A Tough Monday : African Wrestler Gives Up Olympic Chance for Life in U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monday Eguabor wrestled for Nigeria in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Two years later, the three-time African champion was wrestling for East Los Angeles College.

That may seem like a comedown, but Eguabor, 23, is simply glad to be wrestling.

Eguabor, the African champion at 163 pounds from 1986-88, lost to Uwe Westendorf of East Germany, 3-1, in the first round at Seoul and was pinned by Rakhmad Sofiadi of Bulgaria in the second.

Sofiadi went on to defeat Lodoy Enhbayar of Mongolia in the bronze-medal match.

In the summer of 1989, Eguabor, the Commonwealth Games runner-up in 1987 and 1989, was invited to attend a two-week camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., to tune up for the World Championships in Switzerland.

That two-week stay in the United States has become a permanent one.

While in Colorado Springs, the Nigerian Wrestling Federation informed Eguabor that a team would not be sent to the World Championships.

Eguabor, already upset with the federation's refusal to pay him a $5,000 bonus that he said he was entitled to after winning the African championship in 1988, vowed to never wrestle for the federation again.

"Other wrestlers had been planning to come over (to Colorado Springs) and were really mad," the 5-foot-9 Eguabor said. "I had it in my mind that they had lied to me."

Eguabor, who played for three years on the Nigerian junior national soccer team before taking up wrestling at 16, made his way to Los Angeles and stayed with a friend in South Gate before finding a job as a security guard in a restaurant parking lot and an apartment in Compton.

Searching for a place to wrestle, he worked out briefly at Cerritos College, where he was told that the team already had enough wrestlers in his weight class.

While on a bus on the way to work in early 1990, he met Jose Soria, a wrestler at Glenn High in Norwalk, who invited Eguabor to practice. At first, Glenn Coach Ralph Valle was skeptical about Eguabor's credentials.

"A lot of people tell wrestling stories," Valle said. "But after I talked to him for 10 minutes and saw him wrestle for the first time, I knew he was telling the truth. He was built like a brick house and there was no question he was for real."

Eguabor trained at Glenn sporadically through the summer while trying to support himself. Meanwhile, his apartment in Compton was broken into twice and was hit by stray bullets during a drive-by shooting.

Valle, who had wrestled at East L.A. College in the mid-1970s, referred Eguabor to Ben Bohlander, the wrestling coach there. Bohlander arranged for Eguabor to stay with a neighbor in Whittier and helped him enroll in school.

"I couldn't stand the pressure anymore and I didn't have more than $5," Eguabor said. "I was so happy. I finally had a place that was quiet and I was not afraid to go to sleep at."

Despite working as many as 60 hours a week as a machine operator at a container factory, Eguabor won the 177-pound division in the state junior college tournament last December. He finished the season with a 27-0 record and no offensive points were scored against him. Eguabor, who had been 28-1 the previous season, placed third in the state meet.

Eguabor has attracted the interest of several Division I universities, among them Oklahoma State, Brigham Young and San Diego State. Bohlander says that Eguabor could be among the top three in his weight class in the collegiate level, but he might not get a chance to compete.

He had no formal education beyond the sixth grade before enrolling at East L.A., where he has taken mostly English-as-a-second-language courses for the last two years.

It will be at least a year before he can transfer to a four-year college and Eguabor dropped out of school for the spring semester because of increased demands at work. Still, he plans to return to East L.A. in the fall.

Bohlander said that Eguabor might have to consider attending an NAIA school if he is not accepted by a Division I school.

"What he needs most right now is a big scholarship to take care of his bills," Bohlander said.

Eguabor, now living in Inglewood, hopes to apply for U.S. citizenship and was married to a citizen in November. In the meantime, he continues to train at East L.A. The oldest of nine children, he stays in contact with his family and sends money for support.

"My mom doesn't want me to come back," Eguabor said. "If I return, I may never get to leave again. There is a depression and my family is real poor. There is not very much opportunity. I am their only hope."

Any opportunity to compete for Nigeria in Barcelona is also gone. The African tournament, which serves as the country's Olympic trials, was held in March. He has not spoken with anyone from the federation since his departure from Colorado Springs. Eguabor, though, has no reservations about his decision.

"I'd rather be here than in Nigeria," he said. "I'd have to give up a lot of things--my marriage, my job. I want to get better at reading and writing. I feel that I can make it, no matter what goes wrong."

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