Home Wisconsin 2020 Staff Picks: Lee Kemp, a story of almosts

2020 Staff Picks: Lee Kemp, a story of almosts


We’re looking back on some bright moments in a difficult year, and asked each member of our team to name a few of their favorite stories. This is one of Robert Chappell’s.

This story was produced for Badger Vibes, our partnership with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.

It’s easy to get hyperbolic about athletes. Easy to overstate their greatness, easy to claim “best ever” in profiles, career retrospectives, and documentaries.

This is not one of those profiles.

Lee Kemp is one of the greatest. Ever.

Kemp’s incredible career in wrestling — now the subject of a documentary film, Wrestled Away: The Lee Kemp Story — is one of almosts: a few big things that almost didn’t happen, and one huge thing that almost did. Those who are even tangentially connected to the sport know his name, but because of a political decision made 40 years ago, the rest of America doesn’t.

Almost Basketball

Leroy Kemp Jr. was not his name at first; it was Darnell Freeman until he was adopted by Leroy and Jessie Kemp at the age of five. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he was surrounded by blackness and basketball — and, eventually, racial strife and violence, which prompted the family to relocate to the small community of Chardon, Ohio.

That was the first of the almosts.

“Had I stayed in Cleveland, I actually would not have wrestled,” Kemp says in an interview from his home in northern California. “It just would not have been a sport that would have even been in my mind or in my environment. It wouldn’t have been something I would have thought about.”

But his new hometown was small, mostly white, and mostly agricultural — the kind of town where wrestling thrives.

“The only black people I saw were my mom and dad and the people that lived on Clark Road,” Kemp says. “The only places that were available were on this one road, because white families started to move off the road when black people started moving on, so it just served as a nice place for black people who wanted to have a country lifestyle.”

Kemp was one of only two black kids in his junior high school, where he first took up basketball, the sport he’d grown up around. It didn’t go well, and he rarely got off the bench.

“In two years, I think I maybe played five minutes,” he recalls. “I scored two points, because any time I’d get the ball, I’d just shoot it.”

When he got to high school and joined the freshman basketball team, he didn’t even get put in for scrimmages. He’d had enough.

“I felt frustrated that I couldn’t play, and that frustration built up to me wanting to try something different,” he says. “On the way to basketball practice, one of the days of that first week that the season started [in ninth grade], I just walked by the wrestling room and stopped and just stared into the window watching the wrestlers practice. And I missed basketball practice that day because I just watched the whole wrestling practice.”

Missing practice meant getting kicked off the basketball team, which worked out just fine.

“The wrestling coach welcomed me with open arms into the wrestling room,” he says. That coach told him the freshman team didn’t have anyone else in the 138-pound class, which was about what Kemp weighed at that time.

“That sounded really appealing to me. I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to be the guy,’” he says. “And, sure enough, I went out, and then two weeks later, I’m out there with a wrestling uniform on, wrestling, and I won my match. And that feeling of exhilaration, of winning one-on-one, was amazing.”

He lost only twice that year, won the conference title for freshmen, then made varsity as a sophomore. His second year was a little tougher, as he moved down to the 132-pound weight class, which meant taking on extra workouts while wearing multiple layers, restricting calories, and wrestling more experienced competition. He went 11–8–3, and he wanted to do better.

A Turning Point

In the summer of 1972, after Kemp’s sophomore year, there were few wrestlers more famous than Dan Gable. The Iowa State alum already had two NCAA championships and one world freestyle title, and he was America’s hope to best the unbeatable Russians for an Olympic gold medal at the Munich games. He dominated the Olympic trials, pinning three of four opponents on his way to the Olympic team. And he made an appearance at a camp that summer — a camp that Kemp attended.

He left quite an impression.

“Dan Gable was, I mean, he was everybody’s, I don’t know, legend, idol, whatever,” Kemp says. “We all knew of Dan Gable. So to have him at that camp had such a huge impact on me [and] my psyche.”

Gable went on to win that Olympic gold, which Kemp watched at home on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

“I started to try to figure out a way that I could train like him, and hopefully be like him,” Kemp says. “And that training translated into me becoming a two-time state champion. I didn’t lose a match after that.”

That’s right — after deciding to train like the great Dan Gable, Kemp never lost again in high school.

That success, of course, caught the attention of college recruiters — which is another one of those “almost” moments. Kemp almost didn’t come to Wisconsin.

“Some Cleveland wrestlers that I knew, older Cleveland wrestlers that I looked up to, went to Michigan State,” he recalls. “I just felt like I wanted to go there, just from that. I went there, and I had a good recruiting trip, and it just was a place I felt like I wanted to go to.”

But Michigan State wasn’t able to offer a full scholarship, so Kemp’s father told him to keep looking. Then came John Grantham, a family friend and businessman in Kemp’s hometown, who encouraged him to visit UW–Madison. Meanwhile at the UW, athletic director Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch had instructed wrestling coach Duane Kleven to make a run at the state champ from Ohio.

“[The Granthams] were very instrumental in guiding me, and they’d give me advice, and all of that, so I kind of listened,” Kemp remembers. “[John] arranged a recruiting trip for me to go to the University of Wisconsin, and I went. And after the recruiting trip, as it turns out, it ended up being the best place for me. Just weird how that all worked out.”

“It worked out for the best,” he says with confidence.

“Wisconsin was a good place for me. No question about it,” he says. “It was a place where I was nurtured. Duane Kleven, the head wrestling coach, was a father figure to a lot of the wrestlers there, and he cared about me more than just being an athlete, which was great. He embraced my other goal of wanting to get my MBA. It was good. I mean, there was no place in college that could have been a better fit for me.”

He came to Madison with an audacious goal — to become the first four-time national champion in NCAA history.

And he almost made it, too.

He didn’t lose during his entire freshman season — a practically unheard-of feat in itself — reaching the finals of the NCAA tournament, which went into overtime. In those days, overtime was three one-minute periods with three referees watching; if the score remained tied after three minutes, the referees would declare a winner based on who they thought had wrestled better.

Kemp lost on a 2–1 vote.

“That absolutely motivated me more. Absolutely,” he says. “I mean, I knew more than ever that I wanted to be a national champion, for sure.”

He never lost another collegiate match.

The Upset

In the midst of his sophomore season, before the first of his three NCAA titles, Kemp entered the Northern Open, an amateur tournament hosted at the UW. There was a bit of a buzz around the tournament that year. Dan Gable, who was now 26 and had come out of retirement to make a run at the 1976 Summer Olympics, had entered the tournament. In Lee Kemp’s weight class.

Kemp’s coaches and teammates tried to talk him into dropping down a weight class just for this one tournament, to avoid having to lose to Gable. Kemp wanted none of that.

“[Wrestling Gable] was a challenge that I embraced,” he says. “I wasn’t afraid of it. I wanted it. I wanted to see how good I was, or how good I could be, so I just kind of went after it.”

Only grainy black-and-white video exists of that match. It’s a scrappy one — mostly takedowns and escapes. Neither wrestler could be held down for long.

With an improbable 7–6 lead in the third period, Kemp found himself in a difficult spot, to say the least. With a little less than a minute to go, the two were still upright, but Gable had Kemp’s leg. A twist of the hips and Kemp would be down; Gable would win. But Kemp managed to hook his arm under Gable’s shoulder and stay upright, preventing the Olympic gold medalist from gaining control.

Kemp recalls not thinking about much in the moment.

“You’re so focused on what’s actually happening that you just don’t think about it,” he says. “You don’t think about it because you have those moments that you have to perform, and you just stay in the moment, and you just perform in that zone.”

Kemp held Gable off for 30 agonizing seconds. The clock ran out, the buzzer sounded, and the Wisconsin Field House erupted. Kemp had done the unthinkable — defeated his idol. Everyone’s idol.

That win didn’t mean anything in the college standings — it was just an invitational tournament — but it put the wrestling world on notice. This 18-year-old black kid from Ohio was the real deal, and potentially good enough for the Olympics.

Kemp, however, saw it as just another win — one of many to come.

“It was a big deal that that happened, and obviously I knew it, but I knew that I didn’t want that to be my legacy,” he says. “Some people have … one match that they did great in, and then that’s what they kind of hang their hat on for the rest of their whole wrestling career, or life for that matter. They have this great experience, and that was it. I didn’t want that. I just wanted to go as far as I could go. That was my goal: to go as far as I could go.”

As far as he could go seemed, at the time, to be Olympic gold.

What Almost Was

Kemp won three NCAA titles and graduated from the Wisconsin School of Business with a degree in marketing in 1979. He stayed around Madison, training and preparing for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. He was never really challenged in the trials and seemed poised to go beat the Russians on their own mats.

Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would not send an Olympic team to Moscow, and just like that, the dreams of hundreds of America’s elite athletes were crushed.

“I have compared it to the death of a loved one,” Kemp says. “You can never get that person back. You mourn, and I mourned. You cry. You’re upset. You move on, but the loss is still there.”

Kemp didn’t give up, though; he stayed in Madison, training with the UW team and other wrestlers, getting ready for a run in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. During those next four years, he became one of the most decorated wrestlers in American history, bringing home gold medals in three world freestyle championships, four Wrestling World Cups, and two Pan American Games.

He did all that while achieving one of his other goals back at the UW: earning his MBA.

But it was all in pursuit of that Olympic gold that he’d been denied — an Olympic gold he’d never get to compete for, thanks to a young up-and-comer named Dave Schultz. Kemp had defeated him four years earlier to make that ill-fated 1980 team — and nine other times — but it was Schultz who came out on top in 1984.

Kemp knows his life would have been different had he gotten that elusive Olympic fame. In sports such as wrestling, you can become well known in the sport, but it’s the Olympic gold that makes you world famous.

“You put this time into it, of course, and you want success,” he says. “You do want a certain amount of notoriety with that. You just do. Without being an Olympic champion, that’s all gone. It’s all gone.”

You also don’t have the chance to make a lot of money without getting on that Wheaties box.

“You can let that consume you and defeat you, and you could complain about it for the rest of your life. And I do still complain about it,” he admits. “But you move on. I’m not completely over it, but the fact is you do have to move on somehow. You got to figure out how to move on, and so then I was able to somehow figure out how to move on. But you never get over it.”

Kemp hung up his wrestling shoes after the defeat in 1984 and turned his attention to business. He leveraged his MBA into a successful marketing career, first with Clairol and then in Ford’s minority dealer program, which allowed him to open a Ford dealership in Minnesota. While living in Minnesota, he started a family. And for almost 20 years, wrestling was a thing of Lee Kemp’s past.

A Rekindling

A difficult marriage, a separation in 2005, and an ultimately tumultuous divorce in 2007 led to Kemp staying for several months with longtime friend John Bardis, also a former wrestler and a business owner. Seeing Kemp adrift, fighting for custody of his three children (which he eventually won), Bardis encouraged him to seek refuge in his first love: wrestling. At first, Kemp resisted, thinking it would represent a step backward.

“I thought it was not a good thing for me. I thought, ‘You’ve already done that.’ It’s like going back to the only thing I thought I could do to make it,” he says. But Bardis was persistent.

“He could see that maybe I needed wrestling. I needed something to make me feel better about myself again,” Kemp says.

Bardis invited Kemp to attend the World Team Trials in Las Vegas, just to feel it out.

“It was like a homecoming,” Kemp says. Enough of a homecoming that Kemp jumped right back into the sport — this time as a coach. He joined the coaching staff of the U.S. national team in 2006 and 2007, and he went to the Beijing Olympics as a coach in 2008.

The experience of getting back on the mats not only brought Kemp a sense of peace, but also returned him to peak physical condition, something that remains a priority today.

He’s also a wrestling dad now, as his youngest son Adam earned a scholarship from Fresno State. It helped that Kemp knew the coach, Troy Steiner, who wrestled for the University of Iowa, where Dan Gable was the head coach. (The world of elite wrestling is a small one.) Adam’s going to Fresno prompted Lee Kemp to move from Palatine, Illinois, to California, where his two older children had already settled.

Kemp landed a job there coaching UFC fighters at Team Alpha Male, one of the top mixed martial arts gyms in the country. Most UFC fighters are former wrestlers. He now coaches at Sacramento City College and makes many appearances around the country as a motivational speaker.

Now 62, Kemp is in better shape than some of the athletes he trains. And he has to be: asked what has changed in the sport over the almost 50 years he’s been in it, the first thing he identifies is the athleticism of the wrestlers.

“[The athletes have] just evolved,” he says. “They’re more athletic, as in all sports. Track times are getting better, and football records that you thought would never be broken are being broken, and it just keeps evolving. And the same thing in wrestling. The athleticism in wrestling is through the roof.”

But it’s not athleticism that makes a great wrestler, he says. What makes one great at the world’s oldest sport is entirely mental, maybe even spiritual.

“I think the biggest thing is the ability to face adversity,” he says. “In team sports, you face it with other team members. You don’t have to face it alone. And there’s a certain mindset that you have to have as a wrestler. You have to do it all by yourself, and when you’re facing adversity in the match, things aren’t going well, if the times running out, you’ve got to figure it out on your own. You can’t pass the ball away, and the coach can’t pull you out of the game. It’s all on you to figure this out, so you gain a certain confidence about your own ability, and you gain a certain humility that you don’t always get it done. That’s sobering. You are 100 percent responsible for your actions. One hundred percent. Very few things in life are quite that cut and dried, where it’s all you, or it’s all your opponent. There is no middle ground.”

Today, Kemp is content, though he still feels a pang of regret every four years when the Summer Olympics come around. But looking back on his unlikely journey has become a career of its own, as he now takes speaking engagements around the country.

He also helped produce and promote the story of his own life, a 70-minute documentary film called Wrestled Away: The Lee Kemp Story. The 2019 film is narrated by actor and wrestling enthusiast Billy Baldwin. It features plenty of archival footage of Kemp in action, in addition to the friends and family who helped him along the way. “It’s just a group of people who all got together around this Ohio boy named Lee Kemp, and decided that they would make this project go,” he says. The movie includes the voices of wrestlers from his own era, including Dan Gable, as well as his coaches, wrestlers he’s coached — and that family friend who first encouraged him to consider becoming a Badger 45 years ago.

Wrestled Away: The Lee Kemp Story is available for rent on streaming platforms.