As you (hopefully) know by now, Saturday was a big day for US Greco-Roman wrestling. Over in Nykøbing Falster, Denmark, the US Seniors were busy chaining together wins at the 15th annual Thor Masters Invitational, with Ildar Hafizov (59 kg, Army/WCAP) and Robby Smith (130 kg, NYAC) each earning gold. Meanwhile, approximately 640 miles away in Götzis, Austria, the Juniors were having a grand old time wrecking house. Six gold medals came out of the 2017 Austrian Open and 12 medals overall. Let’s deal with Austria first.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise that the US found some success at the Austrian Open, but it’s the amount of success this year that is extremely encouraging. Take 2015, for example. At that Austrian Open, the lone winner was Dalton Roberts (NYAC-OTS), who won the round-robin 50 kg weight class. Mason Manville checked in with a bronze, the only other medal that year from the US. A still-raw G’Angelo Hancock (NYAC) took home fourth in ’15. Fourth.
Things started creeping up a bit in 2016, but not by much. Randon Miranda (NYAC-OTS) brought home gold at 50 kg, Roberts was back to take first at 55, Hancock improved from fourth place to third, and Andrew Ibarra (NMU-OTS) nailed down bronze at 60. Not bad. But it sure puts 2017 into context, doesn’t it?
The US champs this weekend include a few names that maybe aren’t so shocking. Miranda repeated, though up at 55 kilos. 2016 Junior World bronze medalist Taylor LaMont (CWC) jumped in the fray to grab gold. NMU’s Logan Kass won top honors at 66, as did Kamal Bey (84 kg, Sunkist) and Hancock (96 kg). Young Nick Boykin (TN) powered through to his first Austrian Open win following last year’s fourth-place finish.
There is nothing not impressive about the tournament’s winners, though a couple of them are undoubtedly going to start getting noticed more. Everyone already knows about Bey and Hancock, they are practically household names at this juncture, LaMont has a World medal to his credit along with Hancock, and Miranda has gotten attention on occasion, too. But Kass and Boykin have operated just a touch under the radar thus far, Kass more so. If Kass keeps progressing, and mind you, he’s young, the more he is going to keep looking like a very real concern for some of the Seniors in this country eventually. He’s proportioned well, strong for his weight, and has really learned how to take his international experiences and apply them to his game.
But remember, there were 12 medals, not just six champions. Two silver and four bronzes are also part of the picture. Incidentally, those two silvers, Cohlton Schultz (CO, 96 kg) and Drew Fenton (OH, 120 kg), came at the hands of two US golds (Hancock and Boykin, respectively). Schultz many know of due to his cutting of the folkstyle cord in high school. Fenton, the bruiser from Ohio, had been a fixture on the age-group level nationally and more weekends (and weeks) like these under his belt could prove invaluable later on in his career.
Jordan Auen (NMU-OTS) won in his first try at an international tournament last November, so when it comes to overseas events you could consider him two for two in terms of making the podium, since Auen took third on Saturday. Jesse Porter (74 kg, NYAC-OTS) grabbed bronze, as well. Porter currently stands as one of the top contenders for the Senior World Team Spot at 75 kilograms. 2016 Junior World Team Trials runner-up and University of Missouri frosh Wyatt Koelling (84 kg) comes back into Greco competition with an impressive bronze. Last but not least is 66’er Alston Nutter (NMU-OTS). Nutter, like Schultz (and sort of like Boykin), passed on finishing his high school career in folkstyle and now finds himself up at Northern so he can hone in on only Greco-Roman. And now he has his first Junior international medal.
This should all be very easy to see. People like benchmarks and comparisons, right? Well, two years ago the US Juniors brought home two medals from the Austrian Open. Last year it was four. This year it was 12. Twelve! If that doesn’t jump off the page at you and get it across that the developmental level in this country is climbing rapidly, what will? The line on the graph is pointing up and the only people who fail to see that are those willfully ignoring it.
Now back to the Seniors
Going into the Thor Masters Saturday morning, the hope was that the US Seniors would get enough good matches in to set the tone for the rest of the trip. Since the event functions via the pool system (like the Austrian Open), that seemed like a safe bet. But how things unfolded were altogether much more exciting than that.
The two athletes who were making recent returns to competition happened to be the two who won gold — the aforementioned duo of Hafizov and Smith (although Hafizov actually re-entered competition the week prior at the Armed Forces). Out of his five matches on the day, Hafizov was seriously challenged only once, in his third bout versus Przemyslaw Piatek (POL). The two matches before that were technical falls and the match after was a tech, as well. He was (likely) on his way to another in the final against former World Military Games silver Michal Tracz (POL) until Tracz became injured after landing on his elbow following a Hafizov lift attempt. Before the injury to Tracz, Hafizov was leading 5-0 in the second period and had assumed complete control.
Smith approached from the other direction. He actually lost his first match of the day to Norwegian Oscar Marvik 3-2. Marvik is a good, young competitor who has been coming up of late, taking silver at the Paris International in January (where he defeated US Marine Eric Fader) and a bronze at both the Haavisto Cup in November and the Herman Kare after that.
But from then on out Smith started getting back into a rhythm again. He countered a throw by Christian John (GER) and landed on top to secure a fall. Next he did battle with US teammate and former training partner Toby Erickson (Army/WCAP) in what could wind up being a World Team Trials final, triumphing 3-1. Later on, Smith dispatched Finland’s Toumas Lahti and Germany’s Jello Krahmer to claim the top spot.
Another Smith made the podium, too. Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) jumped to bronze at 71 kilograms, which on the US side of things, was the deepest bracket in the event. Smith lost his initial bout to eventual champ and 2016 German World Team member Timo Badusch (world no. 15) 2-1. Smith did what he often does in his next bout, which is break opponents. He out-hustled and out-techniqued Avto Gigolashvili (SWE) 7-2 thanks to two consecutive second-period takedowns. After that, Smith stayed one step ahead of Vegard Jørgensen (NOR) 4-0.
Smith’s final bout was with fellow American Alex Sancho (NYAC-OTS). Sancho, the US World Team Trials runner-up at 71 in November, had enjoyed a nice day in his own right despite being robbed in his third match against Roman Pacurkolski (POL). The Smith/Sancho duel was a fun scrap. Both guys went after it from bell to bell. Sancho started gaining some steam late, a tough task against someone like Smith. But when the whistle blew, it was Smith who walked away a 6-6 criteria winner and the owner of an international bronze.
There was simply momentum all throughout the morning and two other US Greco-Roman wrestlers looked poised to go all the way, though their ascensions were disrupted due to injury. First it was Patrick Martinez (80 kg, NYAC). Martinez, wrestling confidently and freely, cruised past Anton Olsson (SWE) 8-1 before taking care of William Svalestad (NOR) via tech late in the second period. But it was during that match when Martinez found trouble. A sizable gash had opened on his chin and while that sort of thing isn’t exactly uncommon in this sport, the cut was bad enough to force Martinez to call it a day. He later received a few stitches to close it up.
Coleman could have had it
2012 Olympian Ellis Coleman (66 kg, Army/WCAP) was on such a roll that it seemed like a verifiable lock that he was going to medal, if not win the entire thing. Coleman prevailed in his first three bouts of the day, which set up a fascinating match-up with 2016 Olympian Edgaras Venckaitis (LTU, world no. 17). Venckaitis led 1-0 when Coleman forced a step-out. A passivity point came the American’s way to give him the lead and then another step-out widened the margin to 3-1. With the match winding down and Venckaitis clearly frustrated, things got sketchy.
Rewind just a minute here because Coleman’s overall performance in this bout shouldn’t be forgotten. He was creative, aggressive, and though there weren’t any huge scores, you could tell you were watching a re-energized version of himself out there. But that is also what had Venckaitis all sorts of frazzled. Venckaitis couldn’t do anything with Coleman. There is no forced par terre (yet), so he wasn’t going to have the opportunity to lift him since that opportunity only existed if he was going to take Coleman down, which is tough to do anyway, but even tougher when he is confusing you with different angles and dominant tie-ups.
At any rate, after Venckaitis had to be tended to for some blood, and after the scoring had to be conferred about, or whatever, time was running short. Venckaitis took out his frustration by a) chopping at Coleman and then feigning a punch, or “Judo chop”, or something, and b) purposely torquing Coleman’s shoulder for no other reason but to injure him. That strategy, unfortunately, worked. Because though Coleman got the win, he did not get the chance to continue, ending what at least appeared to be a run to a gold medal.
All told, US wrestlers won 32 out of 51 bouts at the 2017 Thor Masters (with three of those matches pitting two Americans against each other). It isn’t something to be dismissed, not when the constant dialogue stateside has been centered around questioning the US Greco program’s viability against international opposition. There was nice mix of foreigners in Denmark, some depth guys and some who are among the best on the planet. The US Greco Roman wrestlers acquitted themselves quite well at every turn. With a camp starting this week and the Grand Prix of Zagreb next Saturday, they will have the chance to build on this even more.
Speaking of camp
The US Seniors are sticking around in Denmark for a few more days to take part in a training camp and the Juniors are doing the same thing in Austria. However, the Senior delegation is breaking out of Denmark Thursday and flying to Croatia for the Zagreb, as weigh-ins are the very next day.
U23 Worlds announced for November
United World Wrestling announced last week that there will be a U23 (under 23) World Championships, slated for Poland in late-November. In 2016, the first ever U23 European Championships were a big hit with over 400 wrestlers from 34 countries participating. Therefore, a World Championships seems like a great next step.
Beat the Streets date set
Beat the Streets, Inc. and USA Wrestling let it be known today that 2017’s running of the annual Times Square event will take place on May 17th, this time at Duffy’s Time Square between 46th and 47th streets. The foreign delegation this year will be from Japan. In 2016, the “United In the Square” event saw USA freestylers mix it up with opponents from Iran. Since the event’s inception some seven years ago, teams from Russia and Cuba, among other places, have also competed under the sky and bright lights in New York City. The event’s optics are simply out of this world.
Two-time World medalist Andy Bisek was one part of the only Greco-Roman match of the evening in 2016 (in fact, he went on first for the Seniors following the high school matches), as he faced off against World and Olympic champ Hyeon-woo Kim (KOR, world no. 3).
That has been the story — Greco’s participation in the event has dwindled the past several years. If you’d like to see some more United States Greco-Roman athletes get the opportunity to compete on a grand stage for a great cause, let your voice be heard. Tell them you’ll put your money where your mouth is and make a donation.The money goes to the right places, BTS is a fantastic program that has helped numerous wrestlers in urban areas get on the mat. Go ahead — contact them here.
What’s coming up here
- World Cup rosters and analysis are on the way soon.
- News about Russia’s two-time World and Olympic champ Roman Vlasov.
- Preview of the upcoming Grand Prix of Zagreb.
- A new “Catching Up With” segment.
- A full-scale interview.
- Go Greco!