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USA Men’s Freestyle Olympic Team Trials - 86 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 86 kg?

WRESTLING-HUN-WORLD-MEN-FREESTYLE david taylor
2018 World champion David Taylor will be the heavy favorite to make the Olympic team at 86 kg.
Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP 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 - 86 kg

Still technically undefeated since his brilliant 2018 World title run, former Nittany Lion David Taylor will be the heavy favorite to make the Olympic team this year. He has been one of the most dominant wrestlers in the world for over three years, but is he at 100% after a long journey back from injury?

Top Contenders

David Taylor - Qualified as the 2018 World champion. The winner of seven-straight international tournaments, David Taylor, when active, is one of the pound-for-pound best wrestlers in the world today. He has twice defeated the great Hassan Yazdanicharati, and pinned numerous elites and World medalists in his run of dominance. He suffered a tough knee injury against Drew Foster in an exhibition in May 2019, and it’s been a long road back. He burned through the Pan-American Qualifier last March to give Team USA an Olympic spot at 86 kg, and participated in some “pro” circuit matches as well. He defeated Myles Martin via technical fall in July, handled Gabe Dean 6-2 in November, and had a razor close 4-4 criteria win over Jordan Burroughs in January. There are plenty of tough wrestlers in this field, but if Taylor is healthy he should prove himself a tier above them all.

Zahid Valencia - Qualified as the 2019 Senior Nationals champion. Since losing to Kyle Dake for the World team spot at 79 kg in 2018, Zahid Valencia has jumped levels. He took out Nate Jackson, Aaron Brooks and Myles Martin to win 2019 Senior Nationals, but his 2020 Matteo Pellicone run was even more impressive. There he dominated World silver medalist Fatih Erdin before beating Alex Dieringer in the finals. Unfortunately, a positive test for recreational drugs put Valencia on the sidelines for one year. He returned in November of 2020 and lost a tough match to Jordan Burroughs - one where he scored early but was outpaced by the legendary veteran. After getting back into the competition rhythm, Valencia has been on fire - he took bronze at the 2021 Henri Deglane by pinning World and Olympic medalist Dato Marsagashvili, only losing to perennial top 5 Ramazanov. His last showing was in March, where he defeated Fatih Erdin and Mark Hall, both by technical fall. Valencia is clearly the contender with the most momentum, and if Taylor is even a little bit off, it’s realistic to give him a shot at an Olympic team spot.

The Rest of the Field

Alex Dieringer - Qualified as the 2019 Bill Farrell Memorial champion. A three-time NCAA champion and former top 3 in the world at 79 kg, Alex Dieringer will be unable to compete due to injury.

Gabe Dean - Qualified as the Last Chance Qualifier champion. A two-time NCAA champion, Dean has been out of consistent action for a few years. His big return came at the 8-man tournament in October, where he was pinned by Taylor Lujan in his first match. His next appearance came one month later, where he lost an encouraging 6-2 decision to David Taylor. His first “pro” win came in January, where he defeated 97 kg contender Mike Macchiavello 5-5 via criteria. He tried his hand up at 97 again in February, but was defeated by Kyle Snyder by technical fall. He was, however, able to get revenge on Bo Nickal, winning 3-2. With high-level competition under his belt, Dean defeated Drew Foster and Nate Jackson at the Last Chance Qualifier to punch his ticket to the trials. Dean is solid as they come, he will likely go far in this bracket, should he get past Myles Martin.

Nate Jackson - Qualified as the Last Chance Qualifier true second. After defeating Max Dean and Mark Hall, and losing to Gabe Dean in the finals, Jackson won his true second match against Drew Foster at the Last Chance Qualifier to break through to the trials. Jackson did take a loss to Aaron Brooks at the 2019 Dave Schultz tournament, but he had a great showing against solid international competition when he won gold at the 2019 Medved. At the 2019 Bill Farrell Memorial, Jackson was defeated by Myles Martin but came back strong to defeat World medalist Boris Makoev and Brett Pfarr to take 3rd. Jackson was extremely active on the “pro” circuit - beating Sammy Brooks and losing to Myles Martin at the 8-man in October, and defeating Brooks, Brett Pfarr and Drew Foster at the RTC Cup. In January, Jackson tested himself against J’den Cox up at 97 kg, losing only 6-1. He won a close match over Mark Hall in January, then competed at multiple weights in February, losing to Kyle Snyder and Max Dean. Jackson is someone whose results have a good degree of variance, he could be the third best guy in the field or he may fail to place. I hope he has a great tournament, because this admittedly may be his last competitive run.

Bo Nickal - Qualified as the 2019 U23 World champion at 92 kg. A three-time NCAA champion, Bo Nickal opted for the U23 route after he was denied in the 2019 senior wrestle-offs by J’den Cox. His last international look was at the Matteo Pellicone, where he was defeated via technical fall by Mohammadian, who went on to pin Kyle Snyder. He’s had limited looks thereafter - he defeated Alex Dieringer 1-1 via criteria in September, and lost 3-2 to Gabe Dean in February. He’s seen and defeated most of the competitors in this field before, it wouldn’t be crazy to expect a huge jump in levels from him - it’s consistent with Cael Sanderson’s wrestlers. He actually has a nice path in this bracket - his teammate Carter Starocci in round 1, then Pat Downey in the quarterfinals. However, barring some “Cael Magic”, Nickal will likely fall to Zahid Valencia.

Pat Downey - Qualified as the 2019 World team member. Downey became a World team member after David Taylor’s injury opened up the field in a big way. He defeated Myles Martin and Nick Heflin to punch his ticket to Kazakhstan. At Worlds, he snagged an impressive win over Poland’s Baranowski before being promptly tech-falled by Dudarov of Germany. He returned for the Matteo Pellicone in Italy in 2020, where he defeated a few decent competitors before falling to Alex Dieringer. He wrestled back to win bronze against Ukraine. After a long absence, mostly fueled by Downey becoming a walking PR nightmare, he returned for the 2021 Matteo Pellicone at 92 kg - he went 0-4 in the round-robin format. Downey’s mind is clearly elsewhere, it’s been said he’s eyeing an MMA career and he’s been seen training in South Florida. I do not expect Downey to get much done in this bracket, and this may be the last we see of him in the sport of wrestling.

Myles Martin - Qualified as the 2019 Senior Nationals runner-up. It’s taken Myles Martin a few years to get his groove in freestyle, but in the past two years he’s looked like a contender for the national team. At 2019 Senior Nationals he took out Nick Heflin and avenged a loss to Alex Dieringer before losing a close match to Zahid Valencia in the finals. At the 2019 Bill Farrell Memorial he notched wins over Nate Jackson and Brett Pfarr as well. He won the 2020 Henri Deglane over a fairly thin field, but did pick up an impressive victory over World bronze medalist Stefan Reichmuth. Martin has been active on the “pro” circuit, falling to David Taylor in July, then winning the 8-man tournament in October by beating Drew Foster, Nate Jackson and Taylor Lujan. He beat Max Dean in January before heading out to Italy in March for the 2021 Matteo Pellicone. There he was unfortunately pinned by Mark Hall, but came back to win bronze. This is likely an outlier performance, Martin is definitely a contender to make the national team. He’ll likely face Gabe Dean and then David Taylor on his side of the bracket, if all goes well.

Brett Pfarr - Qualified by placing 4th at 2019 Senior Nationals. Pfarr is one of the most experienced competitors in this field. At Senior Nationals he defeated Drew Foster, lost to Alex Dieringer, then defeated Max Dean, Nick Heflin, and Aaron Brooks on the backside to take 4th. Although he lost to Myles Martin at the 2019 Bill Farrell Memorial, it was one of his best results as he was able to pick up a win over World medalist Boris Makoev. Pfarr has competed twice at “pro” events, losing in a huge upset to Zac Braunagel in June and defeating 2012 Olympic silver medalist Jaime Espinal in October. Pfarr has a pretty rough draw in this bracket, unfortunately.

Sam Brooks - Qualified by placing 5th at 2019 Senior Nationals. Another grizzled veteran, Brooks is set to take on Brett Pfarr in his first match. At Senior Nationals, Sammy Brooks lost to Aaron Brooks early on, but was able to wrestle back and defeat Drew Foster and Nate Jackson to take 5th, avenging his loss to Aaron Brooks. At the RTC Cup, Brooks defeated Drew Foster and Brett Pfarr, losing to Nate Jackson and Trent Hidlay. Brooks also participated in the 8-man tournament in October, where he was defeated by Nate Jackson via technical fall. Given their history it’s likely Brooks gets past Brett Pfarr, but he will have David Taylor waiting for him.

Aaron Brooks - Qualified as a 2021 NCAA champion. A Cadet World champion and Junior World silver medalist, Aaron Brooks is a bit more tested against the field than other NCAA champion qualifiers. At the 2019 Dave Schultz International, he won the tournament by defeating Nate Jackson in the finals. He also competed at 2019 Senior Nationals, where he defeated Max Dean and Sammy Brooks before falling to Zahid Valencia, and then Brett Pfarr Sammy Brooks on the backside. Since then, he’s had more time to grow into the weight and could make some noise here. He’ll have Nate Jackson in his first match, and if he’s able to replicate his past results then he’ll get another crack at Zahid Valencia - and there’s bad blood between the two.

Carter Starocci - Qualified as a 2021 NCAA champion. Aside from his stellar NCAA run, which saw him take out tough competitors like Michael Kemerer and Mike Labriola, Starocci has been active on the “pro” circuit. He went 3-0 in those showings, his most significant result being a 4-2 win over Chance Marsteller. If we see Starocci compete, it’s possible he could knock off a few names in this bracket, but we haven’t seen much of him at 86 kg. He’ll have his teammate Bo Nickal right away in this bracket, we’re going to find out where his level is at, quickly.

Ed’s Pick

I think David Taylor is a pretty safe pick. He’s had little trouble with Gabe Dean and Myles Martin in the past, so it seems like a comfortable road to the finals. He will likely see either Zahid Valencia or Bo Nickal in the best two-out-of-three finals. Maybe those in the Penn State room know something we don’t, and Bo Nickal can give Taylor a run for his money. I doubt that, because Nickal aggressively avoided going 86 kg in 2019. Zahid Valencia is definitely an interesting matchup for Taylor - he’s the faster man, and can get to the legs to finish clean in ways that a lot of competitors at this weight can’t. Taylor wears his opponents down with his heavy hands and level-changing game, then outhustles them in scrambles. Valencia is definitely the type to fade later in matches, so if he can’t come after Taylor early and put up points, it will be tough for him to win.

Wrestling three matches also favors Taylor for this reason. But, his health may still be a bit of a question mark. If Taylor isn’t fully mobile and ready to wrestle the way he has at his best, there’s hope for the field. He didn’t look bad, necessarily, against Jordan Burroughs, but the 74 kg legend pushed him to the wire even with a huge size disadvantage. It’s too soon to say whether that says more about Burroughs or Taylor. I would be pretty excited about Zahid Valencia breaking through, but it’s safer to assume David Taylor will be himself and go win an Olympic title in the near future.