Don Jones loves a challenge.
He’s embraced them his entire life: from learning how to wrestle as a youngster, how to survive the gauntlet that is the hospital management industry, how to change his career after watching someone sell shirts and apparel at a youth wrestling tournament, and, did I mention the part about wrestling?
Yes, wrestling – freestyle wrestling, with its emphasis on throws and locked hands.
“It kind of makes it more exciting,” said Jones of the rules in freestyle wrestling. “You can lock hands at any position. Double-leg takedowns are four points. There are five-point throws. Freestyle is like the wild, wild west. Wrestlers bang heads more and there’s hand-fighting involved. I did freestyle in high school.”
On October 17, Jones fulfilled a “bucket list” item by placing third in the Division E 70 kg weight class at the VWC in Loutrakis, Greece. He finished third out of 17 wrestlers and lost to fellow American Stephen Horton of Cibolo, Texas in the championship semifinals. Jones won the bronze medal match on a tiebreaker (3-3) against Antanas Merkevicioius of Lithuania.
Jones, who resides in Landen, Ohio, decisioned Jamshed Maqsudov of Tajikistan, 4-0 in his first match. He dominated Sandor Pali of Hungary in the quarterfinal, 11-1 (technical fall) before losing to Horton, 10-0 in the semifinals.
Jones drilled and drilled and lost about 22 pounds from the time of the Class of 1981 reunion in late June until weigh-ins on the day of the competition on Oct. 17.
After months of preparing – a task that included raising travel money – his first match must have come as a welcome relief. And, a win made the trip much easier to reckon with.
“I was ready to go,” he said of his preliminary bout. “I got a little sweat going. I went out and worked a double leg takedown and got him off his feet. My coach (Chris Brown) told me to stay in the middle of the mat and keep wrestling. He told me it was my opponent’s job to take me down. In the second two minutes, I took a couple of shots. He didn’t score on me. That was the silver medalist last year.”
Emboldened by the victory over the returning silver medalist, Jones was ready for the quarters, and he let it show.
“When I went to the US Open, Chris Brown asked if I could go to worlds,” Jones said. “I was hooked. The guy I beat in the US Open finals had been a silver medalist. I knew I could hang with the best in the world.”
Brown is a former CUSAW Executive Director at Colorado USA Wrestling. The US freestyle and greco-roman teams both won team titles.
“(The quarterfinal match) was my least intense match,” Jones said. “I was moving with the guy pretty well, was taking some shots. He took a shot and fell. I got behind him for two points. I got a leg lace and leg laced him and the match ended up being 11-1.”
Jones knew at that moment that he was guaranteed a medal. He was one win away from wrestling for gold.
“I knew I’m guaranteed to place third or fifth,” he said. “Steve Horton was a two-time world champion. Everyone knew he was one of the best guys in the USA at this level. I gotta go out there and wrestle him really strong and quick. He took me down and put me in a gut wrench and turned me three times and it was 8-0. He took me down again and the match was over, 10-0. He said to me, ‘Good match.’ He had a bloody lip and his eye was bleeding.”
Jones wrestled his fourth and final match in the evening, and he didn’t take it lightly – even though it wasn’t for first place.
“(Coach Brown) said, ‘Go out and wrestle your match,’” Jones recalled. “I was losing 3-0 at the break. I went back and took the guy down for two points. I got a point for back exposure. It was 3-3 and I was winning on criteria. For 48 seconds, I stayed in the middle of the mat. I didn’t need to shoot. There was hand fighting and I was defending against shots. He was desperate. If he would have pushed me out of bounds, he would have gotten a point.”
Horton went on to lose in the finals, 3-1 to Hamidreza Mahmoud Rabiei Kenari of Iran.
“You’re around guys from all over the world (46 different countries were represented),” Jones said. “There was a sense of energy all over the place. What a great experience; I’m still on Cloud 9.”
Jones has dedicated himself to the youngest of the young, molding them into wrestlers who can take the next competitive step and, maybe, just maybe become state, national and world champions. If not any of those, the participation in a sport that requires the highest degree of self-discipline, self-control and, above all, controlled rage, leaves a sense of accomplishment simply by being on the mat with others who may become champions some day.
Jones works with youngsters as young as five years old. Willie Weinberg, the head coach of Prodigy Wrestling Academy, takes it from there. Weinberg is a four-time high school state champion.
“I take beginners,” said Jones. “Coach Weinberg takes advanced kids. I get them ready for him. He’s a legend here.The other night I had 31 kids at my practice. He had 40.
“We connect well; we both believe in perfecting the basics. Wrestling is such a long journey; you don’t want to burn them out, but you want them to be competitive.”
In a state that is mad about wrestling – as is Pennsylvania – Jones (and Weinberg) are doing their part to perpetuate the passion and effort in what might just be the world’s oldest sport (other than marathons).
Jones, who dealt with a 7-hour time differential and made stringent modifications to his diet to maintain his wrestling weight, is back on the mats with his wrestlers and is always busy promoting practices and upcoming tournaments with the efficiency of a summa cum laude marketing major. His positivity and respect for others cement his influence, and his humility and acknowledgment that he didn’t have the credentials of other wrestlers on Team USA, reveal his depth of commitment and doing what it takes to win against top-notch competition in his age group.
“If I looked at the 60 guys from the USA, a lot of them are placers in their high school state tournaments and colleges in the past,” Jones explained. “I was never a state champion in high school or never a college All-American. If you look at my credentials, they don’t compare to those in my younger years. I look at myself and say, ‘I just kept getting better.’”
For Jones, his competitive wrestling calendar has reset itself, and he looks forward to the 2024 US Open and, perhaps, the 2024 World Championships.
“My goal is to continue to wrestle until my body says, ‘Hey, you can’t do it anymore,’” Jones said. “Next year is the US Open again in Las Vegas in April. There’s the folkstyle Masters in Iowa in March, if I can swing it I’m going to do that.”
Not bad for someone who was born 2 ½ months premature and weighed in at 3 ½ pounds at birth. He spent the first days of his life in an incubator in August 1963. In fact, Don Jones was born on his mother’s birthday (Aug. 14).
Jones’s father (Donald Edward Jones) died in November 2022. His mother (Victoria Mentzer Jones) died in June 2023, and his brother Donaldo Jones died three years ago. And, his son Sidney, whom Jones said was the reason he started coaching youth wrestling in Ohio, died in 2015 of an overdose.
His daughter, Ashley, has been a constant in his life, and his associations through working at Proforma Albrecht & Company and Business Networking International enable Jones to stay the course in a life marked by some ‘bucket list’ goals like owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, buying his dream car (a red Mazda Miata), and, of course, traveling the country and the world to compete. He’s even thinking about exploring the possibility of branching out into track and field. Jones played the saxophone in the WASHS marching band, but he didn’t say he planned to start playing an instrument, or taking part in dramatic productions since he played a role in the WASHS all-school production.
“People would text me and tell me to do this ‘for your parents and your brother. They’ll be sitting in a chair and waiting for my match,’” Jones said. “Win or lose, they are proud of me. In the moment, you want to win. When I lost in the semis, I thought that just to be here I’m proud whether I placed or not. The training, making weight, getting on the plane, getting a passport, doing everything I need to do to be in the best shape I’ve ever been, traveling by myself, getting on the right plane, the right buses, not losing my passport.”