Where Doubt Doesn’t Belong: RaVaughn Perkins Is Just Getting Started

RaVaughn Perkins 2016 Olympic Trials
Photo: Tony Rotundo

PERSEVERANCE is relative. What one person considers a struggle might not be such a big deal to someone else. But it’s a script that can flip. We stare at one another with blank expressions most of the time yet squint our eyes in disbelief when tragedy strikes, as if doing so will actually shield us from feeling the same pain. This is how humans operate. We’re either completely enclosed inside of our own walls or utterly para-sympathetic to each other’s plights.  There’s no use in explaining it. We just carry on. A survival tactic by any measure. Do we grow from these experiences? Sometimes. For the truly special, rough circumstances are spring boards compressing in angst to provide a launching point to a higher stratosphere, a new dwelling where bitterness, sadness and despair can no longer sustain.

That’s kind of where RaVaughn Perkins is coming from. Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Perkins was often privy to the chaotic. Lives lost to gunfire. Friends whisked away to another place, maybe a better place, just not that place. Violence, betrayal, hopelessness. You might know of these things, but have you ever shook hands with them? Have you witnessed your own somber eyes glaring back at you in the mirror? Had a pallbearer pat you on the back as you hurriedly fish through your pockets for a Kleenex at a friend’s funeral? He was just a kid. They all were. Found yourself surrounded by wolves posing as sheep? Maybe. You might have become acquainted with this dark side of life and reconciled it appropriately. Most don’t. It’s cyclical. Feel the hurt, inflict it on others, round and round it goes.

Thing is, Perkins is walking a different path.  As one of the top Greco Roman wrestlers in the US, his list of accomplishments are almost as impressive as the human behind them. Big wins over big names, a World Team Trials title, a US Olympic Team Trials title…and he’s not quite 24 years of age yet. When Perkins wrestles it’s all speed and decisiveness. It doesn’t matter if it’s an arm-drag, one of his daddy-long-leg gutwrenches, or a throw from out of nowhere – it all makes you take notice.

But as you chisel through to the man, to the actual beating heart inside of the athlete, you realize that while he has goals and talent, it’s family and faith which hold him together. Perkins is just a rare sort. Unfailingly open. Incomparably humble. Deferential to a fault. He’s achieved some pretty great things, made some mistakes, and he’s better for it. Regardless of what others may say or have said about him, it all makes zero difference. Perkins seems to embrace doubt. Almost reveres it. In fact, doubt serves as fuel for his battles. Good thing, too. He has plenty more of them to look forward to and will be preparing accordingly. 

5PM Interview with RaVaughn Perkins

5PM: You were originally on the list to go to Baku but you’re still in (Colorado) Springs. What happened?

RaVaughn Perkins: I fractured my lower spine so I had to stay back and do some rehab so I’ll be ready to help the team for Rio.

5PM: This is news, right? When did it happen?

RP: I guess it happened when I was younger, that’s what they were telling me. But it never went away and I never got it checked out. I didn’t really think it was a fracture because I was having back spasms in March before the Pan Am Qualifier. But when I was in Mongolia the pain started coming back and I thought it was the back spasms again. Turned out, it wasn’t.

5PM; Wait, let me clear this up for a second here. So you went ahead, won the Olympic Trials, wrestled in both Mongolia and Turkey, and did all of this with a fractured lower spine?

RP: I think that’s what I did. It happened in Mongolia probably after my first or second match. I felt my back and it just wan’t feeling right. Coach Momir (Petković) kept asking me if I was alright. I just was telling him Yeah because I didn’t want anyone to worry about it. I wasn’t trying to worry about it, my main focus was getting qualified for the Olympics so I didn’t want to make it into a big deal. So yeah, I’m guessing that is what was going on, that it was fractured at the time.

5PM: How do you feel now?

RP: Right now it’s getting a lot better. I’ve been in the weight room, been doing a lot of rehab, listening to the doctors and everything. I’ve been doing a lot better. The only thing is I’ve been having a hard time sleeping, I got to adjust my pillows and sometimes I have to put a pillow under my legs and stuff like that. But it’s doing a lot better. I’m supposed to be back on the mat this week to start drilling. I want to get back on the mat to help the team out because I’m still supposed to be going to Rio preparing Jesse — because I know he’s capable of winning the Olympics and I just want to be there to help him out and make sure he stays focused. So I’ve got to be there for him, be his partner, and just get his head right. So everything I’m doing is to get my body right so I can help Jesse out.

5PM: You’re going to Rio as Jesse’s partner, not as a potential wildcard or something like that?

RP: No, not at all. Those chances are over. We thought there was a possible chance but we haven’t heard anything, so that’s it.

5PM: I remember talking to Coach Lindland I think sometime after Istanbul when everyone started popping and there was hope if only because, hey, there were certainly a few Eastern Block dudes in your bracket.

RP: Yeah, that was the hope, you know, but it didn’t turn out that way. It’s only going to make me stronger. I can’t depend on that kind of stuff anyway. I owned up to mistakes that I made, there were some things I could have done differently and won matches. But it didn’t turn out that way. It kind of hurts me that I’d have to depend on someone popping, but that’s what I was hoping for after Turkey. It didn’t happen. My coaches were there for me, they told me to keep my head up. I’ve been off the mat for so long and they have been there for me throughout this whole process and I’m greatly appreciative of everything they have done for me so far.

You know, this is only the beginning. I think I still have a few cycles left in me. It’s not the end, it’s only the beginning. I still have the World Team Trials coming up in November and if I win that I’m going to the World Championships in December. So I’m not going to look back on it or look down on not making the Olympic Team. My only concern right now is keeping the Olympic Team focused, helping Jesse out, if Andy Bisek needs some help, I’ll help him, too. I’m not looking back on people. If they didn’t pop, they didn’t pop. That’s what I was hoping for but obviously, it didn’t happen so I’m just helping out the Olympic Team and whatever they need, I’m there for them.

5PM: You had the Pan Am Qualifier in March. Then it was the Trials in April, Mongolia soon after that, and then Turkey two weeks after that. It’s a gauntlet you’ve been through. And lower spine or not, Mongolia was the best I’ve ever seen you wrestle.

RP: That’s what I think, too. I think I was ready mentally but my body wasn’t ready physically. I was all the way there, I went in there like, I’m going to win this thing, I’m going to qualify. I had help with Jack Stark, he had been helping me a whole bunch and I want to thank him for that because if it wasn’t for him, who knows? I probably wouldn’t have made it this far. He had me all the way there mentally. I focused on my match and that’s all he had me thinking of, focusing on my match and nothing else. And that is probably what got me so far because I’m not sure. If I wasn’t there mentally, my body would have broken down, also.

5PM: One of my favorite matches that you had was against (Mirambek) Ainagulov from Kazakhstan. That was one of my favorites because that kid is a fireballer and you killed him. 

RaVaughn Perkins: (Laughs) Yeah, it was a great time. We had coaches back here in the US and they would go back and look at some film from those guys and text Coach Matt Lindland and tell him, This guys does this, this guy does that. I was still focused on what I had to do but at the same time I knew what he was going to do and I knew I had to stop that and just keep doing what I was doing. It was like I knew everything coming into that match. Everybody was telling me, “This guy likes the arm spin, he does this and all that.” So I was prepared and ready mentally and I knew what he was going to do before the fact and I was ready for that match.

5PM: I’ve seen that kid wrestle a few times and he’s entertaining. He competed at the Schultz against a couple of US guys I think.

RP: I know (Joe) Betterman beat him at the Schultz before.

5PM: Yeah, he’s an aggressive little guy.

RP: He is, he’s coming. He seems like a small guy but he’s real tough. I knew I was going to have a problem with him. But right off the whistle I knew I had to bring it to him, I had to come to him and intimidate him and get my moves going. I had to stop everything he was doing and go after it.

5PM: I remember that match, you countered him with a slide-by, it was nasty.

RP: He had a front-headlock and I love doing that. Sometimes I like when people get me in that move because they feel comfortable and I push into them and catch them slipping kind of. And then I just hit my slide-by’s. I actually did that in the 2014 World Team Trials and it’s a good move to hit. It’s slick, you can do it on the best opponents.

Perkins slide-by

5PM: What are some other elements of your game that you’ve been trying to step up?

RP: My problem is that I’m not there on par terre like I want to be. I can turn guys, yeah, but these foreign guys know how to stop the turn. Yes, I can compete and medal at the top level but I don’t want to just compete with them, I want to beat them every single time that we wrestle. And in order to do that I am going to have to get better at my par terre game.

5PM: I actually love watching you on par terre, when you go elbow-to-elbow and cut that long leg inside. It’s like a six-foot long leg.

RP: Yeah, I’ve been working on that a lot. I was kind of surprised because I used to not be able to turn anybody, my gutwrench was horrible. I was disappointed in myself. But ever since I’ve been up here, I’ve been working on that and getting better at it. I think I can turn anybody in the country right now at 66 kilos and 71 also, probably. I don’t have have as much of a problem being on top, it’s the bottom. Guys overseas know how to work the refs and the refs will put you down. So I have to be ready to be put on bottom and ready to fight. That’s the only problem I have. You saw in Mongolia. The only reason I lost the first match against Finland is because I got turned. And then in Turkey, I lost because I got lifted against Kyrgyzstan twice. So I have to focus on not getting turned. Those aren’t the only reasons I lost, either. I had two chances on top versus both of them and I didn’t turn them, so I still want to get my top game right. But par terre isn’t the only problem. There’s a lot of things I have to work on. I have to focus more on scoring from my feet, getting to the body, and getting to my under-hooks. Nobody can really stop me when I’m on my feet and I got to know that going into the match.

5PM: That’s the thing, is that US wrestlers are often aggressive on their feet not waiting around to go to par terre. A lot of the international guys are just blocking a bit, waiting for their shot on the mat.

RP: I’m the only one to basically beat Bryce Saddoris before the Olympic Trials and I’m not training to beat anyone from the US. I know I can beat anybody from the US at any time. My main focus is to beat people from Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, people like that. That’s what I’m focused on. At 66, we have a lot of people who work together and we train to beat people overseas, not each other. If you see us in practice, we’re helping each other like, You’re doing this wrong, you’re doing that wrong. We’re trying to better each other. We’re not beating each other up in practice, slapping each other upside the head. We’re trying to better each other to beat the Europeans and the Asians. That’s our main focus. The main thing we work on, if I’m on the bottom, they’re going to tell me, You have to do this right, the German is going to lift you, he’s going to do whatever he wants to do if you don’t do this or that

So we’re talking to each other in practice and improving one another in the US to get medals. Bisek is the only one who has medals but we’re working on that as a team. Coach Lindland is helping everybody out. He’s trying to get everyone prepared to wrestle the guys overseas and that’s what I like about him. He’s not focused on one person, he’s focused on everybody. It doesn’t matter who it is, he’s going to help you out. If he sees you doing something wrong, it doesn’t matter if you’re ranked number 10 in the US, he’s going to help you out. If we had qualified all six guys I think we would have been at the top as a team. This is a good team that we have. We have Jesse, Bisek, Provisor, and Robby Smith and this is a great team. It would have been also if Rau and I would have qualified. I can guarantee every single one of our guys who is going to the Olympics can win a medal and I don’t doubt they will.

5PM: Speaking of which, you’re close with Thielke and he’s getting ready for Rio. 

RP: Jesse can beat any of those guys. He has to do what he does and be himself. That’s all he has to do and I can guarantee Jesse can get a gold medal. Like I said, I’m getting ready to help Jesse out and get my body right because I know what he’s capable of. I know what he can do and I’m going to be there every step of the way and push him to get him to his full potential.

5PM: He couldn’t ask for a better workout partner.

RP: He’s been on me just like I’ve been on him. He’s been telling me, “You better get ready because you’re going to be there in Rio to help me out.” I will never forget these words he said to me. I lost my first match at the Olympic Trials and then he captured his Trials championship and he came up to me and said, “You better win this because I’m not going to Mongolia by myself.” And that motivated me to go even harder. I know that I was a good partner for him and he’s a good partner for me.

Perkins tries to lift Sancho

(Tony Rotundo/

5PM: I had been waiting to talk to you but I wanted to give you some space after the qualifying process. I wasn’t going to chase you down after all that because I didn’t know where your head was.

RP: At first it was really tough. The coaches, the whole Greco team, they have been lifting me up a lot. If it wasn’t for them, I’d probably still be down. They talk to me all the time. They make me feel like I’m still with them, like I am officially part of the team. Of course, I don’t see it that way. But they do. And it works. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. They keep my head up all the time. I grew up in a rough neighborhood and back then, I used to think those people were my friends, back in that city. But now I actually know what a family is being part of the Greco family.

5PM: That’s an incredible way to put it. I don’t get into your past so much. I see it as you moved on, that sort of thing. Am I wrong?

RaVaughn Perkins: I don’t have a problem talking about my past. If anything, it’s made me stronger in my eyes. I tell my story all the time. People know my past. I don’t have a problem with it and I’m not embarrassed about any of it. I can talk about my past openly and I have no problem doing so.

5PM: When you started competing full-time on the Senior level you experienced a flash of success. A lot of us on the outside looking in were pretty surprised because most of the guys in your weight had been well-established. You then beat Saddoris at the World Team Trials, the only American over the last couple of years to do so on US soil. Then you came up positive. And I remember you said, “I popped for a water pill, I’m not going to beat myself up about it.” I found that really refreshing because you didn’t run and hide over it. That seems to be the kind of approach you have to have to be successful down the road anyway. You didn’t let that misstep drag you down. 

RP: People who try to make excuses act like they didn’t make a mistake when they know for a fact they did. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve been through a lot in my life. I know when I’m wrong and I know when I’m right. Yes, I did take the water pill but I didn’t mean to break any rules at all. I didn’t know that it was on the banned list, I didn’t know any of that stuff. I know that I was handed the pill and I know that I took the pill. It’s my responsibility to know what is going in my body. Like you said, I was off the Greco team, no one knew who I was. I wasn’t used to all of these rules, USADA tests, things like that. At the same time, I still have to look into all that stuff, see what I’m putting in my body and read what the rules are.  So yes, I am going to take responsibility for what happened but it was only going to make me stronger. It makes me come back even harder.

5PM: Okay, let’s talk about something a bit more serious. You were recently cleared of all charges stemming from 2014. A huge deal. I guess I can sense it but do you feel vindicated? Liberated, free of anyone saying things about you anymore that aren’t true? Now, no one can really say anything. 

RP: Well, I will always feel free no matter what anybody says about me. I know what I’ve done in my life and I know what I’ve been through. Nobody can ever say anything that will get me down. People have said a whole bunch of things about me. I’ve been probably through the worst of anybody on this Greco team and I tell them my story all the time. I’ve been through all that. They understand and they don’t judge me on any of that. If I have family around me who doesn’t judge me and shows love to me, then I don’t care what anyone else says. I feel, like you said, free, to answer your question.

5PM: You grew up in a contentious environment and you were an athlete. You graduated to the highest level of your sport in this country. Then you wound up moving to Colorado Springs. What exactly has it meant for you to live out there and how has it changed your life?

RP: It changed me a whole bunch. Before I moved here I was young-minded. It’s like being a college student, you’re still young, you’re still learning, and you’re still getting into trouble. That is kind of how I was. I wasn’t mentally ready before I came to Colorado Springs. But I had mentors like Coach Lindland, Coach Momir and team captains like Andy Bisek and Robby Smith. They helped me out, they are there for me no matter what. Anything I need or any of the team members need, they are there for you. If you need to talk? They’re going to be there for you. That is what I thought I had back in Omaha but it turns out that I didn’t. A lot of people who I thought were there for me really weren’t. I didn’t realize that until I came out here to Springs and learned what family was.

Perkins does battle with Patrick Smith

(Tony Rotundo/

5PM: Right now, there are younger versions of yourself all over the country. There’s a RaVaughn Perkins in Illinois, New Jersey, Kansas, Wisconsin, Florida…wherever. They’re all over. Young men who have the same level of talent but might not be surrounded by the best people. Maybe they don’t know what other options are available for them. What would you say if you could get a hold of these kids?

RaVaughn Perkins: I would tell them to never give up. There are a lot of people trying to hold you down. There are a lot of friends trying to hold you down. People try to act like the system is trying to hold you down. You’ve got to stay away from all that stuff. Even if you do get in those types of situations, you still have to keep your head up, you still have to keep moving forward. You can’t say, Oh, this is what’s going on, you don’t know what I’ve been through. You cannot do that. You have to keep moving forward no matter what. I had a lot of people being killed by gun violence in my life. That only made me stronger. You have to look at things like that in your life as, He’s gone, but I am going to keep pushing forward for him. I know they wanted me to live this life and keep going forward. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make sure whoever doubted me in my life remembers my name. And I’m going to make sure that they know they were wrong for putting my name through all that. I’m going to make sure that they take those words out of their mouth. 

I’m going to be able to tell my kids, my nephews, whoever, so they know I’ve been through all of this and overcame it. That nothing or nobody can stop me. That the only person who can stop me is myself. That is why you have to keep moving forward.

5PM: Getting back to wrestling, you come home from Turkey and shortly thereafter there is the announcement of the non-Olympic weight Worlds. Right off, yours was a name that came up. When this news broke, was it automatically something for you to shoot for or did you need some distance coming out of Turkey?

RP: To be honest, a lot of stuff used to happen to me back in the day at wrestling tournaments and on the streets and stuff like that. One time I lost a match in Fargo I shouldn’t have and my coach, Roger Parker, came up to me and said, “God has a better plan for you.” And every time something like this has happened to me, like this year with the Olympic Team or 2014 with the World Team Trials when I popped for the water pill, any time something has happened I just know that God has something better for me. Not saying that the World Championships is better than the Olympics, but it’s another opportunity for me He created.

5PM: So in other words, you were into it right away?

RP: Yes, I was ready right away. And that is how I thought of it, that God created this for me. This is for me. Like right after Turkey when I didn’t qualify for the Olympics, they told me that and I was like, This is for me. And I thanked Him. This is crazy. I was surprised, really. But I was ready right away. And my coaches, they know I was ready. At first, they didn’t. I was down after Turkey. I didn’t know what was going on, I was still kind of lost in the world. I don’t know if they thought I was giving up or if my family thought I was giving up, but in my mind I was like, It is what it is, I can’t do anything about it. I was still down, but once that news came out I was up and ready. I knew my prayers were answered and that it was another opportunity to be on that World stand to gain a medal.

5PM: Maybe it’s been tumultuous at times, but closing out 2016 with a gold medal at the World Championships seems like it’d be a nice way to do it, right?

RP: It would be great. It’s only the beginning, it’s just the start of everything. It’s perfect because it is the start of a new cycle and getting a gold medal to begin it would be great to come by. It’s amazing because you know, I’m going up to 71 (kilograms) from 66. And then from there, I don’t know if I am going back down to 66 or up to 75. If I am able to win a gold medal at 71 it will be a great achievement no matter which weight I wind up going to.

5PM: I had the pleasure of speaking with Kamal Bey earlier and he mentioned that you are like a big brother and mentor to him. Is that a role you see yourself in with a lot of these younger guys at this point? 

RP: Oh yeah, of course. Especially Kamal, on and off the mat. Kamal and I have a great relationship. And also, our mentor, TC Dantzler he is working with this kid and I think he’s doing a great job. Kamal is from Chicago and I’m glad he got him out of that environment. Chicago is bigger than where I’m from and TC got him out of there. I want to be the type of mentor to these kids growing up that TC is to Kamal. Kamal is a great wrestler and a great kid. We work together on the mat and I like his style, you know? He’s going to go after it. He and I, I remember one day in practice and we were just throwing each other. I scored, he scored. He scored, I scored. I see so much potential in him. He can do well as long as he sticks to what he does.

But yeah, I believe I will be a great mentor to these kids. I try to stay in their face and make sure that they are doing good and I’m glad I can be there for these guys like people were for me. And I’m glad TC is there for them. We come from the same neighborhood kind of. He’s from Chicago and I’m from Omaha. He’s been through a little bit of what I’ve been through. People like that, I feel like I connect with them more. Not to say I don’t connect with other kids, cause I could be a role model to them also. But kids who grew up how I did, I know I can be an even better mentor.

5PM: You look at your career and you’re still young. By the way, you guys who are 23 and 24 and then have a birthday and complain about getting older, that gets on my nerves but it’s besides the point. 

RP: (Laughs) Yeah…

5PM: But I know you’re smart enough to know you are still in fact, young, and have already carved a very impressive beginning to your career and your trajectory is still going upwards. So what are your goals moving forward? Is this a long-term proposition for you or do you have other ambitions?

RaVaughn Perkins: This is my life right here. This is my job. I plan on being here for who knows how many years. Like you said, I don’t like when people say they’re old and stuff like that, either. I’m young and this is the beginning for me. As long as I have coaches like Momir and Matt, I’m always going to look at it like that. My plan right now is to go through 2024. That’s just my plan right now. Hopefully my body can go that long also. My goal is to go through 2024 and be a two-time Olympic champion and a multiple-time World Champion. As long as I have Momir and Matt in my corner, I guarantee that it’s going to happen.

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