On Friday evening, ten Senior-Greco-Roman athletes were crowned National Champions at the 2018 US Open in Las Vegas. While every one of them offered an interesting backstory for various reasons, five in particular stood out a little more than the rest. We already covered why Daniel Miller‘s (97 kg, Marines) achievement was special, so now it’s all about the other four who stole the show. We’ll go in order.
Max Nowry (Army/WCAP) took his first step towards claiming a spot on the Senior World Team by defeating two-time National Champion Sam Hazewinkel (Sunkist) 10-3 in the 55-kilogram final. Going into the bout, Nowry, 28, was seen as the overall weight-class favorite, this despite his 0-2 ledger against Hazewinkel previously. Down 3-0 in the first, Nowry blasted an arm throw for four before nailing a turn and receiving two more on a Hazewinkel caution. One more caution-and-two on Hazewinkel in the second provided Nowry with enough of a cushion to skate the rest of the way to a bye in the World Team Trials finals.
Already having made three age-group World Teams at 21 years of age is Dalton Roberts (NYAC/OTS), who unlike Nowry, was not seen as his weight division’s frontrunner. That didn’t matter so much. After blitzing through his first two matches, Roberts downed 2016 Junior World bronze Taylor LaMont (Sunkist) in the semis to secure his spot in the 60 kilo final opposite Mike Fuenffinger (Army/WCAP). The two had met twice in 2017 with both earning wins against each other and their latest dustup was a memorable one. Roberts held a 9-2 late in the second when Fuenffinger stormed back with four points on a takedown and a gutwrench. A caution on Roberts closed the gap to just two with :10 left and Fuenffinger having a chance from top. Somehow, Roberts was able to hold strong defensively to earn one of the biggest wins of his career thus far. For his efforts, he was later named the event’s Outstanding Wrestler.
Several wrestlers enjoyed wall-to-wall lights-out performances Thursday and Friday, but perhaps none of them made as deep of an impression as RaVaughn Perkins (72 kg, NYAC). A ferocious yet balanced technician, the only thing Perkins has struggled with in recent years is health. He’s dealt with a lot of injuries. But when he is on his game, few are capable of the offensive brilliance the Nebraskan can dish out. A pair of dominating tech falls to begin the tournament were not a surprise. It’s what Perkins did next that really caught people’s attention. In consecutive bouts, the 25-year-old ran away from World Teamers Chris Gonzalez (NYAC) and Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) by a combined score of 18-0. With Perkins operating close to full physical capacity, he becomes an even more looming presence for whomever meets him in the best-of-three series seven weeks from now.
Last but not least is 2016 Olympian Robby Smith (130 kg, NYAC). Knowledgeable fans of Greco-Roman wrestling didn’t expect anything other than a complete Smith shutdown of the entire heavyweight field in Vegas. Of course, collegiate and freestyle enthusiasts saw it a different way, and maybe for good reason. Gifted monster Adam Coon‘s (CKWC) remergence in Greco-Roman competition provided an almost tangible amount of suspense for casual observers (a positive). That Coon barely broke a sweat leading to Friday night’s final only ratcheted up the drama. But in what was a rather anticlimactic bout, Smith bullied the Michigan star around the mat for the majority of the six minutes en-route to his third Senior Open title. As he points out below, Smith wasn’t concerned as much about Coon as he is ensuring that he’s on pace to reach the podium at the World Championships in Budapest this coming autumn.
All four athletes spoke exclusively to 5PM over the weekend in effort to provide further insights regarding their performances and how they plan to use the time between now and June to prepare for the World Team Trials.
Max Nowry — 55 kg, Army/WCAP (1st Senior National title)
On facing Hazewinkel after having lost to him earlier in his career
“For me, it was pretty much just sticking to the same game plan that all of us little guys at WCAP have been working on for the past few months. We call ourselves the ‘Ninja Squad’ because we always travel together, do everything together. We’ve developed this new style, this newer way of wrestling, and I knew if I kept doing that, things should be alright. I was just trying to do that, keep the pace high and keep moving my feet, which is something I wasn’t doing as much at 59 (kilos). Now at 55, I feel like I’ve developed a new style. It was starting to get there at Schultz, but after Schultz is when it really developed, especially after Bulgaria.”
On staying focused and sharp without getting a lot of matches in this year
“I just focused on the training and continuing to work on what we’ve been working on. I convinced myself, especially when I was leaving Bulgaria and then at school the past month, that I have been caged up. I’m caged up, I’m caged up, and then finally when the Open rolled around, I was able to let loose. I kind of kept that mentality. I wasn’t competing as much as I wanted to, so I convinced myself that I was caged up and ready to wrestle. That motivated me and pushed me a little bit more. It really helped me out mentally these last two days because I knew I had to win the Nationals to go and compete next week at the Pan Ams in Peru.”
His training plan for the World Team Trials following the Pan Ams
“Everything is going to stay the same. Like I said, the stuff that the little guys have been working on, I am just going to keep doing that because the coaches kind of put it into our heads that no one can match us for six minutes doing what we’re doing, and it’s starting to show. If you look at the results and the scores, we’re putting points up on the board. I’m not saying we didn’t always wrestle like this in the past, but for myself, when I was at 59, I was trying be defensively active, in a way. I was kind of waiting for my moments to try and strike and score. Now, I’m forcing it and making those things happen myself. We’re going to keep doing that as a team and build towards Tulsa.”
On the Army lightweights and their pronounced offensive display
“Coach (Shon) Lewis, Coach (Spenser) Mango, Coach (Bruce) Robinson, and Coach (Glenn) Garrison, they’ve just been pounding this in our heads. We all love each other and we’re all really good friends, but when we’re wrestling in the room, we’re trying to beat each other up. And after that, we move onto the next go and do it again. Now it is starting to show. It started to show in Bulgaria. I think that’s where it really clicked for us, Bulgaria, because we weren’t wrestling with each other. We all had different partners because there were so many foreigners. I think that’s when it all really clicked and that is what we’re going to stick to. It’s better for us. We don’t want to leave up to the ref. So now, we’re just going to take it out of the ref’s hands.”
Dalton Roberts — 60 kg, NYAC/OTS (1st Senior National title, named Outstanding Wrestler)
On if he takes it one match at a time or if he looks forward to facing certain opponents
“At most tournaments, I’m not the type who looks at the bracket right away to see who I’m going to wrestle. Most times, the morning of I’ll text my dad or I’ll text Coach Rob (Hermann) something like, What color am I and what’s my bout number? That’s all I want to know, and then I’ll warm up just the same whether I’m facing Ildar (Hafizov) or the guy I had first round. Two completely different athletes, but in my mind, that’s not going to change my warm-up or my procedures. Everything stays consistent and I really don’t know until I get to the mat, but by the time I get to the semifinals or finals, I’ll know who I am going to wrestle. I’m not one of those guys who is watching film like crazy, I’ve got to know what he does. I’ve already wrestled most guys in my weight class.
“I do look forward to certain matches, though. I love wrestling Taylor (LaMont). It’s always interesting. There are a lot of guys who you sometimes dread having to wrestle but he’s not one of them. I look forward to wrestling Taylor, it’s just an interesting match-up all the time.”
On if the loss to teammate Randon Miranda in New York helped him prepare for the Nationals
“It kind of lit a fire in my belly. I hadn’t lost to Randon in a while. It was a good match and one I think I overlooked. After losing that, it changed my mindset. It was for the better. I was upset in the moment, but looking back at it I am glad that I lost that match because it changed me. The drive that I had between New York and Vegas was different than the drive that I had leading to New York, training-wise. It was just different in my mindset and my approach, so I am thankful for that loss, honestly.”
His plan against Fuenffinger before the finals since they wrestled each other twice in 2017
“To beat him with pressure. The match that I lost to him, I reached and he arm-dragged me. He’s got a really good arm drag and a really good gutwrench. I warmed up with Sammy (Jones) for both of our finals matches and we tailored our warm-ups to our opponents. There were a couple of things I knew specifically that Fuenffinger does and I changed my warm-up, just a little bit, to adjust to that.”
On keeping his composure when Fuenffinger started coming back late in the second period
“I’ve watched the match like three times today — the takedown, the gut, and the caution and two that put him down by only one. I think that was a lapse in focus on my part, because there was definitely a moment in time where I was like, You know, I can give up points and still win. But after he got that caution and two, I looked up at the scoreboard and saw he was down by only one and I was like, Shit! I know he’s got a good gutwrench. He gutted Ildar and Ildar is a tough dude. With :10 left, you’ve got to grit your teeth and pray a little bit in your head. At that moment, the focus came back. The switch turned off when he scored those six points — and then the switch came back on and I was like, Okay, this is happening. I can’t fall asleep anymore.”
The general training plan between now and the Senior Trials
“My plan is to prepare for the U23 World Team Trials and then Oklahoma, the Senior Trials. I plan on wrestling 60 kilos. My dad asked me, ‘Why don’t you just go 63 kilos for U23’s?’ I can make 60, it’s not a hard cut. I feel very competitive there, especially throughout this year. So I plan on wrestling in that tournament and repeating last year’s performance and hopefully making two World Teams. The plan is just U23’s and Senior World Team Trials.”
RaVaughn Perkins — 72 kg, NYAC (2nd Senior National title)
On how he felt physically leading up to the Nationals
“Two days before we left to go to Vegas, Matt (Lindland) asked me, ‘How’s your shoulder?’ I told him it was about 75-80%. We know how hard I had been working and I felt like I could still win the Open with my shoulder at 75-80%. I felt like I had gotten stronger over the past year and my shoulder had become stronger. So 75-80% was kind of good for me. I didn’t spend too much time on the mat like everyone else leading up to Nationals. But I felt healthy. It wasn’t really hurting. My shoulder felt a little fatigued after some of the matches, but I got it back.”
If he agrees with the assessment that this was the most dominating performance he’s ever had in a major domestic tournament
“Definitely. Not to take anything away from the guys who I wrestled, but what was going through my head was, I’ve got to go out there and dominate. This is our National tournament, it’s only US guys. But I felt like if I could go out there and beat these guys by five or six points, I feel like that’s where the (World) medals start. If I could get on the international stage and start beating those guys, then that process needed to begin now. It had to start at Nationals and get those big points on the board.”
On the implementation of the new rules
“I liked it, I liked it a lot. I saw a lot of mistakes from the refs, but it’s not easy on them because they change the rules so much. I actually feel bad for the refs, they probably have coaches yelling at them over this and that. But I like the new rules. All of the negative wrestling, the hand-grabbing and stuff like that, they need to stop it. At the same time, as wrestlers, we have to get through it because these refs aren’t the worst refs we’re going to have. The international officials, they don’t like us anyway, so we’re going to be the ones getting called for stuff. So we have to be the ones to score and get to our moves. But it was a great weekend, it was a great tournament for all of the wrestlers, and I am sure the refs want to go back and look at some video. I know they said they can improve on some things. But overall, the rules were great. There were some matches where they made bad calls, but other than that it was a great tournament.”
On if there is any special significance in tech’ing out World Team members Chris Gonzalez and Patrick Smith back-to-back
“I felt good about that, knowing I can tech these guys. They are great competitors. I still have to make the World Team and we have the Pan Ams coming up, so now I have to go to Peru doing the same thing, wrestle like how I’ve been wrestling and stay healthy. I have to prepare just like I did for the Nationals.”
Using the Pan Ams as a catalyst for the final training phase leading to the World Team Trials
“I have to go in there aggressive. After we get back from Pan Ams, I’m sure I am going to have to go back and look at some stuff and see what I need to work on. We’ll watch video and put that into our training. I don’t think we’ll have to change too much. But there is always something you can get better from.”
Robby Smith — 130 kg, NYAC (3rd Senior National title)
On using his increased power stemming from a new strength training program
“I wanted to show off what I’ve been doing. I’ve been lifting weights five days a week, working my butt off with a great coaching staff and Morgan (Flaherty) at the helm of my weightlifting (routine) and Momir (Petković) in charge of my wrestling. We’ve been building this plan up, we’re buying in, and it’s only the beginning. I am just feeling stronger and stronger. In Denmark, I felt strong in the camp. I could see a big difference during that camp, but when we came back I just hit it again. This last phase was incredible. It has made me feel like a barbarian out there and I just loved it. I don’t know if I could have picked up a 286-pound man before and sup’ed him over my head. I hadn’t hit a suplex since I was a 96-kilo guy. Now, I’m picking these guys up like they’re nothing and moving them like they’re nothing. I’m feeling really strong and loving every moment of it. It makes it fun.
“What helps me is that because I am moving these guys from the United States so well, so dominantly, it is going to help me when it comes to a harder match. My next big one is at the Pan Ams. I am going to see the Chilean (Yasmany Acosta Fernandez) and Oscar (Pino Hinds) in Peru and I will get to test my strength against those guys, see where I’m at. Then I am going to come back and hit the drawing board and get ready to tweak it again. Morgan is a scientist, he’s a mad scientist, and all I have to tell him is, Hey, this is where I’m at, this is where I’m feeling it. Okay, let’s tweak it. After Denmark, Momir said, ‘We need more power in the legs.’ Okay, let’s tweak it. What are we doing? We’re getting power in these damn legs. It’s a noticeable difference and I am loving every moment of it.”
On his primary motivation to compete at the Open
“This wasn’t about matches, this was about money. I’ve got make money, this was money to be made, and people are trying to take my money. You know, it sounds petty every once in a while. People are like, Oh, you can’t be hurting that bad. They don’t know my life. I’m getting married, I’ve got a wedding to pay for, I have a fiance who lives with me now, and I have to show up and pay my bills. That’s what this was about. Getting the match time was great. Getting to wrestle (Adam) Coon was awesome. But this was about getting paid, it’s that simple. The perk is I get to sit out a Trial. I get to sit out and watch everybody wrestle the first day, I get to wrestle only two matches the next day, and then got to Budapest and work for that medal.
“I love wrestling matches. No one likes to just do practices all the time. You want to see where you’re at. You want to see if what you are doing is paying off. That’s why I like the wrestling part of it. I had a good time, it was fun, and plus, I’m my dad’s hobby (laughs). I told him I was going to have five matches, Oh, that’s awesome! I only had four. He goes, ‘I thought you were going to have five!’ Sorry pop, they changed the bracket on me. So that was also fun, to have him there to watch the matches and get some good times out of it.
“Also, going to the Open is an opportunity to show the crowd how exciting Greco is and trying to promote the sport. I’m a big promoter of this sport. I might be the face of the sport, I might not be — it depends on who you to talk to. But I need to show these people how beautiful this sport can be, and I think I did that. The first day I put on a show and the second day was business.”
On if the final against Coon was important in a statement-making way
“I have to show dominance. If I am the alpha male of this sport and my weight class, I have to show dominance in every way. It’s a statement. Yeah, I didn’t tech the guy. But I out-pummeled him most of the match, or for at least five minutes of the match. I dominated. 5-0 is a domination, especially against a guy like that who: gets his bodylock on everybody; who just won the freestyle National championship against Jake Varner; who took second in the NCAA’s; and who also beat Kyle Snyder in a dual meet. Everyone thought he was going to come and just tear me up, you know? And this is nothing against Coon, but I am the alpha male of this sport. I am. And I am going to show my dominance. That’s how I have to think, that’s how I have to be. If you’re not that way, you’re not doing it right. Everybody should think that, but I’m actually it. So this was a statement, a statement to the people. This was I wanted. I wanted it really bad. I wanted to show dominance.”
How the Pan Ams will lead to the final training phase before the Trials
“Honestly, I am not a big fan of the Pan Ams right after Nationals because I want to go down there at my absolute best. I’m not saying I’m not at my best, but I get down there Wednesday, weigh-in Thursday, wrestle Friday, and then we leave Friday night. That’s not giving us much time to get used to where we’re going to be. You just come off of winning on Friday and now you have to watch your weight. I mean, guys are cutting weight right now already. Instead of trying to recoup from the Nationals, they’re cutting weight for the next tournament that takes place in less than a week. That’s kind of the shitty part about it. If it was say, in two weeks, and you could actually take a breath from Nationals and then hit the Pan Ams with our best guys to go and kick some ass? I would enjoy that. But the shotgun of it is a little much, like Boom, boom.
“But — I do like to see where I’m at going into the Trials from the Pan Ams because I get to wrestle the Cubans. Not just one Cuban, two Cubans at Pan Ams. I get to use this tournament to see where I’m at. I’ve got two (World) bronze medalists who will be there. I always want to wrestle those guys, I do, because they’re going to show me where I’m at. The competition in the United States doesn’t show me where I’m at in the World. The competition at the Pan Ams does. I’m not preparing for a National title and I’m not preparing just to make the Team. I’m preparing to win something at the World Championships in Budapest. And that’s how I can feel that out and it will make me stronger. When I come back from the Pan Ams, I’ll get to go back to the drawing board with Morgan and see where I’m at with it. We’ll be able to see what we need to do to make me even stronger, or maybe we just stay on the same path because it’s already working. That’s what I’m excited about. But the whole shotgun part of it? Not a big fan.”