Earlier this year former UFC star Matt Lindland made the decision to quit fighting and focus on his burgeoning career as an MMA trainer and manager. Jonathan Snowden sat down with Lindland to reminisce about his career, accomplishments, and struggles in a multi-part series.
If you're one of the 21 men Matt Lindland beat during his decade in the cage, Earl Walker from Boston University is to blame. Before Walker, Lindland was having the best year of his wrestling career.He ran through the 1993 regular season at the University of Nebraska without hitting a single speed bump, amassing an undefeated record and a Big Eight Championship.
"I won the national title in junior college in 1991. The next year I got recruited and went to Nebraska. I had a fairly good season, but I wasn't a standout. That wasn't good enough," Lindland said in an exclusive interview. "I went back to the drawing board and figured out what it would take to make myself the number one guy in the country."
He was the top seed at 158 pounds going into the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma State's Pat Smith was ineligible after winning three consecutive national titles in the weight class - it seemed like smooth sailing to the championship for Lindland. Until Boston University's Earl Walker wiped the mat with him.
"He put some points on the board, and instead of coming back out patiently, looking to score a point at a time, I said 'He scored four, I've got to score five.' I tried to put him on his back and he countered me and suddenly he was leading 10-2," Lindland said. "He came out and put on an incredible performance. He won that match. He just kicked my ass. Nobody really knew much about Earl. He was kind of the new kid on the block. The next year he made it to the semi-finals against Pat Smith, but at the time no one knew anything about him."
It ended 13-4, and when Walker was eliminated in the next round, it meant Lindland wasn't allowed to continue in the consolation bracket. There would be no march back to the top. His season, and his collegiate wrestling career, had ended with a whimper. For "the Law" it was all the motivation he needed to continue his competitive career.
"That's probably what drove me to do the things I did," Lindland said. "I was 36-0. I had a great season, won every match and every tournament I entered, only to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A lot of guys quit wrestling after college. More than anything, that loss motivated me. And I learned a lot from that lesson. It wasn't that I took Earl lightly. It was just a long season; I never took a week off. I had a wife and a kid, was juggling school and a family. The end of the season came around and I didn't have anything left in the tank."
The Olympics followed, a spot on the 2000 Greco Roman team won not on the mat, but in the courts. In a best of three contest, the Army's Keith Sieracki tripped Lindland in their final match for the top position on the team, winning a close 2-1 referee's decision in the process. Lindland's protests didn't go unheard, but the decision to award Sieracki two points was termed a "judgement call."
"There's so much politics that goes into sport on whatever level," Lindland said. "The higher the level, the more politics. I was going against one of the Army's best wrestlers at the Olympic Trials and the Army funds a world class athletes program. That's a big recruiting tool for them. It's a program that they invest a lot of money in. Not just with wrestling, but with boxing and track and field. They didn't have a wrestler make the 2000 Olympic team. And they were going to figure out a way to get one on there."
Despite a pretty much universal consensus that the match had been poorly officiated, with Olympic coach Dan Chandler calling it the worst officiating he had seen in his 30 year career, and despite having defeated Sieracki seven consecutive times before the trials, Lindland was out. That's when the lawyers got involved, leading to an arbitrator, Daniel Burns, ordering a rematch to decide the issue.
"I think people have a misconception that I sued to get on the team," Lindland said. "This was a guy I had beaten eleven times in a row prior to that weekend. He was a very tough competitor, he was the number two guy in the country. But he wasn't good enough to beat me. And he wasn't good enough to medal in the Olympics. He didn't beat me in those matches. The referee decided to find a way to get him on the team."
When the decision was announced, the United States Olympic Committee scheduled the rematch almost immediately. Lindland, who hadn't been competing since the Olympic Trials, had less than three days to drop almost 25 pounds. "They expected me to make weight and wrestle this guy," Lindland remembers. "I did it. Damn near died doing it, but I did it and proved that I belonged there."
In front of fewer than 200 people, most of them service members and strong supporters of Sieracki, Lindland got his second chance. Accompanied by his father, his lawyer, and his best friend, Lindland entered the Olympic Training Center with all eyes on him. As he had done so many times before, he rose to the occasion. Lindland wiped the mat with Sieracki, winning his spot on the team back with a 8-0 victory.
"In wrestling, if you beat a guy 10-0, they stop the match," Lindland said. "It's kind of like a wrestling TKO. I put eight points on the board quick and thought- hey I'm good. I'm putting on the skates, I'm just going to hang out. Those were the kind of scores I was beating guys by in the U.S."
The legal battle continued to play out at the highest levels. Sieracki filed his own grievance and the case went before a new arbitrator, Bruce Campbell. Meanwhile, Lindland had his arbitration victory and subsequent rematch results confirmed in federal court where the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled he should be placed on the Olympic team.
Things got complicated when the second arbitrator ruled in Sieracki's favor. USA Wrestling and the Olympic Committee decided to go with Sieracki - and the Seventh Circuit was not amused:
USA Wrestling apparently believes it is caught between Scylla and Charybdis, but it is not. On the one hand, it had received instructions from Arbitrator Campbell, instructions that have never been subject to judicial review. On the other hand, it has received instructions from the judicial branch of the United States of America requiring it to implement Arbitrator Burn's award by making Lindland its nominee. Choosing which to follow should not be difficult - but if USA Wrestling continues equivocating, the district court should be able to make the wiser course clear.
When Sieracki took his own arbitration win to court, things were officially a cluster. The district court sided, again, with Lindland, ordering the Olympic Committee to place him on the team. On September 5th, just ten days before the games, Justice John Paul Stevens denied Sieracki's stay application. The Supreme Court would not take up the case further and Lindland was on his way to the games. He had faced down an enormous challenge, the full bureaucratic and institutional power of the United States Army, which had unlimited resources to push the legal challenges forward. Lindland's lawyer Stephen Thompson wrote that he doesn't believe the system was set up for an individual athlete like Lindland to succeed in his grievance:
The first lesson was that, as a practical matter, this process is not really available to all athletes. We have a very sophisticated litigation practice at Jenkens & Gilchrist, and are accustomed to difficult, time-intensive cases, but we put in a Herculean effort this summer to get this case through this process. Had Matt Lindland not found Jenkens & Gilchrist, or if we had not agreed to handle the case on a pro bono basis, he likely would not have gone past the initial protest committee. That is unfortunate because Matt did have a meritorious case. With the resources that were marshaled against us, including USA Wrestling, the USOC, and the United States Army, I cannot imagine a single athlete maneuvering through this process on his or her own.
Amazingly the case wasn't over yet. On the ground in Sydney, Sieracki filed yet another complaint, this time with the International Olympic Committee. On September 19th, with the Olympics well under way, district court judge William J. Hibbler convened an emergency hearing in the middle of the night, hearing arguments at 1:45 A.M. By 3:00 A.M. a fax was on its way to Sydney, Australia. Sieracki was bound by the decision of the U.S. courts system. Further complaints could be considered contempt of court.
"We had a cantankerous old Federal judge," Lindland said. "He made it clear that if they contested his ruling, there was nothing he could do about it. But there would be federal marshals waiting for them if they ever tried to come back to the United States, because they would be in contempt of court."
Four days later, Lindland had his first match at the Olympic Games. Not expected to do well, he thrived, making it to the gold medal match where he fell to Russia's Murat Kardanov. Along the way, he beat many of the Eastern block's top competitors, including the Ukranian and Georgian champions.
"It was an incredible experience," Lindland said. "It was something I had dreamed about doing since I was in high school. I set that goal as a sophomore in high school - to go to the Olympic Games and win a medal. To be able to accomplish that was literally a dream come true."