Alone In The Eye Of The Hurricane

While controversy raged over referees, politics, even religion, at the World Wrestling Championships, a quiet American won the only U.S. gold
August 22, 1982

The goings-on were loud, angry and chaotic. Tim Vanni of Porterville, Calif. and Mohammad Bazmavar of Iran, a pair of exceedingly quick 105.5-pounders, were on the mat at the XXI World Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Edmonton, Alberta last Thursday night, going at each other like alley cats, trading takedowns, counters and near-falls in their quarterfinal bout. Vanni's nose was bleeding; Bazmavar complained that Vanni had bitten him on the back. The U.S. coaches challenged a scoring decision. Then the Iranians did. Bazmavar, upset at another call, sat down on the mat and whined at the referee. Up in the bleachers, Iranian spectators waved their nation's flags and chanted for Bazmavar, Allah and their homeland. "Ee-rrron! Ee-rrron! Ee-rrron!" An American contingent responded. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" The two cheering sections exchanged taunts and curses.

With 40 seconds left, Vanni spun behind Bazmavar for a one-point takedown and a 12-11 lead. Bazmavar spun behind Vanni to tie it. With five seconds left, Vanni charged straight at Bazmavar and tackled him. At the buzzer, Bazmavar was on his back, a 15-12 loser. Kinsmen Sports Center throbbed with noise. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" The Iranians, whistling and jeering, showered the mat with their flags. They shouted insults at the Americans, the judges and Vanni. Canadians joined in to drown them out. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

When Vanni went over and offered his hand to the Iranian coach, the coach refused to shake it. He turned his back and stormed off. Welcome to the world championships.

Vanni's match was typical; this meet was an adventure. Following a winter of excellent performances in international dual meets and the World Cup, the Americans had seemed ready to make their best world-championship showing ever—and they came close. Their total of four medals (out of a possible 10) fell three short of the alltime U.S. high of seven won in San Diego in 1979, but the U.S. also placed three wrestlers fourth and another sixth, and finished second in the team standings behind the Soviet Union. Two-time world champion Lee Kemp of Madison, Wis. became three-time world champion Lee Kemp. All things considered, the U.S. performance was a minor miracle.

The team had suffered a series of setbacks starting in July, when its only 1981 gold medalist, 181.5-pound Chris Campbell of Ames, Iowa, had to skip the trials in Colorado Springs because of a back ailment. He was replaced by Dave Schultz of Norman, Okla., a natural 163-pounder with no world-championship experience. Schultz would give away 18 pounds in every match. Fat chance for a medal there, it seemed. Then, at a grueling five-week training camp in Colorado Springs, nearly every team member was injured. America's best gold-medal prospect, 105.5-pound Bob Weaver of Easton, Pa., tore ligaments in his right knee. Kemp, a 163-pounder, suffered a severe gash over his right eye and had it reopened. The 136.5-pound starter, Leroy Smith of Stillwater, Okla., separated his left shoulder. And so on. In early August the team limped into Edmonton.

There on Monday night, Aug. 9, roughly 36 hours before the start of the four-day championships. Smith slipped in a puddle in the athletes' dorm at the University of Alberta, crashed to the floor and re-separated his shoulder. He was out of the meet. The next morning Weaver also was scratched. His knee hadn't healed. That left the U.S. with eight healthy wrestlers. Or possibly seven. Heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner of Indiana State, the 1982 NCAA champion, broke out in facial blisters. Several U.S. team officials, afraid that Baumgartner's condition might be contagious, decided he, too, probably shouldn't compete. In wrestling jargon, this kind of a mess is called a predicament.

Fortunately, National Coach Stan Dziedzic knew where to find three replacements: eastern Montana. Vanni and 136.5-pound Randy Lewis of Rapid City, S. Dak., runners-up to Weaver and Smith at the trials, were in a van somewhere north of Billings, on their way to Edmonton to watch the meet. Vanni had been calling Dziedzic regularly to check on Weaver's knee. "I really didn't think they'd need me, though," he said. When Vanni called Tuesday afternoon from a McDonald's in Great Falls, he learned otherwise. "Get up here immediately," he was instructed. "And tell Lewis to start cutting weight." When he heard this, Lewis, 13 pounds too heavy, nearly choked on his Chicken McNuggets. Then he spit out a mouthful.

At the Great Falls airport, finding that there were no flights to Edmonton, Lewis and Vanni chartered a Cessna from Rocky Mountain Air for $691. "Good thing Randy had his American Express card," said Vanni. Joining them for the trip to Edmonton was heavyweight Gary Albright, the runner-up to Baumgartner at the trials, who had flown up from his parents' home in Billings.

What the three summoned wrestlers found in Edmonton, at their first world championships, was a truly international atmosphere. The Turks had come with large red national flags, the Japanese with movie cameras. India had sent the referee in the burgundy turban. The Soviets, who would win an astounding seven gold medals, had, as always, brought the best wrestlers. Poland was distinctive for its friendly, 7-foot, 300-pound heavyweight, Adam Sandourski, an immediate crowd favorite. "He looks just like that Jaws guy from the James Bond movies," said Kemp with awe. And, thanks to the Iranians, the Americans found another familiar face papering the halls and elevators of their dorm—the Ayatullah Khomeini, that old 140-pounder. "We scraped off every last poster," said Dziedzic, smiling broadly.

The Iranians also stuck meet officials with nettlesome problems. They disrupted matches with pro-and anti-Khomeini demonstrations, and their 181.5-pound wrestler asked for political asylum. At the first weigh-in, some of their wrestlers refused to strip down for the examining physician—grounds for disqualification. "They're not allowed to show their genitals," Dziedzic explained. Islam, not politics. But wrestling is Iran's national sport, so the wrestlers finally dropped their objections. Trying to keep peace amid all this were the host Canadians, who put up a poster that read: GOOD LUCK—EH?

Luck did matter. As "luck" had it, former Olympic heavyweight champion Alexandr Medved of the Soviet Union kept showing up to referee crucial U.S. matches. "Medved always screws the hell out of us," said one American coach. Indeed, questionable officiating in a 3-3 "criteria loss" to a Russian cost Marine Sergeant Greg Gibson of Quantico, Va., the defending silver medalist, a berth in the 220-pound finals; though he's the best wrestler in his division, Gibson came in third. Andre Metzger of Norman, who was on his way to a medal in the 149.5-pound class, had the misfortune to injure his neck in his next-to-last bout; he finished fourth. And because of the outcome of other wrestlers' matches—and the vagaries of the scoring system—Vanni ended up in sixth place, two positions behind Bazmavar. Figure it out: Both lost twice and Vanni defeated Bazmavar head-to-head. "Not bad on a day-and-a-half's notice," said Vanni.

Albright, however, had wasted a trip. On Thursday morning, when the heavyweight competition began, the U.S. coaches, doctors and Baumgartner himself decided he would wrestle. "No one's sure what he's got, anyway," said Dziedzic. "As far as I'm concerned it's just some blotches." Said team doctor Robert Culver, "It might be what we used to call barber's itch. I told him, 'If anyone asks, tell them you shaved too close.' "

Baumgartner was still distracted by the whole thing when he went up against defending world champion Salman Khasimikov of the U.S.S.R. in the first round. Khasimikov beat him up 8-2, and Baumgartner failed to place in the meet. At one point in their match Khasimikov, who weighs about 280 pounds, lifted the 260-pound Baumgartner onto his shoulder like a sack of, oh, imported grain, then dizzied him with three 360-degree helicopter turns and took him to the mat for four points. Like the other Soviet medalists—and there was one in each of the 10 weight classes—Khasimikov was technically superior as well as strong; despite a 14-inch height disadvantage, he put away Sandourski 5-1 in the finals.

Schultz, America's underweight fill-in at 181.5, was also handling larger opponents with surprising ease. He had his only troubles back at the dorm. On Thursday night his wife, Nancy, disappeared for half an hour, sending him into a panic. "I thought she was cheating on me," he later joked. Actually, she was still in the building, trapped in a dumbwaiter. "It looked like an elevator," she explained. The following afternoon Schultz sat around his room trying to remember how old he is. He had been knocked in the head during a 9-4 victory over a Polish wrestler. "My IQ dropped 10 points," said Schultz.

But on Friday night Schultz used his smarts and won the bronze medal from Akira Ohta of Japan. Even though Schultz had bulked all the way up to 168 pounds, his wiry physique made Ohta look like a rice dumpling. "A wrestler puts on eight or nine pounds between the morning weigh-in and evening matches," said Dziedzic. "Ohta must have weighed 190." Schultz's quick moves had Ohta looking positively elephantine. Schultz built up a 12-2 lead, then pinned Ohta with 59 seconds remaining.

The most pleasant surprise for the Americans, however, was the kill-or-be-killed wrestling of Lewis. After shedding his extra pounds by exercising inside roughly 39 layers of sweats, Lewis went out, pinned two opponents and clobbered another 15-3. On Saturday morning he was brilliant in winning a 13-12 decision over defending champion Simeon Sterev of Bulgaria. With that victory, Lewis had apparently reached the 136.5-pound finals. He leaped into the air with joy and whooped and danced. And then he crashed to earth.

The Bulgarians protested the match, saying the referee had overlooked a two-point move by Sterev. They won. The Americans filed a counter-protest, claiming that Lewis, too, had been denied points, for putting Sterev on his back as time expired in the match. He very obviously had. But because the clock wasn't visible on the videotape of the match to prove that Lewis had scored before time expired, the protest committee refused to grant him any points. Lewis, dispirited, got sloppy in the consolation final and lost by a fall. Instead of winning a gold or silver, he finished fourth.

"I feel so bad for Randy. I was all pumped up about him making the finals," said Kemp, who seemed genuinely down. "I always get more out of my friends' winning than my own." However, after 114.5-pound World Cup champion Joe Gonzales of Montebello, Calif. lost a tough 10-8 decision on Saturday and had to settle for third place, Kemp had to get himself up: He was America's last hope for a gold medal.

Kemp, a quiet MBA student at the University of Wisconsin, is the reason Schultz moved out of the 163-pound weight class. Now 25, Kemp is easily America's most accomplished wrestler, the only one ever to win four World Cup titles or more than one world championship (he had triumphed in 1978 and '79). Just seven other Americans have won even one world championship. But if Kemp did beat Czechoslovakia's Dan Karabin on Saturday night, he would move into the even more elite company of wrestlers who have finished first in three world championships.

Kemp took to the mat looking like an embodiment of America's fortunes at the meet. His right hand was taped to protect injured knuckles, and a bandage covered his swollen right eyebrow. The eyebrow had been torn open on Thursday night and then stitched up for the third time in a month. Not that the injury would slow Kemp down: He's already the most deliberate, cautious wrestler around. In the three matches preceding the final, Kemp had won by scores of 2-1, 1-0 and 3-2.

Schultz was sitting with friends in the stands as the bout began. "Kemp's gonna blow this guy out—2-or 3-0 at least," he told them. He wasn't kidding. Kemp and Karabin stayed on their feet virtually the entire six minutes, each playing defense. Kemp's attack consisted of six or eight tries at single-leg tackles. He scored on three of them and won 3-0. Even the Iranians almost fell asleep.

"That's just how I am," said Kemp, who celebrated his victory by just sort of standing there. "Even outside wrestling I've always envied people who are real outgoing, people who can get all fired up. But that's just not me." The meet probably needed a few calm moments, anyway.

When Schultz walked by a bit later in the evening, Kemp pointed at him. "That guy's good," he said. "Third at 180, wow. That's amazing. He could medal at 163 every year. But I'm sure glad he didn't do it here." Kemp, an intense, serious man, now smiled. "That would have meant I wasn't on the team." Even in Edmonton, that was one spot on the U.S. roster that was more than safe.

PHOTOTwo nights before he struck gold, Kemp got a firm grasp on Finland's Pekka Rauhala. TWO PHOTOSIranian fans cheered wildly for Bazmavar, but Vanni had him, and the match, tied up. PHOTOLewis (in blue) thought he'd beaten Sterev 13-12, but a protest brought him down. PHOTOGibson threw Canada's Rich Deschatelets, was tossed himself by a neophyte referee. PHOTOThe 7-foot Sandourski was toppled by Khasimikov.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)