Interviews

The Fire Still Burns: Wrestling Life According to Joe Betterman

Wrestling Life according to Joe Betterman

Out in Colorado is a staff sergeant in the US National Guard who lives a semi-normal life. He goes to work, commutes through traffic, and then comes home to see his family. Most of his daily struggles might be similar to yours. There is feeding the kids, getting everything all set for the next day, and somehow trying to find time to spend with your spouse. It all happens in a blur, each day full of moments you desperately wish you could cling to only to realize they are as fleeting as the cool mountain breeze. 

For Joe Betterman, his life up to this point has been well-documented. Not too long ago, Betterman was considered to be one of the top Greco Roman wrestlers in the country. Multiple World Teams and a decade of dominance will do that to a reputation. But nestled in there have been some devastating setbacks, disappointments so crushing they hang on like anchors dragging you back down to the valley you had just climbed out of. We’ve all seen it. It happens to all of us. But when you’re Joe Betterman, more people tend to take notice. 

Today, Betterman is coming ever closer to being whole again. He is the owner of an emerging venture, the Betterman Elite Wrestling program, which has three locations. He has the best support system an athlete could hope for in the form of his wife, fellow former National Team member Deanna Rix. Together they have two beautiful kids and a lifestyle fitting for a pair of athletes who still know how to dial things up a notch. But that’s the thing: Betterman hasn’t flipped his “off” switch just yet. If anything, he sounds like the same ferocious competitor who came of age years ago. Betterman is confident, truthful, and most of all, passionate. His is one fire that continues to burn brightly. 

5PM Interview with Joe Betterman

5PM: How has fatherhood changed your perspective on being an athlete?

Joe Betterman: That probably goes with my retirement, you know? One of the reasons I stopped wrestling and why I didn’t wrestle at the Olympic Trials this year was because of being a father. The injuries were so severe, but I could still wrestle. I still wrestle in the room once in awhile and I can still beat these guys. But am I going to be able to do that from an Olympic standpoint without injuring myself any further to where I couldn’t enjoy my children or my children couldn’t enjoy me? I mean, fatherhood has changed my whole lifestyle in wrestling.

Before, I was really selfish with wrestling. It was always wrestling, wrestling, wrestling. It came before everything. Before my family, my friends, everything. And then once I became a father, my kids became everything to me. If something happens with one of my kids and I might have to miss practice because they got sick? Then I’m probably going to miss practice to take care of my kid or take him to the hospital. I’m a father first and I guess now, I’m a wrestler second.

5PM: How long has it been now since you stepped on a mat competitively? A year and change at this point?

JB: I got hurt in 2014. That’s when I blew my neck out. I almost got paralyzed down my left arm. So I had surgery and I was going to hang up the boots then. I saw the surgeon and he said, “I could do the surgery and you could be back within a year.” I was like, Okay, awesome, let’s do it. They did the surgery, I took almost a year off, I trained for three weeks before my last Open in 2015. I went up to 66 (kg) and I wound up taking fourth. I lost in the semis, I was up 2-0 against (Alejandro) Sancho and lost in the last minute. I had only trained for three weeks, and then I got hurt that summer. I was still training after the Trials, you know, still getting ready for the Olympic year. They said it was going to take time to get back to my 100% and then I ended up getting six bulging discs in my lower spine during practice. I had to hang it up then and there because if I were to mess around with my lower back, it’s a little worse than messing around with my neck. I was a little worried about getting paralyzed from my back and not being able to be a good father down the road and be able spend that special time with my kids, whether it be coaching my son and my daughter, and I didn’t want to give that up. So I decided to hang up my boots. I didn’t get to put my shoes on the mat and formally do it, but I decided I had given enough to the sport and it was time to take the coaching role.

5PM: Do you miss it badly?

JB: I had some moments in my career. Being at the Olympics in 2008 and not being able to compete, that really hurt. That was emotionally wrecking. This  year was really hard for me being at the Trials and keeping that poker face for my wife because she was competing. So I wanted it to be that I was 100% there for her. But at the same time, it was so hard for me to be there and watch all my friends compete and know that I could have possibly made the Olympic Team at a number of weight classes. If I had lost weight and went back down to 59 kilos I had a good shot at making the Olympic Team. Or even building up and like last year, staying at 66, I had a good shot at making the team. It would have still been a tough route at 66, but I think I had a shot. I think I had a really good shot. That was rough for me.

5PM: But was it the Trials specifically, because you were there? Or have you seen results from other competitions like last year’s Open and thought, Hey, I could have won that?

JB: (Laughs) Yeah, you know results and I’m sure wrestlers do it all the time and sometimes it’s realistic like, I could have won that, or unrealistic and wrestlers just talking the talk. But you see results all year and yeah, I could have won a lot of events. I’m saying competitively, yeah I could have. But could my body have held up in training? Probably not. If there was a miracle surgery out there I’d probably be on the mat right now. But it was an accumulation of not just the Trials, but knowing in my heart that I could have been a top guy this year, even after taking a year off and going up a weight class and finishing in the top four while only training for three weeks. I kind of know myself when it comes to wrestling, so I guess that is where it was hard. Knowing that I could have still been able to compete at that level.

5PM: What have you learned in your last few years of competition that you wish you had known earlier?

JB: I guess I learned some patience with competing. You’re not going to win every match. But if you take the losses a certain way, I’m not saying to accept losing, but losing a certain way is part of the process that builds champions. If you lose, you can learn from something. If you win, it’s great, it’s all gravy, but you have to lose occasionally to get better and work on your mistakes. Because when you lose, that means your opponent figured out your faults and gave you something to work on. I think the problem was when I was a little younger if I lost, I looked at it all the time. I’d get pissed. I’d get pissed at the ref, I’d get pissed at everybody else. But the great thing about the sport of wrestling is if you lose, most likely it’s going to be your fault. Occasionally the referee gets involved, but you should never let it get to that. I just learned patience. Momir (Petković) said something to me when I first moved out here. He would tell me to “be at peace.” To relax when I wrestle, to not panic and things like that. It’s not the end of the world when you lose. It’s just that losing helps you get better. I think that is what I learned in this last little bit of my career that would have helped me along the way if I hadn’t been so stubborn earlier on.

Betterman and close friend Spenser Mango (John Sachs/Tech-Fall.com

Betterman and close friend Spenser Mango (John Sachs/Tech-Fall.com)

5PM: People say that a lot, how losing stimulates improvement. But you have a virtual Hall of Fame resume, so you have to be able to learn things from your wins, right?

JB: Oh, of course. Even when you win, you might not get that tech fall every time or that pin. Or maybe it was easy. But you’re going to have to change your game. Even when I was winning, I had to change things around. When you wrestle someone like (Spenser) Mango. I think we wrestled each other eleven times in our career, me and Spenser. Even though I beat Spenser so many times (laughs), that last time he had finally beat me I had to keep changing my technique throughout the year in order to keep beating him. If I would have kept doing the same shit, then I was going to lose. He would have caught up to me quicker. I had to keep changing and changing. That goes with everyone, especially in the US. Or even internationally. There’s guys like the Cuban who won the Worlds in 2015 (Ismael Borrero Molina), I beat that guy twice and he beat me once. I beat him twice in a row, but the third time he beat me was at the Pan Ams and I might have gotten a little too comfortable with the way I was beating him. He ended up changing his style. And that’s a great thing about wrestling, you know, it’s almost like being a spartan warrior, being a gladiator. That’s how I think of it. Whoever has the best technique or whoever can adapt the most. I beat the guy twice in a row and he was able to beat me the third time because he was able to adapt. Winning helps. I think losing helps the most, but when you win you still have to keep getting better. You can’t become content.

5PM: You see, this is what I want to know. You mentioned Spenser, you two wrestled each other a bunch of times. What is it like training with someone on a daily basis and then every so often competing against them? Forget your personal relationship, you know each other so well in an athletic context.

JB: I guess you could use Spenser, or Ellis for example, any of those guys. Even some who weren’t the top guys. I know when I was coming up some of the number one guys didn’t like wrestling the two’s and three’s because they didn’t want them to catch up or learn their stuff. But for me when I was training, it didn’t matter if they were friends or not. I would always use everything in the toolbox. I didn’t really hold back too much. I would try to kill people, even in practice, and use all my technique. And if they figure it out, fine, I have to add to my toolbox. So it wasn’t too big of a difference competing with them and training with them because I didn’t hide anything. Opposed to other wrestlers, like when I when I was coming up with (Lindsey) Durlacher. I was chasing Lindsey for years. And I would come into the wrestling room at the OTC for a camp and he would tell me No all the time. I would get all frustrated until Ivan (Ivanov) eventually told me to call him out. I started calling him out in front of Steve Fraser and he still wouldn’t wrestle me. So I’d say, “Fraser, what, you got a bunch of pansies here?” (Laughs) I’d just start talking shit to make the coaches get all pissed and make him wrestle me. I wasn’t number one then, but when I became number one I never hid from guys. I showed them exactly what I have. Marco Lara, he’s a good friend of mine. I would teach him technique and we were in the same weight class. If he was doing something wrong I’d tell him, “No, this is what you’ve got to do.” If a kid like that beat me or Spenser, I know he worked just as hard as me. I’d be upset, but also happy for them because they won. But if a guy like “Joe Schmo” beat me on some bullshit or some kid who didn’t work hard? Then I’d be upset in that instance.

5PM: Jim Gruenwald was a coach of yours but then all of the sudden, became your competitor. What was that like for you?

JB: I think he came up in 2006 for his first year coaching. He said, “Hey Joe, I am going to help you win your medal.” I was like, Hell yeah, super, he’s going to help me win more medals. I was super-excited. After the Worlds in 2007 when I got thrown onto the team, I was home after taking two weeks off. I’m in Chicago and I get a phone call and they were like, “Gruenwald’s coming back, he’s already training…” Blah, blah, blah. So instead of saying Whatever, I hopped in a car and drove back to Michigan and started training. Then I ended up whupping his ass at Sunkist. We got into a fight right before the Sunkist tournament, like a week before, because he wanted to keep going and I was beating him. He wanted to go past the time, past the clock, and then I started laughing at him every time I took him down. So he kept getting even more pissed. He’s a real religious guy, so when he was getting mad he didn’t want to start swearing (laughs). He was saying, “Get back over here, I’m gonna beat your ass right now! You’re lucky I’m the coach!” But you know, I still have a lot of respect for Gruenwald, he paved the way for all of the young wrestlers back then and he was a great competitor. At the same time, he did me a little bit dirty when he decided to come back and not uphold his end of the bargain when he said he was going to help me win medals.

Joe Betterman lifting Gruenwald

Betterman throws Garrison (John Sachs/Tech-Fall.com)

5PM: Was it awkward having to wrestle him?

Joe Betterman: It was awkward. I think I was more on-nerve because I was younger and like, I want to mess this guy up for even thinking he can come back. I tech-falled him at Sunkist and then the next six months after that he really studied me. Spenser was telling me too, he would tell me, “Hey, Gruenwald is trying to get us to stay after practice with him to go over your reverse lift.” He was also watching videos on stops. And then I’d be in practice and he would ask me to teach my reverse lift to the younger guys coming in. He’d ask me to show them. Of course, I’ll teach it. But then he would ask, “But how do you defend it?” What? So he was picking me apart in practice. It was hard there, you know? I don’t really blame him for that. I feel like where I am at in my career now and being done but still having that urge to come back and wrestle, I wouldn’t tell a kid I’m going to help him win medals as a coach. But I know the feeling where he was and still wanting to come back because he never got to the goals he wanted to. Now I’m at the same place in my career where he was then. So he was smart by picking me apart. He wound up beating me in a very unorthodox way at the Nationals. He wrestled so differently than he ever wrestled. I wasn’t ready for that. I thought I was just going to walk through him. But shit happens and I lost, and I learned from that loss.

I’m not really upset with him. I was upset at the time. Now I’m not because it is what it is and it happens. Shit happened and it’s over with. But I’ll never forget that in my whole career that it happened. I’ll never forget for the rest of my life that it happened. Not to say that I would have won a medal had he coached me, but obviously, he probably gave me some mental stress I didn’t need back then. But God has his plans and that was one of the plans He gave me, to see if it was going to make me or break me.

5PM: So why not flip roles? Let’s say you’re in that same position today coaching Senior athletes. How would you approach that if you were thinking of coming back? How are you handling your relationships with the wrestlers in your weight?

JB: You know, I would probably give my wrestlers the benefit of the doubt and talk to them. I would say, Hey, this is what I’m thinking guys. I’m thinking I want to come back and compete with you. I still have that drive and haven’t reached the goals I wanted. I still want to give it one last shot and still help you guys. Iron sharpens iron. But I’m letting you know up front I’m planning on competing. That’s what I would say. That is a courtesy. If I had a wrestler I was really close with, I’d want to see what they’re thinking, how they react. If they were like, Hell yeah coach, let’s do it, let’s see who wins, then that would be awesome. But if they’re pretty pissed off about it, then I might second-guess what I’m doing. Then I might change my tone. But at the same time, I really got to have that closeness with that guy. Still, it doesn’t matter if I was close with the wrestler I was coaching or just part of the coaching staff and I wasn’t close with him, I’d still give the benefit of the doubt and tell them this is what I’m thinking of doing. I think that is just common courtesy.

And it’s happened to me twice. The same thing happened to me in 2011 with Dennis Hall. That wasn’t as big of a deal at the time, but it is what it is. Shit happens and you deal with it. But I understood Dennis’s side too, because his kids were old enough and he wanted them to see him compete at the 2012 Trials.

5PM: When you look at the sport now, you’re not too far removed from it, after all. But when you look at it, the way it is wrestled, the way it is officiated, the stylistic differences in place now as opposed to when you were coming up a over a decade ago, what is the first thing you notice?

JB: When I look at Greco, for example, or the sport of wrestling as a whole?

5PM: No, just Greco.

JB: If this is the first time I’m looking at Greco or looking at the Olympic level? I mean, I guess I could use my experience, too. I don’t know, I’m happy with the sport because it really works for me towards my career. But you don’t like to see it in the referee’s hands, either, and that still happens. It doesn’t matter what you are going to do, the shit is going to happen regardless, as long as there is a referee in charge. That’s one thing I see from the go. No matter the rule changes you’ve seen in the past. When we had the damn ball draw, the refs were cheating with the ball. When you had the coin flip, they were cheating with the coin. There was one ref who got caught with a weighted coin. The same thing with the ball draw, it happens. There’s always going to be that.

Spenser and I were talking last night about our match when we went 1-1 or when he beat me the last time, we were saying how we wished they would let the rules go back to how it used to be, like how Dennis Hall and Brandon Paulson had to wrestle for 17 minutes until someone scored. Could you imagine that? If they would do something like that, it would be amazing. The other thing I see with the sport and again, I was talking with Mango last night about it, we were doing the math and he was telling me about us having six Olympic weights, but we do two thirds. If we took away that second third and only did one third, did you know we’d get two more Olympic weights? Each style? There would be eight Olympic weights each style.

5PM: Nope, never even considered that but it makes sense numbers-wise.

JB: All we would have to do is do away with the second third.

5PM: Interesting…

JB: Think about it. There’s six weights and six extra medals because of the second third. You’re screwing two weight classes. And that’s the IOC, that is their whole deal, they don’t want to give away more Olympic medals. If we went back to how it was when I was younger, we’d have more weights.

But wrestling is getting better, the UWW is getting better. At the same time, there’s room for improvement. Matches are in the ref’s hands a lot of the time. That happens still. And also, I don’t know why Spenser Mango, some other guys, and myself came up with that idea about the weights. Why aren’t we doing that? How come someone at UWW hasn’t thought of that?

5PM: What in your estimation is it going to take to get the US to improve its standing globally when it comes to Greco, to be a top power?

JB: Well, in a perfect world we would have the Olympic styles in high school and in youth wrestling all the time. In a perfect world, we’ do away with folkstyle. That is in a 100% perfect world. Then our country in all styles would get so much better. But that’s not going to happen. What we could do is obviously is extend the Greco and freestyle seasons for the kids because right now, it’s a two-month season and that’s it practically for the summer. Being a youth-level coach, it’s over. It’s already done. We had states a few weeks ago and I’m also running practices. I don’t know, it’s just hard. To be honest with you, we have to start pulling away from folkstyle. Let’s say they did two seasons in high school. High school is eight months long or whatever it is. The Winter season could be freestyle and the Spring season could be Greco.

5PM: Ha, I haven’t heard that take before. Two seasons, that would be incredible.

JB: Yeah. You could start, realistically, when football season does. That’s obviously a fall sport. We could start wrestling then, but they don’t like to do that because wrestling and football, they want to get the football players. But you could start freestyle then, come around to January the season would end, and then start your Greco season. You’d have kids wrestling six months out of the year in the international styles and they are treating that as a state championship and things like that. Not only could you be a freestyle state champion but you could be a Greco Roman state champion, as well. Real state champions. Everyone knows that Greco and freestyle states now aren’t the real deal. When I won as a freshman in high school there was no one in my weight class. I just showed up at 83 and a half pounds as a Cadet. I was there.

I don’t know, there are a lot of things we could do there, but I just think if we put it in high school sports it will trickle down into our youth. Can you imagine a kid training Greco four months in high school, just for the season? That’s their season. And then training freestyle four months out of the year? Can you imagine what kind of athletes this country would produce when it is time to go to the Olympic level and they’re doing the same thing in college they did throughout their youth?

5PM: Right, well college is a big problem in and of itself in this regard, is that right?

Joe Betterman: Yep. One of the things that happens in college also is the wear and tear. Kids get used and abused and after four years, it’s, Good luck. Some of them have time to wrestle freestyle, but most of them don’t. None of them wrestle Greco because the coaches deter them from doing so even if they were Greco Roman national champs in Fargo.

5PM: That’s another point I haven’t heard discussed before. Usually when it comes to college’s influence on the international styles it’s from a technical aspect. But you just intimated that college wrestling beats you up.

JB: Yeah it does, it definitely does.

5PM: Then how about it. What do you think is going well with US Greco Roman wrestling and what do you think needs to be improved with US Greco Roman wrestling?

JB: I don’t know man, a ton. We’ve got to get these kids interested at a youth level. My kids who are youth level, if you go up to any one of them and ask, Would you rather wrestle folkstyle or Greco?, they’re all going to say Greco. I have kids in high school pleading with me, saying, “Coach, I don’t want to wrestle the folkstyle season, I just want to train Greco year-round.” And I have them wrestle the folkstyle season just to get competition in and to get matches in, to keep that drive throughout the year competing. But part of me wants to say, Let’s just do it, let’s train straight Greco. I’ll get you matches overseas against international competition. We need to get our youth programs more developed in Greco. And honestly, we need someone like Ivan developing our young wrestlers we recruit out of high school and college because I’ve never seen a better foundation from a coach that was built. Now I don’t know if there is someone you can name, but Ivan is probably the best coach I’ve ever seen from a longevity standpoint where the kids not only succeed in the US, but also internationally.

5PM: Let’s talk about Betterman Elite Wrestling. You haven’t been retired very long and then boom, there you were with your own school and it’s already pretty established. What was the motivation behind starting your own thing?

JB: Ah, you know, I had been coaching for some years just here and there, whether it would be for Fargo where I coached Team Ohio twice, or the Utah kids. And they had some success. Then when I moved out here, people started wanting private lessons. I was reffing on the weekends in this youth league to make a little extra money. They’d pay a couple OTC wrestlers or whomever $75 to ref some matches on a Saturday. So once I started doing that, people would come up and ask if I did private lessons. I would always say, “Sure, I do private lessons.” So I started having success doing that.

A club approached me about doing freestyle and Greco. They were like, “We don’t know a lot about these styles, can you run a club doing this?” I said, “Yeah, of course I’ll do that.” I just wanted to run it under my name and my brand, and they agreed. They wound up not sending me too many kids, but I ended up with kids who trickled in from different areas. The parents were so enthused over the type of practices that I run and the quality, so they brought up the idea of me running a folkstyle club, also. I was like, You know what? I should. So I started doing that as well, running a folkstyle club. And it has just taken off. I started with six kids in folkstyle and now I have, between the three clubs that wrestle in the youth league, about 50 kids. I also have high school kids who I train, another 20 to 25 throughout the year, and then the kids who do freestyle and Greco with us from other places. So all in all, we have about 100 kids total throughout the whole year between camps, clinics, and everything else.

I tell these kids every time at the beginning of the year when I have meetings with them before the middle of the season to not be bullshitting. Because like I said, I don’t deal with the administrative stuff when I’m coaching. I used to sugarcoat it my first season and I didn’t feel that was very effective. So if a kid was bullshitting, I’d say, Oh, you’re doing good, you’re doing great, being all nice and soft. Now I’ll tell the kid straight up to his face, I don’t care if he’s ten years old, that he’s bullshitting because I know the quality he’s given me before.

And not one parent ever says anything to me because what I’ll tell them is, “Listen, I don’t care if he wins states, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t care if he wins states in high school, I don’t care if he wins states at the youth level, I could give a shit less. I am trying to build your kid to be a World Team member, Cadet, Junior, University, Senior World Team member and an Olympic team member and Olympic medalist.” All the other shit I don’t care about. And the parents and the kids look at me like I’m crazy because obviously, the state tournaments are a big deal to them. But if you’re not training to accomplish what I just mentioned, then I’m not going to coach you. My goal, it might be a small thing, is to change youth wrestling in order to get us better at the Olympic level of wrestling. I’m trying to create a feeder system where Olympic team members come from my program because of the base that I gave them, like Ivan gave me. That’s really the reason why I’m doing this.

At first I did it to supplement my income. It was awesome. Make a little extra money for the family, and I do make good money with this. But my goal is to change America’s wrestling. To make it where we have more quality at the Olympic level rather than throwing kids at the wall and seeing who sticks. I want to make it like Ivan’s program. I kind of based it off the Northern Michigan program when Ivan was there.

The Betterman family

The Betterman family

5PM: Right now, you have three locations. Is this something you plan on building even more to where you have franchises or something like that?

JB: I’ve had business ideas, yeah. One of the goals is to put six clubs in Colorado, but six clubs of only 10 to 15 kids. You know, I’m not going for huge numbers, I’m going for quality. Right now, it’s three and I’m looking to put one more in for next year. The other is to build a youth regional training center. That is actually my ultimate goal. That is what I want to do by far. We have an Olympic Training Center here in Colorado. And Colorado has just started to tap into the Olympic athletes, but I don’t know why they haven’t been doing it more for the last 15 years. But they are starting to. You have all of these quality athletes here, you better start using them to build up your youth and your state. But I want to build a youth regional training center to train these kids for the Olympics. To get them ready at a young age. There are other clubs here that train their kids twice a day, make them do home schooling and shit like that. My kids train three times a week right now. My high school kids go five times a week. But they are not training ten times a week, they aren’t college athletes, they’re not doing two-a-day’s. Maybe during a camp, that’s one thing. But to do that throughout the year, you’re going to burn out the kid.

I’m looking to do something where it’s serious training, but they are having fun and I’m not overbearing. Kids still got to be kids. I don’t want to turn them into robots. I’m not overseas. I’m not in some Eastern Bloc country demanding, You will be a wrestler. I’m trying to train these kids to enjoy the sport, as I do, and to be successful at it and have fun.

5PM: It sounds ambitious, but it doesn’t sound like you are too far away from it.

Joe Betterman: We’ve been pushing for this gym. People have asked, “Why don’t you just rent a building out?” Well, hey, that’s a good idea but why am I going to pay someone else’s rent? My goal is to fund my own building and I have talked to some people, some in the wrestling community who are very successful financially. But I don’t want to ask for money. I like doing everything on my own by myself. Right now we’re LLC, but I might move it to a non-profit so that we can get that kind of grant money for an entire building. But the goal is to build this facility so not only will we be running the club, but camps and clinics and so on. And at the same time, we’re paying kids, these young wrestlers from the OTC who are making nothing. I can pay them a couple hundred dollars a week to come in and not just coach, but also be counselors. They can give their knowledge to the kids, as well. They might not have the wealth of knowledge Spenser, myself, or one of these other wrestlers have yet, but they can get it. Because when you coach, you wind up learning the technique even better than before just doing it. When I got my arm throw down from Ivan, I thought it was great. But when I started coaching the arm throw, I started seeing little things about it that Ivan didn’t verbally tell me, he was showing me, but now I was picking it up easier. I think with the Olympic guys, these young kids, they will be able to strengthen their wrestling technique and ability from coaching and I can help fund that for them. Hopefully be a sponsor down the road, too, that would be awesome. Maybe I’ll have to win the Powerball (laughs).

5PM: Do you feel pressure or a responsibility with the Betterman Elite Wrestling school? Because it has your name on it, it’s not like you’re working at a training center. So do you feel a different level of responsibility in that regard?

JB: I feel very responsible in that regard. You’re going to have some kids get emotional on the mat, maybe they came from another club, which is fine and there might be a few bad habits, but one of the habits I hate is when a kid throws a fit. I’ve done it in the past. And I see past it now that I’m older. But when they have a fit and start throwing their headgear or are disrespectful, I don’t play any games with that. That’s crap and that’s unsportsmanlike. I feel very responsible with it being my name on the club for these kids to not only be great wrestlers, but also to have that sportsmanship so I can teach them how to be young men and women. To be respectful citizens in our community. I don’t want them to be little punks and run around with an attitude of being disrespectful. I want people who see a wrestler from our club to say, That’s a good kid, he has respect, he’s awesome. I want good things said about us, I don’t want crap said about us. I try to keep it like that.

5PM: Getting back to you wrestling, I am going to hit you right away – was not qualifying in 2008 the biggest disappointment of your career?

JB: I’d probably have to say that it was. Was it the biggest? It might not be the exact biggest. 2012 is right up there. In 2007, Joe Warren was a returning World Champion and then I got on the World Team. He had his situation and then I was thrown in at the last minute and went to the Worlds. That was a little stressful. And then coming around to my first qualifier at the Pan Ams, I got injured a week prior and competed with a cortisone shot. I had (Roberto) Monzon from Cuba in the semifinals and it wasn’t top two back then, it was only first. So I missed that shot. Then I went to Serbia and missed qualifying by a round.

So I mean, it was hard. I think the hardest thing for me was going to the Olympics and hoping I’m getting a wildcard. And then that whole thing about how even though you went to the Olympics you’re not an Olympian. You have to stay in the training facility with the training partners, you don’t get to stay in the Olympic Village. You get to see the village once when all the training partners go, you visit that one time. But you don’t get to walk in the Opening Ceremonies and you don’t get any of the gear. You don’t feel like an Olympian or that you made an Olympic team. That was really hard for me. I remember being there watching the parade with all the countries in the beginning outside of Beijing where all the training partners were staying. That was heartbreaking. It was rough. I got a pair of Olympic singlets and they wound up being female singlets for the women’s team. They had a little bra on the inside. I actually wore those for about two years just to remind myself that I didn’t qualify the weight. I would train in them, practice in them, just to remind myself. People would ask why I’m wearing it and I would tell them, “Well, I didn’t qualify the weight so I got women’s singlets.” But yeah, that was heartbreaking.

Betterman 2008 Olympic Team picture

Betterman (second from left) with the 2008 US Olympic Team.

5PM: I didn’t want to bring that up, but I felt I had to since you made the trip.

JB: I made the trip and the only reason why I did was because of our team leader, John Bardis. And Bardis was by far one of the best team leaders I’ve ever seen from the Greco standpoint for our country. He really cared about the athletes, sat in the sauna with us, cut weight with us. If we had .5 to go and we were struggling, he’d be in there, massaging us and spending that whole time with us in there. He wouldn’t get out for two minutes. If we were in there for 30 minutes, he was in there for 30 minutes. He was a great team leader and he was the only reason I went to the Olympics. My trip wasn’t going to get paid for because of the whole deal of me not qualifying the weight or whatever. USA Wrestling told me they weren’t paying for my trip. I kept asking, “I need to know if I’m going to the Olympics or not, otherwise I’m going to do camps or something this summer.” And we were going back and forth. John was CC’ed on all of the emails. He called them and said, “He made the Olympic Team. He’s part of the team.” So they asked if he was going to pay for my trip and he said, “Yeah, I will pay for his trip.” There’s a little more to that story, but that is how it went down. I wouldn’t have gotten to go if it wasn’t for Bardis. They weren’t going to pay for me hoping on a wildcard.

5PM: Okay, so here it is: Do you consider winning the Olympic Trials making the team?

JB: I made the team, I’m not an Olympian, if you want to look at it that way. Yes, I made the Olympic Team, I won the Trials. All the other top guys, they stayed in their weight class. In fact, you had other guys cutting down a weight class. For what reason, I don’t know. Why didn’t all these guys change their weight class to try and get that opportunity? But I believe I made the team. Do I believe I’m an Olympian? No. I’m not going to say that I’m an Olympian because according to the IOC and all of those rules, I’m not one. But did I make the Olympic Team in 2008? Yes. Did I compete in the Olympics? No.

But I mean, it’s pretty cut and dry but there is a grey area because some people see it differently. Some people get upset even if you say you made an Olympic Team. Well, I made the team, I won the Trials. I just didn’t get to compete. It’s hard to explain that to people. I’ll meet someone at a kids tournament or on the street or something, and they’ll start talking about wrestling and inevitably it’s, “You went to the Olympics in 2008?” It’s like, Yeah, I went to the Olympics, but I didn’t compete. And then I’m forced to explain how I’m not an Olympian. I was the Olympic Trials Champion or I could say I was an Olympic Team member but that, that’s a hard one.

5PM: Was there ever a foreign wrestler you considered to be kind of like, your rival? I guess it would mean tabulating how many times you wrestled someone, where you did, and so forth.

Joe Betterman: Hmmm. Man, that’s interesting. There are a lot of rivals, I guess you could say. A couple of guys we went back and forth, a couple of guys I beat a lot. Is there someone I consistently saw? It was normal, I guess. Some years it was always the same guys, but they weren’t necessarily my rivals. It’s not like I’ve had a ten-match series when it comes to the overseas guys, you know? Probably not. There were a couple good guys, like Stig Andre Berg from Norway. We went at it a couple of times, I beat him, he beat me. There’s multiple Cubans I went back and forth with. The guy who just won the World Championships last year, Ismael Borrero Molina, I beat him a couple of times, he only beat me once. Davor Stefanek from Serbia, me and him are 1-1 against each other. The Romanian, Eusebiu Diaconu, he’s been retired for a few years now. He was a multiple-time World medalist. We had a couple exchanges. I think I beat him once and he beat me twice. I had tough matches overseas with all these different guys. I could keep naming them on and on and on, all these different countries. Bulgaria had Armen Nazaryan, which I was kind of coming up at the end of his career and we didn’t meet in competition, more it was just training. You also had in Bulgaria Ivo Angelov, I beat Ivo twice, he never beat me. He’s a World Champion. Kazakhstan’s Almat, he wasn’t really a rival, but he’s the one who blew my knee out. Just tons and tons of good wrestlers. Omid Noroozi from Iran, just all of them. All of them were my rivals. Hey, there were five or six Russians and I can’t even name them (laughs). You have five or six, or even eight Russians who would be the number one guys in another country.

Betterman and Barrero

Betterman battles Molina.

5PM: On the flipside, who would you consider your domestic rivals?

JB: Domestically? It depends because I’ve been around for so long it has changed through the years. Originally when I first came through it was Paulson or Hall. They were the top guys in my bracket. Lindsey, hell of a wrestler, he was my rival when I was at 55 kilos. I wrestled Durlacher a ton of times. And then I didn’t start beating him until later, not until like 2005, 2006, I beat him twice. Then I went up a weight class. I kind of got kicked in the head by the coaches, You’re starting to be the number one guy and now you’re leaving the weight class? Then you had Warren. Warren was a good rival of mine. Ellis Coleman in 2012, that was a huge rivalry. I beat him twice and then he beat me the last four times.

And obviously, Mango. When I was 55, we wrestled each other many, many times. I also wrestled him a few times at 60 kilos when he went up a weight class. And then at 59, we wrestled twice. I’ve had a lot of exchanges with Spenser, we wrestled a ton, like ten or eleven times. I don’t necessarily hone in one person and go, Oh, that’s my main guy. He was my nemesis. I don’t have that. There’s always going to be guys who beat you here and there. Jeremiah Davis was a rival for a little bit, too. Hell of an athlete, a Northern Michigan guy. But it just changes. My weight class was like that. 60 kilos is all little ninjas, we’re big enough and strong enough but we’re a bunch of little ninjas, and it changes all the time. To be consistent in that weight class is tough.

5PM: But you did it. And I knew there’d be a lot of names.

JB: Oh well, you got Warren, you got Gruenwald, Davis, Coleman, Coleman was a big one. And even Mango, throw Mango in there. And Durlacher was a huge one, too. You had Hall and Paulson earlier in my career. I wouldn’t say all those guys were rivals, some were guys I was trying to catch. They were the guys I looked up to who already had medals. So I don’t like to see them as rivals, more as…

5PM: Objectives?

JB: Objectives or steps in my career. They were puzzles early in my career I needed to at least try and solve in order to get better. They helped me sharpen my skills. I wasn’t trying to beat one guy, I was trying to beat them all. I didn’t even train to beat the guys in the US, I trained to beat the guys from other countries.

5PM: You spent a good portion of your career as a Senior athlete under the reverse-lift rules, the whole minute on the feet, 30 second par terre situation. And you had a sick reverse lift. Did you ever lift someone, throw them, and then all the sudden wonder, Jeeze, I hope he’s okay?

JB: Oh yeah, there were a couple. There was Venkov from Bulgaria, he was a 55 kilo guy. He was a good wrestler, but I powerbombed that kid, straight powerbombed him. It’s on my highlight video. After that one I was like, Damn… The other one was Diaconu, I spiked him and the ref was calling me on that because they thought I messed him up. There were a few good ones. And then when I started playing with the side lift, switching over to the reverse-lift in mid-air. I hit this one Japanese kid with it at the dual in New York. Do you remember when they started doing those duals before Beat the Streets?

5PM: Yep. There was also the one you guys had against Romania in New Jersey.

JB: I remember that, that was Diaconu. We practically got into a fist fight that night. He wound up going 66 in the tournament but they put him at 60 in the dual. So I cut for the dual and this guy wasn’t cutting at all. We got into a little head-butt thing, a couple exchanges with the fists. He ended up splitting his head open that match (laughs).

The year before I wrestled a Japanese kid in that dual and I hit the “Zero G.” Harry Lester and I were messing around with this move and you hit a side lift. But as you’re picking him up in a side lift, you turn your hands over and switch to a reverse lift. There’s a couple of guys I remember putting down hard. The reverse lift was real successful for me, but on my feet the arm throws were killing everybody.

5PM: Let’s talk about that for a second. You got in really deep with your arm throws but you had a couple of variations you’d go to. How did this develop into a signature move of yours?

JB: I started doing arm throws in high school. I learned them from this kid Jonathan Dangerfield, who was a judo national champ. I learned it from him and I just was dropping to my knees. I went up to college thinking I’m the shit because I’ve been arm throwing kids since high school and Ivan is telling me, “My grandmother can arm throw better than you.” So Ivan really gave me the fundamentals I needed for my arm throw to tighten that technique up. I remember watching Karam Gaber, he could arm throw people with his pinkie. He barely had any grip on anything, but he had such momentum. There’s no second-guessing when you do the arm throw. There’s no, I tried the arm throw and then I came back out because I stopped. You either arm-throw, or you don’t. So if you go for it, you have to go 100% to get that momentum. Because even if you just catch his pinkie nail, he could still get thrown.

That was the base of the technique for me. Ivan was just non-stop. I remember we were doing hundreds of throws a day. He’d be like, “Okay, chain throws.” And then there’d be 20 of us in a chain going through three or four times. I’m throwing 20 guys and then it was the other guy’s turn, and then the other guy’s turn. Same thing with those dummy throws, you know? I have to give credit for my arm throws to my coach Ivan Ivanov, who I still credit as being one of the best coaches in the world. If you look at the guys from that program, I believe we have four World medals and one Olympic medal. I think we have 13 World Team members and Olympians, something crazy like that. Just from that program.

Betterman arm-throw

There’s that arm throw.

5PM: It’s June 9th, 2016. You’re a 31 year-old father and husband. You’re a little over a year removed from your last competition and it’s been two years since 2014 when you got really injured. You have the wrestling school now and your occupation with the US Army National Guard. So I ask you, what are the odds we see Joe Betterman coming back?

JB: Oh man… I’ve been having these matches with myself over the last three months since the Olympic Trials. Do I come back? Do I get healthy this next year, get my body back in shape and go from there and try to take back over? You know, you got young kids now and they heal a lot faster. And who knows? Maybe I come back and get my ass whupped. And then I’ll have to sit down like, Hey old man, stay out of here. That’s how I would have did it when I was their age.

Possibly. I would say it’s not unlikely. It could happen. Obviously, I have to balance with the family and the kids. Competing takes a lot, you know. My wife, when I was competing, she was taking care of the kids and kind of took a backseat to me when it came to my being able to wrestle and her not being able to. I know she was heartbroken when she couldn’t compete in the 2012 Olympic Trials. And then this 2016 Trials, after having two kids, she didn’t really have a good run at it. So I’m trying to support her. But there is something I left out there. I feel like I still got it. If there comes a day when a kid is just destroying me, that would be when I hang it up and leave my shoes on the mat. I kind of informally announced I was retiring, like, I’m retired right now. But I never officially retired and said, Hey, this is it. I won’t be on the mat again. So we’ll see. We’ll see what the future holds. You never know.

5PM: Well you said the words “right now.” That suggests it’s subject to change.

Joe Betterman: It is subject to change. Like I said, the biggest thing for me is commitment. This is not a hobby. If I commit to something, it’s going to be for real. It’s not going to be half-way or part-time. I am going to have to really train. That weighs in on it and at the same time, trying to be there for my wife and my body with the injuries and things like that. So I’m looking into a few things with the injuries to see if there is another route. If there is another route, you never know. You might see me I wouldn’t say soon, but it would be within this next quad. You never know. Crazier things have happened. Had the Trials been how they were in the past and I would have been automatically qualified being a former World Team member and Olympic Trials champion, or whatever you want to say, then I would have been there. I would have went in there just to throw a wrench in the system. That’s just the way I am.

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