Deep in the athletic center of Edinboro University, in Edinboro, Pa., Bruce Baumgartner is putting in more hard time. At the end of a subterranean hallway embroidered haphazardly with red dots—speckles of blood—Baumgartner is tucked away in his private cell. He has been working in the wrestling room for a solid hour, 60 minutes of continual skirmishing against alternating opponents. Consequently, Baumgartner looks more the survivor than the Hidden Legend. His hair is slick, and his shirt and shorts are darkened with sweat. He kneels on the mat, his chest heaving. A red welt runs down a cheek, and over one eye there is a dribble of blood.
He rises, walks over to a corner and climbs onto a leg-exercise machine. "Tighten it," he says.
Dean Hall, another wrestler, turns a handle, then glances at a watch. "Go!" he says. Baumgartner's legs begin pushing like pistons. The machine's steel parts clatter. Just five seconds into the exercise, Baumgartner's movements start to slow. "Go, go, go!" screams Hall. "Got to win. Don't let it beat you."
Now Baumgartner's head is thrashing about. His shoulders are rocking, trying to force the strength from his upper body down to his legs. Grunting, eyes closed, he bites on a wad of his T-shirt. The din from the machine, from Hall, from Baumgartner, overwhelms the room.
Half a minute later, Hall shouts, "That's it!" Baumgartner slumps over the handlebars. "Twenty seconds," says Hall. "Get ready. Ten seconds, nine, eight...." Baumgartner has four more sets to do.
And he will do them. He must. Baumgartner is the best superheavyweight wrestler in the world. His championships include the NCAA, Olympic Games, World University Games, Goodwill Games and three World Cups. But never has he won the world championship. This week in Budapest he will wrestle once again for the only major title that has eluded him.
In the Soviet Union David Gobedjichvili, the current world champion, is putting his body through similar torture. He must. He has wrestled Baumgartner six times; he has lost four of those matches.
In 1966, back in Haledon, N.J., Bruce's father, Bob, a diesel mechanic for a bus company, bought the family's first new car, a Ford station wagon. It was a red-letter day. Bob told Bruce, then six years old, that when he grew up the Ford would be his. Just last year, long after its odometer had stopped turning, Bruce retired the wagon and its memories. He thought about burying the heap in the backyard, as if it were a faithful old pet.
For the 25-year-old Baumgartner, loyalty and perseverance are admirable qualities in others; they are requirements for himself. His father is nicknamed Big Bob, as might be expected considering the man's size—6'3", 250 pounds—and the fact that his older son is named Robert Jr. The Baumgartner patriarch is genial—most Big Bobs are—but he can be very firm. "At my house there was one way, Dad's way," says Bruce. "He was not always right, but he was never wrong."
Growing up, Bruce did not watch much TV, but he occasionally would see The Honeymooners. He didn't like the show, even though its star, Jackie Gleason, played the role of Ralph Kramden, a guy who worked for a bus company, just like Big Bob has for 37 years. The difference was respect: Kramden was always bellowing and getting none, while Baumgartner's father hardly ever raised his voice but was always in control.