Roberts, much older & wiser, meets Hafizov again in Final X

Updated: June 9, 2023

Photo: Dalton Roberts (left) beat Ildar Hafizov at the 2023 U.S. Open at 60 kilos to earn a spot in Final X, where he will meet Hafizov again in a best-of-3 series in Newark. (Sam Janicki photo)

By Tristan Warner

U.S. Open champ Dalton Roberts was plowing through the competition at the 2023 event in Las Vegas last month. 

Entering the Senior Greco-Roman 60-kilogram bracket as the No. 2 seed, the former Senior World Team member (2018) was in prime form after reeling off three dominant victories. In fact, until just 30 ticks remained in the finals, Roberts had outscored his opponents by a lopsided 30-0 margin. 

Not bad for a 21-year-old Michigan wrestler who did not take up the sport until seventh grade. In fact, he only joined the team because his twin brother Dean did and because free pizza was offered as an incentive to sign up. 

Dalton Roberts, who never made it to the high school state tournament until his senior year, had to chug three pounds of water to be eligible to wrestle in the 103-pound weight class early on in his career. The rule was he had to weigh at least 85 pounds. 

But his persistence and his love for the sport paid dividends. 

The Fowlerville High School graduate, who wrestled under coach Dan Coon and alongside recent Michigan great Adam Coon, opted to attend Northern Michigan and train for Greco as opposed to the traditional folkstyle route while competing in the NCAA.

This story appeared in the late May issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

Not only did he have a passion and a prowess for Greco, but his size (he wrestled all four years of high school at 103 pounds) was more suited for the international weight classes. 

Fast forward a decade and Roberts, now serving his country in the U.S. Army while representing the renowned World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), has become a household name in Greco-Roman in the United States. 

In the U.S. Open finals, facing his top-seeded teammate in Ildar Hafizov, who also represents the Army WCAP, Roberts jumped out to a 7-0 lead, controlling the bout with just 30 seconds remaining. 

That is when, to paraphrase his own words, he let his all-too-familiar foe back into the match. 

Hafizov, the same opponent Roberts defeated in a back-and-forth best-of-three showing to make the 2018 Senior World Team, came storming back. 

With 29 seconds left, a Roberts poke to the eye stopped the action, and two points were awarded to Hafizov. 

Then with under 15 seconds to wrestle, Hafizov secured a headlock throw and tossed Roberts to his back, who fought valiantly until time expired and escaped with a 7-6 victory and subsequent berth to the Final X. 

For Roberts, though he was elated to emerge victorious against an opponent he’s had so many hotly-contested battles with over the years, and continues to even in practice, he immediately turned his attention toward making adjustments. 

“I try to keep my foot on the gas pedal, knowing the job isn’t done yet,” Roberts acknowledged. “It is nice sitting out as it gives me some time to reflect and focus on some technical work that needs to be fixed prior to June 10th. Mentally, I know there’s a maximum of three matches between me and the World Team, and I can’t let up until I get it done.”

With Hafizov winning the World Team Trials that took place on May 20, the two Army WCAP teammates will have to duke it out in yet another best-of-three showdown at the upcoming Final X on June 10. 

“We have a long history, and because of that, we know each other well,” Roberts reflected. “Still, it is important to try to gain an edge wherever you can. I’m always looking to outwork everyone in the room and find weaknesses where I can. When techniques work, I write them down in a little notebook, so I don’t forget.”

Just a week after punching his ticket to the Final X, Roberts again dominated the field at the 2023 Pan-American Championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The gold medalist outscored his three opponents 26-0, culminating in a 9-0 victory by superiority over Ecuador’s Jeremy Peralta Gonzalez in the finals. 

For Roberts, the Pan-Ams was a tune-up for Final X. He was able to keep his momentum rolling in the right direction. 

“Pan-Ams has been something I’ve had my eyes on for a while, and it felt really good to get out there and do well after the Open in Vegas,” he said. “I know where I need to focus more time and attention before Final X. Pan-Ams was a great measuring tool for me. It can be easy to get comfortable in certain situations, but continuing to focus and get the job done in back-to-back weeks was important not only for myself but for Team USA as well.”

As Roberts continues his training and sets his sights on peaking for Final X, he took the time to express his gratitude for another team he feels proud to be a part of, the Army WCAP. 

“It is an honor to represent this team and program at the highest level, and to represent the USA as both a soldier and an athlete. It is something I don’t take for granted. Here at WCAP, we have cultivated a contagious culture. It is a family, and we hold everyone to the highest standard and help each other get there and stay there. I think that is something the Army has instilled in everyone in the program.”

Roberts will take the mat next at the Final X event on Saturday, June 10 at 2 p.m. EST at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Though the event is expected to be quite a spectacle, when he puts his foot on the line, Roberts is taking it all in stride, knowing his biggest goals still loom on the horizon. 

“To get yet another shot at making the Senior World Team is a big deal, but to me it means very little if I can’t finish what I started,” he said. “World and Olympic medals are the focus, and this is a necessary steppingstone to get there.”