, a longtime Brighton wrestling coach. “He’ll be telling his grandchildren about that moment. Had it gone the other way, just a couple seconds difference, he might not come back next year.”

Next up for Brighton wrestling are divisional and state wrestling tournaments, happening on Feb. 1-2 and Feb. 13-14, respectively.