TheMatside View by Gary Abbott Building rivalries adds excitement to U S international wrestling

By Gary Abbott | May 20, 2003, 12 a.m. (ET)
The recent U.S. National Championships in Las Vegas, Nev. put the spotlight on a number of star athletes competing in Senior-level international wrestling today. With the 2004 Athens Olympic Games only a few months away, the major contenders for the U.S. Olympic team have already mostly identified themselves. It is very rare for an athlete to come out of the pack during an Olympic year and make an Olympic team. A few real-life examples of this uncommon occurance are Brandon Slay (who was No. 6 on the national team ladder going into the 2000 Olympic year) and Michial Foy (who had wrestled Greco-Roman for only a year before making the 1988 Olympic team). The Slays and Foys of the world are few and far between. In most cases, the top challengers for Athens in all three styles have already stepped forward. And in many cases, there are a few interesting and intense budding rivalries that make the quest for the Olympic Games very exciting. In order to promote this sport to the general public, we must identify and publicize these rivalries. As an individual sport, these rivalries can help fill the stands and receive coverage in the media. What are examples of great rivalries? In most cases, there are two great athletes in the same weight division, with a number of meetings between them, and an uncertain outcome when they meet. Often, these rivalries later lead to one of both of the athletes making history on the world level. I'd like to point out a few of my favorite rivalries during the last two decades (in no particular order): 1. Kenny Monday vs. Dave Schultz - Both became World and Olympic champions at 163 pounds and now are in the Wrestling Hall of Fame. Early on, Schultz had the edge, as Monday made the change from college to freestyle. From 1988 on, it was Monday who won these intense wars. When Monday retired from 1993-95, Schultz reclaimed the weight class. Their final expected showdown, after Monday made a comeback in 1996, was taken away when Schultz was murdered. 2. Steve Fraser vs. Mike Houck - In Greco-Roman circles, these two stars were trail-blazers. In 1984, Fraser beat out Houck for the U.S. Olympic team at 198 pounds, and went on to win the first Olympic gold medal by a U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler. A year later, when Houck got his chance to be on the 1995 U.S. World team, he won the first gold medal by an American at a Greco-Roman World Championships. It may have been a short rivalry, but it was very meaningful in our wrestling history. 3. Dennis Hall vs. Jim Gruenwald - This rivalry would not have been on the list because for many years it was one-sided. Their meetings began in high school in Wisconsin, and went through the Olympic level in Greco-Roman. Hall won them all early on, and he became a three-time World-level medalist and a true international star. In 2000, Gruenwald upset Hall to make the U.S. Olympic team. Gruenwald also made the 2001 and 2002 World Team Trials (even though Hall was able to win their bout at the 2001 U.S. Nationals). These athletes always compete with intensity against each other. 4. Ike Anderson vs. Buddy Lee - Anderson made the 1988 Olympic team and Lee made the 1992 Olympic team at 136.5 pounds in Greco-Roman. Both were World placewinners and among the best U.S. wrestlers of their era. Both made the other better athletes and competitors, exactly what a rivalry should do. 5. Kevin Jackson vs. Les Gutches - Like the Schultz/Monday wars, the older veteran won the early bouts, with World and Olympic champion Jackson stopping college star Gutches in their first battles at 180.5 pounds. With Jackson as a reigning World Champion, Gutches upset him to make the 1996 Olympic team. A year later, Gutches had to beat out Jackson again for a World team spot, and then won his World gold medal. They were rivals until Jackson's retirement. There are many other good matchups that come to mind, but some were not long enough in the the making to become true rivalries. The battles between Kendall Cross and Terry Brands surrounding the 1996 Olympic quest were unmatched in intensity. Both were to become gold medalists, Cross at the Olympics and Brands at the Worlds twice, Sometimes, there are more than two wrestlers in a rivalry, a very deep weight class with multiple stars. In freestyle, the 180.5-pound class from 1989-92 comes to mind. Included in this mix were World medalists Melvin Douglas, Royce Alger, Kevin Jackson and Dave Schultz, plus 1997 national champion Rico Chiapparelli. In Greco-Roman, the 198-pound wars during the early 1990's included two-time Olympian Michial Foy, Olympian Derrick Waldroup and World Team member Randy Couture. So, how do our current wrestlers stack up in terms of rivalries? In men's freestyle, the field is kind of murky in regards to rivalries. Perhaps the best emerging rivalry is at 132 pounds, with World team member Eric Guerrero and former Cuban World placewinner Jesus Wilson. Guerrero won the 2002 World Team Trials and 2003 U.S. Nationals showdowns, but Wilson is skilled and talented and will be a strong test. Others could also emerge at that weight, however. The jumbled situation at 145.5 pounds, featuring past World Team members Chris Bono and Bill Zadick, plus the recently returned Olympic medalist Lincoln McIlravy is catching attention. McIlravy has never lost to Bono, while Bono and Zadick have had a nice battle since this new weight class was formed. Zadick's win over McIlravy in Las Vegas further muddies the waters, especially since they were college teammates. At 121 pounds, the battle at this time includes No. 1 Stephen Abas and veteran star Eric Akin, plus 2002 national champion Teague Moore. If former World champion Sammie Henson reenters the picture, this becomes one of those big, wide-open battles. Very interesting, but is this a rivalry yet? Right now, Joe Williams (163), Cael Sanderson (185) and Kerry McCoy (264.5) have controlled their divisions, but do face strong domestic opponents who seek to create a rivalry. The 211.5-pound class remains wide open, with no clear match-ups. In men's Greco-Roman, the battle of 2002 World Champion Dremiel Byers and 2000 Olympic and 2001 World Champion Rulon Gardner at 264.5 pounds captures the imagination. They do have a history going back to the late 1990's and both have been winners. Gardner's recovery from frostbite in 2002 has been splashed across the news. However, they did not meet in Las Vegas when Corey Farkas beat Gardner in the semifinals, and Byers won the gold over Farkas. The Gruenwald-Hall rivalry at 132 pounds now has a new player, Glenn Nieradka, who won the 2002 U.S. Nationals and was second in the 2003 Nationals. At 163 pounds, Keith Sieracki and T.C. Danztler have battled many years, with Sieracki winning all the battles except at the 2002 World Team Trials (Dantzler's breakthrough event). Sieracki faced a new rival in the national finals, young Ken Cook. The 185-pound class has potential to be very interesting, with young star Brad Vering and his friend and former training partner Olympic medalist Matt Lindland meeting in the national finals. Throw in veteran Ethan Bosch and a few other talented contenders and this weight offers many options. At 121 pounds, veteran Brandon Paulson has been on top, as his regular rival Lindsay Durlacher still seeks a victory in the series. Kevin Bracken (145.5) and Garrett Lowney (211.5) have been on top of their divisions since 2000, with no clear top rival yet determined. The women's field is interesting, with some dominant athletes and some young new stars. Perhaps the best rivalry in the making is at 158.5 pounds between 2001 World silver medalist Toccara Montgomery and young star Samantha Lang. They have met four times within five months, with Lang winning twice, but Montgomery's technical fall win in Las Vegas adds a new twist to this matchup. The 121-pound battle featuring World medalists Tina George and Stephanie Murata was disrupted by young star Tela O'Donnell, who beat them both on the way to the U.S. Nationals title this year. Two of America's best women wrestlers compete at 138.75 pounds, with