It was billed as the "greatest matchup in the history of wrestling": John Smith, a gold medalist at the Seoul Olympics and the only U.S. wrestler to win three straight world-level titles, against Sergei Beloglazov of the U.S.S.R., who, since 1980, had won every major title for which he had competed. And though their match at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena on Dec. 26 was not up to the hype that attended it, a bit of history was made. Smith and Beloglazov, who squared off at 136.5 pounds, were wrestling for money—$8,000 to the winner and $2,000 to the loser. Never before had USA Wrestling, the sport's national governing body, offered its athletes prize money.
Others had, though. Promoters have tried half a dozen times to make freestyle wrestling—real wrestling—a professional sport. The seven-team National Wrestling League suspended its operations last March, the same month it began. Says David Miller, the executive director of USA Wrestling, "[The league] did a nice job of planning events, but it didn't get the top athletes."
That was not the case in Pittsburgh. The World Wrestling Grand Championship boasted eight world champions from the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Bulgaria, Canada and Korea, and every match featured at least a silver medalist from the 1989 world championships. Most of the bouts lived up to expectations:
•Seoul gold medalist Kenny Monday of the U.S. so thoroughly dominated the U.S.S.R.'s Nasyr Gadzhikanov during their 163-pound match that Gadzhikanov resorted to slapping Monday's face. When Monday responded in kind, the two men stood toe-to-toe, looking like drunks trying to swat flies on each other's head. Monday won 7-0 and was named the meet's Outstanding Wrestler, an award worth $5,000 on top of the $4,000 he earned for his win.
January 8, 1990
•At 220, Bill Scherr, a bronze medalist for the U.S. at Seoul, wrestled five scoreless minutes (the new international standard is a single five-minute round) against world champion Akhmed Atavov of the Soviet Union. Twenty-five seconds into overtime, Scherr lunged and took Atavov down for a 1-0 win.
•Bruce Baumgartner of the U.S., the 1984 Olympic superheavyweight champion, trailed the '88 winner of that title, David Gobedjishvili of the Soviet Union, 3-2 entering the final minute. Then Baumgartner exposed Gobedjishvili's back for two points and a 4-3 win.
That left the climactic bout between Smith and Beloglazov. "Sergei is a remarkable Russian," said translator Larisa Mason. "He smiles all the time."
Beloglazov has won six world and two Olympic titles—a major title every year from 1980 to '88 with the exception of '84, when the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Games. But the odds were against him in Pittsburgh. At 33, Beloglazov is nine years older than Smith, and he had not competed since announcing his retirement in December '88. He had trained for only one month and would be moving from 125.5 pounds to Smith's 136.5.
Still, Beloglazov was optimistic. "Smith is fast," he said, "but I think I am faster. My experience, technique and quickness I am relying on."
In the end they weren't enough. Smith, who at 5'7" is four inches taller than Beloglazov, overwhelmed his slighter opponent. Though Beloglazov matched a Smith takedown to tie the score at 1-1, Smith showed quickness of his own with four points on a takedown, an exposure and another takedown. The final was 6-2 for Smith, who was also quick to explain his victory afterward. "I'm better," he said. "I know I'm bigger, but I don't think my size won points. I think I outquicked him. I got to his legs before he got to mine."
"God, he's so heavy," were the first words Beloglazov said to Mason in Russian after the match.
Beloglazov will retire again to write a book. "In the Soviet Union, there have been no new books about wrestling since the 1960s," he said. "I want to collect the experience of many wrestlers and put it together. For the future. For wrestling." And for money.