For well over half a decade now, Kendrick Sanders has been, without question, one of the most talented and dangerous Greco-Roman wrestlers in the United States. The huge throws, occasionally from out of nowhere and other times, set up and orchestrated to perfection, comprise his calling card. One item it is easy for fans to take note of, is that it usually does not matter who Sanders is competing against. Even during the current grind-it-out era of Greco, where scoring is often at a premium, you could count on him to at the very least make attempts that have potential. Not everyone is as confident, or as willing, to just let it fly. And when Sanders has made headlines, his eagerness to deliver excitement is what helped him do so.
The simple truth is that Sanders is either the most or one of the most decorated US combatants currently active who has yet to make a World Team. A multiple-time National Team member, Sanders hasn’t quite taken a sledgehammer to the wall separating him from the Senior World Championships. For sure, he has had to do his bidding while his career overlapped with a couple of this generation’s greatest American competitors, but the point still stands. Nothing else is missing from Sanders’ resume. He has Open titles. He has won the international events that take place on home soil. The only blank spot on his ledger is the fact that this incredibly gifted wrestler hasn’t yet had the honor of competing in the biggest event this sport has to offer. He hopes to change that a little over a week from today.
Sanders understands there are questions about him, some fair, others not as much. The only thing he can do is try to answer accordingly. This he knows, too. He says he used to be stubborn, set in his ways. That is somewhat understandable, given his natural ability. But things are different now. Sanders has witnessed his wrestling mortality and came back in the fall of 2016 with a new perspective. He wants this all to mean something, he wants to make it count. The addition of two-time World medalist Andy Bisek to the Northern Michigan coaching staff has apparently come at the perfect time in Sanders’ career. His eyes have been opened. The once-hard case is now more receptive to what is being asked of him, which could spell serious, serious trouble for the other top contenders at 75 kilograms.
So here he is, the enigmatic but undeniably terrific wrestler who is more humble than he lets on while confident enough to understand what he is capable of. Not everyone can walk that tightrope, but Sanders does it well.
Kendrick Sanders — 75 kg, NYAC-OTS
5PM: Last year, you briefly flirted with leaving the sport to go into MMA. What was the story with that?
Kendrick Sanders: I was offered a contract to start my MMA career down in Florida. After the Olympic Trials I made that decision, to take that opportunity to explore my options. I’ve always been a huge fan of MMA and have trained it off and on. I felt it was the perfect timing coming off of the Olympic Trials, the Trials were done. So for me, I felt like I was in limbo about my career and what I wanted to do with my life, things like that. Obviously, the Olympic Trials didn’t go as planned, but I felt that need to grasp that opportunity and go for it all. I dabbled in MMA, I trained for a couple of months. But I knew in the long run that I couldn’t just give up on wrestling so easily, and especially leaving the Olympic Trials how I did, I broke my ribs in my first match. And I felt in my heart I should have been in the finals, it should have been me and (Andy) Bisek in the finals. I was having a great year. It just didn’t end up working that way. I knew if I left it all out there once again, then I’d be satisfied. But if I left like how I did, with getting hurt, after a huge loss, I think I would have regretted that a lot more than me just losing a match.
5PM: So in other words, you want to make sure that when you leave this sport, you’re leaving it with no regrets, everything left out on the table.
KS: Yeah, everything. I want to make sure I gave it my all 100%. And if someone beats me, they beat me, you know? They’re the better guy. But that wasn’t the case at the Olympic Trials. If I would have lost, just straight-up lost, I probably would have been done with wrestling and I’d be in the MMA world as we speak. But since it didn’t end that way, I felt that there was no way I could just give that up and leave my wrestling career like that.
5PM: Stretching back into the last quad, you were responsible for one of the most iconic moments in this sport in this era, that infamous powerbomb from the Schultz finals. It’s Ellis Coleman’s “Flying Squirrel” and your powerbomb. You’re linked to that. It was probably a lot of people’s first introduction to Greco, if you think about it. Is that important to you, that declaration of sorts, like “This is my style of Greco and this is how it is performed?”
KS: I think so. Everyone wants to see a show. To some people, Greco isn’t as exciting as it used to be. For me, I am an advocate of when people come to a tournament, they want to see Greco. I’m not saying they want to specifically see me, but every time I get out there, I want to put on a show. I want people to take Greco as their first option when they come to a tournament. I want to be exciting. I hate these 1-0 matches, these 2-0 matches. Sometimes, it may not happen to where I can get a huge throw like that. But if I can, I will. That has always been my style. Growing up, I was always a huge thrower going back to the Fargo days and so forth. I’m still practicing things. I will probably never hit a slam like that again though, I got away with that one.
But I definitely love doing things like that. I love having fun out there. That’s definitely something I’ve always tried to do and it’s something I actually have to get back to. As of late with the new rule changes and stuff like that, there’s no much par terre anymore, so I have to rely on different aspects of wrestling. Working on my feet, technique on my feet, and so forth. Most of the time time when you take a guy down, I don’t have a lot of time to work on top, like they used to give you back in the day. I used to have 30 seconds to lift someone. I feel I can lift anyone in the world in ten seconds. Now, you have five, maybe ten seconds, if that, depending on the referee. But I definitely love doing that, I definitely love being that type of wrestler, and hopefully I can get back to that at the World Team Trials.
5PM: I look at you and and it’s like, “Why hasn’t Kendrick Sanders broken through yet? What’s stopping him? He seems like he should have a medal by now.” I doubt I am alone on that.
KS: You’re not (laughs).
5PM: What is your side to that story?
Kendrick Sanders: To be honest, I can give you a million reasons why, but it sound like an excuse. It hasn’t been an excuse for me. I felt like in certain situations I pushed myself to the limit. In certain cases in certain years, I’ve fallen victim to injury. There is always something happening before Trials or I’ve come up short. But I’ve been prone to injuries a lot most of the time. I was also in a weight class with Harry Lester (laughs), so that’s tough, man. In the beginning of my career, my first Olympic Trials was in 2012 and again, Harry was in my weight class, he beat me. 2013, same thing, he was in my weight class again, he beat me at the Trials. That was also in the beginning of my career.
Now, to be honest, there is no excuse for me. I feel like I should have made a couple of teams, I feel like I should have at least a couple of medals. It sucks seeing guys make teams and seeing people you destroyed overseas and medal. It’s a very hard pill to swallow. I’ve wrestled plenty of world medalists and I’ve beaten plenty of world medalists. But I can’t do anything unless I take the initiative and make this team. This year, I plan on doing that. I mean, who is better to learn from than a guy who has basically been on the past four teams, which is Andy Bisek? I’ve given myself to my coaches thus far, I’ve done everything they tell me to do. I can say in the past I’ve been a little stubborn. I did things my way and my way wasn’t getting the job done. I’ve had a great camp. I’m cutting weight better than ever, and I feel better than I’ve ever felt. That is due to the coaches pushing me to my limit and I think it its going to pay off come next weekend.
5PM: Whenever I talk to a current Northern guy, which is often, Bisek always seems to come up. It’s certainly nothing against (Aghasi) Manukyan, but Bisek is constantly brought up, I can’t escape his being mentioned. How has this been for you? Technically, you’re a contemporary of his.
KS: Yeah, I competed against him (laughs).
5PM: Right, so what is that dynamic like?
KS: I’m not going to lie, it has been kind of weird at times because like you said, I competed against him. I felt when he made the Olympic Team it should have been me. I was competing well against him at camps and stuff like that. But he has helped me in so many ways just by seeing certain things. I wrestled him two times in my career, but that was in my beginning stages of Greco. He knows what I am capable of doing and pushes me to points where say, I am scoring on someone in the practice room and I know I can score on them ten times more, he gets me to maximum effort every time. He helps me positioning-wise — in every aspect. I have the athletic gifts but mentality wise, there are certain things I need to work on. Like bad calls, or positions where I relax and shouldn’t. He gets me to focus on the small things to where when it comes down to match time, I’m winning every position, I’m not relaxing, and that is kind of his style. He puts the pressure on people and it has broken people. It is basically how he won two World medals.
If you go back and watch his matches, he (Bisek) pressured people to make mistakes and give up points. Me, I’m too relaxed. It’s just the kind of person I am, I’m relaxed, I’m a chill person. But when it comes to positioning and certain things, I’m sometimes too relaxed in matches where I know I can push a guy to the brink and I know that I can give more than I’m giving. He has helped me push myself more and it has been a huge help for me. Like I said, mentality-wise, I’m a totally different person than in December till now. It is a credit to my two coaches and it’s a credit to myself knowing that this is my time, this is my weight. It’s no disrespect to Kamal (Bey) and Jesse (Porter), but I’ve gone through the ranks and I can name off how many World Team members in my career I’ve beaten or wrestled. That’s no disrespect to them, but I’ve gone through the wars and now it’s my time to take over this weight class.
5PM: When your rib healed and you re-thought retirement or however you define it and you came back to Northern, did it feel like you had a new lease on life, a new approach?
KS: I definitely had a new approach. That summer, I lost my aunt to lung cancer. She was probably my biggest fan in wrestling and I vowed to rededicate myself. She saw me go through life in wrestling, she was at all my matches, my tournaments, and she wasn’t able to see me make my first team. I made the University World Team, but that is not as serious as the Senior World Team, or a world medal, or making this Olympic Team in 2020. It hurt me a lot to not be able to accomplish things that I thought I should have accomplished a while ago, and I rededicated myself. I have probably never worked this hard in my entire life.
Everything is coming easy to me. When you’re wrestling a long time, it comes kind of naturally. But I never really had to work this hard before and I think it is going to all pay off. I definitely came in with a chip on my shoulder and I came in ready to work. I looked at things from a different aspect, so it was refreshing. It was basically like, Okay, it didn’t work out at the 2016 Olympic Trials, so what now? Are you going to make an excuse or are you going to get back out there? Because, you’re not the top guy anymore and there is no excuse why you shouldn’t be. And in order for me to get to the top I have to work my butt off and that’s what I’ve been doing. Like I said, we’ll see where it takes me.
5PM: It’s not going to matter to you I assume once the whistle blows, but the fact of the matter is there are new rule modifications and all that. Greco rules are always in-flux seemingly. I would think for someone like yourself, who is so quick-trigger and wants to open up, you would like harsher passivity calls, right?
Kendrick Sanders: Oh definitely. Seeing guys wrestle me, honestly, their coaches are telling them to try and frustrate me. Finger-grabbing and certain things like that get to a person, it gets frustrating when someone is grabbing your fingers to stop your motion, stop your momentum, and basically just hold on. I think that should have penalized a long time ago and I am glad to see they are doing something about it because if you watch World matches or World-medal matches, all you see is guys grabbing fingers. There are a lot of people in the US who do that, too, but they are just now getting to it (penalizing). I’m glad the refs are doing something about it.
5PM: Northern is once again home to much of the country’s best young talents, as many of the top wrestlers there have grown with the program. It’s like NMU has its swagger back. Does being there offer a different vibe compared to when you first started at Marquette?
KS: It is definitely different. When I first got here, we had a lot of great guys. Max Nowry was up here, we had Zack Nielsen, just so many guys at each weight and we were so deep, everyone was competing against each other. It was hard, you didn’t know who was going to make a team. A lot of those guys left, graduated, or have taken different routes in wrestling. A lot of people left to go to Colorado Springs, too. There were only a few of us who actually stayed back here. After the Olympic Trials in 2012, I was actually considering going back to Purdue because there were so many guys who were just taking off, you know? But I stayed and then we got Aghasi (Manukyan). He was shocked when he first got here and saw me wrestle. I still remember him on his first day of practice asking me, “Why don’t you have a World medal?” I was shocked he asked me something like that, but all I could say was “I don’t know.” (Laughs) He and I made a pact that before either of us left, that we were going to get us one, that I would make this team and get a medal.
But a lot of guys, we have that swagger back not just because of Bisek, it’s also the leadership of our team. The team dynamic, guys are more confident now. I’m a confident person — in every aspect, in everything that I do, I’m very confident. I try to get these guys to be the same way. I try to challenge them every day, whether it’s on the mat or off the mat. Even the new guys who come in. I know there are times where we’ve had match days and certain guys getting their butts whupped. I’m like, “What are you going to do, man? You going to let him punk you or are you going to figure something out?” That’s how I was taught in wrestling. You may not know the technique, but there is a difference between knowing the technique and being a fighter. Now, we’ve got fighters. Technique comes with time, but now these guys are getting in there and are willing to put themselves out there and work hard.
Our Juniors are thriving. We have Jesse Porter, he’s also in my weight class. When he first got here, he was okay, but now he is one of the top competitors for both Juniors and Seniors. Randon Miranda, when he first got here, he was okay. But now, he’s a top Junior, he’s probably going to make his second Junior World Team. And we’ve got a lot more guys who are coming up through the rankings. I just think it’s more about these guys are finally having confidence in themselves and also the coaches are instilling in these guys that, Who cares how young you are? Who cares if this is your first year? You don’t have anything to lose, someone else does. So they go out there and wrestle and whether they win or lose, they leave it all out there on the mat.
So far this year, it has probably been one of our best years, it was one of our best years at the US Open. We had the most All-Americans I think we’ve ever had. That is a testament to how hard these guys are working and Bisek coming in and changing the way things are shaped here. It used to be kind of a more laid back program. It used to be focused more on the Juniors, not so much the Seniors. But he changed that around, he changed our training around, and he is getting more out of guys than if they were probably at another program, to be honest. I think it’s more of his approach to things, it’s quite different from everyone else. Because I think if some of these guys went to Colorado Springs, I don’t think they would last. But by him being a younger coach, he can connect with some of the wrestlers more than a Matt Lindland or Momir (Petković).
5PM: At this point in your career, do you feel like there are things left you still need to prove?
Kendrick Sanders: Oh, there is a lot I need to prove. To myself, to certain coaches. But yeah, there is so much to prove. I’ve always been just this close to making a team and something has always drastically happened. Now I am in a position to prove to everyone that, like I said, this should be my weight class. There’s no excuse. I’m healthy going into the Trials. I am probably in the greatest shape I’ve ever been in. I have the best coaches who push me in areas that I need to be pushed in, and I just feel that this is it. This is what it all boils down to. It’s also to my team. A lot of these guys look up to me in a wrestling aspect and I need to show them that hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. You could bend, but you don’t break. It is time to lay it all on the line and I’m ready to do that. I think it’s going to be a fun World Team Trials and you’re going to see a lot of great wrestling from these guys and myself. Like I said, I’m a totally different person from December and I am ready to go showcase that come the World Team Trials.