The biggest domestic freestyle wrestling story line of the year has reached a dramatic conclusion.
Rising Cornell junior and two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis disrupted the 65 kg landscape when he ran through the 2019 US Open, and followed up with a thrilling exhibition win over India’s Bajrang Punia, ranked #1 in the world by United World Wrestling.
After being upset by Diakomihalis at the Open, Penn State’s two-time Hodge Trophy winner Zain Retherford put on a career-best performance at the 2019 World Team Trials, defeating longstanding rival Jordan Oliver in the finals.
Diakomihalis and Retherford met for the second time at Final X, the official wrestle-off event for USA Wrestling in non-Olympic years. They were set for a best-of-three series.
Retherford took the first match in seemingly dominant fashion, getting quick finishes on his shots to avoid the prodigious scrambling of Diakomihalis. The second match saw similar dynamics play out, but Diakomihalis showed off his freestyle savvy by exposing Retherford in several exchanges. Both matches are highlighted and broken down here.
As time expired, it appeared the Diakomihalis had the win, sending them to a rubber match. After the final whistle had blown, the Penn State corner threw the challenge brick, as a phantom point had been awarded during an exchange that started nearly one minute beforehand.
After reviewing the full sequence, the officials awarded Retherford the win. The wrestling world erupted, fan bases were split. While not many could dispute the correct scoring of that exchange, the nature of the challenge was questionable. Per UWW’s rulebook, challenges should not be accepted more than five seconds after the action in question has concluded. If Penn State challenged the minute-old exchange, and not the final score, then the challenge could not be accepted. Cornell filed for arbitration.
Not long after, both Diakomihalis and Retherford traveled to Turkey to compete in the esteemed Yasar Dogu tournament, where they met in the first round. The match had no official bearing on the arbitration, but Diakomihalis prevailed.
Independent arbitrator Matthew Mitten ruled in favor of Diakomihalis. Instead of erasing the challenge and awarding Diakomihalis the win, the match itself was thrown out. The series would have to be completed, with Retherford’s first Final X win holding.
Retherford and Diakomihalis met on the campus of Wilkes University in Pennsylvania on September 2nd. The roaring stands were packed with Penn State homers, Cornell faithful, and a horde of fans from Retherford’s old school, nearby Benton High.
With his first win standing, Retherford only needed to win one match to cement his spot on the 2019 US Men’s Freestyle World Team. While the odds were against him, many picked the younger Diakomihalis to win two straight matches and make the best of his second chance.
Diakomihalis won at the Open, Retherford won two* at Final X: Rutgers, Diakomihalis won at Yasar Dogu. Who would take match five?
Zain Retherford vs. Yianni Diakomihalis: Part 5
Retherford stonewalls Diakomihalis on the feet
At the most basic level, the matches between Retherford and Diakomihalis have been decided by who controls the handfight. At the US Open, Retherford troubled Diakomihalis with his posting and snapping, but Diakomihalis was able to time and counter many of the straight arm attacks of Retherford. At Final X, Retherford used similar tactics, but timed Diakomihalis reaching to explode into quick low doubles, allowing him to control both ankles and stifle the type of scrambling that troubled him.
At the Yasar Dogu, Diakomihalis employed the wrestling equivalent of a long guard, keeping a constant hand on Retherford, eliminating the advantage provided to Retherford by space.
In Wilkes-Barre, Retherford wrestled with intensity, driving into Diakomihalis from the opening whistle. As usual, Diakomihalis was looking for the elbow of Retherford, he could pass it and duck under on a shot to capitalize on Retherford’s pressure.
As he did at the US Open, Retherford was quick to post aggressively and clear any unfavorable ties. Retherford was also able to snap Diakomihalis off his wrists, avoiding entries for swing singles like at Yasar Dogu.
When Diakomihalis could get to the elbow for extended periods, Retherford masterfully back-stepped away from the shot as Diakomihalis “opened the window”, elevating Retherford’s arm from outside elbow control.
Diakomihalis is still dangerous even from the flimsiest of grips, Retherford made sure to shut down any extended exchanges on his own terms by locking down from front headlock and staying long, his toes as far back as possible.
As a result, Diakomihalis was forced to shoot from looser grips and less favorable positions. Long singles were stuffed with constant pressure on the face and forehead by Retherford. If Diakomihalis pushed on past the posts, Retherford had enough space to underhook and trap Diakomihalis extended underneath him.
Retherford baits and counters
The more wrestling exchanges you allow Diakomihalis to initiate, the more likely it is he’ll be able to engineer a path to a scoring position. However, in his losses to Diakomihalis, Retherford was troubled more often by the counters to his offense rather than attacks begun by Diakomihalis.
Early on at Final X: Rutgers, Retherford demonstrated the power of his low double. Diakomihalis had punished him several times off the whizzer while defending singles, the low double forced Diakomihalis to attempt to counter with a chest wrap, a much weaker position for him.
The brutal, high-paced handfighting of Retherford primarily served to exhaust Diakomihalis and stifle his offense. But, as we saw in his World Team Trials run, the more concerned his opponents are with stopping the hand fight, the easier it is for Retherford to draw out a reaction.
Retherford’s process is pretty similar across matches, club or post hard, allow the opponent to clear ties, then reach back in earnest from space. He already has his opponent in the rhythm of intercepting or preparing to clear, causing them to reach up. Against Diakomihalis, Retherford showed that look a few times, even feint stepping after one clear to give a different look. Retherford had hit that setup on Diakomihalis several times already in their history, it’s not showing his cards to feint the attack, rather it gives Diakomihalis one more possibility to think about.
Exchange #1: Retherford hits the low double
In the first major exchange, Retherford circled to his left, looking for Diakomihalis’ feet to align and weaken his base. Even if that moment doesn’t come, it keeps your opponent’s feet moving on your terms, you can predict when the steps will take place.
Retherford reached for the hands, when Diakomihalis bit, he reached again to snap, but instead of snapping in earnest, Retherford used the motion of the snap to change levels entirely, hitting the ground and shooting forward to snatch up Diakomihalis’ ankles with a low double.
Sat to his butt, Diakomihalis did all he could and locked his hands for a chest wrap, keeping his posture upright to prevent exposure. Retherford began to base up and elevate Diakomihalis’ legs, tilting his back to the mat.
But, brilliant as always, Diakomihalis timed Retherford lifting his right leg to plant and began the chest wrap in the other direction at the exact moment Retherford only had one point of contact with the mat, when his base was the weakest.
Diakomihalis hooked his foot inside the right leg of Retherford to further elevate and complete the move, but Retherford recovered. At the very least, it gave Diakomihalis space to get his hips back behind him and Retherford underneath him.
As Retherford switched to a single, Diakomihalis reached across for his best exposure technique, locking his hands through the crotch. Instead of basing up and looking to finish the single as he had in prior matches, Retherford flattened himself out and focused solely on preventing the exposure, stalling out the position.
Exchange #2: Diakomihalis plays off the head post, 50/50 scramble
The downside of Retherford’s persistent handfighting is that he may sometimes give up control. Both Diakomihalis and his former training partner Jordan Oliver caught the wrist of Retherford as he posted on the head, using the new tie to shoot off of. At Final X: Rutgers, Retherford opted to post into the shoulder much more often, but he went back to the head in Wilkes-Barre, presenting an opportunity for Diakomihalis.
Instead of catching the wrist and dragging, as he had in the past, Diakomihalis swiftly broke the post by pushing upward off the wrist. It’s a similar dynamic as the shot off outside elbow control, Diakomihalis lifts what would be Retherford’s defending arm with his left, changes levels and shots across to Retherford’s trail leg with his right.
The great thing for Diakomihalis about shooting off the post rather than his own elbow control is that it’s much harder for Retherford to back step, as he had to plant his weight to post, just like sitting down on a punch.
Diakomihalis quickly turned the corner and Retherford squared up, sitting to his hip and pulling the knee of Diakomihalis, taking him away from the outside angle and bringing Diakomihalis’ legs closer. Retherford showed a new look and locked through the crotch himself, hooking Diakomihalis’ leg on the opposite side.
This is where some confusion, and perhaps controversy, still lies. Freestyle wrestling exposure scoring is often about who “initiated” an exchange.
Here you can see Retherford with the lock and the leg hooked. Diakomihalis has Retherford’s right leg trapped underneath him, to begin motion, Retherford would have to plant off his free leg and elevate with the lock.
One beat later, Retherford is doing just that, you can see he’s putting weight on his foot and Diakomihalis’ hips are now raised. The issue is that, seemingly simultaneously, Diakomihalis also put weight on his free foot. Theoretically, Diakomihalis, with control of Retherford’s leg, could thrust off that foot and rock back to his right, exposing Retherford’s back.
Diakomihalis does clearly initiate this position, indeed thrusting off his free foot and catching himself in what essentially a headstand. For it to be Retherford’s exposure, he would have to be the one to pull the lock and rock backward. Diakomihalis would likely have to manipulate the single leg, he could push off his foot again and lift the leg off the mat.
That’s the problem, there really is no way to know for sure if Retherford was the one pulling the lock or not.
From my perspective, Diakomihalis’ hips show he’s being pulled. You can see Diakomihalis’ free foot is off the ground, but that would also happen as a result of being pulled back. Diakomihalis still has the headstand and has pulled the leg up, but he could have been angling for that while Retherford pulled.
In my opinion, from what I can see here, however, Retherford was exposed first.
For that split second, Retherford is exposed and Diakomihalis does not appear to be.
Now they both are.
This exercise was mostly for my own sanity, and for anyone who thinks there was a clear answer in that exchange. If there is criteria to be considered here beyond, “whose move was it?”, please let me know!
The scramble was called two red, going the way of Retherford.
Exchange #3: Diakomihalis shoots long, Retherford reattacks
At this point, Diakomihalis is taking more risks to get back the lead.
Diakomihalis shoots long, Retherford sprawls and gets overhooks on both extended arms. As they stand, Retherford passes the left overhook to the opposite arm, drags and circles, reaching outside for a single on the reattack.
Retherford drives through with an underhook and knocks Diakomihalis to his hip. Diakomihalis saves himself by folding his legs, stepping his right leg back while holding on to the whizzer. Diakomihalis then steps back of Retherford’s head with that free leg, quickly releases the whizzer and turns back in, grabbing it again as Retherford reaches for the far ankle.
The whizzer position in scrambles had been money for Diakomihalis in the past, but Retherford had shut down the crotch lock counter once already.
Diakomihalis does indeed get to the angle, and even briefly fishes for a cradle, looking to crunch down the head of Retherford, who maintains solid posture and keeps his head high.
Retherford extends himself and keeps a tight grip on the ankle of Diakomihalis, who cannot free himself in time. Another stalemate. The referee briefly awarded two, prematurely, and the call was white paddled by the matside officials.
Exchange #4: Retherford backsteps and reattacks
Diakomihalis looked for an entry similar to exchange #2, but Retherford kept his hand square on the face of Diakomihalis and retained the post, giving him time and space to back step and circle to his left.
As Diakomihalis rose, Retherford was already on his head, continuing to circle until he could reach the trail leg, reaching for the single.
Diakomihalis squared up instantly, but Retherford had his hips loaded up on his back. Retherford based up to his knees, giving Diakomihalis few options other than to drape across his back and attack ankles. Retherford straightened out the single leg and looked to sit Diakomihalis to his hip, but the young prodigy used Retherford’s ankle as a lever, keeping his chest to the ground.
Retherford quickly swiveled his hips to the ground and looked to attack the free leg of Diakomihalis. Simultaneously, Diakomihalis used his left arm as a post to get height and kick his free leg behind him, using his right arm as an overhook to stifle and control Retherford’s free attacking hand. Still planted on his butt, Diakomihalis switched to the chest wrap, causing Retherford to flatten out and essentially shut down.
It’s been said by literally everyone, every time these two wrestle, but it is frankly incredible how instantaneously both Retherford and Diakomihalis make these series of microadjustments once it hits the mat.
Exchange #5: A flurrying Diakomihalis is caught out of position
With short time on the clock, Diakomihalis looked to chain together entries.
He level changed repeatedly in place, attempting to draw a shot or reaction from Retherford, anything he could wrestle off of.
Using an underhook outside the tricep, Diakomihalis attempted to pull himself through and slide across to Retherford’s trail leg. Retherford posted on the face, interrupting the motion, kicked his leg back, eliminating the threat, and pushed in with the whizzer, knocking Diakomihalis off balance.
Because he’s an alien, Diakomihalis kept himself from being knocked onto his back and held position as Retherford dropped to cover him. Retherford limp-armed out of Diakomihalis’ underhook and looked to get to his back, but Diakomihalis quickly widened his base and caught the reaching arm, once again putting them in a whizzer situation.
Draped over top of Retherford, Diakomihalis desperately fished for the crotch lock, badly needing an exposure in the 2-1 match.
With Retherford fully extended and no room underneath him, Diakomihalis switched to attacking the ankle, kicking away at Retherford to attempt to free his own leg.
The kicks to the lat of Retherford were necessary and likely could have led to separation, but unfortunately the vigor with which Diakomihalis kicked led to his foot sliding off and repeatedly smacking Retherford’s head, an obvious foul.
The referee blew the exchange dead and issued a penalty point, which was white paddled by the matside officials.
With only six seconds left, and entries near-impossible to come by, Diakomihalis conceded the victory. Retherford let out a primal scream.
The Marts Center at Wilkes University erupted. After all the controversy, losses and injures, it was Zain Retherford going to Kazakhstan to hunt for World gold.
Yianni Diakomihalis picked off a medal contender and several dangerous foreign opponents this season, a commanding victory over him bodes well for Retherford as a test of his ability.
However, 65 kg is by far the toughest weight in the world this year. As an unseeded wrestler, he will face a murderer’s row at the top right away. Will it be the deadly Russian Gadzhimurad Rashidov, who has been just a hair away from gold on numerous occasions? US fans might find hope if it’s #1 Bajrang Punia, who Diakomihalis defeated. Other possibilities include World and Olympic champions such as Azerbaijan’s Haji Aliyev, or the returning title-winner - another young phenom in Takuto Otoguro.
To even make it to a medal match, Retherford is going to have to wrestle like he is one of the best two or three best 65 kg athletes on the planet. Given the depth of the weight, championship-level wrestlers are not going to make it to the podium. The draw will be crucial.
Stay tuned as brackets come out for the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Wrestling is less than two weeks away.
As far Yianni Diakomihalis, he’ll be back. The Cornell rising junior is taking an Olympic redshirt season for 2020, he will vie for the 65 kg spot once again to represent the United States in Tokyo.
To learn more about the field at 65 kg, check out this career breakdown of Cuba’s Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez, who wrestled many of the aforementioned names.