A police car pulled up in front of Luke's Mid-City Restaurant in Bethlehem, Pa. one night last week. After a moment it began to rock, as though a struggle was going on in the back seat. Not a matter for the law, actually, just Iowa State Wrestler Chris Taylor trying to ease himself out the rear door. Taylor, who weighs 45 pounds, was in town for the East-West all-star matches at Lehigh University next evening.
At one of Luke's tables, Taylor beamed. "Darndest thing. I was walking over here and the cops stopped me and gave me a ride because they said they recognized me. One of those girl bellhops at the hotel had offered me a lift. I would've accepted, but she had a VW and I figured I'd better not."
For his midnight snack Taylor ate a hamburger and a tuna fish sandwich, not far out of line with a surprisingly modest appetite that only rarely requires emergency treatment with the likes of three large pizzas.
As he ate, the amiable giant whose televised struggles in the Olympics last summer helped give collegiate wrestlers some much-needed national exposure, burbled happily on: "They flew me here first class. It's only the second time I've gone first class. The other time was when the airline moved me up front to help balance the plane." Taylor also allowed that he plans to be married in September, that he will probably turn pro because of the reported $60,000 to $70,000 offers made by Promoter Vern Gagne and that he had tried to lose some weight because he was beginning to feel bulky. "I tried the Chris Taylor Easy Way to Lose Weight," he said. "There's only one problem—it doesn't work." What was the diet? Simple: stay away from banana cream pie.
Having Taylor on hand helped make the West a solid favorite, but actually the big pre-meet question was not who was going to win but whether the meet itself could endure. This was the seventh annual East-West match, which in recent years had been colossally boring or financially ruinous, or both. The East-West flops seemed particularly galling in view of wrestling's gains in the last decade, including the growth in the number of high school and college teams and the increase in spectator interest almost everywhere. Twelve thousand turned out for the Midlands tournament in December and the finals of last year's NCAA championships drew a one-night high of 12,000.
One of the problems, somebody finally realized, was that the East-West had always been held after the NCAA and was therefore almost bound to be anticlimactic: the fans already knew who the champs were and the wrestlers themselves could afford to be lackadaisical about the affair. Moving the East-West up to a point about two-thirds of the way through the season, reasoned the coaches who control the event, would whet the appetite of fans looking for an early inside line on the best wrestlers in the country. It would also guarantee a degree of earnestness among the competitors: how well they did would be vital in the seedings at the NCAA meet a few weeks later.
"The atmosphere is so different this time," said one wrestler who took part in last year's East-West. "No horsing around, no parties. This year everybody is keyed up; there's a lot on the line."
Among the drawing cards at Lehigh last week were three 1972 national titlists: Taylor, the most famous of the present college wrestlers; Wade Schalles of Clarion (Pa.) State, a cocky and enormously spectacular 158-pounder; and Tom Milkovich of Michigan State, the dominant performer in the 142-pound division and perhaps the best all-round wrestler in the group. The huge Taylor was the top attraction, of course, as he has been ever since Munich. Almost everywhere he competes he helps set new attendance highs. At Wisconsin, where only a few hundred people usually show up for a match, there were 3,600 to see Taylor and his Cyclone teammates. And when Iowa State met Iowa at Iowa City last month, 10,268 came out—a U.S. record for a dual meet. Naturally, the East-West came up a sellout.
Going into the East-West, Taylor's two-year college record (he is a junior college transfer and is now a senior at Ames) consisted of no losses, one draw and 72 wins—56 of them by pins. This season he had won all 33 of his bouts, 31 of them by falls, which broke the mark set by former Cyclone teammate and Munich gold medalist Dan Gable. Taylor's drawing power is such that even though Iowa State usually has clinched one more team win long before the heavyweight match starts, the fans refuse to leave until they have seen Chris in action. Last season several teams declined to nominate anyone to face him, but no one has risked the wrath of fans by coming up empty-handed so far this year. Wisconsin Coach Duane Kleven had his wrestlers draw straws to see who would take on Taylor. And at Navy it was a squad joke that anyone who volunteered to fight Chris should be given a medal.
The West eventually won the match 24-14, thanks largely to a succession of late arrivals. There was 177-pounder Jim Crumley of Oregon State. Or, rather, there wasn't Jim Crumley. On his way to the airport to catch a plane east he had a flat tire. After putting on a spare he put a heavy foot on the gas, and the police took exception. Crumley missed his flight and did not arrive in Bethlehem until around noon on the day of the meet.
Another latecomer was Taylor, who was still in his hotel room while everyone else was suiting up. To his rescue came the helpful bellhop—Paulette Szlivko—who this time offered Chris a ride in a Hotel Bethlehem station wagon and got him to the match on time. Even in the opening event of the evening Dale Brumit of Arizona was late. He needed a diving takedown in the final seven seconds of his 118-pound bout to gain an 8-8 draw with Michigan's Jim Brown.
The East captured four of the next five matches. Milkovich was smooth and swift as he took care of Larry Morgan of Cal Poly 10-4. Schalles then had an off night for Schalles, laboring like a fastball pitcher whose fastball isn't working. Still, he managed to win a 5-4 decision. Now the East was in front 14-6, but then the late-arriving West really came on the scene.
Jeff Callard of Oklahoma earned a methodical and muscular 5-2 victory at 167 pounds and the tardy Crumley won by default when his opponent injured some ribs. Oregon State 190-pounder Greg Strobel unwisely turned to look for a contact lens that popped out and promptly was thudded to the mat and almost pinned. But then he fought back from a 10-1 deficit to beat Russ Johnson of Ohio University 13-11. That gave the West an 18-14 lead. Except for a default, the only way the East could win would be if 290-pound Joel Kislin of Hofstra pinned Taylor.
Taylor led 1-0 early in the second period and was trying for a takedown when he leaned all his weight on Kislin. For one instant 740 pounds was supported by Kislin's right knee, which collapsed. After being declared the winner by default, Taylor helped Kislin back to the locker room. Taylor then returned to the mat with other wrestlers to sign autographs. Youngsters tried to jump on his shoulders. They clung to his massive arms or wrapped themselves around his legs and tried to shinny up as if he were a favorite tree.
Eventually the big fellow disentangled himself, made his way out of Bethlehem and went flying back to Ames—first class.
Hofstra's Joel Kislin on the mat, one knee kaput, as Taylor pulls on a warmup shirt.