The first official RTC Freestyle Cup was an incredible success. Sponsored by Titan Mercury Wrestling Club and streamed by FloWrestling, six of the strongest wrestling clubs and regional training centers in the United States squared off in a dual meet tournament for an attractive cash prize.
The tournament was contested in the dual meet “team vs. team” format - each club sent out six wrestlers at the Olympic weight classes. The winner of the round-robin in each of the two pools advanced to the semifinals, while the runner-ups wrestled again in a consolation match to put themselves back into contention. With only six weights, there were plenty of 3-3 duals that came down to criteria like “most technical falls” or “most points scored.” Every point mattered, adding significance to each match.
The participants were the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club, based out of Michigan, the Wolfpack Wrestling Club, based out of North Carolina, the Ohio RTC, Gopher Wrestling Club, based out of Minnesota, Spartan Combat RTC, based out of Cornell in New York, and the combined New Jersey RTC and Southeast RTC team.
There were plenty of standout performers - namely Wolfpack WC’s Trent Hidlay, a college redshirt sophomore who went undefeated and knocked off #12 world ranked Myles Amine. However, the most anticipated storyline of the tournament was the dynamic between the heavyweights.
Representing the Wolfpack WC was Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time NCAA champion and two-time World medalist looking to retain his streak of World team appearances. His main contender has been Gopher WC’s Gable Steveson, the three-time age group World champion and the man who challenged him for the World team spot in 2019. Cliff Keen WC’s Mason Parris, a junior World champion and physical phenom, looked to insert himself into the conversation for World and Olympic teams. Parris holds a pin victory over Iran’s Amir Zare, who defeated Gwiazdowski by technical fall in November 2019.
Gable, ‘Gwiz’, and Parris
The first potential meeting was set up in the early dual between the Gopher WC and Cliff Keen WC, but Minnesota opted for the giant, two-time NCAA champion Tony Nelson.
Parris was a strong starter the entire tournament, getting to his high-crotch to dump finish early. His preferred entry seems to be shooting off the over-ties against pressure. Against Nelson he felt comfortable controlling ties and playing defense after getting a big lead early, his usual issues were not present. Parris’ greatest flaw at the moment is his shot selection, he feels pressure to push a high pace and get to the legs far too often for a heavyweight, resulting in energy expenditure and exposure to counters and go-behinds. He handled Nelson 8-2 and Cliff Keen rolled past the Gopher WC.
Soon after, Cliff Keen turned right back around to take on the Wolfpack RTC of North Carolina State. Jaws dropped around the country as the college junior stormed out two an 8-0 lead over the top heavyweight in the US.
After hitting his trusty high-C off over-ties yet again, Parris leveraged his athleticism by firing off multiple sweep singles to the left off looser ties like wrist control, as Gwiazdowski pressured. Despite shooting himself underneath another powerful heavyweight, Parris was able to get height and double off to finish his shots.
Eager to seal the deal, Parris continued to attack.
But Gwiazdowski had seen that single one too many times, and was able to downblock and kick back to get out to quick reattacks on Parris. The experience of the veteran showed as he put up an incredible 12 points in one sequence after a series of leg laces. Now trailing by four, Parris couldn’t help but continue to attack, and Gwiazdowski picked him apart on the reattack, eventually leading to a technical fall.
It was one of the most dramatic matches of the year. Perhaps Parris gassed himself out coming on strong early. After all, he had wrestled a full match vs. Tony Nelson not long before. It was a huge statement from both wrestlers, and fans couldn’t help but feel Gwiazdowski was vulnerable heading into his showdown with Gable Steveson.
It was Gwiazdowski’s turn for a quick return to action, the whistle blew for his third career match with Gable Steveson one hour after his war with Mason Parris.
Steveson came out pressuring hard, head jabbing and breaking off the ties of Nick Gwiazdowski. Gwiazdowski is a low leg attacker, crowding him and taking away the space he needs to cover distance to the legs is a great look for neutralizing his game. Steveson stayed heavy on the head, and controlled the wrists of Gwiazdowski to prevent any shots off of Steveson’s snaps.
It’s basic wrestling, the head-hands defense of Steveson put him in control of the match. Defense wins matches, but of course you still need to score. The key for Steveson was timing and broken rhythm. He looked to shoot off breaks in tie-ups, but instead of dropping right off the break, he would wait a beat, then attack.
This small difference in timing made it difficult for Gwiazdowski to anticipate and preemptively defend Steveson’s attacks. To add another layer to this strategy, Steveson incorporates more fakes and stutters, which even helped to draw out ill-advised shots from Gwiazdowski.
This match generalship allowed Gable Steveson to dictate most of the exchanges, but it was his skill level that saw him through their flurries. Steveson consistently maintained excellent positioning, stayed fundamental on defense and kept his attack rate steady to earn his first win over Nick Gwiazdowski.
This was not a USA Wrestling event and the Olympic Trials seeds are already set, so Gwiazdowski will retain his #1 spot at that tournament. However, the momentum is now on Steveson’s side, and he has a blueprint for victory.
Nick Gwiazdowski deserves all the respect in the world. He did not need to attend this event and give two young killers multiple shots at him. When Cliff Keen and the Wolfpack WC hit again, Gwiazdowski walked out on the mat to wrestle Mason Parris for the second time that weekend.
Learning from his mistakes, Parris paced himself and wrestled with maturity. After giving up an early takedown, he was able to stop the leg lace of Nick Gwiazdowski, after giving up five consecutive turns from that position in their previous match. When Gwiazdowski hit his reattacks off Parris’ shots, Parris maintained his positioning and was able to defend well, leading to his own scores in extended exchanges. Both men wrestled a discipline match in the first period, which ended 2-2.
The second period was chaos - each wrestler let their offense fly in a back-and-forth battle of scores. Down 7-6 with less than 30 seconds on the clock, Mason Parris hit a sweep single into a lace and locked up the match, and the semifinal win for Cliff Keen WC. After fading late against Gwiazdowski in their first match, Parris finished strong and showed off his par terre offense.
Cliff Keen Wrestling Club went on to defeat the combined NJ RTC and Southeast RTC team in the finals and became the inaugural US RTC Cup champions. It was a phenomenal weekend of wrestling. I hope this event is a mainstay for years to come.
The Olympic Team
After a wild weekend, Gable Steveson and Mason Parris left with wins over the returning World team member at heavyweight. However, as Gwiazdowski still has the #1 seed locked up for the Olympic Team Trials, Steveson and Parris will very likely face each other in the semifinals before getting to Gwiazdowski.
The two met most recently in March 2020 at the Big Ten Championship tournament, Steveson won 8-6. Of course, Parris’ showing at the RTC cup suggests a jump in levels for the Michigan true junior.
Gwiazdowski is now 2-1 vs. Steveson, and 1-1 vs. Parris. He’ll face tough contenders like Tony Nelson and Dom Bradley on his side of the bracket, but he should be heavily favored to make the tournament finals.
In my opinion, the longer the Olympic Team Trials are delayed, the better the chances are for Steveson or Parris to make the team. Time favors the young developing contenders, and Gwiazdowski has not been performing on a positive curve the past few years. Of course, there is little evidence, besides the Zare win for Parris, to measure where the two young heavyweights stand among the top five in the world.
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