Teen Wrestler Lee Kemp, Giant-Slayer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because David-and-Goliath stories never get old.
By Eugene S. Robinson
“No one would talk to me. It was like I was dead.” The speaker is the now 58-year-old, 5-foot-7.5 Lee Kemp, straight from a wrestling practice with the team at his alma mater in Wisconsin. A wrestling practice in which he wrestled. Against collegiate phenoms. “So I just stayed away from everyone.”
Kemp is talking about the day in 1976 at the Northern Open collegiate wrestling tournament when he, as an 18-year-old sophomore, faced Olympic gold medalist and legend Dan Gable. Gable took the match as prep work for a considered run at yet another Olympics. Twenty-six-year-old Gable, 181-1 in his college record, not only owned the 158-pound weight class — he was the 158-pound weight class.
And while it made sense that the rest of the world saw a dead man walking, Kemp saw the circle of doubters claim teammates and eventually even coaches, who tried to talk him into dropping down to 150 pounds. At first they were cautious, playing against his desire to have an undefeated season. And then they were direct. Because it was Gable, and the smart money wasn’t going to even glance at an 18-year-old with a dream.
This was as heavy as striking out Babe Ruth, stuffing Michael Jordan or any other sports analogy that works for you.
Gladiator Magazine’s Todd Hester
But Kemp was seeing something else. Mostly failure. “I saw the first two guys he wrestled against lose,” says Kemp. “Not so much because Gable was crushing them, but because they had quit before they set foot on the mat.” Kemp had been to a seminar a few months before where he’d heard Gable speak, and something Gable had said resonated with him: “Anybody could be beaten.” Gable had said it, and Kemp believed it.
Believing wasn’t seeing, though, and when their match started, Gable came out hard. Like, freight-train hard. Rico Chiapparelli, also known as the Baltimore Butcher during his days at the University of Iowa, where he was a 1987 national champ and wrestled under Gable, said, “Gable believed in words like ‘intensity’ and ‘dominate,’ and he was and did both.” Which Kemp had expected, having watched Gable wrestle before. And partway into the first of three periods, Kemp scored with a single leg takedown, and the world seemed to stumble. Freak accident. Lucky shot. Maybe. But by the second period, he escaped to a 3-1 lead, and then Gable and everybody in attendance at the auditorium in Wisconsin knew that they were at a fight — and going into the final period, so did Kemp, looking at the now 4-3 score favoring him.
“I just wasn’t going to concede the win,” Kemp says. Which, in a classic seesaw battle, fighting to the finish, he didn’t. Final score: 7-6. “This was as heavy as striking out Babe Ruth, stuffing Michael Jordan or any other sports analogy that works for you,” says Gladiator Magazine’s Todd Hester. “Amazing, really. No other way to spin it. And not to be duplicated.”
Though Kemp remembers Gable taking it like a gentleman, walking off to no excuses, 1976 Olympic hopes aggressively altered, The Milwaukee Journal says differently, quoting Gable immediately post-match analyzing that first takedown: “It wasn’t a takedown at all. He grabbed my leg and I just fell down.” Maybe. But in the definitely column? Kemp, still in his teens, had just beat a man who had been beaten only once before. A man who was so dominant that the entire Soviet Union had been angling to find a wrestler to beat him. And some adopted kid from Ohio who had been wrestling for just four years had done it.
Which would be perfect if the story had ended there. But it didn’t. One day after training a few hours for the Olympics, someone pulled Kemp aside and said that Gable had showed up and wanted to do some training with him in the back wrestling room. Not really believing it, he headed off and found Gable in a poorly lit back corner, shadow wrestling.
“I walked up to him, and without a single word spoken, we just started wrestling,” Kemp says. “I knew what was happening — he just wanted to see if I was that good. Or if he had had an off match. And it wouldn’t be over until I quit or was pinned.” In a universe that included three two-minute rounds, wrestling for 30 minutes straight would have been unusual. Sixty minutes, highly notable. Ninety minutes heading into two hours? Epic. “We wrestled all over that place. Under the benches, wherever. But nobody beats Dan at practice.”
Respect earned. Of course, after that every match Kemp had was now a death match as opponents struggled to beat The Man Who Had Beat The Man. The end result? Kemp, who had been phenomenal before, became even more so. A proof positive that would have been laid down at the 1980 Olympics — which the U.S. boycotted that year in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But the same man who at 58 trains with guys he’s three times older than and holds his own didn’t miss a step, and went on to win Worlds and Pan Ams, got himself into a few Halls of Fame, ran some successful auto dealerships and motivational speaking engagements, and now? Technically consulting on an upcoming documentary about his life called Ghost & Goblins.
“Most people never even come close to seeing what they can accomplish if they push it like they were going to die if they didn’t,” says Kemp. “But when you do? You come out the other side a different person.”