Northern Michigan

‘IT FACTOR’: How Will The US Learn to Deal with Max Black?

max black, 60 kg, nmu nts
Max Black -- Photo: Sam Janicki

The “it factor”. Cliché in its employment. Used most often by those who find themselves at a loss for words. It is just something to say when there is not much to say at all. They can’t quite put their fingers on what it is that makes the subject unique or extraordinary, so “it factor” suffices. Tired is the phrasing, eye-roll-inducing each time it is uttered.

Max Black (60 kg, NYAC/NTS) is the exception. He has “it”, and the good news is that “it” when it comes to Black is easily identifiable.

not all roads lead to gold, jim gruenwald

A can’t-miss age-grouper from Colorado whose previous competitive exploits were enough to make the entire country take notice, Black is just one of the latest young studs who has begun rising to prominence at Northern Michigan University. The whole thing, this still-new chapter of his life, kicked off with equal parts hope and frustration. Hope, because that is what NMU offers to athletes who have big, stubborn dreams regarding World and Olympic medals. Frustration, because Black had to wait all the way until this past spring before finally being let off the leash. Once unshackled, it did not take too long for the US program to become all sorts of excited about his future prospects.

Black’s credentials as a full-timer thus far (which remember, only started being written in early-April) tell the tale:

— 4th, Bill Farrell Memorial.
— runner-up, US Senior Open.
— champion, U20 Nationals.
— 4th, US Senior World Team Trials.
— champion, U20 World Team Trials.
— runner-up, U23 World Team Trials.
— bronze, U20 Pan-American Championships.

The best way to perhaps illustrate how impressively Black has performed during this, his first legitimate season, is by looking at the names to whom he has lost domestically. A short list — three-time World Team member/’20 Olympian Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP), National Teamer Randon Miranda (Rise RTC), and ’22 U23 World rep Phillip Moomey (Spartan RTC). Miranda, he has been the biggest thorn in Black’s side. The pair have faced off four times dating back to the Bill Farrell Memorial in April with Miranda winning all four bouts. But even that brief ledger deservers a closer look. Miranda scorched Black in their first two meetings by scores of 10-1 and 12-5, respectively. They banged heads twice more in the Senior Trials and the chasm between the two was significantly narrowed. In those matches, Black proved that he was devoted to pressing his sudden rival and fell to Miranda via two close decisions.

That kind of growth in such a short period of time is what has people talking the most about Black. The wins are nice, too. Black has earned several notable victories among his early travels, such as nods over ’20 National champ Alex Thomsen (Nebraska Wrestling TC) and Dylan Koontz (TMWC/Ohio RTC). Two huge matches they were in helping raise awareness. But what the US National program wants to see, more than anything else, is committed zeal and relevant improvement from its upstarts. Nothing describes Black’s first year better at the moment.

The “it factor”, though. What Black brings to bear in that regard is no less important. If anything, his relentless desire and how that is expressed are the most vital components. Enthusiasm is evident in each tiny, fleeting movement. You wouldn’t call it brashness, it is more a lack of fear. Not once has Black stepped on a mat this year in awe of the opposition. Contact with intent, body language that speaks to the great pleasure in which he does his bidding. Black does not mask his intensity. He wants everyone — his opponents, his coaches, the other guy’s coaches, and fans in the arena — to get the picture that he seriously loves attacking humans in a whirling ball of fire and there is nothing they can do to stop it from happening.

More chances to see him in action are on the way. Next month comes the U20 Worlds, which will see Black mix it up on the international stage for the first time. How he might fare against foreigners and how that might translate to a medal are worthy of discussion. They just aren’t, right now, what matters most.

What does is that NMU and the US have a committed, talented lightweight on their hands who is already preparing for the ’24 Paris Olympics. Whatever other objectives Black has in mind pale in comparison to that one. He wants to make sure you know that with every executed attempt, every par terre score. America needs such a competitive attitude these days.

Black has “it”, and that’s what “it” takes.

Max Black — 60 kg, NYAC/NTS

5PM: We have reached that time of year when everyone starts going nuts about Fargo. Knowing what you know now after a year of full-time training in a high-level environment, have your feelings towards what Fargo means in this country changed at all?

Max Black: Yeah, it really has. Now that I look back on Fargo and how I’ve been competing lately — all of the tournaments I’ve entered, all of the guys I’ve competed against — I have realized that, yes, Fargo is definitely a cool tournament to win for that age group, but there is far more once you get older.

5PM: Do you think that Fargo, in how it is sort of presented, is an asset or hindrance in the US developmentally?

MB: I can see it more as an asset, as a confidence-builder. For me, I wasn’t even sure about going full-time Greco until after I won Fargo. I see it as an asset, for sure. Yes.

5PM: You did choose a different path than your contemporaries by going to NMU. How heavy did you consider an NCAA-type of career before enrolling at Northern?

MB: It was always back-and-forth for me throughout school. I always liked Greco but I wrestled high school, which is four years of folkstyle. I was definitely talking to a few other colleges about some folkstyle opportunities. But what happened was Fargo, getting that Greco win. I wasn’t too big into folkstyle. I thought it was boring. And plus, I never really just wanted to be a state champ. I looked past that.

5PM: Does it frustrate you when other wrestlers don’t see in Greco what you see in it?

MB: Sometimes, yeah. I definitely get frustrated from it. Especially when it is someone who has just wrestled folkstyle and they don’t understand Greco. That’s when I get a little mad.

5PM: What was your first turning point or breakthrough moment that helped you realized Northern Michigan was the right choice for you?

Max Black: First, it was when I walked into the room and the team was super-cool. Everyone was just really cool, really fun. And we wrestle hard, you know? That’s what I love. I like hard wrestling, and Greco isn’t supposed to be easy. You’re going full-time Greco, you should expect it to be hard. You should expect it to be a war everyday. That is kind of the atmosphere up here. After the first few months, that’s what I really liked about it. You are in there and just get after it.

5PM: Was Marquette a smooth transition for you or did it take a little while?

MB: The winter was rough, but I would also say that it made me get tougher, as well. The cold sucks. Andy (Bisek) would make us go for runs in the cold on the worst days sometimes. It’s windy, snowing outside, it’s a blizzard, you can’t really see much… But I think that atmosphere was for the best.

5PM: There was a period of time early in the season when some of us figured you for a 55 kilogram guy. 

MB: Yeah.

5PM: Now that you are firmly established as a top competitor at 60 kilos, does it feel strange that at one point you were close to going the sport’s lightest weight?

MB: I only had the mindset of being at 55 for about a month or so. Back in high school, I never really lifted that much and never really packed on muscle. I was kind of weak. Actually putting lifting into my schedule and picking up some weight, I grew just in my first few months here. I was walking around at about 58, 59 kilos my first month up here. Then I started lifting more consistently and shot up to around 64 kilos.

5PM: The Bill Farrell in early April was not a small deal. It wasn’t supposed to be one, anyway, because it was a selection tournament for the Pan-Ams. You had been in big spots before but this was your first major Senior event. Were you amped up for it, or were you more nervous and curious?

Max Black: Honestly, I was pumped to wrestle. I was up here all through the fall semester and training everyday with some of the best guys we’ve got. I was super-curious to see how I would match up against experienced Senior athletes, like Randon (Miranda) and all of those guys. I wasn’t sure how I would match up against them. I did better than I expected. It is kind of hard to see how much you have improved without wrestling as much competition as I had been used to. I was just like, Let’s wrestle these guys and see how good I’ve gotten.

5PM: You mention Randon, who is an outstanding athlete. I don’t know if you two will start exchanging Christmas cards now, but it was uncanny that you wound up wrestling each other so many times just in the span of three tournaments. And you closed the gap on him pretty significantly. I wouldn’t say that your styles are all that similar, but you seem to understand each other’s language a little bit. Did you really like wrestling him?

MB: I really like wrestling Randon. He is fricking tough. He is one person who I’ve wrestled where it has been, Man, I’m going to war with this guy. Every time I step on the mat with him, I know that it is going to be a war. It is going to be a good match, and it’s going to be fun.

5PM: One match that made a huge impact, at least in my mind, was against Alex Thomsen. That win I think caught a lot of people’s attention. It was tight and you scored from par terre in the second period, which was obviously clutch. Was that as big for you as it had appeared to be?

MB: That match was definitely sweet, to beat him. I actually didn’t know too much about him. I knew that he had beaten my former teammate, Mosha Schwartz. I knew that he had beaten Mosha at the Senior Nationals that one year (’20). That was all I really knew, so I was like, Alright, let’s go. When I beat him, I felt, Yeah, I can really bang with these guys. I might be young, but I can score some points and do what I need to do. 

5PM: That same week at the U20 Nationals, you completely dominated. The perception coming out of those two tournaments within days of each other was that although you are a Junior, you were clearly ready for Senior. That maybe, maybe, you are even more cut out for Senior competition than Junior. 

MB: That is definitely how I feel sometimes. I love wrestling the Seniors, I really do. It’s fun.

5PM: There was no wrestling for 80% of the season and then it was one tournament after another. Was there any concern for you at all in terms of managing your periodization, your recovery?

Max Black: I let all of that slide. I thought, I don’t really care. I don’t really need to worry about all of that. I just wanted to wrestle. Not being able to compete was driving me crazy throughout the fall semester. When we had all of those tournaments back-to-back, I loved it. I had so much fun at each and every tournament. I love just going to tournaments. Being around the atmosphere, wrestling all of these guys, it’s super-competitive…  I had a great time doing it. I thought it was awesome.

black and parker

Black with NMU/NTS assistant coach Parker Betts at the 2022 U20 World Team Trials in June. (Photo: Sam Janicki)

5PM: At the Senior Trials in the consolation semifinal, here came another nice win. Dylan Koontz is an experienced, excellent competitor and a beast. In that match, it looked like you had a purpose in trying to create as much movement as possible, more so than against other guys you wrestled this year. 

MB: Right.

5PM: What was the confidence level after this match compared to the Thomsen match at the Open?

MB: Going into that match with Koontz, I knew that I could beat him. I feel like I can beat anyone in the world. I don’t know what it was. It wasn’t that I knew I could beat him, it was that I wanted to dominate that match. I really wanted to put on a show out there on that backside (of the bracket) and see what I had to give. After that match, my confidence, it definitely grew. But my confidence before that match was just as high. I believe that I can beat anyone in this world.

5PM: The U23 Nationals — which again, was crammed right inside of a compressed time period as well as your sixth tournament in less than two months — saw you take second place to Phillip Moomey. If there is anything to take away from that event for you, what was it?

MB: That it’s a tough sport. I was going into that tournament expecting to do well, expecting to win both (with the Junior Trials). But going two divisions is tough. It was more of a mental battle than a physical one. That was my takeaway as far as confidence. I need to stay ready for every match.

5PM: Alston Nutter, Benji Peak, Jonathan Gurule, Payton Jacobson, yourself… There are even others in that NMU room right now who are seen as important pieces in Greco’s future. Is there an understanding of the tradition and history Northern Michigan has in developing high-caliber athletes?

MB: We all understand very well. We are all trying to keep it going and make it great. We want to shock the world. We want to prove people wrong. We want to win over here. Like I said, when we go into that wrestling room everyday, we know that it’s going to be war. We just want it that much more than other people, I feel like, and it is showing right now with our younger guys.

5PM: How do you see your progression going into the 2024 Olympic Trials?

Max Black: I think about it a lot. My end goal right now is the Olympics in 2024. For sure. Especially after this year, I know there are things I need to improve on. I’m walking around at 62 kilos after practice and I’m eating ice cream during this interview. So, there is definitely room to get a little bit bigger, a little stronger. But I think I will be ready for that. I truly believe that I can make that Team in two years. I just have to stay motivated and keep going after that goal.

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