20 remain on the hook. Twenty.
20 Greco-Roman wrestlers, half of whom already know what it feels like to be on a World Team. Two of this year’s participants actually first became familiar with what that all entails while competing for other countries (Ildar Hafizov for Uzbekistan and Aliaksandr Kikinou for Belarus). Which, rest assured, will likely be slipped in as a little factoid here, there, and everywhere between now and June 10, when the 2023 Final X Series gets underway at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.
Apart from other snippets of semi-pertinent information with which you might become inundated over the next few weeks, subjectivity is the order of the day. Unlike the overwhelming vast majority of wrestling events, Final X is not orchestrated within a tournament format. It is a card featuring ten best-of-three series (for all three divisions) split into two sessions, with space on the front-end of the show reserved for “true third” bouts.
Final X is best digested in the same manner as any boxing card would be, with the “best-of-three” stipulation an obvious exception (although placing the aforementioned “true third” matches preceding the World Team selection pairings is a more than suitable idea to kick off the festivities). Another deviation is a hierarchal bout order. For instance, boxing and MMA cards typically save the main attraction for last. It is not as easy to tier Final X pairings quite the same way, though there have been attempts on the part of the production to strategically position those match-ups deemed most significant into amenable slots according to athlete popularity and overall interest.
But ’23’s edition of Final X differs compared to previous iterations in terms of overall format. There are not two Final X cards of which to speak this season, only the one on June 10 — which one would figure does not allow for as much flexibility to skew the bout order. This means that stars from men and women’s freestyle have no choice but to be crammed within two sessions on a single day alongside Greco-Roman. The ’20 Olympic Team Trials, as well as other Trials tournaments throughout the annals of history pre-Final X, operated similarly. However, the match list for June 10 has not yet been released, and so there is no telling exactly how the event’s organizers envision shuffling the deck in hopes of delivering a solid showcase. It must be said that, despite Greco-Roman’s secondary status (or lower, depending on your personal perception), Final X is the most exciting, appropriate, and pro-level wrestling production for which American wrestling fans could hope. Even compared to NBC Sports Universal’s polished but overly-refined presentations of the Olympic Trials.
2023 Final X Greco-Roman Main Event
Once again, it all really comes down to fan support. And by extension, fan perspective. It does not matter where the Greco-Roman match-ups might wind up on the card, fans will have their own opinions as to which pairing is the unofficial main event. Below are brief summaries of each series for those uninitiated followed by a user-friendly poll.
*2023 National Champions listed first.
55 kg — Brady Koontz (TMWC/Dubuque RTC) vs. Dalton Duffield (Army/WCAP)
Koontz has defeated Duffield each time they have met, a history that dates back to the ’19 World Team Trials Challenge Tournament best-of-three. Over the past few years in this weight class, Koontz has only lost to Max Nowry and Taylor LaMont (Sunkist), whereas Duffield has only been defeated by Koontz and Nowry. Par terre is Koontz’s strength, in both phases; but Duffield is skilled transitionally, and capable of points from the feet so long as he can clear ties.
60 kg — Dalton Roberts (Army/WCAP) vs. Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP)
As illustrated in the latest Monday Roundup, this is, by far, the most pronounced domestic rivalry currently in progress. Roberts and Hafizov have already logged over one hour of “match time” against one another across 11 total bouts — including three best-of-three (aka Trials finals) series. No one is tired of this, aside from their fellow 60’s. It just hits different when they wrestle. They can, and have, produced a variety of match types, with each one delivering gripping and thrilling moments. Physical, highly-technical, and visceral — these are the characteristics of every Roberts/Hafizov showdown.
63 kg — Hayden Tuma (Suples) vs. Xavier Johnson (Army/WCAP)
Two of the most dynamic athletes in the mix. There is not an allotment of prior battles between them. Immaterial. Whether this series goes two matches or three, multi-point scores will almost certainly light up the board. It is in their DNA. For however many close matches both have had against others in their respective careers, those examples are limited. Thudding power from lifts, you’ve seen it from Tuma for years, and Johnson has carved out his own reputation for aerial mastery. The crowd in attendance will appreciate the energy they bring.
67 kg — Robert Perez III (Sunkist) vs. Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP)
Most with brains acknowledge that Perez is an enormous piece of Greco’s future in the US. ’20 Olympian Sancho — who for the better part of a decade has been a top competitor — is approaching his prime and has the most complete par terre game among all lightweights in the country. But Perez can pose problems, mostly within the realm of defense, that should make their time together intriguing from start to finish.
72 kg — Justus Scott (Army/WCAP) vs. Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm)
Scott’s violent style is comparable to Smith’s; but because he is younger and therefore less experienced, there is a rawness to his methodology. That did not stop him from capitalizing when it counted in April, and he is going to arrive in Newark all sorts of confident because of it. But — Smith appeared locked back in at the Trials, and he, too, now understands what Scott feels like. Could be a down-to-the-wire throwdown in each match.
77 kg — Kamal Bey (Army/WCAP) vs. Aliaksandr Kikinou (Poway)
Kikinou, World bronze in ’09 and heavily decorated from elsewhere over the course of his career in Belarus, has not let his 43 years on Earth hinder him from performing well this spring. Bey did get Kikinou out of there right quick in the National final, but you’d have to expect the elder statesman to be better prepared for the explosiveness Bey brings in bunches this time around. Two techniques are what did it for Bey last time. For Kikinou to prevail, he has to try to find a way to either slow things down, or take big risks as soon as he senses they are available and worth it.
82 kg — Spencer Woods (Army/WCAP) vs. Ryan Epps (Army/WCAP)
The two remaining survivors from what was the US’ most populated upper-weight class in ’23. Woods recorded two victories over Epps a season ago, both times with some distance. Both have made improvements since, and both have managed to defeat two-time Olympian Ben Provisor (NYAC/Viking WC) recently. Should be a slugfest, with points at a premium. If so, that is a recipe for a whole lot of tension.
87 kg — Alan Vera (NYAC) vs. Zac Braunagel (IRTC)
Vera is nearly unrivaled in each phase of authentic Greco-Roman mechanics when competing against Americans. No one here, especially in the heavier weight categories, can do what he does as well or as consistently. And from par terre top, he is assassin-level proficient. Braunagel does not need to play that game in order to present a threat. Fluid movement, position, and pace win matches, too. Second-period tactics should loom large for both.
97 kg — Joe Rau (TMWC) vs. Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm)
Very interesting. Rau’s triumphant return to Greco was highlighted by an Open win in which he was barely challenged en-route to victory. He looked even better at 97 kg than he did at day-before-weigh-in-98 back in ’15-’16 (which was also the case with his win at the Pan-Ams). DuLaney, meanwhile, took a heartbreaking loss to two-time National champ Nick Boykin (Sunkist) in the Open semifinal — but then rebounded super strong for the Trials. 97 fits both wrestlers extremely well.
130 kg — Cohlton Schultz (Sunkist) vs. Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen)
- Schultz: ’17 Cadet World Champion, ’18 Junior World bronze, ’19 Junior World silver, ’22 NCAA Division I runner-up, reigning two-time US World Team.
- Coon: ’14 Junior World silver, two-time NCAA Division I runner-up, ’18 World silver, two-time US World Team.
Similarities abound between Schultz and Coon, with the latter sporting a 4-0 record against the former until last month, when Schultz emerged victorious in a runaway. Coon was away from Greco for two years, as everyone knows, subjecting him to talk of potential “ring rust” prior to Vegas. Problem with that is Schultz was going to prove difficult in that match no matter what, due in part to having matured physically and remaining competitively sharp during Coon’s hiatus. But Coon is now two tournaments back into the fold, and quite very likely more cognizant of the obstacle he faces. We all know that the arena will be buzzing when they take the mat for Match 1.
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