But the numbers don't begin to tell the story. Fried dominated top opponents with a flair that was breathtaking. And yet, throughout our interview, I found the man who made it look so easy on the mat to be extremely complex, battling self-doubt and personal demons like any of us, if not more so. I found that in a sport where champions typically provide guarded, "canned answers" to questions, the greatest high school wrestler in Ohio history is shockingly candid. What follows is the first of a three part series:
Alan, I'll start from the beginning. You started wrestling in the 5th grade, a late start for a wrestler. How did you get into wrestling?
Fried: Bernie Weiskopf got me into wrestling. I was playing softball, but I was too intense for that game. I was the kind of kid who would yell at teammates for their mistakes. I even remember getting angry at the orthodox Jewish kids on my team when they would have to leave at sundown on Fridays for the Sabbath. I'll probably be doing a little time in Purgatory when I die for that! Weiskopf thought that my energy might be better suited for wrestling.
Despite having started wrestling in the 5th grade, you won Pennsylvania Junior States one season later. What would you attribute your rapid progression to?
Fried: I worked hard and had really good coaches honest to goodness -- Coach Mariola, Tim Rutherford, and Bernie Weiskopf at Longwood YMCA, those practices were what it's all about for me. I listened to them. I tried to do what they said. All I ever wanted at Longwood was to win the push-up award. The coaches stressed often that whoever won that award was a respect-worthy wrestler. It had nothing to do with wins and losses and it was something you could have complete control over. That is, how perfectly and intensely you did the calisthenics routine was totally up to you. That award was given to the hardest worker during calisthenics (not who could do the most push-ups like the title leads you to believe). My desire to win that award resulted in my strength increasing an incredible amount in a year and a half. I did get the push-up award after my second season when I won PA states. I'll tell you that our calisthenics routine before every practice at Longwood is legendary amongst the wrestlers from Longwood. We did so much work. Most people just wouldn't believe it if I said it.
I also had an abundance of the one ingredient that keeps so many of these would-be champions from reaching their goals -- supportive parents! Not just the type of parents who acted like they were supportive, but parents who walked the walk also, attending every tournament, waiting outside of Ferg's house while I worked out about 100 times, dropping me off at St. Ed's at 6:00 in the morning for two years. I'll never forget riding to school with my dad every day. Forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh at full volume, or 1100 AM, I can't even remember, but it was rough and a major sacrifice for my family and myself getting to school two hours early all the time. If he were around today, we would both laugh so hard at how much we hated that drive together. We battled, but he was such an amazing dad. One of the few truly good people in the world.
Sorry to ramble, but its funny you ask about that tournament because the fact is, that tournament was the breakout tournament for me growing up. I had to wrestle the kid who beat me at the first qualifier in the finals of the second qualifier. He had won Pennsylvania states the year before. I wrestled him at the first qualifier and lost 10-1. Then I had to wrestle him the next weekend I knew I had to beat him to qualify (only champions qualified for states). It was 0-0 after the first period (as opposed to 6-1, like the week before) and in the second period he threw both legs in, but instead of crumbling, I grabbed both his ankles and rolled back, catching him in sort of a defensive pin. That was one of the two times in my career that I went crazy after a match.
Alan FriedI would guess that the other time was after you pinned Tom Brands at Midlands?
Fried: Yup, that's the other one. That (PA Junior States) was one of those moments in life where you take it to a new level. That was the first big confidence builder of my young career. I felt like a real gamer for the first time, when I pulled that one out, because I stepped up when the match meant something. It's so easy to take a backseat to someone after they beat you by nine points the week before. But you have to live in the now and not take the past on the mat with you. Every match starts out 0-0, people forget that.
You were defeated by just two Ohio opponents in high school. Whether it was in folkstyle or freestyle, was there ever any Ohio wrestler that you had trouble getting past growing up?
Fried: Well, you know who was always tough for me was Audie Atienza. We wrestled in 8th grade and had an 8-6 match. I think he started in 7th grade. He gave me fits in that match. He was very slick and I respected his technique. I was not surprised when he dominated at State. Also, I remember Steve Dernlan and I traded matches my sophomore or junior year. He pinned me (while he was up by about eight points) at I think Freestyle States, and then I beat him to make the Junior World team later that year. Scott Pergram (state champ in 89) and I traded matches freshman and sophomore year I think. I wasn't surprised when he put it together his senior year and dominated at State either. Besides that, I know I would have had my hands full if Mike Gilmore from Nordonia would have made the finals my senior year. He was my first drill partner at Longwood as a matter of fact. I beat him by 6 or 7 in the regular season, but he lost in the semis, due to being disqualified for an illegal spladle-type move (he was dominating the match). He was on a roll, had nothing to lose and I know I would have been challenged had he made the finals.
You were coached by one of the all-time greats at Lakewood St. Edward High School, the late Howard Ferguson. What impact did Ferguson have on your career?
Fried: (long pause) Wow, that's a big question. He just sort of made it so you would totally perfect things. It was one thing to learn technique and have good skills but the technicians Ferg was bringing in really got you thinking about wrestling moves with such a sophisticated approach at such a young age. I think about what his clinicians showed me when I was a kid, that's what I'm still showing now. That's all they taught at Ed's. It's so much simpler than what people think, it's a purified form of wrestling. They brought in clinicians that showed you how to do things that were unstoppable, if you really listened to what the clinicians had to say. The only way you could lose was if you had a bad day, everything you needed was at your fingertips. They still have the same philosophy. I love going back there to teach because we all start out on the same page and then take in one step further, instead of having to go through the uphill battle of re-teaching first. Fine people, and possibly the finest high school sports program in this country's history. Urbas has done the impossible by filling Ferg's shoes against the odds and making the program his. It's kind of like when Hendrix covered "All Along the Watchtower" by Dylan. He made it just as great, but in completely his own way. I wonder how Urbas would like being the analogy between him and Jimi Hendrix (laughing), well, you know what I mean. I think Ferg would like the Bob Dylan comparison.
What is the lesson that other programs can take from St. Edward's success?
Fried: It's attention to detail. You have to throw yourself into the fact that details do matter. Wrestling is a natural thing, but your natural instincts are going to be wrong often times. I think that people are afraid to question whether they may be doing it wrong. People think it's about how bad you want it, but how bad you want it should manifest itself in how much you are willing to learn the technique. People are so into the Rocky Balboa mentality, they think we can get it just by wanting it really bad or getting after it but that's not true.
I find that when I do work with kids or older wrestlers, I find there often is burnout. It's such a demanding sport, I find that the burnout factor is oftentimes because the wrestler has taken his focus off sharpening the techniques of wrestling. To liken it to music, you have to play your major scales well after you think you know them, until it gets so smooth that the quickness and control begin to increase and the technique itself begins to take on a new form -– going from the stringing together of somewhat unrelated movements to one sweeping, smooth execution. Then you know you're getting somewhere. Wrestlers get away from that (learning). Sometimes success is your worst enemy -- wrestlers think they've just gotten better, as if they've gotten somehow better as a person which made them a better wrestler, but forget that it's predominantly the technical improvement that got them there. As long as you are generally a happy, reasonably adjusted person you won't be a head case and you'll be able to maintain your composure in competition, but when you go to the technique bank, what's in there? How many levels of defense can you penetrate in an instant with your skill?
Coach Ferguson died unexpectedly in the fall of 1989, shortly after you went to college. How did Ferguson's untimely death affect you?
Fried: It has had a huge impact on me because it happened my first month of college. I had a real tough adjustment at Oklahoma State. I separated from my grade school friends when I left my predominantly Jewish upbringing in grade school to go across town to St. Ed's, then I separated from my high school friends when I left Ohio to go to Oklahoma State … over time, I became almost a man with no home, no center. You expect that to be an ingredient in your life because wrestling is in many ways a monks lifestyle….cutting weight late at night, or working out with no team present, watching films alone…but for me it was more extreme.
Coach Ferguson had also said that whatever I needed to get to the next level, he would be my sponsor and look after me. I knew I was headed for a long road, especially after college, where money would be tight, so I guess I counted on having him, and it brought so much confidence to know he'd be there still while I was away at school.
And then he died. He had just eaten dinner at my house a week before for the first time, we all had a great time, my parents and Ferg really hit it off, and he just passed away so unexpectedly.
If you had to put a stake down on major moments in your life, that would be one. Ferg had so much to offer in terms of life, he was such a cool guy, there was so much to learn from him, he was such a great role model, he was a huge success in business yet he could joke around or kid around and be completely on our level. Once you got out of high school he would relate to you in a whole new way, one a whole new level than when you wrestled for him, as a friend. I remember how Greg Elinsky would call him up or come see him when he was training for the Olympic Team. I very much looked forward to having that kind relationship with Ferg.
In some ways it was like when Cus D'Amato died for Mike Tyson. I make analogies of that to Ferg. He would have kept me on a tighter leash. It wouldn't have been easy to do some stuff, he would have made me accountable. I think he would have looked after me a little, maybe I needed that. I was probably a little underdeveloped in some areas when I went to Oklahoma State. Being so focused on wrestling as a kid, it's not a normal lifestyle. You wonder how many experiences you miss out on in terms of becoming a complete person. But if I didn't get to wrestle I would have missed out on so many experiences.
It seemed to me that you made a huge jump in your wrestling between your sophomore and junior, going from barely squeaking out a state title over Shjamil Pattie (one week after he defeated you) to completely dominating all comers the last two years. What do you attribute your improvement to?
Fried: I think I improved an equal amount every year, it's just that I was reaching that top state and national level as a freshman and sophomore and then went beyond it as a junior and senior because I never slowed down in my training and attention to technical details. The truth is, when you've got a gold medal on your mind, you can't be all hemmed up by the drama of the high school wrestling scene. You are required to rise above all that gossip and storytelling.
But, the thing about Pattie, that guy was so tough. He never got tired, never stopped scrambling. Our match in the finals was the only time I felt so exhausted that I almost threw up. We went at it for nine minutes and I could not break him.
At Junior Nationals after your sophomore year, you technical falled (future Olympic gold medalist) Tom Brands. What can you tell us about that match?
Fried: The first time I wrestled him he was going to Iowa, and Gable was watching, I just went out there and technical falled him 15-0 in about 90 seconds. I double-legged him four times in a row to his back, in about fifteen seconds, it was weird like he wasn't really defending. Have you ever seen a young kid quit trying because they are mad at their coach and are making a point? It felt kind of like that…..you knew there was more to the guy. When I watch the films since I think there was definitely something wrong with him that day. Apparently, he got over it.
You also beat Terry Brands and Troy Steiner at Junior Nationals that year?
Fried: Yeah, I actually had a much tougher time with Terry in the next round, I beat him by about 8-3. I beat Troy Steiner by around nine points.
I'd like to jump ahead a bit and talk about your rivalry with Tom Brands. Brands is of course one of the all-time great American wrestlers, an Olympic gold medalist, world champion. And three-time NCAA champion. He was also one of the meanest and most well-conditioned wrestlers to ever take the mat. What goes through your head before you go to do battle with him?
Fried: Different things. In a rivalry like that, everything starts with the first time I wrestled him, you know how that went. But then he went to college, all I heard from anybody was how hard Brands is working at Iowa, I was like, 'I could care less,' but I kept hearing about it so much that I guess I felt like I had to pay attention. I oftentimes wondered why people around me were so excited about how hard my competition was working. They didn't even know him, but they were kissing his butt anyway. When I finally wrestled him again in an open my redshirt freshman year, I beat him but it went down to the last few seconds. Brands went on to win NCAA's that year while I redshirted.
The next time I wrestled him was at the all-star match, we tied in regulation -- that was back when they still had draws in dual meets. I'm thinking, 'OK, a draw with the defending national champion -- that will have to be good enough for now.' But they decided to wrestle overtime right there on the spot, I get his leg up in the air, and he literally kicks out of his shoe and his sock, it just flies off.
You mean, he's barefoot?
Fried: (chuckling) That's right, he's barefoot. One moment I have his leg, the next I have only his sock and shoe in my armpit and his foot is gone. I thought for an instant he might have quickly chewed his own foot off- he's that crazy. (Laughs Again) They should have given me a point for him having an equipment violation! He always wore his shoes very loose.
Like that was his planned counter?
Fried: I think he knew he could do it if he needed to! He's way more sneaky than people think he is. He does shock you with the stuff he will pull off in the heat of a wrestling match. That's why I think he was so tough, every year in the U.S. Open he would be in a match he was on the verge of losing, but he would come up with something completely unrehearsed that he would pull out of the depths of his amazing will to win.
He wrestled way over his head all the time. People think Brands dominated because he always won. He didn't. Every time. There were times where he definitely could have lost but didn't. It wasn't like Smith or Sanderson, you know, just pretty much trouncing every single person. It was blood and guts every round. He was just so motivated. That's how much respect I have for him. And, the thing about him and most of the Iowa guys on his level was that if they got into a match that went down to the wire in an early round, they were ready to do the same thing the next round. There were no lulls in intensity or any "tournament wear down" factor when they competed. Most other wrestlers are still too jealous or blindfolded to recognize the incredible level of competition that Iowa's wrestlers maintained under Gable. I'm not. His wrestlers combined to make what was the fiercest sports teams I think the world has ever known. I have just never seen so many guys compete with so much heart so consistently as the Iowa guys under Gable. I don't really care what the Okies say about that. I showed them my loyalty, but I also live in reality.
Did losing to Brands for the first time affect you mentally?
Fried: After the All-Star match where he beat me for the first time, I don't know if I was emotionally unstable, but I felt like a real chump when I lost because his shoe came off, I was embarrassed. It felt like such a "fall into a manhole" kind of way to lose. It really messed with my head and there is no doubt that after he beat me he got even more motivated. I was a big obstacle for him. I just kind of sensed that for the next two years I was going to be in a dogfight.
It's good for me to have competed with someone that tough. I'm not even emotionally attached to any of it anymore, wrestling Brands was a great way to spend my youth, take it to the limit. Just a couple of young guys getting after it -- venting all that energy. There are so many negative way that energy can be expressed, I found a vehicle to express it through wrestling, it's something you can't do later in life, that's why it is so important to do while you are young.
When I reflect on my career, I think that at least I capitalized on my
energy, it's more spiritual completeness with the competing that you did, the great battles, than an ego thing of, 'I won this, I won that.'
You once pinned Tom Brands in under a minute to win the Midlands. What can you tell us about that match?
Fried: That was a throwback to our first match. To really get the whole story you have to know what was going on in my life. The summer before I went to the Espoir worlds and beat a tough Russian guy to win. I received the "Most Technical Wrestler" award.
Two weeks before I left for Espoir Worlds, I was the victim of a violent crime where I was carjacked and beaten badly enough for the doctors to instruct me not to wrestle at the Worlds.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma State was under investigation. Coach Seay had already been fired, so we had no coach. That fall was catch as catch can coaching. Me, Pat Smith, and the Purlers, pushed ourselves, coached ourselves. Meanwhile everything is going perfect for Brands, training under Gable.
The Oklahoma State staff was under investigation, so we had barely competed all fall. Both Iowa and Minnesota wouldn't wrestle us for some stupid reasons of their own." I wasn't even going to go to Midlands. I don't know why I remember this so well, but I was eating a corned beef sandwich, playing Nintendo with Scott Peters and Mike Goldberg (who I am now an associate attorney for) and we got to talking about Midlands and maybe that I should go, you know, because we didn't have anything else better to do over the holiday break. Sure enough, I get Brands in the finals. But having my own workout partners and schedule, it was a great break that was really mentally refreshing, took the pressure off. The Iowa guys are so calculated in their preparation, Brands didn't expect me to be there, and I think it threw him out of his game plan.
As I recall you hit him with a knee pick, then trapped his foot and leg with yours, and "climbed up" for the fall?
Fried: Yes, it was a knee pick (laughing). It pissed me off, the wrestling magazines said it was a headlock, like I'm some loser out there throwing out desperation headlocks. It wasn't a fluke. In fact it was the same move I hit five seconds earlier and didn't get the takedown on the edge.
After we got back to school, the coaching staff, or whatever you call it began practicing. Oh, and now I'm getting all the attention because of the Brands match. What a joke! Every week a new coach for the rest of the season. Basically, the Grad assistants would take turns running practice and it wasn't long before the wrestlers realized that each one of these coaches is trying to give us the workout of our lives because they're basically looking at their week or so to run practice as a job interview. So, it was a string of unrelated, mostly ineffective practices for the whole second semester. But then, when the season was over and John Smith got the job officially, things turned around. He brought in Mark Perry and I finally had a coaching staff in college that I believed in overall. That's why I stuck around when we were actually put on probation. I was that happy to have a strong core of people and didn't want to uproot again.
I wrestled Brands again at the All-Star match again, and he beat me pretty bad. I think I shouldn't have gone to the Metallica concert a couple days before. I was like nine over the seven-pound weight allowance the day before. I was struggling with the weight and didn't want to make 134 anymore. I remember Randy Lewis saying that after pinning Brands at Midlands, I probably should have bumped up to 142 and said, 'If you want to wrestle me, do it here.' Nothing like getting the right advice five years later!
Speaking of Tom Brands and Iowa, several years after your collegiate career ended you ended up moving out there to train for the Olympic Team. Oklahoma State was of course Iowa's most hated rival and you were the most bitter rival of Brands. What made you want to move into such seemingly unfriendly territory?
Fried: I had no structure at all, I felt like a lost man, my college coaches had moved on the next thing, and I just kind of drifted along. I was at Indiana then, right after college I started having a lot of injuries which started the slow downward spiral which became my international career.
I was completely on my own, training by myself, cutting weight, booking travel, traveling, getting my own rides or rental car for three freaking years, so I figured I'd just go all the way and train at Iowa. I knew I was coming from their archrival, but I've seen plenty of situations in the past where guys "buried the hatchet" and trained together. But for some reason there was a bunch of people who had a problem with me being there. Royce Alger had a big problem with it. We went in there as friends (actually, he was one of my idols) but now I don't even talk to him, I wouldn't talk to him. That's what you get for idolizing any person, disappointment.
During the years of 94-96, when I'd travel out to Iowa to workout with McIlravy, I wasn't allowed in the Iowa room because Brands was there. After I actually moved there, neither of the Brands' would work out with me. They never complained about it, but Tom wasn't happy with me being there because I was competing internationally at the same weight as his guy, Bill Zadick. I was a fish out of water.
Who did you train with then during your stint at Iowa?
Fried: I trained a lot with, and learned so much from working out with Lincoln McIlravy. My gut wrench improved one hundred percent in one workout. That I'll never forget. The next year I coached at Northern Iowa, but I kept traveling to work out with McIlravy. I had another offer to coach, but I wanted to keep training with certain guys, in particular Darryl Weber, Doug Schwab, Jamie Heidt, Fred Lima, Williams (now and then when I felt like getting double legged), even a couple of goes with Fullhart I remember. It was a real good group of guys. Hard-working, down-to-earth people.
It was kind of a real tough time, in a lot of ways I was watching the world pass me by, but in a lot of ways I learned a lot. I guess I loved competing and I just didn't want to let it go. You're 25, you have two back surgeries, and doctors say you're back looks like that of a 50-year-old man.
Did your back ever recover?
Fried: The years of wrestling after two back surgeries in a row were so tough I can't even begin to tell you. I was in so much pain. After the 1996 Olympic Trials, it was all downhill. I would be like, did I really lose a step? And on top of that two shoulder surgeries and a badly broken elbow. It was like every time I got into a routine, a serious injury would set me back down. I lost my connections to any good athletic trainers that were committed to my career and well, had no formula for success." I had a total of thirteen operations from wrestling.
Call it morbid curiosity, but I have to ask, is there any truth to the stories that you and Bill Zadick once had a 45-minute brawl in the Iowa locker room?
Fried: Yeah, that's true! It happened right around the time of the U.S. Open while we were cutting weight. We got in an argument … and then we just started going at it. I think the fight was actually about 10-12 minutes, we were in our plastics, but the crazy thing was there was no one to break it up, just two insane guys fighting for ten minutes straight! That's just how we were … (laughs) it's not a manifestation of anything positive. We've completely gotten over that, as far as saying "hi" to each other when we run into one another, I think we've grown up a lot. Zadick is such a driven person, he wants to be a national champion, a world champion, he's still getting after it (Zadick will soon be competing at the World Championships at the age of 34). I respect him immensely.
So no one broke the fight up at all?
Fried: Nobody was there to break it up, that's kind of the cool thing about it! We were fighting for no other reason than because we both wanted to be on the World Team. I had wrestle him the year before, and beat him 10-1 -- and he beat me the second time. I can't remember if he beat me before or after the fight. So we're 1-1 against each other, but I count the fight also … so, I'm 2-1 (laughs). I busted his eye open, he just ripped my plastics.
Yeah I had heard that you got the best of that battle! Moving along, did you have the opportunity to train with Dan Gable at all in Iowa?
Fried: I went to some of his practices. They were awesome practices, but it was just like I was sort of observing the room. Gable was my hero growing up. I wanted to be just like him. Chronologically, it just fell apart for me, because the Brands brothers and Steiners all went to Iowa first. Gable had just gotten all the best, hardest working guys there were.
Have you ever wished you had gone to Iowa?
Fried: I wanted to go there. They (the Brands and Steiner brothers) just got there before me. Gable was locked in emotionally with those twins. They were so hard working, so intense. But I was exactly like that, too. Sometimes I wished I could have somehow tested out of high school early and gotten to Iowa before the Brands and Steiners did.
Because of my history of beating the Brands brothers and Troy Steiner in high school, Gable almost couldn't recruit me because it would have looked disloyal to the Brands and Steiners. I almost wish I hadn't wrestled the Brands brothers in high school. If I wouldn't have wrestled them and could have gotten off the radar, perhaps Gable could have recruited me and I could have gone to Iowa.
If you would like to read the rest of this interview, or other great interviews and in-depth stories about wrestlers in Ohio, visit OhioWrestlingSite.com, the premier source for Ohio wrestling information!