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Q&A with USA National Freestyle Coach Zeke Jones by Russian journalist Petr Pavlov

USA National Freestyle Coach Zeke Jones poses with a former opponent, World champion Herman Kontoev, during a Team USA tour to Yakutia, Russia. Petr Pavlov photo.

On the fifth international Grand Prix freestyle wrestling in memory of Dmitry Korkin, we interviewed National Freestyle Coach of the United States, Larry “Zeke” Jones.

Jones is a famous personality in the world of wrestling. Amateur freestyle wrestling knows and respects him. From Yakutia, fighters in various competitions, he competed on the mat with Herman Коntoev, Vladimir Тоrgovkin, Alexei Varlamov...

He shone on the mat, and he was one of the most famous fighters in the world of the 90’s. Competing in the weight category 52 kg, he was the World champion, holder of the World Cup title and the silver medalist of the Olympic Games of 1992 in Barcelona. And now, for several years, Jones has been the head with one of the strongest teams of the world - the USA national team, which at the London Olympics won two gold medals.

And now, we had the chance to meet and talk with the well-known wrestler and trainer and coach.

- How was that possible to win over the great Valentin Jordanov at the World Championship in Bulgaria in 1991?

- That day, I was pretty eager to win. I was a young man and tried to become a world champion. And Valentin was a 4 time world champion at the time so he was the greatest wrestler of all time. I was very motivated and I had a big desire to win.

- Okay, so, what wasn’t enough to win in the Olympic gold medal finals in Barcelona in 1992?

- Yeah, that was the difficult one. You know, I’ve never seen North Korean before, I’ve never wrestled him, so he was a surprise. (Li Hak-Soon, olympic games champion - PRK). He had very good ankle pick - that’s his best wrestling move, and he was very difficult to take down. He had a good offense and he’d beat several world champions in that tournament. And he was more prepared than I was that day.

- What match or rival do you remember most?

- Valentin Jordanov, of course. That’s an easy one. I mean, he is a seven time world champion; there has probably only been 3 in the history of the world, may be two. So he just happenned to be during the time when I wrestled. Then he was very, very good, so, I’d say, that’s probably the main reason. You know, he was just so great. He was as good as any wrestler that the sport will ever know.

- Are you keeping in touch with ex-wrestlers you wrestled?

- Yeah, I see them all the time. You know we go to wrestling tournaments and a guy like Valentin Jordanov, comes to USA quite frequently for tournaments, so I see him there. Yeah, I see a lot of people that I’ve wrestled like German Kontoev, I got a chance to see him all the time, and it’s nice to see him. We’ve developed friendships.

- What is the popularity of wrestling in the USA?

- It’s not very popular. I mean, it’s a good sport but the most popular sports in America are American football, baseball, basketball. There are many children that wrestle in the USA. So, it’s a good sport. It’s not the most popular, but there are quite few kids that do wrestle.

- As a head coach, what do you think about wrestling in the USA?

- Oh, you know, it’s a great sport for children. I work with Olympic team. It’s very important that our best wrestlers from my country, when they grow up, when they become adults and they want to be best in the world, that they rely on me as the coach to help them to get ready. That’s a tremendous honor and responsibility.

- Do you have any wrestlers you train as a coach?

- Yeah, every international athlete and club comes to the Olympic training to work with me and the national team about 100 days a year. And, in addition, several athletes live in Colorado Springs year around.

- So, do you have some young wrestlers you can highlight and invite to your national team?

- We do have. In the next four years there are probably 15 to 20 wrestlers that I’m targeting, that I’m watching. These are new wrestlers, not Jordan Burroughs, not Jake Varner, who are our Olympic champions. There are new wrestlers that I’m targeting, that could be a part of our national team coming in the next four years.

- Except you, who else is working as a coach in your national team?

- I am a head coach, and we have assistant coaches Brandon Slay, who is an Olympic champion and Bill Zadick, who is a world champion. Bobby Douglas, who is a legendary older coach in our country is involved. Olympic champion John Smith, Mark Manning,who is coach of Jordan Burroughs and Lou Rosselli, who was in the Olympic team in 1996, and who coaches Tervel Dlagnev, are some of the coaches.

- Do you like the present rules of wrestling?

- Yes, I do. I like the rules. If I had a magic wand , that I just could change anything I want, I’d probably would change couple things, but I think for now it’s good. I mean, I liked the rules before. I liked the rules when I wrestled. I think the rules nowadays are also good.

- What would you do to make the wrestling more exciting for fans and objective for athletes?

- Well, I am not a big fan of the clinch and I don’t know many wrestlers who like the clinch. And you’ll see the clinch today. I understand why they have the clinch in wrestling. The intent of the clinch is good, but I am not a big fan of it. I would change the clinch. I might change the edge of the mat rules to be little more liberal. Maybe you can go out of mat zone one time - no penalty, but if you continue going off the mat, that would be a penalty. As if now the rules every time you go out of mat zones - it’s a penalty. I would has less penalty on the edge of the mat.

- What do you think will change in wrestling? Because I heard that the main categories will change.

- I’ve talked to FILA and I haven’t heard that the weight classes are going to change. I think that is just a rumor. One thing that never surprises me is FILA. They change things all the time but I haven’t heard of any rule changes yet. Freestyle seems to be pretty stable.

- What do you think about judging presently?

- I think the officiating has become more stable, because they haven’t changed the rules really in eight years. When they change the rules less, the officiating is very stable.

- What do you think about your performance in the Olympic Games?

- I think we performed well, but I don’t think we performed great. I think we performed better than most people expected we would. I am very proud of our team. But like anything, you always want more. Two Olympic champions and a bronze medal wasn’t enough - we wanted more. But, I think, some people were surprised. I was not surprised, I thought our team was not perfect, but I think it was a good performance, and so close to a great performance. With two more wins, it could’ve been the best American performance of all time in a non boycotted games.

- Did you believe that Jake Varner would win in London?

- Absolutely. All because I believe he was good enough to. Like anything, everybody knows that was difficult weight class. There were six guys that could win. And may be a lot of people that believed they were better than Jake Varner, but not me. I’ve watched Jake – he is very good. I’ve watched him beat the best in the world and I know he is capable of being the best. He has a great personal coach – Cael Sanderson, he was an Olympic champion. So he was being coached by an Olympic champion, his training partner was an Olympic champion. So he was certainly very capable. I wasn’t surprised.

- What do you think about the phenomenal performance of Jordan Burroughs? I mean how can you explain it?

- I don’t know how to explain it. He is magnificent. He is what you want to see in sport of wrestling. He is fun to watch. He is very aggressive, crafty, sticky and fast. He has a great personality. He is a great person. He is a hard worker. He is extremely coachable. He cares about his team. He cares about the people around him. He wants to make America proud. And he did that when he won in Olympics. He is great.

- What do people of the USA think about your success in the Olympic Games?

- I think American people were excited. I think we did better than they thought we were going to do. Americans are rejuvenated. You can tell, there is a new excitement, confidence. The Americans for 10 years lacked confidence in the program. They were starting to make excuses why America couldn’t win again. And I knew America could win it. And I knew we could win if we did right thing, we did it right way. And now we have got a place where America is proud of the program again and it’s been a lot of hard work and it’s taking a long time. I can tell you to just to add to that, that success is not done by yourselves. It’s been from friendship with Russia, with Azerbaijan, with Cuba, and that we’ve been able to get better because other countries helped us. And I won’t forget that. Four years ago when I took this job and we weren’t winning, there were other countries that said “We will help you”. And that help made us better. So we appreciate that help.

- And a question about Yakutia. What are your impressions about Yakutia and Yakutsk?

- Well, it’s cold. But it is beautiful place. I mean it’s fun to see the fabric of the people, the human struggle. I always believe that we grow stronger through the human struggle. And I think that fogs are here because the weather is challenging and that the people are stronger. I like being here, I am glad that I was invited to come.

- What do you think about Yakutian wrestling and wrestlers?

- Well, they have a long history and tradition being successful. Going back to your Olympic champions - obviously today the guys like Lebedev. And in the future young kids coming up through that can be very, very successful. So, it’s obviously got a long history in tradition that Americans well aware of it.

- Okay. What is your purpose in visiting Yakutia? What do you expect from the performances of the wrestlers?

- You know I always expect the wrestlers to perform well. I also know that the competition is very good. When you have expectations for your team, you also understand the competition is very good. It’s what we come for. We come to test ourselves, to challenge ourselves against the world’s best wrestlers here in Yakutia.

- Do you have some plans after visiting Yakutia?

- Oh, yeah, I learn a lot from here. We were here for a two week training camp, and I was here for the last week to watch the preparation of how the team gets ready, and just watching how the other countries and regions prepare and train. I will take that information home. Maybe it will give me some inspiration how to train. A lot of people still talk about the Olympic Games, but me… I am thinking about how to get better. I come to Yakutia to get better, you know.

- What do you think about tournament organization?

- I think it has been outstanding. It’s obvious! There was a very warm reception. The people have been very friendly and helpful. You have been very great to take care about our team. This is a place where we will definitely come back.

- And the last question, what do you wish to wrestling fans of Yakutia?

- Today and tomorrow I am going to see a great tournament. I think it is going to be super competition. It’s fun to see people come together for something they love. In Yakutia you can see the great wrestlers of the world. So I wish safe journey for all the countries here and also for them to perform well. And for all of us to come together in sake of sport. It is all about wrestling.

Special thanks to Petr Pavlov, journalist from Yakutia, Russia, for providing this interview to and for his efforts to promote wrestling worldwide.

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