Heavy Mettle World champ Stephen Neal is the next big thing for U.S. wrestling

October 24, 1999

Facing hometown hero Aydin Polatci in the quarterfinals of the
world wrestling championships on Oct. 10 in Ankara, Turkey, U.S.
heavyweight Stephen Neal was besieged by fans in the 5,000-seat
Ataturk Arena. They littered the mat with straw and pistachio
shells whenever Neal scored and hurled invective at him
throughout the match. "Only fair," said U.S. coach Bruce
Burnett. "Look what Stephen threw at the Turk." Neal scored
three takedowns in the first minute of his 10-6 victory. Two
matches later he won the title 4-3 over Russia's Andrei
Shumilin, a three-time world medalist who spent the final minute
sucking air as Neal attacked.

The gold medal in Ankara completed a spectacular year for the
23-year-old Neal, who ended his career at Cal State-Bakersfield
in April with a college win streak of 83 matches. He also won
the gold at the Pan-Am Games in July, beating Cuba's reigning
world champion, Alexis Rodriguez, who was so whupped he twice
called time to retie a perfectly knotted shoelace before falling

Neal's relentless style belies the plodding approach of most
other heavyweights, whose often low-scoring matches can be as
exciting as watching cauliflower ears grow. He has drawn
comparisons to U.S. heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner, who won 13
world and Olympic medals and didn't lose to an American from
1982 until his retirement in '96. Even before the Atlanta Games,
as Neal, then 19, was bowing to Baumgartner 22-1 in a training
match, Baumgartner knew he was battling a worthy successor. Says
Baumgartner, now president of USA Wrestling, "He's on pace to be
the greatest heavyweight ever."

The prodigy scoffs at the thought. "I could never be that good
for that long," says Neal, who once, after gashing his finger in
a workout, wrote HARD WORK in blood on the wall of a wrestling
room. "I still have no clue about technique once I leave my
feet." In his eight victories at the Pan Ams and the worlds,
Neal pinned three foes within the first 35 seconds but scored
only 1 of his 42 points in the par terre (on mat) position. "I
have a small man's mentality," says Neal, who stands 6'5" and
weighs 260 pounds but was 135 as a high school freshman.
"Getting used to my size I'd ask my body, Where are you going?"

At San Diego High, Neal pinned future Heisman Trophy winner
Ricky Williams, and he talks of giving the NFL a try after the
Sydney Games. Darryl Pope, Neal's mentor and training partner,
says that unlike wrestlers who need to be angry to excel, Neal
thrives when he's happy. In Turkey happiness meant finding
familiar food. "One night we got a Whopper Junior at Burger
King, split a chicken bucket at KFC and got a footlong at
Subway," says Pope. "I knew Stephen would win the next day
because he was smiling and full." All the better to ignore the

--Brian Cazeneuve