The first time that Heath Johnson ever hit my radar was a pretty crazy experience, really. He frustrated a longtime friend/practice partner so badly on the mat to the point where this guy did something that was totally out of character for him.
So I was part of the Burlington Youth Club growing up which was more or less a Mepo-Burlington hybrid. When we reached high school, we all split up into whichever school district we resided in, which in most cases was either Burlington High School or Mediapolis High School. The split had a terrible effect on a lot of us. I was one of them. I wasn’t the same guy without having Phillip Klees and Adam Roberts to work out with every day. We were a perfect group of 3 and sadly for me, I was the only one of the 3 who went to Mepo although I’m glad I was at Mepo… just wish they were there with me. There were only 3 guys that I can think of who I had as practice partners from youth all the way through HS wrestling. Justin Kramer and Josh Gunn were 2 of them. Kramer especially since he and I were the same weight when I began and never drifted off too far from each other weight-wise until we graduated. There was another guy who started wrestling when he and I were in 4th grade and we were practice partners all the way until our Senior seasons, despite him always being a couple weight classes heavier than me. I remember the first practice he attended…I had no idea that it was the beginning of what would end up becoming a trio of Mepo’s best ever wrestling brothers. I won’t disclose his name, for this story chronicles a moment that he would likely consider to be the one he is least proud of, but he’s a good dude and a good wrestler. We will just refer to him as Bubba Smith…that seems to be the name I go with every time I want someone to remain anonymous.
So AAU State my 6th grade year was full of several results, situations, etc. that were huge storylines for our club. I placed 3rd for the second year in a row after being beaten in the first couple rounds and having to win 6-7 matches on the backside…for the second year in a row. My brother was the returning state champion and was expected to breeze through the tourney, but was beaten by a kid named Henry Wahle from Underwood both in the quarterfinals and for 3rd and 4th place. Justin placed 4th, which was his lowest ever AAU finish and after that weekend he didn’t lose another folkstyle match until he was a 7th grader, I believe. Phillip Klees avenged 2-3 bad losses from earlier in the season at this tourney. And another thing that happened was this was the “breakthrough” tournament for Bubba Smith which was the start of several years of he and his brothers being hammers that racked up a lot of hardware over the years. To be honest, nobody expected much from Bubba coming into the tournament. It was only his 3rd year and we were happy to get him to qualify for the tournament, to be honest. He was very talented and athletically gifted, he was just inexperienced at the time and hadn’t ever come close to beating any of the top guys in his grade. He shocked everyone that weekend, though and steam-rolled his way to the finals, knocking off hammer after hammer after hammer in the process. Bubba Smith arrived on the state wrestling scene and officially put everyone in our grade and weight range on notice. He had already exceeded everyone’s expectations and had one more match to win to accomplish his season goal of winning state… and this was in the finals vs. Heath Johnson. Win or lose, this was supposed to be Bubba’s best weekend ever. We were all so excited for him. It didn’t seem like anything could put a damper on it…. but we were wrong for assuming that.
Prior to Bubba and Smith’s match, I asked my dad who was co-head coach of our club, “is this kid that Bubba has in the finals good?” My dad replied, “oh yeah…yes, yes, yes indeed he is, Joshua. One of the best kids I’ve seen at any weight, all tournament long. It has been a great run for Bubba, but this kid is in a league of his own compared to some of the other guys he’s faced so far. I hope Bubba does it, but he will have his hands full.”
So Bubba takes the mat against Heath Johnson and you could tell at first glance that Heath was just a hammer. He was a red-haired dude who just had that “I am a badass” look to him. He was a 6th grader who looked like he could bench-press a dump truck. Could definitely pass for an 8th grader. He took Bubba down easily and looked smooth and technical in doing so. Heath Johnson had an answer to everything that Bubba attempted in that match that had been working so well for him all tournament long. Bubba actually didn’t wrestle that bad of a match against him…he was just clearly out-matched against a better, more experienced wrestler. Nothing to be ashamed of. And as the match went on, Bubba became visibly more and more frustrated as the outcome became more and more out of reach and in Johnson’s favor. In the 3rd period, they had a little flurry that I believe went out of bounds and at the restart, Bubba started on top, trailing by at least 8 points by this time. Bubba attempted a turn of some sort and Johnson fought this off and looked like he was going to get his hips free and score a 2 point reversal, when something happened to Bubba that none of us had ever seen from him before or ever see since. His visible frustration with the match made a transition to all-out anger to the point where he totally lost his temper in the middle of the 3rd period. His face became beat red and he gritted his teeth before doing what nobody who knew him would have ever expected him to do… he put his left arm around Heath’s upper-torso and with his right arm, he wound up and brought his fist back as if he were a major league pitcher and CRACK, CRACK!!! Bubba uppercutted Heath Johnson (I believe twice) in the face. It was one of those moments where everything seemed to get quiet and things were moving about in slow motion. You could hear the sound of Bubba punching Heath clear as day. He hit him HARD. Heath took a helluva punch and it was impressive that he wasn’t injured or dazed from it. The match was immediately stopped by the ref, for there was no question to anyone what had happened. My attention immediately went to whatever Heath’s response to that was going to be. “Is he gonna fight back? Is there gonna be a brawl right now?” I thought to myself. Heath’s expression appeared to be as confused as everyone else’s and when he understood what the situation was and that Bubba was DQ’d from the tournament, Heath calmly shook Bubba’s hand and confusion changed to joy when he realized that he had just won state. I couldn’t believe the self-control and even temperament of this guy. I would have been irate if I were him. In fact, dating back to my 2nd grade year or so, I had a tendency to become “chippy” with anyone who I thought cheap-shotted me for whatever reason. I got into an all-out fight with this kid named Blake Edwards every time I wrestled him. If someone hits me, it pisses me off and it’s my knee-jerk reaction to hit back. I would have surely punched Bubba back if it was my face he hit, but Heath is apparently a better, more patient man than I am. He handled it like a pro…and he was only in 6th grade. A 6th grader who could wrestle like an elite HS guy already and had sportsmanship that exceeded even that. It was crazy.
And nobody could believe their eyes, for Bubba was and still is a very nice person. I mean. I consider this dude to be one of my best friends to this day, but we butted heads quite a few times. He and I wrestled with each other for hundreds of hours in practice over the years. We had several moments that had become pretty heated. He never once became cheap with me or anyone in the room or on the mat during competition for that matter. He and I had our own little “in room” rivalry that we try not to bring up to each other to this day, for it sometimes results in both of us throwing shade at the other where physical confrontations seem to be a possibility. I have had him so frustrated in practice to where he would quit or shut down for the remainder of practice. I can remember two practices in high school where he got me so frustrated that I just stormed out of the room because I was so ticked off. Never once did he ever punch me or come anywhere close. It just wasn’t something you’d expect from him on the mat, for it just didn’t happen unless he was wrestling his older brother who knew how to push every one of his buttons. He was a pretty even-tempered guy. Not when he wrestled Heath, though. I have spoken to Bubba several times about what he was thinking when he did that and I have inquired about whether or not Heath was doing something out there to upset him… something that was going on that none of us could see. Bubba has always said something along the lines of, “nope, he was just so good that I felt like I couldn’t do anything. My confidence was at it’s max coming into the match and I felt like I could beat anyone on the planet and it shattered me when I discovered against that guy that I was far from it. I barely remember it because I was so upset that I felt like I couldn’t even think straight at the time.” It was pretty unfortunate, really. He was having the tournament of his life to that point. And because he did what he did in that match, he wasn’t allowed on the podium and wasn’t awarded a medal. My dad did call the AAU and fibbed by saying that he had a son who lost his silver medal at the tournament and requested a replacement. Which they did send to us and my dad was able to give it to Bubba at the wrestling banquet about a month later. My dad and everyone who was part of our club knew that what we saw in that match was not “him.” We knew that he essentially just “had a moment” in that match and that he was better than that. The main thing was just learning from the experience, which he did. He never had a moment in any match that merely resembled what we saw against Heath. And Heath went on to become the hammer that we all knew he would be.
On a different note, Heath was always a couple weight classes heavier than me, but I did end up in his bracket at one tournament. This was at the Mick Pickford Fort Madison Freestyle tournament my Senior year in 2001. This was back in the days when the Mick Pickford was a Fargo National qualifier tournament and it wasn’t uncommon to see brackets with 35-50 guys in it. I was in the 165 lb. bracket, which had probably 35 guys in it, give or take. It was THE toughest bracket I have ever been part of and I wrestled really good at it. I placed 3rd. I wrestled some of my best matches ever at this tournament. Some of the guys in this bracket included several state champions, placers and qualifiers such as; Heath Johnson, Cole Pape, Cody Koenig, Marcus Schneider, Joe Kane, Adam Reid, Adam Butikofer, Jared Evans, Marshall Marquardt, Adam Earll, etc. And since this was considered the “Tri-State” Championship tournament, there were also several hammers from Illinois and Missouri. I heard there was a 4X state champion from Missouri in our bracket, but I never knew who it was or if it was true. There are several more Iowa guys that I am leaving out. Anyways, I made it to the top 3 with Marshall Marquardt and Heath Johnson and had one more match to go to reach the finals. This was against Marquardt, who was tough as nails and if I would have beaten him, the finals match would be against Heath. I had wrestled Marquardt the year before and thought I had accidentally poked his eye out when defending a shot of his in that match. Scared the crap out of me. Anyways, he and I were in a pretty tough match all the way until Marshall hit a slide-by on me and when he got behind me, he launched me in the only suplex I ever fell victim to in my career. I was embarrassed the moment that I was upside down and noticed my feet in the air. When I landed, I remember thinking, “ah crap, I hope nobody noticed that.” I lifted my head up to see if anyone did and of course, there’s Corey Kalina, Mack Reiter and Trent Goodale sitting matside, laughing. They obviously witnessed it. 🙂 And in the corner of my eye, there was Heath with a smile on his face. He was presumably watching the match to see who he would have in the finals. Heath went on to win that finals match, which crowned him as champion of the most stacked bracket I was ever part of. Tough, tough wrestler.
What clubs, schools, etc. did you wrestle for?
Kindergarten -8th mat club in jewell. 7-12th South Hamilton. 7-8th fort dodge wrestling club.
What year did you graduate?
Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?
My brother Hesston wrestled when I was in pre school, so I thought I would give it a shot in kindergarten,and I was a little ornery, so my dad probably pushed me a little bit.
Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc.? How did they do?
Brother Hesston, 2 times place winner at Iowa High-school state and wrestled for UNI.
Nephew Hesston is currently in 8th grade wrestles for Roland Story.
What were your youth results? Any rivals there?
3 times state champ, Adam Fellers and Paul Bradley.
What do you remember about winning AAU as a 6th grader? The finals match..
When I was beating “Bubba” he got a little mad and decided to punch me, lol.
What was your record in HS?
How did you place at state every year?
Freshman 6th, Junior 5th.
What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?
Getting beat out of state my sophomore and senior yr. taught me there was always room for improvement.
How would you describe your wrestling style?
I attacked and tried to break everyone I wrestled.
How many guys in high school did you go back and forth with or exchange wins with?
In high school it was always during freestyle with Paul Bradley or Greco with Mark Mueller.
Who was your most influential coach?
I had several. Ivan Vust who ran the kids program. Todd Coy and Chad Latch who were both my high school coaches. And last but not least, Mike Rial who was my freestyle and Greco coach.
Was your team competitive in HS/college?
My freshman and sophomore my highschool team was tough and In college at Ellsworth we got 2nd and fourth.
Who was your most influential wrestler that you looked up to growing up?
My brother Hesston Johnson.
Who would you consider the GOAT Iowa HS wrestler?
Max Thomsen and mostly because my buddy Bart Mehlert was one of his coaches.
Who are your favorite current wrestlers?
Spencer Lee and David Carr.
What music would you listen to back in the wrestling days?
Lots of country. Mostly George Strait.
What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?
Senior yr at state knowing I could of done way better.
If you could go back and change one thing about your wrestling career, what would it be?
To know how to peak and to listen to my body.
What was your best wrestling memory or accomplishment?
Probably going to Fort Madison after my senior yr of state and tech falling 2 four-timers.
Who were some of your most notable competitors in high school? College?
Curtis Williamson and Mark Mueller in high school
Did you wrestle all year or was it seasonal for you?
How would the guys from your day stack up against the guys today?
I think I’m my day we were just more hard nosed than today. But that being said today they are much more technical and everyone is getting to that elite level faster.
Did you wrestle after high school?
Ellsworth Community College.
What other sports did you play?
What are your favorite sports teams?
ISU football. ISU and Iowa wrestling.
What are your hobbies other than wrestling?
I am a professional power lifter. Ride horses. Have an obsession with my three English bulldogs and spend time with my wife Justine.
How good does it make you feel to give back to the sport?
Makes me feel good cause it taught me my work ethic and what hard work can do.
How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?
Work ethic and hard work pays off in the end.
What do you do now?
I am a strength and conditioning coach for South Hamilton in Jewell. I am employed by premier athletic training in Ames, Iowa. And help my wife with our catering business the silver spoon in Roland.
Are you still involved with wrestling?
I am the strength and conditioning coach at South Hamilton and try to help in the room when possible.
Any advice for upcoming wrestlers?
Take advice and ask questions. There is always someone out there training just as hard as you so push it just a bit harder.
Any chance we see you wrestle again at an Old Timer’s tournament?
You never know and that sounds like fun.
Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?
To all the life long friends I have made and there is too many to name off.