London-1948, at the first Olympic Games following World
War II, Henry Wittenberg won the Olympic Freestyle Light-Heavyweight
(191.5 lbs./??kg) gold medal. At the 1952 Helsinki Games,
the captain of the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team took a silver
medal in the same event.
One of the world’s all-time
great wrestlers, amateur or professional, Henry Wittenberg
won more than 300 consecutive matches* between 1939 and
undefeated record is even more remarkable considering he did not participate
in high school sports, and only took up wrestling in 1938 as a college sophomore.
(*Results of numerous minor events and preliminary
rounds were not always recorded during the first half-century.
Wittenberg has estimated his undefeated streak
at “between 400 and 500 in a row”.)
In 1940, shortly after graduation
from City College of New York (CCNY)––where
he finished third in the 165-lb class at the Amateur Athletic Union nationals
in 1938 and second at 175 pounds in 1940––Wittenberg, representing
the New York West YMCA, won his first U.S. national AAU 191 lb.-class championship.
Through 1952, he would win seven more AAU 191-lb. titles: 1941, 1943, 1944, 1946,
1947, 1948 and 1952.
Following U.S. Army service, where he was a World War
II hand-to-hand combat instructor, Wittenberg joined the
New York City Police Department.
wrestling was a post-war hot item in New York and he managed to continue his
undefeated streak representing the “Y”.
Absent a formal invitation,
the New York cop decided to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. He won the U.S.
light-heavyweight Olympic qualifier by defeating
University of Minnesota champion Verne Gagne (who would later become a “superstar”of
American professional wrestling). At the London Olympics, Wittenberg was undefeated
in five straight matches en route to his gold medal.
After the Olympics, Wittenberg
retired from wrestling. His departure lasted until 1951, when his wife, Edith,
thought it would be a great idea for him to make
a run at qualifying for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Taking the Mrs. Advice
and inspiration, he earned a spot on the U.S. team, but
it came at the expense of
his extraordinary undefeated streak. An injured Wittenberg lost his first match
in 13 years at the 1951 national AAU finals, a defeat he would later reverse
at the Olympic trials.
He lost only one other match during his distinguished
career, to 1952 Olympic gold medalist Wiking Palm. Nonetheless, Wittenberg
scored a personal highlight
victory on the road to his silver medal by defeating the reigning world champion,
Russia’s August Englas.* That victory marked the first time an American
had defeated a Russian in international competition. The Helsinki silver medal
Wittenberg earned made him only the second American to win two Olympic wrestling
medals. (Bantamweight Geroge Mehnert medaled in 1904 and 1908). *Wittenberg’s
police employment prevented him from competing at the periodic World Championships.
actually took a short hiatus from retirement in 1950 to win a gold medal at
the World Maccabiah Games, the first post-war Maccabiah
in the new State of Israel. He repeated his Maccabiah winning ways in 1953,
both times capturing victories in the Freestyle Heavyweight
class. He retired for
good following the ’53 Maccabiah.
After more than a dozen years, Wittenberg
left the NYC police force to enter the printing business, but kept his hands
in wrestling. In 1959, he coached the
first U.S. national team to compete in the Soviet Union. From 1959 to 1967,
the ex-cop was wrestling coach at New York’s Yeshiva University; after which,
1967 thru 1979, he returned to his alma mater, CCNY, as professor of physical
education and wrestling coach. For the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, he
was head coach of the United States Greco-Roman team.
The Wittenbergs attended
the 1972 Olympics in Munich and their accommodations in the Olympic village
were adjacent to the rooms of the ill-fated Israeli wrestling
Henry Wittenberg was elected to the National Wrestling
Hall of Fame in 1977.