Bobby Douglas sprang onto the red mat, his small, muscular torso tense. He had whipped through six elimination bouts in his 138.5-pound class at the Olympic wrestling trials in Ames, Iowa, and he had won his first match in the three-man round-robin finals. Now, across the mat, he faced Tom Huff, a tough and experienced wrestler from the Air Force, and this was the match that everyone wanted to see.
Under the complicated tournament system, all the wrestlers in each weight class competed against each other to determine the three best. These three then went against each other in a final round robin. All competitors started at zero. If a wrestler was pinned he got four black marks. A decision cost the loser three and the winner one, though if the winner in the decision clearly dominated he received only half a point. Each wrestler got two points in a draw.
Douglas came into the final round with only half a point against him (he had pinned five of his opponents and decisioned the other 15-0). The only other wrestler of the 187 men entered in the trials to reach the finals with less than one point against him was 250-pound Larry Kristoff, who had pinned all six of his opponents in the heavyweight elimination rounds. Then, in the round robin Kristoff was paired with his perennial rival, Curly Culp. They had met three times before, and Kristoff had won each time. "Experience is the big difference between us," Culp said. "I'm as strong as Larry, maybe stronger, but I haven't been wrestling long enough."
Kristoff has. He was seventh in the Tokyo Olympics, second in the World Games in 1966 and third behind a Bulgarian last year. "I don't want to make any excuses," said Kristoff, referring to the Bulgarian, "but we spent 30 hours flying to the tournament in New Delhi, India, and we arrived there at 4 in the morning. My first match was with the Bulgarian. I was leading 2-0, and then I ran out of gas."
In his match with Culp, Kristoff's experience paid off again. He had Culp in danger twice during the bout, and the crowd was yelling for a pin. But Kristoff, electing to take the win by a point decision, concentrated on a balanced attack and outpointed Culp.
"A very real part of experience in this game," Kristoff said afterward, "is to learn not to get greedy. A decision was all I needed, and I took it. I remember in the 1965 nationals I was leading 3-0 in a final match, with only 20 seconds to go. Everyone was yelling for a pin, so I went in for the takedown. When I got in there I said to myself, 'What are you doing in here, you stupid lug?' Before I knew it I was upside down surveying the ceiling."
With Culp out of the way, Kristoff stepped onto the mat for his final match looking like a slightly weary executive tidying up some last-minute business. He pinned Dale Stearns in 33 seconds. "This is my year," he said after the match. "This is my year. If I train hard, I can win the gold at Mexico as sure as I'm sitting here."
As for Douglas, before his final round-robin matches he lay sprawled on his bed at the Sheldon-Munn Hotel with a soft drink in his hand. "Yaaaahoooo, Mountain Dew!" he yelled. "Man, I love this stuff." He took a big slug from the bottle pressed to his lips.
The room looked more like a combination locker room, trainer's room and whirlpool bath than a hotel suite. One wrestler was soaking his wracked body in the bathtub, and steam poured out through the partially open door. Sitting on the bed next to Douglas was Freddy Lett, the eventual winner in the 154.0-pound class, who was nursing his right eye with a bag of ice. "When you get through one of these tournaments," said Lett, "man, you hurt from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet."
Lett took the ice pack away from his eye, which was red and puffed. He was in pain, and his eye was starting to drain. Douglas got up from the bed, found a clean handkerchief and taped it gently over Lett's eye to keep the light out. Lett had two more matches to fight, the first only two hours away and there wasn't any trainer on this trip.