John Smith has a favorite photograph of himself. It was taken in Moscow in 1986 after his final match in the freestyle wrestling competition at the Goodwill Games. Smith had built up a big lead in the first period of that bout against Khazer Isaev, one of the Soviet Union's top wrestlers. Isaev had fought valiantly to narrow the score, but Smith had held him off. At the end, Isaev had been too exhausted to rise from the mat. In the photograph, Smith stands exultant over his opponent. His eyes are closed, and he's smiling a grim, private smile as he punches the air with a fist.
It's an uncharacteristic stance for Smith—vainglorious, almost gloating. Yet he prizes the photo because, he says, "the victory was the toughest to get." It was also a turning point. Smith, a wholesome, resolute young man from Del City, Okla., who was about to turn 21, had just beaten the reigning European champion at 136.5 pounds.
Today Smith, a fifth-year senior at Oklahoma State and the favorite in the 134-pound class going into next week's NCAA championships in Ames, Iowa, is the best college wrestler in the U.S. He may one day be the best wrestler—period. He has won nearly every title possible in both college and international competition. He was the NCAA champion in his weight class last year, and his streak of 85 consecutive victories in NCAA competition is third on the all-time list. At the 1987 world championships in Clermont-Ferrand, France, he again beat Isaev, this time to win the world title. He also won at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas in '86, the Pan American Games in Indianapolis last year, the '87 U.S. Olympic Festival in Durham, N.C., and the Pre-Olympic Tournament in Seoul in November, and received the Carl Grant award as the outstanding competitor at last year's NCAAs. He's favored to win a gold medal at the Olympics in September. Bobby Douglas, the coach at Arizona State, calls Smith "the Mike Tyson of wrestling."
Smith's features would be boyishly handsome if they weren't scarred and prematurely aged and his right ear didn't look as if somebody had taken a hammer to it. But beyond that he doesn't seem much like a wrestler. He's too slender, his limbs are too long, and though his thighs are muscular, he lacks the conventional bulging arms and chest.
Obviously the application of brute force isn't the secret to Smith's success. Rather, says Jim Shields, an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, "John is the most innovative wrestler we've seen in the last 10 years. He has unorthodox positions that he's made standard and basic. Like his low single-leg takedown. You've got to be quick and low like a rattlesnake to go against him."
The single-leg takedown is Smith's signature move, and he performs it with the intensity and speed of a mongoose attacking a cobra. As he circles his opponent, his hips are extraordinarily low to the mat. He focuses on one of his rival's legs, then—at the slightest opening—shoots for it. His goal is not to grab the knee, as it is for most wrestlers. Instead Smith's unusual quickness allows him to shoot lower, for the ankle if possible. Once he secures a grip, he then continues his forward momentum and uses the opponent's leg as a lever to quickly topple him. He has employed this move a thousand times in his career; his rivals all know it's coming, yet few have been able to stave it off or counter it.
Once he has the takedown, Smith lets his man up, a gambit that earlier-day wrestlers wouldn't have been caught dead doing for a couple of good reasons: One, the opponent gets a point for an escape; and, two, once he's up, he can counterattack. For example, Dan Gable, the legendary 1972 Olympic gold medalist at 149.5 pounds with whom Smith is already being compared, rarely allowed an opponent to score on him—and certainly wouldn't have intentionally permitted him to do so.
But this strategy is increasingly common in college wrestling, and it works especially well for Smith, who usually wins by an outrageous margin or by a pin. Smith holds up two fingers on his right hand and says, "I take him down, I get two points." He holds up one finger on his left. "I let him up, he gets one point. But then I can take him down again. I do that 10 times, and I'm way ahead. People say John Smith only has a single-leg. But I say, 'Try and stop it.' "
Self-confidence like this, even more than the single-leg, is Smith's most effective weapon. "I feel I can beat anyone in the United States by 10 points," he says quietly. "But I still keep working hard. You can't let your priorities slip."
Those priorities are, in descending order, his family, his faith and winning, and the injunction not to lose sight of them is a constant refrain in the Smith household. Smith grew up with three brothers and six sisters in Del City, a town just outside Oklahoma City that his father, Lee Roy, describes as "mostly fast foods and filling stations." Lee Roy and Madalene Smith raised their 10 children with humor, love and iron discipline. "My people had backbone," says Madalene. "They came from Italy and settled in the coal mining country in southeastern Oklahoma. When my children complain, I tell them to be more like their great-grandma, Isabelle. She raised 10 children, single-handed, selling bootleg whiskey."