Two-time world 163-pound wrestling champion Lee Kemp is basically a reserved, stolid Midwesterner, but last Thursday afternoon at the Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln, Neb., site of the national AAU senior freestyle tournament, he suddenly moved up to the edge of his seat and began pointing like an eager child. "Watch this," he said to those sitting around him. "He's going to do it." Kemp had been resting after his preliminary match when he spotted 220-pound Marine Sgt. Greg Gibson wrestling on one of the six mats in front of him. More precisely, Kemp had seen Gibson, who was sprawled atop James Phills of Harvard, clamp his arms around Phills's waist. That's where Kemp was pointing. "Here comes the gut wrench," he announced.
Gibson first squeezed the breath out of Phills. Then, in a single arching movement, his arms still snug about Phills's midsection, he flipped both himself and Phills over so that Phills's shoulders almost touched the mat. Gibson held his opponent in that position while bridging backward with his neck. "Obviously a rather powerful individual," said Kemp. Gibson couldn't quite pin Phills, but he didn't have to; the two points he scored for exposing Phills's back to the mat gave him enough of a lead—12-0—for the match to be halted on grounds of "technical superiority." Kemp settled back in his seat, satisfied with the performance.
For the most part, the three-day meet came off about as predictably as one of Gibson's gut wrenches. The New York Athletic Club won its 12th team title in 14 years, scoring 85 points to 61 for the second-place Sunkist Kids (a Western regional club), and such light and heavy favorites as 105.5-pound Bill Rosado of Las Vegas and 255-pound Bruce Baumgartner of Indiana State breezed through their weight classes virtually unchallenged. Joe Gonzales (Gonzo, Man on the Go, May 3) got by his first three opponents at 125.5 pounds and then withdrew, giving no reason. Gene Mills of the New York Athletic Club won that class. U.S. National Coach Stan Dziedzic, on hand "to see if there's maybe an outstanding wrestler out there we've been overlooking," didn't find any. But as Dziedzic himself admitted, in this instance being stuck with the status quo isn't all that bad. "With the people we have right now," he said, "I think we could win six or seven medals [of a possible 10] in the '84 Olympics." Added Wisconsin Coach Russ Hellickson, "We're on the threshold of being the best, the best, freestyle wrestling country in the world." The AAU meet also underscored the fact that the core of the U.S. strength is a couple of older competitors: Kemp, a 25-year-old Wisconsinite and America's most accomplished freestylist, and the 28-year-old Gibson, who's simply the most versatile wrestler anywhere, ever.
While Kemp was marveling at Gibson's exceptional gut wrench—the move itself isn't rare, but Gibson's skill in executing it is—other wrestlers and coaches were awed by his mere physical presence. The 6'3" Gibson is built along the lines of former heavyweight boxing champion—and ex-Marine—Ken Norton. Gibson has a 31-inch waist, an upper torso that appears to be twice that big around and, in the words of the 170-pound Dziedzic, "arms bigger than my legs." One referee said Gibson "looks like somebody's statue." Such is Gibson's athletic ability that he both wrestled and started at defensive tackle for two years at the University of Oregon and later had tryouts with three NFL teams, the Sea-hawks, 49ers and Eagles. He runs a 4.7 40 and dead-lifts 600 pounds. And while at Marine boot camp in San Diego in 1978. he set an obstacle-course record that still stands. "The old record was about 60 seconds," he says. "I think my time was 45."
May 9, 1982
Oddly, it took the Marines to put Gibson back on track as a wrestler. He had lost interest in the sport after finishing second in the 1976 NCAAs. He then quit school and spent two years around his hometown of Redding, Calif. working on and off as a security guard, a bouncer and a fireman. The Marines offered Gibson steadier employment—his hitch runs until 1985—and after the Corps wrestling coaches heard about Gibson's obstacle-course performance and his NCAA finish, the Marines stationed him with the rest of their wrestling team in Quantico, Va. It's worked out so well that Gibson's job is to wrestle. "It's good public relations because we're always in the newspapers," he says. "Besides, we do a lot of recruiting at clinics."
Gibson brought the Corps some especially good p.r. in 1981 when he was named both the U.S. Wrestler of the Year and the country's top interservice athlete. While few wrestlers have ever competed in all three versions of their sport (freestyle, Greco-Roman and Sombo), Gibson last year won medals in national and international competition in every style. "No one's ever done anything close to that," says Kemp. The Marines have traditionally been strong in Greco-Roman, which involves only upper-body holds, and they're now at the forefront in Sombo, a Soviet-invented mixture of wrestling and judo. Sombo is an acronym for the Russian phrase meaning "self-defense without weapons" and may be Gibson's favorite style. "You wear a jacket made of a very sturdy fabric and you use that in your moves," he says. "For example, if you want to arm-throw a guy, you grab on to his sleeve, and to hip-toss him, you grab his belt. It's really kind of fun."
Gibson seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his freestyle matches in Lincoln, too, where he was trying to win his second straight AAU title. None of his first four opponents could stop his gut wrench, and none lasted a full six minutes against him. Only in Saturday night's finals, when he met Michael Evans of Athletes in Action, was Gibson truly tested. "Evans is a real block of granite," he said.
Kemp was moving toward the finals with similar ease. He has been so dominant in his weight class for so long—since 1978 he's won four World Cup titles and two World Championships while losing only two matches—that his principal difficulty was preparing himself mentally for the meet. The AAUs lack the glamour of the major international tournaments or even of the NCAAs, and in Lincoln the meet was short a few other things, including spectators; for six sessions in the 15,000-seat Devaney Center the total attendance was only a few hundred. Kemp, who's working on his MBA at Wisconsin while serving as an assistant coach there, chose to label the situation "a marketing problem" and pondered possible solutions. He decided the most effective step he could take as a businessman was to remain in the tournament as a wrestler. And to wrestle with more flair.
Kemp has always been a defensive wrestler, winning his matches by scores like 2-1 and 3-2. "He plays off his opponent's attack," says Hellickson. "The more you attack, the more points he'll score on you. But if you don't attack, he can be stymied." In Lincoln Kemp became the aggressor and began rolling up points; he won five of his first six matches on technical superiority. "For once in my life I'd like to win an Outstanding Wrestler trophy," he said. "It's so hard when your scores are low." In the finals he would face former Arizona State star Roye Oliver, another strong offensive wrestler; at least one of them would probably rack up some points.
Kemp and Gibson, who have equally quiet temperaments and nearly ascetic lifestyles, awaited their Saturday-night bouts with modest splurges. Gibson, who doesn't own a television set, watched some afternoon sports on the set in his motel room and napped. Accustomed to rising at 6 a.m. and working out for at least five hours a day, he had found the pace of the tournament relatively relaxing. Meanwhile, Kemp, a semivegetarian, prepared a small feast for himself in his room with food he had brought along from Madison: granola, honey, sprouted-wheat bread, apricot bread, and herbal tea. "I've been gradually moving towards this kind of a natural diet for several years now," he said. As Hellickson and others will quickly point out, several years ago is also when Kemp consumed perhaps the ultimate in "plastic" food. While getting a glass of water one night, he inadvertently drank his roommate's contact lenses. When you hear a Lee Kemp joke, it's always the one about his hindsight.
For the first period of their Saturday match, Kemp and Oliver wrestled with such caution that a few fans started to boo, and the three minutes ended with the score 0-0. The match remained scoreless until, with one minute remaining in the second period, Kemp locked his arms around Oliver's right leg, hoisted him into the air by the crotch and took him to the mat for a one-point takedown. That was all Kemp needed to win, though he had wrestled his way out of the Outstanding Wrestler award; instead, it went to 136.5-pound Lee Roy Smith of the Cowboy Wrestling Club for his 9-6 victory over Randy Lewis of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.
In contrast, Gibson came out firing in his bout against Evans, whom he had beaten 2-1 for the 1981 AAU title. He shot double-and single-leg tackles one after another, but couldn't follow through on them. When he tried a bear hug, Evans responded in kind and set Gibson on his back for a 2-0 lead. For once, Gibson couldn't outmuscle his opponent. A pair of clean, football-like tackles, however, put Gibson ahead 3-2 at the end of the first period. "My only philosophy was to keep moving, because I know he doesn't care much for that," said Gibson later.
Gibson had a scare early in the final period when his gut wrench slipped and Evans again put him on his back to go ahead 4-3. But in the last 45 seconds Gibson twice exposed Evans' back to the mat for a total of four points. The match ended with Gibson in front 7-4.
Gibson said he'd make sure to keep his wrenches tight in the future, but otherwise he was pleased with himself. "It's important to win here because, well, just to show the other guys what you've got," he said. That was never much in doubt.
Said Kemp, "I never thought I'd be wrestling at one of these at age 25, no way. I was thinking '80 Olympics and get out. That was my plan. But it's been fun. If I go into business I don't know if I'll ever be a champion." He might not be in as good a position to solve a certain marketing problem, either.