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A former University of Wisconsin wrestler who was twice a Big Ten champion says his biggest thrill in sports was "the day practice was called off. I'll never forget it. I still tingle when I think about it." Indeed, practice is the scourge of many athletes, even the good ones. Or, perhaps, especially the good ones. It drives varsity men to intramural teams and is instrumental in pushing coaches to despair, then to stiff drink and finally to selling insurance. The problem is that many athletes are convinced they are terrific without practicing, while coaches of course disagree. If there is anything fun about practicing, it has escaped just about everyone's notice.
Not Lee Kemp's. Kemp, a 158-pound University of Wisconsin wrestler from the Ohio sticks, loves to practice. He's not sure why. "It's just one of the few things I don't mind doing," he says. So there he is, bathed in sweat in the practice room late on a Saturday night while his friends are cavorting in downtown Madison at the Fog Cutter and the Red Rock. All alone, Kemp keeps working out, stoically, under the sign that says: IN THIS WORLD, A MAN MUST EITHER BE AN ANVIL OR A HAMMER. Then he jumps rope, stoically, beside the sign that reads: WHEN YOU CALL ON A THOROUGHBRED, HE GIVES YOU EVERY OUNCE OF STRENGTH AND HEART AND COURAGE IN HIM. WHEN YOU CALL ON A JACKASS, HE JUST KICKS AND BRAYS.
Such dedication partially explains how this hammer, this thoroughbred has come to be considered the best college wrestler in the country, edging out such worthy rivals as the University of Iowa's unbeaten 177-pounder, Chris Campbell, and Dan Severn, an extraordinary freshman at Arizona State who is 30-0 at 190 pounds. Kemp is so good that, barring injury or a mental ambush, he may—by the close of Olympic business in 1980—be worthy of mention in the same sentence with the alltime hero of U.S. wrestling, Dan Gable. Gable was beaten only twice in his career. One of his losses was to Kemp. Gable won two NCAA championships (he was second his senior year, when he lost to Larry Owings after 181 straight victories), then went on to win a gold medal in the Munich Olympics.
Kemp, just a junior, was second in the NCAAs as a freshman; he won last year when he was the only major college wrestler in the country to go undefeated, with a record of 39-0. Kemp's name already has been written in ink as the winner in the 158-pound division of this year's NCAA championships, which will be held next month in Norman, Okla. And 1978 is indelibly Kemp's, too. And after that, the world. Everybody buy that? Of course not.
Not even Kemp's father does. "Even if he won them all, I wouldn't say he's best," says Leroy Sr. "There're people out there better than him. We just don't know their names." His mother, Jessie, agrees and frequently tells her son so. What does Lee do? "He just stares at me," she says. Russ Hellickson, who won a silver medal last summer in Montreal and is assistant coach at Wisconsin, says of Kemp, "He's the greatest collegiate wrestler in the country, but he could be a lot better." That raises the questions: How high is high and what's better than best?
This is the Kemp paradox. Praise for him somehow comes out sounding like regret for what might have been—or hope for what might still be. Gable, now head coach at the University of Iowa, says, "If a coach just knew how to get it out of Kemp...." Here his voice trails off and his eyes glaze over as he envisions the potential. Wisconsin Coach Duane Kleven says, "Lee is so good that it's like he's always got you in the outside lane." But the caveat quickly follows: "He should be able to totally dominate matches but...." Here Kleven's voice trails off, too.
What gives everyone pause is Kemp's lack of aggressiveness. He realizes this is the main rap on his rep, but says with a certain logic, "If I'm winning a match, I'm just happy to be winning. What's wrong with that?" Obviously nothing. He wins a lot of bouts 3-1, 5-3, 7-6. And as a consequence, seeing one of his matches is often about as thrilling as watching paint dry. It also seems that the more victories Kemp amasses (he's 27-1 this season, his only loss coming against a non-collegian, former Iowa State star Pete Galea), the more conservative he becomes. According to his critics, that makes him riper for defeat. Chuck Yagla, the top wrestler in college last year, whipped Kemp three times when Lee was a freshman; Kemp has since beaten Yagla twice. Says Yagla, who wrestled for Iowa, "Lee's record is better now, but he's a poorer wrestler than he was when he was a freshman."
Kemp does not bristle when he hears this kind of criticism; in fact, he joins right in. "I have to admit I don't beat people like I should," he says. Badly is how Kemp should be defeating his opponents, because he has plenty of technical skills. The trouble is that he often does not bother to use them. A Kemp match too frequently consists of him waiting for his opponent to make a move. Kemp has extraordinary speed and strength, especially in his arms, and should an onrushing opponent put one leg a trifle too close, Kemp grabs it. He throws his man to the mat, collects his two points, then seems to spend the rest of the time protecting that margin, which is like a basketball team scoring the first bucket and going into a stall.
Unfortunately for Kemp's fans, on one of the rare occasions when he was aggressive, he almost paid dearly for it. Several weeks ago against the University of Iowa, Kemp tore onto the mat like a mongoose after a cobra. Thirty-two seconds into the bout, while everyone was busy checking his program to make sure this was the Kemp of let's-wait-and-see fame, he grabbed Iowa's Mike McGivern, lifted him above his head and threw him to the mat. The referee properly ruled that Kemp was guilty of unnecessary roughness. McGivern was hurt, having been dropped on his head; and because he had been injured by an illegal move, he easily could have refused to continue and would have been awarded the victory.
Nonetheless, a stunned McGivern said he would keep on wrestling. Kemp resumed his surprising tactics, ultimately pinning his opponent. Asked afterward why he decided not to take the win by default, McGivern said, "I was all right. Besides, that would be a pretty poor way for me to get past a champion, don't you think?"