For our second installment of FIVE Matches, we look to none other than Shawn Sheldon, unquestionably one of the best lightweights in American Greco-Roman history.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when Sheldon’s name is mentioned? Chances are it is his World silver from 1991. Sheldon had advanced to the final in Varna after defeating two-time World Champion Bratan Tzenov before falling short against Cuban Raul Martinez, who would earn gold both that year and again in ’93.
But for Sheldon, his stellar career involved much more than just the ’91 Worlds. Much, much more. He won the Nationals nine times. He took second eight times. He was the first US wrestler to win Russia’s prestigious Ivan Poddubny event, appeared on two Olympic Teams (’88 and ’92), and competed in a total of seven Senior World-level tournaments.
When you glance back at what Sheldon accomplished during his extended era as a competitor, it is almost absurd.
Today, Sheldon is the owner of SWAT (Sheldon’s Wrestling Academy Trained) located in Boca Raton, Florida where he is continually introducing age-groupers to the international styles. Many of his wrestlers have gone to achieve various degrees of domestic success, and several others have competed overseas in recent years. Of course, those plugged into the US Senior circuit can still catch Sheldon matside as a coach for the New York Athletic Club, with whom he has enjoyed a working relationship for over two decades.
He’s still here. He’s still Shawn Sheldon.
5. Espoir World Team Trials | Schenectady, NY | 1983
“It was a great match. I wound up tech’ing the guy. Just making that World Team was special. The competition was held in Albany, New York. Well, Schenectady, and nine of the ten guys who made the World Team were from our club (ATWA).
“Making the Espoir World Team was really my first time traveling outside of the US. We were going to Norway — a very, very small town in Norway. It was right on the water, beautiful. It was my first 12-hour trip in one plane and then another four hours for a bus ride. It was quite an experience but it was a great experience. I was with a bunch of people who I had trained with 24/7, so that was a great experience on top of it.”
4. US Open | Las Vegas, NV | 1986
“In 1985 I was 105 pounds and I really wanted to go up to 114.5. That’s what the weights were at the time. We had ten weight classes still. There was this one guy, Mark Fuller, who could go both weight classes. He would go up and down, but he was 114. Depending on what he did, I did the opposite. I wanted to get over that. I wanted to go up to 114 and compete against him for a National championship. In the finals, I beat him pretty handily. I don’t know the exact score but it was a four or five-point spread. I was never in danger, and I was able to score on him. Getting over that hurdle was huge.
“1986 was a great year. I also won the Division III National Championships and I beat Pete Gonzalez. He was going to Montclair State but he had transferred from a Division I school. He loved telling the story, You beat me and I didn’t know who you were! (laughs). That was a great year for me, 1986. Winning the US Open, the Division III National Championships, and then went onto Division I because you could do that at the time. It was a great year. It wasn’t my first win at the US Open because I wrestled there at 105; but beating Mark Fuller and wrestling up at 114.5 was really great.”
3. World Cup | Colorado Springs, CO | 11.8.1996
“I was wrestling the Cuban (Lizaro Rivas). It wasn’t the final match because the World Cup was different. You didn’t really have a bracket system. The bracket system is made up of the actual teams, not individuals. I was down by two points and I went to throw him. It was kind of a gutwrench but I popped him up and he landed on my head. I got the points because I held on when I rolled him through but I was totally knocked out. I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know anything. I watched on the video and I was just still. At that time, they weren’t so concerned about concussions.
“So I got up, said I was ‘ok’, that I knew where I was, and continued the match. There were probably about two minutes left to go in the third period. I scored a couple more points. After the match though, like 20 minutes after, I had no clue about what happened after I had hit my head. I knew that I had won — but I didn’t know what technique I did and plus I had scored a couple more points. I was just going on adrenaline and muscle memory. The guy pushes into you and you do this; the guy pulls you, and you do that. That was a great thing, to finish that match out. Then I wound up winning the World Cup because I beat the Russian (Boris Ambartsoumov) in that tournament, as well.”
2. World Championships | Varna, BUL | 9.27.1991
“Beautiful place. We had an ocean view tower suite. It was pretty awesome. I mean, that was a really good tournament in that time-frame because I had been to Bulgaria before and the places we stayed were not very good (laughs). But for the World Championships, it was awesome.
“But in the semifinals I had to wrestle the Bulgarian (Bratan Tzenov). He was a National hero. He was really good, World Champion, European Champion…so on and so on. We were battling back-and-forth and I finally hit this one arm drag. One referee said I used legs, and then another referee said I didn’t use legs. So we challenged it and I was able to get the point. That was just a barnburner match. He was about 5’2 and full of muscle. And he wasn’t going to quit. He wasn’t quitting, and I was not going to quit, as well.
“I outlasted him. I think I won by two points. It was just a battle. It was an ax fight without the ax. We were both bloody. It was a battle. The crowd was against me, everyone was against me. The officials were against me. There were a couple of times when I should have received points. Back then, it was really iffy for Americans. The referees didn’t give us much at all. We were always coming from behind. But I endured that match and came out on top.”
1. Ivan Poddubny Memorial | Irkutsk, RUS | 1989
“The competition was in Irkutsk. That is near Lake Baikal, right on the border of Mongolia basically. The tournament was during the ‘Midnight Sun’, when it never got dark. We were right on the Equator side. It was just like being in Alaska. Around 11:00pm, it got a little dark, but not really.
“We began the trip out of New York and were flying into Russia. We really don’t have any clue about how far it really is. We just knew we were going to Russia. We were in the air for maybe 17, 20 hours. When we got to Moscow, they told us we have to stay overnight. This was in 1989. There was Perestroika, but it was still new. We get there in Moscow to a sport hotel where it was only athletes and stayed the night there. We got a workout in that night; and in the morning, they wake us up, bring us to the airport, and tell us that we have about a six-hour flight and that’s not even the end of the trip. Basically, we have three connections. We had to travel from Moscow through five time zones to get there.
“Oh my goodness. Riding in some of those planes… We had chickens on the plane with us (laughs). People were smoking, they were drinking. I mean, there were no rules back then because this was on Aeroflot, which was a Russian airline. It was crazy. When they come down for the landing they turn about 90 degrees and you are hanging onto the seat hoping we make it to the ground. It was craziness.
“The weigh-ins were starting at 6:00pm and we were supposed to get there, I’d say around 4:00 or 5:00pm. Maybe? And it ended up that we didn’t get there until 8:30 at night. We were traveling all morning. We got up at 6:00am. So we traveled, we got there, and then they said that we have to weigh in now. Well, no one was really on weight but they kind of let us go and told us that we would have to make weight tomorrow. It was a two-day tournament for the weigh-ins.
“So now, we’re going through the tournament. It was me and Matt Ghaffari during that era. We were the higher-level Greco guys. We were the ones who performed the best. He was a heavyweight, so his weight didn’t matter. But now the officials are looking at me as I’m beating these Russians one after another. He’s got to make weight, he’s got to make weight! I’m still wrestling. I make it through the first day and I had beaten four Russians, so now I have to make weight. I’m running, I’m in the sauna, and I finally make weight. There were four officials there to make sure that I made it.
“The next day, I beat the guy in the semis and make it to the finals against this little monster guy. He was probably 4’11 or 5′ tall and this little jackrabbit, stocky, muscular guy. The one thing that I think saved me during the match was that there was an official from Finland on the chair. Because, it was overtime. We went for 16 minutes. 16 minutes. There was no time-limit back then. My best move was a slide-by to an arm drag. I took him out of bounds with a slide-by about four or five times and they gave me no points in overtime. Finally on the last time, the official from Finland put up a paddle and gave me points, then the other referees followed suit. That was just another battle.
“All of the Russians were there. America, Finland and France were the only non-Soviet Union countries who were there, so they didn’t want anyone else winning. It was tough, but it was an awesome feeling. I still have my trophy. It doesn’t look like a trophy, it’s really a vase. It was a great experience there.”