John Smith has a favorite photograph of himself. It was taken in Moscow in 1986 after his final match in the freestyle wrestling competition at the Goodwill Games. Smith had built up a big lead in the first period of that bout against Khazer Isaev, one of the Soviet Union's top wrestlers. Isaev had fought valiantly to narrow the score, but Smith had held him off. At the end, Isaev had been too exhausted to rise from the mat. In the photograph, Smith stands exultant over his opponent. His eyes are closed, and he's smiling a grim, private smile as he punches the air with a fist.
It's an uncharacteristic stance for Smith—vainglorious, almost gloating. Yet he prizes the photo because, he says, "the victory was the toughest to get." It was also a turning point. Smith, a wholesome, resolute young man from Del City, Okla., who was about to turn 21, had just beaten the reigning European champion at 136.5 pounds.
Today Smith, a fifth-year senior at Oklahoma State and the favorite in the 134-pound class going into next week's NCAA championships in Ames, Iowa, is the best college wrestler in the U.S. He may one day be the best wrestler—period. He has won nearly every title possible in both college and international competition. He was the NCAA champion in his weight class last year, and his streak of 85 consecutive victories in NCAA competition is third on the all-time list. At the 1987 world championships in Clermont-Ferrand, France, he again beat Isaev, this time to win the world title. He also won at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas in '86, the Pan American Games in Indianapolis last year, the '87 U.S. Olympic Festival in Durham, N.C., and the Pre-Olympic Tournament in Seoul in November, and received the Carl Grant award as the outstanding competitor at last year's NCAAs. He's favored to win a gold medal at the Olympics in September. Bobby Douglas, the coach at Arizona State, calls Smith "the Mike Tyson of wrestling."
Smith's features would be boyishly handsome if they weren't scarred and prematurely aged and his right ear didn't look as if somebody had taken a hammer to it. But beyond that he doesn't seem much like a wrestler. He's too slender, his limbs are too long, and though his thighs are muscular, he lacks the conventional bulging arms and chest.
March 14, 1988
Obviously the application of brute force isn't the secret to Smith's success. Rather, says Jim Shields, an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, "John is the most innovative wrestler we've seen in the last 10 years. He has unorthodox positions that he's made standard and basic. Like his low single-leg takedown. You've got to be quick and low like a rattlesnake to go against him."
The single-leg takedown is Smith's signature move, and he performs it with the intensity and speed of a mongoose attacking a cobra. As he circles his opponent, his hips are extraordinarily low to the mat. He focuses on one of his rival's legs, then—at the slightest opening—shoots for it. His goal is not to grab the knee, as it is for most wrestlers. Instead Smith's unusual quickness allows him to shoot lower, for the ankle if possible. Once he secures a grip, he then continues his forward momentum and uses the opponent's leg as a lever to quickly topple him. He has employed this move a thousand times in his career; his rivals all know it's coming, yet few have been able to stave it off or counter it.
Once he has the takedown, Smith lets his man up, a gambit that earlier-day wrestlers wouldn't have been caught dead doing for a couple of good reasons: One, the opponent gets a point for an escape; and, two, once he's up, he can counterattack. For example, Dan Gable, the legendary 1972 Olympic gold medalist at 149.5 pounds with whom Smith is already being compared, rarely allowed an opponent to score on him—and certainly wouldn't have intentionally permitted him to do so.
But this strategy is increasingly common in college wrestling, and it works especially well for Smith, who usually wins by an outrageous margin or by a pin. Smith holds up two fingers on his right hand and says, "I take him down, I get two points." He holds up one finger on his left. "I let him up, he gets one point. But then I can take him down again. I do that 10 times, and I'm way ahead. People say John Smith only has a single-leg. But I say, 'Try and stop it.' "
Self-confidence like this, even more than the single-leg, is Smith's most effective weapon. "I feel I can beat anyone in the United States by 10 points," he says quietly. "But I still keep working hard. You can't let your priorities slip."
Those priorities are, in descending order, his family, his faith and winning, and the injunction not to lose sight of them is a constant refrain in the Smith household. Smith grew up with three brothers and six sisters in Del City, a town just outside Oklahoma City that his father, Lee Roy, describes as "mostly fast foods and filling stations." Lee Roy and Madalene Smith raised their 10 children with humor, love and iron discipline. "My people had backbone," says Madalene. "They came from Italy and settled in the coal mining country in southeastern Oklahoma. When my children complain, I tell them to be more like their great-grandma, Isabelle. She raised 10 children, single-handed, selling bootleg whiskey."
Madalene is an obstetrics nurse, and Lee Roy retired in December as director of data processing for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. His children call him Big Lee—to distinguish him from his eldest son, Lee Roy—or World-Lee because he seems to know a little something about everything.
The Smiths are Roman Catholic, a fact made evident by the pictures of Pope John Paul II and Mary and Jesus decorating nearly every wall of their four-bedroom house. Madalene provides the religious focus, and John teases her about being excessively devout.
"I get to Korea or wherever and start unpacking my bag, and here's all these medals and prayer cards and little messages Mom slips in," he says.
"I'm not a religious fanatic," she retorts. "I can't be. I cuss."
Far more numerous than the religious objects though are the trophies won by the Smith male offspring. They are on loving display in a room that sister Jo Ann, 26, calls the Smith-sonian. Wrestling is a big deal in Oklahoma, and it gave John and brother Lee Roy, both small and wiry, an outlet for their considerable athletic ability. Now brother Pat, 17, is carrying on the tradition as an undefeated (28-0) 148-pounder at Del City High School, and youngest brother Mark, 13, is 18-0 wrestling at 102 pounds for Del City Elementary School.
"John learned to be fast wrestling Lee Roy," says Big Lee. "If he beat him, Lee Roy would hit him. John learned to take him down and take off running."
When the two older boys began competing against nonfamily opponents in grade school, it wasn't long before the entire family gave itself over to the sport. The Smiths spent holidays traveling to meets all over the Midwest, and at least one relative has shown up at every national match in which the Smiths have wrestled.
In 1984 Lee Roy was involved in a dispute that would hone his younger brother's competitive edge. Lee Roy, then 25 and an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, was an accomplished international freestyler at 136.5 pounds and faced former Iowa star Randy Lewis at the Olympic trials. In a complicated series of events, Smith lost to Lewis, filed a protest that was upheld, won a rematch and then defeated No. 1 seed Rick Dellagatta to apparently win a slot on the Olympic team. But Lewis lodged a grievance with USA Wrestling, the sport's American governing body, challenging the ruling regarding his first match with Smith. The issue went to an arbitrator, who ordered that a portion of the disputed bout be wrestled again. Lewis won the renewed match, the berth in the Olympics and a gold medal in Los Angeles.
The Smiths were shocked by the decision, and they remain resentful toward Gable, who had been Lewis's coach at Iowa and was also the 1984 U.S. Olympic coach. Gable was later censured by USA Wrestling for attending the arbitration hearing, and the Smiths assume—though Gable has denied it—that he was present on Lewis's behalf. John, then a sophomore at Oklahoma State, was angered and disheartened. "I thought, hell, what are you working for if something like this can take away your chance at a gold medal," he says.
Loss and disappointment, first Lee Roy's and then his own, galvanized John into the competitive fury that persists to this day. Since then his only big loss was in the 1985 NCAA finals when he was beaten by Jim Jordan of Wisconsin. Before that match Smith, who was nursing a dislocated right shoulder, had barely been able to practice for three weeks, yet he wrestled one-armed and won four tournament bouts before losing 7-4 to Jordan.
Afterward he walked calmly off the mat and into the locker room and sat alone on a bench. "I was lucky to even be there," he says. "But there was no reason for me to get beat. I just realized that I had so much more ability, that I wasn't wrestling to my full potential, and I evaluated what I could do to change that. The solution to everything is to work harder."
Not that he had ever been lazy. Smith is a diligent worker, but there's a pleasantly relaxed quality about his brand of discipline. He does what is necessary without self-righteousness or self-flagellation. His weight rarely drifts above 145 pounds. Consequently he can avoid the torturous dieting other wrestlers must endure before matches simply by avoiding red meat or fat, although he admits to a weakness for biscuits and gravy and peanut M & M's. He has failed to make weight only once, and that was sometime back in junior high.
As a rule Smith works out on the mat for at least an hour twice a day, and this, more than anything, he says, has put the right kind of muscle on his frame. Every other day he works out with weights, runs two to three miles, and does wind sprints and the stairs at Oklahoma State's Lewis Field.
Such a regimen leaves little room for the opposite sex, and Smith's many female relatives hound him about the subject. "I want to have a family some day, but I don't even have time to think about it right now," he says sharply, and the matter is closed.
It's mid-January in Stillwater, and No. 1 Oklahoma State, with a 10-0 dual meet record (on its way to a 16-2 regular-season mark), is hosting its first tournament of the year, the Cowboy Duals. About 4,000 fans have packed Gallagher-Iba Arena to witness the struggle among five teams, including No. 2-ranked Arizona State, and to watch Smith. His mother, though, is not among them.
Madalene customarily retires to the ladies' room to say the rosary when one of her sons wrestles. "Last year Madalene traveled 1,400 miles to the Pan Am Games, just so she could go and not see John wrestle," says Jerry Hickman, a lifelong friend of John's. However, she has passed up the Cowboy Duals this weekend so she can go and not see Pat wrestle for Del City High. But there are plenty of Smiths to swell the crowd in Stillwater, including Big Lee, three of John's sisters, all their husbands, three of his six nieces and one of his four nephews.
When Smith appears for his first bout, the crowd roars. Then it grows still. He circles for a moment and darts at his opponent, Tim Mellot, a freshman from Clemson. One second Mellot is standing, the next he's squirming on his stomach; then Smith has him in a cradle—grasping Mellot as if he were an infant. One of Smith's arms is between Mellot's legs, the other is over his shoulder. Both wrestlers' chests turn pink from the strain, and Mellot's lips are purple. Smith will doggedly pursue a move for 20 seconds or more to get a pin or a near fall, which can be worth as many as three points and is usually psychologically devastating to an opponent. This time, however, the referee, fearing that Smith is about to injure Mellot, blows his whistle and orders them to break. Smith looks up and says, "Aw, c'mon, ref. It's not a woman's sport."
After two periods the score is 15-3. Smith has looked like a jack-in-the-box: He has taken Mellot down five times and scored two near falls. At the start of the third period Smith shoots the single-leg again, takes Mellot down and works his way up to a headlock. Mellot's shoulders inch inexorably down toward the mat; he grimaces with exertion and pain. The referee's palm slaps the mat: Pin, at 5:50.
Pins don't come as easily for Smith in international competition, particularly against his toughest foes, generally the Soviets, but he finds Olympic-style wrestling almost as amenable as the college version. International freestyle wrestling differs from the college variety in more than just the consistently higher caliber of the competition. The point system is more complicated. For example, no points are awarded for an escape, but anywhere from one to five points can be earned for establishing certain specific holds. In that way, a technically proficient wrestler is put on a more even footing with an opponent who possesses greater natural strength.
"I feel like I'm intelligent in wrestling," says Smith. "I outwit a lot of my opponents. If you know a guy's got a good shot to your left leg, you've got to learn to lead with your right leg. If a man's strong when he ties you up, don't let him tie you up."
He makes it sound easy, but few wrestlers can adapt so readily to their opponents. "John's smart enough to pick apart what the Soviets are doing," says Cowboy coach Joe Seay. "He can attack both sides equally well. The Soviet free-stylers aren't used to somebody attacking like that."
With the first two rounds of the Cowboy Duals completed, Smith goes home so he can rest before his final match, against Arizona State's Glenn McMinn (as it turns out, McMinn, who had a bruised spleen, will have to forfeit). The two-bedroom house Smith shares with Cory Baze, an 118-pound Cowboy wrestler, is immaculate and simply furnished. Baze's collection of exotic masks decorates one wall; the bookcase holds a chess set and several exquisitely painted lacquer boxes Smith brought back from the Soviet Union. Members of his family and a couple of friends are sitting in the living room sipping beer when Smith walks in and announces, "As soon as this weather hits 60 degrees, I'm going fishing."
"You think the fish'll be ready?" asks Hickman.
"No, but I'm going to be," Smith replies. He opens the front door and sticks his head out as if to test the January temperature, on the off chance that it has risen to 60° in the last five minutes.
Out in the garage he shows off his most prized piece of fishing gear, a float tube—an inner tube sheathed in heavy-duty canvas with handy pouches and pockets sewn into it. The fisherman sits in a canvas sling with his feet dangling in the water, straps on a couple of swim fins and is ready to propel himself silently into a lake or farm pond. Smith steps into the seat and pulls two straps over his shoulders so the contraption hangs around his waist. "You got your worms, you got your sassy shad," he says, pulling colorful lures from various compartments. "This one here's called a Zara Spook."
The biggest fish Smith ever caught was a sturgeon out of the Columbia River in Oregon last April. He had flown to Portland one morning for an international freestyle meet and that evening beat Soviet wrestler Viktor Alekseyev, a victory that was especially satisfying because Alekseyev once beat Lee Roy, in 1983. The next day Smith was out on the river.
Within 15 minutes he had caught a 10-pound sturgeon, which he was instructed to throw back because it was undersized. "Throw it back? It was the biggest fish I ever caught. It was depressing," Smith says. Then he hooked one of 13 pounds, which was big enough to keep.
Smith stands in the evening light coming through the dirty garage window, his fishing tube around his waist, and he says, "I beat the Russian and caught a nice fish. My life was set." He then turns from the window, wondering aloud which Soviet foe he will face at the Olympics. Having beaten Isaev at the worlds, he's certain he'll be pitted against someone new from the Soviet Union, and an unknown wrestler is more difficult to dominate.
He'll have just turned 23 when he goes to Seoul in September—that's assuming, of course, that he wins the U.S. Olympic trials, where, ironically, he could meet Lewis. "Being the best at something, god, that's a great feeling," he says. He slowly removes his fishing tube and says, "You don't think about it too long, though. It's easy to let your priorities slip."