In the summer of 1979, Joe Gonzales was under suspicion: Was he really Yuji Takada's brother? Gonzales, then a senior at Cal State Bakersfield, had paid his own way to Tokyo to train with his idol, Takada, the 1976 Olympic freestyle wrestling champion at 114.5 pounds, and other outstanding Japanese lightweights. But Gonzales' new workout partners couldn't believe that he was a Mexican-American from Los Angeles; at 5'2½" and with coarse black hair and thick glasses, he looked too much like one of them. They called him Gonzo because it sounded more Japanese.
The most striking resemblance showed up in daily sessions on the mat. Gonzales, himself a 114.5-pounder, wrestles in the Japanese style, which eschews brawn and dramatic, heave-ho body throws in favor of quickness, technical perfection and moves that attack an opponent's legs. From a square stance—most Americans prefer to stand with one foot forward, the other back—Gonzales moves constantly from side to side and crowds in on his man before shooting a tackle. He's so adept at scoring two-point takedowns that he often gives his opponent a one-point escape just so he can take his rival back down. "I'm a two-for-one man," says Gonzales, again holding to Oriental tradition. Of course, against the 25-year-old Takada, a three-time world champion, Gonzales usually ended up as a one-for-two man. He was still young. He sometimes got pinned. But more important, Gonzales says proudly, "They were convinced I couldn't be an American."
Gonzales isn't unpatriotic; it's just that the last—and only—U.S. wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal in the 114.5-pound class was Robert Curry in 1904. The Japanese, by contrast, have finished first in the 114.5-pound division at four of the last five Olympics. "I figured the way to become the best was to take after the best," says Gonzales. And sure enough, his blend of East and West has made him the best in the U.S.—and possibly No. 1 in the world.
After an unspectacular high school career, during which he was plagued by bizarre injuries and ailments, and after two disappointing years at East Los Angeles College, a juco, and Oklahoma University, Gonzales finally came into his own in 1979. While competing for Cal State Bakersfield that year and the next, he won 98 of 99 matches and NCAA 118-pound titles in both Division I and Division II (the latter twice). In 1980, as a senior, he established NCAA single-season records for most victories (55), most takedowns (448) and best record (55-0) and won his first AAU freestyle championship. He could have made the so-called Olympic team that year but saw no reason to try.
Yet his best year to date is clearly 1982. In January he became only the seventh American to come in first in any weight division at the prestigious Tbilisi tournament in the Soviet Union, and in March, in Toledo, Ohio, he won the 114.5-pound World Cup championship. He's favored to gain his third straight AAU freestyle title, this time at 125.5 pounds, at next week's national championships in Lincoln, Neb. "I don't see any Americans around who'll give him much trouble," says Cal State Bakersfield Coach Joe Seay, whose remarkable wrestling program may well produce all four 1984 U.S. Olympic lightweights (105, 114.5, 125.5 and 136 pounds). Says Dan Gable, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist at 149.5 pounds and now the Iowa coach, "Joe Gonzales has kind of proved that he's in a class by himself."
Gonzales has all the trademarks of a wrestler: the cauliflower ears; the obsession with work—he trained four hours a day, six days a week while in Japan in 1979; the habit of rolling his head around every few minutes to loosen up his neck muscles; the missing front tooth ("I call this my falsie," he says, removing his upper dental plate with its lonely incisor); and the wide, yearning eyes with which he watches another person eat. However, for a champion in such an aggressive, physical sport he's surprisingly under-confident. Although a marvelous storyteller when among friends, in less secure surroundings he's shy and self-doubting, reluctant to acknowledge his talent. "I don't want to be made out as some kind of unbeatable wrestler," he says. "Then people will expect too much."
"Joe has always underestimated himself," says John Azevedo, a former Cal State Bakersfield teammate and NCAA 126-pound champion. "I've worked out with him every day for years, and I knew all along he could be the best in the world. Technically he does everything well. But he's just starting to realize that." Gonzales is so self-effacing that he blames himself even for stunting his own growth. "I should have been 5'6"," he says. In fact, he probably should have been 5'6". As Azevedo also says, "Joe's had some bad breaks along the way."
The first was his birth. Mary, his mother, was in labor with him for three days before he was pulled out by the head with forceps, which caused minor brain damage, which in turn made him hyperactive. However, Mary and her husband, Joe Sr., a foreman in the park maintenance department of Montebello, Calif., were initially unaware of the brain damage. "They just thought I was a nuisance," says Joe Jr. At age one he broke an arm by tipping over in his high chair and somehow learned to climb up onto closet shelves and even the roof of the Gonzales house. Before he was 12, Gonzales had twice swallowed ant poison, downed a whole bottle of prescription pills and nearly strangled the boy next door by wrapping a rope around the child's neck during a game of tug-of-war. He was constantly on detention at his Catholic grade school, where some of the nuns thought he was literally possessed by the devil. Doctors eventually determined the cause of Gonzales' ceaseless activity, gave him medication to control it and told him he would outgrow it by the time he reached high school.
In his first two years at Montebello High, during which he took up wrestling because one of his friends had, Gonzales still showed vestiges of his wildness. When he refused to let up while playing running back at a freshman football practice—he had a penchant for barging into defenders even after the play had been blown dead—one of the linebackers flattened him with a tackle and fractured Gonzales' left ankle. One spring, Joe went out for the track team as a pole vaulter. Though his father, using a bamboo pole, had once cleared 13'6" and won the Los Angeles high school title, Joe's personal best was all of 7'6". "It would have been a good high jump," he says. Gonzales, it seems, preferred to spend track practice wrestling in the grass with his teammates.
After sophomore year, Gonzales decided to concentrate on wrestling and drop the other sports. For one thing, he'd nearly had his finger chopped off in a freak football accident. For another, he was actually good at wrestling; that year he won 28 of 30 matches.