Gods of War: John Smith

When speaking of passionate, hard-nosed wrestlers John Smith must be mentioned. That toughness came from his childhood. Born in Del City, Oklahoma on August…

By: T.P. Grant | 11 years ago
Gods of War: John Smith
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

When speaking of passionate, hard-nosed wrestlers John Smith must be mentioned. That toughness came from his childhood. Born in Del City, Oklahoma on August 9, 1965 Smith was one of 10 children in his family. Wrestling was a way of life in his family and Smith started at the age of six. He lost his first five matches by pin and it infuriated him to lose.

Smith was an intense competitor and when there was no wrestling tournament he and his nine brothers and sisters hosted their own at home. Those sibling matches were intense affairs and produced a family of excellent wrestlers. John’s brother Mark would become an NCAA All-American, Pat Smith would become the first four-time NCAA Champion, and the oldest Lee Roy would become a silver medalist at World Championships.

These in-house affairs often came down to John and Lee Roy, seven years John’s elder. These matches were border line fist fights at times and John would normally walk away from them battered and bloodied. It created an enmity between the two brothers that would last years, but instilled that all important iron will into John.

He finished his high school career a two-time state champion and also took fourth at Junior Nationals and a silver medal at Junior Worlds. Coming to Oklahoma State, Smith looked like a monster that would storm college wrestling.

But then in 1983, his freshman year, Smith failed to place in the NCAA tournament. Then in his sophomore year, in Oklahoma City in front of his friends and family Smith made it to the finals and lost. Smith was livid with himself, taking the loss as a personal insult. Determined to become the best, Smith dedicated himself totally to the sport and pushed away anything that wasn’t directly involved with success on the mats. Friends, relationships, and vacations were all pushed to the side as Smith looked to achieve a single goal: never lose again.

Smith red-shirted his next year, taking a year off from collegiate competition, and won the 1986 U.S. National Freestyle Championship. He also took part in the 1986 Goodwill Games, an international competition thrown by Ted Turner in response to recent boycotts of Olympics by the Soviet Union and United States. While the Soviet Union dominated these games, Smith won gold at 62 kg, defeating the Soviet Union’s Khaser Isaev.

Smith was emerging as an exceptional wrestler, he was a fantastic athlete with an explosive shot and very technical wrestling. His best technique was actually a high crotch lift takedown, but wrestlers began adjusting to it by stepping back to prevent it. To counter this Smith developed his low single leg takedown and that would become synonymous with the name John Smith. Once on the ground Smith was well versed in rides and ground work making him a very complete wrestler.

Smith rolled into 1987 and won the Big Eight wrestling conference championship. Smith then won his first NCAA championship, and he was far from done that year. He went to the Pan American Games and won gold there, and then went to the FILA World Championships. Smith won his way to the finals and there faced Giovanni Schillaci, a three-time Olympian for Italy.

1987 Senior World Championships: 62 kg John Smith (USA) vs. Giovanni Schillaci (ITA)

In 1988, Smith again won the NCAA title, won a U.S. National Title, and went to the Olympic trials. There he faced Randy Lewis, the 1984 Olympic Champion who had defeated John’s brother Lee Roy at that cycle’s Olympic trials in a hotly contested, protest-ridden match.

In the preliminary round of the 1988 trials Lewis beat John, and that loss put Smith perilously close to elimination. Smith would get two more matches with Lewis, back against a wall, and win both times. So, Smith traveled to Seoul and during his time in the brackets he suffered several finger injuries, an abscessed ear that had to be drained multiple times, and a broken nose. Battered and bruised Smith took the center mat to face Stephan Sarkissian of the USSR for the gold medal.

John Smith vs Sarkissian (1988 Olympic Finals)

Quickly after winning his gold medal Smith rematched with Sarkissian at a World Cup and lost. The loss angered Smith and he refocused himself on the competition season and won the U.S. National Freestyle Championship. Smith traveled to the World Championships and would go on to win the gold against Canada’s Gary Bohay.

Then a match was arranged between Smith all-time wrestling great Sergei Beloglazov. A six-time World Champion out of the U.S.S.R., Beloglazov was aging but still extremely dangerous. It was one of amateur wrestling’s rare super-matches.

John Smith v. Sergei Beloglasov (via USAWrestling2008)

Smith would also win the world and national championships in 1990 and 1991. In 1992 Smith went to his second Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Smith was the favorite heading into these Summer Games, but he was shocked when in the final round of pools he was beaten by Cuban Lazaro Reinoso. The Cuban jumped and slapped the mat in joy and Smith endured the display in a silent fury. In Smith’s eyes he had just lost to a less dedicated wrestler, he didn’t mind as much losing to Russians who poured their heart and soul into the sport like he did, but this Cuban was largely unknown at the time, and it nearly cost Smith a shot at gold.

Both he and Reinoso only had one loss and it was a tie breaker that allowed Smith to advance to the final match, and forced Reinoso to wrestle for bronze.

In the finals Smith would face Iranian Askari Mohammadian.

John Smith 1992 Olympic Finals (via frontheadlock)

After winning his second gold medal, Smith had firmly established himself as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time and is without a doubt the best wrestler the United States has ever produced. He retired from wrestling and immediately transitioned to coaching, taking the job of head wrestling coach at his alma mater Oklahoma State for the 1992-1993 season.

His coaching career has been nearly as successful as his wrestling career. His OSU Cowboys have claimed five team national titles, a 328-47-6 overall team record, and have produced 95 All-Americans with 24 Individual National Champions. Smith has also been called upon to coach the U.S. National Team many times, including two Olympic teams.

A fantastic coach, as well as a wrestler, John Smith is a personification of the competitive fire and toughness need to succeed at the highest levels of the sport he loves.


Special Thanks to BE’s very own Coach Michael Riordan for helping me wade through the world of Cold War wrestling

For more on Smith here is a fantastic interview from 1992 with Gene Wojciechowsiki, then of the L.A. Times.

Share this story

About the author
Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories