Jim Scherr spent his spring break in Toledo. He arrived there from Northwestern-where he's completing work toward an MBA-just in time to share a stuffy, overheated room with a bunch of sweaty guys. Hardly a remake of Where the Boys Are. But Scherr, the nation's top freestyle wrestler at 198 pounds, has a history of bad timing. Two years ago he reached the finals of the world championships but had to forfeit because of a knee injury. Last year he was less than a minute away from making the Olympic finals when he was pinned.
On Sunday, in one of the closing bouts of the five-nation World Cup tournament in Toledo, Scherr put those frustrations behind him and knocked off the Soviet Union's Makharbek Khadartsev, a magnificent wrestler who was previously undefeated in international competition. Scherr's victory sparked a comeback that gave the U.S. an improbable 19-18 victory over the Soviets, who, like the Americans, had fielded their strongest team. The U.S. had eight Olympians; the U.S.S.R., six.
The two wrestling powers met in the final dual meet of the two-day, round-robin tournament after both had defeated Cuba, Canada and South Korea with little difficulty. Despite losing to the Americans, the Soviets won the tournament 117-109, outscoring the U.S., which had suffered more individual defeats against Cuba and South Korea. "We didn't lose and then we lost," said Rico Chiapparelli, the 180.5-pounder for the U.S. "That's crazy."
So was everything else about the U.S.S.R.-U.S. match: Four Olympic champions lost and upsets were routine. The tumult started early when America's Tim Vanni beat Sergei Karamatchev 5-3 to win the 105.5-pound division. Vanni had lost all seven of his previous meetings with Karamatchev.
April 9, 1989
The U.S.S.R. won the next two bouts, but the U.S. had a formidable middle of the order in John Smith (136.5 pounds), Nate Carr (149.5) and Kenny Monday (163). Smith and Monday had won gold medals in Seoul, and Carr had gotten a bronze. Smith faced Stepan Sarkissian in a replay of the Olympic finals, which Smith had won 4-0.
Sarkissian has had a difficult time since Seoul. He saw his hometown of Kirovakan flattened by the December earthquake in Armenia. Sarkissian lost relatives in the quake, and members of his immediate family had to move to a tent, where they are still living. When Sarkissian wrestled at a dual meet against the U.S. in Tempe, Ariz., in December, he seemed withdrawn. But last week he was his gregarious self, sporting a colorful pair of jams, which he boasted of buying for only $7.
On the mat Sarkissian stayed out of jams, colorful or otherwise. He thwarted Smith's famous single-leg takedowns and won 2-1. Smith was confounded by the new international format, which has replaced two three-minute periods with a single five-minute session. "I didn't wrestle well the whole Cup," he said. "I felt clumsy. I'm not comfortable wrestling the five-minute period yet."
Carr got his long-awaited meeting with Arsen Fadzaev, the four-time world champ and an Olympic gold medalist who also was undefeated in international competition. Carr had hoped to wrestle him in Seoul but lost a controversial 3-2 decision to South Korea's Park Jang Soon. Fadzaev dropped out of the meet in Tempe, claiming an injured rib. Carr wept. This time there were no tears, but Fadzaev won 5-2.
In the next bout, Gamzat Khazamov shut out Monday 2-0. The loss was the fifth straight for the U.S., and the Soviets had clinched the tournament. But the Americans had a chance, albeit a slim one, to win the head-to-head meet: They had to win the last four matches.
Chiapparelli beat Yuri Vorobiev 8-4. Then came Scherr and his identical twin brother, Bill, who got a bronze in Seoul. As he warmed up on Sunday, Jim, who finished fifth at the Olympics, heard Whitney Houston's One Moment in Time played over the P.A. "I thought, I didn't get that at the Olympics," said Jim, who was leading Japan's Akira Ota 8-1 with 54 seconds to go in Seoul when he missed a single-leg takedown and was pinned. "I told myself, I can have that moment today."
It was a big order. Khadartsev had won the world championship in 1986 and in '87, when Jim withdrew from the finals, and had breezed through the Olympics last year. "He and Fadzaev are the pillars of the Soviet team," said Bobby Douglas, who coached the U.S. team in Toledo. Khadartsev, who is preternaturally strong, had defeated Jim in their three previous bouts.
Scherr stayed with him, though, and they battled back and forth: 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2. With the match nearing its end, Khadartsev tried to force Scherr out of bounds to gain a caution point. "He didn't want it to go into overtime," said Jim.
As he tried to force Scherr out, Khadartsev, who was down on his knees, reached too far, leaving himself without leverage. Scherr whipped Khadartsev onto his back for three points. Only two seconds remained. "I had a lot of doubts going into the match today," said Jim. "This erases some of them. Now I know I was right in thinking I was close to being the best in the world."
He had little time to reflect on his victory before turning fraternal cheerleader. Bill had his hands full with 1980 Olympic champ Sanasar Oganisyan in the 220-pound division. Down much of the match, Bill tied the score at 3-3 with 20 seconds left. Then, about 15 seconds into overtime, Oganisyan received a third caution for passivity and was disqualified.
The U.S. now trailed 18-16. For the Americans to win, Bruce Baumgartner would either have to pin Szaza Turmanidze or shut him out. Baumgartner, the '84 Olympic champ, has been a particular thorn for the U.S.S.R. From 1961 to '85, the Soviets owned the super-heavyweight division, winning every world and European championship. Baumgartner ended the string in '86, when he won his first world title. He had beaten three different Soviets to win three previous World Cups. On Sunday he beat a fourth, Turmanidze, 8-0.
So in the end the Soviets had the Cup and the U.S. had a head-to-head win over the U.S.S.R. All that was clear was that these are the two best teams in the world. "At this level, there is just this much difference between people," said Jim Scherr, holding his middle finger and thumb nearly together. "It's why you can't mail anything in. It's a short five minutes."