Every four years, something special happens: a bunch of American wrestlers who have dominated their sport for years get together to decide who will get to try to beat the rest of the world in the Olympic Games. They rarely succeed but even so, victories at the Olympic team trials in wrestling are amazing achievements in and of themselves.
There, we watch our wrestlers changing out their American folkstyle wrestling for the international styles of freestyle and Greco. Like exchanging our currency for the Euro, we do not get as much back. In the last three Olympics, the United States has not enjoyed more than one gold medalist in a style in a single Olympics. We are fighting an uphill battle against countries far more sophisticated in tactics suited for Olympic wrestling. Nevertheless we remain one of the better wrestling countries in the world, though we remain eternally behind Russia, the giant of the sport.
While the Olympic trials tragically attract far less attention from the wrestling community than collegiate events, it deserves the attention of MMA fans. Directly from these trials, one will see many conversions to professional fighting. The end of Olympic cycles and aspirations are times for reflection and re-evaluation as well as times to wonder whether persisting in a thankless and uncompensated endeavor is worthwhile in relation to the need to provide for mature obligations such as wives and children.
It is these times which push wrestlers into mixed martial arts careers. Today, I present to you a preview for the United States Freestyle Wrestling Olympic Team Trials, a collection of some of the finest, most disciplined athletes who may one day enter a cage.
Two champions and one runner up from the last Olympic Freestyle Trials, Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren and Muhammed Lawal have already risen to MMA prominence within the last four years. It stands to reason that their success will draw even more Olympic trials participants to MMA with each passing Olympic cycle.
Get ready for breakdowns of all seven weight classes after the jump in one of the more in-depth Olympic previews you'll read anywhere.
Henry Cejudo wrestling in Times Square
The story at this weight is not whether or not Henry Cejudo, our lone gold medalist from Beijing, will win gold in London, but whether or not he will show up to the trials on weight and in form. Henry has not made weight since Beijing. He has wrestled at only three events since then. One was at the the 2011 Beat the Streets Gala in Time Square where he beat a tough but not great Russian while enjoying close to a ten pound weight allowance. He beat aging former world team member Danny Felix at the Sunkist Kids Invitational in October, and placed second at the Henri Deglane Challenge in November. At the Deglane Challenge he lost to former world silver medalist of Monaco, Ghenadi Tulbea. Tulbea's best international results occurred a decade ago when he wrestled for Moldova, his recent results have not been impressive. Henry needs to beat the Tulbeas of the world to be considered a medal threat in London.
Henry's departure from the Ohio Regional Training Center last year raises a serious red flag. His training has taken place largely in seclusion somewhere in Arizona. Secluded training for an Olympic hopeful bodes poorly as wrestlers, like any competitive martial artist, benefit greatly from elite training partners. Henry has seemed far more interested about the play based on his life being performed in Arizona than he has about wrestling. This worries me as a motivated and well trained Cejudo has all the tools to win gold again. I hope he shows up at Iowa City and silences all skeptics, though, sadly, I think this is unlikely.
Conventional wisdom puts Cejudo in an MMA career after this Olympic cycle. He trained for a period in boxing, flirting with a boxing career, a sample of him boxing in a state fair for critique of those who know what they are talking about is here. He admits to almost signing with Bellator a few years ago. At 25 years old, with some striking training and the first Olympic gold medal wrestling credentials in a cage since Kevin Jackson, one would have to consider him a prime prospect for high level mixed martial arts achievement in the flyweight division. However, when considering his approach to preparing for this coming Olympics, it serves to wonder if commitment to a lifestyle committed to combat sports will prove to be an issue.
After Cejudo I see four legitimate contenders for the Olympic birth: Sam Hazewinkel, Nick Simmons, Obenson Blanc, and Angel Escobedo. Simmons, The East Lansing Strangler, is absolutely enormous for this weight. He represented the U.S. at the last world championships, placing fifth. His results since then, however, have not been encouraging. Obe Blanc placed ninth in the world two years ago and provides a real threat. Angel Escobedo, an NCAA champ from Indiana University is as good as any at the weight.
My pick for Olympic Trials champ is Hazewinkel. Sam has been the bridesmaid throughout his wrestling career, maybe the greatest wrestler ever to never win an NCAA championship placing third three times with a runner up finish during his days at Oklahoma University. Sam has been within a hair of making world teams in Greco and in Freestyle and I feel that this time fate will smile upon him.
66kg (134 lbs)
We haven't qualified this weight for the Olympics as of yet. We are sending our top guy at this weight, Reece Humphrey, to qualifying tournaments in Finland and China if necessary. If Reece succeeds in qualifiying the weight, a secondary trials will be head at a date TBD. I have included a very simple to comprehend flow chart explaining the qualifying procedures here.
I believe this weight will be Humphrey's. He was having a pretty decent world championships until taking a close loss to a randomly tough French wrestler. He has pedigree and athleticism on his side. His father was a world silver medalist himself and national feestlye coach. His athleticism has allowed him a huge rate of improvement while in college at The Ohio State and while competing on the international scene; it also provides him the ability to hit insane throw like this beautiful, albeit illegal, salto on Hofstra's Lou Rugerillo.
If Reece's Olympic hopes fail to pan out, he is someone I'd love to see venture into MMA. Athleticism is the name of the game and he has it in spades.
Shawn Bunch, the number two guy at his weight has already declared his intention to enter MMA as a bantamweight after this Olympic cycle. He has all the tools to excel in MMA but at age 29 his time to fully realize his potential is shortened.
With Mike Zadick beginning to show his age, the remaining interesting participants at this weight will be our young guns. Jordan Olliver and Logan Stieber both with college eligibility remaining have achieved world class status already, with Junior World bronze and silver respectively, and Kellan Russel, two time NCAA champ at 141 will be competing at this weight with his fantastic balance and positioning in tow. Just so I don't forget to mention them, former NCAA champs Matt Valenti and Coleman Scott will also be in contention.
66kg (145.5 lbs)
I see this as a three horse race for the slot. Teyon Ware, Brent Metcalf, and Dustin Schlatter all have NCAA championships and world team experience. Unfortunately, this weight likely will not produce an Olympic medal in an internationally stacked weight class.
I believe that Schlatter will take this weight. He possesses a style well suited for freestyle, strong in defense and position and calculated with his offense. He will wrestle down a weight from his earlier competitions and it should not be forgotten that most considered him a generational talent early in his collegiate career before struggling with a rash of injuries. Schlatter has indicated that the has at least thought of competing in MMA.
The other participant I look forward to seeing in this field is Cary Kolat. Many (including me) still consider Kolat to be the greatest high school wrestler ever. He went on to an illustrious collegiate and international career winning two NCAA titles and medaling twice at world championships. His international experiences include horrible officiating misfortunes at crucial times including a forced re-wrestle of a match he won against an Iranian opponent in the Sydney Olympics, a screw job of a magnitude never seen outside of Montreal. Cary now runs the wrestling room at The University of North Carolina and he looked great at the last chance qualifying tournament. He probably will not win the trials, but hope springs eternal.
74kg (163 lbs)
Ah, USA wrestling's brightest rising star: strong, lean, and dazzlingly athletic. He wins a world championship immediately out of college, defeating a Russian superstar in the process. Possessed of an unstoppable blast double and a dazzling array of other offensive maneuvers. I watched him lose in the Olympic trials to an inferior opponent. Then I watched him leave the sport of wrestling to the lucrative fields of professional sports.
I am speaking of Stephen Neal world freestyle champ in 1999, who was defeated in the trials by Kerry McKoy in 2000. He went on to a lengthy career with The New England Patriots and wrestling lost one of its potentially greatest stars.
Jordan Burroughs' story begins the same as Neal's. The year he graduates from college he wins a world freestyle championship on the strength of, at the risk of underplaying his technical sophistication, dazzling athleticism and an unstoppable blast double. He is the only American wrestler since Neal to go through a Russian superstar on his way to a world/Olympic championship and not receive his medal on a morning talk show. He now stands on the precipice of wrestling immortality, a precipice he can only step over if he wins these trials.
Will history repeat itself with Jordan Burroughs?
I doubt history repeats itself and if you'd read the flow chart I linked to above, you would see that USA Wrestling has built in a safeguard to prevent another Neal fiasco. Jordan Burroughs has not lost a wrestling match in either free or folkstyle in five years! I doubt he starts losing now. In fact, if Jordan's skills continue to grow at their current rate he could end up being the greatest American Wrestler ever.
Jordan Burroughs has also discussed the possibility of fighting professionally. KJ Gould tabbed him as the number one MMA prospect coming out of last year's NCAA championships. Jordan has been seen around MMA events, has kicked it with GSP, and stays in close contact with Daniel Cormier. Putting all this together an MMA career looms likely in Burroughs future. I believe that whether or not this will happen immediately after this Olympics or further down the road hinges on his collecting the $250,000 check for a gold medal. Jordan would need to overcome the substantial obstacle of being a weight tweener in MMA. He seems comfortable at 163 and carries very little body fat placing him squarely between lightweight and welterweight. I am not sure he could drop weight so he may need to add bulk for mma.
A tough field will wrestle for the right to face Burroughs in a best of three finals. Current collegian, past NCAA champ and world team member Andrew Howe is his toughest competition on paper. Travis Paulson and Nick Marable have solid international resumes, and Kyle Dake proved to be tough in last year's world trials at this weight. Most exciting of any name other than Jordan Burroughs in this class is Penn State wunderkind David "The Magic Man" Taylor. Taylor will compete for Olympic medals in the future, perhaps at a higher weight, but look for him to tantalize with his potential already.
My bold prediction: the best of three finals will be Taylor vs. Burroughs and Taylor will win one of the three. This will cause a nice little stir without disrupting matters too much.
Cael Sanderson is out. I suppose his priorities lie in being a great coach a father/husband rather than succumbing himself and his obligations to the rigors of Olympic level training. I can't hold it against him though it certainly would have been super cool to see him in the red, white and blue in London.
Barring a great performance from a member of a very solid field, this weight will belong to former world silver medalist Jake Herbert. Jake has shown the ability to perform on the world stage but since the rest of the world has scouted his offensive tendencies, his success has been limited. I hope he shows up with a diversified offense and obtains his previous levels of success.
The wrestler really worth discussing: Penn State's Ed Ruth. I believe Ed stands alone as the most naturally talented wrestler on this hemisphere. His natural abilities blow my mind. He will pose a problem for anyone that he will meet on a mat and he will not be as small for this weight as some suppose. I also get the impression that his approach to the sport has become continuously more professional. His coach, Cael Sanderson, proudly announced a few days ago that Ed started calling him out by name to serve as a practice partner. This portends well for Ed's chances at these trials. Ed also is worth watching from an MMA perspective as fighting at middleweight may well be in his future.
96kg (211.5 lbs)
Jake Varner is the man here and some would even describe him as the US's pound for pound best wrestler. He "only" placed third at last year's world championships, though it was at the toughest weight in the world. Jake, like Ed Ruth and David Taylor, is a Cael disciple and trains at the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club at Penn State. While his fanaticism for the sport will probably never allow him to step into a cage, I could not predict anything but great success for him in MMA. His style is absolutely brutal and he appears to be the unholy offspring of a cyborg and Neidemeyer from Animal House.
Tough contenders fill out the field which will vie to wrestle-off Varner. J.D. Bergman is a former world team member who has given Varner problems in the past though I suspect Varner has surpassed him by now. Chris Pendleton, one time bane of Ben Askren, may turn some heads as well. From an MMA perspective I suggest eyes be turned to Dustin Kilgore, an NCAA champ from Kent State on Olympic redshirt. Dustin has youth, raw power, and technique and may just come to the realization that he won't quite be able to get past Varner at either this or the following Olympic trials. Realizations such as these spawn MMA careers and Kilgore would be a great fit at light heavyweight..
The heavies. The U.S. has four to five heavyweights capable of doing big things on the Olympic level. The favorite at this weight has to be Tervel Dlagnev. Tervel shares many traits with former USA Wrestling standout Mo Lawal. Tervel is a Texan, did not start wrestling till high school, honed his craft on the division two level, and possesses the elite athleticism needed to become a world class freestyle wrestler in a relatively short amount of time. You will not see flexing on a Super Fight League poster anytime soon, but do not let his lack of physical imposition fool you, Tervel has as much strength and agility as any at this weight.
Steve Mocco, Beijing's Olympian at this weight, will pose a stiff challenge to Tervel, as should former world team member Les Sigman and Junior World champion Dom Bradley. Upstart Oregon State collegian Chad Hanke is a real wildcard at this weight and has experienced impressive levels of success on the international circuit. Throwing an MMA name out there: Jarrod Trice possesses the skills and athleticism to excel at any sport, is still in college and like the aforementioned Kilgore, might be just a little to far down the ladder at this time to justify the continued impoverished lifestyle of an amateur wrestler.
Tervel is hungry for gold medals: