Army’s World Class Athletes Program stacked the deck at the Trials and it paid off with five more of their wrestlers advancing to Final X.
The finals of the 2023 World Team Trials Challenge Tournament began at 5:30pm local time from Colorado Springs, Colorado and aired live on FLOWrestling.
For three Army competitors, it will be familiar territory as Ildar Hafizov (60 kg), Xavier Johnson (63 kg), and Alex Sancho (67 kg) have all appeared in previous editions of the Final X Series; Dalton Duffield (55 kg) and Ryan Epps (82 kg, and who is new to the program) likewise prevailed Saturday evening to earn their first trips to the United States’ premier showcase that also serves as the conclusive step in the World Team selection process.
Johnson tangled with returning two-time World rep “Wildman Sam” Sammy Jones (Sunkist/CTT) in his match-up, and it was a first-period haul that ushered him to victory lane. High underhooks put the initial mark on the scoreboard when Johnson walked Jones to the boundary; because in the eyes of the officials Jones had not adequately relented, the result was a step-out plus an additional tick from a caution in Johnson’s favor. After a near-miss throw for Jones — and one in which he would receive admonishment from the official — passivity rang. From top par terre, Johnson worked hard to crank two gutwrenches and came close to securing a third to end the match; but Jones bucked, floated, and escaped further danger, albeit whilst staring at a 7-0 deficit.
Passivity flipped midway through the second to give Jones his most glaring opportunity to score. He converted strongly on a higher-than-usual lock before coming close on a subsequent rotation off the edge, but no further points were awarded. Jones pressed and pawed as he searched for workable attempts from then on, with only a one-point caution on Johnson materializing as time trickled away. Shortly thereafter, it was a wrap. Xavier Johnson, who had returned to competition in April following a two-year lapse in activity, took the 7-4 decision and will battle it out with three-time National champ Hayden Tuma (Suples) next month in Newark.
Epps Downs Provisor
82 kilograms, which for the US in ’23 has been one of the more populated and interesting weight categories, is a division replete with rough, physical contact and unforgiving positional exchanges that can often steer the tide in one direction or the other on a moment’s notice (at least when par terre does not act as the equalizer).
This type of wrestling is two-time Olympian Ben Provisor‘s (NYAC/Viking WC) wheelhouse, and he put it all on display in Colorado Springs, including in the final opposite Epps. But since par terre points were absent from the contest, for both competitors, the door was left wide open for an even more intense struggle than what was previously anticipated. And it was Epps who capitalized more on the match’s lack of dynamics.
Provisor, 32, carried requisite zeal into the bout, demonstrating as such by hawking in on Epps and wrangling a heavy underhook before snapping over the top with a front headlock. These positions failed to incite scoring attempts — but the motions involved were crisp, for which Provisor was rewarded with a passivity/par terre chance. A low or mid gut was not the call, however. Instead, Provisor opted for a front headlock try only to have Epps immediately amble up and out. They henceforth slugged it out in the ties, and Epps began eating up real estate until intermission arrived.
Epps retained his tactics in the second, but Provisor himself started to regain form. Nevertheless, attempts from either party were bypassed. So, passivity was dished out on Provisor. Epps achieved his lock and wanted to step up, but his reach had been stretched and his position was loosened, thereby allowing Provisor to remain un-budged.
The jousting continued past the par terre until, eventually, a third par terre entered the equation with just over a minute remaining to give Provisor one last crack from top. This time, there would be no front headlock. Provisor, perhaps realizing that his best bet to score might arise from a more conventional attack, hoisted a solid lift — but Epps narrowly escaped surrendering exposure points and wriggled free. Provisor’s corner challenged, insisting that two points were appropriate for the action. The officials disagreed, though the one point for Epps from their determination carried zero consequence due to criteria. Provisor did try to drum and pound his way into underhooks with time a factor but his strains were met with formidable resistance. Epps, whose Senior career is still just developing, impressively stood his ground till the whistle, thus emerging with the win as well as an impending meetup with US Open champ Spencer Woods (Army/WCAP) on June 10.
Ildar, Smith, & Coon
Once again, 34-year-old Hafizov will soon begin preparing for a best-of-three series with World Team selection resting on the outcome, something to which he has become accustomed ever since moving to the United States. It is simple math: each and every US Trials tournament in which he has competed dating back to his first full season as an American competitor in ’16, Hafizov has advanced to the final round. In other words, seven-straight years. After defeating Randon Miranda on Saturday, that streak is now up to eight.
Which was also the number of points Hafizov scored to get past Miranda.
Miranda, 26, had performed brilliantly in his own right prior to Saturday’s final with a pair of message-sending wins over Max Black (NMU/NTS) and Phillip Moomey (Spartan Combat RTC), respectively. And he was ready for what Hafizov had to offer, but was unable to curtail a second-period points haul from his counterpart.
A key sequence for Miranda transpired in the first period. Holding a 1-0 passive lead, Miranda had managed to pull Hafizov waist-high for a lift attempt; but as he walked the hold to the boundary, a common occurrence prior to execution, Miranda released his lock; Hafizov dropped to his feet, and the result was a mere step-out point.
Hafizov did not experience the same issue when his opportunity from par terre top came in the second period. Using his patented high-gut lock, the multi-time US World Team member waterfalled Miranda twice — once for two points, and another for four — and raced ahead 7-2.
It was not over for Miranda just yet. With under :40 to go, Hafizov was penalized for a two-point caution and his lead was whittled down to 7-4. Shortly after the reset, Miranda locked double-overhooks and brought the motion forward for an apparent feet-to-back maneuver. Before the call could ever receive confirmation on the mat, the Army corner flung the challenge brick onto the mat. It was unnecessary, as the action had been white-paddled. Miranda then demanded that they take a second look. The officials reviewed the hold and their call was upheld to provide Hafizov with an extra point to make the score 8-4. There would be no further drama, or scoring, and Hafizov had cemented his place at the table three weeks from now in Brick City.
When Final X hits the stage at the Prudential Center on June 10, it will be — for a third-consecutive Trials and fourth in five years — Hafizov and teammate Dalton Roberts going head-to-head. Each of their previous four best-of-three series have required all three matches.
Smith Over Wachsmuth
Two questions were answered on Saturday: Patrick Smith (72 kg, Minnesota Storm) is still as relentless and effective as ever — and Noah Wachsmuth (NYAC), now a National Team member for a second-straight season — can truly be considered a legitimate top-tier American Senior.
Not that Wachsmuth’s established body-of-work mandated extraneous and obvious clarification, but the manner in which he ascended up the ladder last year along with how he disposed of tough and talented Jack Ervien (Viking WC) earlier today paved the way for a gutsy effort against Smith, even though he was kept off the scoreboard.
Smith breathlessly pursued Wachsmuth, who did respond with an arm throw attempt, but one that was snuffed out quickly. Passivity in the first period saw Smith as the beneficiary, and Wachsmuth impressively defended from bottom to earn a reset. An adjustment in tempo was not part of the protocol. Smith plugged and plowed, and eventually garnered a step-out point. Back in the trenches he went, did Smith, concentrating pressure in the ties with his left shoulder before easing off of that side into a linear finish towards the line to grab another, as well as a 3-0 advantage heading into the break.
Early in the second period, it happened again. Smith urged inside at the edge and Wachsmuth, in both a defensive and offensive response, looked for a counter-throw. His attempt was negated by Smith’s force, resulting in a third step-out. Behind 4-0, Wachsmuth wanted to empty the tank as much as he could, but there were no handles for him to navigate. Smith’s persistent ownership of the tie-ups combined with his unparalleled leg drive would not falter as he completed the 4-0 blanking.
Coon Stops Donny
’21 Pan-Am Championships silver Donny Longendyke (130 kg, Minnesota Storm) had derailed Tanner Farmer‘s (NYAC/IRTC) bid for a return to Final X by earning a close decision victory in the semifinal, whereas ’18 World silver Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen) mowed down newcomer Darryl Aiello (Dubuque RTC, and who had shocked Brandon Metz in the quarterfinal via land-on-top fall).
But the approximately four-hour gap between sessions was likely enough for both combatants, one might figure, just as it was not difficult to presuppose what Coon’s game plan might entail — which is to say an unabashed reliance on the over/under position that helped him reach the World final four-and-half years ago.
To be sure, Coon engaged Longendyke with the hold soon into the first period and cut the corner around back to score a takedown before following with a pair of gutwrenches. Longendyke did not seem to have an answer in his pocket for the second period, as Coon swam into the position once more for a step-out point. After the reset, Coon was back in command yet again, and sewed up the VSU with the over/under by leveraging the position to swoop behind for takedown points.
Four More First-Timers Set for Final X
Dalton Duffield (Army/WCAP) carried his top seed in the 55-kilogram bracket all the way home on Saturday by defeating ’22 U23 World Team member Camden Russell (MWC). Russell took the initiative in the early going by unfurling an arm throw attempt, though Duffield had seen it coming and appropriately shucked out of danger. Back standing, and there was Duffield with double-underhooks that he threw by for a takedown. From top, he then hoisted his lock, which caused Russell to face his opponent on the adjustment, prompting Duffield to simply crash inward for four points. The positional influence did not change, as Duffield next re-assumed his clasp and deftly nailed a Polish finish to end matters at 10-0.
Perhaps no other wrestler in the country has made the same kind of waves as Zac Braunagel over the past three weeks. Braunagel, 22, a Junior World Team member in ’19 in addition to having forged a standout collegiate career for the University of Illinois, placed third at the US Open last month, where in the semifinal he defeated ever-stout Rich Carlson (Minnesota Storm); and earlier today, he went on to VSU fast-rising Timothy Young (Army/WCAP), a feat he had also accomplished at the aforementioned Open.
Carlson — himself a genuinely-threatening candidate — on Saturday edged John Stefanowicz (Navy WC) in the round-of-four. It was an earmark domestic win for Carlson, and he looked poised and primed for combat when festivities reconvened this evening.
But Braunagel’s solid positional discipline and a fluid, opportunistic scoring attack amounted to problems that Carlson was unable to solve.
Braunagel owned a 1-0 passive advantage heading into the second frame, coming off of the first three minutes of wrestling that invited few meaningful exchanges between the two. That would change. After wedging in a right underhook, Braunagel shimmied his level and slid the left side in, as well. He then hipped Carlson off-balance and to his back to pick up four. A reset, and Braunagel was dashing in on another attack to Carlson’s body. The fracas concluded out of bounds, and the officials awarded just a step-out point. Carlson waded through ties through the remainder. The slogging was difficult. Even as Braunagel jousted in kind, if only to deflect potential desperation attacks, Carlson could not force his way into opening up promising windows. Braunagel held center for the majority of the bout’s ebbing stages, eventually the victor of a sparkling 6-0 decision that came at the expense of another fine competitor.
The not-so-surprising run for ’09 World bronze Aliaksandr Kikinou (77 kg, Poway) continued on Saturday with his win in the final over uber-prospect Payton Jacobson (Sunkist/NTS), who had previously fallen victim to 43-year-old Kikinou at the Open. The result in Colorado Springs was, unfortunately for Jacobson, not markedly different. Passivity rang, Kikinou got on top, and raked a succession of guts, with an expertly-timed switch on his lock in between to rotate a floating Jacobson. Four turns in all were the story as Kikinou will next set his sights on reigning World Team member Kamal Bey (Army/WCAP). Bey defeated Kikinou via VSU last month to claim his fourth National crown.
Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm) had decided to bump (back) up to 97 in the fall, and it would seem to have been the correct choice. He was facing an iron-tough wrestler in Cade Lautt (Tar Heel WC), who had made plenty of news in the first session thanks to a gritty win over two-time National Champion Nick Boykin (Sunkist). DuLaney, for his part, had to dig in a bit himself in overcoming Brandon Marshall (Big Game WC).
But in the final, it was all DuLaney, and the result was based on just two scoring actions.
The first multi-point sequence for DuLaney came from a nice double-underhook pivot (similar to Braunagel’s attack against Carlson) that put Lautt immediately in a 4-0 hole. Later in the first period, DuLaney was in pursuit towards the body, searching to wrap for a score. As DuLaney went to secure his hold near the edge, Lautt made a crucial mistake by turning inside — thus allowing DuLaney to quickly finish forward whilst in the process collecting the four points necessary to end the match.
- Four of the nine finals bouts ended via VSU.
- The 67-kilogram final was not contested.
- As mentioned, five of the WTT Challenge Tournament winners have previously competed in the Final X Series (Hafizov, Johnson, Sancho, Smith, and Coon).
- Hafizov has been on four US World-level Teams (’17, ’19, ’20 [Olympic], & ’22); Smith has been on three (’17, ’19, & ’21); Sancho, two (’20 [Olympic), ’22); and Coon, two (’18, ’19).
- The World Team Trials is not a team event, but Army easily won in the team standings with 89 points over NYAC (48) and the Minnesota Storm (46).
2023 World Team Trials Challenge Tournament
May 20 — Colorado Springs, CO
55 kg: Dalton Duffield (Army/WCAP) def. Camden Russell (MWC) 9-0, TF
60 kg: Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) def. Randon Miranda (Unattached) 8-4
63 kg: Xavier Johnson (Army/WCAP) def. Sammy Jones (Sunkist/CTT) 7-4
67 kg: Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP) by default over Jesse Thielke (Army/WCAP)
72 kg: Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) def. Noah Wachsmuth (NYAC) 4-0
77 kg: Aliaksandr Kikinou (Poway) def. Payton Jacobson (Sunkist/NTS) 9-0, TF
82 kg: Ryan Epps (Army/WCAP) def. Ben Provisor (NYAC/Viking WC) 2-1
87 kg: Zac Braunagel (IRTC) def. Rich Carlson (Minnesota Storm) 6-0
97 kg: Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm) def. Cade Lautt (Tar Heel WC) 8-0, TF
130 kg: Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen) def. Donny Longendyke (Minnesota Storm) 9-0, TF
55 kg: Billy Sullivan (Army/WCAP) def. Jacob Cochran (Army/WCAP) 12-1, TF
60 kg: Dylan Koontz (TMWC/Dubuque RTC) def. Jonathan Gurule (NMU/NTS) 8-0, TF
63 kg: Dylan Gregerson (UVRTC) def. Corbin Nirschl (MWC) 9-0, TF
67 kg: David Stepanyan (NYAC/NTS) def. Joel Adams (TBW) 9-0, TF
72 kg: Michael Hooker (Army/WCAP) def. Jack Ervien (Viking WC) 4-2
77 kg: RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) def. Jesse Porter (NYAC) via fall
82 kg: Barrett Stanghill (Minnesota Storm) def. Tommy Brackett (NYAC) 6-4
87 kg: John Stefanowicz (Navy WC) def. Timothy Young (Army/WCAP) 4-0
97 kg: Nick Boykin (Sunkist) def. Brandon Marshall (Big Game WC) via fall
130 kg: Brandon Metz (ND) def. Darryl Aiello (Dubuque RTC) 4-0
FINAL X — JUNE 10 (Newark, NJ)
Best-of-three series to decide 2023 US World Team
55 kg: Brady Koontz (TMWC/Dubuque RTC) vs. Dalton Duffield (Army/WCAP)
60 kg: Dalton Roberts (Army/WCAP) vs. Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP)
63 kg: Hayden Tuma (Suples) vs. Xavier Johnson (Army/WCAP)
67 kg: Robert Perez III (Sunkist) vs. Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP)
72 kg: Justus Scott (Army/WCAP) vs. Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm)
77 kg: Kamal Bey (Army/WCAP) vs. Aliaksandr Kikinou (Poway)
82 kg: Spencer Woods (Army/WCAP) vs. Ryan Epps (Army/WCAP)
87 kg: Alan Vera (NYAC) vs. Zac Braunagel (IRTC)
97 kg: Joe Rau (TMWC) vs. Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm)
130 kg: Cohlton Schultz (Sunkist) vs. Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen)
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