This is the second of a two-part retrospective covering the career of Spenser Mango. For part I, click here.
Competing in wrestling at a high level is often measured in eras. That’s just its nature, especially in the United States and even more so when we’re talking about the discipline of Greco Roman. Torches are passed, just as it happens in many other walks of life. Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s, men like Brandon Paulson, Dennis Hall, and Jim Gruenwald, one of Mango’s coaches at NMU, controlled the lighter weights on the American team. Then, conventional wisdom tabbed Lindsey Durlacher to be the next in line. Things unraveled a little differently. The torch had skipped over the late, great Durlacher and rested in the grasp of Mango’s capable fingers. He wouldn’t let it go. Not for a long, long time.
By 2010, it had begun to seem like every domestic event was a given. If Mango was competing at 55 kilograms, it was his. He’d be pressed every now and again, for sure. Mango would even lose on occasion when he would saunter up a weight to 60 kilos. But if the meeting ground was 55, there were a precious few who could make a go of it against him. No question, Mango’s talent and drive played a large role in his dominance. Ivanov’s influence undoubtedly played a large role, as well, even after the coach resigned following the 2009 campaign.
After finishing up his B.S. in physical education at Northern Michigan, a new opportunity presented itself — Mango would go on to join the United States Army and wrestle for its World Class Athletes Program. Known as “WCAP” (just say it – double-u cap), the program has long provided athletes from various Olympic sports the chance to compete internationally while being of service to the country. The benefits are outstanding. Many of the financial concerns wrestlers in the US typically struggle with, such as a consistent pay structure, training, travel and lodging, are largely taken care of. It is, to say, one of the best situations a Greco Roman wrestler could hope for. Mango was the perfect fit at the perfect time.
“He’s the guy you’ve met who is there for you”, says Army WCAP head coach Shon Lewis, who recruited Mango. “He’s one of those people who gets along with everyone.” Naturally, Spenser’s pleasant disposition wasn’t the only thing that won Lewis over. After all, this was a US National Team member and Olympian he was looking at. Lewis couldn’t help but remember what stood out to him about his new charge. “His explosiveness. His ability to lift things and explode out of situations you haven’t seen anyone else get out of.”
What sweetened the deal for Spenser was that he wouldn’t be alone in his new adventure. Former NMU teammates Joe Betterman, Nate Engel, and Harry Lester were also on board. Gone was the old “7-5-2”. Now, it was boot camp at Fort Jackson before settling in Colorado, where the crew would eventually call home.
Van Stokes: “Watch this, here’s Thielke right now taking Mango down! Mango is going to have to fight out of this and fight out of this hard. Thielke has got the weight, Thielke has got the pressure. But here comes Mango, he’s trying to get out. Credit Spenser Mango, he fought out…”
Scott Casber: “Challenge block was picked up…by Mango’s corner…thrown or not.”
Van Stokes: “You know, were Spenser Mango… I think he shocked Mango…”
Scott Casber: “I think he… Absolutely.”
Van Stokes: “I think he shocked him. (Pause) I just don’t think Spenser Mango was expecting that.”
Scott Casber: “Well, and again, here’s a guy that has put some work in to, to, get to where he is. And as I said, an absolute top-flight contender at 59, runner-up to Mango at the US World Team Trials just last year and has a solid string of bronze medal performances. The UWW Golden Grand Prix finals, the US Open, the Grand Prix Zagreb Open. I mean, I think this guy’s a difference-maker and what a difference a year makes!”
Spenser Mango didn’t have trouble making World Teams. It became an annual occurrence. First it would be the US Open to usher in the temperate textures of the spring. Then it would be the World Team Trials greeted by the more balmy climate which follows the summer’s anointment, following closely behind like an eager puppy trailing his master. In fact, you could almost set the seasons by the US domestic event schedule, especially if you kept up with Mango’s exploits. The fall meant the NYAC, held on crisp November weekends. Winter was designated for the Schultz Memorial, operated on the battlegrounds of the Olympic Training Center. You knew this. You know this. Everyone does. It’s still this way. Kind of.
Following the mid-aughts, there was not a great deal of drama at 55 kilos in the US. Jermaine Hodge remained a consistent rival, though he could never quite solve the puzzle that was Mango when it counted. Engel would be there sometimes, too, having no problem leaving their friendship in the background as he would attempt to disrupt eventual coronations. Hazewinkel was still around for a while to keep him honest here and there, prior to his crossover to freestyle (though he’d come back around again). Then up-and-comer Max Nowry…Nikko Triggas… Challenges on occasion? Sure. But not hold-your-breath, white knuckle tests where you felt the situation was ever in serious doubt. An inherent lack of suspense permeated throughout for the most part. Mango might lose periods, but not matches.
“I was pretty good overseas, but this guy was dominant in the United States,” Betterman says. “There was no if’s, and’s, or but’s if he was going to be on the World Team. There was no toss-up. You had guys going in his bracket knowing they weren’t going to win.”
Foreign foes were a different story. It had to be that way. Their advantage is significant since they grow up in the Greco Roman discipline. Their repertoires, more defined. Their experience, weathered and hardened, the same way old men who have lived lives fraught in battle already know the finishing points of your diatribes. Greco Roman competitors from other countries understand nuances about the sport Americans are typically in a rush to catch up on. The problem is, the learning curve is steep and education comes often comes at the expense of victory. At least for a while.
This caused sort of a disconnect if for the only reason Mango was nearly unbeatable domestically. To see him ply his trade on US soil was not too dissimilar from watching a great conductor tapping away in front of an orchestra. All the sounds, all the moving parts, a mess of noise, a wall of notes fashioned together in vibrant, unforgettable tones and yet, the scene appears so easy to replicate if you would dare try. As if it’s possible to take that baton anywhere in the world and do the same thing.
Noises are louder in an echo chamber.
The second Olympiad
2012 is when it all began to fall in place. Mango was inching up into the prime of his career and London’s Olympic Games represented another chance to waltz into history. A first-place finish at the Schultz kicked the year off, but it was the Olympic Trials in April (at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, where Mango’s career would end four years later) where he got down to business. After stopping Nikko Triggas in two straight periods to advance to the best-of-three finals, Mango overcame an inspired effort by Max Nowry to nail down his second consecutive Olympic Team spot.
His first opponent at the 2012 Olympics, Mohamed Abouhalima of Egypt, offered a game scrap, but nothing too threatening. Mango experienced little trouble carving out a 6-1 first-period win and then closed it out in the final frame via a slim 1-0 margin. The victory meant he was moving on, which is always the idea. However, standing in his way was reigning World Champion and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Rovshan Bayramov. An Azerbaijani wrestler with razor-sharp instincts and a life’s worth of top international competition, Bayramov, along with Iranian hero Hamid Soryan, was very much seen as a clear-cut medal favorite heading into London. Mango did his best to upset his opponent’s rhythms, clashing in and trying to ignite his offense. Bayramov eased out of danger every available opportunity, winning the first two periods, along with the match, 4-0.
Mango was pulled back in to face off with another previous Baryramov victim, Mingiyan Semenov of Russia. Semenov, a lanky, rangy grappler who back in 2012 was just starting to blossom, turned Mango in the first to come away with a 2-0 period win. In the second period, the action remained at a stalemate once again. Mango had one last crack at it in the :30 par terre opportunity but couldn’t capitalize, awarding Semenov the period. Semenov would eventually go on to earn the bronze medal while Mango finished 9th in the standings.
There was nothing left to do but start fresh. Mango got back on the horse a few months later with a victory at the NYAC International Open, defeating World Team Trials finalist Nowry via pin and then followed that up with a silver medal to close friend Joe Betterman at the Haparanda Cup in Sweden, though that was at 60 kilos, not 55. No steps were lost, no fast-twitch responses slowed down. If anything, Mango was wrestling with a different edge of confidence, kind of like he had started to figure something out. It was appropriate, simply because he was on the cusp of taking his biggest step yet.
The 2013 World Team Trials, held in one of the country’s hotbeds for wrestling, Stillwater, Oklahoma, gave Mango the chance to his sixth straight World-level team, counting two Olympic appearances. An impressive feat, undoubtedly. One that further cemented his status as a generational force few could reckon with. But in order to move on and qualify to represent the US at the upcoming 2013 Worlds in Budapest, Mango was going to have to get past Engel. The two had met up plenty of times previously but never with the stakes this high. It is also noteworthy because Engel, forever a stout contender but like everyone else seemed to be on the outside looking in during the Mango reign, was morphing into the kind of competitor he had dreamed of becoming. He had impressed at the Haparanda Cup in Sweden; shut down the field at the Armed Forces Championship a few months later; and then put in a strong performance at the US Open, earning a bronze. Engel was no longer relegated to being a stepping stone. The fact the two were as close as could be off the mat predictably meant absolutely nothing when it was time to compete.
“It didn’t get into my head at all,” confirms Engel. “I knew from the moment we pulled our singlet straps up he was now my enemy and the person standing in the way of my goal.” Unfortunately for Engel, Mango was ticking on all cylinders that afternoon. A big throw ended the first match of the best-of-three final and then a crisp, controlling 7-0 victory punctuated the affair altogether. It was another World Team Trials victory, another moment in the sun on US soil. The only item remaining on the docket was to do something with it come September in Hungary.
High water marks
Greco Roman wrestling’s World Championships do not take a distant second to the Olympics. Of course, the Olympics are The Olympics, the banner lifetime event athletes from all sports are measured against. But on a year-to-year basis, the Worlds are indicative of where a wrestler is at during that point in time. If the Olympics are about legacy, the World Championships are about understanding the face value of what a wrestler is capable of and a nod to the fact they were able to display such versus the best competitors on the planet. Just to be in the conversation is nice, but it is a whole lot nicer to have a sentence or two all about what you’ve accomplished.
Mango’s opening bout in Hungary delivered him Finnish roughneck Janni Happamaaki. Aside from a bloody nose that on and off served as a stalemate, the American controlled the tempo, scoring off a front headlock before putting a bow on the match with seconds remaining via a takedown.
Korea’s Choi Gyu-jin was a stiffer test. The 2010 World silver medalist presented presented all sorts of problems for the mainstays of the 55 kilogram weight class. Long and limber with a knack for timely takedowns, the only thing more difficult to deal with than his actual wrestling ability was Choi’s utter refusal to concede positions. Mango could compete with Choi in the relentlessness department, just not when it came to physical stature. That was evident early on when Choi ambled around to pick up two takedown points. He’d net two more off of a bodylock as Mango came colliding in.
Although Mango stayed in it and took back a couple of points of his own, it wasn’t enough. Choi moved on with a 4-2 win. But he would wind up taking Spenser with him, as the Korean advanced to the finals. This fortuitous event breathed new life into Mango, and he enthusiastically demonstrated his appreciation by completely dismantling Fouad Fajari of Morocco 7-0.
Kanybek Zholchubekov (Krygyzstan) was the next victim in what was arguably Mango’s most exciting match since his upset of Durlacher half a decade earlier. Down by two with 15 seconds left, Mango was caught underneath and then lowered his level, snagging a bodylock. He squeezed Zholchubekov to the mat for three points. He would then lift it up once more and expose his opponent for two additional points. Kyrgyzstan challenged the call and lost, resulting in one more point for a final score of 6-2 in favor of Mango. It was an inspiring run. Not only had Mango won three matches in the World Championships, but he also entered into the medal round for the first time.
Waiting for him was former Olympic and multiple-time World medalist Roman Amoyan (Armenia). Amoyan, a well-known international competitor, brought a fusion of styles to the table. He was “classical” Greco; hips out, head up, and on the attack. But he also offered a creative flair, diving under arm drags and re-positioning lifts. To sum it up, he was an obstacle, but not one that was undo-able.
Amoyan attempted to lift Mango early in the first period, only to come loose off his lock as Mango dropped his weight. When the returned to the floor, Amoyan tried to go with the motion and gutwrench Mango over. However — Mango turned his hips right over and put Amoyan on his back. He then held onto a front headlock before the duo scrambled back up. Somehow, the Armenian took the majority of the points that were awarded and a lengthy challenge call by the USA side did little to quell the confusion. Mango did all he could in the second period to turn it all around. Darting in, pushing, pulling, shucking — Amoyan simply knew how to roll with the punches. In the end, the line of demarcation, as narrow as could be, tilted towards Amoyan, who was a World medalist yet again.
But there was nothing for Spenser Mango to hang his head over. He had knocked on the door and it came ever-so close to opening. A fifth place finish at the World Wrestling Championships is an astounding accomplishment. To give it proper context, in the United States, college wrestlers are celebrated for placing in the top eight at the national tournament. Mango had earned fifth place in the entire world. There wasn’t a medal attached to the achievement, which is how history judges these happenings later on in life, but considering the era and breadth of competition, it was an important performance that showed exactly what many had already assumed: Spenser Mango was right there with every other major player at 55. The only issue? It wouldn’t be 55 much longer.
The onset of 2014 brought change upon the wrestling world. After surviving the International Olympic Committee’s proposal to remove wrestling from the curriculum following the 2020 Games, the sport’s global sanctioning body, FILA, had become United World Wrestling, or UWW. With the new beginning also meant amendments to Greco Roman’s governance, the most significant coming with a realignment of the weight classes. The previous weights (55 kg, 60 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 84 kg, 96 kg, 120 kg), in place for about a decade by then, were reduced from eight to six Olympic contested classes. 55 kilograms? Gone. So was 60. Instead, the lowest weight division became a cruel compromise — 59 kilograms, or 130 lbs. Needless to say, this alteration of the weights brought far-reaching ramifications.
At 5’2, Mango was certainly one of the shortest Senior competitors in the world. It was commonplace for opponents to be more than several inches taller, even at 55 kilos. But height isn’t quite as large of a problem in Greco Roman wrestling as “reach.” In boxing, reach is defined as the length of an athlete’s arm is from the armpit to the fist, which is useful obviously for controlling range and landing punches. For Greco, reach makes a difference in more ways than one. Controlling tie-ups, front-headlocks, lifts, bodylocks, gutwrenches — all tactics and maneuvers where longer arms are a very legitimate and noticeable advantage. Mango was susceptible to these instances. He possessed solid par terre defensive skills but when a skilled international foe with long arms wants to wrap around your narrow waist and you don’t have the body length to create adequate counter leverage, there is little recourse. Height and reach weren’t on Mango’s side at 55. 59? Spenser may have competed on occasion at 60 kilograms and done well enough to provide a reason to exhale, but the sample size against world-class opponents was nowhere near extensive enough to pass this all off as a non-story. It mattered.
“The circumstances could have screwed him when they moved the weight class up to 59,” offers 1996 Olympic silver medalist Dennis Hall, who was also a coach of Mango’s for one year at Northern Michigan. “You had all of the guys who were good at 60 kilos coming down combined with everyone at 55. Look at the Cuban this year, he’s huge (2016 Olympic gold medalist Ismael Borrero Molina). If he had to make 57 kilos, I don’t know if he makes weight and wins the Olympics.”
There is something beautiful about not having a say in the matter. No decisions to be made, no convoluted discussions with coaches about what to do, where to go. The red tape rolled up neatly, a singular focal point emerges simplifying the task at hand. It was time to just go wrestle.
The year began with a loss to Betterman in the finals of the Dave Schultz Memorial, but it wasn’t without incident. The bout was as vicious as could be manageable given the rule-set and despite ending up the victor, Betterman remembers a dogfight that has stayed with him.
“They actually let us wrestle,” Betterman explains. “They weren’t calling passives so we were going at it. I remember I had double underhooks on him going near going out of bounds to push him out and this dude ducks me, from double underhooks, powers through it and takes me down. I smiled walking back to the center like, Okay motherf*****, you got me. I loved the challenge he gave me but you want to talk about fast-twitch muscles? Whenever he does something, anything, it is fast and explosive.”
Mango and Betterman met once more in the US Open finals but this time, the result was switched. Mango escaped with a 1-1 criteria win over his friend and WCAP teammate in a tense action-packed bout. Nostalgia beckoned even more so just under two months later at the World Team Trials when Sam Hazewinkel, back on the Greco circuit, advanced to the finals bringing with him the promise of another epic showdown. Only, it wouldn’t happen that way. Mango flew right by Hazewinkel in two matches, winning by technical fall both times. It wasn’t the old days anymore. Hazewinkel, forever a brilliant, multi-talented wrestler, didn’t have an answer for what the Spenser Mango of 2014 had going for him.
Midway through 2014, another change reverberated through the US wrestling community. Longtime National Team head coach Steve Fraser officially stepped down to take on a new role with USA Wrestling as the Head of Donor Relations. In his place stepped 2000 Olympic silver medalist and mixed martial arts star Matt Lindland, who got a close-up look at Mango the year before as a volunteer coach for the World Team and was immediately impressed.
“I thought, Man, this guy is good,” recalls Lindland. “He was just a smiling, happy dude. Anytime you saw Spenser, you could rest assured he’d have a smile on his face. He loved what he did and he cared about his team.”
Tashkent, Uzbekistan was the sight of the 2014 Greco Roman World Wrestling Championships. There was a more energetic, optimistic feel for the US squad heading in. Fellow NMU alum Andy Bisek (75 kg) had grabbed a hold of his weight domestically, as did heavyweight Robby Smith. Jordan Holm (85 kg) had also shown himself to be a nightmare in each phase of the game, leading to the general perception that the tide was beginning to shift in Greco for the country. Expectedly, Mango still carried on as the face of the program and following the previous year’s fifth-place finish, there was no more question about what he could do if armed with the opportunity.
A grueling 2-2 criteria win over Fatih Ucuncu (Turkey) bursted open the proceedings. The first match in any international event is a crapshoot, so getting it out of the way tends to set a tone. Peter Modos, one of Hungary’s most-gifted Greco athletes, was up next. Modos, an Olympic medalist from 2012, tried to assert his technical brand of pressure, but Mango had something up his sleeve. Using two lock-tight front headlocks, he collected four points that proved to be the difference. A nice win? Absolutely. But more importantly, it meant Mango was on his way.
The quarterfinals are always a point of separation. Due to the nature of international tournament regulation and the existence of repechage, advancing to the semifinals is positively vital. To lose prior shuffles wrestlers into the world of the unknown; they are dependent on the men who vanquished them to make it all the way to the finals, hence “pulling them back in.” A trip to the semifinals takes away that problem. Win or lose, you’re going to be gunning for a medal. It is not a defeatist mentality necessarily. Not in a sport where the draws can be more more unforgiving than a November downpour. To win it all never ceases to be the objective. Certainly. But a wrestler who tells you the quarterfinals don’t offer double-importance is lying to your face.
In the fateful quarterfinal match-up Mango met up with World University silver medalist Kazuma Kuramoto (Japan). The shockingly dynamic physical tools the American was long lauded for were visible right away for all to see. Mango locked deep on a belly-to-belly bodylock and slammed it down for a crushing five-point throw. All world-level Greco wrestlers may have that whole “never say die” attitude, but none more than Japanese competitors. Kuramoto tried coming hard on an arm throw and then later worked a front headlock. Mango, sensing an opportunity to end the bout, found another bodylock, lifted, and dumped it down to wrap it all up. For the first time ever, Spenser Mango was a World semifinalist.
Unfortunately, the quest for gold ended there. Familiar face Mingiyan Semenov, who enjoyed prior success against Mango in 2012, got off to a fast start, scoring on a point off the edge before yielding another in similar fashion. Two more came his way off of a takedown, though Mango ambled out and got on top to grab a point back. The energy was furious, but Semenov was in control. Another collection of points was tallied later in the second period to give the Russian a 9-1, technical-fall win.
Popular Norwegian wrestler and eventual 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Stig-Andre Berge offered a lot of similarities to Mango. A gutsy, tenacious, and highly-respected athlete, Berge, like Mango, was always a name looked upon as a contender, but one who had barely missed finding his place on a World podium. Stylistically, there was also a resemblance. Berge, a taller specimen, sported good quickness to go along with a steep appreciation for hand-fighting. He was also not easy to turn. But that is where the attributes deviate. Berge didn’t share Mango’s explosiveness, nor his ability to escape out of impending danger. On virtual paper, this was one helluva match-up.
It was easy to tell from the opening seconds that this was going to be a prolonged struggle. Neither wrestler could do much to the other. Mango tried to pry and prod his way inside; Stig returned fire, turning Mango around with an arm drag despite not being close to scoring. Throughout the match, the Norwegian required medical attention due to a bloody nose. Though no fault of it his own, the constant blood time interrupted the match’s flow on more than one occasion.
By the latter stages of the second period, both had their chances in par terre. Berge got his shot in the first, clamping around Mango’s head and arm, but it would prove fruitless. When Mango received his par terre opportunity in the second frame, he, too, would attempt a front headlock and come up empty.
Tension builds. That is its chief attribute. Without tense moments, the struggle is almost languid, wavy, and then whispered into a vacuum. Anyone observing Mango and Berge during the waning moments of their bronze medal match could tell that if it was simply left up to the athletes, this thing would be decided under the most just and primitive circumstances a battle like this deserved. Of course, that isn’t how the sport is often governed.
International wrestling officials are not supposed to operate with autonomy. There are three in place for every match. The third man (or woman) on the mat, the referee, is whose everybody’s eyes are fixed on. This person’s duty is to award, penalize, or reward athletes with positions and points upon confirmation. Greater is the problem of subjectivity which unfortunately, Greco Roman’s “passivity” rules are relegated to. It wasn’t supposed to be like this — the intentions of passivity, for the most part, are credible. Wrestlers should be on the attack every available instant. But how can you determine which one of the pair is being passive when both combatants are evenly-matched playing a similar game, just unable to penetrate the other’s defenses? You cannot, not fairly anyway. Then again, wrestling at the upper levels isn’t about fairness, it is about determining a winner. And that power rests in the hands of the officials.
Just as precious seconds began to disappear from the clock, Mango was penalized for passivity. He was warned previously, so it was almost predictable there would be some kind of reckoning later on. The call came during the pivotal apex of the match. You couldn’t ask for more drama in a medal bout: A 0-0 score, two world-class athletes clashing into one another, only, their own actions would not determine the outcome.
Berge was awarded a point for a 1-0 lead. There was a little time left, enough for some heroics by Mango to somehow change this all around. He was certainly capable. But Berge blocked and defended each last gasp until the buzzer sounded, pointing at his corner and celebrating the moment accordingly. Mango, a sportsman’s sportsman, congratulated his opponent, and then walked off the platform forced to ponder when his time would finally arrive.
Van Stokes: “But if that score holds up, and it’s 6-0 nothing right now, Mango finds himself on the backside.”
Scott Casber: “Yeah, not an enviable position for any athlete, but if anybody can put a little hurry-up game in, you know it is that kingpin, that’s what we call him. You know, he’s been here the last two quadrennials as a two-time Olympian, six-time World Team member… I mean, this cat is super-good. Do you realize how long he’s ruled the roost here? Since 2008! I think you said it earlier, I knew I heard it somewhere.”
Van Stokes: “Two-time Olympian, been the United States representative on the US World Team every year since 2008. He has ruled the roost in this weight class, Scott. But now he has got his hands full as we go to the break period, Mango’s down 6-0.”
With two concurrent fifth-place finishes in the World under his belt, Spenser Mango had proven he deserved to be in the conversation. Wrestling fans like to talk wrestling, how they think certain athletes will do in the next tournament, the next quad, or throughout a given season. When the topic switches to wondering about which guys could potentially enjoy serious runs at the Olympics, you immediately reference the past year’s Worlds. Anyone out of the top six, unless it was a big name who got caught or fell in some quicksand, you usually throw out.
Entering 2015, Mango’s name had more hope attached to it than at any time previously. He followed up with another string of outstanding performances domestically and internationally, including a silver at the tough Hungarian Grand Prix to future Olympian Shinobu Ota of Japan. A seventh US Open victory and a sixth World Team Trials win were the bulletpoints. Mango was a man on a mission and that mission was a third consecutive Olympic Team. But before he’d be able to see that little piece of history through, there was a World Championships to tend to. On his home turf.
Held in Las Vegas, the 2015 World Championships had all the makings of a Mango block party. Friends, family, US fans…they would all get to see their guy break through. Alas, the party didn’t quite get off the ground. Ismael Borrero Molina, Cuba’s surging star, was Mango’s draw in round one. The pair had met before, at the 2014 Pan Am Championships, with Borrero ending up the winner. Borrero prevailed again in Las Vegas, to the tune of a 4-2 score. The Cuban advanced to the final, so Mango still had an opportunity for that medal. A 4-4 criteria win over Germany’s Deniz Menekse kept him alive, but the run ended with a technical fall loss to Belarusian Soslan Daurov.
Although disappointing for the now-29-year old Mango, it wasn’t as if any red flags needed to be raised. His physical ability had not wavered even the slightest. He was still as strong and lightning-fast as ever before. He was still displaying the same grade of dynamite on his feet and the rules had come around to favor his style a little more. Plus, he had continued his run of supremacy over everyone else from the US. For all intents and purposes, this was the best version of Spenser USA Greco fans could have asked for.
Spenser’s experience at the World Championships didn’t yield the results many expected, but that wouldn’t end up even being the biggest story as the year began to wind down. Instead, it was the process which led 27-year old Ildar Hafizov of Uzbekistan to emerge stateside earlier that spring. Hafizov, like Mango, was a well-traveled Greco Roman competitor for his native country. He had been an Olympian in 2008 and also finished fifth in the world the year before that. Hafizov owned other respectable international titles as well, including a 2010 Dave Schultz Memorial win where he defeated Mango in the semifinals to snare his gold. Hafizov had come over to the United States and enrolled in the Army to join the World Class Athletes Program. Along with Spenser’s highly-touted younger brother Ryan and longtime standout Jermaine Hodge, he would be a demanding workout partner to keep him on his toes. It would also mean that for perhaps the first time in nearly a decade, Mango might be pushed to the brink in the sport’s lowest weight class stateside.
A 2-2 criteria win for Hafizov over Mango at November’s Vantaa Cup didn’t do much to slow down the conversation. For his part, Mango fought back for bronze with a crisp 11-3 technical fall victory over Lauri Mohanen (FIN), a wrestler Hafizov himself had beaten up earlier in the tournament. These were the comparisons people went by. It made for scintillating discussion simply because there was a vested interest among some fans who wanted to see the great Mango tested for the first time in years by a fellow American in his weight class. There was also no better way to build up the drama careening towards the US Nationals/Olympic Trials Qualifier a month later in Vegas.
Friends and teammates compete against one another, as evidenced by the many examples of Mango taking on Engel and Betterman. It happens in the practice room and it happens in tournaments, often with the stakes raised to the ceiling. This isn’t something new and America is not unique to these occurrences, though there is no doubt the US’s overall lack of depth necessitates friendly fire perhaps more so than other nations. Men are fighting for spots, there are lifelong goals on the line here. One of the very attributes that sets national-level wrestlers apart from the rest is that there are plenty of scenarios proving it is possible to be as close as brothers off the mat and bitter enemies on it. Wrestling tournaments with national or international implications involved do not invite discrimination. The best move on, whether they are trying to break a teammate or perfect stranger.
Therefore, it was only natural for US Greco Roman fans and athletes alike to look forward to a potential National final pitting Mango against Hafizov. And as expected, both advanced to set this all up. Here it was, at last, the big domestic duel everyone wanted to see, two accomplished athletes at the top of their respective games, one attempting to send a message that he going to be the new man to beat going forward and the other focused on reassuring the masses that the sheriff was indeed, still in town. In the end, there was not a need for all of the build-up.
In a strange turn of events, Mango injury-defaulted to Hafizov, giving the Uzbeki his first US National title. It was really the equivalent to a knight being called upon to decline a joust. Not here, not now. A different time and place would have to serve as the ultimate theater for a reckoning. The Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City a few months later seemed like a great fit.
Scott Casber: “There are a few guys that you can say had extensive careers. In freestyle, Jordan Burroughs, obviously, that’s an impressive career. Dan Gable, impressive career. John Smith, impressive career. But when you look at this young man, what Spenser has done throughout his career, it’s absolutely phenomenal.”
Van Stokes: “It has. You know, he has been one of the faces, I think, in Greco Roman wrestling, I really do. He has not got into the gold and silver levels of the platform that he has hoped to get at the World Championships, but he continued to make progress year in and year out. And he’s been, as I say, ruling the roost in this weight class. But right now, Scott, he has really, really got his hands full.
On a Saturday morning in the spring
Spenser defeated Sammy Jones, a tough Northern Michigan prospect, to open his march towards a third consecutive Olympic Team. In the semifinal round awaited Jesse Thielke, a somewhat engimatic yet gifted competitor who had been a fellow World Team member of Mango’s in 2013. In fact, Thielke had defeated Spenser’s brother Ryan to clinch that spot.
Thielke wasn’t someone to overlook, although fans weren’t keyed in on him the way they were Hafizov. No, this was supposed to lead to yet another crowning moment, one in which a serious challenger would be thwarted in the end, glad-hanging celebrations and contrived prose featuring words like “legacy” and “clutch” to be exhausted following the inevitable. A hero’s ending for a hero’s journey.
Mango had always been able to deal with Thielke in the past. A step too quick, a little too savvy, a little too…Spenser. The pair squared off against each other enough times to where it didn’t appear that a change in the script would be forthcoming. But what unfolded was the result of a process everyone should probably have been paying closer attention to — Thielke was coming of age in his own right. There was no meekness about his game. No hesitation, no wide eyes, no over-reaching. And when he locked up high double underhooks on Mango in the center of the mat, a shift in energy could almost be detected.
The pace sped up following a reset. Mango zoomed in and out, coming close on finding a tie he could work with. Thielke tried to remain authoritative as he created angles and occasionally snapped at Mango’s head. In the middle of the flurry, Mango snagged Thielke’s right arm for a just a fraction of a second and stepped in to try and throw. The effect of the contemplation was soon rendered.
Thielke stayed in position and wrapped his arms around Mango, driving him straight to his back. Simultaneously, the crowd in Carver-Hawkeye Arena roared and hushed, caught in between the dynamics of what was unfurling before their eyes. It was four immediate points and then two more came Thielke’s way courtesy of a gutwrench he had already been holding onto. Spenser Mango was down 6-0 and no one knew what hit them.
WCAP head coach Shon Lewis wanted to challenge the sequence of calls, standard procedure for a situation like this. It’s usually a long shot, but a challenge at least provides a sense of hope and buys time for the corner to reconcile what just happened, though in this particular case, chaos still reigned. By the time the wrestlers were ready to re-engage, the clock read :45 left in the first period. That’s plenty of time. A massive amount of time. More than enough for an icon to right the ship.
The same attempted maneuver that put Mango in trouble in the first period led to his undoing in the second. A tighter, twisting arm-throw was being summoned and if latched in, would have changed the scope of the match. Unfortunately for Mango, Thielke stiffened accordingly before countering by locking around Mango’s waist, dragging him down to the mat. Two takedown points.
They stop these matches when there is an eight point difference. There was an eight point difference.
There was also peace. Probably because immortality was about to introduce itself.
Van Stokes: “Spenser Mango is taking off his shoes. Spenser Mango is retiring from the sport of wrestling. You have GOT to stand up on this and you have got to recognize this young man, Spenser Mango, who is leaving his shoes in the center of the mat, symbolic of a wrestler saying, ‘This has been a great, great experience but from this point on, I am now retired.’ A touching moment for Spenser Mango. He will cut those laces because he does not plan to put on wrestling shoes again. Spenser Mango is bringing a great and glorious career to a close.”
Wrestling brings forth its own special mimesis. Forget Aristotle’s “art imitates life” and Wilde’s “life imitates art” — what goes down between two athletes on a padded floor is subject to a unique philosophical dichotomy only the participants can adequately communicate. Observers can spy the struggle, they can even understand the varying cross-sections of conflict, but it’s only a fraction of the presentation. The real truth or at the least, the sum of it, occurs when there is no one around to assign value to the sacrifices such participation dictates. Wrestlers don’t walk away from the sport simply due to age, or because competition has become unattractive. Age plays a role, for sure, but only due to the fact it aligns with one main principle: There is nothing left to give. Preparation demands more willingness than the actual fight.
With his shoes still residing on the mat he was going to be leaving behind along with a decade-plus of inspiring moments, Mango collected himself and proceeded to take questions from the media. As always, class ruled the day. He had seen enough, done enough, and wrung every milliliter of sweat and blood and dreams out of this journey as he could muster. The only item remaining was acceptance which for some, took hold in an instant.
“It was emotional,”admits Lester. “This was someone I had been wrestling with for the last 11 years. And to see him step off the mat, it was emotional. But sometimes, you have to do the right thing for yourself, for your body, and for your family. He has a family he has to take care of and a body he needs to keep healthy and I understand it because I’ve been through that already myself.”
Lester’s situation shared plenty with Mango’s. A two-time World medalist, Lester was intent on competing at the Olympic Trials at 75 kilograms until an injury right before the tournament forced him out. A consummate professional and dynamic talent, he didn’t have the opportunity to make one last run. Mango and Lester, forever linked due to their time together through the years, were both bidding farewell practically at the same time, leading many fans to acknowledge the end of a significant era.
“If you have been around Greco in the US, it’s natural to think that,” Lester says. “We’re two guys who helped carry the team for a long time and we’re educated. I think the way to look at it is that we’re stepping away, our weight classes are represented well, and the guys under us have been influenced by us.”
That is where Jim Gruenwald is coming from. The two-time Olympian from Wisconsin was tasked with molding the lightweights in the USOEC wrestling room and by extension, privy to Mango’s ascension through the ranks. Gruenwald sees the retirement process as sort of a “circle of life” necessary for the program at large.
“As a coach, it’s kind of the cycle you’re always going through,” Gruenwald, who is currently the head wrestling coach at Wheaton College, explains. “One group of guys is done, you retire them, and it’s sad. You feel like a parent watching their kid leave the home. But the exciting part is the new group of guys coming in who are going to form that new era.”
That “new era” is now going to be Mango’s lot in life, having accepted an opportunity to join the coaching staff for the Army World Class Athletes Program. It is a fitting next step considering his reputation for results and also, his relationships. At WCAP, Mango will have the chance to counsel his brother Ryan, a 2016 National Team member, as well as the man who once appeared to be his biggest threat, Hafizov. More importantly, he is still going to be involved in finishing what he started by helping Team USA as a whole climb back into the spotlight. His mentor and former coach Ivanov likes the transition for his pupil.
“He has reached that age, I remember reaching it myself where you feel you can still compete but it’s not the same. It is a good idea for him to coach because he can help the guys win medals. He knows what the big stage is all about.”
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.
(1 Corinthians (9:24-9:26)
Foolish is the attempt to summarize a man’s life based solely on achievement. Especially when the contents of those achievements are subjective. There is inherent value in pursuing a dream with all of your might, draining each and every resource of energy flowing freely through your veins. The value is only lost if the pursuit is one of vanity, where the endgame is simply to stand alone so that others may look upon you as something bigger than what you are. True beauty lies within the struggle because at the end of the day when the sun begins to descend and its amber glow has faded away, the heart remembers the fight much more vividly than the masses ever will.
When Greco Roman wrestling in the United States was badly in need of a representative who could both startle the senses and project impeccable character, Spenser Mango was there. When the last members of the old guard surrendered their arms and the relevance of the sport was in question, Spenser Mango was there. And when it came time to move the chips into the middle of the table and throw down with the world’s best, Spenser Mango was there. Now that he won’t be anymore, at least not in the same way, it will be up to the athletes who he made an impact on to become custodians of his legacy.
“I know for me, he is someone who I looked up to and have tried to model myself after,” confides two-time Pan American Championships winner Patrick Smith. “Just the way he competed yet treated everyone the same and was always kind. He’s an athlete a lot of guys can learn from.”
Those closest to Spenser are also mindful of the difference he has made during his time as an athlete but more than anything, are looking forward to seeing what he can do now that he is in even more of a position to influence the lives of others.
“What if he gets a wrestler who is as explosive and athletic as him?” Betterman wonders. “Imagine what he’ll do with that kid? With his knowledge and experience, Spenser will know exactly what this wrestler needs and help him achieve his goals.”
Engel’s worldview is not too far removed from Betterman’s. Before coming over to the USOEC, Engel had just started coaching on the age-group level. Then after his own retirement from the sport a few years ago, he became an assistant coach at the US Naval Academy, his wrestling career in complete full-circle mode. So it’s no surprise that when Engel peers out at the horizon he sees the same stratosphere of potential in Mango’s new occupation.
“Oh, I know he will do an incredible job at WCAP. USA Wrestling is going to enjoy having him around for a long, long time to come. He left it all out there on the mat as an athlete and I’m just proud to be able to call him one of my brothers for life.”
Medals and trophies. Spoils to the victors. Mango was one of them. Good things come to an end, that is how life teases you with the whole “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it was here” rhetoric. None of it matters, because the axis will still spin. Welcoming mornings will still transform into calm evenings. Life forgets the previous day’s triumphs and struggles despite the living’s resistance. “It’s not sad at all because there is nothing to be sad about, “ reminds Lester. “When you look back at Spenser’s career, you have to be proud of it.”
It is certainly not about sadness. Just a calibration of measurement, of recognition. Most Greco wrestlers in the US are forced to fight their way out of anonymity. The cause takes effort. Here was a guy for whom the battle came naturally and took everyone else along for the ride. He stood toe-to-toe with every challenge inside and outside of an arena and still always found the time to throw a smile your way. They just don’t make enough of these athletes to go around and we all need to be aware of that.
So, yeah. Maybe you were lucky. Don’t sweat it. We all were.