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African-American’s pioneering efforts paying off

By Kyle Klingman, W.I.N. Columnist

Wrestling has the distinct privilege of calling itself the Sport of Lincoln, a fitting tribute to Abraham Lincoln, the man many consider the U.S.'s greatest president.

Lincoln's wrestling match with Jack Armstrong in the tiny frontier village of New Salem, Ill, is now legendary. At the age of 23, Lincoln took on Armstrong, a local tough guy, in an impromptu wrestling match in the summer of 1831. Whether Lincoln won or lost is inconsequential. It's that he stood up and fought that matters.

One of Lincoln's contemporaries stood up and fought too. Frederick Douglass, a prominent figure in African-American history, engaged in a battle with his slaveholder, Edward Covey.

While Lincoln's match with Armstrong was a "friendly" competition, Douglass's battle with Covey was not. Tired of the severe beatings, Douglass engaged Covey in an all-out brawl "¦ and won. By his own admission, Douglass remained a slave for another four years, but the beatings stopped. Other fights ensued, but he was never whipped.

"The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave," stated Douglas in his narrative biography. "It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself."

Douglass, who eventually became a highly-skilled orator and writer, spoke at Lincoln's funeral in 1865.

February is black history month, and the matches of Lincoln and Douglass couldn't be more significant to wrestling. But as we examine the accomplishments of African-American wrestlers, the question of relevance will inevitably be raised.

How do you measure the significance of former Iowa Hawkeye Simon Roberts becoming the first African-American NCAA champion in 1957. How do measure the feat of Bobby Douglas becoming the first African-American Olympic wrestler in 1964, becoming a World medalist in 1966 or that he became the first black coach to lead a college team (Arizona State) to an NCAA team title in 1988? Where does Lloyd Keaser rate in U.S. wrestling history after he became the first black World champion in 1973 or that Kenny Monday was the first black Olympic champ in 1988? Is it important that Jimmy Carr, the youngest wrestler to make an Olympic team, was black?

The answer, quite simply, to these questions, is that each milestone was extremely significant to the U.S. wrestling community. The achievements of the aforementioned African-American wrestlers matter greatly to our sport.

Consider Lee Kemp, an African American who may be the greatest American wrestler ever. Three NCAA titles, three World titles, and four undefeated international seasons broke new ground in the late seventies and early eighties. Only Jimmy Carter's boycott in 1980 kept him from Olympic gold.

But Kemp didn't even start wrestling until the ninth grade. And as Kemp's passion for wrestling grew, so did his curiosity. While flipping through old wrestling magazines in his high school coach's office, Kemp learned about great wrestlers of the past. Dan Gable, Wade Schalles, and Wayne Wells were just a few of the wrestlers he found in those wrestling publications.

Yet when there was a black wrestler in the magazine, Kemp took special notice. When Lloyd Keaser, James Tannehill or Carl Adams appeared, there was an immediate attraction.

"Whenever I saw a black wrestler I would relate to that person," said Kemp. "Because the sport is not participated by a lot of African-American wrestlers, there are times when I'll conduct a clinic and there is only one black wrestler. I do notice that those black wrestlers gravitate toward me. I'm sensitive to that and I do pay attention to that.

"I know that was the way it was when I was competing, not that it was a bad thing, but that's the way it was. In college at Wisconsin I remember being in lectures and literally being the only black kid in a lecture of 200 people. I never had any problems but I was always aware. How can you not be aware when you're the only black kid in the whole school?"

Kemp is also aware that many African-American kids today don't realize that Jackie Robinson paved the way for blacks to play professional sports. They may know about Martin Luther King Jr. only because they get a day off from school. But a true understanding of the civil rights movement is usually missing.

And that's ultimately why the accomplishments of African-American wrestlers matter. Had Kemp not seen pictures of Adams and Keaser achieving great things, the thought may have never popped into his head that he too could have been great.

A quick glance at recent World and Olympic teams shows the impact that African-American wrestlers are having on wrestling. On the 2004 men's Olympic freestyle team alone, four of the seven members were black.

That's why learning about Kenny Monday, the first black Olympic champion, is important. But don't think for a second that Monday's motivation to win a gold medal was driven by race.

"Of course it's an incredible accomplishment for anyone," said Monday on being the first black Olympic champion. "But it wasn't the central focus that I had. I was just trying to be the best in the world and I just happened to be the first.

"That's one of the great things that I got out of wrestling. When I went to school it was segregated. It was all pretty much black kids from first grade to sixth grade. Wrestling really exposed me to a lot of other kids, a lot of white kids because it was a predominately white sport. It was really a great deal for me to be exposed to other kids of different backgrounds. It really helped me throughout my life."

Willie Gadson, a former All-American at Iowa State, would agree. Gadson is the head wrestling coach at East Waterloo High School in Iowa. Of his 14-member team, 12 are African American. But his wrestling philosophy has never wavered: You want to kick my butt and I want to kick yours so you better strap it on tight and be ready to go.

"I view a wrestler as a wrestler," said Gadson. "It's nice to have (other black wrestlers to look up to) but you can look up to white people too. My coach was white. I didn't have a black coach as a role model. I think that would have been an extra factor but that can't make the difference."

Black or white, the difference in wrestling usually comes down to one thing: heart. Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass could tell you that.

(Kyle Klingman is the associate director of the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum. He can be reached via email, [email protected])



Posted March 3rd, 2008. Filed under Amateur Wrestling

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