These are interesting times for G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg, Sunkist).
A bronze medalist at the Junior World Championships two years ago, Hancock carried a lot of steam into the next season. Despite falling short of returning to the podium at the Junior Worlds, it was still a remarkable campaign that included his first Senior National title as well as spots on both that squad and the U23 World Team, as well.
Hancock capped the calendar year of 2017 impressively with golds at the S.A. Lavrikov Memorial in Russia and the Haavisto Cup in Finland. But after that, it was crickets for a while. Guys packed bags and went on tours. Plans were made, plans changed. So did training environments. Talk isn’t just cheap, it’s free. Words are not akin to currency, actions are. And since there wasn’t a lot of action coming out of Hancock’s corner of the world, there also wasn’t a whole ton to say.
He sat out the US Open, did Hancock, but he finally returned at the Trophee Milone tournament in Italy this past June for a work-the-kinks-out effort prior to the World Team Trials. A 2-0 performance that came as the result of an odd disqualification due to missing his mat assignment opposite fellow American Kevin Beazley (Cliff Keen) represented the sum of his match time heading into the U23 Trials, where Hancock swept right through for the second year in a row.
Then it was Tulsa and the Senior event. Forced to fight his way out of the mini tournament, Hancock advanced to the best-of-three finals against surging Marine Daniel Miller. While their bouts were rough and competitive, Hancock still clinched without requiring a decisive third match.
But none of this is why you’re here, for only a few truly desire being brought up to speed by this point.
No, it all has to do with what went down a couple of weeks ago.
The original protocol called for Hancock to, along with seven of his Senior World Teammates, participate in the Grand Prix of Germany. A sore Achilles that made Hancock think twice about wrestling served as the premier catalyst for his absence. But he reportedly killed it at the attached training camp in Saarbrücken and settled on getting his pre-Worlds matches realized at the Wladyslaw Pytlasinski Memorial Cup two weeks later.
That event, we’ve went through this on here. The Pytlasinski, nearly annually, is the bedrock warm-up tournament for all the major players who have designs on winning World medals. Now to be fair and transparent about the whole thing, there were some weight classes which might have been a little stronger in Germany. But 97 kilograms wasn’t one of them.
Hancock prevailed in his first two bouts to setup a meeting with Artur Aleksanyan, winner of the last four World-level events including the Rio Olympic Games. This wasn’t a first-time venture for either athlete. Aleksanyan had overcome a game Hancock at the 2017 Paris Worlds via tech. But Hancock had longed for another crack at the Armenian star ever since, and there it was, staring him in the face on an altogether pleasant Friday afternoon in Warsaw.
It took all of :28 to understand why Hancock was so adamant about testing himself against the athlete many consider to be the best on the planet.
The whistle blew. They made contact. And when Aleksanyan engaged inside and pummeled to his right underhook, Hancock locked and threw. Aleksanyan’s shoulder blades then touched down on the tarp. The spectators, certainly at least those who knew what they were watching, let out an audible gasp before cheering. The referee wanted to signal for the fall, he got it confirmed, and a stunned Aleksanyan gestured towards his corner in disbelief while Hancock strolled back to the center to get on with the post-match handshakes.
A huge win, a huge moment, but it was only the semifinals. With the two-day tournament format, Hancock had roundabout 24 hours before he would be called upon to finish what he started. The slaying of Aleksanyan, for however noteworthy it is and was, would not offer the same jump-off-the-page exclamation if followed by a finals loss. So, Hancock turned off the world around him, came back the next day, and completely shutdown another excellent opponent in the form of 2016 Olympian Nikolai Bayryakov (BUL).
Hancock returned to the United States just over a week ago for the World Team/National Team camp at the Olympic Training Center, which only just wrapped on Friday. He and the rest of the World Teamers now have a brief respite and then they’ll fly over as a collective to Tata, Hungary. Budapest and the 2018 World Championships will soon enough appear next on the docket, if you’re inclined to fast-forward.
But first we had to talk about all this. As is always the case, Hancock willingly revealed his thought process before, during, and after his matches in Poland — and shared his various perspectives surrounding the training phase. You get to climb inside the inner dialogue and piece together not only what happened, but also how Hancock has begun to mature into one of the most talented, aggressive, and promising athletes in our sport.
G’Angelo Hancock — 97 kg, Sunkist
5PM: Your Achilles was acting up in Germany, hence why you didn’t compete in the Grand Prix. But even if you were healthy and 100% ready to go, if you had known ahead of time that Poland was going to turn out like it did would you still have competed in the German Grand Prix?
G’Angelo Hancock: Define “healthy”. Do you mean in shape or ready to compete?
5PM: Whatever that means to you. If there isn’t an ankle problem you’re wary of.
GH: If I was in shape, yes. Now, if it’s because I didn’t feel like I was in shape, then no, I wouldn’t have. This isn’t meant to be downtalk. The Vegas camp, it was good as far as understanding what the coaches wanted to see from us in regards to chain-wrestling. But it was not a training camp that was a conditioner for the Grand Prix. I didn’t feel after the camp that I was ready to compete in a Grand Prix, point blank.
I’m not going to say I would have competed 100% with a perfect ankle. Mentally, I’m always ready. But physically, I just wasn’t 100% prepared to compete at the highest level I’m capable of. That’s why I felt I had to compete in Poland, but I don’t know if I would have (competed in Germany). I really don’t, just because I don’t know if Vegas was the right camp leading up to a Grand Prix.
5PM: The level of competition varied a little, at least for several of the heavier weight classes. This year, Pytlasinski seems to have been the main tune-up event for the Worlds. Germany had its share of high-level weights, but Poland was definitely stacked in others. So if your goal was to get in higher level matches, then you had to figure it made sense to wait it out until you were ready for them, given the circumstances.
GH: Exactly. I was told that instead of the Belarus tournament (Oleg Karavaev Memorial) that it would be the Pytlasinski Cup this year. Iran was bringing two guys, Russia was bringing two guys, and so in my mind I felt comfortable knowing that at the end of the tour I would be getting a tournament in. And I felt that if I were to get one in, I would want it to be the one that obviously had the better athletes and would give me the best actual real-life comparison to the World Championships.
That did weigh in my head, for sure. I was thinking many times, You want to get in as many matches as you can, but if you don’t feel like you can then you shouldn’t. So in the back of my mind I was thinking, I really hope this Poland camp is going to give me everything that I need right now. And it sure did.
I kind of got lucky on that. But yeah, for sure, I was thinking that many times, I hope these top guys are going to show up and that I give them the best that I can.
5PM: How about the Georgian (Nikoloz Kakhelashvili) first round in Poland?
GH: Holy shit. ‘
5PM: We know who he is, he’s extremely tough, he won the Junior Worlds and has been someone notable for a while. He was your first match and right away it was a grinding, really hard-fought match to test you out. Did having a battle like that first-round change anything for you insofar as how you felt, your approach?
GH: It didn’t change much. Really, going into that match was my confidence boost. Before the tournament I was like, This tournament is going to be fucking hard. Before the tournament I knew. I prepared myself saying, This is going to be one of the hardest tournaments I’ve ever been in. Every single match is a finals match.
After that match, especially seeing the bracket, I didn’t give it too much thought. Oh well, that was one of them. I was thinking that most of my matches would come out gritty and would look like my first one, you know? After the match it was was just, Cool down, get ready for another battle. Because at that tournament, I didn’t want to wrestle anyone, I wanted to fight everyone. I was looking at the bracket thinking, There is no way I am going to make this look pretty. There is no way I am going to sit here and finesse these guys and make this look like an art. Instead, I am going to make it look like a battle.
That was my mindset going into it and afterwards it was, Let’s keep this going. Not the wrestling, but let’s keep the fight.
5PM: What I thought was interesting is that you had (Maksim) Safaryan next, who is really, really good and you steamrolled him. That’s where I felt this thing started to get some legs. Did it ring like that for you?
G’Angelo Hancock: Yeah, that match was a booster. It was a good match to roll into the semis with. After that match I was like, Hell yeah, now it’s time. Now I’m going to roll into the real match, because I knew I had Aleksanyan next. So I was just like, Okay, now this is what I’m here for. I am here to get the best matches possible and that’s exactly what I’m getting.
So after that match (with Safaryan) it was, Just keep doing what you do. Don’t stop, don’t let it go. And as soon as I was done with that match, I didn’t want any nonsense going into my head, I didn’t want any congratulations. The first thing I did was put my headphones on and start cooling down and dancing. The thing that gets me disconnected from wrestling the fastest is dancing and music. So immediately, I started cooling down, relaxing, and getting mentally prepared for another battle. I had no idea that match would go like that. I had a great match and I’m thankful for that. I was super-happy to end that match and just wanted to keep the fight going.
5PM: Then it was the Armenian, someone you’ve been wanting a crack at since Paris. Maybe you had ideas in your head. You wrestled him at the Worlds, so you got his best last year. The thing that sticks out the most is that when he pummeled in, he had his head on the opposite side of his underhook and got wide with his outside leg. There was zero hesitation on your part.
5PM: Maybe when you were a little younger, you might have either stopped — or posted, loaded, and arched to make it spectacular. In this case, you didn’t waste any time. You had the lock and you went. Did you know it as soon as you had it?
GH: There is this weird feeling you get before you hit a good move. You get this really weird feeling of adrenaline the second you feel you have something. Especially when you’re a thrower. For me, it’s a bodylock. That’s what gets me going, that’s what turns me on. I feel it the most from bodylocks.
The second my hands touched and I had a grip on him, I felt that. I was like, Oh my God, I’m in the perfect position. And there was no second thought at all. As soon as I was in the perfect position, my body naturally… I mean, why wait? There’s no reason at all. By his positioning and the way he threw his underhook in — and I locked with it — it was the perfect position to throw and I felt there was no way I could wait. Because, the only thing that could happen here is that someone with more experience is going to get the better hand. The second I had my hands locked it was me having the better hand.
Honestly, there was no thought in my mind. There was nothing that crossed my mind when it happened. As soon as it was locked, Bam! I’m in what we call in the OTC wrestling room the “dream lock”. When you have the dream lock, there is no hesitation, you just go. God willing, it worked perfectly and hopefully it continues to do that. But as soon as I had it, I had to go. I didn’t feel that there was any other option.
5PM: Right, because if you had hung out longer he was just going to pummel back in and correct his position.
GH: Exactly. Either he gets into a better position that I can’t the throw off of, or I get the throw off and he lands on top because he had time to correct.
5PM: Going back to the last time you two met, you had to be expecting a brawl.
GH: I was expecting kidney shots, I was expecting underhooks — and when I say underhooks, I mean uppercuts. At 97 kilos, an underhook isn’t an underhook, it’s a damn uppercut. I don’t care who you are, it hurts. When someone underhooks you they hit your ribs on the way up. That’s what I was expecting this whole thing to be and I was hoping for it be like that. I wanted to punch him. I wanted to bite, I wanted to elbow, I wanted to do everything. I wanted to get the fight in.
Last time we wrestled, in my mind I left him with a tiny scar that let him know, Hey, this USA guy likes to go hard. So I was thinking going into this match, I’m going to let him remember me. Everytime we wrestle, I want him to remember I was that bastard, I was that motherfucker. I was the guy you drew that you hated to draw.
5PM: The most important thing, in all of this, is that there was still one match to go. Signature wins are signature wins, but the deal here is that your next match wasn’t for another 24 hours later. So, almost an entire day for you to sit on it, plus you had to know everyone was buzzing about it.
GH: It was definitely a challenge.
5PM: That’s a lot of time for your head to go crazy. A big, meaningful win but then you still had the finals against an Olympian and Euro bronze (Nikolai Bayryakov). But there’s a big space in between, everyone is buzzing, and if you don’t fire off in the finals, the match with Aleksanyan winds up being seen differently.
GH: It wouldn’t have meant shit. The biggest thing for me is that I’m a guy who likes to be disconnected from wrestling when I’m at the tournament. I only like to think about the match when I’m in it. I’m usually on my phone, on Twitter, I’m on my music, I’m on a lot of things. But after that match, I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be on Twitter, I didn’t want to be on social media — just because, I knew. With the reaction at the tournament, how the crowd responded, the notifications on my phone were through the roof, and I didn’t want to be attached to that just yet because a lot of people back home who didn’t know about the tournament thought I had won it already. And obviously, I hadn’t. I had another match, a finals match.
The thing I wanted to do most was stay away from social media. I didn’t want to be entertained by people saying crazy things. I didn’t feel there was any means for congratulations yet. I still had a tournament to finish. So I immediately went back to the hotel to get away from the tournament. I didn’t get on social media. I just hung out in my room, watched TV, played some music, and tried my hardest not to think about the match. To me, it was, If you want to be the best, this is what you’ve got to do. This is what has to happen. It shouldn’t be a surprise to you, it should be a part of your training, your preparation. So I didn’t want to get too attached to people thinking, Oh, he’s the best, you know? Just crazy things. This wasn’t even the World Championships. I had a good tournament so far and I was just thinking, We did what we needed to do, but we’re still not done — and this HAS to get done.
It’s hard coming off of any match, not just that match but any match, and you have to cool down knowing that the next day you still had to make weight. I was two kilos over so I actually went and worked out that night. That’s a new thing, a little hard to deal with, but it was good. I think the workout helped get my mind off the tournament because I still had to make weight. The next morning I was just, Okay, one more match, Tracy. I just kept my mind at, Kill yourself for six more minutes. Just six more minutes, that’s all I have left. Six minutes to completely fatigue myself and there’s no way this guy is going to want to go with me.
In his mind, I’m sure he (Bayryakov) didn’t expect to have me in the finals. Right there, I had a slight advantage. He’s not sure what I’m coming with. I trained in Bulgaria for two months and I worked out with Bayryakov. Although I wasn’t comfortable, it felt good to be more familiar with a guy, you know? I was happy that I had wrestled him before and was just running through techniques and strategies that I had used on him. I was just reminding myself over and over just to stick with those techniques and strategies, finish this match out, and obliterate — myself and him.
5PM: You didn’t just beat him on points. For all intents and purposes, he appeared broken midway through the second period. Did you figure that you were going to have to set the pace high, let him understand what kind of match this was going to be?
G’Angelo Hancock: Definitely. TC (Dantzler) tells me to wrestle three seconds at a time, so I try to do that. But I felt it throughout the match. When I got the first passivity, I was like, Okay, this was the plan. My plan was to be up by three, minimum, before I go into the second. Because, he had a good gutwrench and we’re taught to expect a bad call, you know what I’m saying?
So I’m like, Tracy, you have to be up by three. Because if I get put down, that’s one; if he gets a turn, then it’s 3-3. That’s why I wanted to be up at least by three. So I am leading 3-0 and I’m like, Cool, cool, cool, this was the plan. But next I’m thinking, I HAVE to score on top. I had to get the score. I finished the first period out 3-0 and everything was going literally just how I planned it. Then my biggest objective became not getting put down.
The only thing in my mind was to continue to wrestle crazy. I went after him, I kept coming for him. I wanted to fatigue him. I wanted to keep coming at him, keep coming at him. And then when I got that second passivity call I was like, Yes, we have now done what we needed to stay in this match and win this match. I tried my hardest in par terre to close the match out. We were both standing, I was up 6-0, I got one more step-out point, and my attitude was just, Keep the pressure, keep the pressure. Right after that second passivity I felt the difference in his wrestling. I felt he didn’t have as much confidence in where the match was going. That was a good sign to me, to feel that and it actually gave me a bit more energy. And I brought it to him.
5PM: You stated before that this “wasn’t even the World Championships”, you said that. There’s a phrase for whenever a US guy beats a top foreigner during the season, how “they’re different come September”, or whatever month the Worlds are Olympics take place. The old guard, the retired guys, they say this.
GH: That’s the reality of it.
5PM: How do you reconcile that? How do you take what’s good and important about Pytlasinski, and how do you temper the result, compartmentalize it, put it in perspective while you continue training for Budapest? At the very least, we know that this event had significance for the other athletes at Pytlasinski, it was their last warm-up. They’re all trying to peak, too, they all wanted to feel good coming out of it.
GH: That’s how I feel. Every single tournament, every single training camp, only adds fuel to the fire. That’s all it is. That right there was a great feel for me. It let me know that if I keep training the way I have been training, great things will come. The process is there, it’s happening in front of my eyes, and I’m feeling it now. I see differences in my wrestling. Sure, they might change before the World Championships, but I’ll change, also.
That’s how I’m looking at the World Championships. I can beat the best and it’s good to know. That’s the best thing to know, especially as a guy going into the World Championships. The fact that you say that, and it’s reality, people are going to be at their best at the World Championships. My only answer to that is so will I. As much as they’ll be prepared, I’ll be even more prepared. I’ll be preparing the best I can possibly prepare.
5PM: First was the German camp, which I had heard went really well for you. Then you jump over to Poland with Joe Rau and you’re there training prior to Pytlasinski. And then after that camp and tournament, it was back home for World Team camp at the OTC. It’s a lot of stuff. Has it been uplifting or reinvigorating, hitting the last phase of training coming off of Poland?
GH: Absolutely. I wouldn’t say I feel reinvigorated. I’d say that I train so hard, I really do give my all during practices, and preparation is meeting perfect timing. I’m not going to say, Oh, I’m going to sweep everyone at the World Championships this year. God willing, I hope. But what I am saying is the years of training, going to the right places, going to the right camps, exposing yourself to the right things — even for a short period of time — can change your life. I think I have found some of the things that I can use on my own. As an individual, I have discovered myself a lot more. I have discovered my capabilities and how to trigger myself that I am now wiring slowly the preparation to meet the perfect timing. I’m just grateful for it, in all honesty. I think it’s all starting to come together. Trusting in the process, the hard training, the attitude, your mental approach — all of that is starting to meet a good, happy place where it works as one, one big perfect machine.
Germany, that was a great camp for me, I’m not going to lie. But I think it’s because my mental approach to it was, Shit, I’ve got Leon Kessidis, who is top-12 in the world; I’ve got Felix Baldauf, debatably #2 best in the world; and I’ve got Melonin (Noumonvi) from France, a former World champ. One of the things Kamal (Bey) and I like to say is that when you look around the room, you don’t see no butter, you are the butter (laughs). So what it came down to is that I was in a room filled with bad men. Men who are capable of destroying other men and ripping them apart. It kind of came over me that I’m a bad man. And if I want to go in there with these other men, I have to be a bad man everyday. I have to go in there with a kill mentality everyday.
Specifically Germany, I went in there with that mentality. There’s no easy match today. No morning practice, no afternoon practice will be easy. Nothing in this camp will come easy, it’s an insane camp with insane athletes. So be ready to grind it out every single day. I tried to come in with that mentality and I tried to absolutely give it my all every single match and every single par terre go. It helped me improve so much more because the things that work on the best guys will also work on the great guys and the good guys.
The fact that I was able to get in there and my moves were starting to work and how I was able to learn at that camp resulted in my biggest improvement of the year just because I had to tweak using the best guys. If you have to tweak to beat them, those small tweaks and adjustments are going to help you win against the average guys who get you through the tournament, the guys who are going to give you a tough match here, a tough match there. And then once you get to the best guys it’s, Okay, this is what we practiced for. You know the tweaks are going to be perfect.
That right there is my motivation. My stuff is starting to work against guys who are elite level, World-class. I am starting to believe in myself a lot more. It is a good belief factor, for sure.
5PM: There is a perception that needs to change, and if anything, your showing in Poland demonstrated as much. It’s like at this point, whenever a US guy goes and takes out some accomplished, celebrated foreigner it is seen as this gigantic, monumental upset. That doesn’t seem appropriate, not for those whose occupation centers around winning World and Olympic medals. I’m not saying these things aren’t big deals, but they also should be expected to a degree or at least looked at as if this comes with the territory.
G’Angelo Hancock: Yes, exactly. It’s funny, if you said that same sentence in front of Momir (Petković), he’d probably tell you, It’s just part of the deal, man, it’s just part of the deal (laughs). I think that perception does need to be changed. People think because you grew up in America you’re going to do folkstyle, maybe be an NCAA champ or top-5 in the country. It’s the same with Greco, it’s just that we don’t have that system in America. But if you put in the hours, if you put in the time and become exposed to the things you need to be exposed to — overseas traveling, wrestling with the foreigners — and you put in the effort and the discipline, it’s going to come. It is part of the deal.
So yeah, that perception needs to be changed. There’s no way that it is acceptable, not in my eyes. I don’t want to be seen as a guy who had continuous upsets throughout his career, but yet his career was a damn roller coaster, up and down, up and down. I want people to look at it like, This dude always had a chance. Especially now. With Greco in America, it’s a gamble. To be a Greco wrestler in America, it’s a gamble. You’re risking everything, you’re giving up every style you ever learned and going to a whole new Olympic-level style to become the best in the world. It sounds like a dream, that’s what it is. But sometimes, that’s the way things are. That’s the perception.
People have to believe in themselves more, and Americans have to believe in Americans more. Like Kyle Snyder has said, every time you step on the mat with a Russian there is a feeling you get. I don’t care if it’s freestyle or folkstyle. Whenever I step on the mat with a Russian I get the same feeling. It’s a sense of pride, it’s a real thing. It doesn’t matter what style of wrestling we’re talking about. Wrestling is wrestling, and people have got to understand that.