Gable Steveson was always one of the brightest rising stars in American wrestling. He won three age-group World titles and contended for a freestyle World team in 2019 at just 19 years old. However, he was still taking lumps, losing matches to domestic foes like Nick Gwiazdowski and getting shut out by foreign threats like Khasanboy Rakhimov.
His transcendence of the entire field began in December, 2020. At the RTC Cup event, Steveson faced two-time World medalist Nick Gwiazdowski yet again, but this time he handled him with ease. However, another age group World champion in Mason Parris defeated Gwiazdowski as well, raising questions about Gwiazdowski’s form and whether or not Parris could challenge Steveson this time around.
The answer came a few months later in March, 2021 - it was an emphatic “no.” Gable Steveson put on the performance of his career and absolutely clowned the giant and talented Mason Parris, putting up bonus points.
Not only was Steveson far and away the most athletic man at the weight, he was now also the most fundamentally sound. Time and time again, he demonstrated perfect, seamless transitions from one sequence to the next, a smooth and active motion never before seen at heavyweight.
The “eye test” doesn’t always work - different, more experienced opposition should often offer new challenges and test an athlete who seems to be running through everyone in their path. But in the case of Gable Steveson, the writing was on the wall. “This is the guy.”
The USA Olympic Team Trials in April were a formality. In spite of one of the most credentialed domestic fields of all time, Steveson torched the bracket and earned his spot in Tokyo. Steveson went unscored upon with technical falls on his way to the finals with Gwiazdowski, where he put on a combined 20-4 point clinic in their two-match series.
Only one question remained, what would happen when he met up with the two greatest heavyweights of the decade, #1 Taha Akgul and #2 Geno Petriashvili? No other wrestler had earned World or Olympic gold at the weight class since 2014. The brackets were revealed - if they both won their first-round matches, Gable Steveson and Taha Akgul would wrestle in the Olympic quarterfinals. Each man did their job, and the stage was set.
Hopeless - How Gable Steveson denied Taha Akgul
At the highest level of freestyle, controlling exchanges is key. Point-scoring is much more volatile, any sequence could yield unpredictable results and change the entire dynamic of a match.
Gable Steveson’s mat generalship is second to none, and he has developed a simple system for funneling opponents into his best situations. The key detail that enabled this system against Taha Akgul was that Gable Steveson had the base, agility, and scrambling skill to punish Akgul for low level attacks or shots to the outside angle. Steveson felt safe from space due to this aspect of the matchup, so most of his handfighting gameplan revolved around making sure their tie-ups were favorable.
Steveson limited tie-ups by using evasive lateral footwork, wrist-rolling off Akgul’s reaches and showing head fakes to the legs to keep his opponent honest. Steveson consistently pummeled for inside control, collars, and wrists. From all of these positions, Steveson was able to hit his powerful snap-down and freely move his feet again.
This created a dilemma for Akgul. He could become more aggressive in the handfight, but it would open him up to counters under his reaches. If he let Steveson dictate, he could feel that the young American would only gain momentum in moving him around the mat and setting up a clean attack.
There was not a single wrestler on the planet that Taha Akgul had failed to score on, he opted for the most logical option - he forgot about getting the perfect handfighting setup and went on the attack as soon as an opportunity presented itself.
He soon found out that getting to Gable Steveson’s legs, as difficult as it was, was the easier end of the process.
In their first exchange, Steveson faked low and Akgul pounced on the clear reattack opportunity presented by Steveson attempting to recover his stance.
With Steveson seemingly out of position, this was an excellent shot selected by the reigning Olympic champion Taha Akgul. It didn’t matter.
Steveson used his left arm as a post and barrier in the neck of Akgul to stifle his drive, buying himself enough time to kick back his once-vulnerable leg. As soon as he had his base back under him, Steveson switched his hands to the back of Akgul’s head and snapped him down and to the side, knocking the top-ranked heavyweight off his base.
This simple, but expertly timed maneuver earned Steveson an easy go-behind and a 2-0 lead. In freestyle, scoring first can change everything. Considering how solid Steveson had been defensively on the feet, now there was even more pressure on Akgul to attack and score. He would be even less careful about his shot selection, and Steveson could punish him further and widen that gap.
In the second half of the match, Akgul took another risk, pulling the collar and over-tie to transition to an inside reach single. Steveson attempted to stop the shot in its tracks by posting on the head and freeing his foot, but Akgul expertly pivoted and found himself on his knees in a low single finish position.
Steveson did not hesitate. He retained height and immediately circled away from the shot, creating an angle on Akgul’s far ankle. Wary of this dangerous dynamic, Akgul quickly looked to build up to his feet and become square with Steveson once again - but he was once again out-positioned by the swift adjustments of Steveson.
As Akgul built up, Steveson switched his attention to the arms and head of Akgul, delaying the Turk’s ability to get height. After buying himself that moment, Steveson used it to make one, simple, crucial, adjustment. He hopped his right foot back and to the right. Akgul’s base was unstable on the rise, both due to the rushed nature of his stand-up and the pressure Steveson was giving him with his active hands.
That small hop positioned Steveson’s hips in front of a wobbly Akgul, and Steveson viciously crashed his weight straight down, pinning Akgul’s shoulder to the mat and completely ruining his base. Steveson circled behind the exposed back for another “easy” go-behind.
Akgul’s final attempt at that inside reach single allowed for an alternative defensive scenario to play out. Once again, Steveson circled away from the shot and attacked the far ankle, but this time he committed to that strategy.
As soon as Taha Akgul shot, Steveson was circling. Steveson attacked that far ankle and got right back to circling, his height over Akgul allowed for that kind of mobility. As Steveson stepped around, he yanked the ankle into the air to take Akgul’s knee off the mat. This put all of Akgul’s weight onto his right knee, all Steveson had to do was retain that grip and gain a strong enough angle that he could pressure straight in - knocking Akgul over his weakened base.
Once Akgul was flattened out on the single, Steveson retained the ankle and circled again, this time using a crossface with his free arm to force Akgul’s grip to break. This was his most physically dominant counter yet.
Of course, Steveson was also able to score on his own attacks. His constant snap-downs both took a toll physically and frustrated his credentialed opponent. Steveson was throwing him out of position, breaking him forward onto his hands, dominating the handfight. Akgul knew if he continued to allow Steveson to move him around in this way, he would be giving up takedowns before he knew it. So, he held strong, Akgul attempted to stay upright and resist the snap.
Steveson used the motion of the snap to exit his tie up and drove forward into a high double. He caught Akgul standing upright, and beat his hands easily with his quick break.
From there, Steveson just had to drive. Akgul attempted to recover by pulling Steveson up with a whizzer, but the pull of Steveson’s arms proved too much - he was able to stay low enough to create pressure on the back of Akgul’s legs as he drove forward, eventually collapsing him on the edge of the mat for a crucial takedown.
For most of Steveson’s counters, the theme was footwork and positioning. In the case of this takedown, it had a lot more to do with timing and horsepower. Even still, that opportunity was set up by Steveson’s diligent work hand-fighting on the feet.
It was a masterful performance from the 21-year-old, one that left no doubt in my mind that he would go on to win the Olympic title. His match with Geno Petriashvili was anything but easy - Steveson’s lack of experience from par terre was almost his undoing. But the ability to score at will on your feet against anyone in the world, makes you the best wrestler in the world. Steveson proved himself to be a step above anyone else on the planet when he secured gold in Tokyo.
Steveson will not return to freestyle competition in the fall for the 2021 World Championships, leaving the door open for wrestlers like Mason Parris, Nick Gwiazdowski and Daniel Kerkvliet to represent their country on the world stage. There is talk of Steveson returning for the college season, but that seems decreasingly likely each day.
Whether it’s professional wrestling, MMA, or football in Steveson’s future, his run from the RTC Cup to the Olympic finals was one of the most dominant displays in combat sports history. He is undeniably a living legend.