Remember to check earlier entries in the Factgrinder story stream for a richer discussion of amateur wrestling's various divisions and classifications.
Chris Weidman presents a weird case. But for six days in March, three in 2006 and three in 2007, we would remember Chris's wrestling career in a totally different light.
Leaving high school, Chris had earned a few essential resume items which would indicate that he had the potential to succeed at the college level. For one, in 2002, he won a New York high school state championship at 189 pounds, one of the Nation's toughest wrestling state championships. That summer he also earned All American status at the USAW Junior National Greco-Roman Championships in Fargo (in wrestling parlance, he would be known as a "Fargo All-American", it's a really big deal, though placing on the freestyle side is a bit more coveted by most).
Chris achieved the zenith of his high school career at the 2001 FILA Cadet National Freestyle Championship. The FILA Cadet age group includes wrestlers of ages 17 and 18, which is not to be confused with the USAW Cadet age group for 14 and 15 year olds (AAU also has a Cadet age group, but AAU hasn't mattered in wrestling since Jimmy Carter neutered the organization in 1978 with the stroke of a pen). Chris placed sixth at FILA Cadets, in a weight class featuring some of the nation's top talent. Ben Askren, who enjoyed blue chip status as a high school recruit, placed fourth at this tournament after defeating Weidman in the consolation semifinals.
While probably not viewed as a top prospect heading into college, Weidman had definitely achieved distinction enough to be taken seriously by Division 1 coaches. Division 1, however, was not Weidman's immediate destination. Nassau Community College's wrestling team, a top junior college program which had produced JUCO All Americans like Phil Baroni, enjoyed Chris's wrestling talents before he progressed to an NCAA institution.
At Nassau, Weidman excelled, placing third at the NJCAA Wrestling Championships in 2003, and third again in 2004. The second third place finish came as the result of an upset as Chris ranked first in the nation entering the tournament. Chris, essentially, had become the best wrestler at his weight in the junior college circuit, and he moved on to the big leagues of NCAA Division 1.
For his final two years of collegiate eligibility, Weidman stayed home on Long Island and attended Hofstra University. Hofstra, at the time, had risen to prominence in college wrestling under the guidance of head coach Tom Ryan, who in the present day runs the wrestling program at Ohio State. Weidman red shirted during the 2004-2005 season to allow multiple time All American Chris Skretkowicz to finish his career.
Just before Weidman debuted as a varsity member of the Hofstra Pride wrestling team, I remember Coach Ryan claiming in interviews that Hofstra would not skip a beat by plugging Weidman into the hole in the lineup left by the departure of Skretkowicz. For this reason, I was paying attention when the initial hole plugging didn't go so well.
In his first season as a Division 1 starter, Weidman's results bordered on mediocre. During the regular season, he failed to beat a single ranked opponent at 197, and he also failed to beat quite a few without rankings. Chris qualified for nationals with a 15 and 11 record by placing second at the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Had a sudden-death overtime match in the semifinal of that tournament gone against him, Weidman likely would not have qualified at all.
Nobody outside the Hofstra wrestling team and Weidman's immediate family would have predicted what happened at the 2006 NCAA tournament. Chris apparently had all the skills ballyhooed by his coach, he just had kept them saved up someplace out of sight. Weidman went ape-shit at nationals, beating one highly regarded stud after another in an insane three match hot streak. First, he beat a very good Darren Burns, in the second round he upended the top-seeded Wynn Michalak, then he beat Ryan Bader, the eighth seed, and then....well that was it, he won the three matches necessary to vault him into the national semifinals, guaranteeing him at least sixth place. That sort of marked the end of the road for Weidman's improbable run. Jake Rosholt flattened him quickly in the semifinals, and Weidman injury defaulted his next two matches to finish in sixth place as an All American.
In his senior year, Weidman's in-season performance yielded better results. Chris posted a 28 and 7 regular season record, which included a win over returning national finalist Phil Davis of Penn State. While Weidman still failed to consistently beat the nation's best, he managed to earn an 11th seed at the 2007 NCAA tournament, a position which still would require him to beat a higher seed in order to place.
Once more, a different version of Chris Weidman showed up at the NCAA tournament. For the second year in a row, Weidman found himself in the semifinals after a quarterfinal win over the third seed, Mike Tamillow of Northwestern. History would repeat itself in the next round as Weidman fell by pin to the eventual champion in the semis, this time in the form of American University's Josh Glenn.
Below is Weidman hitting a clutch low single to edge out a win in the 2007 NCAA quarter finals.
This would prove to be the final loss of Weidman's college career. In the wrestle-backs Chris would defeat fifth seeded Jerry Rinaldi of Cornell (grappling fans may recognize that name), and then sixth seeded J.D. Bergman of Ohio State to earn third place. Bergman, for anyone interested, will represent the United States on the freestyle world team this year.
Weidman would wrestle in a limited number of freestyle tournaments after college, but this was up at 211 pounds, and he only achieved modest success. Weidman's ideal path clearly did not lay in the pursuit of an Olympic berth.
Factgrinder Final Analysis
I suppose Chris Weidman's NCAA wrestling career can be viewed in one of two ways. Either two lucky tournaments left an otherwise solid but unremarkable wrestler with accolades unreflective of his overall body of work, or that Chris's wrestling career revealed a competitor who simply knows how to turn it on when the bright lights shine on him. I'll go with the latter. Wrestling coaches have a special word for all the wrestling that takes place before the final tournament of the season; they call it practice. We should always remember wrestlers by how they perform in the matches that matter. In Chris Weidman's case, he performed pretty damned well.