It's safe to say that Iowa wrestlers -- both current and former -- like the new freestyle rules adapted by FILA as a response to wrestling's shocking ejection from the Olympic program. At the recent World Team Trials, former Iowa national champion Brent Metcalf earned the 66kg spot on the U.S. team for the upcoming World Championships in Budapest, while current Hawkeyes Thomas Gilman and Sam Brooks took home top honors at 55kg and 84 kg, respectively, at the Junior World Team Trials. Brooks beat another fellow Hawkeye, Alex Meyer, in the final of the challenge tournament at 84kg.
Metcalf will compete in the FILA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary on September 16-22 later this year. Gilman and Brooks will compete in the FILA Junior World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria on August 13-18 this year. I believe Metcalf was also the only wrestler to make the U.S. team for the World Championships who wrestled his way through a challenge tournament earlier in the day. The set-up for this event has the winner of a given weight at the U.S. Open, an event which takes place earlier in the year, receiving a bye to the finals, where he takes on the winner of a tournament earlier in the day between several other wrestlers at that same weight. Obviously, the wrestler who receives a bye into the finals (which are best two out of three) has a considerable rest advantage over his opponent. That didn't matter to Metcalf, though -- not only did he win, he dominated. He beat former Michigan national champion (at 141 lbs.) Kellen Russell by a pair of technical falls, 7-0 and 8-1.
The World Team Trials and Junior World Team Trials were the first major events in the United States contested under the new rules for freestyle (and Greco-Roman) wrestling that were adopted by FILA last month. Overall, the new rules seemed to be a big hit -- scoring was up across the board and matches were far more exciting (and easier to follow with aggregate scoring replacing the cumbersome best-of-three periods scoring previously utilized by the sport). When the rule changes were announced, I was hopeful that they would be beneficial to Metcalf (and other Iowa wrestlers, but especially Metcalf) and the early returns are very positive in that regard. The hope with the new rules was that Metcalf's conditioning and aggressive, attacking style would be more beneficial to his game and that appears to be true. The match against former Oklahoma State national champion Jordan Oliver (at 133 and 149 lbs.) proved to be an excellent example -- Oliver took an early 3-0 lead, but his gas tank ran out later in the match while Metcalf was still going strong, which allowed Brent to turn that 0-3 deficit into an impressive 6-3 win for himself in a matter of minutes.
The headline story here is Metcalf and his quest to claim some international gold (he went one and done at the World Championships in Moscow in 2010 and failed to make the World Championship teams in 2011 and 2012, as well as the Olympic team last year), but the performances by current Iowa guys like Gilman and Brooks (as well as Meyer) are certainly encouraging. Certainly, freestyle competition is very different than folkstyle (aka, college wrestling) competition, so drawing direct comparisons or crafting expectations for collegiate success for Gilman and Brooks based on their success at this freestyle event is probably not advisable. Still -- success like this is certainly encouraging and bodes at least a little well for their futures at Iowa.
And it's also nice to get a glimpse of Gilman and Brooks in action, since despite their success here, there's still a very good chance that neither guy will be in Iowa's 2013-14 starting lineup. Gilman faces slightly better odds than Brooks, given that there is a clear opening at his natural weight (125 lbs.) with the departure of Matt McDonough. The problem is that he'll have to go through Cory Clark (who did not compete at this event) to get that starting job and Clark had a tremendous redshirt year at 125 lbs. last year. Brooks, meanwhile, has to deal with not only a challenge from fellow redshirt freshman Alex Meyer, but also the fact that his two most likely paths to the starting lineup (174 lbs. or 184 lbs.) are currently manned by entrenched starters: Mike Evans at 174 and Ethen Lofthouse at 184. Brooks will certainly get his opportunity to try and unseat those guys, but it won't be easy. (Also, a shout-out to Iowa wrestler Nathan Burak, who went 2-1 and finished 2nd in the 96kg Challenge Tournament here. Unlike Gilman and Brooks, Burak very likely will be a starting member of Iowa's team in 2013-14, so it's great to see him having some more success here.)
Of course, the new rules weren't controversy-free, either. Scoring a takedown in freestyle requires less control than it does in folkstyle, which has the effect of making it a bit more difficult at times to tell (without the aid of the referee's call) when someone has scored. Watch a few of the matches embedded below and you'll probably find yourself going, "Wait, that's a takedown?" a time or two. The rule that hitting two three-point moves immediately ends a match (it's basically the equivalent of a pin or a tech fall) also seems a little dumb, even though it actually benefited Brooks in his match with Jordan Rogers. Still, that match is a great example of why the rule is dumb: Rogers looked good early and jumped out to an early lead, but Brooks came storming back with a pair of three-point moves in the second period which stopped the match and gave him an automatic win. Without that rule, the match score would have been very close (something like 6-5 Brooks, I think) and we might have had an exciting, back-and-forth match until the finish. But under the current rules, the match was immediately stopped after Brooks hit that second three-point move -- dumb.
There was also some discussion about whether or not the seven-point margin of victory to earn a technical fall was too narrow, especially with takedowns now worth two points apiece in freestyle wrestling. There were a ton of tech fall finishes in the matches at both the World Team Trials and Junior World Team Trials and there's certainly a good argument to be made that seven points shouldn't be enough to earn a technical fall -- you can get there with a pair of takedowns and a turn on the mat. Changing that rule so that you need at least 10-12 points to earn a tech fall would seem to make a lot of sense.
Far more controversial than any of those issues, though, was the fact that a month after FILA implemented its new rules for freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, the United States and Russia were already tweaking the rules. At the Team Trials, the U.S. implemented overtime to help decide matches tied after six minutes of action, while the Russians opted to make takedowns only worth one point (rather than the FILA-approved two points) at their national tournament earlier this month.
"The fact that neither the United States nor Russia used the exact (FILA) rules obviously has dynamics — and not good dynamics as far as I’m concerned," [FILA Vice President Stan] Dziedzic said. "I think we opened Pandora’s box."
Dziedzic, however, said he wishes the U.S. and Russia would have stuck with FILA’s rules for their championship events and he wonders about the effect it could have on wrestling’s battle with squash and the joint bid of baseball-softball for a spot in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics.
"I think it opens up the debate," Dziedzic said. "It does show to squash that, look, wrestling is supposed to be united and they’re going to say, ‘Really? The two biggest and most important federations chose to use the rules that they saw fit.’ We’ll have to try to suffer through that."
Honestly, I think he's probably right for the most part -- wrestling really does need to present a unified front when they go before the Olympics to argue their case to be put back into the Olympic program and having national federations going off-book when it comes to the rules -- especially rules that were literally just agreed upon and implemented -- is a bad look for the sport. On the other hand, there's also something to be said for workshopping the rules and figuring out what works and what doesn't and given the extremely compressed timetable at play here, there were limited opportunities to do that.
The overtime issue to me is far more interesting and debate-worthy than the takedown issue. I have no idea why the Russians decided to make takedowns only count for a single point, unless they just don't like to do math or count very high. But the overtime issue is far more nuanced. The pro-overtime argument is pretty easy to grasp: if two opponents are tied at the designated endpoint of a competition, you have them keep going until one of them does enough to be declared the winner. The anti-overtime argument that Dziedzic advances rests on the notion that overtimes can drag out matches and throw a monkeywrench into schedules (which is certainly true: folkstyle tournaments always last longer than it seems like they should, in part because overtimes stretch things out) and that there's a global consensus that the sport needs to take a shorter, not longer span of time. The timing issue is not without merit and at times overtime bloats matches beyond reason (as in the Andrew Howe-Kyle Dake match cited by Dziedzic, although that's also partly just an Andrew Howe problem -- Dziedzic should watch some of Howe's old folkstyle matches...), but I still land on the pro-overtime side because it's easy to understand and wrestling needs to do everything it can to make sure its rules and formats are easy to understand.
One of the problems wrestling had prior to the new rules changes was that it was governed by an arcane, frankly bizarre set of rules that required a great deal of insider knowledge to grasp -- most people would be utterly baffled by the scoring if you sat them down for a freestyle match under the old rules. Deciding ties based on some form of criteria makes a certain amount of logical sense, but it has a high potential for being confusing and is not terribly fan-friendly. I don't expect FILA to change their minds on overtime in the immediate future (I think the current rules are locked in through at least the upcoming World Championships and the decision on its Olympic fate), but it will be interesting to see if they address the issue after that.
Junior World Team Trials
66kg -- Connor Ryan (1-2)
W - Ryan TECH FALL (8-0) Robbie Mathers
L - Ben Whitford TECH FALL (7-0) Ryan
L - Jake Short DEC (6-0) Ryan
74kg -- Patrick Rhoads (1-2)
W - Rhoads DEC (8-4) Nick Wanzek
L - Taylor Massa TECH FALL (7-0) Rhoads
L - Logan Molina DEC (3-2) Rhoads
84kg -- Alex Meyer (3-1; 2nd at FS Challenge 84kg)
W - Meyer TECH FALL (9-1) Gabe Dean
W - Meyer DEC (5-3) Nikko Reyes
W - Meyer DEC (10-9) Kyle Crutchmer
L - Sam Brooks DEC (5-4) Meyer
ALEX MEYER VS. GABE DEAN
ALEX MEYER VS. NIKKO REYES
ALEX MEYER VS. KYLE CRUTCHMER
84kg -- Sam Brooks (4-0; 1st at FS Challenge 84 kg)
W - Brooks PIN (2:22) Nolan Boyd
W - Brooks TECH FALL (8-0) Brett Pfarr
W - Brooks PIN (3:26) Jordan Rogers
W - Brooks DEC (5-4) Alex Meyer
SAM BROOKS VS. NOLAN BOYD
SAM BROOKS VS. BRETT PFARR
SAM BROOKS VS. JORDAN ROGERS
SAM BROOKS VS. ALEX MEYER
96 kg -- Nathan Burak (2-1; 2nd at FS Challenge 96 kg)
W - Burak TECH FALL (8-0) Brandon Tribble
W - Burak DEC (8-3) Austin Schafer
L - Willie Miklus PIN (5:55) Burak
55kg -- Thomas Gilman (2-0; 1st at FS Championship 55kg)
W - Gilman DEC (6-1) Nathan Tomasello
W - Gilman DEC (7-2) Nathan Tomasello
THOMAS GILMAN VS. NATHAN TOMASELLO - MATCH ONE
THOMAS GILMAN VS. NATHAN TOMASELLO - MATCH TWO
THOMAS GILMAN POST-TOURNAMENT INTERVIEW
84 kg -- Sam Brooks (2-0; 1st at FS Championship 84 kg)
W - Brooks DEC (6-0) Victor Avery
W - Brooks DEC (9-4) Victor Avery
SAM BROOKS VS. VIC AVERY - MATCH ONE
SAM BROOKS VS. VIC AVERY - MATCH TWO
World Team Trials
74 kg -- Ryan Morningstar (1-2)
W - Morningstar TECH FALL (10-2) Kevin Hartnett Jr.
L - Andrew Howe DEC (3-0) Morningstar
L - David Taylor DEC (4-2) Morningstar
66 kg -- Brent Metcalf (3-0; 1st at 66kg Freestyle Challenge)
W - Metcalf TECH FALL (10-3) Drew Headlee
W - Metcalf DEC (8-3) Adam Hall
W - Metcalf DEC (6-3) Jordan Oliver
BRENT METCALF VS. DREW HEADLEE
BRENT METCALF VS. ADAM HALL
BRENT METCALF VS. JORDAN OLIVER
84 kg -- Phil Keddy (2-1; 2nd at 84kg Freestyle Challenge)
W - Keddy TECH FALL (10-2) Max Askren
W - Keddy DEC (5-0) Jon Reader
L - Clayton Foster TECH FALL (9-2) Keddy
66kg -- Brent Metcalf (2-0; 1st at Freestyle Championship 66kg)
W - Metcalf TECH FALL (7-0) Kellen Russell
W - Metcalf TECH FALL (8-1) Kellen Russell
BRENT METCALF VS. KELLEN RUSSELL - MATCH ONE
BRENT METCALF VS. KELLEN RUSSELL - MATCH TWO
METCALF POST-TOURNAMENT INTERVIEW
And, as a bonus, check out this because it's very good:
KYLE DAKE VS. JORDAN BURROUGHS - MATCH TWO
The United States has four of its very best wrestlers all competing at the 74 kg weight class -- reigning kingpin Jordan Burroughs, 4-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake, and the exceptionally talented David Taylor and Andrew Howe. What a shame all those guys are at the same weight.