Top 10 American Freestyle Wrestlers

As more Americans are starting to follow senior level wrestling, I wanted to put together a list of the best men’s freestyle wrestlers since the late 1970’s. As a kid this was my favorite style of wrestling. Most wrestlers I’ve talked with have similar feelings, it’s more dynamic than folkstyle and the lack of control while scoring makes it an easier and a more active form of wrestling. I scoured the internet looking for such a list, and couldn’t find one that focused exclusively on senior level freestyle results.

I thought looking up older college wrestling records was a hassle until I searched for old senior level records. This was a doozy!  Save yourself some time and feast your eyes on my Freestyle PhD dissertation. You’re welcome.

Hopefully Wrestlestat.com starts keeping the stats of our national team. This list is based on senior level freestyle wrestling only. So, don’t come at me with college stuff. I took a lot of crap for ranking Kyle Snyder #8 in my college list even though he had the lowest winning percentage and least matches on the list. I couldn’t find everyone’s international record if you have details please post them. Maybe it will lead to changes. To be clear about my rankings rationale, I’m relying mostly on winning the toughest tournaments in the world. I used dominance and avenging big losses as tie breaker criteria.

Almost everyone values the Olympic medal over the world championships medal but worlds are harder to win. While the number of entrants has changed over the scope of this article the brackets for Worlds have been significantly larger than the Olympics: winning an 18-man bracket is statistically much easier than winning a tournament with a 30-wrestler bracket. Besides World and Olympic championships, I also took into account some other tough tournaments, winning Ivan Yarygin today might be harder than the Olympics or Worlds on a given year and weight class, more than one Russian can enter a weight class. A generation ago the toughest tournament on the planet was the Tbilisi. I also considered that winning a World Medal became even harder with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Unified team in 1993.

Americans didn’t have many wrestlers compete at the senior level for more than a year or two depending on the Olympic cycle prior to the Foxcatcher early 1980s. With the advent of regional training centers, national training for lower age level qualifiers and a huge increase in financial support the number of Americans seriously competing at the senior level is skyrocketing. We have seen the results in the last couple of years. America has become a Freestyle wrestling world power that will be duking it out with Russia for the imaginable future.

I chose a time frame of my viewing life. I watched many of these guys on grainy VCR tapes and more recently Flo. There are so many factors during this length of time: participation numbers fluctuating dramatically, boycotts, rule and subsequent style changes and transformations in financial support that it’s not all apples to apples. Winning a gold in 1984 isn’t as valuable as other years. Missing the Olympics in 1980 wasn’t our wrestlers’ fault and it’s hard to not speculate for Lee Kemp. Ball draws and periods being mini matches changed so much about the sport but I’m going with results. Finally, as I mentioned before it’s been much harder to win a gold since the breakup of the Soviet Union into many very strong wrestling countries than before the break up. Also, the ease of changing the country that you compete for on the senior level is starting to explode with exploration and will add future challenge.

I tried not to have a recency bias. Go ahead and pick it apart, you vultures…post comments that are actually usable. If you just use foul unpublishable words you’re not helping.

Gable while outside of my time frame will be used as an example. Many think of him as the greatest American wrestler. He won 2 world titles, the most in his era but only a third of John Smith’s total of 6. That said Gable wasn’t scored on during either tournament. Holy dominance. Gable seemingly, like Cael Sanderson, left a ton of world medals on the table.

Dan Gable 1971-1972.

2 golds 1 Olympic gold and 1 World Championship. Gable wasn’t scored on during either tournament. Let that sink in for a moment. Gable wasn’t scored on during 1 Olympic and 1 World championship tournament.  This is dominance in a time when the Soviet Union wrestling supremacy was unquestioned. While Gable is outside my time frame he set the new American Freestyle standard. It was only a decade before that America started sending a full wrestling team to the Olympics, both Greco Roman and Freestyle. Similarly, Kyle Dake didn’t give up a point on his way to a World Championship last year. He might be injured this year and has a weight class and Burroughs problem in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic cycle.

Universities that have produced the most world medals since 1978: Iowa 14, Okie State 7, Wisconsin 6, Oklahoma 5, Nebraska 5, Iowa State 5, PSU 3, Ohio State 3, CSU Bakersfield 3, Arizona State 3. There were more than a dozen teams and non-teams to produce one or two medalists. It will be interesting to see if Penn State starts really moving up this list like they have with NCAA champs and AA’s.

Men’s Freestyle Team Result Since 1978

Gold Silver Bronze
2018 3 1 3
2017 2 2 2
2016 2 1
2015 2 1
2014 2
2013 1
2012? 2 2
2011 1 1
2010 1 1
2009 1 1
2008 1
2007 1
2006 1 1 2
2005 2
2004 1 2
2003 2
2002 1 1
2001 1 1 2
2000 1 1 2
1999 1 1 1
1998 1 2
1997 1 1
1996 3 1 1
1995 4 2
1994 1 1
1993 4 1
1992 3 2 1
1991 3 3
1990 1 3 1
1989 2 4
1988 2 1 2
1987 2 3 3
1986 1 4 2
1985 2 1 1
   1984 7 2
1983 1 2 1
1982 1 3
1981 1 1 2
1980         Boycotted Olympics
1979 1 4 2
1978 1 1

Bold=1st place years

Updated Sept 2019

Honorable mention

 

Read the entire article at Rokfin

 

 

 

13 Comments

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  1. Great stuff. I’d have to spend a bit of time looking up past records to argue with you. Why aren’t you with a Flo or Track?

    1. Thanks. I’m mostly a coach. This is just a hobby for me.
      and
      They can’t afford me.

  2. Bill Scherr should definitely be on this list

    1. I wrestled with Bill Scheer as honorable mention prior to your comment. I gave the nod to Terry Brands because of his two World golds after the break up of the Soviet Union (creating more challenging Worlds). Bill’s body of work does deserve to be on the list and I added him to honorable mention. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Either of the Peterson Brothers?
    Thanx for compiling all of this, it was an awesome read

    1. The Peterson Brothers have a strong case to be on an all time team. See accomplishments below. The bulk of their wrestling was done before my late 70’s time frame. Heck Ben might not have invented his name sake move but he still has a move named after him. Not even Gable has that.
      71
      John Peterson DNP
      72
      John Peterson 2nd
      Ben Peterson 1st
      73
      John Peterson DNP
      Ben Peterson 3rd
      75
      Ben Peterson 4th
      76
      John Peterson 1st
      Ben Peterson 2nd
      78
      John Peterson 3rd
      Ben Peterson 5th
      79
      John Peterson 2nd
      80
      Ben Peterson-Boycott

  4. Don’t forget Wayne Wells. He was kind of overshadowed by grit of Gable and the flamboyance of Rick Sanders, but his gold medal win was phenomenal–especially that high-crotch. After winning the gold he graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in the same year! Truly a credit to the sport. Maybe not top 10, but certainly deserving of a mention.

    1. Wayne was a terrific wrestler. He was just too early for my rankings. For those that don;t know him, here’s a quick bio. He went to the University of Oklahoma winning a national title in 1968 and placed 2nd in 1967.
      He wrestled at the 1968 Olympics and finished fourth. Over the next four years he became one of the world’s best wrestlers.He won three U.S. Wrestling Federation championships, finished second at the 1969 World Championships, and won the 1970 World Championship. He was a favorite at the 1972 Munich Olympics and he won gold while very injured.

  5. Cael Sanderson?

    1. Cael was very good but only competed 3 years (2 in his prime and then again a decade later) at the international level. If he had won gold twice he might warrant consideration. Getting silver his first year and not placing in 2011 takes away the John Smith efficiency argument that I used to separate the top 3 the top guys. He finished up with 1 gold and 1 silver in 3 attempts. Honorable mention Kurt Angle went twice similar to Sanderson (prime) but won both times. One with a broken neck. Brands has two golds and a bronze out of 4 attempts. Sanderson like Gable before him had the ability to win multiple titles but didn’t have that drive like most of the guys on the list above him. Still a great wrestler. How many guys can come back after not competing for several years and still make the world team on the north side of 30?

  6. All Wresrler Of Is a Great

    ArminBahmani

    Iranian Wrestler

  7. I think Cox will climb the list with time, has the potential to be at the top for as long as JB (which is saying a lot). Beating Dake and Taylor alone is amazing, plus how to doesn’t get touched internationally. Great wrestler.

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