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Wrestling breakdown: How Jordan Oliver shut down Joey McKenna to win the US Olympic Trials

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After so many years of just missing his goals, native Pennsylvanian and Oklahoma State great Jordan Oliver has reached the top of the domestic ladder in the US. He has one more hurdle ahead of him if he wants to go to Tokyo...

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Jordan Oliver makes the 2021 Olympic team at 65 kg.
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

A two-time NCAA champion and three-time NCAA finalist, Easton’s Jordan Oliver was expected to rise to the top of the domestic freestyle rankings in the US in short order. Sure enough, in his first official season as a senior level freestyler, Oliver placed third at the 2013 World Team Trials to make his first national team.

However, until 2015, Iowa’s Brent Metcalf was “the guy” at 65 kg. He was extremely dominant domestically, but struggled to produce at the World Championships when the stakes were the highest. It was frustrating for American wrestling fans - especially considering he was able to knock off high-level foreign opposition at lesser events.

USA Wrestling has struggled generally at 65 kg. It’s the toughest weight in the world of course, in terms of both depth of competition and how hard it is to beat the elite of the division. The last time the US medaled at 65 kg was 2006, when current men’s freestyle head coach Bill Zadick won gold.

By the 2016 Olympic Trials - for the first time in years, the weight felt wide open. In addition to established reps like Metcalf and Reece Humphrey, hammers like Oliver and four-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber were vying for a ticket to Rio. Jordan Oliver was upset by the prodigious Aaron Pico, which came as a surprise, but many suspected Pico was capable of that level of production. However, no one predicted that it would be NCAA champion Frank Molinaro who would come out on the other side of the bracket, who went on to defeat Pico two matches to one and even made it to the bronze medal match against Frank Chamizo to take 5th at the Olympics.

That brings us to the current quad. Unfortunately, a positive drug test for amphetamines kept Oliver out of competition not only for the 2017 Trials, but 2018 as well. Some wrestlers may have regressed in that time, but Jordan Oliver stayed the course. When he returned to competition in May of 2018, not only did he win, he picked up the single most impressive victory of his career over World and Olympic champion Toghrul Asgarov.

When the 2019 World Team Trials rolled around, confidence in Oliver was high once again. He had defeated 2017 World team member Zain Retherford in a “pro” event in an insane 13-11 match. Oliver had also defeated Retherford at the US Open in 2017 before his suspension. Predictably, Oliver and Retherford each reached the 2019 World Team Trials finals for a best two-out-of-three series.

I wrote about those matches in-depth, here. There is a ton to unpack from those matches, but ultimately Retherford edged Oliver out with second-period comebacks in two matches to make the team. Retherford went on to lose his first match at Worlds to Tobier from Cuba, and did not make the finals of the Pan-American Olympic Qualifier in 2020, which put the US in a tough spot at 65 kg - we’ll get to that later.

At 30 years old, some began to question if Jordan Oliver was going to ever break through and become “the guy” himself. Part of the problem seemed to be weight management - Oliver is a big 65 kg and he tended to slow down in the second period of big matches, after looking like a World medal contender in the first period. After spending some time training with the crew at Cornell, Oliver moved down to North Carolina and connected with a group of fellow Cowboys to continue his training.

Becoming “The Guy”: Jordan Oliver Wins OTT

Prior to the 2021 Olympic Trials, I recapped Oliver’s past two years in my breakdown of the field at 65 kg.

“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.”

When the brackets came out, many Oliver fans started to sweat. After defeating the tough rising NCAA champion Nick Lee, Oliver would likely be paired with the phenom Yianni Diakomihalis, who defeated him handily at the 2019 US Open.

Oliver destroyed Nick Lee, using his pressure against him, allowing the younger wrestling to walk himself into leg attacks leading to a technical fall. Against Diakomihalis, Oliver stuck to a conservative gameplan - controlling ties from the outside and forcing Diakomihalis to cover distance, limiting the exchanges. He was able to take away the cardio advantage of Diakomihalis in this way, as well as minimizing the risk of funky exchanges were Diakomihalis could pull exposure points out of thin air. By making it a battle of short exchanges on the edge, Oliver controlled the match and prevailed 4-4 on criteria.

It appeared that yet another showdown with Zain Retherford was on the horizon, but the credentialed Nittany Lion was upset by the Penn RTC’s Joey McKenna. A tough, physical, “meat and potatoes” wrestler, Joey McKenna proved himself to be the most improved wrestler in the field. Oliver has historically had his way with McKenna, but with the stakes as high as they come domestically - he had to be perfect.

Enforcing Range

Despite being the older man, Jordan Oliver has a definitive speed advantage over Joey McKenna. He is the much more effective wrestler from space, while McKenna works best when he has time to build his offense from tie-ups off snaps and fakes. Head-to-head, someone like Zain Retherford is much more challenging for Oliver because he is more focused on a pressuring style, which has both opened him up to counters and allowed him to break down Oliver’s defenses over time. High risk, high reward. McKenna, on the other hand, gets by on being physical and well-rounded, he can do well in most positions but doesn’t have an easily defined “game” that he pursues. This is why he was able to do well against someone like Retherford, who pushed the match into McKenna’s comfort zone, but struggles consistently with a rangy outfighter like Oliver.

The most important condition for Oliver’s victory was that he maintained the distance between them. Check out some of the dynamics that allowed this to happen.

Jordan Oliver’s double leg from space is absolutely elite, McKenna knew this first-hand. He had to give respect to any big level changes that Oliver showed. Not only that, Oliver still maintains the ability to shoot explosively off his hands and knees, meaning that he could continue to head fake and show McKenna the double in order to back him off and keep him honest. So, when Oliver was getting pressure he didn’t like, or when McKenna went to snap down, Oliver dropped to his knees and allowed the threat of the double to back him off.

In transitions, Oliver made great use of the head-jab and head-post to stop McKenna from closing in on him. Standing straight up and reaching your arm out in wrestling is a no-no, but Oliver made sure to always be lower than McKenna - this is an essential part of what wrestlers would call good positioning. This is where McKenna’s lack of dynamic attacks really hurt him, he does well with his high-crotch and double leg straight-on, but isn’t the best at attacking from angles without solid handfighting to set it up. When McKenna did attack straight on, Oliver was easily able to downblock and circle out back to the center of the mat.

Oliver, on the other hand, could still find production with attacks straight-on from the outside, even if it wasn’t a clean attack. In the first period of their first match he was able to run through the underhook of McKenna to score a pushout.

Oliver maintained this rhythm of showing his threats and head jabbing to keep McKenna away, circling out to center when he got too close to the edge. When McKenna did get his hands on him, Oliver was quick to peel off the ties and disengage.

The Element of Surprise

The constant game of matador from Oliver made McKenna desperate to get something going from a tie-up. Those moments came so rarely and for such brief periods, he was focused on extending those situations and getting a solid hold of Oliver.

Oliver had set the expectation that he was going to purely focus on disengaging when they tied up, lulling McKenna into a false sense of security from close quarters. With little over one minute to go in their first match, Oliver struck.

From the over-tie and wrist, Oliver pulled the wrist, released the over-tie and shot a swing single leg to the far leg.

It’s easy to miss on first viewing, but the way Oliver released the tie-up actually set up the far-leg swing single more than just a quick break would.

Jordan Oliver sets up swing single Joey McKenna Olympic Trials
Very sneaky stuff from the veteran Oliver.

Oliver isn’t just letting go of the over-tie, he’s pulling the elbow to the right, the same direction he’s pulling the wrist. Simultaneously, Oliver is stepping back with his rear leg in that same direction. All of this works to send McKenna’s weight over his lead foot and take the weight off his far leg.

Now, it would make a lot of sense to just shoot to that side, since you can be sure that the leg will be there, but a lot of high level freestyle setups are about forcing defensive adjustments that open up your attack. For example - showing a straight-on attack to set up an angled attack. This pull took McKenna’s weight off his rear leg, instinctively he worked to recover his stance and plant that rear foot in a more solid position.

McKenna is more concerned about maintaining his balance than squaring back up after being pulled off to the side. Because he releases the grips quickly after the pull, Oliver is able to get to McKenna’s legs when he’s still in a side-on position with his legs exposed.

Jordan Oliver takes down Joey McKenna Olympic Trials
When you hit this attack totally clean, the low double is open.

With this kind of angle on your swing single, you can usually just go ahead and collect both ankles for the low double finish, which should put you in position to get right to your leg lace. McKenna did a good job crawling up to a standing position, but Oliver maintained control of the ankle and covered the hips when the moment came.

McKenna held strong in the quad pod, but Oliver once again showed off his veteran savvy. Instead of switching to a bodylock and attempting to force all of McKenna’s weight down, he dropped his knee on the back of McKenna’s knee to force that single point of contact down to the mat - establishing criteria for a takedown.

When Jordan Oliver was ready to attack from that over-tie and wrist again in their second match, he switched it up on McKenna. Instead of a crafty setup to put McKenna out of position, he backed away a bit until he felt McKenna’s weight forward on his lead leg, then shot the swing single off the break.

McKenna attempted to square up his hips, but once Oliver got back to his base on his knees he was able to turn the corner and drive again to put McKenna on his butt, where Oliver could cover the hips for two, plus another two for a convenient exposure opportunity.

If you’re interested in other neat swing single setups from Jordan Oliver, check out this breakdown!

Up 5-0 in their second match, Oliver was free to get back to prioritizing distance.

In addition to the head jab and head post, Oliver now utilized straight pushes to keep McKenna off of him. When McKenna shot from space, Oliver kept solid pressure on the head to disrupt his base and balance.

While freestyle is unlike folkstyle in that there aren’t traditional stall warnings, referees are on the lookout for blatant passivity in these end-of-match situations. Oliver couldn’t afford to back straight up too often, or he’d be hit with cautions, which would be points for McKenna. When he could afford it, Oliver kept a hand on McKenna at all times, showing the referee he was still engaged.

Oliver kept up the same tactics that put him in the driver’s seat in the first place - he kept his level low, he snapped off McKenna’s ties, and he circled out well when they got to the edge. After winning two straight matches, Jordan Oliver was the 2021 Olympic Trials champion.

One More Mountain - The Last Chance Olympic Qualifier

Unfortunately for Jordan Oliver, he’s not an Olympian just yet. Deciding on your team members and qualifying the weight for the Olympics are two different processes. To be able to send a representative to the Olympic Games, your nation needs to either A) have a representative from your country place top five in the world at the respective weight class in the previous year, or B) have a representative from your country at the respective weight class place top two at a continental qualifier, or last chance qualifier.

USA Wrestling’s two chances at qualifying the weight were at the 2019 World Championships and at the 2020 Pan-American Olympic Qualifier. In both cases, Zain Retherford was unable to deliver.

Jordan Oliver will have one shot at becoming an Olympian - the Last Chance Qualifier in May. There, in Bulgaria, he will be facing an absolute terrifying field.

Ranked #3 at 70 kg, Uzbekistan’s Russian transfer Ilyas Bekbulatov is going to be a nightmarish draw. The four-time Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix champion has looked sensational lately, although he was upset at the Asian Qualifier, forcing him into this tournament.

The big name in the bracket is World and Olympic champion Vladimer Khinchegashvili. Despite being the most credentialed wrestler in the field, Vlad has fallen on hard times recently. He’s lost to Americans Yianni Diakomihalis and Jaydin Eierman in the past year, so hopefully - if he does hit Oliver, the trend of losing to Americans continues.

Often slept on is Magomedmurad Gadzhiev, a transfer from Dagestan who wrestles for Poland. He is a World silver medalist and regularly places high at European continental tournaments. His most recent win over a noteworthy American is James Green.

It’s possible that other noteworthy contenders will be in attendance, but it has yet to be confirmed. Each of these top three contenders presents a unique stylistic matchup for Oliver, but Bekbulatov is by far the scariest.

We will come back to this in May when the brackets are set in stone.