Thomas Gilman's Historically Great Freestyle Wrestling Career

Thomas Gilman's Historically Great Freestyle Wrestling Career

Putting Thomas Gilman's freestyle wrestling career in context to better appreciate his historical greatness.

Jun 14, 2024 by Andrew Spey

Judging another person's career is never a simple task. Whether going off vibes or objective criteria, there is an inexhaustible supply of nits to pick with whatever judgment is rendered. 

But we remain undaunted in our task of cataloging and celebrating American greatness in the world's oldest and most excellent sport. Which brings us to our topic of the day. 

Who Is The American Lightweight Freestyle GOAT?

Perhaps recently minted Oklahoma State assistant coach Thomas Gilman's name is not the first you think of. Afterall, he never won an NCAA individual championship and didn't even start his freshman season with the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

But you should consider Gilman! We'll get to explaining why shortly. First, we need to establish some criteria.  

Parameters For American Lightweight Freestyle GOAT Candidacy

For this discussion, we limited our candidates to wrestlers who competed for Team USA in men's freestyle at the weight class of 59kg or lower. We're also only factoring in results in freestyle, so no college or high school folkstyle results will enter into the conversation, and neither will coaching or philanthropy or anything else like that. 

We've limited our field to those who have made at least two world or Olympic teams and won at least one medal. Also, anyone who has made nine world or Olympic teams.

We asked our research department to find all the American wrestlers who fit that criteria and here's what they came up with! 

The Candidates 

Rick Sanders6512 Silver1968-197252-57kg
Thomas Gilman5411 Bronze2017-202357kg
Terry Brands4321 Bronze1993-200057-58kg
Zeke Jones8311 Silver1991-199752-54kg
Sammie Henson4311 Silver1998-200654-55kg
Don Behm5301 Silver1968-197357kg
Barry Davis5301 Silver1983-198757kg
Bobby Weaver4211 Gold1977-198448kg
Kendall Cross2111 Gold1992-199657kg
Henry Cejudo2111 Gold2006-200855kg
Stephen Abas4101 Silver2000-200454-55kg
Joe Gonzales510none1981-198852kg
Jim Haines410none1975-197957kg
William Rosado410none1974-198148kg
Joe Corso310none1979-198457kg
Brad Penrith210none1989-199257kg
Tim Vanni900none1982-199548kg

We've arranged our constellation of worthies by medal count, although your (and our) exact order of greatness likey varies. 

As you can see from the numbers, Gilman is up there with the best in American history when it comes to making world and Olympic teams and coming home with hardware. 

Another quick note: although Tim Vanni never won a medal at Worlds, he is a three-time Pan-Am medalist. Not bad!

The Case For Gilman

Tougher Domestic Competition

You can call it recency bias if you like but the results speak for themselves: America is currently in the midst of the Golden Age of Freestyle Wrestling. Or maybe it is just A golden age if not THE golden age. Or perhaps it is the Platinum Age. In any event, American freestyle careers are more successful and longer-lasting than ever, creating greater domestic depth and tougher World and Olympic Team Trials brackets. 

Compounding that depth is the continuing diminishment of Olympic weight classes. From 1969 to 1996 there were two weight classes below 57kg (48 & 54kg). From 1997 to 2001 there were 54 & 58kg. From 2002 on, everyone who could have made teams at those weights would be up at 57kg (or 55kg from 2002 to 2013). 

Tougher International Competition

Two other factors have a major impact on the difficulty of winning international medals: an increased number of transfers and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

The latter event had the effect of creating 15 new national wrestling federations where before there was just the USSR. Not all 15 new countries were committed to fostering competitive freestyle wrestling programs, but many of them were and are! Russia is arguably just as competitive now as the Soviet Union once was, while Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus & Ukraine all have teams that have consistently earned medals at world championships and Olympic Games. 

The Soviet Union also did not allow their wrestlers the freedom to transfer to other nations, a practice much more common in recent decades. While Soviet (and Cuban) defections were rare, now there are dozens of medalists and contenders at every major event that were originally from other countries, typically Russia but also Cuba, Georgia and increasingly the USA. 

For example, at the Tokyo Games, of the 16 wrestlers who qualified to compete in the Paris Olympics in men's freestyle at 57kg, six were from former Soviet Republics, while five were transfers. Programs such as Serbia (with Abakarov, from Russia), and Serbia (with Micic, from the USA), have Olympic medal contenders where in the past they barely had a presence in international wrestling. All of this makes it objectively more difficult to win medals in today's environment than in the past, which makes Gilman's medal count all the more impressive. 

The Geopolitical Factor

Additionally, there is a case to be made that the country of Russia was going through a devastating depression in the 1990s that negatively affected all aspects of their society, including their ability to field a competitive freestyle wrestling team. That take requires a little more finesse and geopolitical nuance so your mileage may vary with that one. 

We could also run more numbers for Gilman (he has a U20 world silver, two Pan-Am golds, and a bunch of quality wins from other tournaments and competitions), however, the supremacy of World Championships and the Olympic Games moots almost any comparisons with other wrestlers.

Cases For Other Wrestlers

The Great Rick Sanders

Whatever can be said for the different competitive environments of decades past, Hall of Famer Rick Sanders still has the medal count in his favor. He's the only American lightweight with two Olympic medals, and the only American lightweight with five total world and Olympic medals. 

Additionally, Sanders' career was tragically cut short when he died in a car accident in 1972 at the age of 27. With his dominant track record domestically and his knack for finding the podium in major international tournaments, Sanders could have realistically doubled his career medal count. 

The Inimitable Terry Brands

There is a case to be made for Terry Brands for being the only American lightweight freestyler to win two world championships, which he did in 1993 and 1995. Brands also had to contend with fierce domestic competition, in particular Kendall Cross, who famously won the Olympic Team Trials in 1996 and would later win Gold at the Atlanta Games. 

The Olympic Gold Medal Factor

There is also the pinnacle, Olympic Gold, which has only been won by the aforementioned Cross, Henry Cejudo, and Bobby Weaver. Cejudo does not get credit for his distinguished MMA career (at least in this conversation), but won an inarguably more prestigious accolade than Gilman.

The Difficulty Of Comparing Eras

One could also argue that Gilman benefits from the current environment. Wrestlers' careers in the past wouldn't typically last longer than a single 'quad' or Olympic cycle. After their solitary crack at the Olympics, wrestlers would, usually for financial reasons, retire from competition and choose a new career, often coaching. 

Gilman benefited from the system of Regional Training Centers established after the 2008 Olympics which has provided countless wrestlers the support and resources necessary to sustain a career for multiple cycles. There is a flip side to this, in that longer careers would make for greater domestic competition, however, the lack of financial resources available to wrestlers in the past cut many great careers short, which would naturally negatively affect their medal count.  

The Debate Rages On

Nothing will be settled with a single blog post, no matter how persuasive an argument can be found therein. 

Gilman has had to contend with incredible depth both domestically and internationally. He's had world medalists Daton Fix and Vito Arujau in his Team USA Qualifier brackets, and Nurislam Sanayev and Zelimkhan Abakarov, who he wouldn't see in the bracket in the old Soviet System, in his international championship brackets.

But Gilman also had the current American System supporting him, with the full force of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club and later the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, arguably the two most powerful freestyle wrestling clubs in the country, behind him, providing opportunities that would be unimaginable in previous ages. 

And so the debate rages on. The medals counts are what they are. The environments in which the medals were won are where subjective consideration comes into play.  

Don't expect anything conclusive in this particular GOAT debate. But it's the comparison of eras and accomplishments that makes it fun. The real prize is the conversation itself. Much like the wrestling careers under review and life itself, it's not the destination but the journey! Enjoy it!