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The goings-on were loud, angry and chaotic. Tim Vanni of Porterville, Calif. and Mohammad Bazmavar of Iran, a pair of exceedingly quick 105.5-pounders, were on the mat at the XXI World Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Edmonton, Alberta last Thursday night, going at each other like alley cats, trading takedowns, counters and near-falls in their quarterfinal bout. Vanni's nose was bleeding; Bazmavar complained that Vanni had bitten him on the back. The U.S. coaches challenged a scoring decision. Then the Iranians did. Bazmavar, upset at another call, sat down on the mat and whined at the referee. Up in the bleachers, Iranian spectators waved their nation's flags and chanted for Bazmavar, Allah and their homeland. "Ee-rrron! Ee-rrron! Ee-rrron!" An American contingent responded. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" The two cheering sections exchanged taunts and curses.
With 40 seconds left, Vanni spun behind Bazmavar for a one-point takedown and a 12-11 lead. Bazmavar spun behind Vanni to tie it. With five seconds left, Vanni charged straight at Bazmavar and tackled him. At the buzzer, Bazmavar was on his back, a 15-12 loser. Kinsmen Sports Center throbbed with noise. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" The Iranians, whistling and jeering, showered the mat with their flags. They shouted insults at the Americans, the judges and Vanni. Canadians joined in to drown them out. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"
When Vanni went over and offered his hand to the Iranian coach, the coach refused to shake it. He turned his back and stormed off. Welcome to the world championships.
Vanni's match was typical; this meet was an adventure. Following a winter of excellent performances in international dual meets and the World Cup, the Americans had seemed ready to make their best world-championship showing ever—and they came close. Their total of four medals (out of a possible 10) fell three short of the alltime U.S. high of seven won in San Diego in 1979, but the U.S. also placed three wrestlers fourth and another sixth, and finished second in the team standings behind the Soviet Union. Two-time world champion Lee Kemp of Madison, Wis. became three-time world champion Lee Kemp. All things considered, the U.S. performance was a minor miracle.
The team had suffered a series of setbacks starting in July, when its only 1981 gold medalist, 181.5-pound Chris Campbell of Ames, Iowa, had to skip the trials in Colorado Springs because of a back ailment. He was replaced by Dave Schultz of Norman, Okla., a natural 163-pounder with no world-championship experience. Schultz would give away 18 pounds in every match. Fat chance for a medal there, it seemed. Then, at a grueling five-week training camp in Colorado Springs, nearly every team member was injured. America's best gold-medal prospect, 105.5-pound Bob Weaver of Easton, Pa., tore ligaments in his right knee. Kemp, a 163-pounder, suffered a severe gash over his right eye and had it reopened. The 136.5-pound starter, Leroy Smith of Stillwater, Okla., separated his left shoulder. And so on. In early August the team limped into Edmonton.
There on Monday night, Aug. 9, roughly 36 hours before the start of the four-day championships. Smith slipped in a puddle in the athletes' dorm at the University of Alberta, crashed to the floor and re-separated his shoulder. He was out of the meet. The next morning Weaver also was scratched. His knee hadn't healed. That left the U.S. with eight healthy wrestlers. Or possibly seven. Heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner of Indiana State, the 1982 NCAA champion, broke out in facial blisters. Several U.S. team officials, afraid that Baumgartner's condition might be contagious, decided he, too, probably shouldn't compete. In wrestling jargon, this kind of a mess is called a predicament.
Fortunately, National Coach Stan Dziedzic knew where to find three replacements: eastern Montana. Vanni and 136.5-pound Randy Lewis of Rapid City, S. Dak., runners-up to Weaver and Smith at the trials, were in a van somewhere north of Billings, on their way to Edmonton to watch the meet. Vanni had been calling Dziedzic regularly to check on Weaver's knee. "I really didn't think they'd need me, though," he said. When Vanni called Tuesday afternoon from a McDonald's in Great Falls, he learned otherwise. "Get up here immediately," he was instructed. "And tell Lewis to start cutting weight." When he heard this, Lewis, 13 pounds too heavy, nearly choked on his Chicken McNuggets. Then he spit out a mouthful.
At the Great Falls airport, finding that there were no flights to Edmonton, Lewis and Vanni chartered a Cessna from Rocky Mountain Air for $691. "Good thing Randy had his American Express card," said Vanni. Joining them for the trip to Edmonton was heavyweight Gary Albright, the runner-up to Baumgartner at the trials, who had flown up from his parents' home in Billings.
What the three summoned wrestlers found in Edmonton, at their first world championships, was a truly international atmosphere. The Turks had come with large red national flags, the Japanese with movie cameras. India had sent the referee in the burgundy turban. The Soviets, who would win an astounding seven gold medals, had, as always, brought the best wrestlers. Poland was distinctive for its friendly, 7-foot, 300-pound heavyweight, Adam Sandourski, an immediate crowd favorite. "He looks just like that Jaws guy from the James Bond movies," said Kemp with awe. And, thanks to the Iranians, the Americans found another familiar face papering the halls and elevators of their dorm—the Ayatullah Khomeini, that old 140-pounder. "We scraped off every last poster," said Dziedzic, smiling broadly.
The Iranians also stuck meet officials with nettlesome problems. They disrupted matches with pro-and anti-Khomeini demonstrations, and their 181.5-pound wrestler asked for political asylum. At the first weigh-in, some of their wrestlers refused to strip down for the examining physician—grounds for disqualification. "They're not allowed to show their genitals," Dziedzic explained. Islam, not politics. But wrestling is Iran's national sport, so the wrestlers finally dropped their objections. Trying to keep peace amid all this were the host Canadians, who put up a poster that read: GOOD LUCK—EH?