With the news last week that Cornell star and two-time NCAA Division I National Champion Gabe Dean has committed to competing in Greco-Roman, as expected, a lot of the talk has been centered around where he fits in. The last time Dean competed in Greco was two years ago at the 2015 Pan Am Championships in Santiago, Chile. Dean picked up a silver medal at that tournament in the 85 kilogram weight class despite only having two official bouts. He started the day in the quarterfinals, a 6-1 win over Querys Perez Mora (VEN) which saw Dean break it all out — snaps, gutwrenches, and some busy inside work. It was impressive. Dean moved into the finals due to an injury to Luis Betancourt Medina (PUR) and was subsequently shut out 4-0 by Gilberto Piquet Herrera (CUB), a skilled wrestler who had previously won the Pan Ams in 2013 to go along with solid placings elsewhere. In other words, Piquet Herrera was significantly more experienced (obviously) and could only manage four points, two of which came from an attempted reverse lift Dean simply rolled through on.
Dean’s most recent foray into international wrestling was at this year’s freestyle Pan Ams, a bronze. Just prior to that event, he locked up a seventh-place finish at the 2017 US Open back in April. Dean’s weight class for both tournaments was 86 kilograms. In 2014, Dean earned a bronze at the 2014 Junior World Championships in Croatia, also at 86.
Since Greco’s 85 still appears to be in his wheelhouse, we’re going to assume that is where he will wind up. However — it is important to note that beginning in 2018, the option to swing back and forth between 85 and 90 kilograms should be available, giving Dean, along with the rest of the world, plenty of wiggle room. Of course, 80 kilograms will still be around, though it is unlikely to see Dean move down since he hasn’t wrestled below 184 pounds in years upon years practically.
Dean jumping over to Greco is noteworthy for two main reasons. Firstly, the US has been unable to attract a collegiate wrestler with his kind of credentials in quite some time, certainly not on a full-time basis. You’d have to hit the recall button on your brain’s remote control several times to come up with some names that are passably in-line with what Dean accomplished in college. Brad Vering was a Division I National champ his junior year at Nebraska in 2001 before he began his illustrious full-time Greco career that included two trips to the Olympics and a World silver medal (2007). The late Lindsey Durlacher was a two-time All-American and a finalist for the Illini ahead of carving out a spot as one of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers in the country. Durlacher would wind up earning a bronze at the 2006 World Championships and took fifth a year later, helping the US win the Worlds for the first time while also qualifying 55 kilograms for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
There have been others. Sam Hazewinkel earned All-American honors at Oklahoma four years in a row, his high point being a runner-up performance to Paul Donohoe of Nebraska. Hazewinkel went on to become an Olympic Trials finalist and University World Champion in Greco-Roman (both in 2008). He eventually switched over to freestyle and continued to be a force, making the 2012 Olympic Team. Hazewinkel gave Greco another run a couple of years later while still competing in freestyle and earned spots on both National teams. Prior to Dean, perhaps the most recent splash has been made by Michigan’s Adam Coon, a runner-up at the NCAA national tournament in 2015. Coon won the US Open later that year and took second to Robby Smith at the 2016 Olympic Trials. A knee injury forced him to redshirt last season and he has not competed in Greco-Roman since falling to Smith in Iowa City nearly 15 months ago.
The other variable that makes Dean’s presence in Greco-Roman a headline maker is, as alluded to above, his (probable) weight class. If it is indeed 85 kilograms, then he is stepping into a potential firestorm. If you remember, 85 kilos at the World Team Trials this year was epically stacked. Altogether, the weight offered athletes who combined for 12 (!) World and Olympic Trials finals, showcased two Olympic Trials winners, a two-time Olympian, and a reigning two-time World Team member. That’s just for starters. We’ll leave out age-group credentials and any extraneous near-misses just to save space. In other words, 85 is deep. Wickedly so. Even with the United States Greco-Roman program in the midst of an upswing and depth issues starting to become less and less prevalent, this one weight class stood out in April and chances are, that is not going to be changing anytime soon.
Here is the current crop of top contenders at 85 kilograms in the order they placed at the World Team Trials just over two months ago.
- Ben Provisor (NYAC) Two-time Olympian, two-time US Open champion, current World Team member
- Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm) 2014 Senior World Team member, 2014 University World Team member, 2015 US National champion, 2016 Olympic Trials champion
- Jon Anderson (Army/WCAP) Four-time World Team Trials finalist, 2015 Pan Am Games gold medalist, 2014 World Military Games silver medalist
- Lucas Sheridan (Army/WCAP) Former Junior World Team member, third at the 2016 Bill Farrell Memorial
- Patrick Martinez (NYAC) Two-time Senior World Team member, 2016 University World Team Trials champion, 2015 US Open champion
- Kevin Radford (Sunkist) 2016 US National champion
- Khymba Johnson (NYAC) 2016 US Nationals runner-up
Former Northern Michigan athlete Ryan Hope (Cliff Keen) sat out of the World Team Trials with a knee injury and is expected to resume his status as one of the better wrestlers in this weight class upon returning. Hope grabbed a bronze at the 2016 Dave Schultz Memorial along with another at Finland’s Vantaa Cup in the fall. He should be back in time for November’s Bill Farrell Memorial in New York City.
Just looking at the list above, there are names lacking glitzy credentials but deserve a perimeter of caution tape rolled out around them just the same. Radford, still somewhat of a Greco neophyte himself, improved by leaps and bounds over the last 18 months and demonstrated a willingness to open up more and more at Vegas’ Trials. Sheridan has yet to really bust through as a Senior, but it seems like an inevitability that he does. He went into the World Team Trials with his arm torn up and nearly made the National Team. Both Sheridan and Radford also competed in college at the Division I level for Indiana and Arizona State, respectively. Johnson didn’t have the best competitive day of his life at the Trials but has built up more than enough capital in recent years to be considered a very real problem. He also scored an upset victory over Provisor at the Nationals in December.
Youth is another factor. Anderson is the elder statesman at 32. Provisor, Hope, and Martinez are 27; Rau is 26; Radford is 25; and Johnson and Sheridan are 23. So there won’t be a lot of turnover here, since all of these wrestlers are committed to competing at least through the remainder of the current quad, if not beyond.
It’s Not Supposed to Be Easy
None of this is to put a damper on Dean’s decision. Quite the opposite. Dean is far too gifted of an all-around wrestler to not turn himself into a viable Greco-Roman competitor capable of making teams eventually. He’ll have adjustments to make before that happens, likely plenty of them. He does come from the right kind of bloodline — his father Dave was a national-caliber Greco wrestler and coincidentally, also silvered at the Pan Ams during his career.
But there is ground to make up and Dean will be doing so in what is for argument’s sake, the most difficult weight class for him to make his mark, at least as it is currently constituted. An exceptionally bright individual, Dean surely knows that. He is aware of the landscape, he is familiar enough with the sport’s structure to understand it won’t be the smoothest of rides. The freestyle/folkstyle crowd is speculating that Dean is hedging his bets, that he is hesitant to continue on in freestyle because of the litany of highly-accomplished names in front of him there, or that he is merely biding his time in Greco until space opens up — as if either makes a whole lot of sense for a wrestler who hasn’t shook hands with his prime years yet. Graduating from college, lacing them up for a couple of freestyle tournaments and then deciding to completely change course and plant a flag in Greco’s most competitive weight domestically just because a few big bad wolves occupy the top spots in the other style seems a bit far-fetched for someone of Dean’s acumen to even consider.
Why can’t it just be that the timing syncs up? There are different vibes percolating around the United States Greco-Roman program and talented young prospects are popping up all over the country. The mood has changed. Participation is up. Enthusiasm regarding this year’s Senior World Team is high. Greco, seemingly forever operating in its own neglected biosphere in America, is coming closer and closer to making its way to the mainstream with several year-round training centers opening their doors. It is a new day, and the most cynical of the lot have to acknowledge that fact. You really believe Dean doesn’t see this, too?
“I think we as a program are moving in the right direction,” he said last week. “I want to help the US and build the movement. I think it’s all good stuff. A lot of good things are happening, for sure, and I’m glad I get to be a part of it.”
A part of it he will be. No — he’s not some kind of savior, sent here to rescue the sport from relative obscurity on these shores. Yes — Dean will probably find the beginning stages of his new full-time occupation at times frustrating. It is not going to be easy and he doesn’t expect it to be (“I have a lot to learn, there’s no doubt about that,” he conceded). Any wrestling fan with a modicum of knowledge about Greco-Roman understands that should Dean one day rise to the forefront of his weight in the US, it will not have been without some setbacks. But that is what makes him choosing Greco so compelling. He didn’t need to. There were plenty of other options out there for him. And yet here he is, strolling bravely into a fire when the flames are at their highest.
“Recognize opportunity” — it’s a saying Dean is especially fond of. He has a necklace with those words inscripted on as a reminder. The phrase was also printed on a sign in the Lowell, Massachusetts wrestling room where he began to come of age, the same place his father served as the head coach.
It is what Greco now represents to Dean, an opportunity, with just a touch of a “road less traveled” sort of feeling tossed in for good measure.
Whatever he does with it from here on out will matter.
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