The question in the title was posed to me via email by ckmneon. This is a very good question. I shall attempt to answer it.
Despite the fact that my extended family has lived in one of the vital organs of American wrestling (central Pennsylvania) since the 18th century, and despite the fact that I have lived in the same corner of the world for my whole life, my first real exposure to folkstyle wrestling was in the winter of 2010-11. There was nothing much on television and I didn't feel like reading, so I turned on a BTN broadcast of a dual meet against Illinois and Northwestern. I didn't know the rules, I didn't know the scoring, I didn't know any of the wrestlers, or any of the technique. I loved it anyway. Even in a dual meet between two middleweight powers in the conference, the intensity and excitement of the sport was palpable. The stuff about "modern day gladiators", to me, isn't totally ridiculous. I imagine that watching an excellent wrestling match is something like driving Steve McQueen's Mustang while having sex and listening to Waylon's cover of Midnight Rider on repeat.
It ain't for everyone, but if it's for you, then you are one lucky person.
Now, when I am truly interested in something, I gain understanding of it pretty quickly. Of course, that is no rare trait. Wrestling has given reason to care, so I subconsciously and consciously dedicated myself to learning as much about the sport as I can. J says I have picked up a lot and I think he's right. I can now adequately describe a gramby roll! Woo! I didn't even know what that was!
As for the layman, first of all, you must accept that you will not always understand what you're seeing. Not all matches are barn burners like this beauty: Ed Banach vs. Mike Mann, 1983 Iowa State vs. Iowa dual meet. This is especially true for heavyweights. Oh, Lord, why are you so boring, heavyweights?
Now, let's start with the rules. Since I'm lazy and don't feel like explaining them myself, here's a link: http://rbillitz.tripod.com/rules.htm
That website doesn't cover everything about those rules, however.
A takedown is what David Taylor does.
An escape is the only way to win a heavyweight match.
A reversal is also what David Taylor does.
A near fall is also what David Taylor does.
A fall is what Dan Gable does.
A penalty is generally awarded when one acts like a pussy.
Stalling is what Oklahoma State does.
There. We have covered the rules of wrestling.
Moving on, we must now talk about the history of Penn State wrestling:
The history of Penn State wrestling will be covered by jtothep and I in a later series of posts.
Man, I'm lazy.
Ok, so that's covered. What next? Oh, yes, the modern era.
Let's do this in story form.
Twas a dark era in God's Country, aka Pennsylvania! Many a young budding wrestler had won PIAA titles only to flee his beloved home state - the land of beautiful and fair daughters of sprint car drivers, of souse and sauerkraut, and of potato chips and birch beer - for schools far beyond the rolling hills of Der Scrapple Vaterland. Many a time had Penn State finished in the top ten at NCAAs. But they always behind the evil monarchies of Iowa and Oklahoma.
Legends told of a time when a Pennsylvania school had won a seemingly mythical national championship far back in the first days of the reign of President Eisenhower (who, by the way, lived in the 717(souf central!) because he felt the power and glory and prestige of the 717!!!(SOUFSIDE!!!)), but no living man could truly remember anything but national titles being hanged in the rafters of Iowa City, Ames, Stillwater, and Norman.
"Those banners must be free from the decadent and weak lowlanders of the Midwest!" How great was this cry from the heart and bosom of Der Scrapple Vaterland.
"Pennsylvania's flagship institution must rule the world! Pennsylvania must rule the world!" But when, oh God, when? When would your most blessed Pennsylvania receive its birthright? Pennsylvania was a place your most decent servant William Penn founded as an experiment: could one colony produce the finest wrestlers in the world? The question had been answered with a resounding yes, but this did not satisfy the hungry legions of wrestling lovers in God's Country.
We could no longer tolerate the flight of our most talented and brave young men. The flagship institution of the Keystone State must become the world's most powerful fortress of grapplers!
Alas! The world's greatest concentration of high school wrestlers had not gone unnoticed! A bald man named Cael, filled with the Holy Spirit of Wrestling and the experience and love required to teach young men the Lifestyle of Wrestling, had seen that Pennsylvania - God's Country, USA - was the happiest hunting ground of wrestling ever to be seen on the Lord's Earth. He knew well that the dark legions of pig farmers in the Land of the Hawkeye would eternally curse him, but he cared not. The brave Utahan sought glory as a resident and coach of THE GREATEST LAND EVER PENNSYLVANIA.
Throughout the Keystone State, it was obvious that Years of Jubilee would soon be at hand! Bells rang! Birds sang! A champion had arrived! And, soon, we knew, veritable armies of national champions and All-Americans would be praised as PENNSYLVANIAN WRESTLERS AND CONQUERORS!
TRUMPET FANFARE! CUE THE FINAL COUNTDOWN!
So, there's your background on Penn State wrestling.
Next, you must learn about our enemies.
CORNELL BIG RED
I hate Cornell. I hate their wrestlers. They get their pictures taken for NCAAs without shirts like they're WWE wrestlers. Add a bow tie and, holy crap, it's the freaking Chippendale wrestlers! Pussies. I hate Rob Koll because he's a sore loser. I respect Iowa. I hate Cornell. I hate Ithaca. It looks like a communist convention. If you wear a leather jacket around Ithaca, a crowd will probably gather around you to celebrate the arrival of "Comrade Strelnikov!" I hate their mascot because the only Bigger Red was Alger Hiss.
OKLAHOMA STATE STALLING COWBOYS
Orange is a terrible color.
Intense Olympic Champion!
Intense legendary coach in middle of intensely watching intense wrestling action!
Intense radio interview - can audio alone intensely capture the pure intensity of the most intense twins in history?
Iowa does things "the right way." They do not wrestle solely for the sake of wrestling; they use the sport to teach young men to have a wrestler's mentality all throughout life. Success with honor is also what Iowa wrestling teaches.
They call on their athletes to compete to the absolute best of their abilities - and then to improve upon their abilities. The Iowa way is to attack their opponents head on for seven minutes - to absolutely crush them, if possible, but always to win. They try to emulate Dan Gable, who, as a wrestler, trained as intensely as possible every single day. Gable didn't miss a single day of training for several years. As coach, Gable did not call on his athletes to do the same, but that, still, is the model upon which the whole program is built.
They are an enemy to be admired and respected.
Jesse Whitmer is probably my favorite Hawkeye wrestler. He only won one national title and he won All-American honors only once. Gable called him "the strongest man in the world." Through sheer determination to be the best, Iowa wrestlers win.
I tend to distinguish between the program and the fans. Iowa fans, while extremely knowledgeable and generally fine people, look upon national and Big Ten titles as their birthright. So, they don't like us. In fact, they hate us. I don't really care what the fans think. I still respect their program.
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Minnesota has quietly won three or four national titles in the last fifteen or so years. They're a very good program whose style matches Iowa because their coach, J Robinson, worked for Gable back in the day. Much like Nebraska, however, Minnesota is basically a poor man's Iowa.
Oh, and their fans hate us too. But who can blame someone for being jealous of Pennsylvania?
With all of that said, the best advice I can give you I will cook into a few steps:
Watch as much wrestling as possible online. Use Flowrestling and YouTube. Old wrestling matches are especially good because they may help familiarize you with the legendary figures of the sport.
Read here, at BHGP (expect a Hawkeye bias, but don't get bent out of shape; think we're not biased?), and at any other wrestling blogs we link to.
Ask questions. Definitely ask questions.