Last year, the National Collegiate Wrestling Association all but came out of nowhere in the spring with their first-ever Go Greco Nationals, though few of the circumstances surrounding the tournament fell in its favor.
There wasn’t a whole lot of advanced notice, making widespread promotion difficult. Most of the competitors, if not the complete overwhelming majority, had very little Greco-Roman experience, if any at all, resulting in just about every single contested bout ending via pin or tech. That the event took place on the same weekend as the USA Wrestling University Nationals in Akron, Ohio only added to its relative obscurity, although that was actually by design.
“The rationale for us was to introduce a lot of athletes to Greco-Roman wrestling, the style,” says NCWA executive director Jim Giunta, who conceived the event and its developmental mission. “Had the experience level been the same as the University Nationals, I think it would have deterred a lot of these guys who did show up. So we did it on purpose (scheduling the event on the same weekend as Akron) as a novice tournament. We were trying to come across as, Let’s have fun with this and enjoy it. Let’s try to bring a lot of these guys who have never wrestled Greco or played around one time with it to our national tournament.”
And that’s perhaps the point of separation most need to consider regarding the 2018 Go Greco Nationals. Giunta, while mindful of the National program’s methodology for boosting collegiate-level participation, isn’t beholden to a stern directive. That allows him the freedom to try his hand at developing athletes in a different way.
The first step involves a “learning as you go” approach, hence the NCWA’s Greco national tournament and the handful of events that preceded it (the NCWA sanctioned three other tournaments that have already taken place this spring). If it seems a little backwards — wrestlers gaining the brunt of their Greco experience in actual matches rather than through a series of camps — that’s because it is. But if you look, that’s no different than what was going on at the University level for years and years, where newbie wrestlers who wanted to give Greco a shot were often the victims of a steep competitive imbalance when matched up with athletes from Northern Michigan and other full-time training sites. At least with the NCWA’s Go Greco curriculum, those who are green to the classical style’s machinations can do battle against other fresh faces without fearing the prospect of not getting their money’s worth. In short, there is a higher chance of parity, something that was in many cases sorely missing from the University age-group before it was bypassed by USA Wrestling in favor of U23 earlier this year.
“I think by developing it the way we’re doing it, by allowing these guys to come right out of collegiate wrestling and move into Greco to get that experience, they are not going head-to-head with the guys who are right now training year-round for the Olympics and World competition,” Giunta explains. “We can create a spawning ground for USA Wrestling as we develop some of these guys who are 19 to 22 years of age. That way when they are out of school, they are now ready to move into those ranks. It’s a system that we believe is going to be very helpful in producing a stable of athletes coming up for USA. That’s the goal at least.”
Another key factor that makes the NCWA’s endeavor all the more enticing is the segment of wrestlers under its charge. Despite the US National program’s recent push to recruit more and more high schoolers into the sport, most of the country’s crossover depth at Senior is the byproduct of collegians who aren’t sure they have what it takes to make a run at freestyle (and even if they do but fall short, that’s what the new freestyle to Greco transition camps are for). Most of these college wrestlers, whether they are still in school or have recently graduated, tend to come from one of the three major NCAA tiers (namely Divisions I-III). It’s natural — they are the wrestlers largely recruited and encouraged to switch over thanks in large part to the perception that they will be able to make the necessary adjustments to someday soon reach a representative degree of formidability.
In the meantime, there is a whole other collection of collegiate folkstylers who haven’t been getting enough attention.
American Greco-Roman is an inclusive entity because it has to be. There isn’t a whole ton of picking and choosing going on, not with so many of the nation’s high school or collegiate “blue chip” types opting for freestyle, or even to a somewhat lesser extent, mixed martial arts. Greco in the US is trending upwards, and there is plenty of tangible evidence available to suggest that it will continue to. But when it comes to turning over every rock for potential talent — or putting out feelers to see who of the collegiate folkstyle lot might be amenable to selecting the classical style as a means to stay active following graduation — wrestlers who have spent their scholastic careers competing within the confines of the NCWA or NAIA are often forgotten about. Has Greco in the US been missing the boat by not more aggressively pursuing these competitors? If so, Giunta is willing to do his part to increase awareness.
“I think there are many hidden gems,” he says. “A lot of the wrestlers in the NCWA are high-end, quality athletes. And obviously, guys in the Division I are high-end, quality athletes. But there is an opportunity here to find guys who have ‘it’, guys who can transition from collegiate or freestyle to Greco and become enormously successful.”
Aside from athleticism and overall wrestling skill, Giunta feels the premier attribute that is present in NCWA competitors and will serve them well should they attempt to chase down domestic and/or international success is desire. Hunger. A drive to perform at the highest level simply because they were unable to do so while enrolled in school for a variety of reasons.
“Within this group, there are guys who didn’t get a chance to wrestle DI or maybe chose to go to a college due to academics rather than wrestling, so as a result they are in the NCWA,” Giunta points out. “I’m hopeful that this is the little piece to the puzzle that we can put into place. The current program that they’re running is good and it continues to take our athletes to the highest levels where they need to be. Our guys can be the feeder system. We’re not trying to produce guys at that level, that’s Matt’s (Lindland) job. It’s my job to give him some raw material to work with.”
As Giunta alludes to, the plan for the NCWA’s Go Greco initiative is not centered around an annual national tournament. For starters, two events were scheduled for this spring leading up, with one having already been held (the Barrientos Memorial in Frisco, Texas last month) and another set for this coming weekend. The purpose of these competitions in the short term is to provide a testable format athletes can use to gauge their progress prior to the big show next month. Think of this pair of tourneys as either crash courses for the uninitiated, or refresher classes for wrestlers who can lean on at least a smidgen of Greco experience.
But it goes deeper than these three tournaments. With so much of the conversation pertaining just to the upcoming NCWA Go Greco National Championships, Giunta’s vision is in danger of getting lost — and it shouldn’t. He sees this whole thing as a sustainable enterprise that will eventually function similar to baseball’s minor leagues, where athletes can consistently develop through training and competition, and when they’re ready, the next step up will be the majors. “We can allow some guys to mature in the Greco style before we would bring them up the level of where Matt wants them to be, before they should really even be in the game up there,” notes Giunta.
Before a full-scale NCWA Greco league can get off the ground, several hurdles first need to be cleared, with insurance being the biggest. Events and participants would have to be insured on an ongoing basis, which involves its fair share of red tape stemming from athletes under the umbrellas of different sanctioning bodies going up against one another. In order for this component of the NCWA Greco-Roman strategy to see a proper launch (hopefully within the year), the liability side of things will require some figuring out and Giunta is already engaged in making sure that happens.
For now, it is what’s happening on June 9th at Richland Junior College in Dallas that matters. And just like last year, there will be company. On the same weekend as the Junior World Team Trials in Indianapolis — and a week after the U23 World Team Trials in Akron — the 2018 Go Greco Nationals will be decided, standing alone as its own entity, thus far remaining an independent alternative to the shark tank tournaments of the past and present that have gobbled up plenty of willing-yet-overmatched wrestlers and spit them out only to never be seen or heard from again. This chasm in parity is one reason why Greco has had trouble getting over the hump in the US and its continuation is no longer a tolerable concept if participation among motivated, inexperienced collegians could ever be expected to increase.
Which is really all Giunta is gunning for at the moment. He just wants to lift the curtain a little higher so that the guys in the back can see what’s available. If a mere fraction of the competitors from next month’s NCWA Greco nationals wind up pursuing the sport further, then that’s a win for 2018. Then again, Giunta is a chain-thinker and can’t help but ponder all of the potential benefits that might come from the tournament and its accompanying series of events each year. This is an opportunity to make a difference here he is convinced that if given enough time, resources, and promotion, United States Greco-Roman will have a valuable developmental pool to depend on during an era when it is needed the most. Just as importantly, it might very well also turn into an effective mechanism to pull in more fans.
“This is where we can help,” Giunta declares one last time. “We can help our National program and we can give a lot more guys an opportunity to compete. If we want Greco-Roman to be successful nationally and internationally, we need more people following it. And if you’ve wrestled Greco, you have a much higher tendency to follow it than if you never tried it in the first place.
“Every one of these college guys who wrestle in our tournament can look back with their kids someday and go, Hey, I wrestled in that Greco Nationals when I was in college. Well, guess what? That guy is going to follow our Greco team. We would have created a new fan, even if we haven’t created a new champion.”
2018 NCWA Go Greco Nationals
Date: June 9th
Where: Richland College (Dallas Community College District)
Time: 10:00am-7:30pm (CT)
Weight classes: United World Wrestling assigned weights
REGISTRATION (On FLOArena)
Entry fee: $35 (in advance); $50 after May 26th; $65 day-of