For 28 years until his retirement two years ago, Kevin Holland of Billings was a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden.
It turns out law enforcement in the great outdoors was the perfect preparation for his current gig: providing security for the thousands of wrestling enthusiasts offering their full-throated support this week at Rimrock Auto Arena. Holland works for Crowd Management Services, which manages crowds in eight Western states.
“The parents are very intense here. That can be good and bad,” Holland said Friday while keeping watch over the arena floor. “They’re really passionate, more so than basketball and rodeo."
However, "the athletes here are hands down the most respectful you’ll see, and I’ve never had any problem with them.”
There’s at least one difference between keeping an orderly crowd and, say, enforcing the limit among anglers.
“When you’re fishing or hunting, everybody knows the rules. Everybody knows right from wrong. Here, I’m telling them the rules,” he said.
As he speaks, Holland is sometimes interrupted. The veteran warden listens to what’s going on in his right ear for a moment, then resumes his cordial conversation.
Parents who wish to snap photos or film the action from spots in the arena where they’re not allowed might tell him, “My kid has worked all year for this,” he said. “But you know what? Each of these 620 athletes worked all year for this. Everybody here has the same goal: winning.”
The emotion that’s generated as the pressure builds throughout the tournament is the trickiest thing to deal with, he said. People charged with keeping the arena secure and safe “understand how emotional fans can get, and that understanding is a big step in the right direction," he said.
“I really appreciate him having my back,” said DeAnne Malnaa, a CMS supervisor. “He’s proactive, not reactive. He looks ahead even before there’s a problem.”
With scores of volunteers and decades of tournament experience in Billings, Holland calls the three-day tournament “a well-oiled machine. I think about what I’d do to improve it, and there’s really not much I would change.”
Tournament Director Mark Wahl, the activities director for School District 2, did not dispute Holland’s assessment.
“It’s intense. Everybody wants to win, and everybody’s here to support their kids,” he said.
But the incidents of unseemly behavior among fans can be counted on one hand over the six years Wahl has helped run the tournament, which concludes Saturday.
“We probably started Oct. 1 gathering volunteers. So once it starts, it kind of runs itself,” Wahl said. “I think it’s by far the best athletic event we bring to Billings.”
One example of how volunteers ensure smooth operations involves the athletes themselves, he said.
Those wrestlers who exit the tournament during the first day show up the next morning to help clean the mats and set up the arena floor, Wahl noted.
“All we have to do is feed them lunch,” he said. “They work hard, and they do a great job.”
Tournament Manager Brian Michelotti of Helena said he believes that the tournament’s main strength is the “unbelievable passion” evident throughout the arena.
“This is the place for wrestling fans from throughout the state to come and take in the competition,” he said. “All that practice and all that conditioning really feeds all the passion that’s here.”