Behind ‘The Bull’: An unfractured look at Iowa men’s wrestler Alex Marinelli
With his sixth and final season as a Hawkeye in the books, the four-time Big Ten Conference Champion reflects on his historic career.
May 10, 2022
Iowa men’s wrestling coach Tom Brands has a number of trinkets, posters, and art pieces that adorn the walls of his office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Among the items is a framed picture of Alex Marinelli.
The photo doesn’t depict Marinelli wrestling for a Big Ten championship or flexing after an upset victory in a dual meet. The Hawkeyes’ 165-pounder isn’t even scoring a takedown in the frame. Rather, Marinelli is returning Nebraska’s Isaiah White to the mat during a regular season match between the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers.
The bout is just one of 127 that Marinelli wrestled during his six-year college career. During his time in the Black and Gold, the 24-year-old faced some of the stiffest competition the NCAA had to offer, wrestling in 35 matches against opponents ranked inside the top 10 in his weight class.
Marinelli, however, doesn’t think any of the athletes he took on in college are the toughest he’s ever wrestled. He feels the same way about the guys he wrestled in high school.
The most fearsome wrestler Marinelli has ever grappled with is himself.
“It’s me,” Marinelli told The Daily Iowan. “I’m the toughest. [Iowa teammate] Spencer Lee said you are your toughest opponent because when you lose, you kind of feel like you beat yourself or you get in your own head. There’s just another human on the mat. They shouldn’t be tougher than you are. When I lose, I feel like I beat myself, every single time.”
From eighth grade on, Marinelli wrestled with difficult and life-altering decisions. From quitting football, to moving out of his parents’ house in high school, and deciding which college to attend, Marinelli amassed his share of battle scars.
Through all the gut-wrenching moments he endured on and off the mat, Marinelli emerged a four-time Big Ten Champion. Beyond that, the four-time All-American became a man his teammates, coaches, friends, and wife characterize as confident, relatable, reliable, and steadfast.
A football guy
Wrestling wasn’t Marinelli’s favorite sport when he was growing up in southwest Ohio. He didn’t plan to become one of the greatest Hawkeyes to ever step on a college wrestling mat.
Marinelli wanted to play football at Ohio State. His bedroom walls were adorned with Buckeye posters.
“Being from Ohio, that’s kind of a natural thing,” Marinelli said. “I had Troy Smith on my wall. I had James Laurinaitis as a linebacker on my wall. A.J. Hawk, just all those guys I thought I was gonna be. That was the plan. I was like, ‘I’m gonna go play Ohio State football.’”
In eighth grade, Marinelli thought his football dreams were realistic. He was a 5-foot-9, 164-pounder at age 13. Marinelli said his physical stature allowed him to dominate on the gridiron.
Marinelli’s growth spurt and dominance in football ended when he was 13. When he finished his wrestling career with the Hawkeyes at age 24, Marinelli was still 5-foot-9. He did, however, bulk his weight up a pound to 165.
Marinelli went from the hunter to the hunted during his freshman season of high school football. The now-former football player’s body began to break down as a result. Marinelli stopped playing football after his first year of high school.
“My high school (wrestling) coach, Jeff Jordan, was like, ‘You gotta not play football.’ I was getting hurt,” Marinelli said. “I was trying to play both ways. I was pretty much just tearing up my body. Obviously, I work hard, so I probably could’ve gone somewhere small and been like a linebacker. But I am not tall. So, it just wouldn’t have worked out.”
Wrestling takes precedent
Marinelli has been wrestling since he was 4 years old in Miamisburg, Ohio. The now-five-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree said he was a natural on the mat, which helped introduce him to Team Jordan, an Ohio-based wrestling club that Marinelli’s high school coach, Jeff, still oversees. One of the wrestling club’s fundamental parts is its “Jordan Trained: State Champ Camp.”
Marinelli said Jordan’s camps helped him evolve his technique and take his wrestling to the next level. Because Jordan taught him so much as a youth wrestler, Marinelli decided to pursue his high school education at St. Paris Graham, where Jordan was the head coach.
St. Paris Graham is an hour drive away from Miamisburg. To decrease his daily travel time, Marinelli moved out of his parents’ house when he started high school and moved in with his friend, Joey Sanchez in St. Paris, Ohio.
The now-four-time state champion took all of his high school courses online, which, coupled with his temporary residence with the Sanchez family, enabled him to participate in Jordan’s two-a-day practice schedule. His virtual learning experience allowed him to live with his parents and commute to St. Paris when needed during wrestling’s offseason.
“You could call it a first college,” Marinelli said. “It was pretty much like living a grown-up lifestyle. I don’t know if that was the best thing for me. It was something that made me mature early. I had to become pretty independent, I’d say.”
Marinelli’s decision to attend St. Paris Graham paid off. He went 200-4, won four individual state championships, and didn’t lose a single match during his junior and senior years. St. Paris Graham also claimed four team titles during Marinelli’s tenure. Marinelli’s dominant, in-your-face style of wrestling helped him earn his “Bull” nickname.
Iowa men’s wrestling assistant coach Ryan Morningstar had his eye on Marinelli before his prestigious high school career even began. Morningstar, who was principally involved in Marinelli’s recruitment, first heard of “The Bull” in 2011.
“I remember going out to work camps for Jeff Jordan when I was young,” Morningstar said. “Basically, Jeff told me, ‘There’s a kid out here that you’re gonna want to recruit some day. He’s a hammer. His name is Alex Marinelli. He’s only an eighth-grader, but he’s your kind of guy.’”
When Marinelli was old enough to start fielding offers from colleges, two schools stood above the rest: Iowa and Ohio State. During his recruitment, Marinelli offered commitments to both teams — though never at the same time. Fielding offers and mulling commitments to two or more schools isn’t uncommon for a high-profile recruit like “The Bull.”
Iowa men’s wrestling head coach Tom Brands said Marinelli committed to Iowa first, then eventually decided to swing to Ohio State. At that time, the Buckeyes had won a national championship more recently than the Hawkeyes had.
When Marinelli decided to decommit from Iowa, he called Brands. What the Ohioan said left Brands speechless.
“He was a top-10 overall recruit,” Brands said. “He was a blue of the blue chips. It was a big, big deal. When he called me to decommit, I didn’t even say anything. I just hung up. I was like, ‘That’s silly’ in my head … It was like, I’m just not going to take no for an answer.”
When Marinelli decommitted from Iowa, Brands and Morningstar didn’t cease their recruiting efforts. They continued their push to reel “The Bull” to Iowa City, while his parents made an effort to keep him rooted in Ohio. Marinelli was forced to choose between his family’s wishes and his own.
“When Ohio State was recruiting me, they offered something that my parents and family thought I shouldn’t pass up,” Marinelli said. “It kind of made it pretty tough to go somewhere else. You know, just a lot of pressure in different ways. Then, I committed to [Ohio State], and I just knew it didn’t sit well with me.”
Marinelli eventually decommitted from Ohio State and realigned with Iowa. Marinelli said he and his parents drove to Brands’ office in Iowa City to finalize his commitment.
“He was fatigued of the process,” Brands said. “He was like, ‘I know this is the best place for me. My first impression is the right impression. I’m gonna be a Hawkeye.’
“I think he had a little pressure to decommit from Iowa from his own family. I think that kind of wore him out too. Then, he was finally just like, ‘F—k it, I’m gonna be a rebel.’”
A team of two
Marinelli’s commitment to Iowa reunited him with his now-wife Moriah Marinelli. Moriah is a year older than Alex, so she enrolled at Iowa in 2015.
“We did distance for a year when I decided to come to the University of Iowa,” Moriah said. “He was still in high school. For me, that was the turning point and when I knew we were gonna fight for each other no matter what because we were apart and it didn’t really change anything.”
Alex and Moriah first met at the Ohio state junior wrestling tournament in 2011. At that time, their homes in Miamisburg and Urbana, Ohio, were separated by about 50 miles.
Alex and Moriah started dating on March 13, 2011. They got married in 2019, and Moriah changed her last name from Stickley to Marinelli.
When Alex moved in with the Sanchez family in St. Paris, which is only 11 miles from Urbana, he and Moriah spent time together on a near-daily basis. Like Alex, Moriah took classes virtually. She and her brother Eli Stickley, who also met Alex at the 2011 Ohio state junior wrestling tournament, were home-schooled their whole lives.
“[Moriah and Eli] were kinda on the same schedule as me,” Alex said. “So, it made it fun. We’d get done with school and Eli and I would just go ride four-wheelers, or Moriah and I would just hang out. So, it was pretty cool.”
Eli and Alex both wrestled at St. Paris Graham. Eli committed to the University of Wisconsin ahead of the 2015-16 collegiate season.
Eli wrestled three years at Wisconsin, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in 2017-18. Eli’s career was tragically cut short after that season.
Eli died in a car crash on his way to Iowa City to see Alex and Moriah on July 5, 2018. Alex was planning to propose to Moriah later that weekend, per The Des Moines Register.
Now, nearly four years removed from the accident, Alex and Moriah are still moved by Eli’s legacy.
“[Eli] is with us every day,” Moriah said. “From the second the accident happened, I basically vowed to myself, and to Eli, and to my family that I was going to live out his legacy. That’s just something that I, personally, have taken on. Obviously, that includes Alex because we’re married. I think he feels the same way too — that it’s our duty to do that.”
Over the last 10 years, Moriah and Alex have remained grounded in their faith. The pair’s religion helped them grapple with Eli’s death and better understand each other.
Happy Easter everyone! He has risen!✝️ pic.twitter.com/0XpYTLL7lq
— Alex Marinelli (@alexmarinelli65) April 17, 2022
“Jesus is at the center of our relationship,” Moriah said. “That’s a huge part of our story. Obviously, a lot of people have heard the story of my brother. When anyone deals with tragedy, You’re kind of forced to really lean on the people that are close to you. Naturally, for both of us, that was each other.
“In a sense, it’s been a blessing because we’ve experienced a lot of trial,” Moriah added. “But it’s brought us closer to one another and kinda helps us know that, no matter what happens in the future, we’re going to be side-by-side.
In rare air
During Marinelli’s recruitment, he received a letter from Morningstar. A number of goals were inscribed on it.
Morningstar wrote that Marinelli should aspire to be a four-time Big Ten Champion. “The Bull” never doubted his ability to reach the bar Morningstar set for him.
“I definitely thought I could do that,” Marinelli said. “I don’t like to brag and talk about this or anything, but since I was a little kid, every single time I went to the state tournament, I never lost. Grade school, junior high, high school, every single little tournament I went to, I never lost. So, that was like the natural thing to do — for me to come in here, be a four-time Big Ten champ and a four-time national champion.”
On March 6, more than six years after he received Morningstar’s letter, Marinelli won his fourth consecutive Big Ten championship. Alex downed Michigan’s Cam Amine via 2-1 decision at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, to clinch his piece of history. As he walked off the mat and headed for the venue’s tunnel, Alex triumphantly held four of his fingers in the air.
Marinelli is the eighth Iowa men’s wrestler to win four individual league titles. Mark Ironside became the seventh Hawkeye to win four conference championships in 1998. Only 17 wrestlers in history have won four Big Ten championships.
Despite the gravity of his achievement, Marinelli said he would trade all four of his conference championships to reach another one of Morningstar’s goals for him — win a national title.
“For us, it’s a qualifier,” said Lee, who is a three-time NCAA champion and two-time Hodge Trophy winner. “It’s awesome to win, but the reason why you want to win Big Tens isn’t because the Big Ten title is a big deal. It’s because it’s good for [NCAA] seeding. You’re not like, ‘I want to be a Big Ten champ.’ I don’t think anyone on our team says that. I think it’s like, we want to be a national champ.
“[Alex] has every right to say that. I think Marinelli would’ve rather been a four-time second and won one than a four-time champ and won zero.”
Marinelli qualified for the NCAA Championships five times — though he only participated in the event on four occasions as the 2020 tournament was canceled because of COVID-19.
Marinelli never advanced further than the third round in the national tournament — though he did help the Hawkeyes win a team national championship in 2020-21. He and Mike DeAnna, who wrestled collegiately from 1977-81, are the only Iowa wrestlers to win four Big Ten titles and zero national championships.
“I mean, it’ll always, always, always stick with you,” Marinelli said. “I think people are like, ‘oh, you’ll forget it. Time heals everything.’ Time can heal certain things. But I’ll always remember that pain, that hurt. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget the good things too. So, that’ll help with processing it.”
Amine bounced Marinelli from NCAA championship contention for a final time in 2021-22. The Wolverine avenged his Big Ten Tournament loss to Marinelli with a 3-1 win in the third round of the national tournament.
After his match with Amine, Marinelli wrestled his way to a career-best fifth-place finish, winning his last collegiate bout against Wisconsin’s Dean Hamiti via medical forfeit.
When Marinelli met with reporters after the match, he spoke with a quiver in his voice as he tried to fight back tears. When media availability wrapped up, he embraced Moriah in the tunnel at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
𝐀 𝐓𝐫𝐮𝐞 𝐂𝐡𝐚𝐦𝐩𝐢𝐨𝐧: 𝐀𝐥𝐞𝐱 𝐌𝐚𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐞𝐥𝐥𝐢 pic.twitter.com/hZnhm8kTYx
— Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) March 19, 2022
“That was hard,” Moriah Marinelli said. “It’s really hard to put into words. It was a huge emotional rush. It was just kind of like the culmination of his whole career and the pinnacle of everything right there and it was just done. That’s really a hard pill to swallow when it’s not the way that you want it to end. I just knew what he wanted, and I could only imagine what he was feeling.
“When he got his hand raised for the last time, it was like agony, almost. You could just see it in his face … It’s like, what am I supposed to say or do? Nothing will make that moment better.”
Marinelli’s win over Hamiti may be the last of his wrestling career. As of his April 14 interview with The Daily Iowan, Alex had not officially decided if he’ll wrestle again.
Alex Marinelli ➡️ Hawkeye Wrestling Club pic.twitter.com/kd49Tq7e65
— Cody Goodwin (@codygoodwin) April 1, 2022
Lee said Marinelli told him he probably won’t wrestle again because he doesn’t like freestyle wrestling, which is the format of Olympic bouts. College wrestling matches are contested in folkstyle format.
While Marinelli isn’t sure if he’ll don a singlet again, he does know that he wants to get into coaching. He’s already joined the Hawkeye Wrestling Club to help train its athletes. Marinelli traveled to the U.S. Open Championships in Las Vegas April 27-May 1 to assist the Hawkeye Wrestling Club’s coaches and athletes.
Marinelli’s career in a singlet might be over, but he won’t stop using the lessons he learned during the 20 years he wrestled. The heartache he suffered on and off the mat will help him teach the next generation how to wrestle like “The Bull.”
“I think it’s the same with anybody where you face that adversity, and you get past it, and it makes you better,” said Michael Kemerer, Marinelli’s long-time teammate. “He’s obviously faced some adversity in his wrestling career. He’s also faced it off the mat … I think those things have made him stronger and more of a leader. If he wants to go into coaching, I feel like that adversity is going to make him a better coach and equip him to help other athletes.”