People wanted fire and that’s what they got in the first part of our interview with Dennis Hall. The three-time Olympian dug in on a variety of topics pertaining to Greco-Roman wrestling, including the current rule-set, development in the US, and how the style can be improved both domestically and globally. As always, Hall didn’t mince words and preferred to put a spotlight on the issues he felt were important to discuss.
For the second installment, it is all about the Greco star’s career. Dennis Hall is known for his ferocious competitive streak, so it was only natural that we touch on some of his more memorable performances, presenting all three Olympic appearances and that infamous run through the 1995 World Championships. The epic bout with Brandon Paulson from the 2004 US Olympic Trials is featured, as well.
It isn’t everyday you have a wrestler as accomplished as Hall so willing to open up. And if there is one thing the Wisconsinite is known for, it is that he isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what’s on his mind. We tend to hoist successful athletes up on a pedestal and keep them there for our enduring adoration. But what makes Hall different is the sheer fact none of that matters to him. He isn’t interested in notoriety. Instead, he would rather the intense battles of a life once lived define his legacy.
5PM Interview with Dennis Hall — Part II
5PM: Let’s talk about Barcelona, your first Olympiad.
Dennis Hall: Oh, a lot of controversy in that.
5PM: What, with the selection process? Or allowing professional athletes, right?
Hall: No, no.
5PM: Then go, go ahead.
Hall: See to me, this is where USA Wrestling had problems. I was excited, I was training my ass off to get ready for the Trials. Well, we didn’t qualify the weight class. The weight class didn’t get qualified. They had to send in the name of a competitor and they picked Frank Famiano, who at that point was the #1 guy. And I warned them, I said, Hey, there’s no way you should be sending in one guy’s name. If you’re going to send in a name we should have a wrestle-off before the final Trials. Get everybody together and let’s do it. They basically responded by saying, “No, we’re going to send in Frank’s name.” So I was like, That ain’t fair. Guys have been training their whole lives for this opportunity to compete and represent the country. Well, they assured me everything would be okay or whatever. I make my first Olympic team and I beat Frank, I believe two matches straight. And after I get done they want me to be in the picture with the guys who won, but then they told me, “You’ll get your gear, but Frank is going to be competing in the Olympics.” I didn’t even want to take my picture, because I was like, I told you this was going to be problem if I won. I recognized early on the potential for problems.
I remember being all pissed off on the flight home knowing I had just made the Olympic Team and that if we get the wildcard I’m not going to even be able to wrestle. I think I also probably told them I’d be contacting a lawyer as soon as I got home. I got home to Hartford and contacted a sports attorney from Marquette University and told him what was going on, and he said, “That’s crazy, how do they think they can get away with that?” To make a long story short, I called the guy from USA Wrestling, we worked it out, they changed the petition. They told me they couldn’t before I told them I had a lawyer. I think there were some hard feelings right away with USA Wrestling on both sides. But at the same time, I wasn’t going to not be able to wrestle in my first Olympic Games. That was kind of the crazy part. I remember cutting weight in Poland because they had our pre-Olympic tournament there, and right before, getting down to weight, they tell me we got the wildcard. So now I am going to be able to compete in the Olympics. They changed it, they changed it a couple of days after I told them I contacted a lawyer. They got it done.
At that point, it set me up for my first Olympics in Barcelona and it was a wild experience. You don’t know what to expect. I was 21-year- old, the young guy on the team. I just remember all of the publicity, the fundraising. Tom Minkel, the former coach at Michigan State, was our Olympic coach in ‘92. And someone at the university had worked for a place that donated trips for people who didn’t have anyone to go because of fundraising. So my mom and dad were able to come and watch me compete at my first Olympics. It was pretty cool. They got a great trip. I did a lot of tours and things like that. It was the Olympics, it was different than any other sporting event that I had been to. I remember near the venues there were armed guards with big guns. I don’t know what type of guns, but you didn’t want to mess with anybody around that area. You could tell there was a lot of security. It was a big deal.
I remember being at the opening ceremonies and I wasn’t too nervous up until a point. I was on the field during the opening ceremonies and all the wrestlers kind of hung out together. John Smith comes up to me and he goes, “Hey Dennis, you nervous?” I said, “John, I’m just surprised you know my name.” (Laughs) It was a cool experience. I looked up to John, you know? He won gold in 1988, he was just a stud. I said, “Nah, I’m not nervous.” So he says, “Wait till after tonight, you’ll get there.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. We go through the rest of the opening ceremonies and right when the guy lights the Olympic torch, right at that point, the arena burst into loud cheers and I broke out sweating immediately. At that point, I got nervous. I didn’t realize I was in the best sporting event in the world and there is going to be a lot of people watching and I’m representing my country. And I had a job to do, which was winning some matches.
It was cool. I ended up in eighth place. There were a lot of athletes at the Olympic village. It was neat because those were the only Olympics I stayed in the Olympic village. It was wild. You go in there and see all the athletes who won medals. As I was walking into a team meeting one night, I had to go through the gates because I had been at my parents’ hotel. And when I walk in, I see a guy with a tennis racket. I’m thinking, I know that guy. I mean, I don’t know him, but I recognize him. It was Goran Ivanišević from Croatia. He was in the Wimbledon finals against Andre Agassi while I was in camp at Lake Placid, New York. And like an idiot, I didn’t carry a marker with me. I would have gotten those guys’ autographs. Oscar De La Hoya was cutting weight outside while I was cutting weight. You know, you walk around the village and see the gymnasts. It was a pretty neat experience overall. The Olympics are what they’re cracked up to be.
5PM: With all of that stuff going on prior, how did you mentally prepare to wrestle in the Games if you wound up going in the first place, as you were supposed to? If you had potential litigation in front of you, how did you get into the mindset that you should be in entering the Olympics?
Hall: That I should be in? It’s pretty simple — it is what I worked my entire life to do. I just planned that no matter what, it was going to work out. I believed that the right guy would go. And I know that Frank Famiano is a stand-up guy. He was like, “Dennis, man, they should bring you.” After I won, he didn’t want to represent because he knew that I had earned the right. He felt bad, you know, but it was tough. The main thing is, I just kept training and doing the things I needed to do to represent the country as well as I could that year.
5PM: Fair enough. I remember those Olympics, I had pictures on my wall. You with the Joe Dirt haircut.
5PM: 1993 sort of kept the progression of your career going. Talk about the Worlds that year.
Hall: In 1993, I was at the World Championships and that year, I believe if you won your first match and lost your second, you were out of the tournament. It’s just the way the rules were. I don’t know who smoked crack to make those rules, but that’s what they were. I won my first match. I remember my coaches coming to me before the next round, the round I would be out, asking me if I knew who I had. I said, “Yeah, I probably have the Cuban, Sarmiento.” They go, “Do you think you can beat him?” I’m like, “Yeah.” Well, that little bit of a question made me go out there and be relatively mild to the Cuban. I wanted to prove them wrong and show that I could win but at the same time, it put some doubt in my head. Basically, they were telling me if I lost that round before the Cuban, I could still be in the tournament and still be able to place. Well you know me, being stubborn, I went after the Cuban, ending up losing in a tight match by a point.
I remember coming off the mat and I wasn’t tired because I wanted to keep it close and win it at the end. That was a huge turning point in my career. I said to myself, This is never going to happen again. Every time I come off the mat, I’m going to be utterly exhausted. I got back home and my father-in-law and I were looking at some land. He says to me, “Hey Dennis, how do you support your wife?” I wrestle, you know that. He goes, “Well, how much money do you make?” So I told him. He said, “That’s not enough. Do you do camps and clinics and things like that?” Yeah, I do them whenever I can. Then he asks, “Is there any way you can make more money? Yes, if you win medals, you make more money. So next he tells me, “I work about 60 hours a week to support my family. How many hours a day are you training?” About three and a half, somewhere in there. “Is there anything else you can do in your training that will make a difference so you can win that medal next year?”
I thought about it, I thought about it hard, thought what I was doing. And the biggest thing I took out of that trip two hours north from where I lived was, you know what? I have to treat it like a job. If I want good results, I have to go all in. Especially after that loss, it made me analyze why I was wrestling. Was it to make Teams and be liked by people in the United States, or was it to win a medal? I think it made a huge difference and changed my career because I didn’t go out there anymore just to wrestle and represent. I went out there to win and put guys through hell.
5PM: What about your training changed after that?
Hall: When I worked out, I was a monster. In the mornings I’d come in, I’d do either lifting or sprints or some type of conditioning. At about 10:30 in the morning I would drill for an hour just working on specific stuff, high reps. About 45 minutes to an hour for a drill. Later in the day I would come in from around 3:30 to 5:00, warm up, and get to it, wrestle live for an hour-twenty, an hour-thirty. And then at night, I would do another conditioning. I’d do a mile run, do my lifeline, sprint a half-mile down the road and then sprint back. It was basically the length of a mat. Right after that I would pick up my jump rope and my lifeline and do a workout. That was three nights a week. And on other nights, I’d go for an hour bike ride to make my legs stronger. If there wasn’t any snow out, I would be on my bike for an hour. 30 minutes out and if it took me longer to get back, that was my problem, it meant I was pedaling hard enough. It really opened up my eyes that you’ve got to treat your sport like a job and attack it like a job.
5PM: 1994 was the bronze, which I’d assume wasn’t a coincidence and it also set up the next couple of years. But before we hit on that, when was your first introduction to (Yuri) Melnichenko?
Dennis Hall: Oh shit, that was 1991. I lost to him at the Junior Worlds in a minute and twenty-something seconds. He tech’ed me. At the 1994 Worlds I ended up losing to Alexandr Ignatenko from Russia.
5PM: So going into those ‘94 Worlds, after your turning point, as it were…
Hall: I was pissed. I had done the work and I believed I was going to medal. That was the total difference. You know, you talk about mental toughness? Well, when you do the work that I did that year, the guys who are winning aren’t winning by accident. They put themselves in a situation and I really stepped up my training that year. I didn’t have any doubts in myself and for good reason. When I went out there I knew I had the gas tank. I knew I was strong, as strong as I could be. And I just let it fly.
5PM: You were expecting success.
Hall. Yeah, for sure.
5PM: So what was it about that 1994 Worlds, performance-wise, that sticks out?
Hall: After I lost to Ignatenko, I ended up wrestling the guy from China (Sheng Zetian), he was a three-time Olympic bronze medalist. I am wrestling him and losing, and then I get a cut on my chin. And it sucks trying to get it as closed up as possible. I told them to just super glue it. So I’m losing a little bit and then I wound up throwing and pinning him. That put me in the bronze medal match. Now we’re in Tampere, Finland. Lo and behold, I have a Fin for third/fourth. I know going out there I’m going to be put down first. But I go out there and try to get him tired. Like all of the times I’ve ever seen, we’re out there, we’re wrestling, going hard. We’re banging and I am just trying to score on him so I don’t go down first. Well, the ref blows the whistle and I go down. I defend his lift and after that I just keep wrestling. Pounding, pushing, snapping. I end up beating him, winning my first bronze medal from the Worlds.
It was at that point, when I knew that I was on my way to doing some pretty cool things in Greco. It was, for me, a dream come true, being third best in the world. Even though I wanted gold, coming home with hardware when I know some of the Greco guys weren’t winning much, it was nice bringing home a medal for the Greco program. I feel bad, because there have been some Olympic and World tournaments where I didn’t get to bring home hardware. I mean, I made ten Teams and I brought home three medals. So I know how a lot of guys feel when they don’t bring it home. It was a cool feeling that year and it got me really hungry to come back the next year in 1995 and do damage.
5PM: Which you did. And at the 1995 Worlds, you had to wrestle four former World Champions to do it. That’s as much of a gauntlet as you could possibly go through.
Hall: Oh, yeah. Yes. For sure. My first match of the World Championships was against Ignatenko, the Russian. I remember being in my hotel room the night before in Prague after I weighed in. Brandon Paulson came in and goes, “Do you know who you have?” I said, “No, I haven’t got a clue.” He goes, “You’ve got Ignatenko first round.” I was like, That’s good. Take him out right away. He knew I was ready for him because I brought Paulson as a training partner that year, and he and I had done a ton of training together. He warmed up with me before every match, and I felt bad for him. For my warm-ups, we did a decent amount of drilling and then after that, we probably wrestled live for 10, 15 minutes. We always did a full match between every match to get warmed up. I wound up beating Ignatenko in overtime. I reversed him — he had a gut on me, I reversed and put him on his back. I couldn’t pin him, but I held him there and then finally let him roll onto his stomach because I wanted the match over with. My second round was against the guy from Sweden. He was a big guy. He was originally from Greece but moved to Sweden. He was a 36 and a half pounder who cut down to 25 and a half, so he was strong.
A funny story about that match. After my bout with Ignatenko, I asked the guys from USA Wrestling if I was done. They were like, “Yeah, you’re done.” So as I get one foot on the bus, the step of the bus, they tell me that they’re calling my name to the mat.
Hall: Yeah, no shit. I’m not joking. They called me. I’ve got one foot on the bus and the guys from USA Wrestling come to grab me. I run down there, I rip off my street shoes, I strip down to my briefs in front of the entire crowd because I’m already on my second and probably last call. And then I go out there and I have to wrestle. I ended up beating him 3-2 or something like that, but that sucked. You’ve got to be ready for the unexpected. That was kind of a scary part.
The next match was against Rifat Yidiz from Germany, he was a two-time World Champion and an Olympic silver medalist. I remember I made an early mistake in the match. The guy was super strong. I thought for sure the guy was on steroids. It might be because of position, but I wasn’t sure. But I remember at one point in the match I’m pummeling with him and he gets underneath my elbow, catches my elbow, and lifts me up and throws me about three feet across the mat. I mean, I landed on my feet, but that is how strong the guy was. He didn’t score any points, but it was just the memory. I made an early mistake, he put his head on the side near my armpit. I remember pinching together so he couldn’t roll me. Well, he used it as a lever and gutted me. With about 18 seconds left I was down 3-1 and I had just been choking him in a front headlock and he was taking his time out. He’s getting the ice sprayed on him for nothing. He’s just taking a breather. I look over in the corner at the coaches and Rob Hermann is looking down, shaking his head. I’m like, Okay, he doesn’t believe I’m going to win this thing. I go over to Coach (Dan) Chandler, the other coaches, and they were watching the match next to mine. I look up at the crowd and all the guys, my wife at the time was up there also, and I remember them all looking down and kind of away from me. Okay. This is my attitude: screw them. I’m going to find a way to win.
We come back out and I wasn’t in great position. In my mind, I was hoping he’d reach for my head because I was leaning a little bit and then I’m going to fire my hips and hit a high dive on him. The whistle blows, I go straight to the body and I pin him with about 12 seconds left in the match.
That’s two world champs down. My next match was Aghasi Manukyan, he’s got one of the best reverse lifts in the world. In the 1994 World Championships, he broke everyone’s ribs. I wrestled him at a friendship dual I think that May, and he got me in a reverse lift. It was supposed to be a friendship dual, but I didn’t think that was too friendly (laughs). I didn’t want him to break my ribs, but I jumped my butt up in the air and let him throw for five. So I knew he had a great reverse and Paulson and I really worked on defending it. And I came up with a great defense, because back then, they didn’t have their hands locked in par terre. So I set up opposite, I went in the opposite way and blocked elbow to knee so he couldn’t get his lock. We were wrestling the match, they put me down first, as usual. He gets on top and I do that new defense to him. He doesn’t even get his hands locked. And when he stands up, you could see the look in his face like, I’m screwed. I love watching that tape. I mean, I’m great friends with Aghasi now, he lives in Stevens Point. He said, “You were a different man at the Worlds. There was something different about you.” It was 0-0 and then I went on tear against him and it was 8-0. And they didn’t call a fall for me, too.
5PM: Off of what?
Dennis Hall: Ah, I threw him and had him pinned. Put him on his back and they didn’t call it. I guess you could watch it on video (No, you can’t — Ed.). It doesn’t matter. That put me in the finals against Melnichenko. Four years prior, he whupped my rear-end 12-0. But at the same time, I had Ivan Ivanov’s brother Stephen working with me to be able to defend the lifts, he really knew his lifts. And if he couldn’t get me in the best position, I was in trouble, you know?
We went out there and we’re going hard. He got a couple of one-point gutwrenches on me. The funny part is, right before that match I told Paulson to get on top of me. My guess is that he still remembers this. I told him to gut me because I wanted to work on going hand-to-hand. So he’s gutting me, and I’m just working on turning my hips and giving it up. Melnichenko gets two one-point gutwrenches; meanwhile, I get a trapped arm on him and score two points. We battle to overtime, nobody could score the third point. I end up winning on criteria — a two-point gutwrench to two one-point gutwrenches. That is how I beat Melnichenko at the World finals. And I’m so stupid, just like a lot of the wrestlers these days, it’s so hard to follow the rules and remember the rules, that I didn’t know who won the match until they raised my hand! If you watch the tape, I get two and half feet off the ground, and I don’t get that high normally.
5PM: That’s half of your overall height as it is.
Hall: (Laughs) Exactly.
5PM: That brings us to the ‘96 Games. Now, we have obviously talked about this before, but that was from a more peripheral aspect. From a pure wrestling sense, it was also very significant.
Hall: In 1996 we had a solid team. It was a tough team. We had Mujaahid Maynard, who I believe was fifth in the World, we had Paulson, me, Zuniga, who took fourth in the world, you had Rodney Smith coming back, Barcelona bronze medalist. We also had Gordy Morgan, and you know, he could beat anybody on any given day. These guys were fighters, man. We had an awesome team. Derek Waldroup at 198, young Jason Gleasman, at that point, he was real young. And then we had Ghaffari. We had guys who could win medals and we probably did better than what a lot of people expected from us because we’re Greco. We came out with three medals and to me, that was a hell of an accomplishment. I was proud of the team and the way the guys wrestled. We fought hard every match. It was tough watching some of the guys wrestling their last matches. But it was a great environment and a great group of guys.
5PM: How do you separate that? How do you reconcile the results of your teammates during a big competition? It’s one thing for a high school or college wrestler to be in an important tournament and to see teammates getting eliminated. But the Olympics, you’ve been training together, preparing together for months and months and like you mentioned, there is a bond that goes along with that…
Hall: For sure.
5PM: Is the Olympiad such a singular event that it is easier to put the results of teammates behind you even if you do feel bad about them going down earlier in the tournament?
Hall: You use it as motivation. For me, I tried to do my best to represent our team. Everybody in the world is looking at it. Look at the last Olympics. Our Greco guys didn’t have the performance we wanted, but they are still a team and out there working their rear-ends off to represent their country. That they didn’t get the job done doesn’t make them a failure. I think you’ve got to be selfish, you can’t let it get to you. You have to see it as motivation. Get out there and wrestle the best you can wrestle and hopefully walk away with a medal if you’re lucky. You know, to me, I equate winning a medal in Greco-Roman at the Olympics to winning the lottery. It’s a really tough thing to do. You’ve got all of these foreigners who have been doing it since nine, ten-years-old. We start if we’re lucky, really start, when we’re what? 19? Or a lot of the guys don’t start until they are 22 or 23. It’s a whole different animal compared to freestyle. I was proud of the guys for how they fought in ‘96. There wasn’t one guy who laid down. Every guy gave it his best effort.
5PM: The next year, 1997, brought some more controversy with it.
Hall: The Worlds were in Wroclaw, Poland. I don’t even remember who I lost to. Earlier in the year, I took some time off coming off the last quad. I didn’t really get back into it probably until about a month before the nationals. I was wrestling some, but I wasn’t training. My body needed a little bit of a break. But I made the World Team, and at the World Championships, I got a tough draw. I had (Marian) Sandu, the Romanian, first round. I beat him. Second round, I had the guy from France. We’re going at it. Tight match. The guy was pretty tough. I ended up scoring a point, which should have ended the match. It was a perfect slide-by. They give me the point, but then the guys on the side took it away from me. I’m like, Are you kidding me? I ended up losing the match, they raised the other guy’s hand. And I’m pissed. I wanted to rip somebody’s head off. We end up protesting. I told them if they needed the money I’d get the money for the protest because there was no way in hell I should have lost that match.
I’m in the back room, just sitting there doing nothing waiting to find out if I’m in the loser’s bracket or the winner’s. To make a long story short, they come out and I don’t know which way I’m going. They come back and say that I won the protest. And I don’t remember who I lost to the next round. They probably have it archived somewhere. Then I was in the match to get to the bronze medal. If I beat Armen Nazaryan, who was a 52-kilo guy in ‘96 and beat Paulson in the finals. If I beat him, I go for the bronze. I’m up on him 4-3 with about fifty-something seconds left. I’m going after high dives on this guy because I didn’t want to get put on the mat. I hit three high dives on him and the referee blows the whistle and puts me down. When I’m up and just attacked three times.
I look up and I’m pissed. I get down in par terre position to get ready. Nazaryan jump-starts it and I’m bitching, No, no, no! Stop! Meanwhile, he jump started and had his reverse lift before the ref even blew the whistle. He gets me up and throws me for five and one. So instead of being up by one, now I’m down by five. I reverse him, I get one point back and then I’m down by four. I gutwrench him for two. With about about ten, fifteen seconds left we go back up to our feet and I am on him right as the whistle blows. He puts up his hands and acts like he’s going to fight me. So I told him, “You better put those hands down or you’re gonna get your ass kicked.” He backed off, you know?
Jordanov I believe was in his corner, the Bulgarian, and I go to him, “How much do you pay the officials?” I mean, at that point I’m extremely pissed. There’s no way in hell I should have went down in par terre at that stage in the match with a one-point lead and I know I was attacking him because I didn’t want to go down in the first place. So I’m mad. I go back into the warm-up area because I had to wrestle for fifth/sixth. I look at Mitch Hull and I told him I was out of the tournament.
It’s one of those things where I wish I would have wrestled, but he looked at me and goes, “What do you mean?” I have a headache. “What?” I said, “I’m done. Two matches today? I ain’t going to let them screw me in a third match.” And I forfeited out of fifth/sixth. I was tired of the crap that goes on in international wrestling. People may think I’m an ass, I don’t really care. They haven’t been in my situation and they haven’t been in tournaments getting hosed.
That’s the stuff the Greco guys deal with at the World Championships and at the Olympics that nobody sees. We’re always down. We’re always getting picked on by the officials. It’s ridiculous and stuff needs to be changed. That’s why when you talk about the way the rules need to be? They need to be so the ref doesn’t have a chance to screw anybody. That’s why I’m so adamant about there being no points for passivity. If they change the rules to the feet, you cannot allow the referee to give a point away for stalling. If you do that, the crap is just going to get ten times worse. I don’t care, I’m done competing so I’m saying it like it is. But it’s ridiculous that this shit goes on. I mean, people wouldn’t even probably dream this shit up..
5PM: I think it probably depends on where you are from to an extent. To this side, issues may seem pervasive. Getting past that, let’s fast forward to 2000, when you came really close to making your third consecutive Olympic team.
Dennis Hall: 2000? It sucked. I did everything I could. I had sponsorship all lined up to bring my family out to the Olympics in Sydney. I had done the work, I had put the time in. That’s what sucks about qualifying the weight class. You’re on the damn road qualifying and then you have to come home and train to get ready for the Trials. That’s the tough part, man. To me, I qualified the weight class. That year I had to wrestle the Cuban, Monzon. I’m down in Columbia. I haven’t left my hotel the whole time I’m down there. When you get off the plane, the first thing is that they have guys with rifles escort us so we don’t get kidnapped. And they warned us to NOT leave the hotel, or if you do leave, have three or four guys with you at all times.
So I’m down there and the weight cut sucked. It was one of the worst weight cuts of my entire life. I end up making it to the finals against Monzon, who’s a stud. He’s got medals, okay? Before the finals, me and Paulson are warming up and I get knocked out. I had a concussion. And I had to go wrestle and get the job done and qualify. I end up beating the Cuban in the last ten seconds of the match. (Steve) Fraser said that was one of the craziest things he’s seen. He said I looked like I wanted to kill the guy, so he gave me a one-point takedown. I don’t remember a thing because I had a concussion at the time.
5PM: Wait, you don’t even remember the match?
Hall: No, I have to get it from USA Wrestling. Fraser told me about it, he said, “You looked like you wanted to kill the guy, so he cowed down to the ground and gave you a takedown.” So that was kind of interesting. But going through all that, and going through the Trials where I won the first match, and (Jim) Gruenwald wins the second and that puts us in the third match…you know, I believe there was controversy. I’m up 3-0, I get to Gruenwald’s body and I lift him. Some people might say they didn’t see anything wrong with it, but when I’m yelling on my way to my back with two feet off the ground… You can hear me yelling in the video “Legs!” as I’m going to my back, yelling at the ref to stop the match.
You know what, if a guy beats me fair and square, I have no problem with the result. Never have, never will. But when I don’t see things the way the referee sees them, which happens quite a bit, I have a problem with that. To lose that match which would have put me on my third Olympic Team, after that I got rattled. I lost focus. I’m not making excuses. I lost focus and should have been able to recover, but I just snapped, man. All I saw was red in my eyes. He ended up winning the match, but when you make a call like I thought it should have been called, I thought it should have been caution and two for him and he should have been in par terre. If I’m in par terre up 5-0, I think I could have ended the match.
I know he’ll say it’s different. I don’t really care what he thinks. I know what I felt on the back side of my left leg. I’ll go to my grave knowing I got hosed on that call. You could say I’m whining, I don’t care. I wrestled the match and know what I felt. If you watch the video, it’s pretty obvious his leg is on the back side of my leg. However, I have no hard feelings against Jim, it’s just the way that it was called. But it was a tough loss. And after that, he and I battled for the next few years, we ended up going back and forth, but he beat me when it counted at the Trials. In 2001, I was working seven hours a day doing construction because I had a family to support and I was making $350 a month. I worked construction and then came home and trained. That’s what the average person doesn’t understand. You’re trying to make World Teams and working construction seven or eight hours a day, and then have to train. Evidently, I didn’t have it in me. It’s a tough way to live. I’m not making excuses, it is what it is. It’s the way things worked out. It was tough.
But things changed and I got an Olympic job opportunity with this program though the USOC, which was a great program. It allowed athletes to work for one of the sponsors for 20 hours a week. They’d pay you for a full 40 hours a week. I worked up in Wausau, Wisconsin, about a half hour away, I’d go run the ski hill on my lunch breaks. But it was pretty cool. I worked through 2004, I think I got on in 2002. Then in September of 2003, I was told that I was either getting kicked out of the program or they were getting rid of it, or something. I knew my spot was going to be gone. So I’m supposed to go out to New York because that is where the World Championships were going to be that year. I was supposed to go out there, John Bardis was giving every World and Olympic champion a ring. And at that point I didn’t have any money, man. I was told I was getting fired from Home Depot from the Olympic job program. Right before that I made up my mind, I was talking to (Terry) Brands and I asked him, “What do you think about me going down to 121 lbs (55 kilograms)?” He goes, “Are you nuts?” I said, “Probably. But I think I can make it. I’m losing my job right now and I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do.”
He knew I was hurting financially, so he got me a flight out to New York and allowed me to stay in his hotel room so I could get my World Championship ring from Bardis. Bardis came to the hotel room, he comes up and is talking to me. “So how are things going?” he asks. And at that point, I’m fried, I’m fried. You know? I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I said, “Well John, right now I’m okay, but I don’t know how I’m going to be in a little while. My Olympic job is being taken away from me, I think it’s because I’m #3 right now but I made the commitment to drop down to 121 pounds next year for the Olympic Trials and I’m really going to go after it so I can go out on top.” He ended up helping me out quite a bit and made life ten times easier. I owe him a ton. Bardis allowed me to train full-time and how I needed to. He allowed me to bring partners in. He’s a blessing in disguise, he’s an angel.
5PM: In and of itself, the drop down to 55 kilos for 2004 was already a grand undertaking. But the added component of having Brandon Paulson there, a longtime friend and training partner, seems like it brought on a whole new shade of complexity to the situation.
Dennis Hall: Brandon and I were really good friends at the time and I didn’t want it to get out there too early. I even asked the guys who worked with me not to say anything to anybody. I wanted it to be a surprise at the Nationals. Somehow I think he knew anyway. But when I got to Nationals I was skinny as heck and then everybody knew. It was out of the bag once I got there.
5PM: Did you do a test cut?
Hall: No, I didn’t do no test cut. I couldn’t eat much. I mean, I basically had a Power Bar, a perfect meal because AdvoCare was our sponsor at the time, and then another Power Bar at night. That’s what I ate for three weeks straight. That was all I had and I was still working out three to four times a day at that point. That pretty much sucked.
5PM: Did you notice if there were any physical deficiencies and if you did, what were they?
Hall: You put them out of your head. You can’t allow that to come into your mind. I’m sure there was something that was messed up. You don’t eat a Power Bar, a perfect meal and then another Power Bar for three weeks and not be deficient in something. But there was no other way I was getting down to 121 lbs. I just needed enough energy to get through practices. I mean, the last time I was down that low was my junior year of high school and now I was 33 years old. So I knew it was going to be a horrible struggle. I mean, when I made the decision to cut, I was weighing about 154 lbs.
5PM: Okay, but recognizing that the weigh-in’s were the day before…
Hall: Well back in those days, you could get IV’s, so the re-hydration was the main part. I sucked every ounce of water out of my body and then I’d get big again.
5PM: Right, because on your competition days, you still looked plenty big for that weight.
Hall: Yeah. I guess Paulson knew I was coming down because that January I did kind of a test run, I made 55 kilos with one pound over in Bulgaria. Kind of a funny story, actually. I had brought over Emil Budinov, he was a 136 and a half pounder. He was one of (Ivan) Ivanov’s friends and he put me with Emil from like, October to December. He went home right before Christmas. The day I’m flying out to Bulgaria we had a bad storm. All my flights are messed up, my schedule is messed up. So I’m not getting into Bulgaria until 11:30 at night. I call USA Wrestling and and go, “Do you guys have this and is somebody going to be there to pick me up?” I get back, Yeah, we’ll make sure somebody is there. I fly all the way overseas, I’m tired, it was a long day.
I get into Bulgaria 11:30 at night and I can’t even exchange money because the banks in the airport are closed. Stores are going to be closing shortly. I don’t even know where I’m staying so I can’t even take a cab to the hotel. Finally, nobody is coming to get me. I see a cab driver and he has a cell phone. Luckily, I have Emil’s cell phone number. I gave the cab driver 20 American dollars to make the call. Emil picks up and he’s like, “Hey Dennis!” I told him I was stuck at the airport. He says, “I’ll be there in five minutes.” So he comes and gets me, I had gifts for his two daughters, his wife, and him, and spent two and a half hours at his house that night. He offered for me to stay on his couch or to take me to the hotel. He takes me to the hotel.
I get to the hotel. It’s really late. The coaches are up and sitting downstairs in the lobby playing cards. I’m like, “Where the hell were you?” They go, We didn’t know… It was a little bit of a mix-up between USA Wrestling and the coaching staff. So they told me the first elevator was broken, we had to use the service elevator all day. I get my room key, go up to my room, and lo and behold, I’m rooming with the referee. We talked, decent guy, nice guy.
I go to the coaches to grab my gear. We had to have the new singlets, you know, they had to be high-cut and they were different or whatever. I didn’t bring my singlets, I told USA Wrestling to bring some for me. I get to the room where the coaches are, I grab my bag, and go back to my room. I pull out these two singlets and it looks they’re women’s singlets. I’m like, There’s no way in hell you’re gonna catch me in women’s singlets because that’ll be all over the media. I ended up wrestling in that tournament in Emil’s singlets, two Bulgarian singlets. I got the award for Outstanding Foreign Wrestler at the tournament. Alfred Ter-Mkrtychyan beat me first round and then I beat him in the finals, so that was a pretty cool tournament. I wrestled him in a Bulgarian singlet in the finals.
5PM: Are there pictures?
Hall: Dude, back then we didn’t have cameras on cell phones.
5PM: There were digital cameras in 2003.
Hall: Yeah, but I didn’t have that stuff, I was going there to win.
5PM: So Paulson wasn’t supposed to know you were dropping down until the Open?
Hall: My guess is that he knew after the Bulgarian tournament. Because I’m sure he saw the results.
5PM: Was there ever a conversation between you two about the drop to 55 after the Open?
Hall: Nah, no. I get to the US Open and I got a hip pointer. It was a mess, it sucked. I had it set up with one of the orthopedic surgeons. The morning of, I was going to get a shot in my hip to numb it so I didn’t feel any pain in my hip. He was all, No problem, man. Well, I get the shot in my hip and I go to warm up. It was my right leg. I’m warming up with Brands and I just don’t feel right. My leg doesn’t feel good. He said to go see the trainer to see if they could counteract it. I start jogging towards the training area and I fall. Tom Brands is walking up at the time and he goes, “What’s going on?” I tell him, “I got a shot for my hip-pointer and I think it hit a nerve because my leg is going numb.” He thought I was screwing around by falling in front of him. He helped me back to the training room and they tell me there is nothing they can do. They tell me if they counteract it I could test positive. So I’m like, “Okay, then what are my options?” They said, “I guess go out and wrestle.” I wind up wrestling basically on one leg.
I go out there, I snap a guy and fall down with him, scrambling back to my feet to stay with him. I snap him again and fall down again. And right at that point, panic got into me. I’m worrying, What am I going to do? I’m going to lose this first round because I can’t even keep my balance. So I just stayed in the center because hopefully, they put this guy down and I can get just get on top of him and gutwrench him till the match is over. The guy does an arm-spin on me, I hop on my good leg, turn my hand up and he goes underneath me. I jump on top of him and gut him out. When they gave me the shot, they said it should take about six hours to wear off, so I might have time before my next match. The next match comes and is against Sam Hazewinkel, and my leg is still numb. I can’t. I’m like, Okay, if I can sprint 100 yards, 75 yards… I got maybe 20, 25 feet and I fell on my face. So I ended up withdrawing out of the tournament. I didn’t want to wrestle like that, I knew Hazewinkel was a stud. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to beat him on one leg.
My wife was pissed, you know? It is just what it is. She couldn’t believe that it happened. A good story though is that year, I believe was the first time they were paying $3,000 for a National title. I was kind of thinking I’m going to be okay because I’ll get $3,000 for winning the thing (before the painkiller). Instead, I go out gambling that night downstairs at the casino, which was the Las Vegas Hilton at the time. I had $20 on me, so what was I going to do? Go back up to the room and be miserable? So I go to the casino with $20 and it’s lasting me forever. I’m like, This is it. I’ve got to win something or I’m going to go to sleep. I go to the dollar slots, I have $20 and I put them all into the slots. I win $700. Now I’m like, Okay, I’m going up to the hotel room. I head up to the hotel room and in the elevator I see my wife’s uncle. He says, “You ain’t going to bed yet. Let’s go play some three-card poker.” We go down and play some three-card and I win $1,000. Now I’m up $1,700. But the problem is, I forgot that I was supposed to get milk for Brandon, one of our kids. He needed a bottle. I get up there and my wife goes, “Did you get the milk?” I go, “No, I forgot, but I do have $1,700.” She says, “Fine, now go back and get the milk.” So I went back down and got the milk, came back up, and went to bed.
On the last day of competition, I’m just watching and after it’s over I go pack to get ready for the next day. The next morning I go down to get a cup of coffee and put $20 in a slot machine. I get a hot slot, I win $300. I play again and I hit $2,400. Then I go, I gotta get back up or I’m going to miss my plane. Well, when I come back down with my luggage, a lady had just won $7,000 on the same slot. So that was my 2004 US Open, gambling. At least I made my money one way.
5PM: How did you balance your training and weight management between the US Open and the Olympic Trials? Because now you had cut down to 55 kilos twice — once in Bulgaria and once in Vegas.
Hall: It was no different. I knew what I had to do on a daily basis. I just had to continue my normal process and watch my weight every single day to make sure I was on target to make weight at the Trials with no problem.
5PM: Obviously, when most people think of the 2004 Olympic Trials, the third and decisive match between you and Brandon Paulson comes to mind first, when in fact, you had to get through the Challenge Tournament to set that up to begin with. You had to wrestle three of the up-and-coming lighter-weight stars consecutively.
Hall: For sure. My first match of the tournament was against Joe Betterman.
5PM: The teeth match.
Hall: (Laughs) I knocked his tooth out or he knocked it out or one or the other. I had a little tooth mark on my forehead. He was laying down but he got back up and kept fighting. I don’t even remember what the score was. But he was young at the time and he battled hard.
5PM: Next was Sam Hazewinkel, who was just getting going as a Senior.
Hall: It was good. Hazewinkel is a tough competitor, he might have been at that point an All-American at Oklahoma. He came out there to wrestle. We wrestled for six minutes, I believe the score was 5-2 or somewhere in there. I controlled the match pretty good. I just didn’t want to make any mistakes, either, because there is no room for mistakes in a challenge tournament.
5PM: That’s who you would have had to wrestle at the Open before defaulting out due to injury.
Hall: That is why I didn’t want to take a chance at the Open and potentially tear a hamstring or a knee, because he knew how to wrestle.
5PM: In the finals you had the late Lindsey Durlacher, who could present all sorts of problems.
Hall: Back then they had the clinch rule and we wound up clinching and he broke it trying to throw me right away and I just covered up immediately for the final point. It was a physical match. I was in there pushing him around pretty well, but I couldn’t score. He always kept really good defense.
5PM: Now it’s the main event versus Paulson. This was what it was all building towards. You were where you wanted to be, right?
Hall: I knew it would hopefully be Paulson and I in the finals and it got to that point. And it was really tough. I got to train a lot with Brandon in the early 90’s all the way through ’96. He came over as my training partner in ’95. We trained together all of ’95 and ’96, he would come down by me and stay with me in Stevens Point. We became great friends, but at that point, I ended up having to make a decision — where did I think I could win a gold medal? I knew my body could make the weight, so I went down. You know, one of us wasn’t going to make the team. It’s a tough thing. But at the same time, he knew where I was coming from, which was that I had to do what I had to do by dropping.
5PM: Knowing you were going into what was a very familiar setting for you at this juncture in your career, which was a best-of-three Trial final, I’d imagine this felt different. You might have had other opponents in domestic finals before you knew well and were familiar with, but it’s got to be different going against someone like this.
Dennis Hall: That you trained with, yeah. I mean, he knew what I did. Even though we hadn’t trained together for a while, he knew my tendencies and that caught me in the second match. He knew I always came to the head hard at the beginning. I came with a right hand and he threw a headlock and scored three or whatever it was at the time. Then he shut me down the rest of the match, the score was 3-0. My neck was so sore after that. I went straight up to the stands where my fans were. My brother-in-law was in chiropractic school at the time, or he might have just graduated. I told him he had to come down and adjust me because right then, I couldn’t move my neck. I could maybe move it two inches to the left, two inches to the right. It was a limited range of motion and I couldn’t let anybody see that because if I didn’t get that range of motion back, I didn’t want Brandon pulling on my neck.
He followed me down the stairs. A guard looked at me and then looked at him, and he didn’t have a credential. I just told him not to stop walking, to follow me down. We went down to the training area and he adjusted me on the table. After I got back up, I knew I was good. I remember being up in the stands right before that and my wife at the time goes to me, “I know you can do it.” I said, “Well, he better be willing to die if he wants to win this third match because that’s what it’s going to take.” I remember saying that to her as clear as day.
5PM: The series is tied 1-1 and it’s onto that third and conclusive bout. Any expectations that may have been a part of this going in were by now blended in with the moment. The battle is in full swing. Before the third match, are you amped? Or are you at all apprehensive heading in?
Hall: Listen to me, I’m not apprehensive at all. I wanted to get it over with. I know I’m going to go out there and attack smart and I’m just going to put the pressure on him and try and break him. That was my game plan. To be as physical as I could be and try to break him down gradually so I could score points.
5PM: The match was 3-3…
Hall: What happened is he got the first caution and he turned me. Then I throw him with the front headlock, which I don’t know how it wasn’t more than three, but they gave me three. I’m not complaining, but I make a mental mistake. Because I throw him, and then something was weird about it. I had the choice to keep him down or put us back on our feet. And back then, you could get a one-point escape. If you watch the match, you see that I put him down and then ask the ref if I could change it. Because I knew he was going to stand up right away. I tried covering, but what I should have done is let him stand up because they wouldn’t have given him a point. But if you tried covering him, he’d get a point. So I made the mistake of trying to half-cover him and he gets his one-point escape, which was great on his part. It was a smart move. But I made that mental mistake, I should have never put him down and we wouldn’t have had that long overtime.
5PM: Yeah, but that is what makes this bout stand out the way it does, obviously. It would have been a great match anyway, but the way it all happens, going into overtime and all that is part of its lore. As overtime unfolds, they didn’t know what to do, right?
Hall: Yeah but no. This is what happened, I didn’t know the rules, man. All of the criteria was the same or they would have had to pick a winner. All of our criteria, passivities, everything, was the same. That’s what they said. Now thinking back on it, it wasn’t the same because I scored on a three-point move. But maybe back then, that didn’t count, it might not have been a criteria. But it usually is. So who knows? But anyway, that put us into overtime, they said that all of the criteria was the same. That’s the way it came out. I didn’t know what they were going to do, I was just hoping and praying they didn’t pick somebody as a winner. The referee goes into the center of the mat and goes, “You’re going to have to score a point. We’re not giving away a point. Somebody is going to have to score.” He then tells us overtime is going to be three minutes and then it is going to be unlimited if nobody scores.
Right at that point, I put my mindset at an hour. My thought process was that I was going to stay in position and beat the dog tar out of him and just wear him down gradually and not do anything stupid. During the first overtime there were a couple of opportunities where we were close to scoring. And then at the nine-minute mark they reset the clock to another three. After the 12-minute mark they reset it again, there were a lot more attacks. I remember people in the crowd standing up chanting “USA! USA!” Brandon and I were both dead tired and the crowd was just standing up and going crazy. I remember just trying to stay in the center and control the center. There were a lot of good attempts by both wrestlers.
And finally at about 16:54, I got a two-on-one and I did kind of an attack to his back and drove him down and out of bounds. I didn’t wait for the referee to call a point. I jumped up and started celebrating because I wanted to make sure that the referee called the point. So he didn’t have a choice but to call it.
I got up and started celebrating and went over to my corner and ripped Terry Brands’ head off. He flew off the stage with me. I ran around and ended up hugging the cameraman. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just excited to have it finally done with. And then I look over at where Paulson is. I go over to him to give him a hug and I tell him, “Hey Brandon, you can keep your head up high, man. We gave these fans what they came for and everything they wanted.” I said, “I’m sorry I had to do this, I love ya”, and that is pretty much what I told him. I was there four years earlier, so I knew how he felt, which sucks.
5PM: You’ve had to talk about this match several times throughout the years. When you look back on it now, do you come at it from a different perspective or do you see it the same way you did then?
Hall: I see it as two animals wrestling and one of us is going to win and one of us is going to lose. And on that day, I was on the winning end. I mean, Paulson was a tough dude. He was an Olympic silver medalist, a World silver medalist. He was the real deal. You just had two good guys going at it, two guys who knew how to scout each other and knew what each other had done from training with each other. To me, it’s a special match. I feel bad for Brandon, of course. But after, I called him up and said, “Hey man, I’d love to have you as my training partner when I go (to Athens). I know you might not want to go.” I didn’t call him right away, I wanted to give him some time to decompress. I just said, “I’d really appreciate it if you come help me.” He said he had to talk to his wife and then called me up about a week later and said he’d come help me. That was cool, you know? And we’re good friends to this day.
5PM: Do you realize this match’s historical value? It’s not just Greco people who hold it in high regard, the US wrestling community as a whole does, as well.
Hall: Ah, I mean, it’s one of the many battles wrestlers go through. Just because it was a long match against a tough opponent it will be remembered that way. Plus, it was to make a Team. To me, it is definitely by far one of the best matches I ever wrestled because it was against such a solid opponent. But I just look at it as a match that was pretty cool to be a part of.
5PM: So you make your third Olympic team, Athens. It was quite an accomplishment. You dropped down and you did it because you thought that 55 kilos was your best shot at a gold medal. It didn’t happen, but once again, it was a situation that wasn’t without controversy.
Hall: First round I wrestled a Czech who was fourth in the world the two years before. So he was a tough competitor right off the bat. I beat him I believe 3-0. That put me against a guy from the Ukraine. Ukrainians are usually pretty strong traditionally in Greco. This guy was tough. He was solid, put together well. I remember warming up for my match with Terry Brands and I’m ready, I’m warmed up and we get out there. Nobody could score in the first period, so we wound up going into the clinch position. He had the lock on me. I present myself the way you’re supposed to and the guy acts like he can’t lock, which is a total crock. The referee starts yelling at me, so I drop my arms just a little bit. The guy gets my elbow trapped to my side. Soon after he locks, my hands were just starting to come together and the referee blows the whistle. And I’m toast because my arm is trapped. He throws me for three and I’m on my back. I fight off my back and he got one extra because he held me for five seconds.
I had some front-heads in the first period, but that second period, I had him in even more. And every time on our feet when I had him in a front headlock, the referee would break it and get him out of it. It was total garbage. I just remember, that guy had his head down and I was just trying to score. Back then they didn’t have the step-out, but I’m just attacking him at the edge. At the end of the match, I lose 4-0 and my shot at an Olympic gold medal is gone. Unless he made it to the finals, I’m out of the tournament. He lost in the semis.
I remember getting off the mat frustrated as heck and you had to be escorted to the media right away. I get over to the media and the lady asked me, “How do you feel?” I look at her and say, “That’s a stupid question, the interview is over.” I go sit down and the guys from USA Wrestling come over and tell me I have to go do the interview. I said, “Well tell her if she asks me another question like that, they won’t get an interview.” Think about what I just went through. I agreed to do it, but I told them I could end it at any time. I go back, she changes her wording and we have a good interview. She just asked me how I thought the match went and I told her that there were discrepancies with the way the match was called. I told her, I thought I wrestled great and if you looked at the guy at the end of the match he was dead-tired and could barely move. Physically, I wore him out and broke him, but on the scoreboard I ended up losing. I gave it everything I had and it’s all I can do.
That’s the last match at the Olympics I ever wrestled and it’s frustrating. It’s a common theme. If you watch all the Americans at the past Olympics, they go down first 90% of the time. I just would like to help push Greco-Roman wrestling to the top again and get some World and Olympic medals. Right now, I’ve got Ben Provisor up in Stevens Point training. He’s back home looking to get ready and get started on another four-year cycle. Michael Hooker is flying in to work with us on our core strengthening program. We have a lot of other guys who are interested in it. Matt Lindland and I are working well, we talk a bunch on the phone. Things are going good. He’s interested in using our program because I believe he saw the difference in Provisor. Hopefully, I can get back at the Senior level, coach some, help guys get to the top of the sport and reach that gold medal I never did.
5PM: Is there anything about your career that you would change?
Hall: Nah. There isn’t anything. Maybe one thing: I know when I was really successful and I won those three medals in a row, I had a sports psychologist, Beezy Hendricks. I would have had somebody help me with my mindset. Because when I lose it, I lose it. I wasn’t always prepared for the bad calls that come any athlete’s way, not just mine, but any athlete’s. I think one of the ways I deal with it is the guys who I’m training, I’m putting them in the practice room where they are getting ripped off by me as the official. That way when it happens in a match, they know how to react better.
5PM: (Laughs) That’s so tragic you feel the need to do that.
Hall: No, I mean, it’s the dead truth! I mean, think about it!
5PM: Okay, I’m just saying, it’s sad you need to do that.
Hall: Yeah? Well, when you’re getting screwed as much as the US does, you have to work on those skill-sets. Until they change the rules internationally where they aren’t giving away points for guys doing absolutely nothing, the referees can dictate every match.
5PM: When you do work with Senior-level athletes, aside from the officiating aspect of things, what do you try to impart from your own career to younger wrestlers? What do you want them to learn from you?
Dennis Hall: I don’t care if they learn a thing from me. I want them to understand that they are in control of their bodies, and your body is your tool or your weapon. Get your body as strong as you can and in the best shape that you can. Don’t be lazy — do the work. If you do the work, your mind gets 10 times stronger. Oh, everybody always says to me, You were mentally tough. Well, if the average person worked as hard as I did, they’d be mentally tough, too. It wasn’t a coincidence that I believed in myself when I’m doing three to four workouts a day. You’re going to go out there a little angry because the guy who you’re wrestling made you do it. I just want to make sure that the kids get that point. You’re in control. Don’t wait for the coaches to make you a World or Olympic champion. Search it out, ask questions, and figure out the plan. Everybody’s plan is going to be different. You have to figure out what is going to work for you.
Dennis Hall is the co-host of the Five Point Move Podcast and the co-founder of the SPIKE Core Training Program. Follow him on Twitter for Greco-Roman wrestling insights, camp/clinic information, and more.
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