Hudson Taylor likes to do card tricks and magician's routines… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
COLLEGE PARK — — He is one of the country's top wrestlers, a two-time All-American whose ordinary looks belie a primal toughness and legs that squeeze their prey like a hungry anaconda.
Meet Hudson Taylor, of Maryland, who won his second Atlantic Coast Conference title in three years Saturday in Raleigh, N.C., and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Wrestler.
Ranked third in the nation at 197 pounds, Taylor, who is 38-2 with an NCAA-best 24 pins, is the best hope to give the Terrapins their first national champion in 41 years. He'll compete later this month in the NCAA championships in Nebraska.
Never mind his benign persona - the geeky Drew Carey glasses, the nondescript arms and an array of hobbies more in line with a PBS pledge drive. Taylor is an accomplished tenor, actor, guitarist and magician. He writes poetry, paints ... and pins people. Once, in high school, he performed in a wrestling tournament and "The Nutcracker" ballet on the same day, nailing both efforts.
"Hudson is the only guy I know who would listen to soundtracks of Broadway musicals on his headphones before a match," said Kellen Bradley, a grade school pal who wrestles at Rutgers. "He's a funky character - the nerd who can kick your butt."
A senior, Taylor is Maryland's all-time winningest wrestler (161 victories), despite being one of its lesser weightlifters.
"Our 133-pounder, Mookie Golden, lifts more than I do," said Taylor, who can press 215 pounds. Not that it bothers him. That's Taylor, after practice, in the shower leading teammates in an a cappella chorus of "Build Me Up Buttercup."
"For me, wrestling isn't about strength or aggression," the Pennington, N.J., native said. "I'm not a brute; I'm a technique junkie. I understand leverage. My legs are stronger than my arms. I'm a tactician. I invent moves, and I improvise."
Taylor's forte, his coaches say, is a strategist's savvy.
"Some things that Hudson does on the mat, we're like, 'Wow.' He's not normal," Maryland coach Kerry McCoy said. "Flexibility, balance - he has it all.
"They say a cat always lands on its feet. Well, Hudson always finds ways to end up on top. In all he does, on and off the mat, he thinks outside the box."
His quirky nature has landed Taylor in trouble. Last year, he took heat from his coaches for cutting practice to attend Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.
"Attending [the ceremony] made sense to me," he said. "It was a point in history that I wanted to be a part of. Going there kept my life in sync."
This season, he began wrestling with a Human Rights Campaign sticker attached to his headgear. Taylor, an ardent feminist and outspoken supporter of gay rights, removed the emblem when some matmen complained.
"They felt that political statements should be kept off the mat," he said. "As firm as I am in my beliefs, I am here to wrestle."
Taylor's views on social issues have opened the eyes of his peers.
"Gender issues, gay rights ... a lot of these guys wouldn't know about that stuff, if it weren't for Hudson," Golden said.
"Some guys on the team are on the conservative side," Maryland heavyweight Patrick Gilmore said. "Having Hudson around to shake things up is a pretty cool dynamic to have."
On road trips and at tournaments, in the lulls between matches, Taylor does card tricks to entertain the Terps. The sleight-of-hand and hocus-pocus help keep him and his teammates grounded.
"These next few matches are the most important of my college career," said Taylor, who will compete in the NCAA championships that begin March 18. "Magic is the ultimate way for me to get my mind off the pressure of the sport.
"Hopefully, it's also true for my teammates."
As a kid, Taylor's offbeat antics gave his family fits. At 3, he tore off his clothes and plunged into the 5-foot-long fish tank in the basement, going face to face with a startled Oscar fish. Why?
"The fish looked lonely," he said.
Another time, in the front yard, the youngster climbed an evergreen to the very top and had to be rescued by firemen.
"I wanted to touch the very tip," Taylor said. "I am a curious person."
When he shimmied up the tree again, his father sawed off the lower branches. When the boy scaled the pine a third time, Herb Taylor had it cut down.
"Hudson was very athletic," his father said. "He would stand in a corner of the room, peg his legs up the wall, turn around when he reached the ceiling and look down on us, like Spider-Man, for several minutes."
Taylor embraced wrestling early on, practicing his newfound moves on everyone from Toby, the family's retriever, to his mother.
"Hudson used to tie me in a pretzel if he didn't get his way," Polly Taylor said. "I wound up seeing a chiropractor."
Even now, at 22, Taylor will spar with all comers. No matter that he has finished third the past two years in the NCAA tournament.
"He'll wrestle my mom," said Lia Mandaglio, his fiancee. "She's always trying to double-leg him, but Hudson picks her up and carries her over his head, around the kitchen."
There's method to Taylor's madness, those who know him say.
"He's still learning about wrestling," said Mark Bogart, a teammate in high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey. "Hudson has a genuine thirst for knowledge. He'll pick up anything that might help him from anyone, whether it's a third-grader or an Olympic champion."
Whatever it takes to win it all.
"Every little kid's dream is to win a national championship," Taylor said. "Hopefully, when I'm done, those Maryland wrestlers who follow me will look at what I've accomplished and say, 'I can do better.'
"That's what it's all about, trying to build on those who've come before you."