Prior to last week, Khymba Johnson (NYAC/OTS) had only flirted with competing at 97 kilograms, occasionally bumping up from his usual 87 just to test the waters. He did alright, but there also wasn’t enough substance to use as a baseline. When all you’ve got is a handful of one-offs, too much hypothesizing can lead to trouble.
But unlike those dalliances north of 87 kilos in the past, Johnson took the mat on Friday at the 2019 Bill Farrell Memorial as a bonafide 97. Firmly committed to the weight category, he looked…different. A little bigger, a little stronger. More vital. Assertive, even, which is important in and of itself.
Johnson, a US National runner-up in 2016 and a mainstay at Northern Michigan for half a decade, has always been tabbed as an obvious talent — but also one who perilously walked the line between stout contender and gatekeeper. You’d rub your eyes mid-match and wonder why such a gifted bruiser would yield position during tie-ups he initiated. Or scratch your head when Johnson would let opponents off the hook offensively, as if he was too unsure of his ability to pull the trigger during a bout’s most crucial moments.
The inner dialogue from observers might sound something like this: If the guy would just believe in himself, or at least catch a glimpse of what others see when he breaks static, what an athlete you’d have on your hands.
Johnson admits to experiencing the kind of creeping self-doubt that has at times disrupted his career path. He doesn’t have time for it any longer. On the brink of receiving his Bachelor’s from NMU this coming spring, he is approaching the Olympic Year as both a fresh start — and catalyst for a potential crossroads decision.
“I have a bit more drive because I’ve been saying this is probably my last year training full-time,” Johnson acknowledged on Tuesday night, mere days after putting forth one of his most encouraging performances this quadrennial. “I need to start my life outside of wrestling. I’m not putting it all the way on hold, but after this cycle, I won’t be training full-time because I am graduating in May and want to find other things to do outside of wrestling. It has been a big drive for me to keep on striving and talking myself into this weight class. To make myself the best I can be in this weight class in the time that I have to do it.”
Following the Farrell, “talking” himself into the weight class shouldn’t present much of a challenge.
In the semifinal round, Johnson battled the nation’s most accomplished young gun, G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg, Sunkist, world no. 2), and but for a smattering of single-point scores, was neck-and-neck with Hancock from start to finish. No flowery bombs or highlight-reel Hancock throws. Just two wrestlers, in lockstep with one another, banging it out in an early-season tournament. When it was over, Johnson didn’t take the 4-1 loss as a total moral victory, though he did walk away convinced of his own viability.
“I knew he was strong but I wasn’t worried about that or his bodylock — at all,” explains Johnson. “In the match, I felt as strong as him. After that match, I felt like I was in the pack and that gave me a confidence boost. But I need to match his intensity, because for as big as he is, I didn’t feel his strength. In a way.”
That is not to suggest Johnson is bypassing adjustments after what was a solid test run. Hancock, well-traveled with loads of top-level international experience, also happens to be an athletic dynamo. The rare upper-weight Greco wrestler who makes his living attempting to debunk the laws of gravity. But that is also why Johnson measuring himself against Hancock is the only option. Whatever the result was going to be on Friday, it would provide the dataset necessary to lay the groundwork for the rest of the 2019-20 campaign. Johnson just so happened to take even more away from their six minutes together than originally anticipated.
“I’m not as explosive as him, and at the moment, he is in better shape than I am,” Johnson concedes, temporarily. “It’s not an excuse, but I know he is getting better training than I am because I am not getting pushed as hard in terms of partners.” There is a short pause before his voice rises again ever so slightly. “But after that match, I had something in my head. I told myself, Khymba, you’re not that far off. You need to be more explosive, hit more moves, and be more confident in your wrestling. Don’t worry about what he’s doing.”
97 kilograms in the US is not just Hancock’s residence. It also plays host to Lucas Sheridan (Army/WCAP) and Daniel Miller (Marines), a pair of wrestlers who have comprised the National Team beneath Hancock the past two seasons.
Sheridan in particular has been a riddle for Johnson. Until Friday, all of their previous bouts had two things in common: Sheridan won all of them, and not one match reached the final whistle. The difference in New York wasn’t whose hand was raised — Sheridan triumphed yet again. But the outcome was well within Johnson’s grasp. Sheridan used his passivity chance in the first period to net two guts, and Johnson got a point back in the second before eventually falling 5-1.
However, Johnson demonstrated new signs of life in the match. He stood firm in the ties and refused to give in to positions that had welcomed big problems in the past. He was trying to force exchanges more, and remained in the hunt until the bout ebbed towards its conclusion. He looks back on his most recent struggle with Sheridan and sounds like a man who has finally found a most-vexing puzzle’s missing piece.
“My biggest regret was not respecting his par terre,” says Johnson. “I didn’t respect his par terre as much as I did Tracy’s (Hancock). On the feet with Luke, I felt absolutely fine. I felt that I have it on the feet. The only thing is my offense. That has been a big problem for me, my offense and my attacks. I’m working on it. I’m not going to say it’s a problem and walk away from it. I honestly feel that it’s not as far off as I thought with him. It’s actually closer.”
“Flesh & Blood”
The way Johnson is talking this evening, any time the subject of his time at 87 kilograms comes up it’s like he’s recounting tribulations survived during a previous life. When he does this, brushes over his former weight class, you get the sense it isn’t the actual weight of which he speaks. Rather, his words appear to target a mentality or way of viewing the world. Both are behind him now. Any brain chemistry misfirings or frustrating questions best left unanswered have evaporated into the ether never to be heard from again.
Be it physically or mentally, or both, Johnson is home at 97. And home means comfort. And from that comfort, he has discovered a renewed source of motivation. As Johnson’s weight solidified after last season, partially the result of a pescatarian diet he has observed for two years (“It forces me to eat more fruits, vegetables, and carbs,” he says), so too did his resolve.
That’s why what transpired in New York was critical. The other jaunts up to 97 weren’t real, they were fuzzy renderings of an athlete who didn’t know where he stood. Johnson was not yet prepared to threaten anyone in the higher Olympic weight because it wasn’t his weight. Now that it is and he has tangled with the current top-two guys on their turf, he carries the requisite degree of assurance to make up ground.
“At 87, it just wasn’t working,” he offers. “When I first bumped up to 97, I was about 92, 93 kilos and felt like I didn’t belong in the class. Then after the summer I put on weight. Now with all of the new training, I am in the pack just a bit more.”
Immediately on the docket is an opportunity for Johnson to separate himself from that aforementioned pack. In just over a month is the US Nationals. Johnson, as well as every wrestler who is yet to secure a berth at the Olympic Trials, will need to place in the top-five to become “April-eligible”. The field at 97 is condensed, so it’s going to logjam with the likes of Hancock, Sheridan, and Miller all in the argument.
To compete with them next month — or assume command of the weight class altogether by the spring — Johnson still has work to do. He knows this. It’s not a secret and he didn’t fly back to Marquette with a false sense of security. What has changed is the outlook. Johnson proved he could occupy a place among the nation’s elite a few years ago. After a lot of heartbreak and brain-rattling disappointment, he proved it all over again last week.
The assignment at this point is to destroy the perceived gap that exists in the theater of the mind, helped in large part by the words of his late coach, former NMU assistant Aghasi Manukyan.
“I remember one quote Aghasi always said. Because, sometimes my confidence might be down and I might not be in the right mindset going into or during a tournament. Aghasi used to say, ‘You’re not wrestling the name, you’re wrestling flesh and blood, and we are all made of it.’
“Don’t think of the name, think of the two bodies coming together, who is training harder, and who is doing the right things. That is how I am going to close the gap.”