By your normal ears, they shall know you.
Iowa State hosted the Big 12 wrestling tournament on March 6.
Walking into the Hilton Coliseum in Ames that day was like
entering a different dimension, a universe ruled by a race of
men roughly 5 1/2 feet tall; squat, cranky, bandy-legged
warriors with marred ears and Travis Bickle stares; men for whom
body fat is anathema and to whom the outsider feels compelled to
say, soothingly, "No, I am not staring at you, and, yes, I know
how tough you are."
Anomalous, if not anonymous, among these bulldogs-in-singlets
was the most gifted collegiate wrestler in the building--and,
possibly, the country: Oklahoma State senior Eric Guerrero, a
133-pound bundle of fast-twitch muscle fiber and guile. Built
more like a cross-country runner than a grappler, Guerrero
relies less on brute strength than he does on cobralike
quickness and technical proficiency. He calls his craft "a
thinking man's sport," and damned if Guerrero doesn't maintain a
kind of Bobby Fischer-like detachment on the mat, even as he is
twisting some hapless opponent into a human ampersand.
In clinching the Big 12 title, Guerrero improved his record this
season to 26-0. It will be an upset of the highest order if
Guerrero does not come home from this weekend's NCAA
championships, at Penn State, with his third straight national
The only son of Sebastian and Virginia Guerrero was not out of
diapers before his father began teaching him the art of the
takedown. Sebastian, an engineer for Lockheed Martin, wrestled
in high school and has always been happy to provide his son with
a practice partner. "They just move the coffee table and go at
it on the living room floor," says Virginia.
By the time he was 10, Eric was a member of the San Jose Jets
wrestling club. At age 12, Eric attended a U.S. Open meet, where
he first saw Olympic gold medalist John Smith. In Smith, a wiry
perfectionist who worked his brain as hard as he worked his major
muscle groups, the skinny, adolescent Guerrero saw an exemplar.
"I shook his hand and got him to sign my hat," he recalls. "Then
I wanted him to see me wrestle."
Guerrero got his wish four years later at a junior national meet
in Fargo, N.Dak. "The first time I watched him, he got beat,"
recalls Smith, who by then had returned to Oklahoma State, his
alma mater, as wrestling coach. "Eric ran into a front-head
locker and didn't know what to do. What I really enjoyed was the
frustration he showed after the match. You could tell it truly
hurt him. I like to see pain after a loss, instead of somebody
saying, 'No big deal, tomorrow's another day.'"
Smith offered Guerrero a scholarship when Eric was a high school
senior; Guerrero's idol became his coach. A brilliant freestyle
wrestler, Smith has been able to impart the skills he used to
win gold medals in the 1988 and '92 Olympics. In addition to
making the Cowboys immensely successful--Oklahoma State has won
68 straight dual meets, the longest streak in wrestling in the
nation--he has also made them fun to watch. More so than perhaps
any other program in the country, says former Iowa State coach
Jim Gibbons, "They [the wrestlers] are technically slick, in the
likeness of John."
None is slicker or quicker than Guerrero, who hopes to wrestle
in Sydney in 2000. Smith likes his chances. As distinct from its
collegiate cousin, Olympic freestyle wrestling emphasizes
technique over strength. That suits Guerrero, who works
obsessively to hone his already superb skills. "He'll do the
same drill for an hour, keeping his focus the whole time," says
Mark Smith, John's younger brother and the Cowboys' starting
174-pounder. "Then he'll go back to his room and watch tape of
the world championships. Most guys get sick of it. I mean, it's
boring. They want to go fishing or go on a date or something,
but Eric loves wrestling like no one I've ever seen."
Guerrero got a surprisingly stern test in the Big 12 finals,
eking out a 5-3 victory over Iowa State's Cody Sanderson. "No
matter how strong you come out against Eric," said Sanderson
afterward, "he has a knack for getting you out of your rhythm
and into his. You think you're in good shape, and all of the
sudden he's on your leg."
Coming off the mat after the squeaker with Sanderson, Guerrero
looked like a man leaving a funeral parlor. He'd won but hadn't
wrestled his best--or anywhere near it, to hear him tell it.
When you're 26-0, you've got to reach for reasons to get down on
yourself. "I don't train to wrestle like that," Guerrero fumed.
"When you do have matches like that, you can't accept it."
Nearby, his coach and exemplar failed to suppress the slightest
hint of a smile.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG
"Eric has a knack for getting you out of your rhythm and into
his," says an opponent.