The annual Armed Forces Wrestling Championships took place Saturday at Joint-Base-McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and once again, All-Army captured top honors, extending the streak to 16 years in a row. There were strong performances up and down the lineup, but that was to be expected going in (as it as every year). A team that features two Olympians back-to-back, a past Junior World medalist, a past Trials finalist, and numerous other national contenders is difficult for any US team or club to deal with. This is sort of how it has been for a while at the Armed Forces, although in 2013 the Marines did come close, losing to Army 14-13 in what was a classic nail-biter.
But to put this all strictly into a sporting context really misses the point of what this event is about. Take a second and check out the Navy and Air Force teams specifically. Many of these athletes are not full-time Greco-Roman competitors and despite several of them having credible national-level experience, it’s asking a lot to expect big-time upsets over what are some of the country’s best wrestlers. Yet there they all were on Saturday, fighting, clashing, pouring every ounce of energy into every second of every bout. Fans like Greco because it is physical, sometimes brutally so, and offers dynamic scoring sequences. That was all there Saturday and then some, especially this time around.
Personal pride is never not a downfall, but that wasn’t what you saw on these mats. There was pride, to be sure, but it was pride in country, pride in their service branches, and pride in each other. These matches mattered. Forget about the ramifications, the qualifications for the World Team Trials or the World Military Championships. There could have been nothing on the line here and guys still would have went out there and battled their hearts out. This is the essence of Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States and something that should be celebrated more than it is. The Armed Forces Wrestling Championships serves as an important reminder of that.
Individual WCAP performances? Obviously, the return of 2008 Olympian and 2016 Olympic Trials runner-up Ildar Hafizov (59 kg) made news. Hafizov cruised through the day with three technical falls, as did a few of his WCAP teammates. Michael Hooker (71 kg), who has taken individual gold at this event twice, also reintroduced himself to competition for the first time since last April. He looked like he is rounding right back into form. Courtney Myers (80 kg) is finally healthy and boy, did he seem like it. Lucas Sheridan (85 kg) provided some entertaining moments and stayed relaxed but aggressive in his bouts. He’ll be a legitimate sleeper pick for some in April. And 2016 US National Champion Toby Erickson (130 kg), competing in his first-ever Armed Forces Wrestling Championships, performed as dominantly as you might imagine. As soon as that big kid kicks into gear, there is just way too much force, way too much experience to really get in his way.
There were plenty of crazy matches throughout the day but two in particular stand out — Brandon Johnson (80 kg, USAF) against Michael Brant (Marines) and Dillon Cowan (75 kg, Army) versus John Stefanowicz (Marines). Johnson raced out to a big lead on Brant, at one instance racing out to a 14-7 advantage. Brant closed the gap to 14-12, and between the noise from the pro-Air Force crowd and the cheers from the Marines in attendance, it felt like you were watching an after-school brawl in the parking lot. The energy was amazing, that is until Brant’s knee presented an issue. The match was stopped while the training staff tended to him and when action resumed, Johnson got warm again and sewed it up with a 21-12 technical fall victory.
Cowan is a borderline brilliant technician and he did his best to control Stefanowicz, who really deserves to be acknowledged for the improvements he has made to his game. The bout was tied at 1-1 in the second period when Cowan got in on a high dive. Stefanowicz tried to counter by going with it and throwing Cowan over, only to have Cowan land on top for four. The Marine narrowed things to 5-3 off of a takedown with a minute left, which got everybody’s attention. That is when the physicality was ratcheted up to level 10. Stefanowicz started clubbing, pulling, and chopping his way in. Cowan returned fire. Of course, the official ruined all of this by trying to calm everything down. It wasn’t as if there was anything dirty about the increase in intensity, but whatever. Cowan managed to stave off the hard-charging Stefanowicz to the whistle, giving him a hard-fought win over a brute tough opponent.
Endhyr Meza (98 kg, Army) taking out Daniel Miller (Marines) was certainly the surprise of the day. Meza has been a capable athlete thus far, but not a wrestler on par with the more well-known 98’ers. Those days might be coming to an end. On Saturday against Miller, Meza unfurled two big four-point throws on the recent international medalist and showed a lot of bounce in his step as he sustained a busy attack. The end result was an 11-3 tech the Army guys went berserk over. Miller is still a wrestler on the Greco-Roman learning curve, so he has time to iron some of this out. But even still, a pretty big impression was made on Meza’s part.
Air Force wrestler Nate Higgins (66 kg) deserves a shout out. Higgins looked hard as nails and though he finished 1-2 on the day, his losses were to Coleman and Raymond Bunker (Marines). If you have seen Higgins wrestle before Saturday, you know he has ability, grit. He can progress even more. Higgins’ coach is a good one (Floyd Winter) and should he ever have the benefit of more training partners and really, just more training, period, he could be someone to keep an eye on.
USA Greco-Roman team leaving for overseas
It’s finally here, the USA Greco March European tour. Flights will be taken tomorrow (February 28th) and the first event on the docket is Denmark’s Thor Masters, which pops off this coming weekend. After that will be Croatia’s Grand Prix of Zagreb in Zagreb, more training, and then the Hungarian Grand Prix. For the Juniors, up first is the Austrian Open on Saturday, but a few are sticking around in Europe for Zagreb a week later.
There are two notable roster additions for Hungary: Bunker at 66 kilos and Geordan Speiller (80 kg, Florida Jets). Actually, Speiller’s weight is not confirmed at this moment, he could very well be going back down to 75 because a) there is a two-kilogram allowance in place and b), since that will be his weight class at the World Team Trials.
A couple notes on the Thor Masters this weekend
- Poland and Norway have both recently confirmed they are sending athletes.
- The event will be viewable via live stream. We will update with more info later this week.
Martinez taking over our social media
Two-time Senior World Team member Patrick Martinez (80 kg, NYAC) will be commandeering our Instagram and Twitter accounts while he is over in Europe. He will be there for a good while — as of now, only Martinez and 2016 US National Champion Kevin Radford (85 kg, Sunkist) are staying in Europe for all three events. We’ve given him full reign: Martinez is going to post images, updates, Instagram “stories” he is apparently so fond of, and virtually whatever else he feels like. US fans always crave insider access and behind-the-scenes stuff involving the athletes, so here it comes. Enjoy!
Did you see Russia’s World Cup roster yet?
Just on optics alone, this looks like a very deliberate message being sent. Thanks to the nation’s incredible depth, Russia can be very choosy with who it sends to various competitions, and that includes the World Cup. Last year, Russia sent mostly its third-stringers and Iran waltzed away with its fifth Cup title in seven years. This is not to say that Iran has no shot in 2017, but it is going to take quite the effort. Russia is hopping over to Iran (the host country for the fifth consecutive year) with 2012 Olympic gold medalist Mingiyan Semenov, two-time Olympic gold medalist Roman Vlasov (75 kg), 2016 Olympic gold medalist Davit Chakvetadze (85 kg), 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Sergey Semenov (130 kg), and basically, everyone else who has either won the Worlds or the country’s national championship. In other words, Russia isn’t playing around.
The Greco-Roman World Cup takes place March 16th-17th in Abadan City, Iran.
What’s coming up here
- We held off on the “Coach Lindland’s Report” due to scheduling. It felt like a better idea to wait until after the Armed Forces Wrestling Championships and right before the US team leaves for Europe.
- The interview everyone has been waiting for — WCAP star Jon Anderson (80 kg). Anderson is currently on temporary duty for the Army but he’s still training for the World Team Trials. We want to talk to Anderson about his wrestling career, his approach, leadership skills, and other aspects of his life that make him such a must-watch competitor.
- About the aforementioned Martinez, we also have a piece coming out regarding what is another overseas adventure for him and how he is looking at this tour as the Trials start closing in.