This story initially appeared in the February issue of USA Wrestler.
They were supposed to be having fun.
Arizona State wrestler Anthony Robles and his coach, Thom Ortiz, were playing around one day after practice while facing off in the martial art of Jujitsu.
But the 185-pound Ortiz wasn’t having much fun against his 125-pounder.
“Anthony grabbed my wrist and I had to tap out because I thought he was going to break it,” Ortiz said with a laugh. “He has a death grip.”
Gaining the upper hand on a man who outweighs him by 60 pounds is nothing unusual for a guy like Robles.
The 20-year-old Robles has spent his whole life defying the odds.
Even though he was born without a right leg, Robles has emerged as one of the top collegiate wrestlers in the country. The Sun Devil sophomore is currently ranked No. 11 in the country at 125. He finished one win shy of All-American honors as a freshman.
Robles will carry a 22-6 record into the upcoming Pac-10 Conference Championships in Fullerton, Calif.
Robles began turning heads at an early age. He’s been on crutches virtually his entire life, but that hasn’t stopped him from doing the same things other kids do.
“We don’t take it easy on him,” Ortiz said. “He wouldn’t let us if we tried.”
The powerful Robles is a tough matchup for the rest of the country’s 125-pounders. Robles can bench press a whopping 300 pounds. He can crank out 50 pull-ups while barely breaking a sweat. He can walk on his hands back and forth across the mat.
He has developed his “death grip” while using his hands and arms more than a person with two legs, as he compensates for having just one leg.
He’s also played football, baseball, soccer and basketball.
And he can drive a car.
“Anthony’s been dealt a hand in life and he does the very best he can with it,” Ortiz said. “He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t ask, ‘Why me?’ He does what he’s told. He’s always trying to get better, and he’s only getting better. He’s a pretty amazing young man. He’s so positive. Every single day he has a positive attitude.”
Robles, from Mesa, Ariz., did not start competing in wrestling until his freshman year in high school.
He placed sixth in the state tournament as a sophomore. He followed by going a combined 96-0 in his final two years of high school, capturing a pair of Arizona state titles. He pinned his way through the state tournament as a senior.
“I love the one-on-one aspect of wrestling,” Robles said. “If I lose, it’s my fault I lost – it’s not because someone else messed up. And if I work hard and I push myself, I know I can be successful.”
Robles caught the country’s attention by winning the Senior High School Nationals in 2006.
The steady progression has continued since he arrived on the Arizona State campus in Tempe.
Robles redshirted during the 2006-07 season at ASU before jumping into the starting lineup the following season.
He threw a major scare into No. 1 seed Angel Escobedo of Indiana in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Championships. Escobedo was able to pull out a gritty 4-2 win en route to winning the national title at 125.
Robles rebounded to win his next three matches before falling in overtime to Stanford’s Tanner Gardner. Robles fell one win short of All-American honors. He finished his freshman season with a 24-11 record.
Two of Robles’ losses this season were to No. 5 Tyler Clark of Iowa State and one to No. 3 Charlie Falck of Iowa.
Robles won the Reno Tournament of Champions, knocking off past All-American Obe Blanc of Oklahoma State in the finals. He also placed third at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.
“I didn’t place at Reno or Vegas last year, so that’s definitely an improvement,” Robles said. “But I’m not where I want to be at this point. I still have a lot of work to do.”
Robles lost a pair of one-point matches in placing seventh at the Midlands Championships. He won his final match over No. 20 Ben Kjar of Utah Valley State.
“Anthony’s redshirt year, he lost to that kid,” Ortiz said. “Two years later, he beats him 17-1. Anthony’s come a long way.”
In a recent match, Robles fell behind early against Frank Lomas of Cal State Bakersfield.
“The Bakersfield kid took Anthony down twice,” Ortiz said. “Anthony came back and scored 10 points before pinning the guy with a cradle. When he came off the mat, he was upset because he gave up two takedowns. That’s the kind of kid Anthony is. He always wants to improve.”
The continued improvement for Robles also can be attributed to his size.
“I only weighed around 119 or 120 last year,” he said. “Now my natural weight is right around 130. That’s made a big difference. I’m bigger and stronger this year.”
Robles is lethal while wrestling in the top position.
“He believes he can turn anybody,” Ortiz said. “He’s an aggressive wrestler who wrestles hard and wrestles to win. He’s never been called for stalling. Ever.”
When he’s in the neutral position to start a match, Robles wrestles on his left knee with his foot behind him. He crouches low in his stance. He’s difficult to score on from that position because his upper body is so strong.
Ortiz said he expect Robles to be a factor when the NCAA Championships return to St. Louis in March.
“Anthony believes he can be a national champion, and I share that belief,” Ortiz said. “There’s nothing he doesn’t believe he can do. When he sets a goal, he’s not going to stop until he achieves it.”
Robles redefines the term selfless. The 20-year-old has displayed a “team-first” attitude that is refreshing in today’s era of “me-first” in the world of competitive athletics.
Even though he’s only a sophomore, Robles was named a team captain this season for ASU.
“Anthony is one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met,” said Lucas Mariacher, Robles’ teammate and roommate at Arizona State. “I’ve never heard him trash talk or say anything bad about anyone. He always has a smile on his face and he never gets down on himself. He’s an ideal teammate, roommate and friend. He has no ego at all. You don’t see many kids like that. He’s just an all-around great person.”
Mariacher marvels at Robles’ work ethic.
“It’s ridiculous how hard he pushes himself – it’s pretty amazing,” Mariacher said. “It’s hard for me to feel sorry for myself during a tough workout when I look over and see him next to me doing the same thing on one leg. He’s never taken a shortcut during a workout. He does everything the coaches ask us to do.”
While moving furniture and boxes into an apartment, Robles was determined to do it on his own.
“He won’t let me carry anything, even when we’re going up the stairs,” Mariacher said. “He likes to be independent. He doesn’t accept any special treatment.”
Robles and the ASU program went through a stressful 10 days last spring. Arizona State announced it was dropping wrestling before electing to reinstate the program just a week and a half later.
“We’re just really happy to be back on the mat,” Robles said. “I want to thank everybody that supported us. It’s awesome to be still wrestling for ASU. I love it here, plus my family lives right here in the Phoenix area.”
Early in his high school career, Robles had a chance to roll around with another promising young prep from Phoenix – Henry Cejudo.
Robles was watching this past summer when Cejudo won a gold medal at the Olympics. Robles and Cejudo both graduated from high school in 2006.
Robles has a story that is every bit as compelling as Cejudo’s.
“I’ve had little kids tell me that I’ve inspired them, and it’s great to hear that,” Robles said. “I think it’s awesome to have an impact on a young person like that. If whatever I’m doing helps somebody out in any way, I’m happy to be held in that regard.”
The remarkable story of Robles has gained its share of national media attention. He’s made appearances on ABC and ESPN.
“I’m not out here wrestling for publicity,” Robles said. “I don’t see having one leg as a disability. I just want to be a normal kid, and I want to be treated the same as everybody else. I don’t want any special treatment. I just want to wrestle and I want to be the best.”
Mariacher, his teammate, is among those who will be cheering Robles on during his quest for an NCAA title.
“There’s no limit to where Anthony can go and what he can accomplish,” Mariacher said. “If Anthony wants to be a national champion, he can definitely do it. I’m around him every day, but he still amazes me all the time by what he’s able to do on and off the mat. He’s an inspiration to me and everybody else here at Arizona State.”