Bobby Douglas sprang onto the red mat, his small, muscular torso tense. He had whipped through six elimination bouts in his 138.5-pound class at the Olympic wrestling trials in Ames, Iowa, and he had won his first match in the three-man round-robin finals. Now, across the mat, he faced Tom Huff, a tough and experienced wrestler from the Air Force, and this was the match that everyone wanted to see.
Under the complicated tournament system, all the wrestlers in each weight class competed against each other to determine the three best. These three then went against each other in a final round robin. All competitors started at zero. If a wrestler was pinned he got four black marks. A decision cost the loser three and the winner one, though if the winner in the decision clearly dominated he received only half a point. Each wrestler got two points in a draw.
Douglas came into the final round with only half a point against him (he had pinned five of his opponents and decisioned the other 15-0). The only other wrestler of the 187 men entered in the trials to reach the finals with less than one point against him was 250-pound Larry Kristoff, who had pinned all six of his opponents in the heavyweight elimination rounds. Then, in the round robin Kristoff was paired with his perennial rival, Curly Culp. They had met three times before, and Kristoff had won each time. "Experience is the big difference between us," Culp said. "I'm as strong as Larry, maybe stronger, but I haven't been wrestling long enough."
Kristoff has. He was seventh in the Tokyo Olympics, second in the World Games in 1966 and third behind a Bulgarian last year. "I don't want to make any excuses," said Kristoff, referring to the Bulgarian, "but we spent 30 hours flying to the tournament in New Delhi, India, and we arrived there at 4 in the morning. My first match was with the Bulgarian. I was leading 2-0, and then I ran out of gas."
June 2, 1968
In his match with Culp, Kristoff's experience paid off again. He had Culp in danger twice during the bout, and the crowd was yelling for a pin. But Kristoff, electing to take the win by a point decision, concentrated on a balanced attack and outpointed Culp.
"A very real part of experience in this game," Kristoff said afterward, "is to learn not to get greedy. A decision was all I needed, and I took it. I remember in the 1965 nationals I was leading 3-0 in a final match, with only 20 seconds to go. Everyone was yelling for a pin, so I went in for the takedown. When I got in there I said to myself, 'What are you doing in here, you stupid lug?' Before I knew it I was upside down surveying the ceiling."
With Culp out of the way, Kristoff stepped onto the mat for his final match looking like a slightly weary executive tidying up some last-minute business. He pinned Dale Stearns in 33 seconds. "This is my year," he said after the match. "This is my year. If I train hard, I can win the gold at Mexico as sure as I'm sitting here."
As for Douglas, before his final round-robin matches he lay sprawled on his bed at the Sheldon-Munn Hotel with a soft drink in his hand. "Yaaaahoooo, Mountain Dew!" he yelled. "Man, I love this stuff." He took a big slug from the bottle pressed to his lips.
The room looked more like a combination locker room, trainer's room and whirlpool bath than a hotel suite. One wrestler was soaking his wracked body in the bathtub, and steam poured out through the partially open door. Sitting on the bed next to Douglas was Freddy Lett, the eventual winner in the 154.0-pound class, who was nursing his right eye with a bag of ice. "When you get through one of these tournaments," said Lett, "man, you hurt from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet."
Lett took the ice pack away from his eye, which was red and puffed. He was in pain, and his eye was starting to drain. Douglas got up from the bed, found a clean handkerchief and taped it gently over Lett's eye to keep the light out. Lett had two more matches to fight, the first only two hours away and there wasn't any trainer on this trip.
Like Kristoff, Bobby Douglas feels that this will be his year. "The last match I lost was in the 1966 World Games," he says. "I was wrestling Kaneko from Japan and I was ahead 3-0, but I made a stupid mistake. I tried to stall and hang onto my lead. It took only a few seconds to change the whole complexion of the match."
He still had to beat Huff. Though both defeated NCAA champion Dan Gable in their first round-robin matches, Douglas had only decisioned Gable 11-1, whereas Huff had pinned him in 1:10. Yet Douglas was confident.
"Right before the match," said Bobby, evoking the prefight speeches of Muhammad Ali, "I'll sidle over to Tom and say, 'Hey, do you know I weigh 155?' and he'll start to protest and yell and say, 'Oh no, I ain't gonna wrestle no blob.' "
But when the match began, before Douglas knew what had happened, Huff had shot in, caught Douglas in a fireman's carry and thrown him to the mat. Huff was inches away from a pin, but Douglas had managed to get his elbow between himself and the mat before he fell and he squirmed himself free. Douglas was shaken. It was the first time he had been in trouble through the entire tournament.
Douglas came back in a whirlwind of arms and legs. Huff held him off, but finally Douglas found an opening and took Huff down to the mat. Huff was still leading, but he was about to learn the same lesson that Douglas had been taught by Kaneko in the World Games. "About the time I started thinking about a draw," Huff said after the match, "I found myself bridging on my back." It changed that fast, and Douglas went on to win the match by 7-5 and the Olympic trials.
"I'm going to celebrate," said Douglas, "and with something stronger than Mountain Dew."
The freestyle matches were over, but the trials for Greco-Roman, in which it is illegal for a wrestler to grab his opponent below the hips or grip him with his legs, were still to come. It is a paradox, but a wrestler like Douglas, who is better at Greco-Roman than he is in freestyle, prefers freestyle in the Olympics. The reason is, simply, that Americans are capable of winning in freestyle but are usually nowhere in the highly specialized Greco-Roman style. Most of the freestyle winners at Ames skipped the Greco-Roman matches, though after the final match-ups at the Olympic training camp later in the summer they may end up in Greco-Roman after all. Douglas and Huff, for prime examples, are our best in both styles, and the strongest U.S. team might have one of them in freestyle at Mexico City and the other in Greco-Roman.
And, as Larry Kristoff said in Ames, "If the freestyle winners leave now, it will give some of the other wrestlers a chance to make it to the Olympic camp." However, one winner, Jess Lewis, freestyle champion in the 213.5-pound class, stayed on and scored a rare double victory by taking the Greco-Roman 213.5 title, too.