SI Vault
Leigh Montville
November 03, 1997
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November 03, 1997

All Guts, No Glory


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The matches continued with mind-altering frequency for the next loin days, 417 matches on three mats spread across the arena, morning sessions and evening sessions. Men in blue singlets always against men in red. The referee, counting off points with his fingers, always was dressed in white. The winners usually did not celebrate; they simply stood with one arm held high by the official. The losers looked rejected, sullen, stranded. Alone.

Recorded instrumental music played in the background. One of the frequent songs was Jingle Bells. Ancient hostilities were resumed. The Armenian fought the Turk. The Korean fought the Japanese. The Russian fought the American. Jingle Bells. There were few arguments—though the Armenian punched the Turk as they left the mat, and the Turk tried to pick up a post to defend himself—and none of the yapping, the styling, seen so often in modern sport. Almost everyone was a malevolent gentleman. "I've never seen a fight off the mat by two wrestlers," Smith said. "It just isn't done. The sport is just too aggressive in itself for any of that. There is a respect for one another."

Douglas, McIlravy, Purler and St. John joined Jones in early elimination from gold medal contention. Douglas was defeated by the Greek. ("I see him again, right now, I kick his fat butt," Douglas said in disgust.) Losers had a second chance, in another bracket, to wrestle toward a bronze medal, but the gold medal was the lure. One loss and that hope was gone.

"I want to stand in the ring and say that for five minutes, in the middle of Siberia, I was the best in the world, and no one can argue with me," Erikson, the U.S. heavyweight, said. "That's the whole thing. To be able to say that." A large and pleasant character, Erikson was caught in his own drama. At 33, he was old to be making a world-championship debut. He had been ranked nationally since college but had been trapped on the U.S. depth chart behind four-time Olympian Bruce Baumgartner. Baumgartner had gone to 11 straight world championships. Before most of those, he had defeated Erikson to earn the privilege. The two men had wrestled more than 20 times. Baumgartner had won every match. Now he was retired, or at least sitting out the year. Erikson at last had his chance. He also had a right shoulder that had been separated during training at Colorado Springs.

"It'll be all right," he said hopefully. "We've been treating it ever since it was hurt. The thing is that you can't just rest it. You can't let it heal." In his first bout he pinned the German easily. In his second bout, the featured match on Friday night, center mat, he faced the Russian. This was another one of those unfortunate draws. Erikson was one of the favorites in the division, and the Russian was another.

The match was ragged. At the end of the regulation five minutes, neither wrestler had scored a point. A three-minute overtime is held if a match is tied or if neither wrestler has accumulated three points. If either wrestler scores his third point in overtime, the match is over. If not, the judges determine the winner.

In overtime Erikson was the aggressor as the two men went around and around the circle, but he couldn't connect. With 10 seconds left, he finally caught the Russian leaning and took him down for a point, then added another point in a takedown. The overtime ended with Erikson the winner. It was as if he had thrown a touchdown pass with time running out on the clock. "To do what he did, to come here and beat a Russian in Siberia, was terrific," Smith said in the dressing room. "He really showed me something. There was so much danger in that [takedown] move, you leave yourself so open, and he pulled it off."

"I came into his house and beat him," Erikson said in fine U.S. sportspeak. "I always thought the road to the gold medal went through the Russian. Now it goes through me."

The Americans left quickly after the match and missed the strangest moment of the tournament. The local favorites were the Saitiev brothers, Buvaisar and Adam. They are natives of Chechnya but live in Krasnoyarsk. Buvaisar, a gold medal winner at Atlanta, was doing fine, rolling through the 167.5-pound competition on the way to winning the Most Valuable Wrestler award and the accompanying Mercedes-Benz. His younger brother, Adam, at 152 pounds, had run into a tough opponent earlier in the evening. The strangeness occurred at the end of Adam's match.

Adam wrestled a contender from Uzbekistan. It was another close bout, the score tied 2-2, another overtime. The next point would determine the winner. The Uzbek wrestler attacked and had Saitiev in trouble, but Saitiev countered with a spinning move that he started by standing on his forehead—the best move in the tournament, a move wrestling cognoscenti had never seen before. The two men flipped through the air, and Saitiev landed on top. The referee, Bill Stecklein of the U.S., called a takedown point for Saitiev. The match was done. Stecklein raised Saitiev's hand. The crowd cheered as loudly as it would cheer during the rest of the competition. The trouble began.

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