Most Batman actions figures have an eight pack, rippling arms and a cape.
Jake Herbert, Northwestern’s senior 184-pound wrestler, doesn’t have a cape, but he does have two national championships, a Hodge Trophy (given to the most outstanding wrestler in the NCAA) and an eight pack.
On March 21, Herbert capped off his Northwestern wrestling career with a second undefeated season, a second national championship and the Heisman trophy of wrestling.
In the NCAA finals Herbert took on the 2008 national champion, Mike Pucillo of Ohio State. Before the match began, Herbert paced around the mat staring at his opponent. Veins bulged from his arms and shoulders. His fists clenched. The Wildcat was beyond focused. He was dialed in. Herbert was letting Pucillo know that the Buckeye was about to become the 2009 NCAA runner-up.
When the whistle blew Herbert’s entire 184-pound body moved faster than Christian Bale in a Dark Knight fight sequence. Nine seconds into the match, he initiated the first take down, and it didn’t get any easier for Pucillo. After seven minutes Herbert was a two-time national champion by virtue of a 6-3 decision. Even though the final score seemed close, only one of the wrestlers who stepped off the mat had actually wrestled.
“At the NCAAs I wrestled fantastic,” said Herbert. “I mean, I went out there, I dominated everybody. I didn’t give up a take down and I didn’t give up an offensive point the whole time.”
The 2008 NCAA tournament was not an aberration, but rather a representation of his entire Northwestern career. Herbert is a four-time All-American. He is undefeated at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and he’s only lost four collegiate matches. His most recent loss was in 2006. Almost everyone knew he was going to have another undefeated season.
“All my opponents basically knew before I wrestled them that they were going to lose, and I think most of their goals were just to not get embarrassed and keep it a close match,” said Herbert.
But most of his opponents didn’t even accomplish that. Before Herbert’s final match — where he made Pucillo look like a second-tier grappler with a 6-3 victory — Herbert’s closest match was 8-0. He hasn’t always been such a prodigious force. At age eight, when the Wildcat started wrestling, he also played soccer and football. Since Herbert couldn’t focus on a single sport, he wasn’t dominant in any of them, so in 10th grade he decided to become a full-time wrestler.
“I realized you can be the jack of all trades or you can be the ace of spades,” said Herbert. “I just started working with it year round, and I saw a lot of improvement in my wrestling once I started doing that.”
Year-round wrestling helped him earn a Pennsylvania state title and number one ranking nationally in his high school weight class, but his focused mindset is the primary reason Herbert had such an illustrious college career. From the day he stepped into the Northwestern wrestling room, Wildcat head coach Tim Cysewski knew Herbert was going to be something special.
“He had a certain aura about him,” said Cysewski. “He’s very confident about himself and his ability, but yet not cocky. He’s kind of in-between there.”
Many casual wrestling fans disagree with Cysewski, because Herbert isn’t afraid to tell the world what he’s capable of accomplishing. The 184-pounder doesn’t think he’s going to do anything — he knows.
He already knew he was going to win every single match before the NCAA tournament started. He knew he was going to go undefeated before wrestling season started. Ever since sixth grade, Herbert has known he was going to win every single one of his matches.
The thing that actually bothers most of his opponents isn’t that Herbert says he can do something he can’t. It’s that when Herbert says he’s going to do something, they can’t stop him.
“If you’re going out there and you already know you’re going to win, that’s more than half the battle,” he said. “That’s 95 percent of it. The rest of it is just taking it away, and making sure that they know that I’m dominant, that they know that they don’t have a chance to score.”
It’s that attitude that makes Cysewski think Herbert’s list of wrestling accomplishments is still incomplete. The former Wildcat grappler definitely has the physical ability to win a gold medal in the 2012 Olympic Games, but Cysewski thinks it’s Herbert’s mindset that will allow him to become the best wrestler in the world.
“I’ve met a lot of guys who are capable of doing a lot of things like that,” said Cysewski. “It’s a combination of saying it and doing it. He has a tendency to say something and do it at the same time. It’s not all talk. He’ll back it up.”
Before Herbert starting training to become the best in the world, he took a break to let his body heal from the five month collegiate wrestling season. That break is already over. Herbert went to California with some other Northwestern wrestlers for a four day spring break, and then went right back to training.
“I don’t think I’d ever in my entire life, even when I’m retired, be able to stay out of the wrestling room for more than a week,” he said.
Herbert’s training has given him one of the most successful careers in NCAA history, but he’s not content with what he’s already accomplished. He’s not ready to retire, enter the workforce or become a coach. He’s ready to dominate the world.
“I want to make some world teams and win some world medals to prove that I’m the best in the world, not just in the nation,” said Herbert.
He had a chance to do that in 2007, when he took a year off from academics to train for the 2008 Olympics. But he failed to qualify for the games in Beijing because he didn’t win the Olympic qualifier. However, Herbert is 2-0 all-time against Andy Hrovat, the 2008 Olympian in his weight class. Wins like that show that Herbert is capable of representing the United States in London in 2012.
“When I’m on, I can beat every single guy,” he said. “It’s just a matter of making sure that when those World and Olympic team trials come up, I’ve got to make sure I’m wrestling my best on those days.”
Herbert’s recent string of post-collegiate victories may have him on his way to London. On April 13, he captured the U.S. Nationals Freestyle Championship in Las Vegas. That victory gives Herbert an automatic bid to the best-two-out-of-three finals of the World Team Trials. He already knows how those matches will turn out.
“Once I win those two out of three matches, I go on to wrestle in the World Championships in Denmark,” said Herbert.
And when he says he’s going to do something, he’s usually right.
But even if Herbert wins the 2009, 2010, and 2011 World Championships, he won’t have proven he’s the best in the world yet. He’ll have to wait until the 2012 Olympics to legitimately own that title. But even an Olympic gold medal isn’t Herbert’s ultimate goal. He doesn’t just want to be the best in the world when he’s on top of his game.
“I want to train so that when I’m wrestling my worst I can still be the best,” said Herbert.
It might seem cocky, but when you look at his track record, it’s hard to say that he won’t do it. It’s like saying Batman won’t save the world.