Observations From 2014 US Senior World Team Wrestling Trials—Freestyle

USA Wrestling conducted its World Team Trials (“WTT”) in Madison, WI May 31 and June 1, 2014. It may help to point out a few things about what was at stake and what is still at stake:
• The WTT is conducted each year to determine the US Wrestling Team to compete in that year’s World Championship. The US team is comprised of its best men’s and women’s freestyle wrestlers and the men’s greco roman wrestlers;
• Sometime prior to the WTT, USA Wrestling conducts its national championship, the US Open, which was held in Las Vegas in April. At the WTT the top eight or nine challengers, mostly as determined from the US Open finish, vie in a “challenge tournament”. The Open winner does not participate in the challenge tournament but instead meets its winner in a best of three round in the evening. That winner then becomes the WTT representative;
• The top three finishers at the WTT become members of the National Team which provides training and global competition opportunities, as well as a stipend—so a top three placement at the WTT is a very coveted spot;
• When wrestling was reinstated in the Olympics, the number of freestyle weight classes was reduced from eight to six. However, eight weight classes (slightly reconfigured from previous years) are still contested in non-Olympic events. The two weight classes omitted from the Olympics are 61 kilos (134.2 pounds) and 70 kilos (154 pounds). For 2014, a non-Olympic year, USA Wrestling decided to conduct the WTT in two phases. Phase I in Madison, contested the men’s and women’s Olympic freestyle weights. Phase II will contest the two non-Olympic freestyle weights in Fargo, ND in late July.

With that as background, let’s take a look at the competition in Madison, starting with the two former Buckeyes who competed. JD Bergman, who trains at the Ohio RTC is a two time and defending 2013 WTT member. JD ended up finishing third, which kept him a spot on the National Team, but more importantly, there seems to be little separation at the top. As he approaches his 30s, JD seems is at the top of his game. Although injuries have plagued JD most of his career, in the last two years he has completely revamped his dietary and training regimen (he now writes a health blog called TRUEhealth at socialcolumbus.com). He has not had a serious injury for a few years now, so his hopes of making the 2016 Olympic team remain high.

JD is one of the strongest and most athletic competitors at 97 kilos (213.4 pounds). He tends to get in trouble mainly when the momentum of his own aggression is used against him, as we saw most spectacularly in last year’s World Championships when he got pinned on a failed double leg in a match he had been dominating. Dramatic swings in fortune are part of the danger at the heavier weights where moves tend to be higher risk, higher reward. Attention to the exposure JD creates for himself from his own initiative, and how to avoid or counter the response would seem to be among the most important things for JD to work on. The pressure of not competing in the World Championships may be the best thing that could happen as JD works out the kinks to prepare for his ultimate goal as an Olympic team member in 2016.

Reece Humphrey is a very interesting story. Like Bergman, Humphrey is a two time and 2013 defending WTT member. Reece is a wrestler caught in the middle as a result of the cutback in weight classes. For years he competed in the prior 60 kilos, which has been abandoned altogether. Of course the non-Olympic weight of 61 kilos would be a natural for Reece, but like Bergman, his sights are set on Rio de Janeiro in 2016. In preparation, Humphrey decided to jump up the almost nine pounds to compete in the US Open at the Olympic 65 kilo (143 pounds) class. Nine pounds may not sound like a lot, but at the national level, those nine extra pounds are packed with solid muscle, so typically there is a meaningful difference in size that can only be overcome by a massive weight training program above and beyond the crazy lifting these guys already do.

In the US Open that showed a bit. Humphrey competed very well but was beaten fairly easily by current WTT member Brent Metcalf. While Humphrey placed a disappointing fourth in Madison, it seemed as if he has closed the gap very quickly on his new larger adversaries. He crushed, really, his nemesis from 2012, Coleman Scott, and took WTT runner-up Jordan Oliver to the very end (actually seemed to have it won)—the result could have gone either way. He was also victimized by a very last second surprise throw in the third place match.

Reece Humphrey faces a difficult choice. It really takes time to grow a larger body packed with muscle. If 2016 is his only goal, then perhaps he should abandon 61 kilos forever and use the extra three months to concentrate on closing the remaining gap with thee bigger 143 pounders. On the other hand, Reece is genuinely among the world’s very elite wrestlers at 61 kilos. He has the ability to make a World Finals and indeed to win a World gold, even if not an Olympic gold. Also approaching his thirties, although he is still an amazing wrestler who still completes some of the most dramatic throws anywhere—just ask Coleman Scott (see below)—2014 might be his very best opportunity to climb a World podium. And there is the issue of the stipend—if he competes at 61 kilos and places third or better, he gets a salary—right now as a fourth place finisher at 65 kilos, he does not—that last second flip by Frank Molinaro for third cost Reece–literally.

What you should expect is to see Reece Humphrey competing in late July in Fargo for a spot on the team at 61 kilos. That will somewhat shorten his time to get up to a true 65 kilos, but it would earn him a paid spot on the National Team, National Team training and competition and a chance to continue to work out with the elite 65 kilo wrestlers.

Now to ORTC as a whole. Last year, the ORTC claimed FIVE of the eight team spots: Angel Escobedo, Humphrey, Keith Gavin, Bergman and Tervel Dlagnev. This year only Dlagnev prevailed. While that must be disappointing, it should be noted that Escobedo was simply too hurt from an Open ankle injury to give it a realistic shot, Humphrey made the courageous decision to move up in class and Gavin and Bergman remained on the National Team. Also, presumably, after 2014, the team will include future stars Logan Stieber (who is now on international sabbatical as he attempts to walk into history if he can become only the fourth collegian to win four NCAA titles), Nate Tomasello, a red-shirt Buckeye freshman who won the US Open Jr. title (he lost to Iowa sophomore Thomas Gilman in the WTT Jr. finals), defending Junior World Champion and incoming Buckeye freshman Kyle Snyder, heavies Nick Tavanello, and incoming Buckeye Thomas Haines, Buckeye redshirt junior Josh Demas, and of course the incomparable Bo Jordan, Buckeye redshirt freshman. So don’t cry on ORTC.

Keith Gavin has to be the most concerned ORTC wrestler coming out of Madison. Not for any drop in Keith’s performance—he looked great. The problem is the meteoric, but not particularly surprising rise of Ed Ruth who has turned his attention to freestlye after winning three NCAA titles at Penn State. Aside from being a freakish athlete or maybe because of it, Ed Ruth is simply one of the smoothest, most skilled wrestlers on the planet. Assuming he stays healthy it is hard to see anyone catching Ruth after his breakaway in Madison.

On the other hand, the Bulgarian Texan Tervel Dlagnev was dominant, yet again at 125 kilos (275 lbs). D Lag is one of the top wrestlers in the world and it is really hard to see anyone challenging him for awhile. 2016 glory is a real possibility—it’s hard to find anyone better anywhere than the Tervelnator.

Some thoughts on some of the classes. The Iowa express that is Tony Ramos thundered into Madison trash talking and taking no prisoners at 57 kilos (125.4 lbs). While some expressed shock that Ramos walked away with the title, once one concedes that Escobedo simply was not healthy enough to defend, there was no reason not to expect Ramos to be in the mix. If Ramos can maintain himself at that weight (he won an NCAA title at 133), once Escobedo regains his health, these two could battle for years. Ramos is a bit of a ham and egger in that he doesn’t strike one as the most athletic wrestler, but that’s only a knock at the margin. He may be a bit of a Jack Russell terrier—strong, fierce, attacking and fearless, but he is also technically fantastic. Perhaps pugnacious and at times insufferable (some would say a lot like coach Tom Brands) he is still (also like his coach) great fun to watch. If wrestling had a dozen of him competing at the top levels it would be much more interesting to the general sports fan. So let’s hope for a long Ramos run to ignite a more general fire.

At 65 kilos, Brent Metcalf maintained his mastery, though by a less dominating measure than at the US Open. Jordan Oliver extended him in the finals and seemingly had him beat in match one of the best of three. But Metcalf is like Ramos—strong, tough and technically superior (without the bellicosity). Metcalf also has something else you actually rarely see. When Metcalf gets in trouble he hits this “crazy gear” that always seems to vault him out of trouble. Oliver, who is about as advanced and athletic as a wrestler can be, had Metcalf dead to rights only to see Metcalf spin out of trouble and earn a push out point himself. As Reece Humphrey reflects on 2016, he has to figure out Metcalf or there will be no 2016 to dream of.

74 kilos (162.8 lbs) has been a no man’s land recently for ORTC but on the horizon are guys like Demas and Jordan. But frankly, right now the weight class is a no-man’s land for anyone not named Kyle Dake, David Taylor (Ohio’s Paris St. Graham) or Jordan Burroughs. And frankly it is hard now to see Taylor catching Burroughs for the foreseeable future. Dake is out with a foot injury but when healthy he is the most likely guy to push Burroughs off his exalted podium. Olympic gold medalist Burroughs now is 84-1, the only blemish being a 4-4 loss on criteria earlier this year to American Nick Marable (who won the US Open at the non-Olympic 70 kilo weight).

The margin between Taylor and Burroughs would appear razor thin but in reality it is substantial. I am not saying David Taylor is not one of the very best wrestlers on the planet–he clearly is. But he has the bad fortune of competing at the same time that Kyle Dake, and especially Jordan Burroughs do. Burroughs and Taylor are technically very, very good. I even think Taylor has a noticeable edge—he really is the mad professor of technique. But scrambling does you little good in international freestyle if you are on the losing side of the takedown war—and against Burroughs, Taylor really is. Whether it is a direct shot or a deadly reshot to counter any adversary’s failed shot, there is not a living being better at getting the double leg than Jordan Burroughs is—a cobra might be just as fast and look pretty much the same—but I am guessing a cobra (which doesn’t have arms, you see), is good for no more than a single leg.

Taylor is no slouch himself at getting an ankle (including Burroughs ankles) but the fact is, Taylor cannot get takedown points on Burroughs yet Burroughs can get to Taylor regularly. So all Taylor’s scrambling superiority really gets him is a close score. He could stay on the defensive—by shooting actually—but even if he avoids the reshot on the unsuccessful attempt, he has not shown much ability to dominate the takedown. Until he does he will be confined to watching Dake and Burroughs duel it out for supremacy.

Keith Gavin is not going away at 86 kilos (189.2 lbs) and OSU Cowboy Clayton Foster had an amazingly successful World Cup in LA this past March, but I see Ed Ruth putting the same dominating finishing touches to his freestyle game that he did in college. I do not know if Vegas is taking odds on 2016 Olympic wrestling gold medalists, but I’ll be checking that out—hit me up if you know. Two years into the future is a long way to look in sports—but if I had to pick an emergent winner—and thus a dark horse—Big Ed is my man.

Speaking of dark horse, right now 197 seems pretty wide open. Bergman has lost nothing—he just needs to take his own advice and study more closely how he is losing matches he should be winning. Newly re-crowned WTT member Jake Varner is an Olympic gold medalist, but he is 0-4 against Bergman. There are newcomers, especially 2013 NCAA runner-up, Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore, newly minted NCAA champ J/Den Cox of Missouri, and more menacingly, current Jr. World champ Kyle Snyder, the Buckeye incoming freshman.

But I am disappointed not to see graduating Buckeye Nick Heflin (twitter handle @Thedarkhorse197) competing. Nick had jumped two weight classes to lose somewhat flukily to Cox in the 2014 NCAA 197 pound final (he lost by a fairly dubious stall call and then threw Cox for the winning takedown—unfortunately Nick got completely around Cox a small fraction of a second after time expired). One had the sense Nick was just hitting his stride. On the one hand, Nick’s defensive style on his feet does not translate well to international rules which are hard on stalling and which really require dominance from the feet. On the other hand—Nick is such a stud of an athlete, if he would just continue his development and shoot at will, he would win almost all of the resulting struggles (in fact, one could say that really is the reason for the seeming inconsistency for Bergman who goes for it—it is high risk/high stakes from your feet at 97 kilos, so you are going to win some and lose some—they all do at 97 kilos). The international game is one played out over a career. A loss is not nearly so big a deal as it is in college. Freed from the fear of a big loss which I think paralyzed Heflin from time to time in college, the international arena could actually be the perfect lab for Nick to grow and add the offensive piece he needs to become the champion he can be. I am hoping after the healing which NCAA runner-ups all seem to need and a little soul searching, Nick will realize that now is the moment to cherish the wrestling gift that will soon enough expire forever.


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