In 1969, the United States Wrestling Foundation (USWF) held it’s first national freestyle championships. Up to that point, the AAU national freestyle tournament, which would continue until 1982, had been the default Senior-level nationals, but the USWF event eventually won out, thanks in large part due to the organization becoming the governing body of the sport in 1982, when a federal judge ordered the USOC to sever all ties with the AAU. The USWF would become USA Wrestling and their freestyle nationals would become what we now know as the US Open. With the 2018 US Open coming up at the end of this month, we wanted to take a look at those wrestlers who have won the men’s freestyle event the most times since that first edition in 1969. Here are the top 10.
Information compiled from the Encyclopedia of American Wrestling by Mike Chapman and TheMat.com.
T8) Tim Vanni, 5, 105.5 – 1985, 1988-89, 1991, 1994
From 1980 through the last year of the weight class in 1996, just three Americans were crowned men’s freestyle national champions at 105.5 to go along with Japan’s Takashi Irie who beat Vanni in the 1987 finals. The CSU Bakersfield product remains tied for second on the all-time list of most world and Olympic team appearances in men’s freestyle for Team USA with nine. Vanni bridged the gap between Rich Salamone and Rob Eiter at the weight class meaning he had at least one tough rival to contend with every year.
T8) John Smith, 5, 136.5 – 1986, 1988-91
One of the greatest freestyle wrestlers of all-time, Smith has more world and Olympic gold medals combined than he does US national titles. He won his first freestyle nationals in 1986, after redshirting during his third year in Stillwater, but before he had won his first NCAA crown, then did not compete at the event in 1987, a year that saw him win titles at both NCAAs and the World Championships. He would rattle off four in a row from 1988 through 1991, a precursor to a world or Olympic title each time, then sit out the 1992 competition before his final Olympic gold.
T8) Bill Scherr, 5, 220 – 1987-90, 1992
Underscoring how competitive this tournament can be, Scherr was a world champion in 1985 and a world silver medalist in 1986 despite suffering defeat at the US national both years. In 1987, he finally claimed his first national freestyle championship. His streak of world-level medals extended through 1989, which would be his last world or Olympic team. The Cornhusker added two more national freestyle gold medals, though, matching his world-level medal haul with five.
T8) Mike McCready, 5, HWT – 1973-74, 1976, 1979-80
After a college career that saw him win a pair of NCAA titles at heavyweight, in addition to being an All-American in the shot put and discus, McCready became one of the top American heavyweights on the freestyle circuit. He made world teams in 1973, 1974, 1975, and 1977, though he lost out on becoming an Olympian when Jimmy Jackson from Oklahoma State claimed the spot in 1976. McCready went on to coach wrestling and become the athletic director at Upper Iowa University.
T8) Kerry McCoy, 5, HWT – 2000-04
The current head coach at Maryland, McCoy was a fixture at this event, placing in the top five six times before finally winning his first title in 2000. Once he got to the top step, he stayed there, stringing together five consecutive national championships. Kerry had already been fourth in the world in 1998, but his run at the top coincided with more success at the highest level. He was fifth at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, fourth in 2001, second in 2003, and seventh at the 2004 Athens Games.
T8) Lee Kemp, 5, 163 – 1979-1983
Kemp wrapped up one of the best college careers in NCAA history at Wisconsin with his third title in 1978, then followed that with his first world championship that same year in Mexico City. It was no surprise that when he started entering the US freestyle nationals, he won those as well, claiming five straight gold medals while adding world championships in 1979 and 1982 as well as a bronze medal in 1981. Lee was the first American to win three world championship crowns, though after being a victim of the 1980 boycott, he missed his last chance to become an Olympian when Dave Schultz beat him at the 1984 trials before winning gold himself.
T8) Russ Hellickson, 5, 198/220 – 1972, 1974-76, 1980
Hellickson lost to Wayne Baughman at the 1971 US nationals but would rebound to finish third at that year’s World Championships. He wouldn’t lose again at freestyle nationals, winning his five other appearances while also taking Olympic silver (1976) and world silver (1979). He too would be a victim of the 1980 boycott after making his second Olympic team. Hellickson went on to be the head coach at Ohio State.
T8) Les Gutches, 5, 180.5/187.25 – 1996-2000
After winning his second NCAA title for Oregon State in 1996 and claiming the Hodge Trophy, Gutches parlayed a US freestyle national championship into a spot on the Olympic team where he finished seventh. His spot as the top American would not end until an injury kept him out of the 2000 Olympic trials and he lost a special wrestle-off with Charles Burton in July of that year. During his time on top, Gutches claimed five national freestyle championships to go along with a 1997 world gold and a 1999 world bronze.
T8) Rob Eiter, 5, 105.5, 1990, 1992-93, 1995-96
The presence of Tim Vanni, who made his last world team in 1994, and the lowest weight class moving from 105.5 to 119 in 1997 almost certainly kept Eiter from being higher on this list. Despite those obstacles, Rob won five US national freestyle championships, made two world teams, and was a 1996 Olympian. He was already an assistant at Clarion when the weight changes ensured his international career was over. Eiter would go on to coach the US women to a 1999 world team title and be the head coach at Penn.
T6) Zeke Jones, 6, 114.5/119, 1989-1991, 1993-94, 1997
The man who would go on to coach the US men’s freestyle national team, Penn, and Arizona State won his first US nationals in 1989 while he still had remaining college eligibility. Jones finished second at the 1990 NCAA tournament for the Sun Devils and kept his run of freestyle crowns going. After finishing seventh and fourth at his first two World Championships, Zeke struck gold in 1991 and claimed Olympic silver in Barcelona the following year. He would also secure a world bronze in 1995. In all, Jones made eight world teams, outpacing his six national freestyle wins.
T6) Daniel Cormier, 6, 211.5, 2003-2008
Before his MMA career took him mainstream, Cormier locked down a spot in the Team USA lineup for six consecutive years between 2003 and 2008. The one-time DI All-American at Oklahoma State peaked with a world bronze medal in 2007 and had two other top-five finishes at the World Championships. His second chance at an Olympic Games in 2008 was cut short when his kidneys shut down during his weight cut. He would move to MMA after that where he continues to compete, now in the UFC.
T3) Joe Williams, 7, 163/167.5/185, 1999, 2001-05, 2007
A three-time NCAA champion from Iowa, Williams finished his college career in 1998, then won US nationals the following year for the first time and later finished fourth at the 1999 World Championships. After falling short of making the Olympic team in 2000, Williams would make every team from 2001 to 2005, book-ending that run with world bronze medals. Donnie Prtizlaff beat Williams in the 1996 national finals despite Joe scoring more points in the 1-0, 0-3, 1-0 loss. The Hawkeye would make his final team and win his final national title the next year before finishing fifth in the world.
T3) Dave Schultz, 7, 163/180.5, 1984, 86-88, 1993-95
Schultz was already a two-time world medalist and the reigning world champion by the time he won his first US nationals in 1984. He had already claimed an AAU freestyle national championship in 1981 in addition to two Greco crowns at that event (1977, 1982). Dave had lost to Lee Kemp in the 1983 finals, but when Lee chose to skip the World Championships due to a graduate school conflict, Schultz won the first of two world-level gold medals. The Sly Fox ended up with seven wins at US nationals to go along with seven world-level medals despite his hiatus from competition when he initially took the job coaching Foxcatcher. He had won three in a row for the second time in his career before his murder.
T3) Rich Salamone, 7, 105.5, 1978, 1980-84, 1986
Salamone and Tim Vanni had a great rivalry at this event, meeting in the finals four times between 1983 and 1988 with each wrestler winning two of those bouts. Salamone had strung together five consecutive titles before Vanni stopped his run in 1985. During that time, however, he was kept off the world and Olympic teams by Bobby Weaver who wrestled at the US nationals just once, winning it in 1979 before claiming a world silver medal. Salamone never did break through to represent Team USA at a World Championships or Olympic Games despite his wins over Vanni and seven national freestyle wins.
2) Melvin Douglas, 8, 198/213.75, 1988, 1993-98, 2000
A four-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion for Oklahoma, Douglas won his first US nationals crown in 1988 and followed that win with a world silver medal in 1989. However, with Jim Scherr, Chris Campbell, and Dan Chaid in the mix, Melvin would struggle to get back on top. He finally did in 1993 and promptly won the world championship that year. He would remain in the top 10 at the world-level every year after that through 1998, adding two more world bronze medals while extending his US nationals count to seven. After losing the spot, both atop the US nationals podium and on the world team, to Dominic Black in 1999, Douglas made his second Olympic team and won his eighth national freestyle gold in 2000 before retiring.
1) Bruce Baumgartner, 15, HWT, 1981, 1983-96
If there is an international wrestling record that involves winning over a long period of time, Baumgartner is always a good guess. If the category is narrowed down to American men’s freestyle, there are few he doesn’t own. Big Bruce lost to Mike McCready in the 1980 finals, won in 1981, did not compete in 1982, then owned the heavyweight division for the next 14 years. During that span he missed the world-level medal stand just once, amassing an incredible five gold, four silver, and four bronze medals on the biggest stage wrestling has to offer. If you include the AAU national tournament, which he won in 1980 and 1982, Baumgartner was a Senior-level national freestyle champion in one form or another 17 years in a row. He stands alone atop this list, as he does so many others, with nearly twice as many titles as anyone else.