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
Bold=1st place years
Terry Brands World Team Member 1993-95, 2000
2 World Golds and 1 Olympic Bronze
Bill Scheer-World Team Member 1985-89
1 x Gold, 2 x Silver and 2 x Bronze World and Olympic Champion
1985 World Champ
1986 & 1989 World Silver
1987 World Bronze
1988 Olympic Bronze
2 X World Champ. 1 World and 1 Olympic Championship. Angle also won the Yarygin in 1993. Want to talk about a tough guy, Angle won the Olympic trials with literally a broken neck. Could barely train for the Olympics and still brought home gold. His short freestyle career and subsequent professional wrestling career give him an odd reputation from the general public. He was coached by Dave Shultz and reminded me of Schultz even before Schultz started coaching him. He told people that he was going to try and make the 2012 Olympic team but injury kept him out of the trails. Would have been interesting. We saw Cael Sanderson sit out several years before making the team again.
2-time US Open Champion. I have him ahead of Brands (honorable mention) with less medals because he was 2 for 2.
- Kenny Monday– World Team member 1988-89, 1991-92, 1996.
1 Olympic Gold and Silver 1 World Championship 3-time Olympian.
Monday won a gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was a 1989 World champion. He also won a silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in spite of competing with a significantly injured elbow. Monday added a World silver medal in 1991. After taking off a few years, Monday also competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where he placed sixth.
Monday was also a champion at the Tbilisi Tournament in 1988, which may have been a tougher tournament than his Olympic bracket the same year.
- Mark Shultz– World team member 1983-88
3 x Champ and was the only American Gold medalist in the Soviet boycotted 1984 Olympics to get Gold at world championships in 1985. Won his 3rd World gold in 1987. He took 6th in the 1988 Olympics. Schultz the 2nd American to win 3 world Gold medals at the time of his retirement. Was a physical and violent wrestler that I watched and tried to copy.
2 x Champ, 1 Olympic Gold and 1 World Gold. His Olympic Gold in 1984 was during the Soviet boycott. What makes it less of a soft win is that Schultz won the World Championships in 1983. He also took 3 World Silvers and 2 Bronze medals. He took 7th at the 1994 and 5th at the 1995 world championships. Schultz also won Gold at 4 World Cups. Schultz was an American forerunner traveling to wrestling strongholds in the Soviet orbit. Champion at the Tbilisi Tournament (1987 & 1991) and the Ivan Yarygin (1991). He is one of only two Americans to win both tournaments (Chris Campbell). The Schultz style was brutal. I loved watching tapes of him. Schultz might not be the best athlete on this list but I still remember his intensity and aggressiveness more clearly than the rough VHS tapes that I watched him on. I have him ahead of his brother for the body of work. 7 World medals. Dave won 8 Freestyle and 2 Greco national titles. Schultz was the favorite to be on the 1996 Olympic team had John DuPont not cut his life short.
- Kevin Jackson- World team member 1991-1995.
1x Olympic and 2x World champion between 1991 and 1995. 4th place finish at Worlds in 1994. Jackson is one of 6 U.S. men’s freestyle wrestlers to claim 3 career World-level titles. Wrestled at LSU for 3 years before going to Iowa State. Yes, LSU had wrestling and Jackson was their best wrestler. As good as Jackson was as a freestyle wrestler he might be a better developmental freestyle coach. Jackson was great at a time when wrestling was at its first zenith in America. He was on both Team USA freestyle teams that won World Team titles in 1991 and 1993.
3x World champ and one-time bronze medalist. Missed 1980 Olympics due to the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Kemp was the favorite to win Olympic gold in 1980 but the chance was taken away from him when President Jimmy Carter choose to boycott the Moscow Olympics due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Kemp was the first American three-time world champion. At the time Kemp was the youngest American to ever win a world championship in wrestling at 21. He held that record until 1998 when Henry Cejudo won Olympic gold. Kemp beat Dan Gable while he was still in high school. He set the stage for what could be done consistently at the highest level. Kemp’s website says that his Open freestyle record after high school was 111-11, a 91% winning percentage with 53% bonus rate. I don’t think that it was all international events. Kemp was an outsider to the sport and it took a while for him to be accepted. He didn’t know the wrestling stars of the day and was black. I think that his accomplishments weren’t as celebrated because of these factors. Not to mention that wrestling media and coverage was nearly nonexistent if you weren’t Dan Gable or Wade Scahlles. Upon his retirement Kemp was the only American to have won 3 World gold medals.
3 Golds: 1 Olympic 2 Worlds and 1 World Bronze medal. Owns an 85-11 record on the senior level. One of a dozen Americans to win Ivan Yarygin Gran Prix (filled with multiple Russians) and he’s done it twice in 2017 and 2018. This tournament may be harder to win than the Worlds or the Olympics. All this with only 4 years on the world team. Snyder beat returning Olympic Gold medalist Jake Varner in the 2016 Olympic Wrestling Trials. Unlike anyone else on this list Snyder with success at such an early age decided to sacrifice big chunks of his NCAA wrestling career to train for continued freestyle success. So he has won Olympic, World, Yarygin, Kolov, World Cup and PanAms, this is unprecedented for an American wrestler. He’s six and a half years younger than Burroughs and says that he wants to wrestle forever. He hasn’t had many injuries to date. The biggest thing that his loss to Sadulaev at Worlds exposed is that his style allows for him to be game planned and that he might be losing some dynamic flexibility. Like many on this list Snyder was a junior world champion. In the age of being able to watch multiple matches of a wrestlers, scouting is rampant and evolving style is a must. More video here
5 Golds: 1 Olympic and 4 world championships and 2 Bronze medal world championships. He’s an 8-time world team member starting in 2011. He reeled off championships from 2011-13, took 3rd in 2014 on one leg then won another championship in 2016. An amazing streak or career for most wrestlers but Burroughs also took Gold and Bronze in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Yasar Dogu International Gold medalist 2016. Burroughs also owns a 65-match win streak starting at the US Open in 2011 and coming to an end when he wrestled American Nick Marable at the 2014 Yasar Dogu in Turkey. He wasn’t wrestling push overs during this run. He beat grapplers with more than 30 senior level UWW tournament wins. This unheard-of consistency and longevity are why JB could one day be at the top of this list. While he is currently ranked #2 in the world he has to be the odds-on favorite at the world championships in Kazakhstan in September. I currently have him behind Baumgartner because of his 2016 Olympic 9th place performance. He came into Rio’s Olympic games the #1 ranked wrestler in the world and essentially DNPed. Neither Smith or Baumgartner had this type of down performance at the Olympics. On the upside the most recent senior level record that I could find for Burroughs was a mind boggling 163-7. That’s a 95.9% winning percentage on the world stage. Way better than his NCAA wrestling record. Like most guys on this list Burroughs has peaked at the senior level. He’s 30 years old with a young family. Can he keep up his focus to climb higher on the list? He’s had a few injuries and seems to have a great training system to keep him fresh and at or near the top. I also think that during his senior level wrestling career his style has evolved as much or more than anyone else on the list.
Won 13 World medals from 1983-1996. 5-time world champ: 2 Olympic and 3 Worlds, 3 World and Olympic Silvers and 4 Bronze medals. Baumgartner avenged a Gold medal match loss to Georgian Davit Gobejishvili in 1988 with a win in 1992 for his 2nd Olympic gold medal. Baumgartner’s 14-year run is the longest in American history. Only 2 freestyle wrestlers have won medals in four Olympic Games. Baumgartner is one of them having won gold in 1984 and 1992 and silver in 1988 and a bronze in Atlanta in 1996. So, in ranking I put BB ahead of Burroughs because of his iron man like career and avenging a Gold medal match loss and always placing at world level events. I know the guys that beat Burroughs generally disappear never giving him the chance to avenge a loss. His gold in LA in 84 was a boycotted event. He took 3rd at the ‘83 and ‘85 Worlds making the Olympic Gold just a bit less strong. But he also won the Tbilisi Tournament in 1984. A much tougher win than the Olympics. After all that I have him behind the greatest American Freestyle wrestler of all time…
- John Smith– World team member 1987-1992.
6 consecutive world titles 1987-1992: 4 world titles and 2 Olympic Golds. This is an unduplicated run by any American regardless of timeframe. All of his titles came at non-boycotted events. Smith has more Golds than Baumgartner but less over all medals. I think that going 6 for 6 is better than going 7 for 10. Smith was voted one of the 100 Greatest Olympians of All-Time, in any sport, at the 1996 Olympic Games. Like many of the current Team USA standouts, Smith also won gold at the junior level. His senior level record was 100-3. Making for an outlandish 97% winning percentage. Wikipedia has a different record. Smith’s dominance forced the Soviet/Russian coaches to actually change how they coached the neutral position. John Smith is the gold standard for American freestyle success. Because of his 100% Gold medal conversion rate I think that Jordan Burroughs would need to get to 7 Gold medals to pass Smith in my rankings.
Wrestler most likely to enter this list.
J’Den Cox– World Team Member 2016-2018
1 World and 1 Olympic Championship and a World Bronze medals.
Cox would be only the 2nd wrestler to be on my Top 10 NCAA and Men’s Freestyle Wrestlers. Cox seems to be getting better over the last year. He has defeated two World Champs keeping both Kyle Dale and David Taylor off USA’s World team prior to the 2018 addition of weight classes. There is a lot of talk about Cox being under appreciated. He comes from Missouri which has a small high school and college fan base, compared to Iowa, Ohio or Pennsy. He has knocked Dake and Taylor off the world team, wrestlers with much bigger fan bases. The Taylor match was maybe not reffed super well souring some fans. He also seemed to underperform at worlds in getting a bronze. He came in ranked #1 I believe. Currently he’s the #1 ranked wrestler in the world at 92kg and at only 24 seems likely to take several more medals.