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Amateur wrestlers suffer from two embarrassments: 1) many people who never have seen amateur wrestling confuse the sport with professional wrestling, a gaudy fraud; 2) those who have seen the real thing often conclude that honest wrestling is a poor spectator sport—perhaps because their judgment has been fuddled by the chromatic dramatics of TV's wrestling stars (SI, April 11), perhaps because of something inherently ascetic in amateur rules.
The first embarrassment is totally undeserved. The Golden Gate is a fine, long bridge but it could not begin to span the gulf between amateur and professional wrestling. Still, the two are so mingled in some minds that parents have forbidden their sons to take up wrestling at school. Too brutal, they think, unaware that dangerous or "torture" holds are barred in amateur wrestling and are only faked in the professional vaudeville.
As for the second embarrassment, a little knowledge on the spectator's part—perhaps half as much as the average fan brings to baseball—would add rich enjoyment to a sport which has had its enthusiastic followers in every land since before history began. And aside from that, the Amateur Athletic Union recently has met the prospective fan half way by changing from modified college rules to the more interesting, because more aggressive, international freestyle.
There now are three major wrestling styles in U.S. competition—intercollegiate, international and Greco-Roman. Holds below the waist are barred in Greco-Roman wrestling, as are tripping and scissors holds. Once the prevalent style in America, Greco-Roman gave way during the 19th Century to catch-as-catch-can, an outgrowth of plain rough-and-tumble, with the emergence of a hero—Tom Jenkins, a one-eyed rolling-mill worker from Cleveland who was America's No. 1 wrestler until the slighter but wilier Frank Gotch threw him.
Intercollegiate and international wrestling are very much alike, so far as holds are concerned, but their strategies are different. In this difference, some wrestling enthusiasts hope, may lie the chance that amateur wrestling again will take its place as a major American sport—though, with 144 colleges fielding wrestling teams, it is by no means puny now.
Until a few years ago virtually all wrestling in the United States was under college rules or the then similar AAU rules. These require the wrestler mostly to show ability to control his opponent, though he may win by a fall if he can. But the sight of a college wrestler "riding" his rival, performing only the negative feat of maintaining a position of advantage for as long as possible, is fine for aficionados but not one to lift the average sports crowd to its feet.
In international freestyle wrestling, adopted by the AAU shortly before the 1952 Olympics so that the United States might do better in foreign competition, a wrestler loses face with the judges unless he aggressively works to win by a fall. It is not necessary that he pin his man—he can win a decision by flawless execution of holds and well-maneuvered takedowns—but let the judges get the impression that he is trying only to preserve an advantageous status quo and he starts losing ground on their score sheets. What would be shrewd "time-advantage" wrestling in a college match is mere stalling under international rules. Because of this emphasis on aggressive wrestling, spectators at international matches get a full share of thrills.
It is even more imperative, under Olympic tournament rules, that the wrestlers try for a fall. For each match won by a decision the winner gets one demerit and five demerits eliminate him. Thus he could win five matches in a row but if he scored no falls, would be out of the tournament.
INTERNATIONAL VS. COLLEGIATE
It may be, as international-style partisans hope, that AAU's new rules some day will be adopted by the colleges, partly to develop spectator interest, partly to build a reservoir of international-trained athletes for Olympic and other foreign competition. However, some college coaches kicked up a storm when they heard of AAU's shift and simultaneous hints that it be made the intercollegiate standard. The coaches' howls were not so much due to vested interest in a style which has taken them years to perfect as to the fact that those who know intercollegiate wrestling love its special qualities. With this peculiarly American style, the superiority of one wrestler over another can be determined quite accurately without need for the kind of judging which, under international rules, is based pretty much on qualitative opinion.