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Olympic champs Smith and Baumgartner added to enormous medal count in ’88 and ’92
By Mike Finn, WIN Editor
Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of WIN’s look back at the United States’ wrestling performances in past Olympic Games. Go to https://www.win-magazine.com/wins-united-states-olympics-history/ to read additional stories of American wrestlers in the Olympics.
1988 – Seoul, Korea
For the first time in 12 years, the entire world of Olympic athletes came back together in Seoul, Korea, between Sept. 17 and Oct. 2 in 1988, when both the United States and the Soviet Union were considered powers after dominating each of the boycotted Games of 1980 in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles.
A pair of former Oklahoma State stars — John Smith (136.5) and Kenny Monday (163) — made sure the Americans held their own against the Russians as each Cowboy defeated a wrestler from the Soviet Union to earn a gold medal.
Smith, the three-time NCAA champion from Stillwater and 1987 world champion, reached the Olympics by first defeating 1980 and 1984 Olympian Randy Lewis in the Trials. Lewis had defeated John Smith’s brother, Lee Roy in the 1984 Trials.
Once in Seoul, Smith fractured his nose while defeating Bulgarian Simeon Shterev in a second-round match and also was forced to have an abscessed left ear drained daily.
Smith eventually reached the finals where he slipped free of a leg-hold by Simeon Shterev and defeated the Soviet wrestler, 4-0.
Monday, meanwhile, also had to defeat a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in Dave Schultz at the 1988 Olympic Trials. He then headed to Korea where he pinned one opponent and defeated six others by a 34-2 margin to reach the finals against defending World champion Adian Varayev of the Soviet Union.
Varayev had beaten Monday in three previous meetings but neither man had scored in over four minutes. Monday finally ended the deadlock with 1:45 remaining when he scored on a single-leg takedown. But 45 seconds later, the Soviet wrestler tallied two points off a double-leg takedown to lead 2-1 before Monday forced overtime when he scored on a reversal with 17 seconds remaining.
Then with 43 seconds gone in sudden death, Monday lifted Varayev into the air with a bodylock and slammed him to the mat for a three-point takedown and the eventual win. Monday became the first black wrestler to win a gold medal in wrestling.
Unfortunately, the United States was unable to win every high-profile match against their Russian rivals. Heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner lost 3-1 to David Gobezhishvili, the 1985 World champion who lost to the American three times in 1986.
The Soviet wrestler actually lost his place on the USSR roster but came back to beat Baumgartner when he scored a takedown only 17 seconds into the match and eventually led 3-0 before Baumgartner scored a point with 10 seconds remaining.
Four years later, Baumgartner beat Gobezhishvili in the third round of 1992 Olympics, which the U.S. heavyweight won.
Among the other Americans in Seoul, Nate Carr (149.5) and Bill Scherr (220) each captured a bronze medal.
Carr, who beat Japan’s Kosei Akaishi, 5-1, in the third-place match, lost a controversial semifinal to Korea’s Park Jang-soon, 3-2. The officials in charge of the match were suspended because of the way they handled the bout.
Scherr, meanwhile, pinned East German Uwe Neupert in 3:31 for the bronze. His brother, Jim, meanwhile finished fifth at 198 while Tim Vanni claimed fourth at 105.5.
In Greco-Roman competition, the United States earned just one medal (bronze) from Dennis Koslowski at 200 pounds, where he defeated Bulgaria’s Ilia Georgiev, 6-0.
1992 — Barcelona, Spain
The 191-pound freestyle final was expected to be a memorable one as 1991 World champion Kevin Jackson of the United States was set to take on 1989 World champion Elmadi Zhabrailov. But no one could have imagined when the duo actually took to the mat in Barcelona with the gold medal hanging on the outcome how the bout would actually play out.
For after a wild overtime period, Jackson earned his first gold medal after the American was awarded a takedown with 6:54 gone in the match. The decision caused a meltdown on the Russian side, which believed their wrestler should have earned the victory before Jackson’s takedown was put on the board.
The controversy started with 46 seconds gone in sudden-death overtime when Zhabrailov appeared to secure a double-leg attack. As Jackson fought off the move, the wrestlers fell out of bounds. While the referee Todor Grudev of Bulgaria determined that no points were scored, Russian coach Ivan Yarygin (a two-time gold medalist) protested for at least two minutes. Once the match resumed, Jackson scored on a double-leg takedown, which led to the Iowa State graduate shouting, “gold medal, gold medal.”
The Russian wrestler meanwhile was distraught and had to be pushed to the podium, where he accepted the silver medal but refused to put it around his neck. Many in the crowd were so upset that whistling and booing nearly drowned out the Star-Spangled Banner that was played.
The International Wrestling Federation rejected the formal protest on the basis that the official video of the disputed move by Zhabrailov was inconclusive.
This was one of three gold medals earned by the freestyle team as both John Smith at 136.5 pounds and heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner earned their final Olympic championships. Smith, who continues to head the program at his alma mater Oklahoma State, ended his freestyle career with six total gold medals: four World championships and two Olympic titles. Baumgartner, the future athletic director at Edinboro, earned even more Olympic and World medals (13) — including two gold, one silver and one bronze medal in four Olympics — before he officially retired after the 1996 Olympics.
In Greco-Roman competition, only Dennis Koslowski (finishing second at 220 pounds) and Rodney Smith (taking home a bronze medal at 149.5 pounds) earned hardware. Koslowski saw his chance at Olympic gold end 25 seconds into overtime when Hector Milian scored on a snapdown at the edge of the mat. The American forced overtime when he scored on a front headlock at the 3:26 mark.