Dennis Hall won a World title and an Olympic silver medal during his memorable career on the wrestling mat.
But Hall may be best known for what many wrestling observers call the best Greco-Roman match they have ever seen.
That bout was the epic battle between Hall and Olympic silver medalist Brandon Paulson in the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
The best-of-3 finals series at 55 kg/121 lbs. was deadlocked at one match apiece. Hall won the first match of the series and Paulson took the second.
Following the second match, Hall had a problem.
“I messed up my neck and I couldn’t turn my head,” Hall said Wednesday night on the eve of his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. “I immediately went up into the stands where my wife was sitting. My brother-in-law was up there. He was a chiropractor and I asked him to crack my neck because I couldn’t move it. I got adjusted and luckily I was able to move it for the third match.”
Hall came back and outlasted Paulson in a thrilling, marathon battle that lasted a whopping 16 minutes, 54 seconds.
“It was an all-out war,” Hall said. “There was so much intensity with both guys attacking. We were both trying to score and not playing it safe. I remember celebrating after I won and then looking over and seeing Brandon on his knees. I went over to him and said, ‘We gave the crowd what they wanted to see. I love you and I’m sorry. I felt it was my best chance to win Olympic gold at this weight. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.’”
The crowd of 5,000 fans awarded both wrestlers with a standing ovation. That match epitomized the legendary career of Hall, one of the toughest and most relentless wrestlers in American history.
“That was an unbelievable wrestling experience, to watch those two guys battle,” U.S. Assistant National Coach Momir Petkovic said. “I’ve been in the sport for 50 years and that’s one of the moments I will never forget. That was such an intense match between two great competitors who wanted to make the team so badly. It was beautiful, just beautiful to be able to witness that match.”
A few days after the match, Hall called Paulson and asked him to be his training partner for the Olympics.
“I did it out of respect,” he said. “The guy’s a warrior and he knows how to win. It was great. I really appreciated him taking time away from his family to train with me. I know hard that is, especially when you are not competing.”
Hall followed two older brothers into the sport in his native Wisconsin.
“When my brothers first became interested in wrestling my mom thought it was fake because of what she saw on TV,” Hall said with a laugh. “She was like, ‘You ain’t doing that.’ Then finally she allowed my two older brothers to wrestle.”
Hall started competing in wrestling when he was just 5 years old. He started out wrestling older competitors in the first- and second-grade division.
“I don’t even remember how I did, to be honest, I just remember that I fell in love with the sport and I always wanted to be on the mat,” Hall said. “I looked up to my older brothers and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to achieve what they achieved. I had so much energy as a kid and it was a great way for me to use that.”
His first-grade teachers asked Hall and his classmates what they wanted to be when he grew up and Hall was quick with his response.
“I wanted to be an Olympian,” he said. “I knew at that point that’s what I wanted to do.”
Hall made three Olympic teams in Greco-Roman wrestling. He competed in the 1992, 1996 and 2004 Olympic Games. He made seven World Teams. He won a World bronze medal in 1994.
“Dennis was a great champion and a great competitor,” Petkovic said. “He was so intense and such a tough wrestler. He definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame. It’s a well-deserved honor, that’s for sure.”
Winning the World title in 1995 was the high point in a career filled with memorable moments for Hall. He is one of only five Americans to capture a World title in Greco-Roman wrestling.
“I always wanted to be the best wrestler in the World,” Hall said. “To achieve that goal, it was something I always dreamed about.”
The father of four, Hall continues to give back to the sport as a coach.
One of his top wrestlers is Ben Provisor, who won April’s U.S. Open and will be the No. 1 seed at 74 kg/163 lbs. this weekend’s World Team Trials in Oklahoma City.
“I started working with Ben when he was real young and I remember Ben was crying after his first practice because it was so hard,” Hall said. “He stuck with it, and just kept working hard and kept improving. I knew early on he was something special. Ben hates to lose, like any good athlete. He has the mentality that he is going to find a way to win. I can’t go with him anymore. He’s too big and strong.”
Hall is part of another strong Hall of Fame induction class that includes 2004 Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson, now the head coach at Penn State.
“Going in with Cael is a great honor,” Hall said. “I wish him the best if he decides to compete again. I think it will be great for the United States if he does. He’s going to make other guys train harder, that’s for sure. He’s got what it takes if he wants to do it. My hope is that he competes again. It was fun watching him when he did compete. If it’s in his heart and he’s having fun with it, why not come back and wrestle? I would love to see him wrestle again.”
As Hall prepared to enter the Hall of Fame, he took time to reflect on the life of former U.S. teammate Lindsey Durlacher. A 2006 World bronze medalist and member of the 2007 World championship team, Durlacher died Saturday at age 36.
Durlacher’s funeral is scheduled for Thursday.
“The passing of Lindsey is a tragedy,” Hall said. “I just feel bad for his family. My prayers and thoughts go out to Lindsey’s family. I lost my brother when I was 17. I know how tough that is.”