Four feet in front of Bobby Douglas's desk in his third-floor office at Arizona State is the sky. A wall of windows reveals the campus below, a rectilinear oasis of palms, citrus and tawny masonry rising out of a land of pale rose rock. Between the desk and the windows is wedged a single chair. To speak with the 1992 U.S. Olympic wrestling coach, you settle into this seat and wait, because the man is so consumed by college competition, Olympic planning, recruiting, writing and club coaching that he lives a perpetual, unclosable 10 minutes behind schedule.
You study silver runner-up trophies from the 1989 and 1990 NCAA championships and photos of Douglas and his team rejoicing in the Sun Devils' 1988 victory, the first NCAA wrestling title ever won under an African-American coach.
The heel of your hand finds bare metal. The vinyl on the chair's arms is split, and the foam padding has frayed to the rivets. This is where each Arizona State wrestler sits alone before his coach. This is where strong men writhe.
You have been warned that Douglas can be intimidating, tending, in the way of many wrestlers, to feel people out, to give nothing away. Indeed, when he appears, in a sweatsuit, Douglas keeps his sunglasses on. He is 5'7" and compact. At 49, the wisps of gray in his short hair seem like fuses leading to the body of a cast-iron cannon. But when you are finally able to tell him that you want his sense of what is important in his story, the shades come up, and he takes your hand, powerfully, and draws you within the pale.
March 9, 1992
"We are always, each of us, on the end of a long story," he says, "and wrestling's is as ancient as humanity's. I was saved and formed by two men, my grandfather and my high school coach, and they did it with the culture of wrestling. So, as a teacher, hell, I ache to tell my story."
It comes out awkwardly at first, because of its unexpected sweep. Clumps of Ohio childhood are mixed with prehistory. Horrific loss is juxtaposed against sporting triumph. A personal quest is intermingled with blood rituals and post-cold war diplomacy. But as Douglas spreads photographs on the desk and unfolds old correspondence and pulls down books, his story takes on the clarity of desert night air.
Douglas was born in Bellaire, Ohio, in 1942, to Belove Davis and Eddie (Blue) Douglas, an itinerant boxer and mine-worker who was in prison for theft at the time. Belove had been an invalid since an automobile accident crushed her pelvis when she was 27. "She had so much pain in her life, she was alcoholic," says Douglas. "We lived in a third-floor apartment in the ghetto. It was a welfare environment. People survived as they could, and one way was with the numbers racket. I remember when I was maybe three being sent apartment to apartment delivering slips of paper with writing on them."
Douglas's fundamental childhood memory still sometimes tears him from sleep. "I was three or four. I was with my mother in bed on a hot evening," he says, his tone controlled. "There was banging on the door, not a knock. It scared my mother. Then the door came down. A guy came in, and they were fighting. He pinned her against the wall. There was blood. I couldn't tell where it was from. She was screaming for me to leave. I was thrown off the bed and hit my head on something, but I crawled out through the blood and got downstairs, and the people there called the police. I can't remember anything more until I was five."
Belove was raped and suffered 16 stab wounds in her chest and abdomen. Though she survived, she never fully recovered. Her parents, Anthony and Maggie Davis, took young Bobby into their home in Blaine, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Wheeling, W.Va. "My next recollection is being carried on my grandfather's shoulders, holding on to his shaved head," says Douglas, the stiffness going out of his voice. "He was 6'5" and 240 and had been a coal miner since he was a boy."
And a wrestler. "I saw my grandfather wrestle at Stop-32, Ohio, a mining town named for its 32 houses," says Douglas. "That was maybe 1947. All along the tracks, miners and veterans back from the war—Italians, Eastern Europeans and blacks—gathered and drank wine they had made and wrestled."
Anthony Davis spoke of the sport to his grandson with great reverence. He taught the boy holds and sent him against older, bigger boys at picnics and saw that he almost never lost. When Davis told him that knowledge of wrestling would let him defend himself and protect others, he saw that the boy was wild to be strong. So the grandfather put the boy, at six and seven, through rugged exercises, all the while telling him magical stories.
"I remember him saying we were descended from a man named Ash," says Douglas. "He had been taken as a slave from a tribe in Africa called the Nuba, which means gold. Grandfather said the Nuba had been black pharaohs and magnificent warriors who coated themselves with sacred ashes and wrestled as a spiritual art. He said he shaved his head because that was the tradition that had been passed down. It sounded great to me, at seven, but of course it was a fantasy, a myth, because it was too good to be true."
Douglas was a quiet, distant boy, knowing as he did that horror could batter down any door without warning. So he grew up along the Ohio with an adult's balanced appreciation for life's riches and rigors. "'We lived in what seemed the country, near the Cumberland Trail," he says. "It was green and wooded, with muskrats and raccoons and rabbits to hunt, but it was dominated by the mines and mills. The creek changed from copper-gold to jet black when they washed the coal. And when the millworkers and miners came walking home, covered with soot and coal dust, you saw their drained and hollow faces, and you knew how hard they'd worked."
And for how little. "I remember in winter going on the railroad tracks and digging in the snow for coal to heat the house. I was embarrassed, but a lot of people had to do that. I remember the church. No matter what, even if you'd been out until 4 a.m., you still had to go to church on Sunday. I remember that toughness and devotion."
Douglas's voice has taken on some of the rhythms of that church, the cadences that held a people together through their bondage and that gave some solace to the eight-year-old Douglas when his grandfather, his rescuer, Anthony Davis, died in 1950.
Entering Bridgeport High eight years afterward, he came under the eye of George Kovalick, the wrestling coach. who saw speed, well-developed moves and tireless yearning. Douglas, in turn, heard this courtly, organized man tell him that he was a potential champion and seized upon him as a father figure. Douglas would consult him about every important decision until Kovalick died in 1984.
"He gave me both hope and standards," Douglas says. "Wrestling creates a family. It lets you find it, feel it." He brought elements of his own to the sport. "Ten years after my grandfather died, I was one of the first black wrestlers to shave my head."
In 1959 Douglas won the Ohio state 112-pound wrestling title. He then accompanied Kovalick to West Liberty (W.Va.) State, won the 1962 NAIA championships at 130 pounds and transferred to Oklahoma State, where he would earn his B.S. in health, physical education and recreation. A superb technician and a glutton for conditioning, Douglas wrestled with the iron confidence that he could finish stronger than anyone. "I never let my opponent hear me breathe or know I was in pain," he says. In 1964 he became the first African-American to wrestle in the Olympic Gaines, placing fourth in the featherweight (138.5-pound) class in Tokyo. He took a silver medal in the 1966 world championships and became a favorite to win in the Mexico City Olympics.
In 1966 he married Jackie Davidson, whom he can remember seeing around the neighborhood back in Ohio when he was nine and she six. Their first and only child, Bobby, was born prematurely in the summer of 1968. "For six weeks he fought for life in Bellaire Hospital while I trained with the U.S. team in Alamosa, Colorado," says Douglas. "I was terrified of every phone call." He had a right to be. Douglas's mother had died in 1966, and a year later his older stepbrother, Gary Polley, an Army paratrooper, had been killed on his first day in Vietnam. "His helicopter from the ship was shot out of the sky," says Douglas.
No sooner was his son out of danger than Douglas, who had been elected the U.S. wrestling team's captain, was plunged into the debate over whether American black athletes should boycott the games to dramatize racial injustice in the U.S. "I was torn," he says. "I got threats from both sides. I wasn't political. I wanted to go on to be a coach. I'm amazed I got through those days."
He barely did. In Mexico, food poisoning practically killed him. Then, severely weakened, in his first match he faced Shamseddin Abassy of Iran, who tore cartilage in Douglas's ribs and partly severed his Achilles tendon. Douglas was out of the Games.
In 1970 Douglas was named the outstanding wrestler in America and retired with a lifetime record of 303-17-7. In 1973 he became the first African-American head wrestling coach at a major college, UC Santa Barbara, then, the following year, he took over at Arizona State. He has been there ever since, coaching both the varsity and the Sunkist Kids club, which has won the national freestyle championship seven times in eight years.
Douglas has gradually made Arizona State a sanctuary for wrestling culture. "I have nothing to go home for," says 167-pound All-America G.T. Taylor, who comes from Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland. "My peers have all gone to drugs. When I went back to Cleveland recently, I sort of savored it in a way, knowing I was growing away from it so fast."
"The struggle is always to keep the spirit of wrestling alive," says Douglas, "so dynamic, combative, disciplined people can find a safe haven. We can't compete with football or basketball in sponsorship money, but we do in the men we produce. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were wrestlers. Genghis Khan, Ulysses S. Grant and Norman Schwarzkopf wrestled. Plato was a wrestler. The throne of Japan was decided at one time by a wrestling match."
Researching wrestling's history, Douglas was drawn inevitably to his own roots. "In 1970 I got my grandmother to talk about the Davis family for the first time," he says. He learned that the name came from a John Davis, a Georgia sheriff who had purchased a slave referred to as the man of the ash. Seeking confirmation, Douglas was frustrated by William Tecumseh Sherman's having burned so many plantation and courthouse records on his march through Georgia toward the end of the Civil War. A further complication arose because a Nuba male was apt to be so extraordinary a physical specimen that a slave owner would take such a man from plantation to plantation, essentially standing him at stud. The man might leave many children, though few would carry his name.
Douglas studied old diaries and family Bibles and discovered that John, the slave also known as Ash, had a son named Tom, who had married the daughter of a white doctor. She was traceable, and Douglas established that Tom was father to his grandmother Maggie Davis. The tree was complete. The man of the ash was Douglas's great-great-grandfather. But how much of what Anthony Davis had said about the Nuba could possibly be true? "Imagine how I felt," says Douglas, "when I came across the work of Leni Riefenstahl."
Riefenstahl was the actress and filmmaker who had powerfully documented the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg and the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. After the war she turned to still photography and lived with isolated tribes in the Kordofan region of the Sudan. She produced two books in the mid-1970s, The People of the Kau and The Last of the Nuba.
Douglas slides over a copy of the latter and opens it to spectacular photographs. Beside a village of sharp-pointed mud huts, thousands of tall tribespeople bearing spears surround an area from which dust is rising. Here dozens of pairs of massive men wrestle. Their heads are shaved, their shoulders are curiously whitened.
"That's the ash," says Douglas, with barely suppressed excitement. "It was all real. It was all real."
"The complex symbolism of ash sums up for the Nuba," wrote Riefenstahl, "a wide range of philosophical beliefs." Depending less on animal husbandry than on agriculture, the Nuba were a settled people and had split into isolated villages where more than 100 separate languages were spoken. At the center of their life lay wrestling. Children practiced it before they could walk properly. Interaction between villages was largely limited to ceremonial wrestling tournaments like those Riefenstahl had photographed. "Wrestling provides, for the Nuba, much of what the search for wealth, power and status does for the individual in the West," she wrote.
Village champions headed large processions to the site of matches. The less powerful wrestled first, each pair with a referee. In an earlier time they had fought to the death, but they were not that brutal when Riefenstahl saw them, though their ears were frequently torn from wearing silver earrings. The women licked the men's wounds. The men showed no pain.
"The loser gets up quickly, disappointed but certainly not crushed," she wrote. "The victor is lifted shoulder high by the men from his village, and carried around the circle." The palm of victory is a branch of acacia wood given by the victor's team. This stick is taken back to the cattle camp, burnt, and the ash is carefully preserved. Half of it—to be used only at the wrestler's death during the burial rite—is put into a cattle horn and hung by his house. The other half is dusted over the champion's torso at the next tournament, the ash being the essence of both the tree's and the man's strength.
The victors would disdain prizes. "They fight," Riefenstahl wrote, "for the renewal of the sacred vitality of the tribe."
A place in the book is marked by a postcard that is from Riefenstahl herself. "She and I were pen pals for quite some time," says Douglas. "Look at this." The photograph is of a triumphant Nuba champion on another wrestler's shoulders. "That man," says Douglas, "is the image of my grandfather."
Within the gleaming immensity of Arizona State's athletic plant, Douglas's steamy wrestling room is a catacomb. Low, dim, subterranean, it is a fitting place, as a few of the team's T-shirts promise, to be WRESTLING WITH THE DEVIL.
A padded concrete pillar divides two squares of dried-burgundy mat. About 30 athletes of all sizes, in groups of three (two to wrestle, one to keep time and recover before rotating in again) engage in furious one-minute rounds. There is much collegial coaching. Six men yell at once: "Get his hand off your knee!"
Douglas, in gray shorts and T-shirt, moves from pair to pair, correcting, laying on hands, his six-second sermons supported with hooks and pivots and astoundingly easy upendings that show what happens if you get the angles just right.
"We move on the mat," he has said. He have a specific intent, to set up, penetrate and finish. We don't want to fight you where you're strong. We want to attack your weakest spot. Speed lets you do that. This system wants a student with speed and Olympic aspirations."
So the most humiliating thing Douglas calls out is an occasional, dry "Keep wrestling." It seems absurdly unnecessary as the combatants, agile, prehensile crabs, make the mat squeal and pop with explosive takedowns and reversals. Douglas orders other team members to stand as buffers between maniacally straining pairs. Rough beards scrape. A hold slips, and a face takes a stunning elbow. When time is called at the end of each round, the most brutal bursts conclude with reassuring little pats. No harm intended. Understood.
"Tempers flare," Douglas says. "They'll hurt each other if someone gets in a bad position. But never purposely."
Seeing this delicate control of human aggression, one thinks of its profane opposite, professional wrestling. "The pro circuit is a by-product of carnivals," says Douglas. "A type of violent showmanship. Olympic style is a product of education, of mankind's desire for fair competition and improvement. It is at heart spiritual, so what has happened with pro wrestling is really blasphemy."
Douglas makes it home, usually late, to Jackie, who is warmly, endlessly patient. (Their silver anniversary was last August. They found a night to celebrate it in November.) Shogun, their young rottweiler, wants to jump on you and lick you but has been Douglas trained not to, so he sits and trembles and seems to internally hemorrhage instead.
The house is open and high, which is vital, because it is a display case. Douglas has been on the U.S. team staff at 12 Olympics, World Championships or Pan American Games. The physical evidence is Czech crystal, Korean lacquer boxes, Persian rugs, Indian pots, Mexican chess sets. A set of Russian dolls came from a Soviet coach.
Although he will be facing a fragmented team from the former Soviet Union, his Olympic disappointment of 1968 fires him still. "Iran and Turkey will be tougher," he says. "And Germany's united now."
All these diverse wrestling cultures, Douglas believes, participate in fundamentally the same rite. "In Turkey," he says, "back in the Ottoman Empire, they had a ceremony they performed before a big match. They cut the throats of two sheep, and while they chanted with a drum, each wrestler was touched on his forehead with a bloody finger. You knew this was what they had done a thousand years ago before they went into battle. They always have a drum. They always dance."
Douglas senses that it is a good season for this vast brotherhood of wrestlers. "The time of healing is here," he says. "The 21st-century world will be more interdependent. Wrestlers will open the door back into Iran. We can break down more barriers in Cuba than the Marines."
He is in rhythm again, finding words that expand to encompass the whole of the Games. "The spirit that's in us when we gather is not that of winning or losing. It's affirming civilization. It's the meaning of the ash. You do wrestle for the life of the tribe."