James made history as being the first African-American starter for the storied Oklahoma State wrestling program, arriving on the Stillwater campus in the fall of 1960. (The Cowboys can claim more NCAA individual and team titles than any other college wrestling program.) In 1962, James became the first black to win a Big Eight (now Big 12) conference title, in the 191-pound weight class. The following year, James moved up to heavyweight, and made a bit more history when he wrestled cross-state rival Ed McQuarters of the University of Oklahoma… the first time two African-Americans had wrestled each other in the Bedlam Series dual meets between the Cowboys and Sooners dating back to 1920. Later, in the summer of 1963, James became the first black U.S. wrestler to earn a gold medal at the Pan-American Games.
James completed his college career by winning the heavyweight title at the 1964 NCAA championships, becoming only the fourth African-American wrestler to win a national collegiate title.
The Chicago native rewrote wrestling history in another significant way, as one of the first wrestlers of any color to show off a chiseled physique that was the result of work in the weight room. Words like “Adonis”, “physical specimen” and “carved from granite” were used by sportswriters and fans to describe James.
Back in the early 1960s, it was rare for wrestlers to work out with weights; most coaches thought weightlifting would make their athletes slow and muscle-bound… so most upper-weight wrestlers at the time tended to look soft, more like the Pillsbury Doughboy. So it’s understandable that Joe James created a sensation in high school and in college when he’d peel off his robe, revealing a classic V-taper physique, with broad shoulders, massive chest and small waist… readily apparent, as back then, James, along with other wrestlers at many high schools and colleges competed in trunks, without shirts. (Singlets did not become the norm for another decade.) James’ muscles weren’t all show; he was able to do one-arm pull ups without breaking a sweat… and dominate most opponents with his strength.
Staff Writer, InterMat
Guest contributor, www.truewrestlinginsider.com