He makes it sound easy, but few wrestlers can adapt so readily to their opponents. "John's smart enough to pick apart what the Soviets are doing," says Cowboy coach Joe Seay. "He can attack both sides equally well. The Soviet free-stylers aren't used to somebody attacking like that."
With the first two rounds of the Cowboy Duals completed, Smith goes home so he can rest before his final match, against Arizona State's Glenn McMinn (as it turns out, McMinn, who had a bruised spleen, will have to forfeit). The two-bedroom house Smith shares with Cory Baze, an 118-pound Cowboy wrestler, is immaculate and simply furnished. Baze's collection of exotic masks decorates one wall; the bookcase holds a chess set and several exquisitely painted lacquer boxes Smith brought back from the Soviet Union. Members of his family and a couple of friends are sitting in the living room sipping beer when Smith walks in and announces, "As soon as this weather hits 60 degrees, I'm going fishing."
"You think the fish'll be ready?" asks Hickman.
"No, but I'm going to be," Smith replies. He opens the front door and sticks his head out as if to test the January temperature, on the off chance that it has risen to 60� in the last five minutes.
Out in the garage he shows off his most prized piece of fishing gear, a float tube—an inner tube sheathed in heavy-duty canvas with handy pouches and pockets sewn into it. The fisherman sits in a canvas sling with his feet dangling in the water, straps on a couple of swim fins and is ready to propel himself silently into a lake or farm pond. Smith steps into the seat and pulls two straps over his shoulders so the contraption hangs around his waist. "You got your worms, you got your sassy shad," he says, pulling colorful lures from various compartments. "This one here's called a Zara Spook."
The biggest fish Smith ever caught was a sturgeon out of the Columbia River in Oregon last April. He had flown to Portland one morning for an international freestyle meet and that evening beat Soviet wrestler Viktor Alekseyev, a victory that was especially satisfying because Alekseyev once beat Lee Roy, in 1983. The next day Smith was out on the river.
Within 15 minutes he had caught a 10-pound sturgeon, which he was instructed to throw back because it was undersized. "Throw it back? It was the biggest fish I ever caught. It was depressing," Smith says. Then he hooked one of 13 pounds, which was big enough to keep.
Smith stands in the evening light coming through the dirty garage window, his fishing tube around his waist, and he says, "I beat the Russian and caught a nice fish. My life was set." He then turns from the window, wondering aloud which Soviet foe he will face at the Olympics. Having beaten Isaev at the worlds, he's certain he'll be pitted against someone new from the Soviet Union, and an unknown wrestler is more difficult to dominate.
He'll have just turned 23 when he goes to Seoul in September—that's assuming, of course, that he wins the U.S. Olympic trials, where, ironically, he could meet Lewis. "Being the best at something, god, that's a great feeling," he says. He slowly removes his fishing tube and says, "You don't think about it too long, though. It's easy to let your priorities slip."