The history of the Colorado state wrestling tournament: From Gunter Hall to Pepsi Center

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Many preps fans consider the state wrestling tournament as the premier postseason event in the state. That’s largely because 896 qualifiers and their coaches, families and fans from all corners of Colorado descend upon Pepsi Center for an unmatched, raucous atmosphere over three days.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Wrestling historian, Bob Smith, center, watches the action from press row alongside On The Mat’s Tim Yount, left, during his 69th straight wrestling state tournament at the Colorado State Wrestling Championships at the Pepsi Center Feb. 21, 2020.

But, as Bob Smith reminds, it wasn’t always that way. Smith, 82, is a Colorado Sports Hall of Famer who won 10 state championships as the head coach at Wray. He was the one who, in 1982, began pushing for the consolidation of the state tournament (then three classes, with each tournament often held at separate locations) into one spot.

“Wrestling people like to see good wrestling, regardless of who it is or where they’re from, and that’s what the state tournament is,” Smith said. “We needed to get it all under one roof, and it took five years for that to happen.”

Smith finally succeed in his goal in 1987 at McNichols Arena, where all classifications wrestled their respective state tournaments in the same location for the first time. The tournament stayed at McNichols until moving to Pepsi Center in 2000, and the rest is rowdy Colorado wrestling history.

“How could you not love this atmosphere?” said Smith, who is attending his 69th consecutive state tournament since qualifying as a sophomore at Denver North in 1952. “These three days at the Pepsi Center are what wrestling fans wait all year for.”

The following is a timeline of the CHSAA state wrestling tournament. All information was provided by Smith, who has emerged as the state’s unofficial historian on the sport.


The first CHSAA state wrestling tournament is held at Gunter Hall in Greeley, making it the fifth-oldest prep sport in the state behind football, track, boys basketball and tennis. The tournament featured one classification with nine schools (Greeley, Olathe, Fort Morgan, College High, Grand Junction, Montrose, Golden, Windsor and Fort Collins) and eight-man brackets (45 total qualifiers). Greeley won.

1936 – 1940

Tournament continues to be held in Greeley, with Denver city schools making their presence felt. Denver East won in 1937, and after Grand Junction took the title in 1938, Denver North won the next two years.

1941 – 1946

Tournament moves to Denver East, and Denver North continues to dominate, with four titles in six years.


Tournament moves to Denver West, and Denver North wins again as a then-record 232 wrestlers compete.


Tournament moves to Denver City Auditorium Annex. It’s still one class, but for the first time, a qualifying tournament is used for state. Denver North earns the five-peat.

1950 – 1952

Tournament moves to Denver University Arena in 1950, when Montrose breaks Denver North’s streak of six straight titles. Fort Collins wins the crown the next two years.

1953 – 1955

Tournament moves to Denver City Auditorium, and CHSAA begins recognizing the different sizes of schools in team awards. Colorado Springs won the overall team title in 1953, while Arvada won the “A” grouping and Palisade won the “B/C” grouping.


Tournament moves to Aurora Central.


The tournament is still held at Aurora Central but expands to two classes for the first time. Division I consists of schools with enrollment of 351 and up, and Division II is 350 students and below. The previous year’s overall champion, Montrose, repeats in Division I, while Wray wins the first of a now-record 13 state tiles with its Division II championship.

1958 – 1960

The tournament remains at Aurora Central for three more years and the state sees its first four-time individual champion crowned in 1959 when Montrose’s Bob Thompson wins the title at 175 pounds.

1961 – 1962

The tournament moves to Englewood Fieldhouse.

1963 – 1968

The age of classification separation begins. On different weekends in 1963, the Division I tournament is held at Englewood Fieldhouse and the Division II tournament is held at Aurora Central. The practice of separating the tournament sites continued through the 1970s.


The tournament expands to three classes: Class A (enrollment of 175 and below), Class 2A (176 to 550) and Class 3A (551 and up). The tournaments are staggered a week apart, with A at Greeley, 2A at Hinkley and 3A at Denver City Auditorium. The A brackets are eight-man, not 16, until 1973.


The three-classification system remains in place throughout the decade, and the tournaments continue to be held in separate venues until 1976. At that time, 2A and 3A both moved to Auditorium Arena, while the A tournament remained in Greeley. Also starting in 1976, six places were scored, and in 1978, true double-elimination brackets are introduced for the first time.


The A tournament moves to the newly-opened CU Events Center; 2A and 3A tournaments remain at Auditorium Arena.


The A and 2A tournaments are moved to Denver Coliseum, while the 3A tournament is at Auditorium Arena.

1982 – 1986

The locations for each classes’ tournament remain the same as 1981, but from 1982 through 1986, all tournaments are held on the same weekend. And, the finals for all classes are held at the Denver Coliseum.


The three state tournaments are finally consolidated into one spot, and 34,400 fans come out to McNichols Arena that weekend. Fowler (A), Fort Lupton (2A) and Brighton (3A) are crowned champions.


The 12 weight classes, which had been standard since 1943, are expanded to 13.


The tournament expands to five classifications — A/2A, 3A, 4A, 5A and 6A — and this format stands through 1994. Classes 4A and 6A have 16-man brackets with 12 contestants.


The tournament goes to four classifications — A/2A, 3A, 4A and 5A — all with 16-man brackets.


The tournament expands to its present 14 weight classes.


The tournament is moved to the Pepsi Center. Wiggins (A/2A), Hotchkiss (3A), Canon City (4A) and Pomona (5A) are the debut team champions at “The Can”.