2024 Olympic Games Watch Party

10 Iconic Moments In U.S. Olympic Wrestling History

10 Iconic Moments In U.S. Olympic Wrestling History

These American Olympic wrestling moments have stood the test of time. Will we get another at the 2024 Paris Games?

Jun 6, 2024 by Kyle Klingman
10 Iconic Moments In U.S. Olympic Wrestling History

Iconic wrestling moments are just that — a moment. 

This list does not represent lasting impact or domination, although several fit those criteria. Rather, these singularly unique U.S. Olympic wrestling memories stand the test of time. 

Here’s a look at 10 memorable moments as we prepare for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

10. Bill Smith’s Surprise Olympic Gold Medal

Smith famously took the bronze medal spot during the awards ceremony at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics when tournament officials had to point him to the top of the podium. The former Northern Iowa star lost to Sweden during the round-robin format but the Iranian beat Sweden and Smith beat the Iranian.

Because the matches happened so quickly, Smith didn’t look at his bad marks — the system used to determine the winner. The Council Bluffs, Iowa, native thought he won bronze when he didn’t pin the Iranian. To his surprise, Smith won the 73-kg men’s freestyle Olympic gold medal. 

9. Jack VanBebber Runs To His Olympic Final

VanBebber had to run four miles and hitchhike to his gold medal match at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The former Oklahoma State star learned that the schedule was changed and his finals bout was in an hour. 

No transportation was provided, so he started on foot before snagging a ride. He defeated Finland’s Eino Leino — a four-time Olympic medalist (one gold, one silver, and two bronze) — for the title. 

8. Doug Blubaugh Pins Iran’s Emaili Habibi

Blubaugh’s pin over Iran's returning Olympic champion Emam-Ali Habibii in the fifth round of their 73 kg match at the 1960 Rome Olympics continues to be a memorable moment in American wrestling history. The Iranian tossed his American foe several times before Blubaugh countered an attack and pancaked Habibi to his back for the fall. Blubaugh eventually won gold. 

Watch Blubaugh's dramatic pin over Habibi at the 1960 Olympics

7. Chris Taylor Gets Launched

No scene looms larger than the one where super heavyweight Chris Taylor is launched through the air in one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring throws ever. It produced an iconic poster hanging in wrestling rooms throughout the country, but there are erroneous details about the match.

Taylor competed at the 1972 Munich Olympics in Greco and freestyle at 412 pounds, which was allowable during the era of the unlimited weight category. The former Iowa State star fell to the Soviet Union’s Alexander Medved (a 10-time World/Olympic champion) in a controversial 3-2 match in the first round of freestyle competition. Medved won gold; Taylor won bronze. 

“The Throw” happened in Greco when West Germany’s Wilfried Dietrich launched Taylor in a belly-to-belly suplex that resulted in a fall. According to USA’s 1972 Greco-Roman Olympic coach Alan Rice, Dietrich hugged Taylor before the match to see if he could reach his hands around his body.

Watch Dietrich throw Taylor at the 1972 Olympics

6. Kurt Angle’s Dramatic Finish

Angle’s life would look different had he not won the 100-kilogram freestyle gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Pittsburgh native was locked in a 1-1 tie with Iran’s Abbas Jadidi that went into overtime. After eight minutes of wrestling, judges would determine the outcome. 

Jadidi went to the scorers’ table and raised his hand in jubilation — a visible sign that Angle may have lost. The Iranian tried to raise his hand but the referee held it down and lifted the American’s arm in the air. Angle dropped to his knees in jubilation, and his emotional celebration caught the eye of WWE President Vince McMahon, leading to a long and distinguished professional wrestling career.

“I worked for this moment my whole life,” Angle said in a teary-eyed interview. “I can’t believe this happened. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had. I wasn’t sure if I won. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I can’t believe this. If I died tonight I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

5. Rulon Gardner Shocks The World

No sane person thought Rulon Gardner would defeat Alexander Karelin during their super-heavyweight Greco-Roman gold medal final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Why would they? Karelin had won 12 World/Olympic titles and was riding a 13-year undefeated streak. 

Gardner scored the lone point when Karelin unlocked his hands during a second-period clinch, sending the world into a frenzy. The Russian Nightmare retired after the match, but Gardner proved it wasn’t a fluke by winning the World Championships the following year. 

4.  Kenny Monday Makes History

History will always show that Kenny Monday was the first black wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal. His overtime victory over the Soviet Union’s Adlan Varaev during the 74-kilogram freestyle finals was a dramatic and powerful moment at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

The newly crowned Olympic champion raised his arms in jubilation before Dave Schultz — the reigning Olympic champion at the weight class — paraded around the mat with Monday on his shoulders. 

It was a seminal moment for wrestling and for the advancement of black wrestlers across the globe. Monday’s victory represented something far greater than an Olympic gold medal — it paved the way for black wrestlers to see what's possible. 

“I’ve had guys who are grown now with their own kids who said they got into wrestling by watching me win the Olympics — especially black wrestlers,” Monday said. “Winning an Olympic gold medal gives you a different platform. You can win the NCAAs and you can win World titles, but the Olympic Games gives you a whole different platform. 

“I didn’t realize it until I won. The impact of Olympic gold is far greater. It’s worldwide. I have people from Africa that come up to me at international events and tell me I inspired them. They just identified. It’s a global reach when you’re able to do that because you don’t see many (black wrestlers).”

3. Brandon Slay Stuns Buvaisar Saitiev

It didn’t look good when Slay drew Russia’s Buvaisar Saitiev in pool competition. Saitiev was the overwhelming favorite after winning the 1996 Olympics and three World titles entering the match.

Slay scored with a blast double and a gut-wrench in the opening seconds before Saitiev scored late in the period to knot the score, 3-3. Neither scored in the second but Slay unleashed another blast double in overtime for a shocking 4-3 win celebrated jubilantly by the American corner. 

The Amarillo, Texas, native eventually won gold when Germany’s Alexander Leopold tested positive for nandrolone. Saitiev didn’t medal in 2000 but won Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008 for nine World/Olympic titles before he retired. 

2. Gable Steveson And David Taylor Win Last-Second Gold Medals

David Taylor was down 3-2 against Iran’s Hassan Yazdani in the closing seconds of their 86 kg gold medal final. That’s when he unleashed a slingshot double to take down the returning 74 kg Olympic champion. 

Gable Steveson’s win was even more dramatic. 

Steveson was controlling his 125-kg gold medal match against Georgia’s reigning three-time World champion Geno Petriashvili. The Apple Valley, Minnesota, star took Petriashivili down at will before Steveson was tilted, taken down, and turned twice — falling behind 8-5 with 13 seconds left.

Then the unthinkable happened. Steveson scored with 10 seconds remaining on a go-behind and had the foresight to immediately stand up, forcing the official to whistle the action back to neutral with 6.5 seconds on the clock. He eventually scored on another go-behind with .6 seconds left for a thrilling 10-8 win after a lost challenge by the Georgian corner. 

Watch David Taylor's dramatic Olympic gold medal match

1. Helen's Epic Upset

Women’s freestyle wrestling was adopted into the 2004 Athens Olympics, but Helen Maroulis made her breakthrough for the United States at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She defeated 16-time World/Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan to become the first American woman to capture an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. 

Yoshida pinned Maroulis twice at the World Championships before the Rockville, Maryland, native scored a stunning 4-1 win for the 53 kg gold medal. Maroulis added to her legacy at the 2020 Olympics by becoming the first American woman to win multiple medals. She could make it three at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“In that moment, I was seven-year-old Helen again,” she said after the match. “I was this little, shy girl that just started in wrestling and loves the sport.”

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