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AMATEUR WRESTLING: FOR LOVERS ONLY
John Irving
Winter 1985
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


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The fifty-fourth annual NCAA Wrestling Championships were held in March 1984 at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The team winner for the seventh straight year was the University of Iowa. In addition to the 158-pound title and four runner-up trophies, Iowa captured one fourth-place finish and one fifth. Oklahoma State, the second-place team, wasn't even close. Penn State finished third, followed by Nebraska (fourth) and Oklahoma (fifth). The Iowa team was coached by the U. S. Olympic team coach, Dan Gable (center) who still holds the collegiate record for consecutive victories (100 matches without a loss). Gable, who also won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, is the only wrestler in the sport's history to win all his matches in Olympic competition without a single point being scored against him.

Gable is flanked here by two of his seven All-Americans: Tim Riley (left) and Mark Trizzino (right). Riley, seeded sixth, lost to Oklahoma State's Mark Perry in an overtime decision, but wrestled Perry again in a consolation bout for fifth place and beat him. That's what Gable likes to see in his boys: they keep scrapping.

Trizzino, trailing a sophomore from Cal State (Bakersfield) in the consolation final for third place, gambled on a five-point move and lost. With Iowa dominating the tournament, the pinning of an Iowa wrestler was a favorite moment with the crowd. But Gable said, "Did you see that move? Trizzino was losing - he had to try something. If you're going to lose, that's how to lose -trying something."

Kids who dislike baseball play it all the time; kids bored with basketball can still hit a foul shot. There are fair-weather skiers, and runners who don't push thselves -who just like to run. Racquet sports are largely mental wars with oneself (gaining control of your frustration is a part of any sport, but tennis ses a particularly danding test of containing your own moods). Of course, you can play tennis for a living or you can play it on weekends; but wrestling isn't done for money and it can't be done part-time. Nobody wrestles who doesn't love it. And nobody wrestles without pushing himself- it can't be done without going all out. Nobody lets someone handle him. It is the most humiliating feeling to be in someone else's hands, pushed where he wants you to go, totally in his control. Nobody is neutral about amateur wrestling, which should not be confused with those waddling melodramas acted out by so-called "professional" wrestlers; those charades by those beefy buffoons with their nonholds and their fake pain. So-called "amateur" wrestling is the only real wrestling there is.

It was my mother who introduced me to wrestling. I liked football because I liked the contact, but I was too small to play football: the bigger kids trampled me. I liked pushing, and getting pushed back, but I was always face-to-face with someone's chest. Baseball was interesting, but there was so much waiting; not enough happened (or else it happened to another player) -and when something (finally) happened to you, it didn't even last long enough to make you tired. I liked to run and lift weights (because of the sweat and the strain), but it wasn't until my mother took me to a prep school wrestling room that I saw where I belonged.

Oh, the heat of that room (to help you cut the weight); oh, the sweat. And the people pushing each other were the same size: big guys pushed other big guys, small guys got to push other small guys. It was my first view of a rough sport where the object was not to get bigger. In fact, in a weight-class sport, the object is to weigh as little as you can (to have the littlest guy possible pushing against you). What good sense that makes!

It is the constancy required to maintain your weight that makes wrestling a constant discipline. An average 190-pounder has to cut from 220; a 158-pounder, from 180. For years, my natural weight-when I let myself go -was 160 pounds, but I wrestled at 136 1/2 (in college, at 129 1/2).

I started when I was thirteen. I went to a local junior high school that didn't have a wrestling team; my mother (who knew that in two years I would attend the prep school in our town) simply brought me to the wrestling room two years early. She knew the coach. For the coach, of course, it was an opportunity to get a headstart with a future mber of his team. It must have been against the rules, and perhaps that made it attractive, too.

The running, the weight-training, the drilling, the live wrestling, and the dieting that prepare a wrestler for a mere eight minutes of all-out competition require the same degree of discipline and physical conditioning danded of a cross-country skier. Said a former track star who took up wrestling relatively late (he was a prep school senior): "I'll tell you what one wrestling match is like. It's like running an eight-eighty, for three miles -with a guy your own size on your back. After the first mile, the guy gets heavier."


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During overtime in the quarter-finals in the 118-pound class, Iowa assistant coach J. Robinson makes a point to Tim Riley, who is deadlocked with Oklahoma State's Mark Perry. With Gable devoting his time to training the Olympic team, it was Robinson who was responsible for maintaining Iowa's championship status in collegiate wrestling.

It has been argued that wrestling was the first sport; as competition, it predates running (or throwing contests). We were always masochists. But all wrestlers agree that the sport offers this reward: nothing else that we ever do is ever as hard.

I wrestled until I was thirty-four; that means that I watched my weight, I maintained a weight class, and I trained with other wrestlers on a team in order to compete against other wrestlers on other teams. Today, at forty-two, I would still compete if there wasn't the necessary observance of the weight class. I quit competing not because I ever tired of wrestling, or even because I was tired of losing more matches than I won; I quit competing only because I got tired of watching my weight. At 136 1/2 pounds, or under, I could at least be a match for the competition. The next weight class was 149 1/2 pounds; when I drifted up there, I encountered my mories of being a small kid, face-to-chest. The next weight class was 163 pounds; when I could no longer make 149 1/2, it was time to retire. I used to dream of being a heavyweight -not because I ever wanted to be big, but because heavyweights are not required to make weight. They are allowed to be as big as they get.

However, in 1986 collegiate rules for the heavyweight class will change. No heavyweight will be allowed to weigh more than 275 pounds. This rule change was introduced as a safety measure, a weak argument since there is no rule protecting a 170-pound quarterback from two or three 290-pound linen. A stronger argument was based on concern for the wrestler's health and his future risk of a heart attack. For his own sake, no heavyweight should weigh more than 275 pounds. But I favor the rule because wrestling is a weight-class sport in all the other weight classes; why shouldn't heavyweights have to make weight, too? Making weight gives the sport its extra level of sacrifice, and the sport is -by conception, and by its rules- aggressive; only oversized heavyweights can win matches by not wrestling.

Of course, the rule will be challenged. It is not docratic, and wrestling has previously offered a place for both the smallest and biggest men; under the new rule, the biggest men are discriminated against. But there are many excellent wrestlers in college who are too light to compete at 118 pounds, the lightest collegiate weight; if the smallest men are excluded from the sport, why not the biggest?

The wrestler's most common minor injuries include sprained, dislocated, and broken fingers, and biting through the lips and tongue. The most common serious injuries include cartilage and ligament damage to the knees, separated shoulders (and separated ribs), a broken nose, hyper-extended elbows, and all kinds of neck injuries (every kind of neck injury feels serious).

To understand wrestling, we must look at losing; wrestlers begin by losing, and it's by losing that they learn. There are natural wrestlers, of course, but there are no natural winners in wrestling: there is too much to learn. Baseball has its natural hitters; they hit from the start. But all wrestlers are taught. Few wrestlers at the top level of collegiate competition, or in Olympic competition, are beaten by moves they've never seen. New and trick moves do not win important wrestling matches; what wins matches are the old, known moves perfectly executed, and concealed by a variety of setups.

A wrestler can win a national championship with only one good takedown, with one unstoppable escape, with one especially tough ride. There have been freshman champions, but it takes years to develop the variety of setups that make your few, perfect moves look like different moves, and years to learn to recognize your opponents' offensive moves in order to defend yourself against th.

Although team scores are kept, to the wrestler wrestling is an individual sport. In a tournament a wrestler rarely sees more than a few of his teammates' matches. The psychological readiness that's necessary for a match's preparation is usually conducted in solitude, and losing is always solitary. One recovers alone.

It usually takes a few years of international competition (after college) to learn the differences between freestyle and folkstyle wrestling. Freestyle (international) wrestling phasizes the takedown; it accents upper-body moves (throws, from the feet, which can gain a wrestler either extra points-for exposing a wrestler's back to the mat-or a quick fall). Folkstyle (collegiate) wrestling is a more well-rounded test of a wrestler, but the United States is the only country to develop it. It requires that a wrestler be strong in three positions -in a neutral position (both wrestlers on their feet, seeking an advantage), in the top position (in control of the other wrestler), and in the bottom position (where the wrestler in the position of disadvantage is forced to escape from or to reverse his opponent).

In freestyle wrestling, it's not necessary to be able to get away from your opponent. It's only necessary that you be able to protect yourself from being turned (or pinned). Under international rules, a wrestler is not kept on the bottom if he can't get out; the referee allows the bottom man to get to his feet if there's no evidence of a pin-in-progress. The exhaustion of the wrestler in the bottom position is why college (or folkstyle) wrestlers need to be in better shape than Olympic wrestlers. In folkstyle wrestling, there is much more action down on the mat; nearly all the time in a freestyle match is wrestled on the feet. It's much more tiring down on the mat.

I still own my own wrestling mat; it feels more comfortable to me than any bed. And although I keep it very clean-no one ever caught ringworm from my mat! -when I push my face into it (or when someone else pushes my face into it, which is how it happens more often, nowadays), I can distinguish the gathered smells of my life's favorite gyms; all of th are captured in the smell of that one wrestling mat (and in the smell of every wrestling mat, for every wrestler).

A wrestler gets so familiar with the feel of the mat; for all wrestlers, stepping on a mat (anywhere in the world, and at any time) is as familiar as the backyards of our childhoods. If the common ground felt half as secure under us, we would relax for the rest of our lives.


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Iowa's freshman All-American Greg Randall, runner-up at 134 pounds. En route to the national finals, Randall pinned a wrestler from Hofstra and won decisions over wrestlers from Cal Poly, Indiana State, and Oklahoma. Randall is from Mount Vernon, Iowa. A 1984 Big Ten champion, he was the country's best college-freshman wrestler.

There is a rule in wrestling that you must wrestle back-you must be aggressive. The more you don't wrestle, the more points you lose; you cannot be strictly defensive, either to protect a lead or to keep yourself from being pinned. You must wrestle offensively; you can be disqualified for not trying as hard as you can. What a lovely rule! And here's the other rule I like (for collegiate and schoolboy wrestling); it means to protect wrestlers from body slams. In essence the rule states that he who takes his opponent off the mat is responsible for his safe return.

Wrestlers don't get mad at each other. What would be the point? Everything fair (and not intended to do bodily injury) is allowed. The point is to put your opponent's shoulders fiat to the mat, not to hurt him. In almost thirty years of wrestling and watching wrestling, I've never seen a wrestler throw a punch. All a wrestler's anger (save that which he reserves for himself, when he loses, and only occasionally that expressed toward the referee) is given an outlet within the rules of wrestling itself. Frustration is reserved for your own performance. In this respect, the sport wrestling most resbles -mentally-is tennis. Psychologically, you have to learn to hold yourself responsible for your own errors, and, in a constructive way, for your opponent's successes; you have to hold yourself responsible for th, too. But you must do this without beating yourself before you're beaten. The unhappiest wrestlers are those who can beat everyone in the wrestling room, but they can never win a match. They beat thselves: they double-fault, every time.

If wrestlers begin by losing, most wrestlers' seasons (and careers) end with losing, too. It is the losing you rber the longest, and it is the losing that teaches you. As a frequent loser in the sport (especially when I began, and when I stopped), I sometimes imagine that I understand the sport better (and love it more deeply) than those few, gifted winners are able to understand and love it. At the national championships, particularly, I have special affection for the losers; their character is the most visible.

In the many wrestling rooms I rber, there were the inevitable signs; most of th were the usual jock homilies about hard work ("When The Going Gets Tough..." and so forth). When I was wrestling (and losing) at the University of Pittsburgh, there were signs placed on the ceiling of the wrestling room; I saw th often -they were visible only if you were on your back, and so their messages were harsh ("If You Can Read This, You're Not Working Hard Enough..." and so forth).

I always hated those signs; I think everyone hates th. When I coached wrestling at Windham College (it no longer exists, and even the wrestling mats were sold at a public auction), I forbade any signs in the room. But it was hard to enforce anything at Windham. The wrestling room was broken into constantly often at night, usually for parties. People put cigarettes out on the mat; people broke beer bottles against the rafters, and the glass would get imbedded in the mat. Some of the glass would turn up later-in my wrestlers. I kept changing the locks; the intruders kept breaking in. A particularly bold couple once informed me that the wrestling room was considered the biggest bed on campus. I suppose it was inevitable, with that use of the wrestling mats in mind, that someone would paint over my message on the door.

WRESTLERS ONLY

I feebly asserted, to try to stop the vandalism. But they changed it -whoever they were.

LOVERS ONLY

they wrote on the door. I let it stay -because it was true, I thought. And I still think so. If you wrestle at all, you have to love it.


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Oswego State's Doug Morse, in the locker room at the Meadowlands, tries to put into perspective his 190-pound preliminary bout loss- a 26-8 drubbing at the hands of top-seeded Bill Scherr of Nebraska (the eventual champion). Morse entered the tournament as a Division III national champion; he won a hard, 8-7 decision over a West Virginia wrestler in the pigtail round before losing to Scherr.

Morse then had to psych himself up for a consolation match, which is difficult after such a loss. Although he pinned the number twelve seed, Ernie Badger of Southern Illinois, in 3:39, Morse lost his next match to Lehigh All-American Paul Diekel, and failed to place.


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Illinois heavyweight Steve Nelson, a 16-1 victim of third-seeded John Kriebs of Northern Iowa. It is much easier to be pinned than to lose 16-1. Nelson's loss occurred in the first preliminary round; it was his only match at the national tournament.

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The bottom wrestler is protecting himself from being turned; he cannot make an offensive move from his stomach; he'll have to regain his base (on hands and knees) in order to move against his opponent. The wrestler on top is just riding; he's making the bottom man carry his weight (that's the tiring part). If the bottom man attpts to get off his belly by exposing his arms, the top man can turn him toward his back. In this position the top man can get a few seconds rest. If the wrestlers maintain this position, the referee will warn or penalize one (or both) of th for stalling. In this match the wrestler on the bottom - Michigan State All-American Jim Mason -won.


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There is no rest available for either wrestler in this picture. Although the top man is in control, he appears to be losing it; his body-scissors, a so-called "figure-four," is not tight, and he is riding much too high. The bottom man is in a good position to escape (for one point) or to reverse his opponent (for two points). If the bottom man can catch the top man's head, which is hanging much too far over the bottom man's shoulder, the top man would be a victim of a five-point move, or else be pinned. The bottom man in this position is in no immediate danger.


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Quickness and execution are important - and anticipation, too - but good wrestling on the feet begins with good position. A seventh-place finisher in the 134-pound class, Michigan State's Jim Mason is wearing the dark kneepads. Neither wrestler has the advantage. They are maneuvering for position (to shoot a takedown and/or to defend against a takedown). Mason and his opponent are concentrating on each other's mid-sections; wrestlers do not look at each other's eyes. A wrestler watches the middle of his opponent's body; he keeps his elbows in and bent (to protect his legs); he crouches (for the same reason); he balances his weight between heel and toe (to be ready to move either forward or backward, fast). He never leans on his opponent.


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Michigan State 134-pounder Jim Mason has his eyes where they should be: on his opponent's navel.


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Tennessee's 167-pounder Chris Edmond (with his opponent's hand on his head) is in a safer position than his opponent, who is reaching too far and exposing too much of his right leg although Edmond's opponent is not leaning on Edmond, and the right leg may be offered as bait.


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The wrestler in the foreground is trying to recover his position on his feet after an unsuccessful takedown attpt - he has shot under Tennessee All-American Chris Edmond, who has pancaked (Edmond has shot his legs out of reach and has dropped his weight on his opponent's back). Edmond is now in a good position to counter with a takedown of his own, but his opponent (although he took a bad shot) is doing a good job of recovering his position. Edmond won the match and placed fourth in the 167-pound class.


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Stanford senior Jeff Wilson was unseeded in the 177-pound class, but he beat Tennessee's ninth-seeded Tim Cooper in his first preliminary bout; then he lost to the tournament's fourth-seeded 177-pounder from Oklahoma, Dan Chaid. Wilson won three matches in the consolation rounds, but lost to Penn State's Bob Harr and placed seventh.


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The third-place All-American in the heavyweight class: Miami of Ohio's Mike Holcomb (here celebrating a preliminary-round victory). Holcomb won five matches at the national tournament and lost one to 447 1/2-pound Tab Thacker of North Carolina State. Holcomb weighs 275 pounds.

END