USA Greco

Top 10 US Greco-Roman Matches of 2017

ridge lovett, top 10 us greco-roman matches of 2017
Ridge Lovett -- Photo: Richard Immel

It’s tough, too tough of a thing to do. Especially this year. In 2017, USA Greco-Roman wrestlers across all three major age groups participated in so many memorable matches, that choosing just ten seems unfair. Narrowing down a list such as this one also means several athletes had to be left out even if they didn’t deserve to be. However, there is a process in place designed specifically to make it easier on everyone, including you the reader.

Just like last year, the matches that are considered Top 10 material had to fit two parameters: they had to involve at least one US wrestler and also, be available to share with the public in some fashion or another. In other words, if it was a thrilling back-and-forth affair that unfolded at an overseas event but the stream is not archived, you won’t find it here. In addition, matches did not have to produce a desirable outcome for the American athlete if paired with a foreign opponent (though for 2017, the US guys are all undefeated on this list), nor did they have to offer crazy comebacks. Bouts were considered based on a variety of factors including action, event, result, significance, and implications. Plus, this Top 10 list is steeped in subjectivity, so if you disagree, definitely don’t hesitate to let us know about it!

TOP 10 US GRECO-ROMAN MATCHES — 2017 EDITION

10. Nelson Baker (LAW) vs. Kyndall Rutz (NMU/OTS) — 59 kg quarterfinal, US University Nationals

The first thing you need to know is this: 28 first-period points.

Sure, not all of them were pretty, but scoring is scoring, and scoring needs to be rewarded. What you had here was a case of one wrestler with obvious immense Greco potential who competes primarily in folkstyle (Baker) going up against a tough full-timer with a solid age-group past, but hasn’t completely come into own just yet.

There was no waiting around in this one. Rutz muscled his way behind Baker for two, scored two more on a lift, and rolled a gutwrench to rattle off six straight points. Baker, who is currently finishing his collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, fought off of his hip and scrambled behind for a reversal. When they returned to the feet, Baker roped a short headlock for a quick four ahead of a straddle lift try that Rutz stayed heavy on.

Breathe.

After another restart, Baker held a right overhook and cut his leg across while dropping to his hip, immediately exposing Rutz for four more. From underneath, Rutz used a hammerlock to gain back position and ambled out for his own reversal point. It was just nonstop…Rutz with a gutwrench..Baker with exposure on a reversal…they reset again, only to have Baker whip another headlock, this time faster than the one before it. Rutz wasn’t deterred, not one bit. Because with short time on the clock, he collected two from a front-head/spin and a trap-arm gut to storm back into the argument, entering the break down by a mere two points.

Oddly, most of the first minute of the conclusive period produced no scoring. Matches like these have a tendency to grow more tactical in the second half. Not that it was over. Rutz got to Baker’s body and drove him down for four along with reclaiming the lead. A minute remained in the contest when Baker, down by two, uncorked double overhooks to toss Rutz off the edge. It was good for four and it put Baker back out in front 19-17, which is how this one would end.

If you like points — and a lot of them — you really ought to see this one for yourself.

Nelson Baker (LAW) vs. Kyndall Rutz (NMU/OTS)

9. G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist) vs. Kevin Mejia Castillo (HON) — 98 kg quarterfinal, Pan Am Championships

All of the evidence anyone might need regarding Hancock’s growth in the sport resides in this match.

Take it back to January of 2016. Hancock, then as green as cucumber salad, got worked over by Castillo twice — first at the Jack Pinto Cup, and then again at the Schultz. A lot has happened since then, wouldn’t you say?

Of course, Hancock’s surge atop the Senior ladder was already well-established heading into this year’s Pan Ams, a tournament more associated with the fire that broke out than the five medals earned by Team USA. Such is life.

Hancock wasn’t even supposed to win this event, that distinction belonged to 2016 Olympic bronze Yasmany Lugo Cabrera (CUB), who did win it, turning back Hancock in the semis en-route to nailing down his gold. But that didn’t take away how important this quarterfinal victory was for the Coloradan. Castillo is a well-rounded, experienced, and skilled opponent, and that he owned a couple of wins over Hancock previously wasn’t something anyone took lightly, especially Hancock.

The difference here lied in the positioning. Hancock busily jutted in underhooks and weaved in and out of the pummel. He was forcing Castillo to play back in, and when that happens, passivity usually follows. It did here, as the Honduran was dinged first. Shortly thereafter, Hancock found double underhooks, which though as advantageous of a position on the feet as there is, has on occasion led to trouble for Hancock if he loads up too hastily. Maturity won out in this instance. Hancock secured the position and coerced Castillo to the edge. But since he couldn’t quite lift and arch, he instead chose to dump it off. The sequence scored two, not the four or five Hancock prefers, but it was the right decision.

Mind you, this was all unfolding in the first period and in short order. Upon the reset, Hancock used an over/under clinch to wrap a bodylock, another of his hallmarks. Unable to reel Castillo in, he opted to level change and run his foe down and out for two more. By the end of the period, Hancock was ahead 5-0 and virtually in cruise control.

The final three minutes didn’t offer much. Hancock did an admirable job of keeping on his horse when he had to, and while he maybe wasn’t broken, Castillo didn’t seem willing to take the risks necessary to climb back in this thing. It was just a shutdown from whistle to whistle, as well as a noteworthy glimpse at the strides made by one of the country’s best Greco athletes over the past 16 months. Canonical material.

G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist) vs. Kevin Mejia Castillo (HON)

8. Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) vs. Taylor LaMont (Sunkist) — 59 kg semifinal, US World Team Trials

In the minds of many, this match-up represented a battle between the present (Hafizov) and the future (LaMont). Hafizov, an Olympian in 2008 for his native Uzbekistan, had his sights set on making his first US World Team, what with it being his adopted country and the land of opportunity, all that. Meanwhile, 2016 Junior World bronze medalist LaMont entered into the Trials with not a ton to lose. LaMont didn’t know it at the time, but his place on the Junior squad was secure and though it would have been a coup for him to make both World Teams, really, 2017 was still mostly about tacking on more experience as a Senior than it was anything else.

Contrasting styles tend to produce either gripping, exciting, edge-of-your-seat bouts or tactical, low scoring pummel-fests. It all comes down to the athletes and their combined willingness to make attempts. Thankfully, Hafizov/LaMont delivered the former, not the latter. It takes two to make great matches great matches, at least most of the time.

Hafizov took the initiative and forced the action by constantly attacking LaMont’s arms with two-on-ones, primarily the left. He had trouble isolating the tie-up, so he mostly just pulled on the arm, occasionally causing LaMont to twirl around. For most of the first two minutes Hafizov clearly dictated the pace and was rightfully rewarded with a passivity point. Another point via step-out followed soon after, giving the WCAP wrestler a 2-0 advantage. It didn’t last very long, because upon the reset Hafizov was railroaded by the official and penalized with a caution-and-two for pulling down on LaMont’s head. He had been warned previously, but it was a dodgy call nonetheless.

The energy ramped up a tick. Hafizov swooped in on a beautiful high-dive attempt, penetrating deep enough to actually wrap around LaMont’s waist. But that’s when the Utah Valley student’s relative athletic brilliance came into play. As Hafizov moved in to tighten his lock, LaMont — in one motion — cartwheeled over while collecting Hafizov’s head and arm just long enough to expose his back and net two points. They scrambled to their feet. Hafizov found double underhooks and walked LaMont to the edge, perhaps a little too deliberately. LaMont wrenched downwards on his double overhooks and turned his hips, essentially reversing the position and forcing Hafizov off the line for a point. Not to be outhustled or outdone, Hafizov got the last laugh before the period drew to its conclusion by sitting through on an inverted arm throw for four — it was this move that won the match.

Hafizov continued to scan for openings in the ties, although he couldn’t sprint inside with reckless abandon, for LaMont had demonstrated what he can do when that happens. Both were active, it wasn’t as if the tempo had grinded to a halt. But there were stakes involved here, a trip to the finals, and after that, maybe Paris. The action had to develop on its own accord, matches with meaning have an organic feel to them.

Being the more experienced and technically-polished of the two, Hafizov knew an opportunity when he saw one, so when LaMont momentarily broke free from an exchange and stepped back inside, Hafizov deftly used the modicum of forward movement and redirected it to sling an arm drag. He grabbed his two for the takedown and then locked around LaMont for a straight lift. As he hoisted it up, LaMont wriggled and adjusted, landing on Hafizov at the edge for his own deuce. Oh, Hafizov didn’t like that call one bit. He thought he was leg fouled and demanded the challenge brick make an appearance. The officials reviewed the sequence and disagreed that legs played a role, resulting in LaMont receiving an additional point.

When the bout resumed, there was less than a minute left for LaMont to do something with. He clashed in when he could, trying to create scoring chances or disrupting Hafizov’s footing enough to maybe coerce him out of bounds. But Hafizov remained in control and owned criteria by virtue of that last-second four to close out the first.

Highly recommended elite-level stuff here.

7. Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm) vs. Lee Se-Yeol (KOR) — 97 kg final, Dave Schultz Memorial

Zillmer makes two appearances on this list and coincidentally enough, for two very similar endings. The most important detail both bouts have in common? When Zillmer gets to the body, opponents drop.

Lee is one of the most skilled foes Zillmer has locked horns with thus far at this still early stage in his career. A Junior World silver in 2010 along with being an Olympian last year, Lee is a savvy, creative sort who like most Koreans, observes a peppy pace and is comfortable going for arm throws and lifts. By now, US fans are familiar with Zillmer’s methodology — he is powerful, doesn’t betray signs of fatigue, and every executed offensive maneuver looks like it causes pain.

But it is the execution part of the equation Zillmer needs to improve on, not just because offense is, you know, useful, but more due to the fact that both Zillmer’s frame and hand-fighting style have a habit of getting him into trouble, as he is regularly called for passives he doesn’t deserve — or cautions for coming in with his head that he sometimes does.

One area where Zillmer cannot be trifled with is his workrate. He is always busy. The problem rests in his tendency to hold the wrists. Zillmer was doing a fine job of working to Lee’s left side, but because he was unable to sneak in an underhook or upgrade to a more effective tie-up, he got banged for passivity. Frustrating, simply because it was Lee who appeared to be the one struggling to keep up. Just before the first period ended, Zillmer received his own passivity point to temporarily assume a 1-1 criteria advantage.

If the passive on Zillmer in the opening stanza was borderline, his being dinged in the second was downright nonsense. He was jostling Lee about, moving him off his spot and diligently jabbing for lanes to deepen his tie-ups. Lee was elbows-in most of the time — blocking is more like it — but since he somehow stumbled upon an underhook or two, Zillmer had no choice but to eat it. But wait, it gets better. With just over a minute left in the contest, Zillmer was raked for a caution-and-two. Why? That head of his. Whether you think it was a bogus call or not, all that really mattered right then was the result — instead of being down by two, Zillmer was now behind by three with the match beginning its descent towards the memory bank.

Consequently, Zillmer increased his output. He obviously had to. There weren’t any discernible concrete attempts made by either party throughout the course of the match, and Zillmer’s ability to suddenly turn on the jets provided an undesirable, flummoxing effect on Lee. The Korean was caught off guard. Zillmer began cutting angles, snapping, dropping down, coming back up…Lee had little recourse other than to feel for where Zillmer was going to be and somehow slow down the freight train that would soon make impact.

From a distance, Zillmer cradled Lee’s head with his left hand as he held Lee’s left wrist with his right hand. Definitely not a textbook tie-up position, nor a particularly advantageous one. Whatever. Zillmer pushed his clutches inward and lowered in with a high dive, barreling Lee straight to his back. The signal for four points arrived immediately. Lee challenged — naturally — but the call stood and an additional point was sent Zillmer’s way, who earned the dramatic 6-4 victory and in the process, his first international tournament gold.

6. Ridge Lovett (ID) vs. Muhammad Acar (TUR) — 54 kg round-of-16, Cadet World Championships

To be completely forthright, Lovett’s quarterfinal bout with Beka Guruli (GEO) offered more suspense and by and large, would have been a safer pick from an entertainment standpoint. But was it more significant? Maybe not.

Lovett hopped into Athens as one of several USA Cadets who came in with excellent national credentials, but on the flipside, did not possess relevant international experience. Cohlton Schultz (100 kg, NYAC) was naturally expected to do well, if not win outright (which he did), but fellow young stars like Dylan Ragusin (46 kg, Ill), Lucas Byrd (50 kg, OH), and Mason Phillips (63 kg, WA) had yet to be tested by the kind of elite-level competition reserved for World events. Most of the Cadets wound up impressing in spots, but Lovett’s first two matches are very difficult to surpass.

It didn’t start off so hot. A decent arm throw attempt was snuffed out by Acar, who quickly clamped around Lovett and hoisted him up for a four-point straddle lift. The bout was only :22 old and there was already a six-point deficit. Acar kept the lock and tried to lift it up once more, but Lovett managed to stay out of any further danger.

Something strange then occurred, one of those tiny in-match moments that may not appear to mean a whole lot at the time, but are later examined in full so as to derive their perceived worth. When the referee blew the whistle to restart, Lovett, still on his stomach from trying to defend Acar’s lift, rose to his feet and made a beeline back to the center of the mat. Down 6-0 to what is obviously a skilled foreigner, it was Lovett who was itching to return to the fight. If his demeanor had changed at all, it was now more assertive, not less. And he was close to getting tech’ed. There is probably a lesson here somewhere.

Lovett briefly worked a two-on-one as he began trying to wedge his way into the pummel. But rather than bother with any prolonged histrionics, Lovett went for a direct attack. He wrapped those long arms of his around Acar, cinching a trap-arm bodylock. Lovett arched, threw, and planted the Turkish wrestler on his back. He then held the position from top, squeezing and squeezing until the pin was called.

The Idahoan earned an equally-stunning fall in his next bout, flattening 2017 Cadet Asian Championships gold medalist Mohammad Abbas Hosseinvand (IRI) from double overhooks in the first period. Lovett’s run came to an end in the quarters against Guruli, who eventually grabbed bronze. But…wow. Nothing can take the shine off of Lovett and how he introduced himself to the world.

Ridge Lovett (ID) vs. Muhammed Acar (TUR)

5. Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm) vs. Stjepan Lavoric (CRO) — 98 kg bronze medal match, Ljubomir Ivanovic-Gedza International

The first of Zillmer’s remarkable two medal-clinching comebacks this year came after what was an overall solid day at the office in Serbia. He had brutalized Janko Ivetic (SRB) via fall to start things off. He then he shut out Amirmohammed Noroozipasand by basically bullying the Iranian around the mat for six minutes before falling to eventual champ Mikheil Kajaia 2-0 in the semis. That put him in the bronze-medal match opposite Lavric (or Lavoric, depending), a skilled Croatian who owns a smattering of solid placings in Europe, including a third at last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

And Zillmer crumpled him like wet cardboard.

But it took awhile. Zillmer did what he could to nudge his way into tie-ups he liked, most prominently from a two-on-one. Lavoric did appear to be doing all of the necessary handiwork to please the officials, and as such, was the one who received the benefit of two passive points. He was leading Zillmer 2-0 leading into the latter stages of the second period and honestly, even though two points isn’t enough to be sent into panic mode, it didn’t look so good. Come on — an American down by a pair…with little time left…overseas…it’s hardly a comfortable situation to be in.

Time was running out. Barrett Stanghill (87 kg), Zillmer’s teammate and traveling companion for this trip, can be heard yelling “A takedown wins it!” as the action continued to veer towards ominosity. But Zillmer, he was beginning to pick up the pace. He was the fresher of the two combatants and his workrate was wearing on Lavoric. Something had to give. Watching this live, you could see the cracks in the wall becoming more evident.

There were only 43 ticks remaining when Zillmer finally found his lane. He ducked under Lavoric’s right side and immediately buried a trap-arm bodylock, more like a bear hug. Zillmer’s lock resided around the Croatian’s lower back. From there, he violently corkscrewed Lavoric to the mat and the signal for the fall followed soon after.

The win provided Zillmer with his second overseas medal of 2017 and a proper way to close out his first full season of Senior competition.

4. Daniel Miller (Marines) vs. Felix Radinger (GER) — 98 kg bronze medal match, Hungarian Grand Prix

If you remember, this tournament was crammed with headlines pertaining to the US athletes. Geordan Speiller (80 kg, Florida Jets) beat the brakes off of returning champ Pavel Pominchuk (BLR) in his second bout before having his arm torqued in half by Nikoloz Kilasovi (GEO) in the quarters. Speiller still prevailed and eventually made the final, only to drop a 4-0 decision to 2014 World Champion Peter Bacsi (HUN) — who he had previously defeated at the ’16 Hungarian Grand Prix. John Stefanowicz (80 kg, Marines) nearly pulled off the upset of the year in his third-place match when he appeared to throw Zurabi Datunashvili (GEO) with seconds remaining, only to have it called back. And it was on this day when Joe Rau (98 kg, Minnesota Storm) made his return to active competition following knee surgery six months earlier. In fact, Rau’s second loss on the day is what set up this very match right here.

The 2017 Polyak Imre Memorial/Hungarian Grand Prix represented one of Miller’s best performances of his career thus far, if not the best.

Miller tech’ed out Peter Fodor (HUN) in his first action of the day and kept the momentum rolling with a fall over Revaz Nadareshvili (GEO). In the semis, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Javid Hamzatau (BLR) got the better of Miller via 5-1 decision, but even during that match-up the Marine had his moments, he just couldn’t capitalize. So you felt good about all of this, about Miller and his chances for a bronze against Radinger. That is until he got tossed in the first period.

Miller scored the first points of the bout on a two-point arm throw, but Radinger quickly reversed. This was not a red flag moment, the situation felt like one Miller was in control of. But later on in the period, Miller found himself dangerously close to being pushed out. To avoid giving up a point, he pressured back into Radinger, who went with it and unfurled a really nice lateral for four points. Miller reversed to stop the bleeding and pick up two of his own, and wore an annoyed look on his face as he stood back up to reset.

There was plenty of good work on Miller’s part through most of the second period, but he was having trouble hammering away at Radinger’s defenses. He was trying everything — yanking down on two-on-one’s to sneak in underhooks, pivoting off of angles, and coming across for short drags. Radinger held the center decently, that’s true, but he wasn’t doing much else. Miller was hustling, clasing, colliding, doing whatever he could to pry open some space and get to the body.

With a minute left in the match, Miller just about had enough. All of his entries were getting blocked off, Radinger was certainly not willing to play around in the ties too much. If Miller was to score, Miller had to change his attacks. So he did. :40 remained when Miller shucked a wrist, threw a quick feint, and dipped down into a high-dive. He collected Radinger around the waist and in one fell swoop, bulldozed him off the edge for a huge four. The German was done.

That doesn’t mean he gave up. It was now all of the sudden okay for Radinger to wrestle again. He wanted to bring some heat towards Miller, who made Radinger pay by hipping him out of bounds for another point, the nail in the coffin. One of the most adrenalizing bouts of 2017.

Skip to 19:00 to watch Miller’s 8-5 win over Radinger. 

3. Kamal Bey (Sunkist) vs. Alex Meyer (Hawkeye WC) — 80 kg semifinal, U23 World Team Trials

There were a lot of matches featuring Bey this past year that could have made the list — his win in the Junior World finals, his win in the Junior World semis, and his win via fall over Michael Wagner (AUT) at Zagreb all come to mind. But his bout with former Iowa Hawkeye Meyer stands on its own and for good reason.

Right off the bat, the ending to this one was spectacular. But as with any match that offers a scintillating finish, it is the particulars leading up which provide the foundational context. When Bey met Meyer at the U23 Trials, he was a mere two months removed from having won the Junior Worlds. Bey entered every domestic tournament in ’17 as the favorite, but heading into this event the expectations were heightened even more. Just imagine — Bey coming in fresh off of a World gold and not only does he fall short at the U23 World Team Trials, but loses before the finals? And to a guy who although won a Fargo Greco National title some years ago, is definitely not someone who is supposed to even really contend, despite his collegiate credentials?

It almost happened.

Meyer deserves a mountain of credit, both for how he wrestled against Bey and also, just because if he wanted to, could certainly fashion himself into a very dangerous full-time Greco athlete. He is obviously strong, demonstrated a natural feel for the style, and competed quite impressively. Meyer brought with him a skill-set that demanded respect.

The word “dynamic” follows Bey around all the time, but it helps to know what that means. Whereas many wrestlers are complete bundles of kinetic energy from whistle to whistle, Bey will often dawdle around in the ties and portray an almost lackadaisical approach — that is until he finagles an opening. When there is an opening, there is no wrestler in the US, or anywhere else on Earth for that matter, who capitalizes more explosively. You can’t call Bey a slow starter necessarily, that misses the mark. But there are times early in matches when the engine is still in 2nd gear and keeping him there for as long as possible is the best chance anyone has to delay the offensive onslaught that is inevitably coming their way.

What Meyer did at the outset was take a page from Mason Manville‘s book. He didn’t allow himself to be goaded into over/under’s and relied on his polished hand-fighting to control the action. For Manville, that was a two-on-one, a position Meyer also found useful in the beginning stages of the first period. Bey did come close on a high dive, but Meyer defended well and continued to bunch up Bey with busy work inside. This led to a passivity point towards the end of the first for Meyer and that was that.

Bey got a passive point back shortly into the second, but just as soon as he broke the ice, Meyer was in around his body and Bey had to belly-down. Just as eye-opening perhaps, Meyer immediately took advantage of the position and rolled Bey with a gutwrench to go up 5-1. At his first available opportunity, Bey scrambled out and reversed to stay within three, but a proceeding lift attempt went nowhere and back up they were. Meyer resumed his tactical preference that was predicated upon sustaining solid positioning and forward movement. Bey was backing up just a bit, but he wasn’t relenting. A quick drop for a high dive initially looked doable — but again — Meyer saw it coming. He not only saw it coming, he also swiftly scooted behind for another pair of points and a five-point cushion.

This was around the time where if you were watching this live, you might have said to yourself, Wow, Bey might actually lose this. Meyer holding a five-point lead was one thing, but that he was able to so soundly defend made accepting a potential Bey defeat a realistic possibility, even if there were still 80 seconds left to go.

After the reset, Meyer kept steady. Time was on his side. He had managed to dodge a few bullets along the way and was relatively unscathed, save for a Bey passive point and reversal. With a touch over a half-minute remaining, it very much felt like Meyer had taken Bey’s best shot and lived to tell about it.

Greco is wrestling’s most exciting style.

Bey, who all match long saw virtually every blitzing attack of his be casually shrugged off, wasn’t about to fade into the whispering Rochester wind. Breaking off from an exchange, he lunged forward, clamped around Meyer at the waist, and bodylocked him for a resounding five. He landed on top of Meyer cradling a headlock, but the Hawkeye hipped out of danger and a restart was in order. Meyer, who was now behind on criteria, pushed onward while fighting for an underhook, moving Bey close to the boundary. In a flash, Bey dipped down underneath and wrapped a low bodylock he arched over for a correct throw to widen the gap to 9-7, simultaneously suffocating any further chances Meyer might have had.

If the environment was more accommodating for such a reaction, both wrestlers would have received a standing ovation for the show they put on. It was exhilarating, unlikely so, and absolutely one of the most thrilling finishes of the year.

2. Alex Sancho (NYAC) vs. Mate Nemes (SRB) — 66 kg semifinal, Grand Prix Zagreb Open

No hyperbole intended, Sancho’s win over Nemes was without a doubt one of the most important for the United States Greco-Roman program last season.

After the bummer that was the Rio Olympics and the subsequent Golden Grand Prix and Non-Olympic Worlds, it was imperative for the US to kick off its 2017 international campaign on a positive note. The Dave Schultz Memorial is a valuable tournament that usually results in plenty of podium trips for Americans, but it is just not the same as an overseas event. That is why the Thor Masters Invitational in Denmark, which arrived the week prior to Zagreb, carried an air of significance. Team USA earned three medals at Thor Masters — Ildar Hafizov (59 kg, Army/WCAP) and Robby Smith (130 kg, NYAC) snared gold while Patrick Smith (71 kg, Minnesota Storm) rang up a bronze. Wouldn’t you know it, but to win that bronze, Smith defeated Sancho, who went up to 71 for that event. Altogether, the US piled up over 50 wins on the day, thanks in large part to the Nordic system all but guaranteeing adequate mat time for everyone.

Therefore, following up Thor Masters with anything other than at least another representative showing would have left quite the bitter taste. Obviously, the Nordic system wasn’t a factor in Croatia, so in order to advance to the medal rounds, guys had to take the traditional route and string together victories. And as is always the case at this tournament, there was a good number of hardcore competitors present from the home country, Serbia, Hungary, Poland, Japan, and the Czech Republic. Not a lot of gimmies to go around.

Nemes, a bronze medalist at the 2016 U23 Euros, offered an intriguing test for Sancho. You don’t wrestle these things on paper, but the edge in resumes certainly belonged to the Serbian. Sancho might have already somewhat carved out a niche as a solid overseas performer, but compared to Nemes, his experience is that of a neophyte. That didn’t mean Sancho was considered to be overmatched or anything close to it. Thanks to his open style and offensive creativity, it was reasonable to expect an entertaining tussle, and a win here felt possible. It’s just how it all unfolded wound up saying more about Sancho’s capabilities than what the scoreboard actually read.

A passivity point went Nemes’ way midway through the first, but spirited jousting took place on both sides. Sancho dug in and hand-fought, altering his angles for entry here and there, on occasion going to his deep staggered stance and changing levels by lunging forward. It was a balanced tempo; not too frenetic, not too plodding. Then with a minute to go in the opening frame one of the most memorable sequences of the year played out.

Sancho zipped an arm throw attempt; Nemes hipped back and briefly stayed put, apparently under the impression he was going to hang out behind Sancho and collect two. Sancho, feeling Nemes hawking over him, reached up with both arms and pulled Nemes right over to his back. Is that even a move? Either way, the quick-thinking on Sancho’s part led to four points being awarded and the color of the match instantly changed.

Nemes caught a break in the second period when Sancho was banged for a caution-and-two, leading with his head the call from the official. Sancho wasn’t too pleased and shortly after the reset, he was knocked again for passivity. That made the score 4-4, but he held criteria by virtue of that nutty four-pointer in the first. Sancho hung on the rest of the way, and a couple of hours later, picked up the first overseas gold medal of his career by defeating Mihai Mihut (ROU) 5-3.

1. Cohlton Schultz (NYAC) vs. Balint Vatzi (HUN) — 100 kg final, Cadet World Championships

At the current moment, there is no way to overstate the importance of Bey winning the Junior Worlds this past August. It meant just as much to the US program as it did him. There has been a push for youth in this country, a process that requires patience, trial and error, and most of all, putting the right Greco prospects in the right positions to succeed. Bey and Hancock are the two most high-profile names associated with this objective, but right behind them is Schultz, who of the three, was probably the biggest favorite to bring back hardware from a World event in 2017.

A highly sought-after collegiate recruit, Schultz is equally as hot of a commodity for Greco. His prodigious wrestling ability offers a litany of variables that translate well to the classical style. Schultz is an adept, shrewd hand-fighter who maintains positional discipline far more astutely than the typical teen, and his commitment (and eagerness) to hang in there during brutal pummeling exchanges sets him apart even further. Schultz has been thought of with such high regard that even despite his coming up short in Fargo last year, there was still a fair amount of optimism surrounding his chances at the Cadet Worlds.

Schultz went one-and-done in Tbilisi, and while that wasn’t exactly the performance many were hoping for, it did little to alter his status. If anything, it made everyone look forward to what he might accomplish in 2017 all that much more. And the kid, he kept busy as the calendar flipped. Aside from winning another Colorado Class 5A state title, he also found time to embark on a trip overseas with the US Juniors and earned himself a silver at the Austrian Open. Next came the Junior World Team Trials in April, which he won. After that, the Cadet Trials, where he defeated Tyler Curd (MO) via tech in two straight finals bouts. It was a telling victory. Curd, an athletic yet rough-and-tumble sort, was the one who stopped Schultz from advancing at the 2016 Fargo Cadet Nationals. A lot can change in a year.

Following the Cadet Trials, Schultz joined up with the just-launched Go Greco USA Developmental Program in effort to sharpen up with more European experience. It would be a fateful decision. In the finals of the Croatia Open, the first of two tournaments on the tour, Schultz faced off with Hungarian newcomer Balint Vatzi and came away with a clear but competitive decision. The teenager closed out his jaunt overseas with a silver the next week in Serbia, and on the summer went.

A tough 4-3 loss to Estonia’s Artur Vititin in the qualification round of the Junior Worlds couldn’t be looked at as too profound of a disappointment. For starters, Schultz wasn’t even a Junior. At 16 years of age, he was one of the youngest wrestlers in the tournament. Most importantly, he still had the Cadet World Championships to focus on, and there the perception regarding his capabilities would prove decidedly different.

Schultz fell behind 2017 Cadet Pan Am silver Edson Acuna Salazar (MEX) 2-0 when he came loose on a headlock attempt, but he recovered and then some by the second period, snaring a front headlock that he turned into a match-ending cement mixer. A scare arrived in the quarterfinals courtesy of Kantemir Shibzukhov (RUS), who led Schultz by a pair with only :24 left in the match. Holding a head-and-wrist tie-up, Schultz sat through and hip-heisted Shibzukhov directly to his back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Two matches, two come-from-behind pins. Schultz’s day at the Cadet Worlds was already delivering on the drama. The anxiety level for US fans jumped up another notch during Schultz’s semifinal battle with Seyedmojta Hosseini (IRI), where he prevailed by the thinnest of margins to punch his ticket to the gold medal match.

Standing across in the finals was Vatzi, who Schultz was introduced to a couple of months earlier in Croatia. Lean and limber, Vatzi tried to meet Schultz’s physicality head-on and found the sledding predictably rough. Periods for the Cadets are only two minutes long, but even in that compressed time frame Schultz’s game within the game mechanics were a sight to see. He owned every exchange and had little trouble plunging in underhooks and moving Vatzi around. Schultz was justly awarded a passivity point, and another warning on Vatzi made an appearance before the first period ended. The score read 1-0, but the action on the mat was not nearly as close.

Schultz picked up where he left off to start the second, though Vatzi began employing a more active posture. The American was still getting inside with underhooks, but the pace had quickened. In what was nearly a match-changing sequence, Vatzi forced Schultz’s back to the edge. Schultz tried to play back in as he locked his hands around Vatzi; with his right foot out of bounds, Schultz whipped Vatzi to his back. What was almost four for Schultz wound up being a point for Vatzi, who now owned criteria. The US briefly debated throwing in the challenge brick but ultimately decided against it.

Barely a minute remained when action resumed. On the surface, it seemed as if there wasn’t much more Schultz could do. He had dominated the ties throughout, he was raking Vatzi in and out of each exchange, and it was also he who dictated the tempo. Vatzi had to keep working, lest risk seeing it all slip away on a passive call, but his strategy didn’t come with an out clause.

With :30 left, Schultz looped around Vatzi for an over/under clinch, the classical Greco-Roman position. He gingerly walked Vatzi forward and then twisted, so as to test whether or not he had a lane to throw. This completely disrupted Vatzi’s stance, and he now had to fight back up with his head down and his waist bent. As Vatzi lifted his head, Schultz re-snapped him back down and quickly scurried behind for two points with :10 on the clock. A spent Vatzi attempted to clash back in at the restart. He was running into a wall. The whistle signaling the end of the bout blew and Schultz immediately raised his arms and fell to his knees as the first Cadet World Champion from the United States in two decades.

MAKE THROWING GREAT AGAIN! (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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