USA Greco

Monday Roundup: Hancock Becomes a Leader

hancock, final x
G'Angelo Hancock -- Photo: Tony Rotundo

Prior to the press conference for Final X: New York this past week, G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg, Sunkist, world #5, 5PM #1) was widely accepted as “the face” of the United States Greco-Roman program. Because that is what happens when an athlete is consistently successful in relevant international tournaments, has become a fixture on World-level Teams, and eventually earns a World medal to punctuate his resume. Hancock’s pronounced and oft-celebrated wrestling skills, as well as his engaging personality, also factored into this status, if “status” is the appropriate word. One might suppose that it is, particularly due to Hancock’s likeness regularly appearing on digital billboards and other promotional materials domestic content providers use to market tournaments.

So, Hancock in recent years has been “the face”.

Following his answer to a question during last Tuesday’s media gathering, he has become “the voice”, too.

not all roads lead to gold, jim gruenwald

Although some members of the media did pose inquiries to Greco athletes over the course of the Final X Series press meetings, most of the interaction came as a result of USAW Director of Communications Gary Abbott. Abbott basically played the part of emcee in Stillwater and New York, and so it was Abbott again on Tuesday tapping the verbal baton when it came time for those in the room (and watching at home) to hear from the wrestlers.

Hancock’s initial response to Abbott followed Ildar Hafizov (60 kg, Army/WCAP, 5PM #1), who had spent his brief time on the microphone emphasizing the importance of trying to win World medals. What happened next didn’t exactly go viral, but it was definitely a jaw-drop moment considering the circumstances.

Through the years (and especially on this platform), Greco-Roman athletes have occasionally digressed into the various wrongs and perceived slights they encounter as participants in a discipline of wrestling that, in this country, is by and large treated as an afterthought. It is not a new topic, nor are there many unique wrinkles to be gleaned should someone decide to hop down this zig-zagging rabbit hole. Is what it is, which is most of the time circuitous banter that fails to do anything other than serve as fodder for repetitive venting.

The difference between what Hancock said (and how he said it) and those before him is two-fold: timing, and the source himself.

— Timing, for rarely has an athlete dared to touch on a subject area like this one right before an important competition (the best prior example would be Chris Gonzalez pre-’17 WTT).

— The source, being Hancock. Aside from enjoying a substantial amount of mainstream wrestling coverage based on his competitive excursions, Hancock has also garnered attention thanks to his positive, outgoing demeanor. He has charisma, is charming, and wrestling reporters who normally don’t go anywhere near Greco tend to get all sweet on the 24-year-old’s words.

Back to Abbott, who pivoted to Hancock after Hafizov had a chance to talk.

Abbott: “For many years, you wrestled at the highest level in the world, have beaten a lot of the best athletes, wins over champions… You broke through with a medal in Oslo. Talk about how that has helped you this year get prepared, and maybe even change or improve your game so that perhaps the next time on the podium it’s a gold.”

(Hancock was immediately knocking the dirt off his cleats in the batter’s box by opening with “To be honest, I think getting a medal maybe might have opened my eyes…” but he instead veered towards some word salad regarding “the community” and “the local level”, whatever any of that even meant. It was clear right then that Hancock knew exactly which direction he was going to take this thing, but probably wanted to preemptively smooth it over with a decent public relations soundbite.)

And then he swung the lumber. Hard.

Hancock: “I think that I can speak from a place of genuine transparency after dedicating so many years of my life to this climb, that to be a Greco-Roman wrestler in America feels like to be a second-class citizen. To put it simply, there’s a lack of funding, there’s a lack of resources, there’s a lack of support that we have. And getting a medal hasn’t changed that. I think that is something that should be recognized.

“I know the argument that is loved to be had is that Greco-Roman needs medals. Because of Ildar’s speech, that is obviously on our minds. We’re hungry for medals, right? But the fact of the matter is, how do you get such a great level of success without great levels of support? Great levels of resources? So I believe that is the most important thing to take away from that. The only thing I’ve learned from my medal is that Greco needs more support. We’ve got guys on our Team who are willing to die for a medal, and we have no support.”

To give Abbott (a long, longtime employee of the national governing body) credit, he was ready with a follow-up that shifted the focus to Hancock’s on-the-mat preparation for Final X. It was the only play, assuming that he absorbed every sentence the athlete just spoke. Whether Abbott was deflecting or not is inconsequential. Not his job to dig for more, that onus would fall on reporters.

However, Hancock was not finished with making sure his point got across.

Hancock: “My training is going phenomenal. I stay in peak shape. I’m thankful for Marcus Finau. I’m not sure many of you guys know this person, but that’s who I train with out of our shed in Fountain, Colorado, where I was actually born. That’s the type of resources and support that I’ve had. So, my training is phenomenal. We get by with what we’ve got. And we’re proud of that.

“And I think that there is a glory, that there is pride that comes with Greco-Roman wrestling, and that’s about it. And I think that should be notified.”

Everything Hancock said is true. Nothing he said qualifies as nuclear. He did not torch any organization or individual, and he never mentioned a specific target of his ire. He didn’t need to. The issues responsible for stifling Greco-Roman success in America are numerous in scope, and cannot be limited to any one entity. The problems are bureaucratic, cultural, developmental, and financial. If Hancock attempted a more detailed explanation, the man would not have made it to his showdown against Braxton Amos the next day. He still would have been talking, requiring an overhead projector for walking the audience through a PowerPoint presentation, as well as a whiteboard replete with graphs and charts that not even the most credentialed data scientists on the planet would have been able to follow.

Hancock kept it simple without insulting anyone’s intelligence. And without complaining. All he did was lay the facts out on the table. And they are facts.

But for as wonderful as it was, something else transpired on the dais Tuesday afternoon.

For the first time in his career, Hancock became a leader.

He was not one previously. The only reason why someone might have had it twisted before is because of his competitive ledger. A natural, common occurrence. When an athlete is really, really good, people think, Oh, he must set the example for others. They see the guy constantly on their screens and figure that away from the spotlight, he is the one to whom all of his teammates are looking. Not Hancock. Prior, he didn’t want to be a leader, and wasn’t ready to be one. Hancock, pertaining to his career objectives, is singularly-focused. So much so that in most other areas of his life, he is aloof. Get him on the mat at a camp in Hungary, and he’s Walter Payton. Bother with him off the mat in the States, and he’s Grumpy Old Man-era Walter Matthau, except with video games thrown in somewhere.

It is accurate to acknowledge that Hancock’s bronze certainly functioned as a beacon of inspiration for his contemporaries. Following Oslo, that was a major theme, how fellow young athletes saw him hit the Senior World podium and quickly believed that it might be reachable for them, as well. A big deal, it all was. And still is.

But that isn’t “leader stuff”. That is “athlete achieved something stuff”, though it does help comprise the big picture. Hancock has matured and grown in wisdom these past few years. In order to do that, he first had to start gaining a grasp on personal accountability. There are and have been plenty of people in his circle who will assist him with a cornucopia of wrestling-related obligations. Which, for a while, spoiled him — until through trial-and-error on his own, he slowly began to realize that doing more little things for himself would provide the callousing necessary to do the bigger, more difficult things he desired ever more.

Like, for instance, earning a World medal.

No, Hancock was not ready to be a leader, which was always just fine given how devoted he is to honing his craft. The National program’s stance on him had been, Tracy wants to go overseas? Let’s help him get over there. Or, So long as he shows up to camp in Springs, everything is okay. He was the beneficiary of a longer leash than most not just because of his can’t-miss talent and consistent performance, but also due to his undeniable commitment to improvement. It is super-difficult to reel in an athlete who is doing everything he believes is absolutely vital to win matches —  especially when he actually is winning a lot of matches, and at the highest level this sport can hope to offer.

Winning matches, of course, is not leadership. At best, it is the byproduct of a wrestler maximizing performance when someone somewhere is keeping score. One could go a step further and ascribe a sizable portion of Hancock’s results to taking his career into his own hands, which he has tried to do dating back to his very first year on the Senior level.

Yet all of the above have faded into the background for the time being. Hancock’s chances at a second World medal and the three-month training block before it will once again own conversations soon enough. For now, the more interesting and consequential item surrounding the nation’s top wrestler is what happened when he decided that an opportunity to talk about himself would be better-served to educate the public. To illustrate why the grandest accomplishment of his career thus far did not usher in the sea of change outsiders might have otherwise expected.

When Hancock declared that the “only thing” he learned from earning his medal was that the program required “more support”, he was not speaking on his own behalf. He hasn’t had to stress over financial backing for travel and competition in a long time. Between Sunkist and the meager National Team stipend, at the very least Hancock doesn’t worry about booking flights, hotels, and having fresh gear.

Want to know who does? Approximately 95% of the Senior base in this country. They are for whom Hancock was really speaking.

And he didn’t have to do it. He could have answered Abbott by applying a bunch of clichés regarding “hunger”, “motivation”, and retaining “fire in his eyes”. He could have bragged about bodylocks and giggled like a goof after finding pleasure in his phrasing. The floor was all his. He chose to use it by taking a stand for all those whose names none of the reporters in New York have ever cared to learn. From newbies at Northern Michigan who could have taken a more familiar wrestling path post-high school, to the older guys who continue to sacrifice a more conventional and stable lifestyle in pursuit of a lifelong dream.

After Hancock had completed his two-match victory over Amos, the topic reappeared during the media scrum, thereby providing an opportunity for him to share the drive behind his statement the day prior.

“The first step to change is to bring it up, to talk about it,” Hancock said. “If you want something to change, you have to talk about it. It has to be in the conversation. I’m glad if a window was opened or if a door was opened, and maybe people are considering that, ‘Hey, I do have a mouth, maybe people do want to hear what we have to say.’ Then I sure encourage them to do so, because it’s what we need. We need people talking about Greco.”

No — we need leaders talking about Greco, and all of its plusses and minuses. People listen to leaders. Becoming one wasn’t high on Hancock’s priority list not too long ago. So, he was wrong. Getting a medal did change something. The hardware added more than one label next to his name.

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