Last year at the Barcelona Olympics, U.S. freestyle wrestler Zeke Jones won the silver medal at 114.5 pounds, one of the toughest weight classes in the tournament. But that's not the way Jones sees it. "I didn't win the silver," he says. "I lost the gold."
That is a serious distinction to Jones. "It's not neat to lose," he says. That attitude helps explain why last week in Las Vegas Jones won the 114.5-pound title at the U.S. nationals with ridiculous ease. In his first three matches Jones's combined score was a stunning 33-2, and all the matches were stopped early because of a rule that puts an automatic end to bouts in which a wrestler is ahead of his opponent by 10 points. In Jones's fourth bout, the final, he destroyed Ed Giese 12-6.
The nationals were the first major step on the road to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. With his dominating performance, Jones, 26, gave notice that he could be the next international U.S. wrestling star—in the mold of Dan Gable and John Smith. Bruce Burnett, the national freestyle coach, says, "Zeke has been separating himself from the field. If he continues to do so...." Burnett rolls his eyes in anticipation.
Jones, the nation's best wrestler at 114.5 since 1989, when he was a junior at Arizona State, is still angry at himself for being thrashed 8-1 in the Olympic final by North Korea's Li Hak Son. "That left a hole in my heart," he says. With memories of Barcelona as motivation, Jones is wrestling at a level at which only superstars dare to tread. "I haven't had a close match all year," he says. "But there is no secret pill, and there is no magic wand. Just work and avoid temptation."
Jones sees his strengths as speed and technique and his weakness as "always trying to wrestle a perfect match—and always failing." Burnett says, "If he has a weakness, he feels it and he fixes it." Jones's weaknesses used to be that he wasn't strong enough and didn't wrestle well on top. Both now are strengths. He does have to battle to make weight. His diet often consists of a bagel, a piece of dry toast, some cantaloupe, a bran muffin and a small salad, no dressing. Jones says he may grow out of the sport before he burns out.
Yet this Spartan diet has not made Jones cranky. He signs every autograph and shakes every hand offered because that's what his mother, Shirley Lambert, of Ypsilanti, Mich., taught him. "She told me I can't wrestle all my life but that I can be a good person all my life," Jones says. "That's important. I don't like shortcuts. I like to do the right thing."
He grew up a good kid, of course, in Ann Arbor, Mich., wrestling (he started when he was five and immediately finished third in his first tournament), going to school, doing his homework and working summers with his stepfather's tree service company. So dedicated is Jones to living correctly that he frets, needlessly, that "wrestling is making me a hard person. The problem is we are brainwashed and trained to survive and win, just like soldiers sent into war."
And then, Jones excuses himself. As a reigning champion and good person, he has a lot of people he wants to be nice to.
The 114.5-pound U.S. champ is ready to follow Gable and Smith to fame on the international stage.