Who is Wrestling’s Greatest Of All Time by Mitch Hull

Will Wendorff
By Will Wendorff March 29, 2016 15:06

Who is Wrestling’s Greatest Of All Time by Mitch Hull


Who is Wrestling’s Greatest Of All Time

Mitch Hull

Every sport likes to discuss who is the GOAT. When we get into this discussion in wrestling several names always come up. What is important in determining who is the greatest is deciding what the parameters are. Is this about High School? What about College success or is it simply who did the best on the international scene? Since there are several undefeated High school wrestlers, and competition is limited, I am eliminating High school success from the discussion. HOWEVER, if it was ONLY about High School, the debate in my mind would be between Jimmy Carr, Dave Schultz, Cary Kolat and now possibly Mark Hall.

When College success is the parameter, we would likely be debating between the 4 timers: Pat Smith, Logan Stieber, Kyle Dake and the undefeated Champion, Cael Sanderson. A few 3 timers come to mind as well with Danny Hodge (the namesake for the outstanding college wrestler award), Ricky Bonomo and Mark Churella. These three guys not only won, they dominated. There are certainly a few more to consider, led by wrestling legend, Dan Gable and maybe even Port Washington’s Alex Dieringer.

Internationally we have several that are always in the discussion. John Smith had a 6 year run that has yet to be matched, 6 straight World/Olympics, 6 Golds. Bruce Baumgartner won nearly twice as many World/Olympic medals as the next closest American. Dan Gable brought attention to our sport that is unparalleled. If you are talking about having confidence in sending out one person to win a single World Title when they were physically and mentally ready, I would have to take Mark Schultz. I worked out with Mark one time (if you want to call a butt whoopin a workout) and I am not sure how Mark could be beat when he was healthy. Les Gutches (Olympian and World Champion) told me that when he was a senior in High School he worked out several times with Mark. He referred to it as “Bambi taking on Godzilla”!

All of these individuals listed are phenomenal wrestlers and deserve to be in the GOAT discussion. When his career is complete, Jordan Burroughs will likely be added to this distinguished group.

For me, in determining who is the greatest, I considered the totality of their college and international career. Under this encompassing parameter the GOAT is Lee Kemp. For journalistic integrity, I will admit that I could be called biased. Lee was a teammate, roommate, training partner and a groomsman in my wedding. Having admitted this bias, it shouldn’t matter-what he accomplished says it all.

Lee didn’t have a monster High School career, partly because he didn’t start wrestling until he was 13 years old freshman at Chardon High School. Success came quickly as 3 years later he won State, then Junior National titles.

At the completion of High School, Lee headed to the University of Wisconsin to begin his college career. I was a senior in High School at the time and I remember asking Russ Hellickson-the Assistant Coach for the Badgers-who on the team had the best chance at winning an NCAA title. His answer was an incoming freshman named Lee Kemp! Lee lost in the finals that year on a split referees decision. In those days if you were tied after a 3 minute overtime the 3 referees would decide the winner. Kemp got the only takedown of the match and as Coach Kleven still says “At least one of the officials got it right”. The guy he lost to was no slouch, as Iowan Chuck Yagla went on to make the 1980 Olympic Team. The opinion of one referee in a finals match was how close Kemp came to becoming the first 4 Time NCAA Division I Wrestling Champion (Pat Smith was the first 4X NCAA Champion 16 years later).

It was 8 months later when Kemp raised his profile to another level. At the Northern Open in November of 1975, Kemp, still 18 years old, beat Dan Gable 7-6. Dan was up a weight from where he competed internationally, but it was still DAN GABLE. In 5 years Lee Kemp went from stepping on a wrestling mat for the first time to beating someone many believed (and still do) was/is the greatest American wrestler.

This is what makes what Kemp did in College even more impressive. Lee never “redshirted”. He didn’t do it in High School and he didn’t do it in College. Kemp was 17 years old when he entered College and 21 when he graduated. Now days there are sophomores that are 21. That means he was barely 18 when he wrestled in his first NCAA finals!  He did this at the time when freshman didn’t have the initial success in college that many do today. There weren’t any year round, or even off season, training centers. In addition, athletes didn’t wrestle as many matches in High School as they do today, so they weren’t nearly as prepared as most incoming freshman currently are.

Kemp’s international career started his Sophomore year in college when he finished second in the Olympic Trials to Olympic Bronze medalist Stan Dziedzic (Lee beat Stan in the Nationals earlier that year).  His success was immediate right after his senior year. In 1978 Kemp became the youngest World Champion in US history at 21 years and 9 months-a distinction he held for nearly 40 years until Kyle Snyder eclipsed it in 2015. Kemp won the World Championships again in ’79 and was the prohibitive favorite to win the Moscow Olympics in ’80. His dreams, along with those of a few hundred other Olympians, were destroyed by an ill-fated and ill-conceived USA boycott directed by President Carter and supported by Congress. In 1980, Sports Illustrated had listed 400 meter hurdler Edwin Moses and Freestyle wrestler Lee Kemp as the USA’s most likely Gold Medalists. Kemp added more credence to this prediction when he defeated the Olympic Champion after the Games in an All-Star match in Japan.

Here is where things started to change. Those of us who knew Lee and trained with him understood that Lee would have retired after winning that Olympic Gold Medal. He would have retired undefeated in World and Olympic competition. Instead he had to compete for four more years to get another Olympic opportunity. In 1981 Kemp lost his only match in a World Championships, a 1-0 match to World Champion Martin Knosp of West Germany. Kemp turned around the next year and in ’82 won the World Championships again.

Kemp continued to wrestle two more years but it had been obvious to us that the passion wasn’t the same. He still was near the top and was good enough to win another World and Olympic title had it not been for the emergence of a young, passionate and talented wrestler, Dave Schultz.

When you are asked who is the greatest wrestler this is all you need to need. What Kemp accomplished from his entry into college in 1975 to the World Championships in 1982 (from the age of 17 to 25) is unmatched by anyone. In that period of time Kemp competed in 4 NCAA Championships, 4 World Cup Championships and 4 World Championships (also made the Olympic Team). In all those events Kemp lost a total of 2 matches by a total of ONE POINT!

It is my unwavering opinion, to the point of fact, that the President led boycott of the Olympics did more damage to Lee Kemp’s legacy than any other Olympian. Kemp would have won 3 NCAA Championships, 3 World Cups, 2 World Championships and an Olympic Gold- all by the age of 23- the age where many individuals now days are finishing their senior year of college! If that were the case, the GOAT discussion would simply be about….. who is the second best.

Author Mitch Hull  Former UW All-American and Big Ten champion Mitch Hull is currently Volunteer Assistant Coach at UW. Mitch is former National Team Director for USA Wrestling for 21 years and was also Head Wrestling Coach at Purdue University and an Assistant at UW where he wrestled and received his bachelors degree. As a wrestler Hull was an All-American and Big Ten Champion and represented the US in both Greco and Freestyle on World Teams.

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Will Wendorff
By Will Wendorff March 29, 2016 15:06
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