The blue pay phones hung from a newly painted white wall in the
lobby of the Hotel Krasnoyarsk. There were only three of them,
three overworked long-distance phones for all of the tough, hard
men in the building. The hotel was filled with more than 400
competitors, coaches and trainers who had come to Siberia during
the last four days of August for the 32nd World Freestyle
Wrestling Championships. The phones were always busy.
The 286-pound Bulgarian, say, would be at one phone, and the
152-pound Iranian would be at another, while the 119-pound South
Korean or, perhaps, the 119-pound North Korean would be at the
third. The 138.75-pound Ukrainian or the 167.5-pound Armenian or
the 286-pound Turk would be waiting, tapping a foot or shuffling
impatiently. Only the Americans seemed to be missing. They did
not use the phones much. "What time would it be in Phoenix?" an
American would ask.
"Well, it's 12 time zones to New York," another American would
reply. "So that would be...14 to Phoenix?"
"So what day is it in Phoenix?"
November 3, 1997
The distance was too great. The process was too complicated. Day
in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, was night in the U.S., and night was
day, and today was yesterday. Or was it tomorrow? After an
American figured out the time at home, he had to explain to a
blank, uncomprehending Russian face at the hotel desk that he
wanted to spend 30,000 rubles--how much was that in dollars?--to
buy a card to insert in the phone, which was still being used by
the Bulgarian, and punch out a string of numbers and shout "Hi,
love you, bye" to a sleepy voice at the other end because that
was all the time the card allowed.
Too confusing. Too much to deal with. Better not to call at all.
Better to avoid the frustration and stick to the matters at
hand. Better. In Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.
"My wife and I have an understanding," Melvin Douglas, the
213.75-pound American, said. "When I come to a place like this,
she's just not going to hear from me. I call her from the
airport when we leave. I call her from the airport when we get
back. It's tough this time because my third child, a son, was
born just three days before I left. He's six weeks old, and I've
seen him for only three days of his life. But that's the way it
The very name Siberia brought an old cold war shudder, a picture
of isolation and exile and Gulag desperation. These U.S.
wrestlers had traveled on an airline called Kras Air--the
letters printed in green on the side of the aging plane where
the name of the original owner, Aeroflot, had been covered with
gray paint--for five cramped hours from Moscow to this city of a
million people in the middle of the Russian unknown.
"My grandfather and grandmother are here for the tournament,"
Les Gutches, the 187.25-pound American, said. "My grandfather
fought in the Korean War. He said that if you had told him 30
years ago that he'd be here, in Siberia, he'd have figured he'd
be here as a prisoner. That the United States would have lost
the war. That we'd all be slaves of the Russians."
The red star and the hammer and sickle of communism, faded and
rusted, still hang from many of the lampposts on Prospekt Mira,
the main street. The 30-foot statue of Lenin still stands in
front of the town hall no more than five blocks away. The former
KGB office still stands, two blocks from the statue. "What is in
the KGB office now?" a Siberian businessman was asked.
"Well, the KGB," he replied with a laugh. "Or whatever it is
Krasnoyarsk, turned into a manufacturing outpost during World
War II when Stalin set up defense plants far from Moscow in the
face of the German invasion, was closed to foreigners until six
years ago. The only way a resident could see a foreigner before
1991 was to go to the train station. The Trans-Siberian Railroad
stops here on the way from Moscow to Vladivostok. The foreigners
would step off to buy sandwiches, to use the facilities. They
would then return to the train and leave.
No McDonald's or Burger Kings confuse the landscape. No
Wal-Marts or Tower Records have arrived. There are signs of
change since the fall of communism--fresh coats of paint slapped
everywhere, food in the markets, hotel rooms still being
remodeled as visitors arrive, young women in the shortest skirts
and highest heels imaginable--but the outline of the old Russia
is still visible through the thin veneer of the new. Old
grandmothers, babushkas, still sweep the streets each morning
with brooms made of twigs tied to a stick with twine. Old men
still wear their Communist party medals of achievement on the
fronts of their old blue suit jackets. Dinner in a restaurant is
still an adventure. A trip to a men's room is a bigger adventure.
The Americans were the strangest of all the strangers in town.
They had traveled from as far away as anyone, checking in late
for the tournament after training for a little less than a week
at Sembach Air Base in Sembach, Germany. They would leave as
soon as possible after the tournament ended. They hunkered down
in their rooms on the seventh and eighth floors of the Hotel
Krasnoyarsk, talked among themselves, ate among themselves,
stuffed themselves onto buses with their opponents, went across
the wide Yenisei River to the Yenisei Sports Palace to stand
almost naked and fight for their reputations. Not one U.S.
newspaper sent a reporter to record their deeds. Not one U.S.
television network or station sent a camera.
"What do you think?" Larry (Zeke) Jones, the 119-pound American,
asked. "How do you think some of those big-time baseball and
basketball guys would like this? How long do you think they'd
last here? How do you think Shaquille O'Neal would like this?"
Jones smiled at the very idea. He looks a bit like Michael J. Fox.
"It's O.K. for me, because I'm a wrestler," Jones said, now
serious. "This is what I do. I don't care where I am. I'd go to
Mars to wrestle a Martian."
Forty-five countries entered the tournament, each allowed to
place a wrestler in each of the eight weight divisions. The
wrestlers came in all sizes. Their shapes were mostly the
same--all except the heavyweights had shrunk to their most
compact, lethal dimensions--but the differences in height gave
an observer the illusion of passing the same person again and
again in a day, his size subtly changing with each meeting. "You
know those matreshka dolls they sell here?" one American said.
"The dolls that open, again and again, each time revealing a
smaller doll? That's what wrestling is like. Every country sends
over its own matreshka doll."
The names of opponents were too foreign, too odd to the tongue
for U.S. wrestlers to remember. Some of the opponents had three
names. Some had their last name first. Some had names stuffed
with consonants, crying for a vowel. Better to remember
countries. Better to remember past performances, tricky moves or
maybe a strange look in the eye. Here comes the Armenian. Here
comes the Mongolian--Barcelona 1992. Here comes that bad boy
"I don't know any of the names of these guys," Douglas said.
"But I know who every guy in my weight division is. I see 'em, I
say, 'I remember when I got you' or 'I remember when you got
me.' I see a guy like this"--he smiled at a wrestler from
Uzbekistan, and the man smiled back--"and I remember a gift he
got from the judges, just a gift. You didn't deserve that match,
did you?" The man from Uzbekistan continued to smile, not
understanding English. "Yeah, yeah, how are you?"
The strongest teams came from a virtual State Department list of
trouble spots. Wrestling has always flourished in Eastern
Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. Russia has always been
great. Iran is very good. Turkey is good. North and South Korea.
Cuba. The breakup of the Soviet Union also broke a logjam of
solid wrestlers who moved up to the international scene. Ukraine
is now good. Uzbekistan. Azerbaijan. Georgia. Moldova. To climb
through the draw, an American had to beat a collection of
stereotyped villains from a Steven Seagal or Jackie Chan movie,
flipping and flopping and twisting to the top.
Soviet talent had also dispersed to the West. Canada had good
Russian wrestlers, outfitted with Canadian passports. Germany
had good Russian wrestlers. Good Russian wrestlers were
everywhere. Good wrestlers, period, were everywhere.
"Every country has its own style," Jones said. "The American
style is that we're active, we go for the throat, take chances.
The Russians are more passive, waiting for an opportunity. The
Koreans get real low on you, lower than anyone. Other countries
stand up more. What other sport is like this? You might run
track against all these countries, but it seems to me that
running is running, no matter where you're from. Every wrestler
is a different puzzle.
"The sport is international. That's the thing. Do you know what
we do in the U.S.? We invent sports--baseball, basketball,
football--and declare ourselves world champions. That's a little
too easy, isn't it? Wrestling is their sport. They invented it.
When we come over here, we're following a direct line into the
heart of the sport."
The U.S. team was inexperienced, if not exactly young. Most
national teams had undergone change, champions retiring after
last year's Olympics. The U.S. team, which finished third at the
Atlanta Games, now had only two wrestlers--Jones and
Douglas--who had competed in world championships. The team had
been determined by trials in Las Vegas in May, fierce
best-of-three competitions between the U.S. national champions
and top challengers determined by an earlier minitournament in
Vegas. The U.S. roster was:
--119 pounds: Jones, 30 years old, 5'4", from Chandler, Ariz.
World champion, 1991. Silver medalist, 1992 Olympics. Assistant
wrestling coach, Arizona State.
--127.75 pounds: Tony Purler, 28, 5'4", Norman, Okla.
Last-minute replacement for two-time world champion Terry
Brands, out with a bad back.
--138.75 pounds: Cary Kolat, 24, 5'5", Lock Haven, Pa. Assistant
coach at Lock Haven University. NCAA champ, 1997.
--152 pounds: Lincoln McIlravy, 23, 5'7", Iowa City, Iowa.
Volunteer assistant coach at Iowa. NCAA champion, 1997.
--167.5 pounds: Dan St. John, 30, 5'9", Tulsa. Works with
--187.25 pounds: Gutches, 24, 5'11", Corvallis, Ore. Assistant
at Oregon State.
--213.75 pounds: Douglas, 34, 5'9", Mesa, Ariz. World champion,
1993. Works for Home Depot.
--286 pounds: Tom Erikson, 33, 6'4", West Lafayette, Ind.
Assistant at Purdue.
"It's hard to say what we'll do," the U.S. head coach, Lee Roy
Smith of Arizona State, said before the competition. "We have so
many wrestlers who haven't been to the worlds, six of eight.
There's pressure competing in a major tournament, pressure that
they don't know. There's the extra challenge of being in
The goal was to cut as many variables as possible from daily
living, to cut out as much of Siberia and Russia as possible.
The wrestler learns early to bring food with him on
international trips, to bring a needle and thread, to bring a
water filter, to bring a clothesline to hang across his room so
he can dry his socks and underwear after washing them in the
bathroom sink. ("Woolite," Gutches said as he showed some of the
products he and McIlravy had unpacked in room 838 of the Hotel
Krasnoyarsk. "Canned tuna. Peanut butter. Dried noodles.") The
lunch and dinner buffets in the hotel might be all right for
bread and rice and maybe french fries, but should the meat or
poultry be trusted? At the world championships? Was this a time
to have food poisoning?
"The first thing I tell all these guys is the word nyet,"
Douglas, the veteran, said. "You come over here, and when they
start pouring that vodka and making those toasts, you say,
'Nyet.' Those Russians will start saying, 'A toast to you, a
toast to America, a toast to wrestling.' You say, 'Nyet.' They
got me once, and they got me good. Now I just say, 'Nyet, nyet,
Anything could happen. Any burp on the geopolitical map could
reverberate all the way to the wrestling mat. The traveling
wrestler had to be prepared to handle surprise, to roll with
whatever was happening.
"We took a team to Teheran, Iran, in the late '70s, about three
months before the fall of the shah," Gene Davis, a U.S.
assistant coach, said. "We shouldn't have gone. It was crazy. We
got there, and the tournament was canceled. We were told our
safety couldn't be guaranteed. We hid out at our interpreter's
apartment until we could get a flight out three days later."
"Tbilisi, Georgia, 1991," Jones said. "That's when Georgia was
trying to break away from the Soviet Union. The Russians said,
'O.K., you want to be on your own? Fine. We won't send you any
power.' Electricity was rationed. Over the entire country, for
10 minutes of every hour, the lights went off. The arena was 45
degrees, tops. You wore your parka, your ski hat and your gloves
right to the ring. Time to wrestle, you took everything off,
wrestled and came right back and put them on."
Steve Barrett, a former U.S. wrestler who lives in Moscow and
was in charge of the American delegation in Krasnoyarsk, said
that the world is divided into Why countries and Because
countries. The U.S. is the ultimate Why country, where everybody
challenges everything. The bus is late? Why? The clerk in the
store won't wait on you? Why? The elevator is broken? Why? The
former totalitarian countries, including Russia, are Because
countries. The bus is late? Why? Because. That's the way it is.
"I'm a big Why guy," Jones said. "I try to tone it down when I
get over here, but that doesn't last long. If the bus is late,
I'm out there screaming, 'Why?'"
Jones and Douglas were roommates in Krasnoyarsk. Douglas, an
African-American, didn't like to walk the streets. He was a
curiosity, the first black man many Siberians had seen. They
would point at him, touch his skin. They would bring their
children to see him, to ask for autographs. There was nothing
malicious to it, but Douglas didn't like it. He felt like
Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson in a crowd.
He and Jones watched a lot of television in their room, even
though the picture on all three channels was in black and white
and the dialogue was in Russian.
The atmosphere in the Yenisei Sports Palace was quiet, refined.
The arena, built in 1982 and refurbished for these
championships, was a concrete representation of an ancient ark.
The building was not cost-efficient. The high walls were too
close together, especially at the ends of the ark. Only 4,000
seats fit inside.
Most of the men in the seats wore suits and sport coats. The few
women tended to wear dresses or nightclub outfits. The opening
ceremonies were dignified. Schoolchildren sang. Team
representatives were given round loaves of Siberian bread. Two
floppy white polar bear mascots, both named Mishka, did
somersaults. The past greats of Russian wrestling--topped by
Krasnoyarsk native and businessman Ivan Yarygin, a two-time
Olympic gold medal winner and the president of the Russian
wrestling federation--were introduced. Yarygin, who would die in
a car accident less than two months later, sat through all the
matches on a platform with the president and bureau members of
FILA, the international governing body of wrestling. They looked
as if they were reviewing a never-ending May Day parade.
The first match involving an American, at 9 a.m. on Thursday,
Aug. 28, was between Jones and the North Korean. In wrestling,
there is no seeding. First-round bouts are arranged by a blind
draw. This means that any two wrestlers can meet in the first
round of the competition. The best match can be the first. That
was what the Americans thought might happen here. They did not
know much about the North Korean--they debated whether he was
the North Korean who had won the gold medal at 105.5 pounds in
Atlanta--but they knew he was good. "I think he's young," Coach
Smith seemed to say.
"He looks pretty young to me," assistant Mark Manning said.
"No, I mean his name," Smith said. "I think his name is Yung."
The name actually was Ju Dong Jin, and he was not the Olympic
Jones was coming off a frustrating summer. He'd had knee surgery
after the trials, then an operation to clean out a staph
infection from the first operation, then a third operation
because the second operation didn't work. He had only a month
and a half for rehabilitation and training. He did not need to
see the North Korean this early.
The match was difficult for Jones from the start. The two men
circled each other, Jones active, the North Korean extremely
low, following the wrestling stereotypes. The wrestlers slapped
at each other's heads. They feinted, locked, unlocked. The North
Korean took an early 1-0 lead, and Jones came back to tie. Slap
and slap. Midway through the third minute of regulation, the
North Korean took control. In rapid succession he scored with a
reversal for a point, a crotch lift for two and a spin takedown
for one. A late takedown by Jones meant nothing. Done. The score
was 5-2. Five minutes into the competition, Jones was out of the
gold medal bracket.
"I tell myself the knee wasn't a factor," he said. "It didn't
hurt. At the same time, though, I didn't have that jump, that
The matches continued with mind-altering frequency for the next
four days, 417 matches on three mats spread across the arena,
morning sessions and evening sessions. Men in blue singlets
always against men in red. The referee, counting off points with
his fingers, always was dressed in white. The winners usually
did not celebrate; they simply stood with one arm held high by
the official. The losers looked rejected, sullen, stranded.
Recorded instrumental music played in the background. One of the
frequent songs was Jingle Bells. Ancient hostilities were
resumed. The Armenian fought the Turk. The Korean fought the
Japanese. The Russian fought the American. Jingle Bells. There
were few arguments--though the Armenian punched the Turk as they
left the mat, and the Turk tried to pick up a post to defend
himself--and none of the yapping, the styling, seen so often in
modern sport. Almost everyone was a malevolent gentleman. "I've
never seen a fight off the mat by two wrestlers," Smith said.
"It just isn't done. The sport is just too aggressive in itself
for any of that. There is a respect for one another."
Douglas, McIlravy, Purler and St. John joined Jones in early
elimination from gold medal contention. Douglas was defeated by
the Greek. ("I see him again, right now, I kick his fat butt,"
Douglas said in disgust.) Losers had a second chance, in another
bracket, to wrestle toward a bronze medal, but the gold medal
was the lure. One loss and that hope was gone.
"I want to stand in the ring and say that for five minutes, in
the middle of Siberia, I was the best in the world, and no one
can argue with me," Erikson, the U.S. heavyweight, said. "That's
the whole thing. To be able to say that." A large and pleasant
character, Erikson was caught in his own drama. At 33, he was
old to be making a world-championship debut. He had been ranked
nationally since college but had been trapped on the U.S. depth
chart behind four-time Olympian Bruce Baumgartner. Baumgartner
had gone to 11 straight world championships. Before most of
those, he had defeated Erikson to earn the privilege. The two
men had wrestled more than 20 times. Baumgartner had won every
match. Now he was retired, or at least sitting out the year.
Erikson at last had his chance. He also had a right shoulder
that had been separated during training at Colorado Springs.
"It'll be all right," he said hopefully. "We've been treating it
ever since it was hurt. The thing is that you can't just rest
it. You can't let it heal." In his first bout he pinned the
German easily. In his second bout, the featured match on Friday
night, center mat, he faced the Russian. This was another one of
those unfortunate draws. Erikson was one of the favorites in the
division, and the Russian was another.
The match was ragged. At the end of the regulation five minutes,
neither wrestler had scored a point. A three-minute overtime is
held if a match is tied or if neither wrestler has accumulated
three points. If either wrestler scores his third point in
overtime, the match is over. If not, the judges determine the
In overtime Erikson was the aggressor as the two men went around
and around the circle, but he couldn't connect. With 10 seconds
left, he finally caught the Russian leaning and took him down
for a point, then added another point in a takedown. The
overtime ended with Erikson the winner. It was as if he had
thrown a touchdown pass with time running out on the clock. "To
do what he did, to come here and beat a Russian in Siberia, was
terrific," Smith said in the dressing room. "He really showed me
something. There was so much danger in that [takedown] move, you
leave yourself so open, and he pulled it off."
"I came into his house and beat him," Erikson said in fine U.S.
sportspeak. "I always thought the road to the gold medal went
through the Russian. Now it goes through me."
The Americans left quickly after the match and missed the
strangest moment of the tournament. The local favorites were the
Saitiev brothers, Buvaisar and Adam. They are natives of
Chechnya but live in Krasnoyarsk. Buvaisar, a gold medal winner
at Atlanta, was doing fine, rolling through the 167.5-pound
competition on the way to winning the Most Valuable Wrestler
award and the accompanying Mercedes-Benz. His younger brother,
Adam, at 152 pounds, had run into a tough opponent earlier in
the evening. The strangeness occurred at the end of Adam's match.
Adam wrestled a contender from Uzbekistan. It was another close
bout, the score tied 2-2, another overtime. The next point would
determine the winner. The Uzbek wrestler attacked and had
Saitiev in trouble, but Saitiev countered with a spinning move
that he started by standing on his forehead--the best move in
the tournament, a move wrestling cognoscenti had never seen
before. The two men flipped through the air, and Saitiev landed
on top. The referee, Bill Stecklein of the U.S., called a
takedown point for Saitiev. The match was done. Stecklein raised
Saitiev's hand. The crowd cheered as loudly as it would cheer
during the rest of the competition. The trouble began.
The Uzbek representatives protested. They said their wrestler's
attack had caused Saitiev to land on his forehead. A point
should have been awarded to their man for exposure before
Saitiev's point was scored. The first point would have given
their man three points, end of match. The match should have been
over while the two wrestlers were in the air. A videotape of the
match was consulted. The protest was upheld. The Uzbek wrestler
was declared the winner.
An estimated 400 angry Chechens gathered outside the arena after
the night's matches were finished. The Chechens demanded that
the final decision for the Uzbek be reversed. They threatened
violence. They threatened to kidnap FILA president Milan Ercegan
of Serbia. A harried Uzbek official appeared and tried to
withdraw his team's successful protest. Riot troops with
Kalashnikov rifles arrived as a group of Chechens were
threatening to break into the dressing rooms. The tournament
officials said they would have a meeting to discuss all of this.
"It was pretty hairy," Larry Sciacchetano, the U.S.
representative to the FILA bureau, said. "The guy from
Uzbekistan who wanted to withdraw the protest ... you had to
wonder. He had already won the protest, but he either a) had
been threatened or b) had been paid some money. In the end, we
did the right thing. We upheld the protest. It was a terrific
decision for wrestling."
The decision--and the Chechen threats--brought increased
security to the proceedings on Saturday. Corridors that once
were open now were blocked by security guards with
walkie-talkies. The arena's entrances and exits were guarded.
Tickets and badges were checked closely. The Chechens never made
Late on the morning card, Erikson wrestled in the semifinals.
His opponent was the Cuban. The Cuban was a beefy 19-year-old
kid. Erikson had wrestled him a year earlier, beaten him 1-0.
The Cuban, alas, had improved. In regulation he took a 2-0 lead
with a counter with exposure. In overtime Erikson picked up one
point on a takedown, and he tried and tried but never got
leverage. He opened himself one time too often on an attempted
gut wrench with 33 seconds left. The Cuban countered, turning
Erikson and throwing him to the mat. The Cuban won 4-1 and
started to celebrate. Erikson looked at him sharply and shook a
finger. The celebration stopped.
"I just couldn't get him," Erikson said later. "I don't know. I
He sat on a couch in the lobby of the hotel with his
disappointment. There really wasn't anyplace else to go. He
tried to talk himself down. He talked and talked. Mitch Hull,
the national-teams director for U.S. Wrestling, appeared. He
tried some motivational words. He said the meet was not done.
"Hey, go for third," he said. "That's not bad, third in the
world. We need the points for the team. Plus, there's some money
The Russian federation promised modest awards to the winners:
$8,000 for first place, $3,000 for second, $2,000 for third.
Erikson didn't know the amounts, really didn't care. He was
offended by talk of the money. His monthly stipend from U.S.
Wrestling is $900. Besides working as an assistant coach at
Purdue, he sometimes competes in Tough Man competitions to stay
solvent. "This isn't about money, Mitch," he said. "Don't get me
wrong. I'll take the money. Thank you very much. But to put a
value on what we do? To say, 'Here's a couple of thousand
bucks'? That's demeaning. Andre Agassi makes more money than any
of us just for putting on his shoes. How much is a world title
worth? If a Michael Jordan is worth so much for his world title,
then how much should a Bruce Baumgartner be worth for all of
his? To talk to me about money, a couple of thousand bucks. Do
you think that's why we're here?"
Hull mumbled a response and left quickly. Erikson, steamed,
continued. "The Iranian, he wins a world title, he'll be set for
life. Look how the Russian wrestlers live. They're important
people in this country. American wrestlers can't even buy a
house with what we make, can't even live without another job.
You think we're in this for money?"
His shoulder was killing him. His heart hurt much worse.
On Sunday night the last U.S. hope for a gold medal was Gutches.
He had been wrestling since he was seven years old, since he
discovered a wrestling trophy in a box in his family's
double-wide trailer in Rogue River, Ore. He asked his father
what the little gold man on the trophy was doing. His father, a
former wrestler, moved some furniture to one side of the trailer
and showed him. That was the beginning.
Gutches had stormed through the Krasnoyarsk tournament, still
stuck with the vision of that little gold man. "Go over to the
arena, wrestle, come back to the hotel room," he said. "That's
been my life here. Wrestle, room. I haven't slept much. I've
been reading. I'm a Trekkie. I bet I've read 1,200 pages and
done 30 crossword puzzles."
In late December he'd had disk surgery, but his back had been
fine since then. He survived the trial--three close, grinding
matches with 1992 Olympian Kevin Jackson. He defeated '96
Olympic champion Khadzhimurad Magomedov of Russia in the world
semifinals. Gutches approached the final as if another moment
like it might never arrive. The evidence of his lifetime of work
was his ears, brutally gnarled cauliflower ears, wrestler's
ears, gargoyles attached to the sides of his head. "They're not
too bad," he said. "Not if you already have a girlfriend. Which
He told a story. This summer he and his brother and three other
wrestlers went to a Burger King in Corvallis, where Gutches was
working at a wrestling camp. The waitress asked them if they all
were related. They asked why she asked. She said, "Because you
all look like you have the same birth defect with your ears."
What are you going to do?
His opponent in the final was the Ukrainian. Gutches had never
wrestled the Ukrainian but had watched his matches at these
championships and on film. Gutches's main worry was
overeagerness, nerves. He had not slept the night before the
final. A celebration had taken place outside the hotel--City
Day, an annual Krasnoyarsk event. A rock concert in the plaza
had attracted thousands of people. A Russian rock concert
outside the window on the night before the biggest day of his
life? Gutches said he wouldn't have slept anyway.
He went to the arena, went to the special workout room in the
back. The Ukrainian coaches stood next to him as he warmed up,
practiced. They seemed to stare straight into his soul. He
practiced moves he wouldn't use in the match, simply to confuse
them. The Ukrainian wrestler was no more than five yards away,
also practicing. Gutches noticed a string of scabs across the
Ukrainian's forehead, scabs that had been accumulated in earlier
bouts. There were also scabs on the Ukrainian's gargoyle right
ear. "Uh-oh," Gutches said. "I know what this is going to be
The only other American to reach a final, Kolat, had been
involved in a strange bout with the Iranian on Saturday. The
Iranian had taken an early lead and then stalled his way to a
title. Every time Kolat tried to establish momentum, the Iranian
called for an injury timeout, holding a shoulder or leg. The
referees had been cautioned about allowing this behavior on
Sunday, but the Ukrainian's scabs would leave them little choice.
He seemed to bleed from the start. The blood came first from the
ear and then from the forehead. Gutches's head would bump the
Ukrainian's head, and more blood would end up in Gutches's blond
hair. The referee would stop the match, attendants in Marx
Brothers white doctors' smocks would try to stop the bleeding,
and the wrestling would continue on its stuttering course.
The Ukrainian took a 1-0 lead at 2:00, but that was all the
scoring in the regulation five minutes. In overtime Gutches
caught the Ukrainian for a quick takedown. Tie score. The match
continued to its bloody 1-1 end. The rule in the event of a tie
is that the wrestler with fewer passivity calls by the referee
is awarded the win. Gutches had fewer passivity calls. He was
declared the winner. The champion of the world.
"It's not what I thought it would be," he said, describing his
experience on the podium as the U.S. national anthem was played
for the only time in Krasnoyarsk. "I was upset with myself. The
match shouldn't have been that close. I can't help it. That's
the way I think. I'm American. I guess I just want to pin
everybody every time." He found a telephone in the arena,
borrowed a phone card and called his girlfriend in Corvallis.
She too seemed vaguely reserved. Why wasn't she excited? Did she
also demand a pin? He realized the time in Corvallis was four in
His teammates and coaches congratulated him and told him that a
win was a win was a win. "Champion du monde!" Douglas exclaimed,
echoing the meet's announcer. "How's it feel?" Champion of the
world. Gutches gathered his winnings together--flowers, a
trophy, a couple of gifts and the prize money--and took the bus
back to the Hotel Krasnoyarsk. The trip was short, across the
Yenisei bridge, through the Siberian night, assorted languages
and dispositions and smells filling the confined space of the
bus. Champion of the world. Not a bad place, this Krasnoyarsk.
Not a bad place at all. Looks a little like the Pacific
Northwest. Champion of the world.
At the hotel Gutches stopped for a moment to talk to his
grandparents, then hurried to catch an elevator to his room. He
slipped though the doors as they closed. The Ukrainian, silver
medal around his neck, was already in the car. The scabs on his
head were still open. Nobody said a word. No acknowledgment took
place. Nothing. The Ukrainian got off at the sixth floor. The
champion of the world got off at the eighth.
Russia won the team title. Ukraine was second, Iran third,
followed by Turkey and Cuba. The U.S. finished sixth.
The 1998 world championships will be held in Teheran.
"HOW DO YOU THINK THOSE BIG-TIME BASKETBALL GUYS WOULD LIKE
THIS? HOW LONG DO YOU THINK THEY'D LAST HERE?"