Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lacin' em up one more time

“Carr, Banach, Gadson, Trizzino, Moreno – Lewis”. As the announcer called mat assignments at Saturday’s Northern Plains Freestyle Championships it felt like a scene from a “Back to the Future” movie – that I had traveled back in time to a dual meet featuring Cyclone and Hawkeye wrestlers from the Seventies and Eighties. In a way – it was “back to the future’, because these were the sons of those great athletes – Nate Carr Jr., Riley Banach, Kyven Gadson, Nick and Joey Trizzino and Michael and Gabe Moreno. But Lewis – well – that really was Randy Lewis being called to the mat.

If you’re any kind of wrestling fan you’ve been following this story for the last month. Randy Lewis – two-time NCAA champ, Pan-Am Games champ and 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist – announced that he was going to “lace them up” one more time to see if he could compete with this generation of freestyle wrestlers, some of whom were not even born when he won Olympic Gold. Just a couple of weeks before his 50th birthday he planned on entering the Northern Plains Open.

The announcement immediately captured the imaginations of fans and the wrestling media. Andy Hamilton of the Iowa City Press Citizen, J.R. Ogden of The Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dan McCool of The Des Moines Register and Gary Abbott from themat.com all wrote columns or blogs in the days and weeks leading up to Saturday’s event. The best coverage, however, was provided by Kyle Klingman and Jason Bryant from Wrestling 411.

Long known for his flamboyancy, many wondered if Lewboo (as he’s known to most wrestling fans) would follow through. After all – he’s made the “comeback” announcement before. Most wondered about just what he would be able to do against wrestlers half his age. Would he still have the “impossible leg” – the ability to let opponents in on his leg and then turn that into his own takedown?

Randy reached the height of his career at a time when freestyle wrestling might have been its most exciting. His epic battles with Lee Roy and John Smith, Darryl Burley and Ricky Dellagatta are legendary. They could ring up more points in a single match than many of today’s wrestlers (under today’s freestyle rules) will score in an entire season. For fans, it was awfully fun to watch – all that movement, all that scoring. In what has long been considered the most controversial match in American wrestling history, the 1984 Olympic Trials bout between Randy and Lee Roy Smith, the scoring came so quickly that the actual score is still debated today – 25 years later. Thanks to youtube you can watch many of those matches. Allow your self some time – you’ll get hooked – you’ll watch one and then have to watch another and then have to fast forward to John Smith vs. Sergei Belaglazov – its addicting stuff.

As I drove to Waterloo Saturday to watch, the question kept coming back – how much of the old Lewboo will I see? I had been fortunate enough to watch Randy in person once and on Iowa Public Television’s College Wrestling several times during his Hawkeye career and then again on television at the 1984 Olympics. Well – the matches are all up on youtube so you can see for yourself – but here are some observations. In the first round the old “impossible leg” was in evidence. In the second round he showed that amazing mat savvy and positioning that was always one of the keys to his success.

The irony of the semi-finals was that he was matched up against someone that wrestles in the style of a young Randy Lewis. Two-time UNI All American, Moza Fay, is a counter wrestler and a scrambler who is very comfortable “rolling around on the mat”. Moza just had too much for Randy in that match and, fittingly, he won it on the mat – using tilts to win the first period and a leg lace to win the second. Then Moza showed that he was feeling what we were all feeling – tremendous respect for one of American wrestling’s icons. He raised Randy’s hand and kept him on the mat letting the ovation from the crowd swell and last. It was a classy act.

That respect – that’s what I take away from Saturday. I got goose bumps when all wrestling stopped for his matches and everyone in the arena crowded around to watch. From the high school competitors to Olympic Bronze Medalist, Lincoln McIlravy (and his whole family) - we all wanted the best possible vantage point.

Its true in all walks of life that younger generations often don’t have enough respect for the accomplishments of those that precede them. Its not entirely their fault, we – their parents and grandparents - don’t always take the time to familiarize them with the history. We don’t take them to Stillwater to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame or to the Dan Gable International Wrestling Museum in Waterloo. We don’t tell them about Lee Kemp or Bruce Baumgartner.

USA Wrestling has planned ceremonies to honor Iowa natives and Olympic Champions Glen Brand (1948) and Bill Smith (1952) at the World Team Trials in Council Bluffs on Saturday May 30th. I hope I feel the same respect among the fans that I felt Saturday in Waterloo.


Gantry said...

Well said Jim, keep them coming.

Jim Brown said...

Thank you for the kind comment. I'm trying to get back on my weekly Monday schedule.