By your normal ears, they I shall know you.
Iowa State hosted the Big 12 wrestling tournament on March 6. Walking into the Hilton Coliseum in Ames that day was like entering a different dimension, a universe ruled by a race of men roughly 5� feet tall; squat, cranky, bandy-legged warriors with marred ears and Travis Bickle stares; men for whom body fat is anathema and to whom the outsider feels compelled to say, soothingly, "No, I am not staring at you, and, yes, I know how tough you are."
Anomalous, if not anonymous, among these bulldogs-in-singlets was the most gifted collegiate wrestler in the building—and, possibly, the country: Oklahoma State senior Eric Guerrero, a 133-pound bundle of fast-twitch muscle fiber and guile. Built more like a cross-country runner than a grappler, Guerrero relies less on brute strength than he does on cobralike quickness and technical proficiency. He calls his craft "a thinking man's sport," and damned if Guerrero doesn't maintain a kind of Bobby Fischer-like detachment on the mat, even as he is twisting some hapless opponent into a human ampersand.
In clinching the Big 12 title, Guerrero improved his record this season to 26-0. It will be an upset of the highest order if Guerrero does not come home from this weekend's NCAA championships, at Penn State, with his third straight national title.
The only son of Sebastian and Virginia Guerrero was not out of diapers before his father began teaching him the art of the takedown. Sebastian, an engineer for Lockheed Martin, wrestled in high school and has always been happy to provide his son with a practice partner. "They just move the coffee table and go at it on the living room floor," says Virginia.
By the time he was 10, Eric was a member of the San Jose Jets wrestling club. At age 12, Eric attended a U.S. Open meet, where he first saw Olympic gold medalist John Smith. In Smith, a wiry perfectionist who worked his brain as hard as he worked his major muscle groups, the skinny, adolescent Guerrero saw an exemplar. "I shook his hand and got him to sign my hat," he recalls. "Then I wanted him to see me wrestle."
Guerrero got his wish four years later at a junior national meet in Fargo, N.Dak. "The first time I watched him, he got beat," recalls Smith, who by then had returned to Oklahoma State, his alma mater, as wrestling coach. "Eric ran into a front-head locker and didn't know what to do. What I really enjoyed was the frustration he showed after the match. You could tell it truly hurl him. I like to see pain after a loss. instead of somebody saying, 'No big deal, tomorrow's another day.' "
Smith offered Guerrero a scholarship when Eric was a high school senior; Guerrero's idol became his coach. A brilliant freestyle wrestler, Smith has been able to impart the skills he used to win gold medals in the 1988 and '92 Olympics. In addition to making the Cowboys immensely successful—Oklahoma State has won 68 straight dual meets, the longest streak in wrestling in the nation—he has also made them fun to watch. More so than perhaps any other program in the country, says former Iowa State coach Jim Gibbons, "They [the wrestlers] are technically slick, in the likeness of John."
None is slicker or quicker than Guerrero, who hopes to wrestle in Sydney in 2000. Smith likes his chances. As distinct from its collegiate cousin, Olympic freestyle wrestling emphasizes technique over strength. That suits Guerrero, who works obsessively to hone his already superb skills. "He'll do the same drill for an hour, keeping his focus the whole time," says Mark Smith, John's younger brother and the Cowboys' starting 174-pounder. "Then he'll go back to his room and watch tape of the world championships. Most guys get sick of it. I mean, it's boring. They want to go fishing or go on a date or something, but Eric loves wrestling like no one I've ever seen."
Guerrero got a surprisingly stern test in the Big 12 finals, eking out a 5-3 victory over Iowa State's Cody Sanderson. "No matter how strong you come out against Eric," said Sanderson afterward, "he has a knack for getting you out of your rhythm and into his. You think you're in good shape, and all of the sudden he's on your leg."