There are individual headlines a plenty, but none greater than the cumulative effort the world just witnessed from its greatest country. And now, greatest wrestling country. The United States won the Team Title in Men’s Freestyle in Paris on Saturday for the first time since 1995. It had six medalists for the first time since 1995 (when there were 10 weight classes vs 8 now). It put four in the finals for the first time since, you guessed it, 1995. That team featured Zeke Jones, the Brands twins, Dave Schultz, Kevin Jackson, Kurt Angle and Bruce Baumgartner among others. This weekend in Paris was truly historic for USA wrestling as a team, and absolutely remarkable for some of the individuals. I can’t think of a better way to organize this article other than going weight class by weight class, so here it goes:
57kg: Thomas Gilman (Iowa). Gilman lost one of the most exciting matches in the NCAA tournament this past season to PA native Darian Cruz of Lehigh in the semifinals. He wrestled back to take third. It might sound illogical, but Thomas Gilman doesn’t care about your logic: He just finished higher in the World Tournament than he did in the NCAA. Yes, Gilman earned a Silver medal in Paris on Friday, and created something of a legend of himself along the way.
Gilman did not automatically qualify for the World Team trials by winning NCAAs, so he had to go to the last chance qualifier to earn the last spot. In the finals, he found himself down 6-0 going into the second period vs Daniel DeShazer. He came back and won, earning the No. 9 seed at the trials. That means he would have to go through the pigtail, the No. 1 seed in the quarters, No. 4 seed in the semis, No. 2 seed in the finals, and beat Tony Ramos (reigning US Open champion) two out of three times in the championship. No issue. He got revenge over Cruz in the pigtail, slipped past Tyler Graff on criteria, then took out two NCAA champions Nico Megaludis and Nathan Tomasello. He beat Ramos in two straight: 4-3 and 7-2.
He continued this momentum in the World Tournament, using his strength, pace, and relentless Iowa style to take down Ukraine, Iran, Uzbekistan, and the “People’s Republic” of North Korea to earn a birth in the finals. Unfortunately he came up a little short against Takahashi of Japan, but as Terry Brands said after the match in an interview with FloWrestling “You still come here to win, and I know that’s what he’s about. And I also know this isn’t going to deter him or derail him”. Gilman will be back. He’s young, motivated, and already has a silver medal. Here’s betting the next one is gold.
61kg: Logan Stieber (Ohio State). The returning World Gold medalist started the tournament as the No. 1 seed, as he should. But that didn’t help the 4x NCAA champ. He got thrashed by 4th ranked Gadzhimurad Rashidov of Russia 11-0. In international wrestling there is not pure double elimination. You only get to wrestle on the back side if the guy that beat you makes it to the finals. Rashidov did, and Stieber was pulled back in to “repechage”. In his first match of repechage Stieber looked back in form vs Molnar of Hungary defeating him 10-0. But then in his next match, Stieber would face 2x reigning World Champion Vladimir Khinchegashvili of Georgia and get shut out again, this time 10-0. So, in the two matches Stieber had against top five guys in the world, he lost a combined 21-0. Something’s not right. No one has said anything about an injury, but something’s not right with that. He is too good to not score a single point. I’m not down on Stieber though and you shouldn’t be either. As with Gilman, I’d wager his next performance is better than this one.
65kg: Zain Retherford (Penn State). After winning his first Hodge trophy this past college season (wrestling’s version of the Heisman), and working his way through the challenge tournament, Retherford was poised for a showdown with Penn State alum and Olympic 5th place winner the year before, Frank Molinaro. After dropping the first match 7-6, Retherford epically came back to beat Frank the Tank in two straight to make the World Team. Everyone knew how good Zain was in college, but this put the wrestling world on notice that he could also be one of the top guys on the planet.
In his first match in Paris, Retherford came out flying against Edinboro’s David Habat, who now competes for Slovenia, and easily put him away 10-0. The Zain Train would then have Russian Adam Batirov, who now competes for Bahrain (wonder if any money was involved), in the second round. Unfortunately he lost 6-4, and then Batirov would go on to lose to the actual Russian Alan Gogaev, eliminating Retherford from the tournament. What may be frustrating to some fans is out of the four semifinalists, Molinaro has wins over three of them. Molinaro may well have done better in this tournament than Retherford. But Molinaro didn’t make the team. With his close defeat (6-4) to the much older and highly successful Batirov and his wins over Molinaro, I am 100% confident that Retherford will quickly rise to the top of wrestling world. And by quickly, I mean next year.
70kg: James Green (Nebraska). After earning a bronze medal in Vegas in 2015, Green struggled to make 65kg for the Olympic Trials (70kg is not an Olympic weight), and was unable to make the team. United World Wrestling (UWW) decided however, to have a separate world tournament last year for the non-Olympic weights only, 61 and 70kg. Green didn’t place. But with the 4x All American looking great at the Trials, and having a solid season competing overseas, Green looked poised to make a run for a title.
“Greezy” as he’s known, received a good draw with Chamizo (Italy), Navruzov (Uzbekistan), Ganzorig (Mongolia), Tanatarov (Azerbaijan), Gor (Turkey), and Kadimagomedov (Russia) all on the opposite side of the bracket. Not that Green is incapable of beating them, but even with close matches against Georgia and Japan, he certainly had an easier path to the finals than Frank Chamizo, the Cuban transfer who now competes for Italy, a boisterous personality, and “international treasure”. In the opening seconds of the match, Green attempted one of his patented double legs and Chamizo literally cart wheeled in midair over him. Right before the match I told my dad, “Chamizo is really hard to takedown”. We wouldn’t need any more proof than that. Green would fail to score a point against the now two-time World Champ, and lose 8-0. Green now has two World medals, Bronze and Silver, with many more to come.
Check back tomorrow for Part II.