It’s no secret — there’s a lot of dirty work involved in Greco-Roman wrestling. Each style has its own subset of either borderline or downright nefarious antics which take place in the midst of competition, but Greco differs due to one indisputable factor: the contact is constant. Participants are called upon to remain entangled at all times.
There is no distance, and as such, there is no “safe space”. Head-clashing is normal. Shouldering to the chin, whether inadvertently or purposely, is par for the course. Knee-checking, finger-twisting, and elbowing during the pummel are all similarly accepted occurrences one has to contend with on the tarp. Are they against the rules? Sure, and”accepted” does not necessarily translate to condoned behavior.
Almost unavoidably, lines sometimes get crossed. Because of course. You can’t have two top-level competitors who are willing to do whatever they can to win, and not have heated moments that bypass somewhat reasonable conduct, even if the offending party gets away with their transgressions. On the flipside, retribution is also available, though the risk in that undertaking might not be worth the reward.
Every Greco athlete worth their salt has encountered foul play at one time or another, and more than likely dished out some of their own. For the purpose of this article, we’re sticking more with the whole What happened to you? side of things, as opposed to the What have you done to others? end of the spectrum. Here is a collection of both current and retired athletes sharing their stories of what life looks like when an opponent goes below the belt (in some cases quite literally).
Joe Betterman (Multi-time World Team member, 2008 Olympic Trials Champion)
“Davor Stefanek (SRB), with the head-butting. We got into a fist-fight once during a match, he and I. It just started with a headbutt. He headbutted me, I did it back, he did it harder, and then I cocked my head all the way back and it turned into an all-out brawl.
“The same thing happened with (Eusebiu) Diaconu from Romania. The same thing happened, and this dude powerbombed me, spikes me, and then I turn around and powerbomb him, but they bring it back up and white-paddle it. Both of those guys, I won’t say they’re dirty wrestlers. I’m considered a dirty wrestler. My wife (Deanna) says that all the time, how, You’re a dirty wrestler, you’re teaching this and that. No, I’m trying to win. That’s part of the game, I’m using my body. I’m just trying to win.”
TC Dantzler (2008 Olympian, multi-time World Team member)
“I had a dude from France headbutt me and knock my front tooth backwards. I felt crumbs in my mouth. I took a break and spit pieces of my tooth out. And then he went right back to it again, another headbutt right to my mouth. He wound up getting a point; I wound up beating him by eight points. I went to Dr. Bernie Feldman afterwards and he pulled my tooth back straight. So I’m walking and he’s taking me back to see the endodontist. As I’m walking, this dude (the opponent) is in the stands laughing at me and pointing to his mouth. I took off up into the stands and proceeded to…(laughs). He never even got a chance to stand up.
“I’ve got something even better than that. When tech’s were 10 points and you could continue, I had a guy and I was beating him 8-0. I reverse-lifted him, dropped him on his head. And then I did it again, I reverse-lifted him, dropped him on his head — and he got up and punched me right in the ear. That’s why I have cauliflower on the right side. I felt my ear just go (makes swoosh sound). I felt it. So then the ref asks if I want to continue. I was like, Yup. I wasn’t going to give him the decency to get off this mat. I think I beat him like 27-0, just all arm drags and reverse lifts. I just spiked him.
“And that’s how I got this cauliflower on the right side. He punched me right in the ear. It wasn’t a club, he balled his fist up and as I took a step towards him, he just caught me solid. My ear felt like someone was pumping it up. You know what? My mom looked at my ear and just started crying. I walked off the mat, no eye contact, she just looked at my ear and her eyes got watery (laughs). But I won, I killed him. He was a first-round clown.”
Matt Ghaffari (1996 Olympic silver, two-time World silver, 1995 World bronze)
“If you were winning big, once people knew they couldn’t beat you with technique or points, they would try to injure you. The reason why I shaved my head is so people couldn’t pull my hair. The Cubans, the Russians, whomever, they would hook your hair and twist your neck, try to hurt your neck. The same old things, like if they try to hit a gutwrench they go too low. There are a lot of dirty ways.
“For me, I knew that once I got ahead in a match to try to protect myself. People always tried to hurt you or get you to fight with them, that way you’d get disqualified either due to injury or losing your cool. Because if you’re winning, the only way you could lose is if you punch the guy or you get hurt and can’t continue. This is not out of the ordinary; these are the things that would happen. I remember there was one guy from Turkey, he put animal fat on his skin in the sauna, rubbed it on. That way when he’d go on the mat, he was dry for the first minute after the ref patted him, but then he became so slippery that I had to dry my hands on the ref’s pants.
“Even my fingers. I taped my fingers to protect them. My high school coach told me once that an alleyway brawler will beat a technician, so you have to expect the unexpected.”
Jim Gruenwald (Two-time Olympian, 2002 World Cup gold)
“I’ve had people go to do a gutwrench and pull on my crotch, and then by the time you look up at the referee, Hey, he’s grabbing my balls, they’re turning you — and by the time they’re done turning you, their hands are back in a good gutwrench position. You just kind of learn that guys are going to do that and ignore it.
“I’ve had guys bite me in the neck, I’ve had guys thumb me in the eyeball. I got thumbed in the eyeball twice wrestling against a German guy. Actually, he was a Turk wrestling for Germany, and this was at the Pytlasinski Cup in ’97. I’ve had a lot of things to done to me and I don’t know if I have a worst one.
“I just knew that guys were cheaters. But — if they were cheating, it meant they didn’t have a whole lot left, so that to me was their breaking point. You ignored it and wrestled.
“I’ll tell you right now, the worst things that have ever been done to me in the sport were not the things I expected from other athletes who knew they weren’t going to beat me and therefore had to get cheap to try to win, it was the officiating. At the Olympics in 2004, the guy bit my hand, drew blood, I showed the ref, and he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. If I had done the same thing and my opponent showed the ref, I would have been kicked out of the Olympics for breaking skin biting someone.
“Those are the things that probably bothered me more than some guy biting me in the neck. Because, I can break that guy but I can’t do anything to the referee. At least if I’m wrestling and someone does something cheap to me, I can just turn up the intensity, give him the business and not have to do anything cheap. I can walk off that mat knowing that he cheated, I didn’t, and that I broke him.”
Corey Hope (77 kg, NYAC; 2016 Dave Schultz Memorial gold)
“It’s not really out of the ordinary. I’ve been repeatedly headbutted by a guy from Moldova in a match, and I’ve had stuff where your nuts get grabbed when you’re in the down position in par terre. You are in a physical sport and guys get emotional, desperate, or whatever, and it just happens. It’s one of those things where you put all this time and effort into training, and you’re going to let something like that affect your time? You don’t train just to train. Yeah, I enjoy training, I enjoy the struggle. But are you going to really let something like that be the determining factor of a possible outcome of a match? The way I see it, what you’re doing is making this guy become desperate and frustrated. So it’s like, Well, if I can make this guy frustrated, then I can break this person.”
Jamel Johnson (67 kg, Marines; 2012 University World bronze)
“Oh easy, the University World bronze medal match. We were wrestling, I was doing pretty good. He gets in on a bodylock, I would say a nice fricking bodylock. I just floated it and he went to his back. They gave me two points or whatever for it, and he’s furious, obviously, because it’s one of the medal matches. He throws in the block, the coaches are yelling. But they kept the call and I got another point.
“So he’s losing and he just starts going crazy — which is all fine with me. He then acts like he’s going for an underhook, but he has a fist and winds up punching me straight in the dick. Luckily, he missed the nuggets, but it hurt so bad. I was also so angry, I was just like, I’m going to kill this dude. And then I literally just snapped him down, got a front headlock, and gator-rolled and pinned him right after it happened. I was jumping up and yelling, kind of like, F you, you know?”
Marco Lara (Former two-time National Team member, 2007 University National Champion)
“At the US Nationals in I think 2009, and it was against a wrestler who will go unnamed. We were wrestling a close match and I hit a lateral. He’s on his back and he is whipping around. I’m like, Holy crap, I might win this match, because it was tight up till then. And then this dude started squealing — squealing, like a pig. Like a pig (laughs). I’m a little worried because he’s squealing. I’m thinking, Man, this guy is freaking the fuck out. I beared down, pushed my head across his jaw to keep him from rolling into me and I feel a bite on my head. It was the biggest bite of my forehead. I was thinking, Is he biting me? I wasn’t sure, I just remember feeling pain and teeth. It was definitely a bite but I wasn’t sure at the time.
“So I said, Screw it, I’ve got to pin this guy and figure it out afterwards. When it was over, I stood up and felt my head, and there was blood on my hand. Oh shit, he did bite me! Hard. The ref saw it and ignored it because I had already won and he knew I wasn’t going to be mad by that point. But that was it and he (the opponent) stormed off, though he actually did a lot better a couple of years later. Just at this time, he was super immature about it.”
Dalton Roberts (60 kg, NYAC/OTS; 2018 World Team member)
“I’d have to say the Cuban last year at Granma Cup where I took bronze. There were like :30 left. Now, I’m not a fat guy by any means. Everyone has skin you can grab, but he grabbed my waist. He grabbed it like a meathook, pinching me with both hands. It wasn’t just my singlet, it was my body. And he wouldn’t let go. He was winning, it was just so he could hold position like anyone else, but he was grabbing my skin.
“I never forgot that because no one had ever done this to me before. You could push off them, you could try and get an underhook and wait for time to run out. But he grabbed my — I don’t think I have ‘love handles’ — but that area. It made me think I had them. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to punch him. I was trying to show the ref, but by the time the ref saw it, he had stopped grabbing me and time was up. No one’s ever grabbed me like that. It was like someone pinching your whole body, kind of hard to explain. But yeah, wow. It was odd.”
Justin Ruiz (2005 World bronze, three-time Pan Am Championships gold)
“I remember I was wrestling at the Pan Am Championships and this Cuban just straight up bit me. He was losing. We were in par terre and I must have cross-faced him or something, and he bit me. He bit me hard enough to leave a mark. It was towards the end of the match, I had already won. It was in the last few seconds when he bit me. I wanted to get him thrown out of the tournament that way he wouldn’t get the points for his competition since he finished second, because, a lot of times it was head-to-head with the US versus Cuba. I tried showing the ref. I showed him the marks like, Hey, you know he bit me! And I speak Spanish and it was a Spanish-speaking referee, so I was explaining what happened. They didn’t really care. They raised my hand and that was that.”
Barrett Stanghill (87 kg, Minnesota Storm/OTS; 2017 U23 World Team member)
“The guy from Belarus, the stacked dude, he’s like a monster. He got on top in par terre and locked up a low gutwrench, and he started grabbing in a region that is not okay to be grabbed. I think I went over a little easier than I should have. I got up towards the end of the match and was kind of motioning to the ref about it, but they couldn’t do anything. It was the perfect crime because you can’t see it on video. It was definitely traumatizing a little bit. He beat me bad anyways, he didn’t need to do that (laughs).”