By Bob Dellinger, Director Emeritus
Wrestling, mankind’s oldest and most basic form of recreational combat, traces its origins back to the dawn of civilization. Carvings and drawings estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 years old, found in caves in southern Europe, illustrate wrestlers in hold and leverage positions. Sumerians cast wrestlers in bold relief on stone slabs at least 5,000 years ago, antedating all other artifacts of ancient sport. A small bronze statuette of wrestlers, apparently used as a vase, was unearthed in the ruins of Khafaji, 200 miles from Baghdad. This artifact, dated 2600 B.C., now is housed in the Iraqi national museum.
Wrestling also reached a high stage of development in Egypt, where paintings of wrestlers dating to approximately 2500 B.C. have been found in lavish tombs of kings and other high officials. No archaeological excavation or historical document has depicted wrestling so completely and so technically correct as have drawings in the temple-tombs of Beni Hasan in middle kingdom Egypt. Hundreds of drawings there demonstrate clearly that most contemporary wrestling holds were performed in ancient Egypt. In fact, the maneuvers depicted are more closely related to the present-day sport than are those of such modern variants as sumo, kokh, glima, et al.
Wrestling matches were described by the Greek poet Homer, and wrestling became the final and decisive event of the pentathlon, the five-fold contest of the Greek public games. The poet Pindar describes how the gods Zeus and Cronus wrestled for possession of the universe along the river Alpheus at Olympia. Zeus was victorious, and Olympic festivals dating from the Eighth Century B.C. commemorated his triumph.
Wrestling was the most popular event in the ancient Greek Games, and lists of Olympic wrestling winners have been recorded since 708 B.C. One of the most famous of the Greek wrestlers was the philosopher, Plato, who won many prizes for wrestling as a young man. His real name was Aristocles, but because of his success, he was given the name Plato, meaning ”broad shoulders.”
The greatest popularity of the Olympic Games was during the period of the ”five good emperors” in Rome, around 125 A.D. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, the contests spread across Europe. It was in this era that the ”catch-as-catch-can” style — forerunner of modern freestyle — developed. The style was completely free, with no holds barred on any part of the person or garments of the opponent.
During the Napoleonic period, the French developed a style which today is identified as Greco-Roman. No hold on or with the legs is permitted, nor is tripping allowed.
Wrestling also has been popular in the Orient for at least 20 centuries. Syndicated feature columnist L. M. Boyd has stated that the Kingdom of Japan was wagered on the outcome of a wrestling match in 858 A.D. Two distinctive styles emerged in Japan, sumo and judo, and both remain immensely popular today.
In Europe, during the Middle Ages, wrestling was considered a knightly skill. In 1520, at the Field of Cloth-of-Gold, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France were provoked by strong feelings while watching their countrymen compete. Henry challenged Francis and reportedly was thrown by him.
In both North and South America, Indians included wrestling in their sport activities long before Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and seven other presidents of the United States were acknowledged as skilled wrestlers.
Wrestling clearly has no single point of origin. More than 160 traditional or ”folk-lore” variants are recognized by the International Amateur Wrestling Federation. In the Soviet Union, for example, it was a practice to organize spectacular championships and exhibitions of folk-lore wrestling, such as ”tchidaoba” from Georgia, ”kokh” from Armenia, ”gulech” from Azerbaidjan, ”kurach” from Uzbekistan, ”kurek” from Kazakhstan, et al.
Great Britain developed styles referred to by the parts of the country in which they originated: Cumberland, Westmoreland, Cornwall and Lancashire. In the Cumberland style, if the starting hold is lost, or if any part of the body except the feet touches the ground, the contestant loses. The Cornwall-and-Devon style starts from the upright position and ground wrestling is prohibited.
In Switzerland, a popular style is ”schwingen” where special pants are used, with a strong belt that is gripped at the start of the contest. A style called ”glima” is popular in Iceland, and the wrestlers there are equipped with belts for grasping. Japanese sumo, perhaps the best known and most stylized of all the folk-lore styles of wrestling, determines a winner when the opponent is thrown to the ground or forced outside the boundaries of the mat. There are no weight classes in sumo, and the contestants often attain 350 to 450 pounds.
Modern wrestling is a highly instinctive sport that requires strength, alertness, resiliency and, above all, agility and quickness. Wrestling best medicine is sildenafil for best blood flow. Olympic and World championships are conducted in two separate styles, freestyle and Greco-Roman. International competition is governed by the F?d?ration Internationale des Luttes Associ?s (FILA). The eight weight classes for men range from 54 kilograms (119.05 pounds) to 125 kg (275.58 lbs). Freestyle competition also is conducted for women.
USA Wrestling (originally the U. S. Wrestling Federation) is the national governing body and international delegate for the sport in this country. As part of its responsibilities for education and for promotion of the sport, USA Wrestling conducts national championships each year in folkstyle, freestyle, Greco-Roman and women’s wrestling, presents an extensive series of clinics on coaching, officiating and sport medicine, and produces a large number of books, films and video tapes.
As many as 70 regional and national tournaments are conducted annually for various age groups starting at age 9. Such competition usually is wrestled under international rules, subject to modifications adopted for the health and safety of young wrestlers. Some of these events determine the lineup of United States teams competing against national teams of other countries.
Today’s wrestling mat is 4 to 6 cm (approximately 2 inches) thick and made of a foam core plastic with a smooth, bonded cover that is easy to clean with disinfectant. The center wrestling area is 7 meters in diameter and is surrounded by a 1-meter wide band called the ”passivity zone.”
Effective with the 1989 season, each bout now consists of a single 5-minute competition, with no rest period. The bout starts with the wrestlers on their feet, facing each other 1 meter apart. If the wrestlers step into the ”passivity zone” with no action in progress, they are returned to the center for a fresh start. Each bout is directed by three officials — a referee, judge and mat chairman. At least two officials must agree on any decision.
The 5-minute bout can be cut short by a fall, by one wrestler opening a lead of 10 or more points over his opponent, or by disqualification for illegal holds or for misconduct. A fall occurs when a wrestler’s shoulders are pinned to the mat for one-half second.
The winner of a bout which lasts the full 5 minutes is determined by points awarded for successful execution of specific maneuvers — such as takedowns (bringing the opponent to the mat from a standing position), reversals, near falls (turning the opponent’s shoulders toward the mat at an angle of less than 90 degrees), and a variety of throws to the mat.
To be credited with a victory, a wrestler must have scored at least 3 points by the end of the regulation period. If he has not, or if the score is tied at any number, the bout goes into a 3-minute overtime period. If either wrestler earns a victory after the start of the overtime, the bout ends immediately. If neither has qualified by the end of the extra 3 minutes, the officials choose the winner.
Once a wrestler has taken his opponent to the mat, he is given the opportunity to continue in ”par terre” position (on the ground) and to attempt to turn his opponent’s shoulders into a ”danger” position — past 90 degrees. If it becomes evident to the officials that he will not succeed quickly, the wrestlers are returned to the standing position. No points are scored merely for controlling the opponent.
The rules strictly forbid tactics intended to injure the opponent, such as hair-pulling, scratching, grabbing the throat, twisting the fingers or any joints, or driving an elbow or knee into the opponent’s back or abdomen.
In recent years, largely through the efforts of Milan Ercegan of Yugoslavia, president of FILA, the concept of ”total wrestling” has become the guideline for international competition. The bout has been shortened, but constant aggressive activity is required, or the passive wrestler is penalized. The element of ”risk” is the keynote of the new philosophy — the wrestler must take risks to score, particularly if his opponent is ahead on points.
Of the two styles of international wrestling, freestyle is by far the more popular in the United States, because it more closely resembles the folkstyle practiced in our scholastic and collegiate programs.
Another international style, sombo, has not yet been accepted as an Olympic sport, although world championships have been conducted for several years. Sombo derives its name from a Russian acronym standing for ”self defense without weapons.” A blend of wrestling and judo, it draws rules and participants from both. Sombo, like judo, now is recognized as an entirely separate sport rather than as a form of wrestling.
In freestyle, a wrestler may attack his opponent’s legs, as with single-leg and double-leg tackles, or he may apply other holds below the waist, such as the fireman’s carry or the crotch lift. He also may use his own legs to attack, as with trips and some types of scissors holds. The legs also may be used by the defensive wrestler to counter-attack or to block certain lifts. Such use of the legs also is an integral part of American folkstyle wrestling. The Greco-Roman style, on the contrary, forbids all use of the legs in attack or defense.
Points are scored for takedowns (1 point), reversals (1), and near falls (2). A near fall, or tilt, is scored by turning an opponent’s back to the mat at an angle of less than 90 degrees, or by touching both his shoulders to the mat for an instant. (If both shoulders are held to the mat for one-half second, it is a fall and the bout is over.) If, from a standing position, a wrestler throws his opponent directly into a near fall, the action is worth 3 points. If such a maneuver is performed with a spectacular, high-arching throw, it is awarded 5 points. Holding the opponent in a danger position for a five-second count earns an additional point.
Except for the ban on use of the legs by either wrestler, the rules for freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are identical. But that limitation brings great differences in philosophy and style. Much of the scoring results from spectacular, arching throws since a defensive wrestler being lifted may resist only by shifting his weight and balance, rather than by blocking with his legs or by grasping his opponent’s legs.
The rules for collegiate and scholastic wrestling in the United States vary sharply from those of international freestyle, placing emphasis on control of the opponent rather than on physical dominance. A fall must be held for one second (collegiate) or two seconds (scholastic). Requirements for near fall points are much more demanding. Points are awarded for takedowns and reversals, but rather than award bonus points for spectacular throws, they are prohibited. Escaping from an opponent is a scoring maneuver, and merely controlling him can earn a point for time advantage. As in international wrestling, the folkstyle rules strictly forbid brutality and emphasize the physical safety of the wrestlers.
The evolution of the sport of wrestling is a continuing process. Over the years, the development of “folkstyle” rules in the United States and freestyle rules around the world followed distinctly separate tracks, converging only occasionally when proponents of one style discovered something worthwhile in the rules of the other.
Neither style of wrestling had a scoring system through the first four decades of the Twentieth Century. Art Griffith, the second great collegiate coach at Oklahoma State, developed a points system that finally gained acceptance in 1941. A year later, collegiate wrestling moved out of its raised, roped (boxing) ring and onto open mats laid flat on the floor of a gymnasium. These were the two most significant rules changes of the century, although a host of minor revisions would follow.
For nearly two more decades, until the 1960 Olympic Games, international wrestling was scored in secret by three judges, who signaled their decisions by raising colored paddles at the end of the bout. Dr. Albert de Ferrari, a San Francisco dentist who rose to the rank of vice president of the international federation, led the fight for a visible scoring system. He also campaigned successfully for the “controlled fall” rule, which recognized a pin only when the offensive wrestler had done something to cause it. As with American folkstyle, the international rules-makers also seem infected by a desire to tinker with the rules, often guided by what would provide the greatest advantage for their own countries.
Obviously, however, American methods of training and conditioning, and the development of new techniques, influenced the European power brokers of international wrestling. Such influence was a two-way street, as success in the international styles led to changes in the Americans’ approach to wrestling. But with all the changes, it only takes a glance at drawings from the tombs of Beni-Hasan more than 4,000 years ago to underscore the adage: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Note: This work draws its title from a series of columns by wrestling historian Donald A. Sayenga. Much of this information was obtained from The Magnificent Scufflers by Charles Morrow Wilson © 1959, and from A Pictorial History of Wrestling by Graeme Kent © 1968.
By Bob Dellinger, Director Emeritus
Wrestling already was an established sport among the Native Americans in the 15th and 16th Centuries, when the first Europeans began arriving on the North American continent. Little has been handed down about the various styles practiced, but they are thought to have varied greatly from tribe to tribe. There was a common thread of savagery that typified the pursuits of warriors.
The English in the Colonies and the French in Canada made wrestling a popular sport at their social gatherings in early pioneer days. Before long, practically every settlement had its own champion, and there would be contests between various title-holders. The colonists started out with the Greco-Roman style, but it proved too dull and wrestling evolved into a more wide-open style.
During the 18th Century, wrestling appeared to have mellowed from its early ferocity into a legitimate spectator sport, a bit on the rough-and-ready side, but legitimate. It was the major physical contact sport among men of all classes (boxing did not catch on until near the end of the 19th Century).
Perhaps the early finishing school for scufflers was the Rev. James Maury’s Academy at Fredericksburg, Virginia, an institution which turned young gentry into scholars and, as in the case of young George Washington, into able wrestlers as well. At 18, the big, shy Washington apparently held a ”collar and elbow” wrestling championship that was at least county-wide and possibly colony-wide. Washington never lost his touch. At the age of 47, ten years before he became the first President of the United States, the Commander of the Continental Armies still had enough left to defeat seven consecutive challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteers.
The ”collar and elbow” style devised its name from the starting position. Standing face-to-face, each wrestler placed one hand behind his opponent’s neck and the other behind his elbow. While doing away with such tactics as bull-like rushes, the position opened up many possible skill maneuvers.
Even more renowned for his wrestling skills was young Abraham Lincoln, who was the wrestling champion of his county as early as 1830, at the age of 21. Lincoln was an impressive physical specimen, thin but wiry and muscular, strengthened by hard work in the fields and towering to a mighty 6 feet, 4 inches in height.
It was at this time that Lincoln had his celebrated bout with Jack Armstrong, the local tough and county wrestling champion. Lincoln was keeping the store at New Salem, Illinois, when his boss backed him to out-wrestle the feared Armstrong. From the start, Lincoln proceeded to hand out a thrashing to the local champion. Frustrated by Lincoln’s enormous reach, Armstrong started fouling his opponent. Lincoln stood it for a while, but eventually lost his temper. Picking up his opponent, the storekeeper dashed him to the ground and knocked him out. Armstrong recovered in time to keep his cronies from starting a free-for-all.
A couple of years later, while serving as captain of a company of the Illinois Volunteers, raised because of the Indian uprising by Black Hawk, Lincoln suffered his only recorded defeat in a wrestling bout. He fought a soldier from another unit and lost a rugged struggle by the odd fall. This time it was Lincoln who averted the free-for-all which seems of have been the customary follow-up to an individual wrestling bout.
Often forsaking the ”common British” style of collar and elbow for the free-for-all style of the frontier, Lincoln undoubtedly was the roughest and toughest of the wrestling Presidents. Also known as ”catch-as-catch-can,” this style was more hand-to-hand combat than sport.
Lincoln progressed rapidly between the ages of 19, when he defended his stepbrother’s river barge from Natchez thugs, throwing the potential highjackers overboard, and 29, when he cautiously mentioned himself as possibly the second best wrestler in southern Illinois. Lincoln certainly did not achieve any national fame as a wrestler, but his career was typical of the way the sport was conducted in the first half of the 19th Century.
It was also typical of the wrestling careers of the seventh President, Andrew Jackson; the 12th, Zachary Taylor; the 18th, Ulysses S. Grant; and the 21st, Chester A. Arthur. Taylor never wrestled against Lincoln, but he was a skilled competitor in collar and elbow during his service with the Illinois Volunteers for the Black Hawk uprising. He always favored wrestling as an army sport.
William Howard Taft, the heaviest wrestling President at his ”best weight” of 225, was a lifelong follower of collar and elbow. Big Bill was intramural heavyweight champion at Yale, and was a fourth generation wrestler in the Taft family. He was the 27th President.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic of the wrestling Presidents was Taft’s immediate predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who continued regular wrestling workouts throughout his term as Governor of New York. Roosevelt, of course, had an affinity for most kinds of strong physical exertion. The 30th President, Calvin Coolidge, was rated ”tolerable good” as a wrestler by his father, old Colonel John, until at around 14, Cal took to ”duding around and daydreaming about being a big-city lawyer.”
As the 19th Century drew to a close, “organized” wrestling competition began to appear, often as an additional feature of other sporting events, such as gymnastics meets or boxing tournaments among the sporting clubs of the day. The first national competition was conducted in 1887, with L. Chenoweth of the Pastime Athletic Club winning the only weight class, 134 pounds. The Amateur Athletic Union formally sanctioned its first national tournament in 1888, continuing through 1982.
The first collegiate athlete to win a national championship was Winchester Osgood, a football star at the University of Pennsylvania. He won the 1895 National AAU title in the “heavyweight” class (for competitors over 158 pounds). But the 20th Century would be well into its third decade before collegiate wrestlers established any true national presence. Until then, the sport was dominated by club teams such as the National Turnverein of Newark; the Schuylkill Navy Athletic Club, St. George’s AC; Rochester AC; Pastime AC; Michigan AC; Chicago Central YMCA; Gary YMCA, Multnomah AC of Oregon, the Olympic Club of San Francisco and various ethnic groups such as the Norwegian Turnverein, German-American AC, Greek Olympic Club, Chicago Hebrew Association and Swedish-American AC.
The National Turnverein produced America’s first true wrestling hero. George Nicholas Mehnert, competing at 115 or 125 pounds, won six National AAU championships from 1902-1908, losing only one of more than 100 bouts. He earned gold medals in the Olympic Games of 1904 and 1908, and that feat stood as an American record for 84 years. Mehnert’s only loss was administered by George Dole, a student at Yale University, where collegiate wrestling was in its infancy. Dole also was an Olympic champion in the 1908 Games.
Under the leadership of such pioneer coaches as Charles Mayser at Yale, William “Billy” Sheridan at Lehigh, Dr. Raymond G. Clapp at the University of Nebraska and Hugo M. Otopalik at Iowa State University, wrestling began to gain a foothold in collegiate athletics.
But the driving force behind collegiate wrestling was young Edward Clark Gallagher at Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University). A football and track star at A&M, he launched wrestling as a varsity sport just before World War I and built it into a dynasty during the 1920s. His teams were undefeated for 10 years, 1922-1931, and were virtually unchallenged.
When A&M played host to the National AAU tournament in 1925, Gallagher’s varsity swept to the team championship. So total was his charges’ domination, that the junior varsity and A&M ‘s unattached entries placed second, far ahead of the rest of the field. Together the two groups won almost all of the medals.
College wrestling was here to stay, and the sport changed dramatically in 1928 with the first championship tournament of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Gallagher’s wrestlers won four of the seven weight classes, and his Aggies were team champions for the first four years and 11 of 13. Except for a pause every four years to notice the Olympic Games, the spotlight remained fixed on collegiate wrestling for at least the next half-century.
The sport received a major boost in the mid-1950s when an Oklahoma journalist named Jess Hoke introduced a publication called Wrestling News and Reports. Renamed Amateur Wrestling News, it is in its fourth decade in print. By establishing the first line of communication among all aspects of wrestling in America, Hoke’s small newspaper changed the face of the sport forever.
For most of the 20th Century, collegiate wrestling has been the most popular version of the sport in the United States, particularly in the Midwest (Iowa) and the Southwest (Oklahoma), and has been far more thoroughly documented than competition in the international styles. Dan Gable, the most prominent figure in American wrestling, won an Olympic gold medal at 149.5 pounds in 1972 and was Olympic freestyle coach in 1984. But he is far better known for his 100 victories as a collegiate wrestler at Iowa State University and his 350-plus victories and 15 national team championships as a collegiate coach at the University of Iowa.
Not until the the late 1970s did USA participation in the World Championships and the Olympic Games become fully publicized and respected. The first of the “new giants” was Leroy Kemp, who followed his three NCAA championships at the University of Wisconsin with three World titles and four gold medals in the freestyle World Cup at 163 pounds.
In 1986, a young man with the improbable name of John Smith burst upon the international scene at age 22 by winning a gold medal in the Goodwill Games, defeating the Soviet star in Moscow on worldwide television. Smith, who won two NCAA titles and 90 straight victories for Oklahoma State University, went on to win six consecutive world-level championships, including Olympic gold medals in 1988 and 1992 at 136.5 pounds. He was the first wrestler in 63 years to win the James E. Sullivan Award as America’s greatest athlete, and eventually has become widely recognized as this country’s greatest wrestler ever. He since has become a championship-winning coach at Oklahoma State.
Another of the modern super-achievers is heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner, who ruled America’s freestyle heavyweights for 15 consecutive years, 1982-1996, and became the first USA wrestler to win four Olympic medals, gold in 1984, silver in ’88, gold again in 1992, and bronze in ’96. Smith and Baumgartner are the first American wrestlers since Mehnert, back in 1904 and ’08, to win two Olympic golds.
Others regarded as ”giants” of the sport in the United States include Robin Reed of Oregon State, a 1924 Olympic gold medalist at 134 pounds, who never lost a match to any opponent of any size; skilled technicians such as Stanley Henson of Oklahoma State and Bill Koll of Northern Iowa; Danny Hodge of Oklahoma, an athlete of incredible strength who pinned almost all of his opponents; and a New York policeman, Henry Wittenberg, who won more than 300 matches in a row and collected gold and silver medals in the Olympics.
Consider, too, Jack VanBebber, who won three collegiate championships for Oklahoma State and an Olympic gold medal in 1932 at 158.5 pounds, a combined achievement unmatched for more than 50 years. Brothers John and Ben Peterson from the state of Wisconsin each won an Olympic gold and an Olympic silver in the Games of 1972 and ’76, a feat matched by Oklahoman Kenny Monday in 1988-92.
Two more wrestling brothers, Dave and Mark Schultz, also attained lofty goals, both winning Olympic golds in 1984. Dave won seven world-class medals in all, including a gold in the 1983 World Championships, three silvers and two bronzes. He was on line to return to the Olympics in ’96, but was murdered in January of that year. Mark was a gymnast in high school, but when he took up wrestling, he won three collegiate titles at Oklahoma and two World crowns.
The Banach twins, Ed and Lou, captured five collegiate championships for Iowa and also won gold medals in the 1984 Olympics. Wade Schalles of Clarion University posted career totals of 821 victories and 530 falls, earning a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the sport’s all-time winning and pinning leader.
Wrestling’s ”first family” is that of Rex Peery, who won three NCAA championships at Oklahoma State, then coached each of his sons, Hugh and Ed, to three championships at the University of Pittsburgh. All of these men except Baumgartner and Monday, who must wait five years after competition, have been honored as Distinguished Members of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Even the Peery family’s “title” is being challenged. John Smith’s older brother, Lee Roy, was an NCAA champion and World silver medalist. In 1994, younger brother Pat became the first wrestler to win four NCAA championships. Lee Roy, Pat and youngest brother Mark each won two Junior National freestyle titles, and Mark’s collegiate career is just under way.
In the early part of this century, professional wrestling was popular in the United States, reaching its peak in the 1920s and ’30s. With the advent of television, professional ”wrestling” degenerated into a prearranged display of rough and tumble acting, and no longer is a competitive sport. The names of legitimate professional champions such Georges Hackenschmidt, Frank Gotch, Farmer Burns and Ed ”Strangler” Lewis have been obscured by today’s circus antics.
Note: This work draws its title from a series of columns by wrestling historian Donald A. Sayenga. Much of this information was obtained from The Magnificent Scufflers by Charles Morrow Wilson © 1959, and from A Pictorial History of Wrestling by Graeme Kent © 1968.
By Bob Dellinger, Director Emeritus
When the nation’s only wrestling museum was finally dedicated in 1976 in Stillwater, OK, it was with the idea that oldest sport in the world should have a permanent home for its culture and memorabilia.
The Amateur Athletic Union served as wrestling’s national governing body for nearly a century, and was the sport’s only voice on the international scene for much of that span, but AAU events — even the national tournaments — seldom received the attention drawn by various activities of the school-college community. This became more evident after Jess Hoke launched Amateur Wrestling News in 1956. His publication was college-oriented, and the sport’s first true documentation was focused primarily on collegiate events and results.
But even though wrestling interests were centered on the nation’s campuses, the school-college community and other independent organizations had little or no say about the governance, development and promotion of wrestling. As an “umbrella” organization responsible for a large number of sports, representatives of wrestling’s grass roots found it difficult to make themselves heard by the AAU. In time, this situation would lead to formation of the United States Wrestling Federation and a successful challenge to AAU governance of the sport.
Discontent over the AAU’s wrestling programs became intense in the mid-1960s, after U. S. Olympic teams won only one bronze medal in 1964 and the World teams had exactly the same minimal achievement in 1965. The solution was to create a new Federation, to create new programs addressing wrestling’s major deficiencies, to gain control of the sport, and to supplant the AAU as national governing body and international representative.
The initial effort was spurred by Terry McCann, a 1960 Olympic gold medalist then with the U. S. Jaycees national office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Myron Roderick, a 1956 Olympian who had become the nation’s most prominent collegiate coach at Oklahoma State University. McCann was Oklahoma AAU wrestling chairman and attended National AAU conventions, where he found wrestling concerns of little interest. With support from Walter Byers, executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, groundwork was laid for a new organization. The NCAA was supportive of federations in several sports, but it took some three years to establish such a concept in wrestling.
An exploratory meeting was held in January of 1968 at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, chaired by Dr. Al deFerrari in his capacity as USA delegate to the International Wrestling Federation (FILA). Minutes indicate that this gathering consisted largely of rhetoric from AAU leaders citing their strong ties to FILA and rebuttal from school-college spokesmen. These preliminary talks set the stage for another conference in Chicago during the summer of 1968, at which the United States Wrestling Federation was born.
A joint meeting of the steering and finance committees, appointed in January, was called April 4-5 in Biloxi, Mississippi, during which the first draft of a constitution and by-laws was discussed and revised. The need for an executive director and a national office was incorporated in the finance committee’s proposed budget. A brochure was circulated in May and June, defining the goals, objectives, structure and proposed financing, and setting the stage for the official organization meeting July 31-August 1, 1968, at O’Hare Inn, Chicago, intended to involve all wrestling interests in the United States.
The steering committee met on the eve of the general meeting, and decided that programs must begin at the state level, with emphasis upon the registration of athletes as members. International exchanges by schools and colleges would be encouraged, the forerunner of today’s state and national exchange programs. Clinics to teach coaches and officials the international styles were deemed imperative. A major obstacle in the planned presentation to FILA would be the folkstyle rules employed by USA high schools and colleges.
Among the 29 delegates answering roll call on July 31, were 13 collegiate coaches, four representatives of collegiate conferences and five spokesmen for other school-college organizations. Two international referees were present, as well as a representative of the active athletes. Attending from the U. S. Olympic Committee were the AAU’s front line of Newt Copple and Josiah Henson, the USOC wrestling chairman. Reports of the program, structure and finance committees clearly established the philosophy that USWF would be a service organization, and that its financial base would be membership fees of individuals and organizations. The basic credo continues to apply to USA Wrestling.
Wallace T. “Wally” Johnson, wrestling coach at the University of Minnesota, was elected the first president and served four years. Copple was elected vice president, but he and other AAU representatives declined office. Johnson was succeeded by Ken Kraft of Northwestern, 1973-76, and Rick Bay of Michigan, 1977-80, so for the first 12 years, the USWF president was a college coach. Werner Holzer, founder of the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation wrestling program in Chicago, took office in 1981 and Holzer’s presidency spanned the eventual transition from USWF to USA Wrestling.
FILA did not leap at the opportunity to accept the new, unknown Federation as its international delegate, but neither was the door slammed in USWF’s face. Roger Coulon of France, the FILA president, declared before the FILA Congress that “umbrella” organizations no longer would be accepted as members, that FILA would look only to single-sport bodies.
To become worthy of the international franchise and the role of NGB, the new Federation had to build a solid, grass roots organization with democratic principles. It had to become so much better than the AAU that “a preponderance of evidence” would be in its favor. It took some eight years to build such an organization, and seven more years of conflict in the United States Congress, the American Arbitration Association, the federal courts, the U. S. Olympic Committee and FILA before the goal was realized.
USWF conducted its first national freestyle and Greco-Roman championships at Evanston, Illinois, in April of 1969. But without a full-time executive director, the Federation was not yet in position to make much impact. After a search which lasted through the wrestling season, the Governing Council (board of directors) turned to Roderick, one of the originators of the Federation movement. He was only 34 years old, but in 13 seasons as coach at Oklahoma State he had guided his teams to seven national championships. He was ready for a new challenge, and the Federation filled the bill. His appointment was announced in August. At Roderick’s insistence, the national office was located in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Roderick plunged into his new job with enthusiasm. Operating out of an office built in his garage, he set out immediately to establish the state federations which would be the operating base of the national organization. The man who had introduced modern recruiting tactics to wrestling now faced his biggest recruiting task ever. He coaxed his coaching colleagues into service as state chairmen, state directors and regional supervisors. Within a few months, there were state chairmen in three dozen states — some of them in name only, perhaps, but others at the helm of solid, well organized state federations. The foundation of state programs and volunteer services was laid by Roderick and a Governing Council centered on the school-college community, but with representation for all of the independent organizations involved in wrestling.
By 1970, the United States Wrestling Federation had become a recognized entity. A handbook was in print, setting forth by-laws, national structure, international rules, honors for wrestlers and coaches, and a substantial amount of advertising of wrestling products and summer camps. It was mailed to more than 11,000 high school and college coaches. A national convention was scheduled March 29 in Evanston. Plans were under way to register and develop officials through rules and technique clinics. Vince Zuaro of New York, twice an Olympic referee, organized the U. S. Wrestling Officials Association. A senior team was ticketed to Europe, a junior team to Mexico. Teams from the Soviet Union and West Germany agreed to visit the United States in 1971. The logistics of membership applications and event sanctions were now in place. It was soon obvious that the USWF needed more than a one-man staff, and in 1972 Bob Dellinger was added as assistant executive director. Dellinger, 45, had been a sports writer/editor for 27 years with involvement in wrestling as a writer and as a volunteer official in tournament operations. Over the course of 20-plus years, his career with the Federation would focus on publications, events, officials, state services and the Hall of Fame.
In retrospect, it is perhaps fortunate that USWF did not win the war with its first salvo. The young organization had not yet built the broad foundation upon which USA Wrestling is situated today. A sudden, short-lived international responsibility in 1971 put the Federation in a deep financial hole. An equally abrupt transition in 1982 drove the organization to the verge of bankruptcy. An unforeseen bonanza of Olympic funds from Los Angeles saved the day, and gave USA Wrestling an opportunity to grow into its responsibilities.
Steve Combs, a 32-year-old high school coach in the Chicago suburbs, succeeded Roderick as executive director in 1974, and his 11-year tenure was marked by tenfold gains in membership — from 9,000 to 90,000 — and comparable gains in competitive and educational opportunities. Combs was a grass roots person who directed his energies toward strengthening the state federations and providing them educational tools in the form of books, clinics, films, video tapes and other instructional methods. Of particular note were strong emphasis on Kids’ competition, wrestling’s first series of sports science clinics, an enhanced insurance program, delivery of the Federation newspaper to the home of every member, and a simplified technique series called the Seven Basic Skills. With Combs’ blessing, the U. S. Wrestling Officials Association, greatly expanded and enhanced its nationwide series of clinics on international rules and pairing procedures.
One landmark was Combs’ 1974 success in establishing a U.S. Kids Federation, which brought together a nationwide conclave of Kids programs into a national organization with the philosophy of “Wrestling for Fun and Fundamentals.” The U. S. Kids Federation soon was merged into USWF as an operating division with voting rights on the Governing Council. Within a few years, it was noted that wrestlers too young to drive a car made up more than two-thirds of the membership.
Another landmark was the dedication of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame on September 11, 1976. The inaugural class of Distinguished Members included Roderick among the 14 honorees. When the merits of USWF and AAU were compared in arbitration, the creation of the national museum was one of the strongest factors weighed in the Federation’s favor. Another such factor was the rapidly growing force of youth wrestling, both in competitive and educational opportunities. The 1977 Junior Nationals, a summer tournament for high school wrestlers in the international styles, drew a record 1,042 entries, while seven Kids regionals attracted more than 2,000. Yet while building these vital programs, USWF had not lost sight of its original goal.
In November 1978, the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 was signed into law, spelling out in detail specific responsibilities of the USOC and of national governing bodies. Despite the legislation, USOC continued to bend to the influence of its strong AAU contingent, and refused to seat USWF as a new Group A member. USOC told the Federation it could not become national governing body until it had been recognized by FILA, then gave AAU $18,000 to fund a trip to Poland for the Greco-Roman World Cup. The dispute went back to court, this time with USOC as a defendant. Strangely, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled “in favor” of USWF, but upheld the idea that FILA should make the final decision. It was a “victory” that in truth was a defeat. The judge ordered AAU and USOC to support the Federation’s bid to the 1980 FILA Congress, but restored AAU’s international operations in the meantime.
Before during and after the arbitration, USWF continued to expand its national programs, increasing its book and film productions and even taking its events onto television. More age group tournaments were added to the competition schedule and membership continued to grow. Congress amended the Amateur Sports Act to cut off USOC membership and funding for any arbitration loser, and USWF went back to court. Shortly after another record-breaking Junior Nationals, the verdict came down and it left no room for doubt. On August 20, 1982, Federal Judge Ann Aldrich ordered the WD/AAU to resign from, and sever all ties with, FILA, and to resign from the Olympic Committee. USOC was ordered to terminate its recognition of the AAU as its Group A member.
William E. Simon, the new president of the USOC, convened a seven-man panel September 23 in Los Angeles to develop a structure for the new United States Wrestling Association. The panel included Holzer and Combs of USWF, 1976-80 Olympic athletes Russ Hellickson and Dan Chandler (elected by the national teams of the past three years) and Simon as chairman. When AAU boycotted, Simon appointed F. Don Miller, USOC executive director, and Steven B. Sobel, USOC secretary, as replacements.
The panel built USWA’s organizational structure on the foundation of USWF’s state and national organizations. The Board of Directors (governing council) also would include USWF’s internal divisions such as U. S. Kids, state chairmen and the Athletes’ Advisory Board, and would add special committees, such as freestyle, Greco-Roman, development and finance, to its voting lineup. Combs would remain executive director, with his Federation staff and offices in the Hall of Fame. The USWA executive committee listed five representatives from AAU, five from USWF and three elected by active athletes. In approving the compromise, Judge Aldrich said, “Apparently, the losers don’t know they’ve lost, and the winners don’t know they’ve won.”
In the long run, USWF lost little more than its name. It regained organizations such as the NAIA and the Interservice Sports Council. It gained many individuals who welcomed a final solution to the struggle. It gained a whole state when the Wyoming Amateur Wrestling Association simply changed its affiliation from AAU to USWA, retaining its officers and its corps of volunteers. From both of the old rivals, it lost a substantial number of diehards who simply could not force themselves to cooperate with old enemies.
The executive committee of USWA held its first meeting November 9 in New York. Holzer was joined by fellow USWF delegates Vince Zuaro of the officials, Dennis Poppe of the NCAA, Fritz McGinness of the national high school federation and Frank Rader, chairman of the state chairmen’s board. AAU delegates were to be Scalzo, Copple, Air Force Academy coach Wayne Baughman, senior Olympic referee Steve Evanoff, and Jim Stevens. Athletes were Hellickson, Chandler and 1981 world champion Chris Campbell. Evanoff, Baughman and Campbell were unable to attend, but AAU national coach Stan Dziedzic was on hand. Copple and all the AAU delegates except Scalzo walked out of the meeting after a four-hour harangue against the concept that athletes should elect their own representatives. Once in session, the executive committee established a Board of Directors, committees, policies and procedures and a national team programs, elected officers to serve until a spring meeting, and in general filled in the structure outlined by the seven-man panel in September.
USWA made its first official venture into international competition November 26, sending a team to Hungary for the Greco-Roman World Cup. The AAU continued to fight through Scalzo and other members of the FILA Bureau, while Ercegan was conspicuous by his absence. Holzer, as chief of delegation armed with USOC support, refused to back down from three days of threats and arguments, and the USA team finally was permitted to wrestle.
The USWA executive committee met twice more to draft by-laws and an agenda for the official organization meeting and elections, March 13-14 in Oklahoma City. Then and there, the “new” corporation would be christened with yet another name, and set before the wrestling world as the United States of America Wrestling Association, Inc. … to be known as USA Wrestling … the national governing body, a Group A member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the international representative to FILA. Holzer was elected president, with Copple as first vice president, C. A. Patten of the University of Northern Iowa as second vice president, national Kids chairman Ben Bennett as secretary, Rader as treasurer and Evanoff as chairman of the board, a position to be filled in the future by the immediate past president. The executive committee included Hellickson, Chandler and Campbell for the athletes, Zuaro for the officials and McGinness, Poppe and Dziedzic as members at large.
Cut off for so many years from international events, the federation suddenly inherited a wealth of them, starting with the Freestyle World Cup in Toledo, the Concord International Greco-Roman tournament in California. The National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs would serve as team trials for the Pan American Games in Venezuela. USA Wrestling would host a Cadet-Schoolboy World Festival in Montana, the Junior World (17-18) Championships in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and the Espoir World (17-20) Freestyle Championships in the Anaheim Convention Center, already selected as wrestling venue for the 1984 Olympic Games. And for the first time since 1971, the Federation would conduct trials and send teams to the World Championships, in Kiev, USSR.
One of the strongest single factors in the transition to a new federation was the U. S. Wrestling Officials Association, now under the leadership of a plain-talking, no-nonsense president from Colorado, Don Sondgeroth. Every AAU referee and pairing official was accepted as a full-fledged member with his or her national rating intact. Members of the officials’ association already were subject to annual evaluation. Whether from AAU or USWF backgrounds, the good officials continued to advance, and less capable officials found that plush assignments for “good ol’ boys” were few and far between. Some who had been over-ranked worked hard to upgrade their skills. Others dropped out of the picture.
Ahead lay the greatest spectacle in wrestling, The Games of the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles. Ahead, too, lay triumph and turmoil, rewarding victories and crushing defeats, insurance emergencies and a brush with financial disaster. There would be lawsuits. Arbitration cases would arise from the 1984 Olympic trials. The next five years would see six executive directors, three presidents and many changes in staff. On April 25, 1984, USA Wrestling was seated as an official, voting member of the FILA Congress, although FILA even then dissembled with a two-year “probation” that quietly expired in 1986.
Tim Johnson, who had joined the USWF as director of events two years earlier, was released on six-month loan to the Los Angeles Olyrnpics, where he rode herd on more than 400 volunteers — a curious mixture from USA Wrestling and southern California AAU — and pulled off a giant operational success. The ’84 Games were magnificent, despite the communist boycott. USA wrestlers captured nine gold medals, three silvers and a bronze. Four of the medals, two gold, were the first ever in Greco. There were 1,408 participants in the Olympic trials, as USA Wrestling events attracted more than 10,000 competitors for the year.
But the federation’s new responsibilities, added to those necessary for continued growth, proved to be too much of a good thing. Years of frenzied activity, of budgets overestimating income and underestimating expenses, took a heavy financial toll. Reorganization with a director of finance and a prudent fiscal policy was imperative. When a windfall of profits from the 1984 Olympics and USOC coin program was divided among 38 national governing bodies, USA Wrestling was able to climb out of one hole. But erratic leadership promptly dug USAW into another. Combs had resigned in 1985. First Rader, then sport science expert Jim Scott, coach at Grand Valley State College, held interim positions as executive director. The Board settled on Gary Kurdelmeier, a former coach at Iowa, who lasted two and a half years. He was replaced in 1988 by Wisconsin businessman David C. Miller, gone after two more years. Olympic place winner Jim Scherr, a former NCAA champ;ion for Nebraska and a three-time World medalist, was named executive director in 1990 and steadied USA Wrestling on a new and stable course. Combs’ contributions were not forgotten … he was inducted in 1985 by the Hall of Fame.
On March 22, 1987, the Board of Directors voted to relocate the national offices from Stillwater, where they had outgrown their Hall of Fame quarters, to an area with larger population and better access to air transportation. Des Moines, Indianapolis and Colorado Springs were the candidates. Eight months later, the Board chose the USOC’s home town in Colorado, and the move took place in June of 1988. John T. Vaughan of Florida, long-time USA Wrestling booster, member of the Board, delegate to the FILA marketing commission and chairman of the Board of Governors of the Hall of Fame, pledged to keep the museum alive and operating as a separate entity.