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USA Men’s Freestyle Olympic Team Trials - 65 kg Preview

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USA’s top men’s freestyle competitors will square off for a spot on the Tokyo Olympic team this weekend. Who are the top contenders and potential dark horses at 65 kg?

2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship
There are strong contenders, but it’s likely we’ll see another set of matches between Yianni Diakomihalis and Zain Retherford in the Olympic Trials finals.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

With the USA men’s freestyle Olympic Team Trials coming up this weekend, I’ll be taking a look at the field per each weight class to lay out the title picture. I focused on results from the past two years, as a lot can change in wrestling over a short period of time.

USA Men’s Freestyle Olympic Team Trials - 65 kg

The narrative to focus on 65 kg isn’t so much, “who will make the team?”, but “can they qualify the weight?” Retherford’s loss at the Pan-American Qualifier put Team USA in a very tough situation, they’re going to have to win the Last Chance Qualifier against extremely tough international opposition to even be able to attend the Olympic Games.

Top Contenders

Zain Retherford - Qualified as the 2019 World team member. Since losing in the first round at 2019 Worlds, Retherford has been rock solid. He scored an impressive win over world-ranked Gergenov at the Alans tournament in 2019, and he opened his 2020 with wins over World bronze medalist Shuptar and Joey McKenna before losing to multiple time World medalist Bajrang Punia 5-4. After a strong start, Retherford failed to qualify the US for the Olympics when he was pinned by Augustin Destribats at the Pan-American Qualifier. Since then, Retherford has looked in great form on the “pro” event circuit - he knocked off Alec Pantaleo, Reece Humphrey, got revenge on Bajrang Punia, and handled Evan Henderson. He’s got momentum on his side, and I’m sure a ton of motivation after that Pan-American Qualifier upset.

Yianni Diakomihalis - Qualified by taking 4th at 2019 Senior Nationals. I won’t retread the drama of Diakomihalis vs. Retherford and the 2019 World team wrestle-offs, but it should come as no surprise that many expected Diakomihalis to be improved and ready to make the team at this point. In 2019, he defeated tough international competitors such as Retherford and World bronze medalist Ismail Musukaev to win the Yasar Dogu and Ziolkowski tournaments. His 2019 Senior Nationals performance was a little rough - he picked up some solid wins but lost on criteria to Joey McKenna and did not wrestle his following match. He’s looked much more like himself in 2020 onward, he blew through the Pan-American Championships, notably beating Augustin Destribats. Diakomihalis may have dropped a 4-4 match to Olympic champion Vladimer Khinchegashvili in 2020, but at the 2021 Henri Deglane Diakomhialis got revenge via technical fall, also defeating James Green on his way to a title. Diakomihalis beat James Green twice earlier at the RTC Cup in December as well. He’s in great form, and if it wasn’t for his messy history with Retherford, he’d likely be a heavy favorite to make the team.

Jordan Oliver - Qualified as the 2019 Bill Farrell Memorial champion. After failing to make the World team in 2019 against Retherford, Oliver has been on a mission. He ran through the 2019 Bill Farrell Memorial, scoring notable wins over Joey McKenna and Frank Molinaro. His 2019 Senior Nationals performance was even more dominant, he defeated a tough field that included Nick Lee and Joey McKenna without giving up a single point. He defeated all five of his opponents by 10-0 technical fall. He looked tough at the 2020 Matteo Pellicone, rattling off three wins before dropping a close 4-3 match to Bajrang Punia. Off those performances, Oliver looked like the favorite to make the Olympic team. But after an unexpected layoff due to CoVid-19 cancelling the trials, Oliver returned in questionable form. On the “pro” circuit he dropped a 4-1 match to Jason Nolf, and lost an exciting shootout to Alec Pantaleo at the 8-man tournament in December. Hopefully Oliver has recovered and will be ready to contend this weekend, because he’s one of our best hopes at qualifying the weight.

The Rest of the Field

James Green - Qualified as the 2019 World team member at 70 kg. With two World medals and countless World team spots under his belt, James Green cannot be counted out, even down at 65 kg. Objectively, his results do not suggest that he is a contender for the spot, however. Green was competing up at 74 kg as recently as November 2019, 65 kg has always been a big cut for him. Down at 65, he picked up a solid win over Alec Pantaleo (who was fresh off the Jordan Oliver win) at the 8-man tournament, before he fell to Bajrang Punia 8-4. At the RTC Cup in December, Green fell twice to Yianni Diakomihalis, and did not get wins over anyone who will appear in this bracket. He returned in January and took out the tough Pat Lugo 3-2, who did not make it through the Last Chance Qualifier. Green is capable of great things, but historically he has not performed well at this weight.

Logan Stieber - Qualified as the 2018 World team member. As a four-time NCAA champion, 2016 World champion, and by far the most credentialed wrestler in the field, Stieber would be a big favorite to do some damage in this bracket. Fortunately for the field, he is retired.

Joey McKenna - Qualified as the 2019 Senior Nationals runner-up. McKenna had a great Senior Nationals, he defeated Evan Henderson via technical fall before getting the big upset win over Yianni Diakomihalis. He fell 10-0 to Jordan Oliver, but it was great progress for the former Junior World medalist. At the Bill Farrell he fell to Oliver again, but was also defeated by Evan Henderson in a crazy 14-12 match. McKenna has been busy, attending international tournaments throughout the past two years, competing against top-level opposition. His best performance was his most recent - he earned bronze at the 2021 Matteo Pellicone after knocking off the tough David Habat, losing to Bajrang Punia 6-3 and beating Turkey for 3rd. McKenna’s win over Diakomihalis holds a lot of weight, we’ll see if he can replicate that performance.

Nick Lee - Qualified by placing 3rd at the 2019 Senior Nationals. Lee became this year’s NCAA champion after impressive wins over Sebastian Rivera and Jaydin Eierman (a repeat of his win at Senior Nationals). Lee’s most impressive win of 2019 Senior Nationals came on the backside, where he defeated Olympian Frank Molinaro. We haven’t seen a ton of Lee in freestyle against this level of competition since 2019, but his volume and intensity on the feet will make him one to watch.

Frank Molinaro - Qualified by placing 5th at the 2019 Senior Nationals, where he was upset early by the unheralded Joey Lazor. He wrestled back strong, defeating Matt Kolodzik and Jaydin Eierman before losing to Evan Henderson and Nick Lee. Molinaro had defeated Henderson and gone close with Jordan Oliver at the Bill Farrell earlier that year, so this certainly looked like a step down. The 2016 Olympian has been fairly inactive, we’ll see if he has anything left in the tank for what is likely his last run.

Evan Henderson - Qualified by winning the Last Chance Olympic Qualifier. Henderson was well on his way to losing at the Last Chance Qualifier to Pat Lugo before pulling some folkstyle out of a hat and pinning him with a half-nelson. Henderson has been solid internationally for a few years now, medalling at name tournaments like Intercontinental Cup and the Henri Deglane. He has recent wins over McKenna and Molinaro, but has always struggled with the top-tier guys, even losing to Anthony Ashnault at the 8-man tournament.

Mitch McKee - Qualified by winning true second at the Last Chance Olympic Qualifier. After being upset by Kizhan Clarke, Mitch McKee wrestled all the way back to true second and an Olympic Trials spot at the Last Chance Qualifier. He notably defeated Luke Pletcher and got revenge on Clarke before taking out Shelton Mack and Pat Lugo to come all the way back. McKee has had mixed results against a “lower tier” of competition at this weight, but his momentum is undeniable right now.

Anthony Ashnault - Qualified by winning the 2020 Pan-American Championship. Ashnault typically competes up at 70 kg, where he’s been solid but struggled to beat elite guys like James Green. He lost via technical fall to Yianni Diakomihalis in January, and at the 8-man tournament beat Evan Henderson before dropping matches to Bajrang Punia and Alec Pantaleo. Ashnault’s level isn’t set in stone, so we could see an impressive performance from him yet.

Austin O’Connor - Qualified as the 2021 NCAA champion. O’Connor’s gritty finals win over Sammy Sasso at NCAAs put him in as a long-shot in this bracket. He competed in the “pro” circuit in December, defeating two-time NCAA champion Dean Heil by technical fall. O’Connor is brutally strong and has a great style for international competition, I expect at least one upset out of him if he chooses to compete.

Ed’s Pick

Having written half a dozen articles about Yianni Diakomihalis, I fully admit my bias when I say that I’m picking him once again. He’s had time to physically mature and gain experience, as well as some tough losses that taught him more about the flaws in his style. While I definitely doubted his chances after losing to McKenna and an iffy performance against Khinchegashvili, I feel he looks better than ever now and is in championship form. Diakomihalis is someone who knows how to wrestle the international style better than anyone in the US, and he is absolutely our best shot to qualify the weight if he makes the team. He and Zain Retherford are always going to wrestle close matches, but he’s beat him before, and I feel he’s the one who has made gains recently.

I would love to see Jordan Oliver show up at his absolute best and make it through, because when his tank is full he’s absolutely the best guy on his feet at the weight. His last two matches were very discouraging, and it would be tough to pick him right now.

Based on the seeds that were just released, it looks like it will be Retherford-Green in one semifinal, and Diakomihalis-Oliver in the other. Diakomihalis has picked off Oliver before, and Retherford should be able to handle Green.