You don’t have to look farther than Wali Sibrie to prove the old adage that looks are deceiving.
Sibrie, of Buena Park, is the perfect example of why it’s a mistake to judge a book by its cover. He is a gentle giant masquerading as a hulking heavyweight.
“Everyone sees him as aggressive,” Buena Park wrestling Coach Rick Zabala said. “On the mat he really goes after an opponent. But he’s really a gentle guy. Off the mat, he’s soft-spoken, easy to talk to.”
Assistant coach Dan Coates, who has been instrumental in Sibrie’s development the last three years, described him as “the complete gentle giant.”
A veritable lamb in wolves’ clothing.
The image is contrary to Sibrie’s 6-foot-3 1/2, 260-pound frame. But it’s the persona the state’s second-ranked wrestler is eager to convey.
“The thing I want people to know most of all is that I’m not a mean guy,” he said. “I’m not the stereotypical big guy. I like to pal around with the little guys. But if someone doesn’t know me, all they see is this big guy, and they get intimidated.”
Which is why Sibrie, a senior, prefers his conversations sitting down. “That way, you’re not looking down on people. You’re on an equal level,” he said.
On the mat, not many wrestlers can say they’re on a level equal to his.
In his relatively short wrestling career--he didn’t start until his freshman year--Sibrie has made astonishing progress. As a sophomore, he qualified for the State tournament, where he defeated the two top-ranked wrestlers from the county.
Last year, he lost the league championship to Sunny Hills’ Josh Miklos, but bounced back to finish second in the Southern Section and the State tournament and won the Masters title.
Sibrie used the league loss to re-access his mental approach to matches.
“Emotions took over instead of my instincts,” he said. “After that, I learned to keep my emotions off the mat.”
Zabala was pleased and relieved Sibrie reacted so positively. “We were able to use that as a way to push him to another level,” Zabala said. “Whenever something like that happens, kids can either retreat into a shell and say to heck with it, or they can say, ‘Hey, I’m going to work harder to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.’ ”
Sibrie chose the latter. He did extra weight training with Coates. He entered freestyle tournaments and won the State Greco-Roman tournament last summer. He became a student of the sport.
“He got bit by the bug,” Coates said. “Hard work and dedication,” more than any specific physical talents, have made him the wrestler he is today.
And today, he’s sporting a 23-2 record and won last weekend’s Canyon Springs tournament, with a second-period pin against the section’s fourth-ranked wrestler, Sean Burbick of Ventura. Although his goal of an undefeated season was dashed with a loss to Whittier’s Greg Ford, who has defeated him twice, he still hopes to add a league title, a Masters’ victory, section and State tournament crowns and a trip to nationals to his 1993-94 achievements.
Coates sees no reason Sibrie’s lofty goals can’t be reached.
“He’s only been in the sport four years and already he’s near the top. He could be one of the best heavyweights ever ,” said Coates, a former Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. champion from Cal State Fullerton. “But it has to be something he really wants to do.”
And there’s the hitch.
Sibrie loves to wrestle, but he’s also hopelessly devoted to football, which he plans to play next fall at Arizona State. He hasn’t decided if he wants to pursue both sports.
“Hopefully, I can do both,” said Sibrie, a starting defensive lineman for the Coyotes the past three years. “But football’s my first love.”
Painful words coming from such a talented wrestler. But Sibrie won’t commit to something he can’t follow through with, and his coaches don’t want him to spread himself too thin.
“I think he can do real well (wrestling) at the Division I college level, he should give it a shot,” said Zabala, who added Sibrie is enrolled in honors classes and is no slouch in the classroom. “But it’s tough to do both at that level, especially wrestling and football, and with school . . . “
Sibrie derives different joys from either sport, but admitted he has a focus in wrestling that has yet to follow him onto the football field.
“It’s easy to get in that zone in wrestling,” he said. “It’s harder to get that focus in football because there are other guys you have to think about.”
Off the playing field, Sibrie’s thoughts cover a dozen subjects . . .
On food: “Another common misconception is that I eat a ton,” said Sibrie. But when he does, a plateful of fettuccine alfredo from the Olive Garden satisfies as much as a 10-second pin.
On animals: “I like pets and wild-life shows,” he said. Sibrie favors sharks and his pet Akita, a Japanese fighter dog whom he named “Splinter” after a rat from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame. “It was the first thing that came to my head,” he said.
On children: “I like kids,” he said. “I did some community service at a boys’ club for a school project, and they invited me back. I like to talk to them, help them out.”
Heavy help from the gentlest of giants.