Whether you are at the South Point Hotel in Vegas taking in the action, watching live on FLO, or simply following along on Twitter, it’s nice to have convenient reference material at your fingertips. That’s why we put together some notes and storylines for each weight class at the 2017 US Senior Greco-Roman World Team Trials you can bookmark and come back to during both days of the tournament.
FRIDAY — April 28th
66 kilograms — Sit back and enjoy the chaos
2012 Olympian Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) and National Teamer Alex Sancho (NYAC-OTS) were supposed to be on a collision course until Jesse Thielke (NYAC) committed to coming up here. Sancho picked up two meaningful wins over the gifted Coleman in ’16 — the first time being for third place at the Olympic Trials and then again in the semifinals of the Non-Olympic World Team Trials in November. Coleman got one back in the US Open final a month and change later, so this potential showdown sets up rather nicely.
While it can still happen, the truth is Thielke could have a mighty say in the matter. Though he does not have a pronounced history with either of the above (e.g., Coleman defeated Thielke in 2015 3-0), a Thielke who isn’t dried out from cutting down to 59 will likely be very dangerous if he has everything working, including those duck-to-bodylocks that helped him qualify for Rio. Plus, if there is any pressure here, it’s on Coleman and Sancho. Thielke may feel like he has something to prove being a reigning Olympic Team member coming back from both an injury as well as a disappointing finish at the Schultz, but that’s nonsense. Up until a few days ago, this was all supposed to be about Sancho and Coleman meeting in the finals. A liberated, free-flowing Thielke is the biggest threat to that happening.
2015 National Team member Brian Graham (Minnesota Storm) all but chucked it in it seemed following Iowa City, but a change of heart has brought him back into the fold. Practice won’t likely be enough to knock all of the rust off, but if he can score a win, just one win in his first two matches, that might be enough to bring him completely back. Rudy Guillen (University of Mary), who as of this writing just advanced to the third place bout at the Junior World Team Trials, might not be ready for primetime just yet, but his presence here is a positive because once he locks onto a full-time career, the sky could be the limit. Most recently, he collected a third at the Schultz and went over to Hungary, where he was defeated in his only match of the day.
Northern Michigan hotshots Austin Morrow and Jessy Williams are two wrestlers who are not expected to contend for National Team honors at this event, but they are worth watching simply because they profile as future contenders.
80 kilograms — Attitude, adrenaline, and durability
2016 Olympic Trials runner-up Geordan Speiller (Florida Jets, world no. 9) moved up to 80 upon his return in 2017 with big-time results. All three of his competitive exploits have been of the international variety — the Schultz, the Havana Cup, and the Polyak Imre Memorial (Hungarian Grand Prix) and the record shall read two golds and a silver, respectively. There is no question about it: Speiller is the overwhelming favorite here and there is no available or worthy prose to cover up that fact. If anything, Speiller could very well be the US’s best chance at a medal at the World Championships, provided he survives this tournament.
Speiller is a crowd pleaser, a fast, dynamic showman who zeroes in on anything big. He is quick enough to penetrate in for high-dives, lifting opponents up and off the mat before they know what hit them. So you’re not just watching Speiller because he is, lack of a better term, good, but also because he delivers action.
If there are roles to play here, Speiller is “The Bad Guy”, an anti-hero who cares only about going after what’s his. You need guys like that. By extension, it’s what makes Cheney Haight (NYAC) “The People’s Champion”. Haight, 32, is one of the longest-tenured Greco-Roman athletes in the country with a career stretching back well over a decade (aside from a sabbatical following 2012). He was a hardened prospect out of Northern Michigan who advanced to the Olympic Trials finals in 2008, became a World Team member in 2011, and is a two-time US Senior National champion who won his titles six years apart. Haight has worked hard each and every moment of each and every match he’s ever been in. It’s why he is revered.
Picking up on that vibe are Barrett Stanghill (Minnesota Storm) and John Stefanowicz (Marines). Stanghill is another former NMU competitor and as a full-time Senior, has established himself well due to his balanced mix of technique and physicality. A third at the US Open in December also got people’s attention. Stefanowicz, for his part, trends even more towards the physical side of things and as his technical acumen increases, will be a name to watch in this country going forward. Case in point, March saw Stefanowicz enter the Hungarian Grand Prix and his remarkable fortitude almost resulted in a bronze medal. Startling all the more considering that was his first major international event.
Former Marine and current Army/WCAP wrestler Courtney “CJ” Meyers was a finalist in 2015 and is an aggressive, throw-happy wrestler. An injury last year limited him greatly and also resulted in a downer of a showing at the Open in December. He’s healthy now and could certainly press those deemed to be the top tier contenders in this bracket.
98 kilograms — Get the popcorn
With Joe Rau now at 85, all of the attention can once again be focused on G’Angelo Hancock (NYAC, world no. 18) and Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm, world no. 19). This saga began in November at the Farrell. It was there the two first met with Hancock earning a 2-1 decision. A month later, the Nationals final brought forth a similar result. Then at the Dave Schultz Memorial in February, Zillmer held a 5-4 lead when he ran out of bounds and was knocked for a caution and two, giving Hancock a lead he would not relinquish, and that’s where this leaves off.
You’re likely already familiar with both of these men. Hancock, 19, made the National Team at the Olympic Trials last year (as did Zillmer but at a weight class lower). He then proceeded to win every darn thing he entered through the spring and capped the summer with a bronze at the Junior World Championships. From there, it has been a cavalcade of medals — golds at the Farrell, the Nationals, Schultz, and the Austrian Open are what he’s been up to lately. Zillmer has been remarkable, as well. A silver at the Herman Kare along with one at the Schultz got his 2017 started. During two overseas events in March, Zillmer put together a 3-4 record, including a top five finish at the Grand Prix Zagreb Open.
Hancock is the more explosive of the two. He’s a highlight reel waiting to happen when he cinches up bodylocks or gets behind his opponent’s feet. Hancock also hand-fights with purpose and is very difficult to move around, making step-outs tough to come by. Zillmer is the worker. He’s got blinders on whenever he is in the midst of an exchange, there is just such a tenacious brand of focus in what you see him doing, that it’s a wonder anyone can withstand the nonstop abuse he dishes out inside. A contrast of styles? You bet. That is why their matches have been such tension-filled struggles. The action is so suspenseful that you find your heart racing the longer it goes.
Hancock and Zillmer deserve the marquee, but Daniel Miller (Marines) should also get a head nod. As he has progressed at this level, Miller offers two items of note — domestic competition bothers him and foreign opponents do not. Part of that is because Miller isn’t experienced enough yet to know how to game the pummel for passivity calls. It is also (likely) due to at times becoming both frustrated and hesitant with how to penetrate exchanges that appear to be stalemated. Miller is a guy who wants to get around the body because when he does, he capitalizes. Throw out his day at the Open — seriously, just toss it aside. In 2017, Miller bronzed in Paris, was upset at the Armed Forces, and then bronzed at the Hungarian Grand Prix, one of the most competitive events on the European schedule. If this wrestler can figure out how to deal with competitors from his own country, he’s going to be right up there with the two names above his eventually.
130 kilograms — The beard is still here
Olympian Robby Smith (NYAC) is a different breed of athlete and having recently turned 30 back in January, it doesn’t appear that he is close to slowing down. The popular face of the US Greco-Roman program came off of the Rio Olympics with an injured wrist that required surgery. He recouped throughout the fall, started hitting the mats again in the winter, and right away, sprained his ankle. That would be a frustrating setback for anyone. But what did he do? He rehabbed it, kept training, and then in his first competition of the year, an overseas tournament to boot, he went out and won. That’s exactly what an elite wrestler is supposed to do. No excuses, no fall-back reasons to mail it in. Quite the contrary, Robby Smith showed that he has every intention of remaining atop the 130 kilo field in this country — at least for the time being.
Smith is non-committal as to whether or not this is his last year, but if it is, he is going to want to go out with a world medal. Twice fifth at the World Championships, an actual spot on the podium would be a nice feather in his cap. His main obstacle at the World Team Trials is Toby Erickson (Army/WCAP), a big strong enforcer who was a Junior World bronze medalist back in 2011. A friend and former training partner of Smith’s, Erickson has often been relegated to various runner-up finishes when the two have clashed — including at a couple of previous World Team Trials finals. They have mostly been matches Smith controlled from beginning to end. However, the last time this tandem hooked up in early March, Smith got by with a 3-1 win. Did the gap close? Maybe. But it was also Smith’s first tournament back.
Erickson is no plodder and will look to impose his potent combination of beat-you-backwards in-fighting and underhooks to take command of every match he’s in. On top, he is a capable gutter. He locks and goes, you don’t have to worry about a lack of offense in that department. In December, Erickson picked up his first Senior National crown, defeating WCAP teammate Jacob Mitchell, who is also expected to present problems for people here, even Erickson himself. After all, it was a 2-1 passivity-filled decision that resulted in Erickson’s Open victory. But throughout the winter, Erickson has been on his game. He was 3-0 at the Armed Forces, 2-2 at Thor Masters, and nailed down a bronze at the Grand Prix Zagreb Open.
The other challengers here are formidable in their own right, but are going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting (no pun) if they want to advance. Malcolm Allen (Minnesota Storm) is with the right camp and has the right skill-set to make an impact here. Allen burst onto the scene by snagging a bronze at the Open, but what he did next was even more impressive. At the Dave Schultz Memorial Open, Allen took first by defeating two foreign opponents with much more experience. He was also another wrestler who competed on the March European Tour, going 0-1 at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
SATURDAY — April 29th
59 kilograms — Was “The Four Horsemen” but now a door has been opened
Originally, the deepest weight at the 2017 US Senior Greco-Roman Trials was centered around four wrestlers — 2008 Olympian Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP), National Team member Ryan Mango (Army/WCAP), former Junior World Team member Hayden Tuma (Army/WCAP), and of course, 2013 Senior World Team member and last year’s US Olympic rep at this weight, Jesse Thielke (NYAC). But with Thielke now having gone up the 66 kilos for the event, there is one less stud for everyone else to worry about.
Despite perennially being the deepest in terms of overall talent, there are not a ton of entries at this weight. That means all the rest will be fighting it out and since 59 is rather condensed, just about all of the bouts leading up to the final and placement matches will carry immediate significance. 2014 University World medalist Sammy Jones (NYAC-OTS) can be looked at as someone who could crack through and pick up a National Team spot if he’s on his game. The same can be said of 2012 Olympic Trials runner-up and University World Champion Max Nowry (Army/WCAP), who despite being undersized at this weight, is probably the cleanest from a technical aspect.
2016 Junior World bronze Taylor LaMont (CWC) will be right up there and took an impressive fourth at the Nationals in December. Two-time Junior World Team member Dalton Roberts (NYAC-OTS) just defeated LaMont back in February and has picked up a couple of notable medals overseas this year. He was good to begin with, but there may not be another wrestler in the tournament who has improved as much as Roberts.
59 is the home of the ninjas. The smallest, fastest athletes who also capable of the most brutal battles in the sport.
71 kilograms — They come in three’s
Tone one guarantee about 71 kilos is that no matter which of the top contenders emerges, you’ll feel comfortable with that man representing the US at the World Championships in Paris. RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) is the regal statesmen here due to his win at the 2014 World Team Trials and the 2016 Olympic Team Trials. That was when he survived a white-knuckle three-match series with Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) to claim the prize. Smith, of course, has been a Trials finalist on multiple occasions now, and you’d have to think that it’s an eventuality he will break all the way through.
Chris Gonzalez (NYAC) is a super-athlete who began plying his trade on a full-time basis at Northern Michigan. It took him a few years to reach down and begin understanding what his potential is, this despite signs towards the end of the last quad he was putting all of the tools in place. Perkins, Smith, and Gonzalez have all competed at 66 kilograms, but Gonzalez suffered the most down at that weight. His frame is just too substantial at this point in his career to handle that kind of cut. Since staying put at 71, he has been impressive. A shocking semifinal win over Smith in November’s Trials allowed him to move onto the best-of-three final against Sancho and he prevailed in the series 2-1. Gonzalez then won his first match at the Worlds before losing his second on criteria.
Perkins and Smith have loads of international experience, especially compared to Gonzalez, and both have medaled overseas in 2017. In a way, this makes Gonzalez sort of the x-factor, which is odd considering he is the reigning World Team member. But remember — Perkins wasn’t at the World Team Trials in November, making a potential match-up between those two must-watch theater. Another note — the winner of this weight class will, barring injury, also be competing at the Pan Ams next week in Brazil.
There isn’t a hefty drop-off from the favorites to the challengers. Anthonie Linares (NYAC-OTS) is starting to come into his own and has hung in there before with some of the country’s top names. Linares was a runner-up to Smith at December’s Nationals (a high-pressure tech on Smith’s part), but followed up with a tactically-sound approach at the Schultz for bronze. Chase Nelson (Bison) and Cody Pack (Legends of Gold) shouldn’t be dismissed, either. Pack is an Olympic Training Center resident who loves to open up and score, while Nelson is a complete wrestler discovering that he can translate his folkstyle attributes to Greco without sacrificing position.
75 kilograms — We call this weight scary for a reason
Kamal Bey (Sunkist) is the hottest prospect in the country at 19 years of age and even with the lack of years, he has fast-tracked his goals. Bey was a Junior World Team member last year at one of the most talent-rich weight classes on the planet. He didn’t medal in France, but when Senior competition came calling, he answered emphatically. Wins at the Bill Farrell Memorial and the US Open were his first Senior golds. For good measure, he went and won the Schultz, too. He won another title at a Junior tournament in Austria and then wrapped up that European trip with a Senior bronze in Croatia.
So far, Jesse Porter (NYAC-OTS) has been his foil, with Bey owning a 4-1 edge in that series. Bey tech’ed Porter in mere seconds practically at the Nationals and when they met again in the Schultz final, Porter gave the former a run for his money until it slipped away. However you cut it, these two are the future in whatever order, although Bey certainly has a leg-up in the early stages of their respective careers.
Kendrick Sanders (NYAC-OTS) is not an under-the-radar cat by any means, but the emergence of Bey and Porter has taken him away from the spotlight a little bit. He can do something about that. Sanders is, without hyperbole, one of the most talented wrestlers in the entire tournament, but he has also never competed at a Senior World Championships. It’s confounding if only because he owns credentials in every other category that jump off the page. He’s 26 now — right there in his prime. As far as recent comparisons go, Porter got past Sanders in the Open semifinals on the strength of a couple big throws Sanders couldn’t recover from. If there is such a thing as “groove”, Sanders will have to find his to finally reach his primary career objective, winning a World medal.
Technique, patience, and grit are Dillon Cowan‘s (Army/WCAP) game and he is someone who if the chips fall right, could be in there fighting for his second National Team spot. Cowan was a World Team Trials finalist back in ’15 and at 24 years young, likely hasn’t seen his best years just yet. Alex Ortiz (Minnesota Storm) is always a fun wrestler to watch because he refuses to be in boring matches. Every single time out, he’s throwing (or being thrown). But with the rules starting to veer towards stricter penalties for passive wrestling, Ortiz may finally find more opponents willing to trade moves with him and if that is what takes place, he might be able to take a step up here.
85 kilograms — Hey…wait…what are you doing here?
By the time this piece circulates, it will be known that 2014 World Team member and 2016 US Olympic Trials champ at 98 kilos Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm) has made the switch to 85 kilograms. Rau has touched base here in this past, but not on a prolonged basis. A procedure on his knee in the fall relegated him to the sidelines, leading to where we are now. Rau got back on the mat in early ’17 and his first competition was an 0-2 performance in Hungary. However, he had zero trouble making 98 in Hungary and with his weight continuing to come off, he and Storm decided this was the move to make. One of the sport’s most ferocious competitors, Rau now joins the next two guys as a popular choice to win.
What makes Rau’s presence at 85 such a fun notion is that two-time World Team member Patrick Martinez (NYAC) also recently found his way here, though he is coming up from 80. Martinez had a great 2016, with multiple medals overseas and a second Trials championship. When the calendar flipped, Martinez made his way over to Denmark. A 2-0 run at the Thor Masters ended prematurely due to a concussion, so he has had a chance to heal and consider his options. The last time Martinez checked in at 85 was for the University World Team Trials last June, which he breezed through for the most part.
The man with the credentials of the bunch is, of course, two-time US Olympian Ben Provisor (NYAC). No wrestler at any weight in Vegas this weekend can be more imposing than “Big Ben”, and that is because even when off his game he can dominate in other ways. He generates immense force coming forward and whips in underhooks the way a boxer does uppercuts. Provisor pounds people on the feet and is just as much of a menace when the action hits the floor. Recent showings include a third at the Nationals, a first at Schultz, and two somewhat down performances overseas, though by all accounts, he was ill then.
Another recent entrant into this weight class is multiple-time Trials finalist Jon Anderson (Army/WCAP), who like Martinez, was also pegged for 80. Anderson is a machine — the dude never, ever, ever gets tired. That’s good, because his style dictates that he come forward aggressively at all times as he attempts to pry opponents open with underhooks and short drags. He can also throw, as many will attest to. Anderson has done well at this weight before and if he thinks 85 is where his best shot is, trust him.
Kevin Radford (Sunkist) won the Nationals in December, which was a giant surprise. Radford enjoyed a solid career at Arizona State and hurled himself into Senior Greco-Roman after college. It has been a learning curve for him and he has yet to figure out how to use his unbelievable balance and transitional game to his advantage against foreign foes. But domestic opponents he has learned and with that education comes confidence.
Fans might also not want to sleep on Khymba Johnson (NYAC-OTS) and Lucas Sheridan (Army/WCAP). Johnson was Radford’s runner-up at the Open and has carved out a place for himself on this level. You just want to see him turn it on more often. Johnson made big noise at the Nationals when he upset Provisor and that bears mentioning. Sheridan gets the least amount of talk of every major name here and the reason why that is hilarious is because he has all of the skills they have and just as much, if not more experience than they do. With Provisor, Anderson, Martinez, Rau, Radford, and Johnson, this is a very crammed up field, but Sheridan certainly belongs in the conversation.
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