Northern Michigan

NMU To Bulgaria: The Lineup for Petrov (with Context)

Photo: Parker Betts

The entire idea, at this stage for most of them, resides in the concept of further indoctrination. It is one thing for those who occupy Northern Michigan University’s National Training Site to be able to call themselves “full-timers”. It is quite another when it becomes time to do what it is that full-timers are called upon to do, which is compete internationally against top-flight Senior athletes thousands of miles away from home.

That’s the gig. That’s the lifestyle. They signed up for it, and such an experience will be a new one for several of NMU’s combatants coming up this week at the annual Nikola Petrov Memorial in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Though not for all of them.

First, the Vets

For David Stepanyan (67 kg), the Petrov might not appear overly daunting. A U23 World Team member in ’21 as well as a Senior Trials runner-up the same year, Stepanyan has transformed into one of Northern’s elder statesmen. He has done his share of traveling, to be sure, and has amassed for himself a cabinet’s worth of relevant accolades. Stepanyan is also a true competitor, battle-tested and battle-hardened, and understands exactly what he is supposed to expect once the whistle blows in Sofia.

“Honestly, I’m expecting a fight in every exchange, in every position,” shared Stepanyan. “It’s going to be a fight. It always is. A tactical fight, of course. You have to keep your wits about you. You have to do everything physical, yet technically-sound.”

david stepanyan, 2021 u23 greco-roman world team

Stepanyan (blue), shown here in Round 1 of the 2021 U23 World Team Trials best-of-three finals, anticipates that each and every match he will have in Bulgaria will be a physical test of wills. “It’s going to be a fight,” said Stepanyan. “It always is.” (Photo: Sam Janicki)

George Sikes (87 kg) has enjoyed a tenure similar in scope to Stepanyan’s. The native Floridian made the U23 World roster in ’18, and ever since has managed to scratch and claw his way into the upper domestic fold. Sikes and Stepanyan both have logged a lot of miles across the country and around the globe.

Riley Briggs (77 kg)? Same thing. Briggs — whose Greco-Roman education was originally provided to him by the late Mark Halvorson at the Community Youth Center in Concord, California — had an above-average grasp of the sport as it pertains to the differences between foreigners and Americans before he had ever arrived on campus at NMU. Since then, albeit with occasional but brief periods of inactivity, Briggs’ resume has grown in substantive fashion. Some years back, he even provided a glimpse into his perspective on locking up with foreigners while on tour in Austria.

DM Hallett (82 kg) has undercover collected a few notable passport stamps. Now in his junior year at NMU, Hallett can stake claim to having competed in Austria, Russia, and Sweden, and last winter was part of a major US delegation that had traveled to Hungary for an intense, well-attended training camp (as is custom for HUN). Hallett is considered an eager prospect with an ever-growing skill-set, which he will continue to hone as his career progresses.

Some Overseas XP

’22 US Open runner-up Aidan Nutter (63 kg) is not what you might define as a total international neophyte. During the summer of ’21, Nutter bolted for Porec, Croatia for a training excursion, and then joined up with Hallett and the aforementioned massive US contingent for the winter ’22 trip to Hungary. But neither of those two escapades involved sanctioned competition, making the upcoming Petrov his first European tournament. Nutter’s overall abilities, impressive background, and desire for improvement should make this event a fruitful experience for him, both in the short and long term.

Anything classified as “Pan-American” is, technically, not overseas. Continental competition is indeed not precisely the same as European or Asian. But — it is definitely still international, and Michael Altomer (82 kg) definitely threw a beatdown on his two opponents at the ’22 U20 Pan-Am Championships to walk away with gold. That performance may fall short of translating to what Altomer will encounter in Bulgaria. Except it really isn’t supposed to stack up in a similar fashion. Altomer, a potentially important piece of this sport’s future in the US, is coming along very well as an NMU frosh and his coaches like the idea of him getting tested in what will surely be an elite-level environment.


Three names: Ryder Smith (60 kg), Charles Welcome (67 kg), and Mike Higgins (77 kg). The first two are freshmen, the third is a sophomore, and all three have yet to tangle with seasoned international opponents, let alone World-caliber foreigners. New NMU athletes often receive their first taste of overseas action at tournaments like the Klippan Cup or Malar Cupen (both in Sweden). While those competitions are vital when it comes to breaking in fresh blood, they are also not on equal footing with a top-tier event such as the Petrov — thus making this trip sort of a departure from the norm for green Northern upstarts.

It’s the furthest thing from accidental.

This is not about feeding guys to the “wolves”. It is more that NMU head coach Andy Bisek and assistant Parker Betts are saying, If you’re serious about becoming a World and Olympic champ, then you are going to need to understand what that takes and what it looks like up-close. And you might as well start that process now. The good news for Smith, Welcome, and Higgins is that they have the support, encouragement, and knowledge they will require going forward thanks to who their coaches are. Bisek and Betts will ensure that, no matter what happens in Bulgaria, their lesser-experienced athletes leave with valuable lessons that will become applicable within a quick turnaround.

Plus, the trio has someone like Stepanyan who can guide them through the treacherous waters. Even if that means beginning by explaining the tournament format.

“A lot of the guys didn’t know that you could lose one match and then just be done,” said Stepanyan. “They thought you could wrestle at least two matches, so I had to explain to them that, ‘No, you wrestle one match, and if you lose but the guy who wins makes the finals, you get back into repechage.’

“Only one match is guaranteed, so I told them ‘don’t lose’. I was just like, ‘You have to be prepared. You’re going to have a different feel, the refereeing is going to be different.’ Honestly, they just have to be prepared. All of the young guys have to learn. They have to roll with the punches here and they have to fight.”

Now that Stepanyan has taken on more of a leadership role due to his competitive profile and years on the scene, he — as is the case with Bisek and Betts — desires for the younger athletes to step up and try to see the competition for what it represents in the moment, as well as how to approach banging heads with athletes from far-off places.

One thing Stepanyan also warns against is being intimidated. In his eyes, it’s not an option.

“I want them to understand that they are at that level where they can compete with anyone in the world, regardless of where it is or their circumstances in life. Just because someone is wearing UKR (Ukraine), BUL (Bulgaria), or another country on the back of their singlet, doesn’t mean that you should already have water in your boots. They’re just from another country. Don’t take it too seriously. If you have been doing your best, then you can’t be upset, because you’ll have no regrets. Just do what your game-plan is and fight. Wrestling is a fight. It’s a struggle.”

2023 Nikola Petrov Memorial

March 2-5 — Sofia, BUL

NMU/NTS Roster

60 kg: Ryder Smith
63 kg: Aidan Nutter (NYAC/NTS) — ’22 US Open runner-up
67 kg: Charles Welcome
67 kg: David Stepanyan (NYAC/NTS) — ’21 U23 World Team, ’21 World Team Trials runner-up, ’21 US Open runner-up
77 kg: Riley Briggs (West Coast Greco RTC/NTS)
77 kg: Mike Higgins
82 kg: DM Hallett
82 kg: Michael Altomer — ’22 U20 Pan-Am Championships gold
87 kg: George Sikes (NYAC/NTS) — ’18 U23 World Team

2023 Nikola Petrov Memorial Schedule

— All times +7 hrs ET
— Tournament will stream live on BF Borba YouTube

Thursday, March 2 (Day 1) — 55, 63, 72, & 82 kg (Nutter, Hallett, & Altomer)
10:30am-2:30pm — Qualification rounds through quarterfinals
5:00pm — Semifinals

Friday, March 3 (Day 2) — 87, 97 & 130 kg (Sikes)
10:30am-2:30pm — Qualification rounds through quarterfinals
10:30am-2:30pm — Repechage (Day 1 weight categories)
5:00pm — Semifinals
6:00pm — Finals/bronze-medal rounds (Day 1 weight categories)

Saturday, March 4 (Day 3) — 60, 67, & 77 kg (Smith, Stepanyan, Welcome, Briggs, & Higgins)
10:30am-2:30pm — Qualification rounds through quarterfinals
10:30am-2:30pm — Repechage (Day 2 weight categories)
5:00pm — Semifinals
6:00pm — Finals/bronze-medal rounds (Day 2 weight categories)

Sunday, March 5
11:00am-12:00pm — Repechage (Day 3 weight categories)
12:00pm — Finals/bronze-medal rounds (Day 3 weight categories)

five point move podcast, latest episodes banner

Listen to “5PM053: Northern Michigan assistant Parker Betts and USMC Captain Jamel Johnson” on Spreaker.

Listen to “5PM52: Two-Time Olympian Jim Gruenwald” on Spreaker.

Listen to “5PM51: Lining up with Tanner Farmer” on Spreaker.

iTunes | Stitcher | Spreaker | Google Play Music

Notice: Trying to get property 'term_id' of non-object in /home/fivepointwp/webapps/fivepointwp/wp-content/themes/flex-mag/functions.php on line 999

Recent Popular

To Top