To ring in 2017, we went through each Senior Greco-Roman weight class and listed all of the athletes we determined to be on track to make sizable impacts during the new year. We got some right. But then again, it was easier 12 months ago. A lot of of our material was based around what took place in the preceding months, of which there were several more events to dig into. There was the Bill Farrell Memorial, the Golden Grand Prix, the Sweden tour, and of course, the US Nationals, the second biggest event held in the States each year.
This time around, the task has been more challenging. With no end-of-year Open to serve as a baseline, the onus falls on the autumn Schultz and the U23 Trials. Sure, there were a lot of matches involving US Greco athletes contested overseas — and we’re counting ’em — but a significant percentage of those bouts were not even available to watch via stream or otherwise. Yes, in 2017, there are still events without livestreams.
Therefore, the format for the 2018 Watchlist has been amended. Rather than list wrestlers according to weight class, they are now broken down into teams/clubs/training centers. This is due to two primary reasons: many wrestlers have yet to decide on their weight class for 2018. Even if they competed at the Dave Schultz Memorial, it is still too early to assume where one might stick once the US Open and World Team Trials arrive. And since enough wrestlers have been inactive thus far on the new season, it is much easier to compartmentalize them according to their associated teams or clubs as opposed to outright declaring which weight an athlete may settle upon, even if adequate evidence points to one direction or another.
2018 US Greco-Roman Watchlist Part I
Max Nowry — 55 kg
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know the deal about Nowry: he made the Olympic Trials final in 2012, won a University World title that same year, and was ultimately forced to compete up in weight for the remainder of the quad and beyond. Now that’s over and 55 kilos, the weight where Nowry made his mark, is back. There is probably no other wrestler in the country shouldering the same expectations as this guy. His back is where the target resides at 55 and everyone knows it. How he responds carrying this all around come the Trials will be one of the bigger stories of the summer. On the surface, everything seems lined up for Nowry, Budapest, a potential medal, all that. In the Schultz final last month, he uncharastically committed to singular positions rather than creating nonstop motion with his setups. That’s an easy fix for him to make and he says that’s the plan. Believe him.
Ryan Mango — 60 kg
Widely recognized as one of the two or three most explosive and capable wrestlers in the country, Mango has yet to represent the United States at a Senior World Championships. With half a decade of Senior competition under his belt at this juncture, there is almost an anytime now… feeling surrounding him. Fact is, fans and coaches never cease to believe that one day it will happen. Mango operates on a rare athletic level and what’s more, is one of the smartest wrestlers we have in the US. Whether there are a few minor adjustments he needs to make, or if his older brother’s legendary shadow still looms too large, is conjecture. Because if you just go by what you see, which time and time again is eye-popping brilliance, you have to figure Mango is eventually going to blast into the big-time sooner or later. Why not 2018? Regardless if it’s at this weight or the Non-Olympic 63, Mango remains a can’t-miss athlete.
Ellis Coleman — 67 kg
Coleman’s appearance on this list is a redundancy. A former Olympian and two-time World Team member who is just entering his mid-20’s shouldn’t require much discussion. However, Coleman’s 2016-17 campaign was almost Shakespearean in how it unfolded. He seemed to enter a time machine at Thor Masters, moving, bouncing, and attacking as if the calendar read 2013. Of course, his shoulder was torqued towards the end of his fourth match that afternoon in Denmark, but he recovered well enough to grind through his best-of-three Trials final with main US rival Alex Sancho (NYAC/OTS) to make his second World Team. Optimism surrounded Coleman entering Paris, that is until a bacterial infection sapped him of his strength and endurance. What followed was a frustrating 1-1 performance at the Worlds. Five weeks after that, Coleman’s illness forced him out of the Military Worlds. He claims that’s all behind him now. If it is, and Coleman is truly healthy, fans can look forward to another season where he and Sancho trade paint when the stakes are at their highest.
Michael Hooker — 77 kg
There is no way Hooker should be looked upon to do much other than possibly contend for a National Team spot. And that is if everything breaks right for him. But for now, Hooker as a top-three athlete would represent a sizable leap. It’s hard not to see all of the good things the Tennessean can drum up when he’s out there. He’s a hard-nosed competitor who demonstrates a keen awareness for maintaining that delicate balance between brawler and technician. And when he is in control of the tie-ups, his level changes are positively nasty. If you recall his start on the Senior circuit, it was his ability to clear ties and find the body why many became so optimistic about his future. Hooker is going to need to do more of that, show off those aggressive, creative attacks that enabled him to gain footing earlier in his career. The return of forced par terre will rightfully place an emphasis on meaningful scoring chances, an area where Hooker can shine more than most.
Jacob Mitchell — 130 kg
Mitchell scored one of his most important wins to date at the Dave Schultz Memorial when he defeated teammate Toby Erickson 3-1 on the strength of an early bodylock-go-behind that he nearly converted into a four-point sequence. That is the kind of stuff Mitchell is capable of, piling on scores. He is not the hard-edged, muck-it-up-inside grinder most other domestic heavyweights are, and maybe he shouldn’t try to be. Provided he can sufficiently rough it up to open his lanes, Mitchell is an adept attacker who moves so well that seeing him play the pummel game is kind of a bummer. His work will be cut out for him, though. Robby Smith (NYAC) is still clicking at a high level and Erickson won’t be coming off of a pronounced layoff when they meet again. Par terre may also be the great equalizer keeping Mitchell from a breakout. But — he can be special, and that’s reason enough to pay attention.
Xavier Johnson — 67 kg
It’s hard to fathom that just a year ago, Johnson was seen as a potential spoiler for the then-upcoming World Team Trials — at 59 kilos. It is not known for certain if Johnson will be hanging out at 67 or 63, but since this is the weight he went at the U23’s, it is where we’ll envision him. A lot of moving parts with this guy. Johnson is long and strong, but above all, he is fast. The only problem? He’s still a bit raw to where his combination of speed and power doesn’t yet offer enough slickness to catch more experienced opponents off-guard. That may change. Until it does, he may want to adhere to the Marine Corps ethos of “fire superiority” and just try to batter guys nonstop with attempts, especially since his defense on the mat was less-than-inspired last time we checked. If he can be a worker, he can take a big jump, and just like at the ’16 Open, it will have come out of nowhere.
Jamel Johnson — 67 kg
Not too long ago, the older Johnson at 67 for the Marine Corps was on the brink of national stardom only to see his career temporarily sputter after joining WCAP, which is really the kind of thing that does not happen too often. The weight class was one reason: like Nowry, Johnson performed at his previous peak in a weight class that wound up being disappeared by UWW. The former 60-kilo competitor found life at 66 a constant readjustment period, though he still acquitted himself well on occasion domestically. The other missing piece? Marine head coach Jason Loukides, who Johnson credits with helping him get his start as a Senior over half a decade ago. Their reunion is going well so far. After being off the mat for some 17 months, Johnson put in an impressive third at the Dave Schultz last month. More time back in his comfort zone with Loukides could should keep the good times rolling.
Peyton Walsh — 82 kg
Although there is enough to go on from Walsh’s collegiate career at the Naval Academy to suggest that Greco might be a solid fit, the jury is still out on how he’ll do as a full-time Senior. And to be completely forthright, the amount of video evidence implicating Walsh as a future contender is paltry at best. But that doesn’t take away from the intrigue. Lauded for his fiery competitive drive, Walsh possesses the intangibles that usually result in next-level success: willingness to fight from each position, unerring stamina, and the ability to make something out of nothing. Case in point — at the Jouri Lavrikov Memorial in Russia two weeks ago, Gary Mayabb was awestruck by Walsh’s quick-thinking to go for a high-crotch entry on an opponent and turn it into a nifty bodylock-to-slide-by. The sequence led to a spirited comeback that saw Walsh earn bronze. How much more do you really need to know?
Daniel Miller — 97 kg
Another year, another appearance by Miller. The narrative surrounding Miller is well-known by now: he finds international competition more agreeable with his style, but has yet to mirror the same results domestically. That could change in 2018. 97 kilos in the US is virtually just as stacked as it was last year, sans G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist), who moved up to heavyweight. The difference isn’t just Hancock or even directly related to his absence. The reason Miller could be expected to hop up in the rankings has much more to do with what you hear from coaches and teammates, which is that he is starting to figure out the tweaks necessary to punish domestic opponents who try to lure him into mentally-vexing pummel-fests. If Miller is of the understanding that the only way he can win stateside is by refusing to be bogged down in the trenches and instead, ignite more scoring chances, then there is really no reason his season should end like it did in ’16.
Eric Fader — 130 kg
Get it straight — Fader is not supposed to beat Smith, Erickson, or Mitchell. You could throw Donny Longendyke (Minnesota Storm, listed below) on that list if you like, as well. Expecting Fader to be in the argument for a top three or four spot is a little much just yet. But that’s okay. If you are a Fader fan, what you want to see out of him for the remainder of the season is simply a jump-up from last year, and he is already on track to do that, having competed three times overseas since the end of September. Foreign opponents taught the 21-year-old some brutal lessons in 2016 and he was better for it. A lot of how he does will be contingent upon his par terre defense. Fader is a massive human, and starting on his stomach will make it difficult for even the best domestic gutters to turn him. But can he lift, collapse, and roll the other monsters consistently enough to make an impression? We’re thinking he can.
Patrick Smith — 72 kg
It goes without say how vital the 2016-17 campaign was for Smith. He checked off the two most important “first” boxes — he earned his first Senior National title and made his first Senior World Team. Smith was also one of the only US athletes who managed to secure a single victory at Paris Worlds. A dubious distinction, but one that deserves mentioning in the current climate. A multi-month stay in Sweden is credited with preparing Smith for the gauntlet that was the 71 kilogram bracket in Vegas, and why not? A steely confidence escorted him out onto the mat each and every bout throughout his virtuoso groundbreaking performance. But following what was certainly a major step forward in his career, people are going to want to see more — meaning, making the Team again won’t be enough. He profiles as an athlete who got a taste and is ready to die for another. Considering he’s already the most physical guy in the US as it is, that’s a scary thought.
Alec Ortiz — 77 kg
The deal with Ortiz is that he’s a guy you either can’t wait to wrestle or want to avoid at all costs. It’s hard for most opponents to look good against him, especially if the action drags on into the latter stages of a bout. That’s because Ortiz portrays positively zero fear of being scored on. His coaches have reportedly gotten on him about this. The weird thing is, it isn’t a total weakness. He’s the quintessential fighter who is A-OK with taking some punches so he can land a few of his own. His style is also herky-jerky and at times, downright awkward. This allows Ortiz to find scoring chances, be it a front headlock or arm throw, from rather unconventional positions. If he could just get across the Atlantic Ocean and mix it up with a breadth of foreigners who dig that kind of eclecticity, perhaps he’d be able to balance his skill-set a little more as the quad streaks towards Tokyo.
Rich Carlson — 87 kg
We can all agree that Barrett Stanghill is the Storm wrestler at this weight who is the bigger threat, but Carlson has shown in limited Senior action that he has the makings of a worthy contender in his own right. A Junior World Teamer a few years back, Carlson’s collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse proved to be a detour, and he also holds a desire for MMA competition apparently. If he decides to focus strictly on Greco, he may find it worth his while. What you like about Carlson is that first off, he is an upright, hips-in-head-up wrestler. He wants to wring and wriggle in the pummel at a breakneck pace in effort to busy up attempts. It all has a very European, fundamentally-sound look, similar to most Storm combatants. As for his overall game, aka par terre wrestling, thus far he has brandished a solid gutwrench that will turn some domestic opponents, but lacks the polish to do the same against foreigners. Correctable.
Hayden Zillmer — 97 kg
Putting Zillmer on a Watchlist, at its core, is utterly passé. Everyone understands who he is and what he has achieved the past 19 months. A Greco-Roman National Team member at 85 kilos in 2016, Zillmer went up to 98 last year and performed exceptionally well, especially when you consider that technically, he’s still a work-in-progress. Then again, that’s precisely why the masses are so high on him. We’re talking about a guy who hasn’t even scratched the surface yet in terms of what he might be capable of. Just yikes. Most importantly, Zillmer is figuring out ways to win that would have passed him by previously. His last-minute crushing bodylock-to-fall in the bronze medal match at the Gedza was an eye-opener, but the way he bulldozed 2010 Junior World silver Lee Se-Yeol (KOR) in the Schultz finals with little time left sent shockwaves around the country. When Zillmer wraps his arms around opponents, they crumble like dust. Tough to mess with that.
Donny Longendyke — 130 kg
Once the #1 high school heavyweight recruit in the US, Longendyke spent the beginning of his collegiate career with the Huskers before finishing it out at Augsburg University as a two-time DIII National finalist and one-time champ (2015). We acknowledge these things, we have to, but it’s what Longendyke has put forth in the classical style that matters most right now. The 24-year-old was a multi-time Fargo placer and in 2016, secured a spot at the Olympic Trials with a win at the Last Chance Qualifier. We didn’t see him again until the University Nationals this past June, where he lateraled teammate Malcolm Allen in the finals to wrap up a statement-making finals victory. Longendyke then went 1-3 at the Schultz, his first true Senior event since Iowa City. It’s probably a good idea to ignore the recent results and just focus on this: the 6’3 Longendyke may need to observe a few adjustments in order to become “Greco proper”, but he is a driven, offensively-inclined big man, who with more experience, will be a factor for the 2020 Tokyo squad. That process is now underway.
Jessy Williams — 67 kg
Williams made our Watchlist for 66 kilograms last year, and like many of the names mentioned, it wasn’t because there was an assumption he’d make the National Team, just that he would take a step up in one way or another. And he sort of did, though his Trials was a downer. Williams is confounding because to watch him is to witness what appears to be the complete package. He can lift, he can throw, he can brawl — but he has also been caught sleeping before and it’s an issue that can cost him winnable matches. Williams looked refreshed and on his game at the Dave Schultz Memorial. The only bout he lost was to one of the best wrestlers in the entire event (Ryu Han-soo, KOR). A gritty victory over former teammate Travis Rice (NMU/OTS) propelled him into the bronze round where he and German Diaz (PUR/Marines) tossed each other around a bit. Williams flashed a more sophisticated two-on-one game during that tournament than he has in the past. It led to scores. Everything about Williams still indicates grand potential, so let’s see what a new training environment will do for him.
Jon Jay Chavez — 77 kg
You can’t really call losses in a Trials final a “low point” for a wrestler, but what happened to Chavez in Minnesota was rough. He was ahead by a pair of points over Jesse Porter (NYAC/OTS) late in the first of their best-of-three series when Porter bombed him with two picturesque correct throws. History basically repeated itself in Match 2, giving Porter the signature domestic victory of his career. But Chavez, the former age-group prodigy that he is, had a terrific overall year that included a third at the Senior Trials, a silver to Geordan Speiller (Florida Jets) in Akron, and a 1-1 performance at the Tbilisi Grand Prix. Tbilisi was important, for it was Chavez’s first overseas tourney of the season and he wrestled well, even in his screwjob of a second match. Chavez is such a severely talented all-around wrestler that he is always going to present problems for everyone else, but a more confidently aggressive approach wouldn’t hurt in the marquee events.
Enock Francois — 97 kg
Some have ruminated that the only thing separating Francois from elite World-level status is a lack of consistent competition. He doesn’t get out there too often, and for a crossover athlete, that tends to be an issue. It’s not a knock. If anything, Francois is tantalizing because you can’t help but imagine what he might look like with a heavier slate of action under his belt. Oddly enough, he turned back Micah Burak for third place at both the Open and the Trials. Burak, of course, is another all-style wrestler with legit Greco upside. But that’s the point. For Francois to avoid falling further behind someone like Zillmer, who he lost by a point to a year ago — or any of the other traveling full-timers — it may take sampling a little foreign flavor in order to expose the kind of flaws domestic opponents are unable to. A dangerous hybrid now, but a potential party-ruiner later.