Deep in the athletic center of Edinboro University, in Edinboro, Pa., Bruce Baumgartner is putting in more hard time. At the end of a subterranean hallway embroidered haphazardly with red dots—speckles of blood—Baumgartner is tucked away in his private cell. He has been working in the wrestling room for a solid hour, 60 minutes of continual skirmishing against alternating opponents. Consequently, Baumgartner looks more the survivor than the Hidden Legend. His hair is slick, and his shirt and shorts are darkened with sweat. He kneels on the mat, his chest heaving. A red welt runs down a cheek, and over one eye there is a dribble of blood.
He rises, walks over to a corner and climbs onto a leg-exercise machine. "Tighten it," he says.
Dean Hall, another wrestler, turns a handle, then glances at a watch. "Go!" he says. Baumgartner's legs begin pushing like pistons. The machine's steel parts clatter. Just five seconds into the exercise, Baumgartner's movements start to slow. "Go, go, go!" screams Hall. "Got to win. Don't let it beat you."
Now Baumgartner's head is thrashing about. His shoulders are rocking, trying to force the strength from his upper body down to his legs. Grunting, eyes closed, he bites on a wad of his T-shirt. The din from the machine, from Hall, from Baumgartner, overwhelms the room.
October 19, 1986
Half a minute later, Hall shouts, "That's it!" Baumgartner slumps over the handlebars. "Twenty seconds," says Hall. "Get ready. Ten seconds, nine, eight...." Baumgartner has four more sets to do.
And he will do them. He must. Baumgartner is the best superheavyweight wrestler in the world. His championships include the NCAA, Olympic Games, World University Games, Goodwill Games and three World Cups. But never has he won the world championship. This week in Budapest he will wrestle once again for the only major title that has eluded him.
In the Soviet Union David Gobedjichvili, the current world champion, is putting his body through similar torture. He must. He has wrestled Baumgartner six times; he has lost four of those matches.
In 1966, back in Haledon, N.J., Bruce's father, Bob, a diesel mechanic for a bus company, bought the family's first new car, a Ford station wagon. It was a red-letter day. Bob told Bruce, then six years old, that when he grew up the Ford would be his. Just last year, long after its odometer had stopped turning, Bruce retired the wagon and its memories. He thought about burying the heap in the backyard, as if it were a faithful old pet.
For the 25-year-old Baumgartner, loyalty and perseverance are admirable qualities in others; they are requirements for himself. His father is nicknamed Big Bob, as might be expected considering the man's size—6'3", 250 pounds—and the fact that his older son is named Robert Jr. The Baumgartner patriarch is genial—most Big Bobs are—but he can be very firm. "At my house there was one way, Dad's way," says Bruce. "He was not always right, but he was never wrong."
Growing up, Bruce did not watch much TV, but he occasionally would see The Honeymooners. He didn't like the show, even though its star, Jackie Gleason, played the role of Ralph Kramden, a guy who worked for a bus company, just like Big Bob has for 37 years. The difference was respect: Kramden was always bellowing and getting none, while Baumgartner's father hardly ever raised his voice but was always in control.
The home was a classroom, and the lesson was simple: Sacrifice brings reward. Bruce remembers the time when his father got an emergency call to get to the bus barn. The temperature was 9°. The furnace had failed and water pipes had broken, causing a flood. Big Bob, wearing coveralls wet from dripping water, held a blowtorch on a stuck valve for two hours, until it freed up so the water could be shut off. That night his leg swelled like a balloon. "The leg had frozen," says Bruce. "But he never had asked anyone to take the torch."
To the kids who wrestled against Baumgartner when he was at Manchester Regional High School it must seem inconceivable that he would have bothered to stick with wrestling. Only seven years ago he was not good enough to win his state prep title, finishing third as a senior. Top wrestling colleges like Iowa and Oklahoma State did not want him. Instead, he ended up at Indiana State University. Now still improving, still working out four hours a day, Baumgartner is the finest superheavyweight freestyler in American history.
If a boxer's hands can be considered lethal, then Baumgartner's body should be the subject of a disarmament conference. He stands 6'2", weighs 270 pounds and has 18-inch biceps and a 52-inch chest. But there are a lot of big superheavies. What makes Baumgartner stand out is that he has strength and an unusual quickness. Mike Chapman, a wrestling authority, says, "Nine times out of ten someone with Baumgartner's skills would be in the National Football League"—which might help explain why the U.S. never had been a power in the heaviest weight classes in international wrestling.
Baumgartner has dramatically altered that situation. In fact he has won so many tournaments, and the odd pieces of furniture and appliances that go with them, that he says, "My house is decorated in Early American and European electrical knickknacks. The trouble is, none of the European stuff runs on American current."
In February 1984 at the Tbilisi tournament in the U.S.S.R., Baumgartner was invited to dinner at the home of a Russian friend. "They're talking about you," said the host, pointing at a commentator on his television set. "He says our country is becoming obsessed with beating you."
"The Rooskies are panicking, and that's not like them," says Jeff Blatnick, the Greco-Roman Olympic champ and Baumgartner's occasional training partner. "They keep studying Bruce, but they can't figure him out. It's driving them crazy. Because they know, like we know, that he hasn't seen his best years yet. He's coming into full bloom."
The tight-knit community of freestyle wrestlers in the U.S. hopes Baumgartner will become the sport's Greg LeMond, carrying its message beyond its narrow borders. "A lot of people are counting on Bruce," says Mike DeAnna, the wrestling coach at Edinboro, where Baumgartner is his assistant. "They depend on him to win, and it's a shock to them if he loses. He knows, although he doesn't say much, that he's representing a lot of people, and the United States."
"I'm no Audie Murphy or Sergeant York," says Baumgartner. "If people want me to be a hero, it'll happen."
Baumgartner never was one to rush matters. It was not until he went away to Indiana State, where the onetime mediocre high school student earned a 3.77 grade point average and was named one of the NCAA's top scholar-athletes, that Baumgartner also found his athletic niche. Says Fran McCann, his college coach: "Halfway through his sophomore year, he started to realize his potential. He worked harder than any heavyweight I ever saw." In his last two years at Indiana State, Baumgartner's record was 86-1 and in his senior year, while running off 44 straight victories, he won the NCAA title.
Edinboro is situated in bucolic northern Pennsylvania. Slippery Rock is right down the road, as is Punxsutawney, the groundhog place. The little college town operates at a pace that's perfect for Baumgartner's down-to-earth life-style. Two-dollar movies, a couple of stoplights, and the Hotel Edinboro, a worn-looking place which, after his Olympic victory, hung out a WELCOME HOME BRUCE BAUMGARTNER sign. Laughs Bruce: "On the flip side, the banner said 'Welcome Freshmen.' "
That sort of practicality plays well in Edinboro. The superstar athlete has just finished putting new siding on his modest farmhouse, so now he is painting it. Most athletes walk through their homes and point out their trophies in places of honor in every room. Baumgartner notes the door he fixed, the porch he repaired, the wall he is planning to knock out. He helps his wife, Linda, with the chores. He tends to the large garden out back. He even bakes the Christmas cookies.
Bruce and Linda met at Indiana State, where she was a student trainer. Bruce limped into her life on a bad ankle. "It was love at first taping," Linda says.
On their first date, after he had ice cream and she, because of a diet, picked at some oatmeal, he shook her hand good-night. The second time they dated, they played backgammon. "Well," said Bruce, "what do you want to do now?"
"This," answered Linda, kissing her shy Big Lug. They were married in 1982. Each January 24, the anniversary of their first date, they celebrate with oatmeal and ice cream.
Baumgartner makes a little money speaking; the U.S. Olympic Committee gives him a small stipend: a shoe company kicks in $1,000 more. Together he and Linda make $35,000 or so in salaries from Edinboro State; she also works in the athletic department, as an assistant trainer. "We don't need much," Baumgartner says. "Besides, it could be worse. I could have been an archer."
Baumgartner doesn't allow his dedication to wrestling to get in the way of his sense of humor. He even gets a kick out of watching professional wrestling. One favorite is Steve Williams, a.k.a. Dr. Death, whom Baumgartner wrestled in college. "I killed Dr. Death," says Baumgartner. "Is that possible?"
For diversion Baumgartner collects things: model trains, Russian matrioshka dolls, shot glasses, coins, stamps, Olympic pins—items of small value except to himself. His wrestling titles fit in nicely. "You don't make money wrestling," says Blatnick. "You spend money."
Baumgartner has bad knees. Sometime after he rounds the athletic corner, the right one will need reconstructive surgery. When his knees turn traitorous and turn him over to the enemy, or when there are no more challenges to be met, or when he simply reshuffles his priorities, Baumgartner will head back to school for his doctorate in Industrial Arts, eventually to become a college professor. Teaching and motivating appeal to him. It sort of runs in the family.
At various entrances to Haledon, N.J., there are seven signs noting that the town is the HOME OF BRUCE BAUMGARTNER, OLYMPIC CHAMPION. Big Bob did not put the signs up, but he made sure someone did. Big Bob no longer is the chief of Haledon's volunteer fire department as he was from 1971 to '74, but he still is a familiar figure around town, and he helps out whenever he's needed. When Big Bob meets a poor kid, or a handicapped kid, or just a kid who looks as if he could use a boost, he writes down the youngster's name and has Bruce send a picture of himself wearing his gold medal from the 1984 Olympics, with a message of encouragement. Big Bob tells those discouraged youngsters about his son. How Bruce was a C-student in high school. How he couldn't wrestle much. But how he kept at it. And how, down the stretch when it counted, Bruce did just fine.