There was a story from last winter. Travel during the early stages of 2021 was rife with issues, especially for athletes who were trying to arrange flights to Europe. Hurried test results, various permissions from various organizations, layers of new rules… An extra round or two of phone calls and emails became another unwelcomed requirement. Gone in a flash were the days of “have passport, check with USA Wrestling, and get trip booked”. Dotting i’s and crossing t’s are always part of the process for overseas-bound wrestlers but this was a whole different level.
No American competitor was more vexed than G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg, Sunkist, world #5, 5PM #1). Mostly because no current American competitor engaged in nearly as much travel. Hancock was accustomed to spending an exorbitant amount of time in Europe; and with COVID restrictions beginning to loosen, he was in an anxious rush to resume the Olympic Year training block that months prior had been severely disrupted.
Hancock was not merely glad when, finally, he had pieced together a trek to Sweden. He was relieved. The kind of relief one might experience if they had lost something of unspeakable value only to happen upon the object after untold weeks of searching in despair. At last, he would have the ability to prepare for the upcoming gauntlet by catching looks against the foreigners to whom he compared himself. Hancock needed to know, in the recesses of his mind, that he was doing everything possible to attain success. European practice room battles, nevermind the tournaments themselves, represented the primary catalyst for him to feel that he was on the right track.
So it is easy then to imagine Hancock’s reaction following what became an ill-fated skip to the airport. He was, probably, in a great mood, with visions of sweat-soaked practices and grueling par terre go’s dancing in his head. Even the long flight would not seem so bad this time. He is pretty resourceful when it comes to entertaining himself when bored.
But noooo. There would be no hike over to Sweden, no multi-week opportunity for him to get back into a foreign-training groove. No confidence-building abbreviated cycle of preparation prior to Olympic Team selection and all that accompanies the journey. It was some paperwork thing, some misunderstanding involving updated government regulations, the airline not grasping the explanation from Sweden stipulating that Hancock was indeed eligible under a “special athlete” provision to enter the country. Phone calls, texts… Questions asked and answers given, though the back-and-forths did nothing other than to create even more confusion. Panic gave way to exasperation. Then anger, and disappointment. And the general discomfort of a top wrestler not being able to do what he believed was necessary to knock a career goal off the list.
That is how 2021 began for Hancock.
It ended quite differently.
For a third-consecutive time, G’Angelo Hancock is 5PM’s Athlete of the Year based largely on how he managed to bring ’21 to a close — which was by earning a World bronze medal this past October. His run in Oslo was not the only event last year to put on display the brilliant brand of Greco for which Hancock is so often lauded, but it was undoubtedly the highlight for the United States by a significant margin.
The committee’s voting process in ’21 did not invite suspense. It is a nine-person committee, and the first five voters all selected Hancock.
Each of Hancock’s four bouts in Oslo presented stiff competition. Turk Ibrahim Tigci was first, the victim of a shutout. Kiril Milov (BUL) arrived next, a World silver medalist in ’18. Hancock had already touched Milov up once before on the U23 level. Still, there was anticipation for their second officially-sanctioned meeting, though it didn’t last long. By the end of the opening period Hancock had a 6-0 lead — and the score did not change. Two matches, two blankings, put Hancock in the World semifinal.
Uneasiness followed. The hardcores, they understood. Hungarian Alex Szoeke had, in a relatively short amount of time, built for himself a stellar reputation. Hungary is particularly deep in the upper-weights with 97 kilograms perhaps their most pronounced strength. For Szoeke to have even ascended to the #1 spot for HUN meant something, and was one of that nation’s bigger stories of the past 12 months.
A great match it was. In a way. Nail-bite stuff. Hancock owned a 3-1 advantage in the second, but then things got squirrely. When Szoeke assumed top par terre, Hancock bounded to his feet, hastened a re-attack, and Hungary hit the mat and exposed. Clearly. But those points were never awarded. Instead, all Hancock grabbed from the action was a single tick on the board. Not long after, Szoeke scored a step-out point; and with under a minute to go, the referees felt that a third par terre was appropriate. For whatever reason. Hancock bottomed out, Szoeke raked a gut, and the US had fallen via criteria 4-4.
The World bronze medal round transpired the next evening. Hancock had regrouped mentally, emotionally, spiritually enough to put Szoeke in the rearview. The focus shifted to what hung in the balance. Peter Oehler (GER) stood in the way. Not an anonymous counterpart. Oehler had actually downed Hancock in the ’18 World Championships. Was a different time, different place.
Hancock does not wrestle whilst lugging around unnecessary baggage. He treated Oehler accordingly, which is to say assertively. Hancock admits that he was convinced of victory even before the whistle blew. It is easy to believe him. The score was only 3-0 heading into the second but the general business of their contest was one-sided. How the match ended — in other words, the methodology in which Hancock earned his bronze — reflected as much. A body attack, more like a pounce, saw the American lock and torque Oehler to the tarp. Oehler’s right ankle twisted upon landing, immediately resulting in a significant injury. But — Hancock was all over him, anyway. The outcome wasn’t going to change, not by then.
Roundabout three months have come and gone since Hancock’s career milestone. He’s pleased. But not over the moon. Bring up Szoeke and what you get back are attempts at pragmatism one moment, incredulity the next. He’d love a do-over, just not at the expense of Szoeke occupying his thought patterns. To Hancock, it’s not about the antagonist. This whole deal is about the prize. The names and faces fade when compared to what he desires most.
It is now January 2022 and Hancock will soon leave for Croatia to train through a large portion of the winter.
Hopefully there are no major issues at the airport, and Hancock’s competitive year gets off to a good start.
Either way, it all makes you wonder how this one might end.
2021 Five Point Move Athlete of the Year
G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg, Sunkist)
5PM: Do you think the American wrestling audience understands how critical it is for US Greco athletes to travel as often as top guys usually do? Guys like yourself?
G’Angelo Hancock: No. It’s not understandable because of the NCAA’s, the background in folkstyle. And the nature in which folkstyle is completely transferrable to freestyle makes it extremely difficult for people coming from that background to grasp the idea of what it takes to be successful in Greco. I think that is hard for some people. They struggle coming to terms with how America is not the best at this style of wrestling. Some people don’t like that thought. Meanwhile, they themselves don’t give it the time of day. They don’t look with their naked eyes for even one second at a tournament. But if they did, they would be able to tell how different it is from folkstyle. For them, they are used to, Reach, create distance, tap the head, tap the head… In Greco, it is a fulcrum swinging. It is constant momentum and pressure, and other ideas not often expressed in American wrestling.
5PM: Maybe not 2017, since that was your first Senior Worlds, but every subsequent year you’ve been thought of as one of the strongest US medal candidates on each World roster. Now that you do in fact have a medal, is it a relief of pressure? Or does it now add pressure?
Hancock: (Sighs) You know, I don’t think so at all. It definitely doesn’t add pressure in my mind because I believe in my heart that I’m that guy. Every time I’ve walked into the arena at a World Championships there have been lessons that I’ve learned. Just getting closer and closer. Momir (Petkovic) used to say, It’s a rollercoaster, it’s a crazy ride. You have to be in it wholeheartedly through the up’s and the down’s. It is what it is. It’s Greco-Roman. It is not like any other style of wrestling. It’s not like any other sport.
What this medal does is add value. For sure. Someday, I’m going to look back on this experience because it has really made me tough. It has also helped me to enjoy the simpler things in life, like fishing. But the pressure is not there. I don’t feel pressure. Then again, it’s not a relief, either. I was at National Team camp and dudes were, Heck yeah, you got your medal. Get your medal and get out. And it’s like, No. It’s not about getting a bronze medal. I don’t know who had the quote, whether it was Dan Gable or someone, but it goes something like, “If you aim for the podium, you’ll fall just short; but if you aim for gold, you’ll land on the podium.” There are three steps on the podium, so go for gold. You never know, you might get it.
But no, it’s not a relief. I enter every World tournament with the gold in mind. I’m going to keep chipping away until my show is done.
5PM: I’ll say 2015 because that is when this all started becoming real to you. How do you think the sport has changed since then, if it has at all?
Hancock: Maybe I don’t know, because I feel like I remember locking up and throwing a lot more as a Junior (laughs). A lot, lot more. And as I became a Senior, I realized, Bro, this is about pummeling. People aren’t going for bodylocks, they’re not going straight to the arm throw. These guys want to wear you out on the feet until it is easier to get to those positions. You know what I mean? What’s the first thought? The first thought is, Out-pummel ’em. Arm endurance, muscular endurance, all for pummeling.
One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed since the start of my career — and it might have been coming, I might have just been too young and naïve, and I was going for crazy stuff — is that you have to slow it down. These moves can still happen… Big amplitude moves can happen. But it has to be much more calculated than before. Plus, people are playing the refs. You know it. Everyone knows it. You watch a match and they hardly wrestle at all in the first period, but in the second period they come out with the ferocity of a fricking werewolf. That’s not how it should be done. They’re just playing the game and I have to sit there and play along with them. Because, if I deplete myself in the first period and get one point on top but can’t turn the guy, he’s going to mess me up.
Do you remember when I got on top of Oehler in the first period and didn’t turn him? In my head, I was screaming. Same thing with Poland (Tadeusz Michalik) at the Olympics. Not that they (the officials) were going to screw me; but if they give you an opportunity, you have to seize it. If they put you on top, they expect points. If you don’t score points, then they say, Well, let’s give the other guy a chance to get points.
5PM: Do you feel like that one passivity point sort of hangs in the air and is too responsible for how athletes game the rules?
Hancock: 100%. The athletes game the rule-set, but the athletes aren’t to blame. You try to manipulate anything that you can. That’s with anything, any sport. Any resource you can acquire, you will, and then try to manipulate the system. People go to court. Whether they are innocent or not, they try to get a good lawyer who is going to game the system.
It isn’t the athletes’ fault. The rules definitely incite that, right? Of course. But do I think removing the passivity point would help? Maybe. Then you would have guys go down in par terre and it’s up to someone to score from top. But if no one scores and the match is over, what happens? So, I don’t know.
5PM: Your family and your friends outside of the sport, basically those in your life who are not involved in wrestling. Do they grasp how big of a deal it is that you are a World medalist? That it is very difficult to earn a medal in Greco?
Hancock: No, not really (laughs). They were excited about the Olympics. They were like, Whoa, you’re an Olympian! But no, they don’t understand anything. They don’t even know what a takedown looks like.
5PM: Coming out of Oslo, some of us brought up the idea how your medal might inspire others from your generation in the US. I’m thinking of the guys around your age who became full-timers in the same time-frame, but it could also be those a couple of years younger. How they have watched you do it, now they might see that it is doable for them, too. Have these athletes we’re thinking of expressed these thoughts to you?
Hancock: Definitely. I know for some that it has sparked a fire. Take when Cohlton (Schultz), Alston (Nutter), and (Peyton) Omania medaled at the Junior Worlds (in ’19). I was training for the Senior Worlds at the time and I was pumped up. I had a fire in me. Now I know that these guys are ready. Alston, I’m excited for, and Cohlton, as well. These guys are fired up and they are ready to get theirs. Benji Peak… I know that these guys are excited, and I’m excited for them, too.
5PM: The narrative I’ve used for this thing is how the year began. It began with confusion and you being stopped from doing what you love and are dedicated to doing, which is prepare for World competition. We know how the year ended. Looking back now, it seems like all of those adversities were breadcrumbs leading to something better…
G’Angelo Hancock: Yeah, and I think that is a part of it. The frustrations, the obstacles that came with this… I’m the type of person who holds onto things for a long time, and I definitely know that those situations added on to what the year became. And, it showed in my training. It showed in my preparation.
At the Worlds, it was weird. I was mad. Inside, I felt… I don’t want to say “entitled” or that I was owed something, but I felt like, No, I should freaking medal. I should have a medal. And for some reason, I ended up feeling jipped because I don’t have a different shade than the one I do have. It was the same feeling that I had at the airport in the beginning of the year.
But then you have your medal and you’re alone in the hotel room. It’s quiet and you’re getting ready for bed. It is bittersweet, still. You look at it. You are happy because you are holding a piece of hardware, but in the back of your mind you know that there is something more to this hardware. There is a different shade available. It’s a new year and you are looking for a different medal color.
FIVE POINT MOVE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
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