The golden era of international wrestling in the United States began in 1984 with the communist boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics. The success seen by American wrestlers at that Olympics inspired a generation and led to levels of international accomplishment not seen since the 20s and 30s. Some of the greatest freestyle wrestlers in American history, John Smith, Bruce Baumgartner, Kenny Monday, Kevin Jackson, the Brands brothers and Kurt Angle kept the party going through the Summer Olympics’ return to U.S. soil in 1996.
Entering the 1984 Games, American freestyle wrestling was suffering through its most difficult period in the history of modern international wrestling. The United States had not claimed more than one world or Olympic title in a year since Dan Gable, Wayne Wells and Ben Peterson won Olympic gold in Munich in 1972. In the years between Munich and Los Angeles, American wrestlers produced moments of brilliance, especially three-time world champion Lee Kemp, but the team struggled to overcome Soviet dominance. The 1980 boycott, when we didn’t send a team to Moscow at all, represented the lowest point, of course, but USA wrestling wouldn’t stay down for long.
The seven freestyle gold medals, to go with two Greco golds, won in Los Angeles in 1984 tied the all-time record for the United States set in 1904 when only Americans competed at the Games, leading to a sweep by default of the seven weight classes. Without the communist countries, who, led by the Soviet Union, dominated the sport, Team USA had a field day.
When the communists returned in 1985, Team USA took home just two titles, but began a long run of hauling in at least five freestyle medals per year, something they had not done even two years in a row since 1969-70. In 1986, Bruce Baumgartner was the only champion, but Team USA took home seven medals. The golden era really began to manifest itself with the arrival of John Smith. With Smith winning every year from 1987 to 1992, the U.S. didn’t have to worry about being shut out of gold medals, but there were many strong wrestlers around Smith that made Team USA formidable in those years. The 1987 team did not place at 48 kg or 52 kg, but took home a medal at every other freestyle weight, totaling eight medals overall. The 1988 Olympics was not as successful, but Smith and Monday won gold and Team USA, again, managed five medals.
That sort of success continued in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Team USA won at least five freestyle medals in 1989, 1990 and 1991. The Barcelona Games would see Smith close out his career with another Olympic gold, while Jackson and Baumgartner also topped the stand. Zeke Jones and Monday took home silver. Chris Campbell took a bronze. After five more world championship medals in 1993, and the first team title for the United States at a fully contested tournament since 1932, there was a downturn in 1994 and the run of at least five freestyle medals a year ended with Melvin Douglas, bronze, and Baumgartner, silver, the only freestylers on the podium.
It was fair to wonder if the golden era was over then, but there was still a lot of talent competing for Team USA. The Brands brothers, Kevin Jackson, Kurt Angle and Bruce Baumgartner were all still around and they helped the team rebound for a strong finish in 1995, taking the team title, four freestyle championships and six medals overall. With the 1996 Olympics coming to Atlanta, a strong performance was expected. That performance was delivered with another (unofficial) team title in freestyle, three Olympic gold medals through Kendall Cross, Tom Brands and Angle, and five total medals.
As often happens after an Olympics, there was a changing of the guard after 1996 with many athletes calling it a career. This effect was exacerbated by the compression from 10 down to eight weights. The U.S. won just two men’s freestyle medals in 1997 and the golden era was officially over. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the former Soviet states starting to get their own programs up and running, medals were more difficult than ever to come by and Team USA suffered for it. Matching the numbers of the golden era, in the era of six Olympic weights, may be impossible, but Team USA is moving in the right direction again in their attempt to return to glory. John Smith isn’t walking through that door, as a wrestler anyway, but the future is bright. Perhaps a second golden era is starting or not far off.