When the honchos at the International Wrestling Federation last year came up with a new-and-improved format for matches, they simultaneously rewrote the definition for "gut-check." The previous format, two rounds of three minutes each with a minute of rest between them, was scrapped in favor of a single five-minute period, which meant that, more than ever, only the very fittest would survive.
"I don't know what the ideal format is, but I think this is an improvement," says Bobby Douglas, the conditioning zealot who coached Arizona State to the 1988 NCAA wrestling title. Douglas has good reason to prefer the new format: Last Friday, in an opening act of the Fiesta Bowl festival in Tempe, Ariz., his squad of top-ranked American freestylers defeated the Soviet national team 7-3; it was the first time in 17 years that the U.S. beat the U.S.S.R. in a dual meet. At least four of the seven U.S. wins were attributable to superior conditioning.
The Americans didn't beat cream puffs. The Soviet squad included four 1988 Olympic gold medal winners, plus a silver medalist and a bronze medalist. "Soviet wrestlers like to come out and get a handful of points and then just hang on," says Douglas. "But here they were running out of gas at about the four-minute mark." Indeed, two U.S. wrestlers, former Iowa Hawkeyes Randy Lewis and Rico Chiapparelli, pulled out wins in the final seconds of their matches.
Lewis, an assistant coach at Iowa, found out he would be wrestling only three weeks before the meet, which meant he had 21 days in which to lose 20 pounds. He not only made the 136.5-pound limit, but he also had enough strength left so that with two seconds to go in his match with Stepan Sarkissian, he threw the Olympic silver medalist to win by one point.
Chiapparelli, the 1987 NCAA champ at 177 pounds, made Lewis look positively impatient. Trailing Lukman Zhabrailov 3-2 in the 180.5-pound match, Chiapparelli flipped Zhabrailov as the buzzer sounded for his one-point victory. Contending that time had already run out, Zhabrailov refused to return to the mat for the verdict. Soviet coach Ivan Yarygin harped on that match afterward: "Everyone saw it—that the clock had stopped—there were three American judges and perhaps it was one-sided. But I can live with it. There will be other opportunities for us to prove our superiority."
As if they needed added incentive to break their winless streak, the U.S. wrestlers were fired up because of a perceived slight to Nate Carr, their 149.5-pounder. Douglas says that Carr "got ripped off in Korea" when he was declared the loser in a semifinal round match; three Eastern bloc judges were reprimanded after the bout, but the decision stood. Carr, who came home from Seoul with a bronze medal, was eager to finally have a chance to meet Arsen Fadzaev, the Olympic gold medalist who is undefeated in international competition. Instead, after letting Carr warm up for 15 minutes, Fadzaev suddenly forfeited, claiming a rib injury. Carr wept in frustration.
"Maybe he has a headache, too," said Carr.
"Fadzaev might have thought it was pretty shrewd, but it sealed the Soviet team's fate," said Douglas. "It was insulting, and it gave us some very motivated wrestlers." Following the forfeiture, the U.S. went 4-1 in individual matches.
"I don't see how we wrestled as well as we did," said Douglas afterward. "Maybe they didn't take us as seriously as they should have."
This is certain: When the U.S. team goes to Switzerland for next September's world championships. Yarygin will have to have his charges fit for five minutes of serious wrestling.