In the summer of 1979, Joe Gonzales was under suspicion: Was he really Yuji Takada's brother? Gonzales, then a senior at Cal State Bakersfield, had paid his own way to Tokyo to train with his idol, Takada, the 1976 Olympic freestyle wrestling champion at 114.5 pounds, and other outstanding Japanese lightweights. But Gonzales' new workout partners couldn't believe that he was a Mexican-American from Los Angeles; at 5'2½" and with coarse black hair and thick glasses, he looked too much like one of them. They called him Gonzo because it sounded more Japanese.
The most striking resemblance showed up in daily sessions on the mat. Gonzales, himself a 114.5-pounder, wrestles in the Japanese style, which eschews brawn and dramatic, heave-ho body throws in favor of quickness, technical perfection and moves that attack an opponent's legs. From a square stance—most Americans prefer to stand with one foot forward, the other back—Gonzales moves constantly from side to side and crowds in on his man before shooting a tackle. He's so adept at scoring two-point takedowns that he often gives his opponent a one-point escape just so he can take his rival back down. "I'm a two-for-one man," says Gonzales, again holding to Oriental tradition. Of course, against the 25-year-old Takada, a three-time world champion, Gonzales usually ended up as a one-for-two man. He was still young. He sometimes got pinned. But more important, Gonzales says proudly, "They were convinced I couldn't be an American."
Gonzales isn't unpatriotic; it's just that the last—and only—U.S. wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal in the 114.5-pound class was Robert Curry in 1904. The Japanese, by contrast, have finished first in the 114.5-pound division at four of the last five Olympics. "I figured the way to become the best was to take after the best," says Gonzales. And sure enough, his blend of East and West has made him the best in the U.S.—and possibly No. 1 in the world.
After an unspectacular high school career, during which he was plagued by bizarre injuries and ailments, and after two disappointing years at East Los Angeles College, a juco, and Oklahoma University, Gonzales finally came into his own in 1979. While competing for Cal State Bakersfield that year and the next, he won 98 of 99 matches and NCAA 118-pound titles in both Division I and Division II (the latter twice). In 1980, as a senior, he established NCAA single-season records for most victories (55), most takedowns (448) and best record (55-0) and won his first AAU freestyle championship. He could have made the so-called Olympic team that year but saw no reason to try.
Yet his best year to date is clearly 1982. In January he became only the seventh American to come in first in any weight division at the prestigious Tbilisi tournament in the Soviet Union, and in March, in Toledo, Ohio, he won the 114.5-pound World Cup championship. He's favored to gain his third straight AAU freestyle title, this time at 125.5 pounds, at next week's national championships in Lincoln, Neb. "I don't see any Americans around who'll give him much trouble," says Cal State Bakersfield Coach Joe Seay, whose remarkable wrestling program may well produce all four 1984 U.S. Olympic lightweights (105, 114.5, 125.5 and 136 pounds). Says Dan Gable, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist at 149.5 pounds and now the Iowa coach, "Joe Gonzales has kind of proved that he's in a class by himself."
Gonzales has all the trademarks of a wrestler: the cauliflower ears; the obsession with work—he trained four hours a day, six days a week while in Japan in 1979; the habit of rolling his head around every few minutes to loosen up his neck muscles; the missing front tooth ("I call this my falsie," he says, removing his upper dental plate with its lonely incisor); and the wide, yearning eyes with which he watches another person eat. However, for a champion in such an aggressive, physical sport he's surprisingly under-confident. Although a marvelous storyteller when among friends, in less secure surroundings he's shy and self-doubting, reluctant to acknowledge his talent. "I don't want to be made out as some kind of unbeatable wrestler," he says. "Then people will expect too much."
"Joe has always underestimated himself," says John Azevedo, a former Cal State Bakersfield teammate and NCAA 126-pound champion. "I've worked out with him every day for years, and I knew all along he could be the best in the world. Technically he does everything well. But he's just starting to realize that." Gonzales is so self-effacing that he blames himself even for stunting his own growth. "I should have been 5'6"," he says. In fact, he probably should have been 5'6". As Azevedo also says, "Joe's had some bad breaks along the way."
The first was his birth. Mary, his mother, was in labor with him for three days before he was pulled out by the head with forceps, which caused minor brain damage, which in turn made him hyperactive. However, Mary and her husband, Joe Sr., a foreman in the park maintenance department of Montebello, Calif., were initially unaware of the brain damage. "They just thought I was a nuisance," says Joe Jr. At age one he broke an arm by tipping over in his high chair and somehow learned to climb up onto closet shelves and even the roof of the Gonzales house. Before he was 12, Gonzales had twice swallowed ant poison, downed a whole bottle of prescription pills and nearly strangled the boy next door by wrapping a rope around the child's neck during a game of tug-of-war. He was constantly on detention at his Catholic grade school, where some of the nuns thought he was literally possessed by the devil. Doctors eventually determined the cause of Gonzales' ceaseless activity, gave him medication to control it and told him he would outgrow it by the time he reached high school.
In his first two years at Montebello High, during which he took up wrestling because one of his friends had, Gonzales still showed vestiges of his wildness. When he refused to let up while playing running back at a freshman football practice—he had a penchant for barging into defenders even after the play had been blown dead—one of the linebackers flattened him with a tackle and fractured Gonzales' left ankle. One spring, Joe went out for the track team as a pole vaulter. Though his father, using a bamboo pole, had once cleared 13'6" and won the Los Angeles high school title, Joe's personal best was all of 7'6". "It would have been a good high jump," he says. Gonzales, it seems, preferred to spend track practice wrestling in the grass with his teammates.
After sophomore year, Gonzales decided to concentrate on wrestling and drop the other sports. For one thing, he'd nearly had his finger chopped off in a freak football accident. For another, he was actually good at wrestling; that year he won 28 of 30 matches.
But at the end of his sophomore wrestling season, Gonzales was bothered by severe back pains. For a while he couldn't walk. Visits to several doctors revealed a deformity of the spine. "The first doctor told me I needed surgery and would never be able to wrestle again," Gonzales says. "If I did wrestle, the doctor said, I might not be able to walk again. I wanted another opinion." He and his mother visited five more doctors, three of whom said Gonzales didn't need an operation. "We got back from that sixth doctor and the score was three to three. So I flipped a coin," says Gonzales. The quarter advised against surgery.
A series of back exercises cleared up Gonzales' pain, which was caused by a misaligned sacroiliac joint, but what has helped keep it from recurring is—what else?—the Japanese style of wrestling. Shiro Aoyama, an assistant coach at East Los Angeles College and a former Olympic alternate for Japan, saw Gonzales wrestling at an evening recreational program in 1973 and took him aside. "He said, 'No, no, no. All wrong, all wrong,' " says Gonzales, who at the time was trying to outmuscle his opponents. Aoyama told Gonzales that the Japanese style was not only superior, but it would also put less strain on Gonzales' sacroiliac.
Gonzales began working on the new technique the following fall, only to suffer another physical setback. His natural body weight then was 123 pounds, and he planned to compete at 115 pounds, which wouldn't have entailed especially rigorous dieting by wrestlers' standards. His high school coach, however, suggested that Gonzales would have a better chance of winning the state title if he dropped down one more class, to 106. Gonzales tried it. He starved himself for four days, enduring the dehydration, sleepless nights and nausea the regimen produced, and he did indeed make the weight for a Saturday afternoon dual-meet match, which he won 10-1. The worst, however, was yet to come.
While in junior high school, Gonzales, whose mother and father are 4'11¾" and 5'5", respectively, was so self-conscious about his height that he went to a doctor to find out how much more he might grow. The doctor told Gonzales he would probably reach 5'6" someday, and Gonzales is still sure that he would have, but for that four-day fast. "I messed myself up right when I was going through my growth year," he says.
Not surprisingly, what Gonzales did after that victory at 106 pounds was eat—pizza, tacos, ice cream.... He says that by Monday morning, 40 hours after his match, he had ballooned to a whopping 148 pounds. "I came out of the bedroom and my mother said, 'My gosh, you look like a chubby Mongolian,' " he says. Gonzales' body was so swollen he couldn't bend his knees or elbows. Once again his mother took him to a physician, who informed him that his overeating had nearly had fatal consequences: After four days of complete deprivation, Gonzales' body tissues, in an attempt to replenish what had been lost, basically refused to let any food or water pass through his system. Gonzales' wrestling season was ruined, although he did return for the last few matches. "The coach tried to talk me into dropping back down to 106," he says, shaking his head.
Gonzales went to Japan in a cultural exchange program that summer, 1974, and wrestled a series of junior-level matches while he was there. He won every bout and continued to sharpen his technique; he also began to absorb non-wrestling elements of Oriental culture, such as self-control, politeness and filial piety, that he still displays. "I thought I was all ready for a good senior year," he says, and indeed he was favored to win the state high school championship.
This time a head injury stopped him. In February, while getting in an extra workout under Aoyama's guidance at East L.A. College, Gonzales was accidentally pile-driven into the mat by a training partner and had to be hospitalized. For two days he didn't know who he was—"or even what weight class I wrestled," he says. Gonzales, whose record was 26-0, had headaches for weeks thereafter, and in March he failed to win even his sectional tournament. But no sooner did he regain good health than he showed his superiority as a wrestler: In early summer, he won the national high school title.
After a year at East Los Angeles—one he felt he owed to Aoyama and other coaches there who had helped him—Gonzales was given a full wrestling scholarship by NCAA power Oklahoma. "It was just as well that he went there and got a taste of Big Four [Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Iowa State] wrestling," says Seay, who had also recruited him. "Otherwise he always would've wondered if he should have." Even though Gonzales had had a 48-1 record at East L.A., the Oklahoma coaches tried to change his stance and takedown style to the conventional U.S. models. "What they did was lose a great wrestler," says Seay. Gonzales completed a 15-7-1 season and then asked Sooner Coach Stan Abel to release him from his scholarship so he could transfer to Cal State Bakersfield. Abel, angered by the request, refused. Excluded from even training with a college team for one year because he had walked out on his scholarship, Gonzales returned to East L.A. and finished his associate's degree in phys ed.
Gonzales is so good-humored that he isn't bitter about his year at Oklahoma; instead, he fondly recalls Norman as the place where he picked up his only hobby, snake collecting. One day a friend's rattler got loose in Gonzales' room, creating terror. "You talk about seven guys climbing the walls" says Gonzales. "They were dangling from the hanging plants. I got up on top of a bedpost." Ever since then, Gonzales has found snakes "fascinating," and he has acquired three nonpoisonous ones—caught during his training runs through Bakersfield—and a Mojave greenback rattler, which was given to him by the Cal State track coach, Bob Coons. Gonzales entertains guests by feeding the rattler mice, which he gets free from a biology professor. "All I have to do is bring my own jar," Gonzales says. "Mice are pretty expensive."
Such budget-consciousness has helped Gonzales fit right in at Cal State Bakersfield, a small (enrollment: 2,359) commuter school with little money for athletics. Seay, 42, a former national 149.5-pound champ from Wellington, Kans., started the school's wrestling program in 1972 with such limited funds that his team had to train in a science lab and his wife had to do all the wrestlers' laundry. Even now the school lacks a weight room and has a pitifully tiny wrestling room and so few wrestling scholarships that Seay, an exceptional coach, has to recruit athletes impoverished enough to qualify for general scholarships, which is what Gonzales had. "The school thinks they could throw us out onto the grass and we'd still win," says 158-pound senior Perry Shea, who's one of the four Division II champions on this year's team. "They're probably right." Cal State Bakersfield has won six of the last seven Division II team titles and finished in the top 10 of Division I for five years in a row. In NCAA championship wrestling competition and some other minor sports, schools may move up a division or two in one sport if they so choose.
Gonzales, 24, and Azevedo, 25, Seay's graduate assistants, find the environment ideal for training: Bakersfield offers few social distractions, and the two can work out not only with each other, but also with junior Adam Cuestas, the 1982 World Cup champ at 105.5 pounds, and his brother, Danny, a senior, who won his second Division I 126-pound title this year. "In practice, it's tooth and nail," says Azevedo.
"But pound for pound," says Adam who has modeled his style after Gonzales', "Little Joe is the toughest man in the room."
Gonzales' parents, now divorced were both born in Los Angeles, but all four of his grandparents were native Mexicans. "You want to know how we got to California?" asks Joe, not afraid to poke fun at his heritage. He tells of his 6'1", blue-eyed grandfather, a mine worker in the New Mexico territory in 1910 or thereabouts who took to dating the boss's daughter. "It was fine until the boss found out my grandfather was Mexican," says Gonzales. "Word got out he would be coming after my grandfather with a gun. That's how we got to California." By coincidence—and at less risk—Gonzales goes out with the daughter of a chief mine engineer for the United States Borax & Chemical Corp. in Boron, Calif. Her name is Joni Jones, and she's a senior at Cal State Bakersfield.
Gonzales sometimes cooks dinner for Jones, and the menu is usually Oriental. He's a semivegetarian, having eaten no red meat in three years, and he seems to subsist on things that are stir-fried. "A lot of these philosophers you hear about, like Socrates, even Benjamin Franklin, were vegetarians," says Gonzales. (Actually, Socrates advocated vegetarianism, although he didn't practice it.) "It has been proved that vegetarians have more endurance. The strongest animals in the world are vegetarians." Gonzales also eats ice cream by the half gallon and can't resist nuts. In fact, what saw him through., a tedious 1980 summer job—driving a forklift at a Sun Giant nut warehouse—was the access it gave him to all the almonds he could eat. "Just think," he says. "The summer of '80. The Olympics. It could have been Moscow. Instead, there I am in Bakersfield. In a nuthouse."
Come 1984, Gonzales hopes to be back home in Los Angeles, wrestling for gold along with Azevedo and the Cuestas brothers. "It would be great," he says. "A bunch of California boys doing the job in California." But between now and then, Gonzales will return to Japan to train, perhaps for five or six months. Gonzo just wants to make absolutely sure he still has the look and style of a winner.