Men’s Freestyle Goal: Dominate America first, then the World

Updated: April 19, 2011

By Mike Finn

Call it the Catch 22 of United States’ men’s freestyle wrestling. A surprisingly low number of Americans have defended their U.S. national championships in the last three years, only 14.3 percent to be exact.

The 2011 annual event in Cleveland, April 8-9, was more of the same in that regard compared to the previous two years. Only 185-pound Jake Herbert won his third straight ASICS/USAW national championship… guaranteeing himself a spot in the best 2-of-3 Championship Series at the upcoming World Team Trials, June 10-11 in Oklahoma City.

If fans like upsets, Cleveland was the place to be as six Americans, who either won last year’s U.S. Open and/or World Team Trials, failed to leave the city’s Public Auditorium with a championship:

• 121-pound Obe Blanc, who won both the Open and Trials last year, lost in the quarterfinals to Cornell’s 125-pound Frank Perrelli and settled for fourth. Meanwhile, former Oklahoma All-American and Greco national champion Sam Hazewinkel captured his first freestyle title when he defeated first-time U.S. Open runner-up Troy Nickerson, two years removed from also competing at Cornell.

Teyon Ware (right) captured his first U.S. Open by beating former World medalist Cary Kolat for the 145.5-pound title in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by John Sachs)

• 132-pound Shawn Bunch, who also competed in the 2009 Worlds, lost to former Ohio State All-American Reece Humphrey in the finals. This happened one match after the former Buckeye defeated former Open and Trials champion Mike Zadick in the semifinals. Zadick also eventually finished fourth;

• 145.5-pound Brent Metcalf, who represented the U.S. in last year’s Worlds, finished third after he also lost in the quarterfinals to former Oklahoma star Teyon Ware, who later defeated former World silver medalist Cary Kolat for the championship.

Of the three remaining weights, 2009 Open and Trials winner Jake Varner won his second national title, but two new champions were crowned: two-time NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner Jordan Burroughs at 163 and heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev, who did represent the U.S. in the 2009 Worlds but lost to Les Sigman in last year’s Open and Trials.

(Sigman did wrestle but was forced to injury default in his semifinal with 2008 Olympian Steve Mocco, while 2010 Open champ Andrew Howe (163), 2010 Trials winner Travis Paulson (163) and J.D. Bergman — who won both the Open and Trials last year — were unable to compete because of injuries.)

Is it a good or bad thing that only one 2011 U.S. Open champ — Herbert — will enter this June’s Trials with any World or Olympic experience?

“I think it is a good thing,” said Herbert, who scored a last-second takedown in the second period of the championship match to defeat Keith Gavin, the same person the 2009 World silver medalist defeated in last year’s World Team Trials final. “It shows me that people are constantly improving. I know the top guys at each weight are taking it seriously. They are wrestling freestyle year round. They want World titles and Olympic gold medals. That’s what USA Wrestling needs.”

But U.S. National Coach Zeke Jones is not so sure.

“You want to see repeat champions because that tells you someone is emerging on top of the weight class, which puts you in a position to win a medal,” said Jones, a former eight-time World Team member and three-time medalist who also collected one World championship (1991) and Olympic silver medal (1992) as a past American wrestler.

“But on the other side when you have different champions, it’s telling you that you are getting some depth in the program, which America needs; sort of like the cream rises to the top and you have another type of champion emerge.

“I’d like to think that coming into an Olympic year we’d see some more guys repeating. If you look back at the old days with John Smith (a six-time World/Olympic champion) and Kenny Monday (a gold medalist in 1988 and silver medalist in 1992) and myself, you’d see one guy take charge of the weight class.”

That definitely is not the case for the American men, especially since the 2008 Olympics where its only medalist —121-pound champion Henry Cejudo, then 21 — has not touched a freestyle mat and only Herbert and Zadick, a 2006 World silver medalist, has represented the U.S. on the world stage more than once.

Unfortunately, during that period no other American has won a World championship and last fall marked the first time in 35 years that no U.S. men’s freestyle wrestler medaled.

That included Herbert, who lost 4-0, 2-0 to Cuban Reineri Salas in his only match last September in Moscow.

What did that moment do for the American freestylers?

“It keeps us hungry,” Herbert said. “I know that I wanted to improve on my silver (medal) finish (from 2009), but I went 0-1 and didn’t even score a point. It’s awful. I have that guy’s image in my mind. But it’s not just him. I want to get all these guys (who medaled in Moscow).”

Among the four newcomers to this level of success, one spoke out about his ability to win the weight.

“Everyone sees this as a surprise but I can wrestle with any of those guys,” said Ware, who still considers Metcalf  the favorite at the Trials, even though he caught the former Hawkeye national champion in a tilt from a front headlock in the second period of their match. “I know I’m my biggest opponent.”

Jones also wants his wrestlers to focus more on international competition, which was why he organized month-long training camps overseas to the likes of Russia.

“If you look up and down our line-up, most of our champions did either go to the three-week camp in Russia in January or they went to the two-week camp in Medved in February or the week camp in Cuba,” Jones said. “Every tournament we went to, we went to a training camp connected to the tournament. If you train with your enemy, you pick up your game at least a notch.

“I’m all for national champs and becoming World and Olympic Team members, but it’s more about winning gold medals. Teyon got a lot of good experiences this winter. He didn’t get the results he wanted, but he was able to use that experience, come home and put it into play at the nationals.”

So how do U.S. wrestlers separate themselves from their countrymen in the future?

“Be the best,” Jones said. “You have to decide you are going to be the best guy and that if I’m going to be the best in the world I have to dominate America. We have to have more guys doing that.

“It’s all connected. It’s being smart enough to do it, having the heart to be able to get it done and then you have to have the guts to put it on the line. It all comes down to tactics and technique. You have to be good at what you do on the wrestling mat.”