The soviets had scoured their 15 republics to find a wrestler good enough to beat John Smith, the world champion in the 136.5-pound class, from Del City, Okla. They settled on Stepan Sarkissian, a 149.5-pounder from Armenia, melted him down to size and hoped that in last Thursday's Olympic final he would be able to counter Smith's quickness, flexibility and ankle-high takedowns. Smith, with a deceptively slight physique, thoroughly frustrated the hulking Sarkissian in a 4-0 shutout. Smith squirmed, catlike, out of Sarkissian's best takedown holds and took him to the mat four times. "John's always coming at you low, working the angles," says Oklahoma State head coach Joe Seay, an Olympic assistant. "The Soviets and Europeans have trouble with that. They're used to straight-on stuff."
Smith, 23, was one of two U.S. free-stylers to win a gold medal in Seoul. The other, at 163 pounds, was one of his coaches at Oklahoma State, Kenny Monday, 27. In the face of an overall disappointing performance by the U.S.—only three others earned medals—the two Oklahomans were superb.
When Smith stepped onto the mat to face Sarkissian, his left ear was bandaged; it had been drained of blood seven times in two weeks. The three middle fingers of each hand were taped together to protect them; all have been broken at least three times. Two nights earlier a Bulgarian opponent had fractured Smith's nose, and a Mongolian had attempted to conquer him with an injury default ("He got on my leg and tried to rip it off and take it home," said Smith). But he wasn't complaining.
Smith may, in fact, be the best U.S. wrestler to come along since Dan Gable won a gold medal at 149.5 pounds in 1972. In August 1987, Smith became the second-youngest U.S. world champ ever, behind only Lee Kemp, a three-time world titlist at 163 pounds who was younger by two months when he won his first crown in '78. Kemp was in the stands when Smith won. "I paid my own way over just to watch," said Kemp. "Seeing John Smith wrestle has made it worth the trip."
October 9, 1988
Kemp was also delighted to see Monday flatten Adlan Varaev of the U.S.S.R. in sudden-death overtime, hoisting him two feet in the air in a bear hug and driving him to the mat for a 5-2 win. While growing up in Tulsa, Monday was one of the finest high school wrestlers of the 1970s, but only this year has he committed himself to acquiring international experience. In January he earned the revered sheepskin cloak as outstanding wrestler at the Tbilisi tournament in Soviet Georgia, which U.S. coach Jim Humphrey calls "probably five times as tough" as the Olympics.
To steel himself for Seoul, Monday had been doing 200 pushups before bed and 200 more upon rising in the morning, in addition to his usual training. "It's little things like that that give you the mental edge," he said.
That edge seemed to be lacking in some other U.S. wrestlers. Jim Scherr. 54 seconds away from earning a spot in the gold medal match at 198 pounds, was thrashing his Japanese rival 8-1. Then he let up for an instant and was pinned; he finished fifth. Heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner. a former world champion, was strangely unaggressive against Soviet David Gobedjichvili and lost the gold medal bout 3-1.
Nate Carr, on the other hand, was robbed of his shot at a gold at 149.5 pounds when officials failed to award him an obvious takedown point in a 3-2 preliminary-round loss to Park Jang Soon of South Korea. In the finals Carr would have wrestled the eventual champion, Arsen Fadzaev of the U.S.S.R.—one of nine Soviet medalists, four of them winners of gold—who has never lost an international competition. Fadzaev is someone Smith has secretly had his eyes on.
"I'd like to go up in weight and wrestle Fadzaev," Smith said after his victory. "I guess it's a dream of mine." For now, though. Smith's biggest dream has been fulfilled.