What's Love Got to Do With It?

Legendary wrestler Wayne Baughman wants you to know something: He never liked the sport.

Ask a baseball player why he plays, and he'll tell you it's because he loves the game, always has. Football players are usually driven by a passion for their sport, too. "When I stop enjoying the game," the running back with aching knees will say, "I'll know it's time to quit." "I love this game" is the NBA's longtime slogan.

Wrestling is another story. You might as well love castor oil and zoning meetings. The fierce conditioning, the constant battles with seesawing weight, the pain of getting tied into a position the body wasn't designed to accept -- all suffocate love. To his credit, Wayne Baughman was always honest about this. "I never liked wrestling," he says. "I never associated words like 'fun' and 'like' and 'joy' with the sport."

No wonder: Few people sacrifice their bodies more to their sports than wrestlers. During his sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma, Baughman -- whose football-playing weight in high school was close to 200 pounds -- competed in the 167-pound division. Before one match, he discovered he'd developed a raging case of hemorrhoids, which he blamed on the strain of losing so much weight. Still, the team needed somebody to wrestle at 167, so Baughman found a physician who removed the hemorrhoids and sent him on his way.

Wayne Baughman knows no love in the world of the 
John Johnston
Wayne Baughman knows no love in the world of the mat.

While trying to go to the bathroom after the operation, Baughman recalls, "I thought that I'd slid down a razor-blade banister." After losing eight pounds to make weight during an intense pre-match workout, he ended up winning his match against a conference champion. The pain was excruciating. Baughman couldn't wait to leave the mat -- though not because he was ready to quit. He didn't want to embarrass his team by bleeding through his white trunks.

You can look for a long time and not find the love in a sport like that.

Instead, Baughman had always associated wrestling with punishment. Growing up in a poor household in Oklahoma City, he spent much of his youth trading punches with other kids. In tenth grade he got into another fight during basketball practice. "If you're that tough, go up to the wrestling room," the coach advised him before kicking him off the team.

The wrestling coach wasn't interested, either, though. "Beat it," he told Baughman. "I'm trying to run a respectable program and I don't need any troublemakers." As Baughman left the room, he ran into his football coach. The coach required his athletes to play another sport in the football off-season, so he escorted Baughman back up the stairs and talked the wrestling coach into reluctantly accepting him on the team.

Surprising everyone, including himself, Baughman stuck around, although it was mostly out of spite. The coach didn't speak to him for the first two weeks of practice, and when he did finally open his mouth his first words weren't exactly encouraging: "You're slow and clumsy, and you have no balance."

"I'm not going to let this guy run me off," Baughman thought, so he stayed. Later, the wrestling coach, recognizing that the young man was at least better conditioned than most high school kids, told him that he could offset his lack of speed by practicing control, and overcome his lack of balance by learning position. "At first, I stayed because I wasn't going to let the coach beat me," Baughman recalls. "Then I wasn't going to let the sport beat me."

Despite his dislike for the sport, he made astonishing progress. His senior year, he finished third in the state -- no small accomplishment in a region where wrestlers are recognized in crowds.

Still, football was Baughman's first sport, a fact his body constantly reminded him of. Days after wrestling as a 167-pounder in the state high school tournament, his weight bounced back to nearly 200 pounds. And it was his play as a linebacker, not a grappler, that inspired Baylor University to offer him a full-ride scholarship.

But in 1959, Baughman chose Oklahoma and a half-ride instead, thinking he might try both wrestling and football. When he went to check out his football pads the fall of his freshman year, however, he found a note on them: "See Port Robertson." Robertson, the assistant wrestling coach, doubled as the athletic department's sergeant-at-arms, an enforcer of troublesome athletes. "What's this I hear about you going out for football?" he asked Baughman. "You're a wrestler."

When Baughman told Robertson he hoped to do both, Robertson replied, "You'll never make the team here." Baughman attempted to argue, but Robertson cut him off: "I'm the freshman football coach here, and I'll make sure you'll never make it. You're the only 167-pound wrestler we recruited," the coach added. "We got plenty of 185-pound linebackers."

"I may have been stubborn, but I was also practical," Baughman recalls. "So I said, 'Well, if you put it that way, I guess I won't play football.' " And that ended his football career.

Robertson next told him not to bother with the wrestling team, either, if he didn't want to become a national champion. Baughman knew the correct answer and said, sure, he'd like to win a title -- bring it on. "But I'd never even been a high school champ, so it wasn't even in my thought process," he remembers.

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