Elias inductee Gonzales nearly perfect as CSUB wrestler

Joe Gonzales (Cal State Bakersfield)

BY JEFF EVANS jevans@bakersfield.com

Perfection is the hardest thing to achieve in athletics.

Joe Gonzales didn’t have a perfect record as a Cal State Bakersfield wrestler, but he came awfully close.

Like 43-1 one season and 55-0 in the other during his two-year career with the Roadrunners.

And there were other honors, such as being a two-time national Amateur Athletic Union freestyle champion, a national freestyle champion four other years and a potential Olympic medal that was derailed by injury in 1984.

Gonzales will be inducted into the Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 23 at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Bakersfield.

The Class of 2017, the 51st group of inductees since the Hall of Fame was founded in 1967, will also include former West High, UCLA and WNBA standout Nikki Blue; Mark Hutson, who holds the record for most coaching wins in Central Section boys basketball; and former Garces athlete Katie (Haller) Metcalf, a dominant volleyball player with exceptional academics at USC who is now a doctor.

Tickets are $80 each and available at the Rabobank Arena box office, Raymond’s Trophy and Awards, 300 Chester Ave., or using PayPal through kcsportshalloffame.org.

Gonzales’ run at perfection also fell one match short before he arrived at CSUB when he went 48-1 at East Los Angeles Community College. He also spent a year at Oklahoma before coming to CSUB.

“That was my initiation of getting into D-I,” he said.

CSUB had built a solid D-II program under coach Joe Seay, who was able to attract top-level wrestlers to the Roadrunners such as Gonzales because in those days, the Division II and Division III national champions qualified for the NCAA Division I championships.

“At the time, Cal State was beating the D-I schools,” Gonzales said. “Bakersfield and the Central Valley is a wrestling hotbed and Bakersfield, when I wrestled, was part of that.

“Wrestlers came out of Cal State (and) had NCAA championships, world championships, guys who made the Olympic team. Wrestling guys put Bakersfield on the map.”

Gonzales’ only loss as a Roadrunner was 16-13 to Gene Mills of Syracuse in the D-I finals to close the 1978-79 season. Mills was a world-caliber wrestler who would have been a U.S. Olympian in 1980, the year America boycotted the Moscow Games.

“I had beaten him the month before at the East-West All-Star match,” Gonzales said. “I had one good day, and he had one good day. He happened to have his at the national tournament when it counted.”

The following season, Gonzales went 55-0 with an NCAA-record 448 takedowns, a mark that still stands.

Teammate and workout partner John Acevedo was close behind at 53-0 at 126 pounds. They rank 1-2 all time in the NCAA in single-season wins.

The NCAA has since implemented rules that will prevent anyone from having that many matches in a season, Gonzales said.

“There are a number of days and competitions that you cannot go over,” Gonzales said. “People say, ‘Your record will never be broken.’”

Seay pushed the Roadrunners to have as many matches as possible, Gonzales said.

“Joe Seay was crazy. He wanted to wrestle anybody anywhere at any time,” Gonzales said. “One time I got into an argument with him. I needed a break. ‘Nope, you’re going to wrestle.’

“I think about that now, and it made me more mentally tough.”

Gonzales called winning the NCAA national championship is one of the highlights of his career.

Another was winning the 1982 Tbilisi Tournament at 114.5 pounds, a tournament considered as tough or tougher than the Olympics.

Gonzales was America’s 114.5-pound Olympian in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Gonzales failed to qualify into the medal round.

“I ruptured my biceps before trying to make the team,” he said. “What I didn’t know was until 20 years later that in my first match I broke my neck. I lost 5-4.”

Gonzales said American coach Dan Gable said it was only stiff neck muscles.

“When I wrestled back, I knew something was wrong. I was in excruciating pain,” Gonzales said. “I was done. It was one of the worst experiences in my life for wrestling. It was something I had worked for my whole life. It just wasn’t meant to be.”

Gonzales wrestled four more years at the highest levels, winning national freestyle championships in 1983, ‘85 and ‘88 along with the ‘82 title that led to his Olympic berth.

Once the injury was discovered, Gonzales said he was fortunate he wasn’t injured more severely.

“I was told another quarter-inch and I would’ve been dead,” he said. “Thank God I didn’t die.”

In the mid-1990s, Gonzales returned to wrestling in veterans tournaments and won two national titles in his weight in the over-35 age division.

Gonzales was not a big pinner. He had only eight in his 55-0 season and doesn’t crack CSUB’s career pin list.

“I like to take then down and let them go,” Gonzales said.

“A lot of old-time collegiate coaches frown on that. I like to work on takedowns. I did that in high school: take two (points), give up one. That was my wrestling style.”

He dabbled in coaching, serving as an assistant at Arizona State and CSUB. He spent 12 years coaching at Santa Ana High School and is now a PE teacher at Carr Intermediate School in Santa Ana.

“I started wrestling in 1971 and retired in ‘88,” he said. “Now I’m paying the price. I’m going to have to have my hip replaced, it’s bone on bone. I’ve had several surgeries on both shoulders, one knee, an elbow; I have cauliflower ears.”

Of course, there are pluses.

“I got my education through wrestling,” he said. “I was able to travel all over the world to these different countries. … Along the way I made friendships and I still have them. That’s another good thing wrestling has done for me.”