What's Love Got to Do With It?
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.
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.
Besides, he didn't embrace positive thinking. "I've stepped on the mat many, many times not thinking I was going to win and surprised and feeling lucky that I'd won," Baughman says. "I don't believe everything has to be positive. The fear of losing -- the frustration and fear of losing -- is much more motivating. Losing is permanent. The satisfaction of victory is more fleeting than the pain of losing."
NCAA rules at the time prevented him from competing as a freshman. Sophomore year, still battling his sport, Baughman came in second in the NCAA. His junior year, he won the whole thing, earning a national title for the Sooners at 191 pounds. When he came in second his senior year, he felt a mixture of disappointment and relief -- disappointment because he lost a match he should have won, and relief because he was finally done with the sport that he'd never embraced.
"I was never interested in competing again," he says. "I was ready to quit." Instead, OU's coach, Tommy Evans, told him he couldn't go out a loser. He suggested the National Amateur Athletic Union Championships. Baughman balked: He wasn't keen on freestyle wrestling -- it was different enough from the collegiate style to be a difficult adjustment -- and he had barely tried Greco-Roman at all. Still, by then Baughman knew better than to argue with a coach. Besides, Evans pointed out, "Greco-Roman is a legal street fight -- and you've done plenty of those."
Baughman had just under two weeks to familiarize himself with the new styles. He finished second in freestyle at the national tournament, and won the Greco-Roman competition. His pride reinstated, he announced once again that he was done with the sport. "I was ready to retire from wrestling and get on with my life," he says.
While at Oklahoma, Baughman had signed on with the ROTC -- not out of any great feeling of patriotism, but because he saw the military-training program as the path to an easy career. The plan was to finish ROTC, go to pilot school, do the four-year commitment and then fly jets. "It was a great job, and me and my family would get to fly for free," Baughman recalls thinking. "I grew up poor, and I wanted to travel, so I thought that was the ticket."
Although his victories at the AAU meant an automatic qualification for the 1963 World Championships, "I hadn't even remotely considered wrestling again," Baughman says. His Air Force commander suggested he do it anyway. It would be an easy way to kick off his commitment to Uncle Sam.
After the 1963 World Championships, of course, were the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, and Baughman reluctantly agreed to stay on for the Games. After finishing eighth there, he returned to the States, finally ready to begin his military career and leave wrestling behind for good.
Once again, however, the sport refused to let him go. In the time since he'd graduated from college, Baughman's eyesight had deteriorated; he was denied admittance into flight school. At the urging of his superiors, who recognized that a champion wrestler brought recognition to the country and their branch of the military, Baughman grudgingly returned to what he knew. In 1965, he came in fifth in the World Championships. In 1967 he won the Pan American Games.
Finishing a disappointing fifth in Greco-Roman at the 1968 Olympic games, Baughman tried to get out of the sport again. "That was it for sure this time," he wrote later. "I never wanted to step on a mat again."
He told his commander he quit -- no more wrestling. This time he meant it. Fine, the colonel said. Just come out to one last Interservice meet -- a competition between branches of the armed forces -- and give the guys a pep talk. Baughman agreed -- until an Army wrestler told him it was too bad he'd chickened out of actually participating.
Out of shape and uninspired, yet fueled by indignation and pride, Baughman won the tournament. His superiors "suggested" that -- because he did so well -- maybe he should try the national championships again. "I was furious," he recalls.
And so it went. "Even when I wanted to get out, I kept getting channeled back into it," Baughman says. Against his wishes, he agreed to represent the country in the 1972 Olympics, which, of course, meant attending more national championships, more world-championship tournaments. More sweat, more cutting weight. By the time the '72 games rolled around, Baughman was 31 years old.
He attributes his success in a sport he never really liked to his ability to see beyond the pain and sacrifice of the mat to the less obvious payoffs that arrived in character and discipline. "Most people, when it ceases to be fun, they cease to do it," he says. "Wrestlers say all the time, 'This is no fun. I want to quit. I'm not enjoying it.' I say, 'What does that have to do with it? If it was fun and easy, everybody would be champions.' I could make myself, force myself to do things I hated, couldn't stand to do, but do them at a very high level over a long period of time. Anybody can do things they enjoy, or which are fun."
The philosophy of deprivation and pain has continued to drive him, even after he stopped wrestling. "I never like running, especially uphill," he says. Yet he has run the Pikes Peak Marathon, the Leadville 100 -- a one-hundred-mile run that includes about 10,000 feet of elevation gain -- and the Badwater 146-Mile run, which winds through a desert where temperatures reach well into the 100s.
"The only good thing about a swim is having it over with," he says. Yet he has finished the Ironman Triathlon, a combination of a two-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26-mile run.
By the time Wayne Baughman was finally permitted to quit the sport he never wanted to play -- and which he'd been trying to leave behind since he'd started it -- he had wrestled in three Olympic Games and on eight World Championship teams. He entered 25 national championship tournament events. He won sixteen of them, placed second in seven and third in two.
For anyone slow at math, that works out to Baughman winning two-thirds of the events he entered and never finishing out of the top three. He is still the only wrestler ever to have won national championships in the four styles of wrestling -- collegiate, freestyle, Greco-Roman and Sombo (a Russian style similar to judo).
And, despite going on to earn graduate degrees in psychotherapy and sports sciences, he never managed to get out of wrestling completely. In 1976 he coached the U.S. Olympic wrestling team. Three years later, he became head wrestling coach at the Air Force Academy.
This fall, he will begin his 25th year as the Falcons' wrestling coach. Not surprisingly, Baughman has left an astounding mark there, as well; he is currently the winningest coach in the history of the academy. This year, under Baughman's tutelage, Kevin Hoy, a heavyweight wrestler who finished only fifth in his high school state championships, came in second in the NCAAs -- the best performance for an Air Force wrestler in a quarter-century.
"Wrestling," Baughman says, "has been a much bigger part of my life than I ever imagined or wanted." Lucky us.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.