AMES, Iowa -- Wrestling is a tradition at Iowa State University.
We all know the names -- Cael Sanderson, Chris Taylor, Dan Gable. Soon, one more name may be added to the list of champion wrestlers from Iowa State. That name is Dakota.
You won't find Dakota in the ISU mat lineup for the Cyclones' nationally ranked grappling squad. Yet fans still ask for his autograph and scream his name when he performs.
Dakota is the stage name of civil engineering graduate student Neal Isaak. Isaak wrestles professionally.
Yes, that kind of wrestling. The drop-kicking, body-slamming, jumping-off-the-top-rope style you see on television Monday nights.
It's the kind of wrestling Isaak loves. And he's good at it. So good that the premier professional wrestling promoters in Japan, where the sport enjoys as much or more popularity than in the U.S., have invited Isaak to train and perform in their country for two months.
Dakota in Japan
Being selected to perform in Japan and train at a dojo (the Japanese-style training hall that awaits Isaak) is a rare opportunity.
"They pick one wrestler a year to go back with them," said Isaak of the training and performing that lasts from Jan. 6 to April 1. "And it's pretty intense."
Isaak took part in some of the dojo-style training during the selection process. Everyone who participated had sore muscles and achy joints after just a few sessions. Isaak will have months of it.
The entire selection process for the Japan trip is as much art as science. The chosen one is not always the best wrestler, although that's important. The winner also must have athletic ability, charisma and an indefinable "it" that sets him apart from the other performers.
Isaak, as Dakota, certainly has the athletic skills. He was a four-year letter winner in football, basketball and track in high school. As a former homecoming king of Richardton, N.D., High School, he has the 'it' factor.
And he's learning wrestling from former professional wrestling champion "Handsome" Harley Race at Race's training center in Missouri. So, he's got the wrestling part covered, too.
A smart, shy wrestler
He also has something else: Smarts.
Isaak's undergraduate grade point average was 3.9 at North Dakota State University in Fargo; he won a scholarship from the National Society of Professional Engineers; and he is a McNair Scholar as a first-generation college student.
He is studying civil engineering with the intention of finding a niche career designing log structures.
One thing that Isaak always has lacked is the loud, boisterous personality that so many professional wrestlers exhibit. In fact, the soft-spoken student says he has always been pretty reserved. But that is changing.
"I was always pretty shy since I was a kid," Isaak said. "Getting up in front of a crowd when you're pretty much in your underwear, makes you loosen up a little bit."