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USA Men’s Freestyle Olympic Team Trials - 97 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 97 kg?

Wrestling - Olympics: Day 15 J’den Cox
J’den Cox is gunning for Kyle Snyder, he hopes to take the spot at 97 kg and make a run at Abdulrashid Sadulaev.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/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 - 97 kg

Like 74 kg, this weight has a “main event” feeling attached to the predicted finals. Olympic champion and four-time World medalist Kyle Snyder will most likely be defending his throne against two-time World champion and Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox. Once on track to become an all-time great, Snyder has taken some tough losses in the past few years after an all-time career high in 2017. It’s a match with a ton of history, their last meeting was way back in college, with Snyder coming out on top. Many fans are rooting for Cox to make it through, seeing him as the world’s only hope to take out Abdulrashid Sadulaev.

Top Contenders

Kyle Snyder - Qualified for the best 2 out of 3 Olympic team wrestle-off as the returning 2019 World bronze medalist. After defeating Abdulrashid Sadulaev to win the World title in 2017, Snyder has struggled to return to form. He was pinned by Sadulaev in their 2018 rematch, and was unable to reach the finals in 2019 after being upset by the great Sharif Sharifov. He also took a loss at the Ivan Yarygin to Rasul Magomedov, but came back strong in the 2019 Alans in November with a gold medal performance that included a win over Vladislav Baitsaev. Snyder’s stock fell once again at the 2020 Matteo Pellicone when he was pinned by Iran’s Mohammadian. Snyder has looked solid against a more comfortable level of opposition since then - beating Salas Perez to qualify the weight at Pan-Ams, and defeating Mike Macchiavello, Ty Walz and Gabe Dean all by technical fall at “pro” events. His move to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club has not yet been tested on the World or Olympic stage, but he will have to get past J’den Cox to prove he’s still a pound-for-pound elite.

J’den Cox - Qualified for the semifinals as a returning 2019 World champion at a non-Olympic weight. After two missteps at the 2016 Olympic Games and 2017 World Championships that “only” saw him come away with bronze, J’den Cox has been near-perfect. Moving up to 92 kg, he took an early loss to Sharif Sharifov and tough losses to Marsagashvili and Alborov at World Cup, but he has since settled in. He cruised to his first World title in 2018, steamrolled through the Pan-American Games and Yasar Dogu, then won another World title in 2019. He faced tough opposition like three-time World medalist Alireza Karimimachiani, but of course 92 kg is not as tough as 97. He has wins over most of the other contenders in this bracket, and could see a number of wrestlers in his quarter and semifinal. That is one factor to consider - Cox will have to wrestle two matches before getting a shot at Snyder, and he will have to beat him twice.

The Rest of the Field

Kollin Moore - Qualified as the 2019 Senior Nationals runner-up. A 2018 U23 World silver medalist, Kollin Moore has been coming on strong in the last two years. Moore’s impressive win over Kyven Gadson put him into the finals of Senior Nationals, where he lost to Hayden Zillmer. However, he avenged that loss in December of 2020 with a 3-2 win over Zillmer at the RTC Cup. Moore also picked up a win over Ty Walz and dropped a 6-6 criteria match to Mike Macchiavello. By far the most impressive victory of Moore’s career came at the 2021 Matteo Pellicone in March. After two impressive early round wins, Moore upset three-time World medalist Alireza Karimimachiani in the finals, 3-3 via criteria. That kind of growth could spell great things for the former Buckeye. In his first match he will have the young phenom Braxton Amos, then the winner of Walz and Gadson. Given his track record, it looks like Moore is set up for a semifinal against J’den Cox.

Hayden Zillmer - Qualified as the 2019 Senior Nationals champion. A long-time runner-up to Cox and Snyder, Zillmer will have to navigate a field that is tougher than ever if he wants a chance at redemption. He took out Ty Walz and Kollin Moore on his way to a Senior Nationals title, after losing to Kyle Snyder to take 3rd at the Bill Farrell Memorial. Zillmer has also earned bronze at the Intercontinental Cup, Cerro Pelado, and Matteo Pellicone tournaments internationally since then. Zillmer’s “pro” circuit experience has been limited. He lost a 6-1 match to J’den Cox in January, but in December he had a great RTC Cup. There he defeated Ty Walz and Mike Macchiavello, losing only a 3-2 match to Kollin Moore. Zillmer will have Ben Honis in his first match, then the winner of Macchiavello vs. Ferrari for a shot at J’den Cox.

Michael Macchiavello - Qualified as the 2019 Bill Farrell Memorial silver medalist. Macchiavello had a strong run at the Farrell, defeating Ty Walz before losing to Kyle Snyder in the finals. Macchiavello had a solid tournament at the 2019 Alans in Vladikavkaz, ultimately losing in the bronze medal match. Macchiavello’s strongest claim is probably his RTC Cup performance in December of 2020. There he went 3-1 with a win over Kollin Moore, and a loss to Hayden Zillmer. He will have the true freshman phenom AJ Ferrari from Oklahoma State in the first round. As one of the few competitors in the field who can likely match Ferrari’s raw horsepower, it should be an excellent match. The victor will face Hayden Zillmer, and then J’den Cox should they win.

Ty Walz - Qualified by placing 3rd at the 2019 Senior Nationals. Ty Walz has been surprisingly active since 2019, winning the Dave Schultz International, attending the Dan Kolov tournament, earning silver at Medved, bronze at the Intercontinental Cup, and 4th at the Bill Farrell Memorial. He qualified for the trials via his Senior Nationals performance, where he fell to Hayden Zillmer but defeated Jacob Kasper and Kyven Gadson. He’s shown up here and there on the “pro” scene, losing to Kyle Snyder in December but taking out Ben Honis in February, avenging a loss from the 2019 US Open. He’ll have another match with Gadson straight away, and then the winner of Moore and Amos. Gadson defeated him twice at the 2019 World Team Trials, we’ll see if he can get his revenge.

Kyven Gadson - Qualified by placing 4th at the 2019 Senior Nationals. Best known for pinning Kyle Snyder in the NCAA finals, Gadson has stayed steady on the senior level. He’s competed a bit internationally, picking up a few decent wins along the way. Domestically he holds recent wins over Honis, Walz, and Kasper, with his most recent loss coming to Moore. If he can avenge that loss, he could be looking across from J’den Cox in the semifinals.

AJ Ferrari - Qualified as a 2021 NCAA champion. Ferrari’s lone international appearance was a Cader World bronze finish in 2018, but the true freshman looks like the real deal. He took out World 5th placer Myles Amine (albeit at 86 kg) in the NCAA semifinals at 197 pounds on his way to a title. Ferrari’s method of wrestling will translate very well to freestyle, and this will be a great test of his current level. A first-round matchup with Macchiavello sounds like an excellent time.

Ben Honis - Qualified as the 2021 Last Chance Qualifier champion. Honis has had a great start in senior-level freestyle. He’s notched wins over top level-competition like Ty Walz and took out Braxton Amos at the Last Chance Qualifier. He’ll see Hayden Zillmer in his first match.

Braxton Amos - Qualified as the 2021 Last Chance Qualifier true second. The #1 overall recruit in the country had a solid tournament at the Last Chance - he beat a few solid senior-level athletes before losing to Ben Honis in the semifinals. Encouragingly, he battled back for 3rd and then true second. He does not currently hold recent wins over anyone in the field, but he’s the competitor with the most room to grow. He’ll have Kollin Moore in his first match.

Ed’s Pick

I’m going with J’den Cox. His momentum is undeniable, and I feel that these two have had plenty of looks at each other in the training room at the Olympic Training Center. Cox is by far the wrestler with the higher IQ, meaning more exposure works in his favor. Snyder, on the other hand, tends to do worse in rematches. Perhaps Snyder’s size will be a factor, but Cox looks absolutely massive and as mobile as ever up at 97. His ability to swiftly get to low leg attacks and score from angles is going to give Snyder fits when he chooses to pull the trigger, and his defense is the best in the world. Cox is an incredibly difficult wrestler to beat once, let alone twice, I think Snyder has met his match domestically.

Something I’ll be looking forward to seeing is how far Kollin Moore can go. That win over Karimimachiani is huge, and it may indicate that we have another World medal threat on our hands at the upper weights. Depth is always good. I’m also interested in getting a look at AJ Ferrari against senior-level competition. He wrestled Rocky Elam at Junior Nationals and destroyed him - impressive in the context that Elam put up some big wins at Senior Nationals prior to that tournament. The same can be said of Braxton Amos, but I believe his level was identified when he lost to Ben Honis.

This weight is going to be one of the most anticipated, and I have my fingers crossed we get those Cox-Snyder matches, and eventually a match between Cox and Abdulrashid Sadulaev.