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Wrestling breakdown: U23 World champion Bo Nickal

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Already one of the most accomplished and popular amateur wrestlers in the country, Bo Nickal jumped levels when he won his first freestyle World title.

2019 NCAA Div I Wrestling Championships Session Six Photo by Hunter Martin/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Until Allen, Texas representative Bo Nickal came along, the only men’s freestyle competitor from the Lone Star State to make a senior-level impact was 2000 Olympic champion Brandon Slay.

Since Slay, Tamyra Mensah-Stock of Katy, Texas has made her way onto three-straight women’s freestyle teams, winning bronze in 2018 and gold in 2019, in addition to three-straight Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix titles.

But in men’s freestyle, the best result since Slay had been two-time All-American Jack Mueller (Dallas) making the U23 World team, but he did not place.

FloWrestling, based in Austin, has been putting a ton of effort into hosting events and growing the sport in Texas. Considering the sheer size of the state, and that the demographics match up with the wrestling fanbase already, there is a massive untapped population that could change the domestic landscape.

Sometimes all you need is an exciting champion to lead the way.

A Superstar’s Pedigree

Even before Bo Nickal made his collegiate debut, he was scouted as a future legend.

A 183-7 record (with 131 pins) and three Texas state titles pale in comparison to Nickal’s accomplishments on a national level in high school.

“Fargo” junior nationals is the country’s most prestigious tournament for youth wrestlers, with titles up for grabs in both freestyle and Greco-Roman. Nickal made three appearances from 2011-2013 in both styles. Ever-ambitious, Nickal demanded outright domination, regardless of style. In 2011 he took 3rd in Greco and 7th in freestyle at 135 pounds, but by 2012 he had eclipsed the field, becoming a double champion by taking 1st in both styles at 152 and 160 pounds.

With nothing left to prove at Fargo, Nickal looked beyond the domestic scene, aiming for international glory at the Cadet World championships, in freestyle. Eviscerating Fargo’s 2013 freestyle bracket at 170 pounds, Nickal then cleared the Cadet World Team Trials. over his future teammate Mark Hall, 8-6. One year later, Hall would make the team and win Cadet World gold, followed by back-to-back Junior World titles in 2016 and 2017.

A 6-3 opening round victory over Japan brought Nickal to Batyrbek Tsakulov, an explosive wrestler from North Ossetia-Alania, representing Russia. The patience and tricky attacks of European opponents can often throw off even the most confident and dynamic American wrestlers, especially when first meeting them. After the tournament Nickal remarked that by the time he realized he could beat Tsakulov, it was too late. He lost 7-1 but was pulled into repechage, giving him a chance for bronze. Tsakulov won gold.

Bo Nickal’s 2013 Cadet World run came to a disappointing end when he lost to Iran’s Ali Mojerloo.

With senior year approaching, Nickal turned his attention to folkstyle, he would soon wrestle for Penn State University - the decade’s greatest Division 1 program.

Iowa v Penn State Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Freshman Phenom

Wrestling for Cael Sanderson, Division 1 Wrestling’s only four-time undefeated NCAA champion, Nickal proved he was ready for the big show early in his redshirt season at 174 pounds.

After going 9-0 in open tournament competition, Nickal faced off with his teammate Matt Brown at the Nittany Lion Open. An All-American returning from a 5th place NCAA finish, in his senior year of competition, Brown was hunting for a national title. Nickal fell 10-7, but Brown’s (controversial) NCAA title victory assured Penn State fans that the spot at 174 was in good hands.

Nickal opened his redshirt freshman campaign with a 6-2 win over returning All-American Zach Epperly, the #2 ranked wrestler at the time, Epperly would take 3rd that season. Less than one week later he pinned All-American Bryce Hammond, took out fellow blue-chipper Myles Martin, he put up 14 points on three-time All-American Brian Realbuto, pinned All-American Zac Brunson, defeated Myles Martin again, all within the regular season.

Other than a lone, odd, upset loss to a top-ten wrestler in Nate Jackson, Nickal’s redshirt freshman season was one worthy of a national champion.

In the post-season, Nickal appeared to have jumped levels, he pinned Myles Martin for his first Big Ten title.

At the NCAA championships, Nickal avenged his loss to Nate Jackson and earned a major decision over two-time All-American Chandler Rogers. He was in fine form, and he had a familiar foe in the finals - Myles Martin, a man he beat by an increasingly wide margin in three meetings.

Nickal’s confident in upper-body positions would be his undoing, a botched throw gave Martin a six-point lead, one that Nickal could not overcome. He went down 11-9 in the NCAA finals.

2019 NCAA Div I Wrestling Championships Session Four Photo by Hunter Martin/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Bo Knows

You learn more about an athlete in defeat than you do in victory. After setbacks in his first Fargo appearance, Bo Nickal came back to torch the field for two years straight. When he fell short at Worlds, Nickal had one of the greatest freshman seasons in school history when he got back to folkstyle.

In his own eyes, Nickal had failed to meet the expectations he set during the regular season and conference tournament. In response, he would reach new levels of dominance on his path to NCAA finals vindication. He moved up to 184 pounds to challenge two-time NCAA champion Gabe Dean, who had upset former PSU great Ed Ruth seasons prior. Myles Martin bumped up as well.

In a season motivated by redemption, what better way to set the tone than seven-straight pins?

Nickal was beginning to show off the style that would cement him as perhaps the most dangerous wrestler in the country. In breaking down his freestyle match series with multiple-time NCAA champion and two-time World champion J’den Cox, I had this to say about Nickal’s skills:

“For nearly every wrestler in the country, Bo Nickal is a nightmare match up. Offensively, he gets to the legs with deceptive speed, using his length and power to quickly convert on high crotch shots from space or a long over tie. Nickal employs Penn State’s infamously heavy snap downs to set up scoring sequences, either snapping you on your face for a quick go-behind or hitting swift leg attacks when his man straightens up reactively.

If you tie up with him to negate that athletic advantage, more often than not, you’re going for a ride. Nickal can consistently punch through strong underhooks to get to knee taps, ankle picks, or dangerous front headlock situations if a scramble ensues. When he’s supremely confident, Nickal can pull in from over-unders and launch even elite opponents over his hips. In terms of takedown ability, “upper body” positions are where Nickal is the deadliest.

However, it’s the scrambling game of Nickal that led to his insane bonus rate in folkstyle. Off his opponents’ attacks, Nickal is ludicrously smooth and composed. He’ll often prioritize countering rather than paying mind to his first layer of defense, as in sprawling and creating separation. Nickal is most often attacking the far ankle and creating an angle to lock up near and far-side cradles. This is one aspect of his game that should suffer very little in the transition to freestyle, as Nickal’s turns and pins come from fluid exchanges off shots, rather than lengthy process-driven breakdowns and ride sequences from the top.

Essentially, Nickal has a seemingly fool-proof system of scoring, no position is safe.”

Leading up to the NCAA championships, Nickal defeated six All-Americans and an NCAA champion. After a modest 10-5 decision over two-time All-American TJ Dudley, Nickal pinned two-time All-American Sammy Brooks of Iowa in his home arena, in 38 seconds.

When he hit Myles Martin for the first time in the season, he gave up little ground, shutting out the returning champion 8-2.

A major decision over two-time All-American Emery Parker and another sub-minute pin over two-time All-American Nolan Boyd set the state for the post-season.

At Big Tens, he was utterly dominant, except for one hiccup. In the finals, once again, he was upset by Myles Martin, 6-4. The next match of their rivalry would have to wait, at the NCAA championships Martin was upset by Sammy Brooks and Emery Parker. Nickal pinned both Brooks and TJ Dudley on his way to the finals showdown with Dean.

It wasn’t as flashy as the rest of his season, but Bo felled a giant, taking out the defending champion 4-3.

He never lost in college again.

On his way to his second and third national titles, Nickal missed bonus points only 10 times in 61 matches, part of his concluding 68-match winstreak.

His greatest highlight was without a doubt his title-winning pin over Myles Martin in his junior season.

Gaining control of Martin’s head and an underhook for leverage, Nickal dropped to his back and used elevators (similar to butterfly hooks) to put Martin on his back in the national finals.

In his senior season, after racking up 18 pins, Nickal was awarded the Hodge Trophy, wrestling’s Heisman equivalent.

World Team Bid

With his folkstyle career over, Nickal’s original goal came back into focus- international glory.

After competing at 184 and 197 pounds in his final two seasons, the Olympic weight of 86 kg (189 pounds) was the perfect fit. Unfortunately, Nittany Lion Wrestling Club’s David Taylor was the reigning World champion at 86. Taylor would suffer an injury in an exhibition that took him out of action and freed up the spot, but at the time it seemed Nickal had no choice but to head up to the non-Olympic weight of 92 kg to challenge another returning World champion, J’den Cox.

The US Open, also known as Senior Freestyle Nationals, was Nickal’s ideal path to Cox. He had a relatively easy draw up until the semifinals, where he met NCAA champion Michael Macchiavello. A stocky, powerful, positionally sound wrestler from NC State, Macchiavello couldn’t keep Nickal off his legs. Nickal won by technical fall in four minutes.

He appeared to have a tough match ahead of him in the finals, North Dakota State All-American Hayden Zillmer was ranked top-20 in the world at the time, he was holding his own in major international competitions. Nickal disposed of him via 13-3 technical fall.

He sat in the finals of the World Team Trials, a win there would set him up to battle J’den Cox for the spot. Macchiavello took out Zillmer in the Challenge Tournament finals, but was unable to score a single point in two matches vs. Nickal, losing by 10-0 technical fall and then 5-0 decision.

For a full breakdown of Nickal’s matches with J’den Cox, please follow this link.

U23 World Championships

Because Nickal was still age-group eligible, and he had reached national-team status at the senior-level, he had the right to challenge for the U23 World team at 92 kg.

Sitting in the spot was a Pennsylvania standout, now wrestling for the University of Oklahoma, Jake Woodley.

The special wrestle-offs took place during the 2019 Fargo tournament, a fitting return for Nickal’s first year of full-time freestyle. Considering his ability and a relatively lower level of competition, Nickal’s performances were uninspired (12-4, 8-2), but even an apathetic effort was enough to kick Woodley from the team and earn a trip to Budapest.

1/8 Final: Bo Dean NICKAL (USA) df. Hossein Lotfali SHAHBAZIGAZVAR (IRI)

#10 Hossein SHAHBAZIGAZVAR (IRI)

Cadet World Championship Junior World Championship Asian Championship U23 World Championship
Cadet World Championship Junior World Championship Asian Championship U23 World Championship
2012 Bronze 2016 Gold 2017 Silver 2018 Bronze
2019 Bronze

The Iranian style, on paper, proves a tough challenge for a wrestler like Bo Nickal. Iranian wrestlers are notorious for their strength and savvy in upper body positions and the handfight, specifically their efficacy from underhooks. As someone who loves to control the mat with heavy handfighting and work form underhooks himself, Nickal had to have known he’d be fighting fire with fire.

Of course he couldn’t be solely focused on the handfight, either, as Shahbazigazvar showed slick leg attacks of his own.

Although Nickal was quick to catch the connecting arm with an underhook and put the Iranian in a tough position, he got greedy when he looked to roll through with a knee pull from that position. Nickal only rolled across his own back and did not expose his opponent, giving up two points.

But the mistakes ended there, Nickal was locked in, putting in a workmanlike performance with his snaps and level changes. He didn’t have to meet Shahbazigazvar head-on, he could manipulate his posture and reactions from the outside and strike when he was out of position.

It worked beautifully, Nickal’s motion off his snaps gave him routine entries to the ankles, and low leg attacks flow perfectly into leg lace positions for further exposures.

After a rough start, Nickal put him away via 12-2 technical fall.

Quarterfinal: Bo Dean NICKAL (USA) df. Takumi TANIZAKI (JPN)

Compared to the Iranian, Takumi Tanizaki was an “off round” for Bo Nickal. While Tanizaki had competed at World-level tournaments before, his best finish was bronze at a domestic tournament at a non-Olympic weight.

Nickal got to his typical game against the shorter wrestler. He snapped him down, ran to the corner, then locked up the cradle as Tanizaki looked to stand back up.

It wouldn’t be a Bo Nickal tournament without a quick pin.

Semifinal: Bo Dean NICKAL (USA) df. Shamil ZUBAIROV (AZE)

#11 Shamil ZUBAIROV (AZE)

Yasar Dogu U23 European Championship U23 World Championship
Yasar Dogu U23 European Championship U23 World Championship
2019 Bronze 2018 Gold 2018 Gold
2019 Bronze

In his first match, Nickal met a returning U23 bronze medalist, next was the returning champion in the semifinals.

Zubairov had represented Azerbaijan in 2019 at the senior World Championships, he was favored to at least be in contention for a medal match, but was upset in his first bout.

The Azeri outscored his first two opponents 23-5, he was exactly the kind of wrestler Nickal would have to be able to defeat routinely to contend on the senior World stage.

Wrestlers from Azerbaijan tend to thrive from front headlock, their ability to control the pace of a match and impose their physicality is often essential.

But it was Nickal who generated consistent short offense and snaps, he cleared ties or created flurrying situations whenever he wanted. Fearing going underneath the lanky, dangerous Nickal, Zubairov resorted to desperate clubs and mad dashes for pushouts.

Outside of one scary front headlock situation, it was Nickal controlling the match by manipulating posture with snaps and motion, as well as capitalizing on the aggression of his opponent with ducks and upper body counters. In the end it was 9-1, USA.

Final: Bo Dean NICKAL (USA) df. Batyrbek TSAKULOV (RUS)

#6 Batyrbek TSAKULOV (RUS)

Cadet World Championship Alans International Tournament Ali Aliev Tournament Waclaw Ziolkowski Memorial Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix U23 European Championship Russian National Championship U23 World Championship
Cadet World Championship Alans International Tournament Ali Aliev Tournament Waclaw Ziolkowski Memorial Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix U23 European Championship Russian National Championship U23 World Championship
2013 Gold 2017 Bronze 2018 Gold 2018 Gold 2019 Silver 2018 Bronze 2018 Gold 2019 Silver
2019 Bronze 2019 Bronze 2019 Gold 2019 Bronze

As luck would have it, Bo Nickal was blessed with the opportunity for revenge.

His loss to Batyrbek Tsakulov in the 2013 Cadet World Championships had dashed his hopes for gold, now he had the chance to return the favor.

Tsakulov’s 2017-2019 run had him positioned as one of the top upperweights in the world, regardless of age group. Medal finishes at tournaments like the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix and winning Russian Nationals meant Tsakulov was undeniably a top-five talent globally at 92 kg.

Technically and athletically, Tsakulov had become a frightening competitor. Known for his fast-twitch maneuvering on ducks, superducks and throw-bys, Tsakulov is an incredibly dangerous man to pressure. If an opponent is caught reaching or biting on a feint, they’re likely to be countered swiftly.

Nickal approached with the necessary respect and began cautiously, offering low level attacks from the outside to supplement his consistent snaps. The Texan made sure to be first on these exchanges, he couldn’t be lulled into reacting to Tsakulov, lest he be lured into a trap.

But Tsakulov’s strengths lied largely in active flurries or off motion in tight spaces, Nickal could work consistently and safely from more static upper body positions, meaning his underhooks would be key for controlling the mat.

Eventually, the attritive handfighting of Nickal began to get to the Russian. Once he began reactive to Nickal’s reaches, singles shot across under the reaching hand were there.

When momentum starts to turn in Nickal’s favor, he’s ruthless. Tsakulov tightened up and gave less in the handfight, which meant he was there to be bullied. Nickal got even heavier and more active on the head, opening up the ankle pick as well. He had ways to score from all his favorite leading positions, and Tsakulov was having trouble keeping up.

The Russians only option was to sell out on offense, and after hitting his trusty duck-under, there seemed to be hope. That was, until Nickal got right back to his high-c and doubled off to go feet to back for four points. A failed challenge made it 12-2, a technical fall.

Bo Nickal earned his revenge and a U23 Senior World title.

Bo Nickal U23 Worlds Kadir Caliskan/United World Wrestling

2020 Olympics and Mixed Martial Arts

While Nickal has teased a move to MMA for a few years now, he’s also been vocal about holding off until after this current Olympic cycle.

Considering his U23 run, it’s fair to put Nickal among the best in the world at either 86 or 97 kg. The Fight Site’s Seth Petarra currently ranks him 5th at 92 kg, a non-Olympic weight. J’den Cox holds the top spot, of course.

It would make a ton of sense for Nickal to head down to 86, but with his teammate David Taylor still likely in the mix, it sounds like Bo is going up to 97, where he will undeniably be undersized. I’m still holding out hope that he chooses the ideal weight, but apparently he told Luke Thomas 97 is the move.

If he does go 86, domestically he’ll have to reckon with the former #2 in the world Alex Dieringer, World champion David Taylor, two-time NCAA champion Zahid Valencia, and perhaps even two-time World champion J’den Cox. Internationally, his biggest challenge will be World and Olympic champion Hassan Yazdanicharati of Iran.

At 97, the man to beat is three-time World and Olympic champion Kyle Snyder, who recently made the move to Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Word is that J’den Cox is going to 86 kg, but there’s always the possibility that the former Missouri wrestler bumps up.

Internationally 97 kg is the toughest weight to crack for gold, as future GOAT Abdulrashid Sadulaev reigns with an iron fist.

If Bo Nickal makes the team and earns a medal, I doubt his move to MMA comes before the next cycle ends. He’s too valuable to USA Wrestling and he’ll adjust his goals after reevaluating his ceiling.

If he doesn’t, his new manager Malki Kawa will likely get him to the UFC within five years, and that’s a safe estimate. I’d expect to see him competing at 185 pounds, where his relaxed, creative style, combined with lethal leg attacks and upper body chops, would make him nearly unstoppable as a takedown artist. That is, if he picks up striking to a decent degree. Given Nickal’s wizardry as a mat wrestler in college, I doubt he has any trouble developing a dangerous ground game to top it all off.

Video of Nickal’s college matches can be found on FloWrestling, although you will need a membership. There is plenty on YouTube if that’s out of the question, enjoy!