Younger kin to wrestling legends are winning the ‘Fame’ game

Updated: August 25, 2023

Photo: Left: Florida’s Michael Mocco (right) was a double winner at the 16U Nationals. He dominated Alex Taylor in freestyle and earned O.W. honors. Right: Arizona’s Kyler Larkin claimed a second Fargo championship when he blanked Kale Petersen of Iowa in the 132-pound Junior freestyle final. (Tony Rotundo photos)

By Mike Finn

One of the great parts of the fact that the 16U/Junior Nationals are a half a century old is that it is now providing opportunities for wrestlers from the same family but are from multiple generations. These young wrestlers take to the mats in the prestigious event hoping to accomplish something a parent or sibling did … or did not do, years before.

That was indeed the case in the 2023 week-long tournament in Fargo, N.D., especially with several wrestlers with famous last names who made their mark in the Fargodome.

That included Michael Mocco, Elijah Diakomihalis and Hayden Schwab in the 16U Nationals and Kyler Larkin in the Junior Nationals. Mocco is the son of Steve Mocco, a Hodge Trophy winner and two-time NCAA champion from both Iowa (2003) and Oklahoma State (2005); Diakomihalis is the younger brother of Yianni Diakomihalis, Cornell’s recent four-time NCAA champion; Schwab is the son of Doug Schwab, the 1999 NCAA champ from Iowa and current Northern Iowa coach; and Larkin the son of Eric Larkin, the 2003 NCAA champ and Hodge winner from Arizona State.

For Mocco and Larkin, each of their fathers also won Fargo championships in the past: Eric in 1998 at 132 pounds for Team Arizona; and Steve in 1999 for Team New Jersey. Meanwhile, the younger Schwab and Diakomihalis accomplished something that older family members did not.

Doug finished sixth at 132 pounds in 1996 for Team Iowa.

Hayden Schwab (left), a double AA and Greco-Roman champ in Fargo, is one of two brothers who wrestle and are the sons of Olympian Doug Schwab. (Tony Rotundo photo)

“I was always looking up to Fargo,” said Hayden Schwab, 15, who will be freshman at Don Bosco High School just south of his home in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He defeated Jarrett Smith of Michigan for the Greco-Roman championship at 94 pounds after finishing fourth in freestyle. “It’s a great tournament and you see all the gritty guys come out on top. I have an Olympian (his father in 2008) in my house and I can ask my dad for help.”

Elijah’s brother Yianni, meanwhile, finished second in 2014 for Team New York. (Two years later, his other brother Greg, a sophomore Big Red reserve wrestler this past winter, finished third in Fargo at 106 pounds for the Empire State.)

“Greg has the most state titles, and ‘Lij’ is the only one who won Fargo … I’m slowly making my way to the bottom,” joked Yianni on Twitter after Elijah, who will be a junior at Hilton High School this winter, defeated Ryder Wilder of Georgia for the 182-pound championship.

But following in great big footprints may not always be easy.

Elijah Diakomihalis (right) defeated Ryder Wilder of Georgia to claim the 182-pound 16U national championship in freestyle. (Tony Rotundo photo)

“It’s not tough because I’m doing this for myself, not for anyone else,” said Elijah, 16, who finished second and third in the last two New York state high school championships. “Wherever that takes me, it takes me.”

   The youngest Diakomihalis also credits his brothers and father, Ilias, for preparing him for Fargo.

“My brothers are really big for me,” Elijah said. “I can’t thank them enough. They really help me, keep me focused and understanding what I need to do. My dad does a great job in practice, figuring out what I need. He really wants the best for us. When we are at practice, it’s not like ‘just go hit a move.’ He breaks it down step by step and if we are doing a little thing wrong, he will fix it instantly.”

Kyler Larkin and Michael Mocco are coached by their fathers, both of whom were on the floor in the Fargodome when their sons claimed the infamous “Stop-Sign” plaque.

For Kyler, it marked his second Fargo championship after claiming a 16U title in 2021, before skipping Fargo last summer to focus on training for the U17 Worlds.

“It’s awesome getting this experience,”  the 18-year-old Kyler said. “Not a lot of people get to do what I do and I’m grateful I can be me and have what I have.”

Kyler said he often wrestles with his dad in practice and jokes he was 10 when he “beat” his father on the mat. 

“We had this training camp before Fargo, which was the first time I really got him,” Kyler smiled. “It’s just fun wrestling with him.”

But Kyler also wants to be himself and not just live off his father’s legacy.

“I must be selfish,” said Kyler, a native of Gilbert, Ariz., who will be a junior at Valiant College Prep this winter. “I have to stay motivated so I don’t have someone doing that for me. Knowing that he was a great wrestler makes me want to try to beat him.”

“I think he is developing and is more well-rounded and is able to get his offense off more,” said Eric, who won the Hodge in 2003 for ASU, which is nearby where the family lives today. “He has gotten more and more disciplined in all aspects. Right now, his experiences have been pretty similar to what I went through.”

Eric Larkin won the 149-pound NCAA championship and Hodge Trophy in 2003. (WIN photo)

Eric also had his other son, Konner, who finished sixth at 113 pounds in the Junior freestyle tournament, in the corner while coaching Kyler in the finals.

“Watching my boys win and get on the (finals) stage brings so much more joy to me and my whole family. I have a blast with it.”

Steve Mocco had a similar feeling after he first watched his son tech Alex Taylor of Ohio in 59 seconds to claim the 220-pound freestyle championship (as well as O.W. honors for that style). Michael then edged Kai Calcutt of Illinois for the Greco-Roman championship.

“I’m impressed by everything,” said Steve, who trains Michael and others in wrestling in Mixed Martial Arts at the American Top Team club in Coconut Creek, Fla., where he was first an MMA fighter. “He’s a joy to be around.”

The older Mocco, who has served as the Florida USA state association chairman, also smiled when he thought about how Michael used a foot-sweep to score a takedown in his semifinal victory.

“He likes to watch good wrestlers,” said Steve. “He studies the sport and is a good boy to coach.”

Michael Mocco, 16, who will be a sophomore at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Parkland, Fla., does not worry about having a famous last name.

Steve Mocco won NCAA titles for both Iowa and Oklahoma State before competing in the 2008 Olympics. (WIN photo)

“You don’t focus on your last name,” Michael said. “It’s cool but I’m more than that. I have to have tunnel vision and not get caught up in things like that.”

In scoring a pair of four-point throws in the freestyle final, it almost looked like the sport came naturally for the younger Mocco.

“My dad was obviously a good wrestler and my mom (Katie) was also a super athlete,” Michael said. “I practice those moves over and over again where it becomes mind over memory.”

Steve Mocco, who had developed a tough and winning reputation as a prep before he later wrestled in college and represented the United States in the 2008 Olympics, knows what it takes for young athletes to deal with expectations.

When asked how young athletes should deal with famous last names, he said, “If you find out, let me know. I just tell him that every day he has to prepare to compete and represent what he wants to show.”

On balancing his roles as both a father and coach, Steve said, “I try to keep him around great people. It’s hard to separate the two. Wrestling and training are parts of our lives but we try to get a healthy balance where he can improve and grow. It’s a blessing I have a son and to be part of this.”