Afterward he walked calmly off the mat and into the locker room and sat alone on a bench. "I was lucky to even be there," he says. "But there was no reason for me to get beat. I just realized that I had so much more ability, that I wasn't wrestling to my full potential, and I evaluated what I could do to change that. The solution to everything is to work harder."
Not that he had ever been lazy. Smith is a diligent worker, but there's a pleasantly relaxed quality about his brand of discipline. He does what is necessary without self-righteousness or self-flagellation. His weight rarely drifts above 145 pounds. Consequently he can avoid the torturous dieting other wrestlers must endure before matches simply by avoiding red meat or fat, although he admits to a weakness for biscuits and gravy and peanut M & M's. He has failed to make weight only once, and that was sometime back in junior high.
As a rule Smith works out on the mat for at least an hour twice a day, and this, more than anything, he says, has put the right kind of muscle on his frame. Every other day he works out with weights, runs two to three miles, and does wind sprints and the stairs at Oklahoma State's Lewis Field.
Such a regimen leaves little room for the opposite sex, and Smith's many female relatives hound him about the subject. "I want to have a family some day, but I don't even have time to think about it right now," he says sharply, and the matter is closed.
It's mid-January in Stillwater, and No. 1 Oklahoma State, with a 10-0 dual meet record (on its way to a 16-2 regular-season mark), is hosting its first tournament of the year, the Cowboy Duals. About 4,000 fans have packed Gallagher-Iba Arena to witness the struggle among five teams, including No. 2-ranked Arizona State, and to watch Smith. His mother, though, is not among them.
Madalene customarily retires to the ladies' room to say the rosary when one of her sons wrestles. "Last year Madalene traveled 1,400 miles to the Pan Am Games, just so she could go and not see John wrestle," says Jerry Hickman, a lifelong friend of John's. However, she has passed up the Cowboy Duals this weekend so she can go and not see Pat wrestle for Del City High. But there are plenty of Smiths to swell the crowd in Stillwater, including Big Lee, three of John's sisters, all their husbands, three of his six nieces and one of his four nephews.
When Smith appears for his first bout, the crowd roars. Then it grows still. He circles for a moment and darts at his opponent, Tim Mellot, a freshman from Clemson. One second Mellot is standing, the next he's squirming on his stomach; then Smith has him in a cradle—grasping Mellot as if he were an infant. One of Smith's arms is between Mellot's legs, the other is over his shoulder. Both wrestlers' chests turn pink from the strain, and Mellot's lips are purple. Smith will doggedly pursue a move for 20 seconds or more to get a pin or a near fall, which can be worth as many as three points and is usually psychologically devastating to an opponent. This time, however, the referee, fearing that Smith is about to injure Mellot, blows his whistle and orders them to break. Smith looks up and says, "Aw, c'mon, ref. It's not a woman's sport."
After two periods the score is 15-3. Smith has looked like a jack-in-the-box: He has taken Mellot down five times and scored two near falls. At the start of the third period Smith shoots the single-leg again, takes Mellot down and works his way up to a headlock. Mellot's shoulders inch inexorably down toward the mat; he grimaces with exertion and pain. The referee's palm slaps the mat: Pin, at 5:50.
Pins don't come as easily for Smith in international competition, particularly against his toughest foes, generally the Soviets, but he finds Olympic-style wrestling almost as amenable as the college version. International freestyle wrestling differs from the college variety in more than just the consistently higher caliber of the competition. The point system is more complicated. For example, no points are awarded for an escape, but anywhere from one to five points can be earned for establishing certain specific holds. In that way, a technically proficient wrestler is put on a more even footing with an opponent who possesses greater natural strength.
"I feel like I'm intelligent in wrestling," says Smith. "I outwit a lot of my opponents. If you know a guy's got a good shot to your left leg, you've got to learn to lead with your right leg. If a man's strong when he ties you up, don't let him tie you up."