By Gary Abbott
It was a powerful and emotional evening celebrating numerous wrestling legends, as the National Wrestling Hall of Fame inducted the Class of 2018 at its 42nd Annual Honors Banquet at the OSU Student Union Ballroom on Saturday night.
Honors Weekend is about family and friends coming together to spend time together and tell stories about amazing people who share excellence through wrestling. The Honors Banquet is the time each year that the inductees get their chance to give their perspective and thank those who shared their journeys.
The four newest Distinguished Members were all international wrestling stars for the United States, each who competed in the Senior World Championships for Team USA numerous times and three who were members of the U.S. Olympic Team. Their list of achievements is endless, but their love for wrestling unified them all.
2008 Olympic champion Henry Cejudo was only 21 years old when he won the 55 kg freestyle gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, making him the youngest Olympic wrestling champion from the United States at the time. Now, a decade later, he becomes one of the youngest to be inducted as a Distinguished Member. A professional fighter in the UFC, Cejudo has a title fight in August, a new career which emerged after his wrestling success.
Cejudo used his time to thank many people who supported him. He spoke from deep in his heart.
“You know my life story. I am the son of immigrants. My mother came here to live the American dream. When I was a little kid, my mom always told me, ‘Henry. You are a child of God and you are an American.’ As a little kid, I didn’t understand that, because we were poor. We were living in a junk yard inside of a trailer. There were seven of us, plus my uncles, and there was no room to sleep. She always said ‘Henry, you are an American.’ And I come here today, I am extremely proud not just to be a wrestler, but to be an American,” said Cejudo.
Only the second woman ever inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member, Kristie Davis is the most accomplished American women’s wrestler in history. Her nine World medals matches another Distinguished member, Bruce Baumgartner for the most World medals in United States history. Two were World gold medals, including one claimed on the home mats in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 2003.
Davis started by asking those in attendance to keep Coach Mike Duroe in their thoughts and prayers. Duroe, who is battling cancer, helped Davis early in her career as the U.S. women’s coach.
“I am extremely grateful and honored to be here this weekend to receive the highest honor you can get in wrestling. I want to thank USA Wrestling, the New York Athletic Club and the Gator Club for standing behind me, for supporting me by getting me to the tournaments and help me prepare to be on the biggest stage every single year at the World Championships. Thank you to all my coaches and friends who came out this week to celebrate with me. I really love and appreciate all of you. I also want to thank my family for always being there and supporting me,” she said.
2004 Olympic silver medalist Stephen Abas was one of the greatest lightweight stars in American history. A three-time NCAA champion for Fresno State and 1998 Junior World champion, Abas dominated opponents during his era, using outstanding technique developed from a creative style of combat which was his own.
“Thank you to my mom, my brothers and sisters for making it out. My family has always been supportive of my career, travelling to the tournaments and watching me compete. Thank you to my workout partners who were there every day to take it, help me learn and to explore my arsenal. Thank you to my coaches. I have been fortunate to be around amazing coaches, giving me the little techniques to help me grow to who I am. I have been in this sport for 30 years, have met some amazing people and have built some amazing relationships,” said Abas.
The late Lee Allen, who was inducted posthumously, did it all in wrestling. He competed in the Olympics in both freestyle and Greco-Roman. He coached Olympic and World Greco-Roman teams. He was a college coach for both men and women, and a pioneer in creating opportunities for women in wrestling. He helped raise and coach two daughters who wrestled for Team USA. His family was there in full force to accept on his behalf and to help celebrate his tremendous legacy within wrestling. His wife Joan Fulp spoke for Lee’s family and friends.
“To Lee’s wrestlers, both male and female, who took the time to come to this memorable weekend, our family is so grateful to share this time with you. I want to thank Wayne Baughman, for his consistent tenacity and support for nominating Lee for this honor. We are all so connected with this sport. It captures our hearts, captures our spirit. This event captures the very soul of our sport and we realize how it has joined us together, much like those wrestling moves that pull us in and pin us down and keep us grounded. At the same time, wrestling creates the space for each one of us to give back to the sport,” said Joan Fulp.
To the wrestling community, it was truly a night of celebrities, including the other special award winners who are now enshrined for their contributions to the sport and to society.
The Outstanding American this year is Randy Couture, a great wrestler, a legendary MMA fighter, a successful actor and businessman. We know him as a high school state champion in Washington, a U.S. Army soldier, a three-time NCAA All-American for Oklahoma State, a four-time Greco-Roman World Team member and six-time UFC world champion. With all that has happened in his life, he said that it starts with wrestling.
“It has been spectacular to see so many familiar faces, so many from the past and so many who have helped me along the way. I am blessed to have come from this country, to come from a single-parent household with my mom raising three kids, to allow me to chase this dream and to do the things I have done. I had some amazing coaches who have filled that void, to kick me in the butt when I needed it, and to use the work ethic that my mother taught me, to hone it and give me direction,” said Couture.
The Order of Merit went to Nancy Schultz Vitangeli, the widow of Dave Schultz who chose to give back to the sport that she loved and which helped her and her children to deal with an unspeakable tragedy by making a difference for others. Schultz Vitangeli founded the Dave Schultz Wrestling Club, which trained athletes in men’s and women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman through 2005. She helped begin the Dave Schultz Memorial Tournament and helped create the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award in 1996. After her speech, she received a standing ovation from those in attendance.
“This award says more about all of you and the people of wrestling than it says about me. We are a people who come together and create family in good times and stick by each other in the bad. This is for everyone who sat by my side when Dave was killed, this is for everybody who sat with me at the trial, to all the coaches, donors and athletes of the Dave Schultz Wrestling Club, to those who helped me make films about Dave, the Team Foxcatcher and Foxcatcher films. To everybody who still teaches Dave Schultz techniques and tells stories about him,” said Schultz Vitangeli.
Michael Martinez received the Medal of Courage for his amazing recovery from the severe burn injuries he received from a fire that gave him second- and third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body. A two-time Colorado state champion and four-time NCAA qualifier for Wyoming, Martinez was also an Olympic Trials qualifier in freestyle. In his powerful and humble way, Martinez accepted the award with character and grace, thanking the Hall, friends and family for supporting him.
“I would like to thank God for, in this instance, giving us my father. A lot of people, when they retire, they leave their shoes in the center of the mat, or hung from the rafters, or wherever they train at the time. He left his in the back seat of his pickup truck, sitting on a practice plan for the kids he was coaching. I decided to leave his shoes in the Hall of Fame here. Many of you knew him. A lot of you have asked. I think this is a well deserved spot for his shoes. I am grateful,” said Martinez.
After 40 years of officiating, Gary Kessel talked extensively about his love for wrestling, and what drove him to pursue being a referee at the highest levels. He refereed 16 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, including 12 finals, 21 Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships and 18 Virginia Duals. Kessel has also refereed 39 New Jersey state high school wrestling championships.
“Fifty years ago, I was introduced into a sport I fell in love with. I found a way to stay involved for 50 years. For 40 years, the way I stayed involved was trying to stay unnoticed, because if you got noticed, you did something wrong. For me to be here, getting inducted with this class, with my family and friends, is very special for me,” said Kessel.
Also honored were the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award winner David Carr, a four-time Ohio High School state champion for Perry High School in Massillon, Ohio, and Alleida Martinez, a four-time undefeated California High School state champion for Selma High School, the Tricia Saunders High School Excellence Award winner.
“I am very honored to be here. I want to say thank you to my parents, including my mom who is here with me, for helping me achieve my American dream. Through wrestling and through the Marine Corps ROTC program, I have learned that we get what we earn in life,” said Martinez.
“I am very honored to receive this award. I am truly blessed. Dave Schultz is a legendary wrestler and so great that there is an award in his memory. The people who have received this award have accomplished big things and have accomplished the things I want to accomplish,” said Carr.
Throughout the evening, inspiring videos were shown of each inductee, prepared with skill and passion once again by Dave “Doc” Bennett.