Kurt Angle eased himself onto a chair in a hallway under the stands of the Myriad Convention Center in Oklahoma City last Saturday night and wearily shook his head. Angle, a senior from Clarion (Pa.) University, had just won his second NCAA heavyweight wrestling championship, beating Sylvester Terkay of North Carolina State by a score of 3-2. But now he looked less like a winner than a survivor. He was soaked with sweat, he moved stiffly, and he had an angry welt under his right eye. "The only way I can describe Sylvester Terkay," Angle said, "is with the words inhumanly strong. He is the biggest, toughest, strongest guy I've ever wrestled."
Saturday was Angle's third match against Terkay, and the third time that Angle won. He beat Terkay 3-2 in the semifinals of the 1991 NCAA meet and 7-5 in a dual meet last November. "Each time he got tougher," Angle said. "I'm just glad to be done with him."
The Angle-Terkay showdown—the final match of the 1992 NCAA championships—was set up on Friday evening. On mat 2, in one semifinal, the 5'11", 208-pound Angle gained a draining 8-3 victory over Arizona State's Mike Anderson. Moments before, on mat 3, the 6'5", 255-pound Terkay electrified the crowd by pinning Iowa State's Jamie Cutler in 1:43 of the first period. It was the fourth first-period fall for Terkay at the meet in as many matches.
After destroying Cutler, Terkay calmly pulled on a T-shirt and sat down at the edge of mat 2 to watch Angle's struggle with Anderson. "Wow," said one fan, gazing at Terkay. "How could anybody ever beat that guy?"
Bob Bubb, the Clarion coach, was ready with an answer. "Terkay comes right at you," he said. "You have to move side to side against him, and Kurt goes side to side better than any heavyweight. Kurt will have to be nearly perfect, but I have complete confidence in him." Then Bubb grinned and said, "I'll tell you something. With Terkay's size and with all those falls—if I were up there in the stands, I know who I'd be betting on."
Coming into the 62nd NCAA tournament, few people were paying much attention to individual matchups between wrestlers from the lower-ranked teams (Clarion would finish eighth, N.C. State ninth). When the meet opened last Thursday morning, the big question was whether Iowa, the defending champion, would live up to its billing as the greatest team ever. Coach Dan Gable's Hawkeyes had been ranked first in the country all season, had finished with a 16-0 dual-meet record and had outscored their opponents by an NCAA-record margin of 36.9 points. With every member of last year's team back, Iowa had qualified for the NCAAs in all 10 weight classes. The Hawkeyes seemed poised for a run at the NCAA meet scoring record—the 158 points amassed by the '85 Iowa team.
The only team thought to have an outside shot at Iowa was Oklahoma State. The Cowboys, however, had spent as much time grappling with the NCAA over alleged rules violations as wrestling in the gym. Coach Joe Seay had been suspended, as had been seven wrestlers, four of whom were later reinstated. "A month ago I didn't know if I was going to be able to wrestle here," said Oklahoma State's Pat Smith, whose third straight championship at 158 pounds was the Cowboys' lone title in Oklahoma City. "None of the guys was sure what was going to happen."
In the end, Iowa actually lost a few matches, and Gable's guys had to settle for an overwhelming defense of the team title they won last year in Iowa City. The ferocious Brands twins—Terry at 126 pounds and Tom at 134—and an unstoppable Troy Steiner, who gave up only two points in his five matches at 142 pounds, were the only individual champions for the Hawkeyes, who finished with 149 points to the Cowboys' 100.5.
For Angle, one of five wrestlers from Clarion to qualify for the tournament, the meet in Oklahoma City was a chance for redemption. He won his other national title as a sophomore, in 1990. Last year, hobbled by a bad right knee, he lost to Illinois's Jon Llewellyn in the finals. "It was very hard on him, getting second," said Bubb. "But he had knee surgery after the season and went right back to work."
Work is something with which Angle is quite familiar. He came out of Mt. Lebanon High in suburban Pittsburgh, and once at Clarion he lifted weights with a vengeance, transforming himself into one of the best-conditioned wrestlers in the country. "He moves like a lightweight," says Clarion assistant coach Jack Davis, who will take over the Golden Eagles when Bubb retires after this season, his 26th as coach. Davis hopes to keep Angle, who will try for a spot on the U.S. Olympic freestyle team at the Olympic trials in May, as an assistant coach for at least a year. "He is a great example," Davis says.
Angle and Terkay grew up within a few miles of each other, but they are not what you would call friends. "Oh, no," Angle says. "Our high schools were archrivals."
"There's sort of a neighborhood-rivalry thing," Terkay said before Saturday's match. "People are always asking me, 'Do you know Kurt Angle?' and I have to say yes. Maybe after this is all over, we can get together and talk. But not yet."
Terkay—whose size and dark, chiseled features belie his sunny nature—is known as Bear, but not for the obvious reason. "It's kind of embarrassing," Terkay says. "When I was little, my mom used to dress me in this big fur coat. My family called me Brother Bear. I guess I finally grew into my name."
As a sophomore in high school, Terkay wrestled at 138 pounds. The next year he moved to 167, and by his senior year he was up to 196. Not heavily recruited, he spent a year at Chowan Junior College in Murfreesburo, N.C., before transferring, as a walk-on, to North Carolina State.
"His skill level was not a major asset at first," says Bob Guzzo, coach of the Wolf-pack. "But his physical strength, stature and heart have made the difference. He's gotten better every day." Coming into the NCAA tournament, Terkay had gotten 21 of his 31 wins this season with pins.
"For Kurt, it's going to be a Wallenda act out there," said Bubb before Saturday's final. "He'll be working 200 feet up without a net. And Terkay can be a strong gust of wind."
Angle's footing proved to be impeccable. In a tense, low-scoring match, Angle stayed on his feet, moving throughout and living up to his name as he came at Terkay from every direction. He avoided Terkay's startlingly quick shoots while weathering the bigger man's strength. With 35 seconds remaining, in an almost flitting motion, Angle scored the match's only takedown. It was enough. At the final whistle, the wrestlers sagged into a hug.
Later, seated and still recovering beneath the stands, Angle recalled the moment: "Right after the match, I said, 'Hey, Sylvester, I hope now we can be friends.' " Angle paused. "I think I would have said that even if I'd lost," he said.
Angle (right) used fancy footwork to fend off takedown attempts by the massive Terkay.