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Original Issue


Putting a stranglehold on AAU wrestling championships is one of the good works John and Ben Peterson happily perform for the Lord

It was the kind of thing that demanded the gloves-off approach of a Rupert Murdoch or a Charles Foster Kane or somebody who knows when to dust off the 240-point Bodoni Bold for a headline like: BROTHERS GRAPPLE FOR GOD.

While most Americans were losing two out of three falls to 1040 forms last week, John and Ben Peterson were throwing around half nelsons for Jesus and more or less knocking the stuffing out of the civilized wrestling world at the AAU National Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Ames, Iowa. When it was over, the Peterson brothers had maintained their hammerlock on U.S. amateur wrestling in the 180.5-pound (John) and 198-pound (Ben) classes. John has won three AAU titles, Ben has four. Each also has won two Olympic medals—John, 29, having gotten a silver at Munich and a gold at Montreal, while Ben, 27, was winning a gold at Munich and a silver at Montreal. And now with 1980 only two years away, the prospect of spreading the good word to Moscow may be too much for the Petersons to resist. Praise the Lord.

Brother Ben celebrated his victory by accepting an invitation to speak Sunday morning at the Ames Baptist Church before returning to his coaching job at Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Watertown, Wis. Brother John headed back to Lancaster, Pa., where he is a full-time counselor for the Campus Crusade for Christ. They left wrestling fans to ponder a more secular achievement—the New York Athletic Club's victory in the AAU team standings, by one point (77-76) over the Hawkeye Wrestling Club of Iowa. It was the NYAC's eighth team title in the last nine years.

On the eve of the AAU meet it seemed that the reign of the Brothers Peterson was in danger of coming to an end. By John's own admission, his heir apparent in the 180.5-pound class is Mark Lieberman, a member of the NYAC team and a junior at Lehigh. Lieberman, who had won the 180.5-pound championship last year when Peterson didn't enter the AAUs, prepared himself for his title defense by winning at the Pan Am Games, the NCAA tournament, the U.S. Wrestling Federation nationals and the World Cup championships, in which he beat Oleg Lalekeyev of the Soviet Union. At the Federation meet, Lieberman pinned Peterson in the first period. "Give me a little time," he said before the two met in Ames, "and I'll beat Peterson every time I face him. He won't be able to stay on the mat with me."

This quickly proved an imprudent boast, but one that may yet come true. Lieberman is 22, young for one so accomplished in international competition. And he didn't get his start in wrestling until the eighth grade when he stumbled into the wrestling room of the Allentown (Pa.) YMCA while looking for the swimming pool. The Y's instructor got one glimpse of Lieberman and tried to burn the lad's swimsuit. Ever since that day Lieberman has been on a single-minded path to Olympic gold. "You have to be willing to pay the price," he says. "People don't 'play' wrestling like they 'play' tennis or golf. It's hard work and hardly any fun, but it can also be intensely satisfying."

If it was something less than that last week for Lieberman, John Peterson made it so. The two collided head on like a pair of bighorn sheep during the Saturday afternoon session, straining sinew and bone into a 361-pound ball of cross-purposes and conflicting ambitions. For nearly two minutes the wrestlers pushed and leaned until the Hilton Coliseum fairly groaned, but neither of them could produce a point. Finally, Peterson scored on two crunching takedowns, for a total of three points. "I don't consider myself overly slick," says Peterson. "I don't have a lot of fancy moves, but I'm strong enough and in good enough condition to wear down just about anybody." And that, in essence, is what he did against Lieberman, slowly but surely piling up points for an eventual 7-3 victory and the title.

The heavyweight division was loaded with Greg Wojciechowskis and Erland van Lidth de Jeudes, but not Jimmy Jacksons, which came as a disappointment to a lot of fans who could at least spell Jackson. The NCAA heavyweight division champ for the past three years while wrestling for Oklahoma State, Jackson is 6'6" and weighs in the vicinity of 360 pounds. He goes where he pleases when he pleases. The AAU championship, it seems, was not one of his pleasures. Van Lidth de Jeude, a 6'6", 380-pound computer consultant who hopes to sing at the Metropolitan Opera (who will tell him he can't?), is an acquaintance of Jackson's and offered this thought on the absent big man. "Jackson's a kook," said v.L.d.J., recklessly, even for a man with four last names.

And that's just fine with Wojciechowski, a 27-year-old Toledo high school teacher. Wojo had won the AAU heavyweight championship four times and the 220-pound division twice, but he lost in the 1976 Olympic Trials to Jackson. Understandably, he was not among those choked up by the fact that Jackson declined to be in Ames. "Every Olympic year some giant has come along and stymied my dream of making the Olympic team," says Wojo, who also lost in the '72 trials to 400-pound Chris Taylor. "They really haven't outwrestled me; they're just so big they stop everything you do. You have to be strong enough to move them and tire them out, and then you hope you can get them off balance, so they'll fall down."

Wojciechowski, who is not big by heavyweight standards (six feet, 250 pounds), survived bouts with a couple of 300-pounders and finessed a few wrestlers his own size. Then after a rugged match with Greg Gibson of Redding, Calif. on Saturday afternoon, he headed back to his motel to nurse a hyperextended arm and a pinched nerve in his neck and to relax before his next bout, which he thought was scheduled for the night session. Just as he was stretching out for a nap, his phone rang and he was told that he was scheduled to wrestle again in five minutes. Wojciechowski hopped in a friend's car and sped over to the arena, arriving in the nick of time to avoid a forfeit. "I just tried not to get pinned in the first period," he said later. "After that I was O.K." More than just O.K. His opponent, Tom Burns, was disqualified and Wojo had another AAU title.

While all this was going on, down in Munchkinland 19-year-old Bob Weaver was giving the NY AC its only individual championship of the meet with a victory in the 105.5-pound class. Weaver is a student at the Blair Academy, a New Jersey prep school, and next fall he will enroll at Lehigh to wrestle alongside Lieberman. His victory this year was especially impressive, because he pinned none other than Olympian Bill Rosado.

The strength of the AAU field was considered a victory for U.S. wrestling. A few weeks before, the U.S. had served notice on the Soviets at the World Cup matches by winning four golds to the U.S.S.R.'s five. Moreover, the Japanese national team that showed up in Ames won only one of the 10 weight classes in which it competed. Say hallelujah, brothers and sisters.



Brother John (in red) beat Mark Lieberman to win his third title in the 180.5-pound division.