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IOWA BEATS THE WORLD AT AGON V

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Hawkeyes from the past and the future teamed up to topple a host of solid wrestlers from around the country in a thrilling freestyle showcase.

THE CHAMP IS HERE.
THE CHAMP IS HERE.

Agon's "Iowa vs. The World" took place at US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids Friday night and the result was a thrilling night of wrestling that showed off the best (and occasionally the worst) that freestyle wrestling has to offer.  It was also a chance for Iowa fans to watch several former Hawkeye legends in action, as well a chance to get a glimpse of the future and see some of Iowa's most prized recruits in action.  It was a winning experience all around and hopefully Agon brings another show to the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City region again before too long.  (The success of this show, on the heels of the wildly successful Olympic Team Trials a few years ago, also suggests that USA Wrestling would be crazy not to bring more events to the region, especially while so many Iowa alums are tearing it up on the freestyle scene.)

There were several early technical issues with the webstream of the event, but the event organizers seemed to get those under control by the time the professional portion of the card and the most-hyped matches on the card went off without a hitch on the webstream.  A replay of the event is available on tmwc1.com (for $4.99) for the next seven days; I'd say that it's worth watching for Ramos' match alone, but the rest of the evening brought a solid amount of entertainment as well.

HIGH SCHOOL ELITE MATCHES

1) #1 Alex Marinelli DEC (9-4) #2 Josh Shields (IOWA 1-0)
2) #2 Josh Gomez DEC (15-8) #1 Justin Mejia (TIED 1-1)
3) #1 Michael Kemerer DEC (5-4) #3 Fredy Stroker (IOWA 2-1)

The three Iowa recruits in action (Marinelli, Mejia, and Kemerer) went 2-1 in their matches, but all three looked strong.  And their opponents, particularly Josh Gomez (who has yet to commit to a school, but will surely be one of the most coveted lightweight wrestlers over the next few years) and Fredy Stroker, were also impressive -- all of these guys should make fans of their respective college teams very happy when they finally make it there.  Marinelli (Class of 2016) started the evening off with a win and looked great in doing so.  He's nicknamed "The Bull" and it was easy to see why after watching him -- he was relentless on the attack early and displayed very strong offense from neutral.  His gas tank seemed to be running low by the end of the match, but I don't think it was anything to be nervous about -- he looked pretty excellent for the first five minutes of the match.

Mejia, the second Iowa recruit in action, is the furthest of the three from making it to Iowa (Class of 2017), but even if it will be another 18 months or so until he can sign a Letter of Intent, I don't think there's much need to worry about his commitment to the Hawkeyes.  I mean, he wrestled in what looked like a custom-made Iowa singlet:

Justin Mejia 2 Agon V

Mejia suffered the only loss of the three Iowa recruits in action -- and a lopsided loss, at that -- but I don't think there's much cause for concern.  Mejia hasn't wrestled much freestyle of late, while his opponent (Gomez) is very well-versed in freestyle and Greco-Roman action.  As we saw in many of Friday night's matches, experience and familiarity with freestyle rules is a tremendous advantage.  Mejia had some good leg attacks and had an aggressive attitude that looks promising.  There's a lot to like about him; the only downside is that we won't get to see him wrestle in a real Iowa singlet for several more years.

Kemerer was the third and final Iowa recruit to see action at Agon V -- he's also the one we'll seeing in our familiar black and gold singlet most recently.  He's a Class of 2015 recruit and headed to Iowa City this fall.  Kemerer looked good and is the standout in Iowa's '15 class (#13 overall, per InterMat), but I'd still expect to see him redshirt -- virtually all true freshmen at Iowa do and he also projects to start out at 149 or 157, where Iowa should have Brandon Sorensen (a returning All-American) and Brody Grothus (an experienced fifth-year senior) next season.  Now if Kemerer can get down to 141 lbs, well... Kemerer, like Mejia, was also rocking an Iowa singlet, although his was just a bit less traditional-looking than Mejia's gear:

Michael Kemerer Agon V

Kemerer picked up a 5-4 win over Iowa native* Fredy Stroker in the final High School Elite match of the night.  Stroker appeared hobbled by a knee injury, but he was still able to land what appeared to be the match-winning takedown late in the third period, until a protracted reveal and the eccentricity of the freestyle scoring rules uncovered that Kemerer had also scored two points (via exposure) at nearly the same time as Stroker got the takedown.  Stroker is headed to Minnesota; if both guys stay in the same same weight class, we'll likely see a lot more clashes between them in the future.

* Native might be stretching it -- Stroker is currently at Bettendorf, but his family has moved around a lot during his upbringing.  It's not like he's been an Iowan since childhood.

PRO MATCHES

4) Deron Winn DEC (6-3) Phil Keddy (TIED 2-2)
5) Jason Welch DEC (12-10) Derek St. John (WORLD 3-2)
6) Matt McDonough DEC (6-2) Angel Escobedo (TIED 3-3)
7) Tony Ramos DEC (10-8) Henry Cejudo (IOWA 4-3)
8) Brent Metcalf DEC (4-1) Aaron Pico (IOWA 5-3)

The pro portion of the card started off poorly for Team Iowa, with back-to-back losses by Keddy and St. John.  Keddy had trouble dealing with Winn's strength and explosiveness and lost a 6-3 decision.  St. John came out on the wrong end of a 12-10 decision.  Yes, you read that score correctly.  Freestyle can be really, really fun and this match was a great example of that.  This was also about the last match on the card that I would have expected so many points from, based on their folkstyle history -- there were lots of cagey, low-scoring matches back then.  The score was actually 9-6 after the first period, so things slowed down a fair amount in the second period.  This match was a textbook example of the difference between folkstyle wrestling and freestyle wrestling.  There's no doubt in my mind that St. John would have won the match in a folkstyle setting -- the points he scored in the match still would have counted there (he had several good leg attacks and solid takedowns), while most of Welch's scoring came via freestyle rules (lifts, exposure, pushouts, etc.).  There's nothing wrong with what Welch did -- he took advantage of the scoring rules that applied to the style that they were wrestling, as he should have done.  Welch is simply a much more experienced freestyle competitor than St. John at this point.  Alas, it did mean that St. John's 7-0 career record against Welch is now just 7-1. Still: fun wrestling is fun wrestling.

Things turned around for Team Iowa in the final three bouts.  Matt McDonough got the turnaround started with a very nice 6-2 win over former NCAA champion Angel Escobedo.  This was a much-delayed revenge bout for McDonough; Escobedo was the only wrestler to beat McD in his 2010 freshman season (in the Big Ten Tournament finals), a loss McD was never able to avenge in college (Escobedo was a senior in 2010 and lost before getting a chance to rematch McD in the NCAA Tournament).  McDonough has adapted well to freestyle -- his rock-solid defense and strong leg attacks from neutral translate well.  It's a shame that he shares the same weight (for most purposes) with another former Iowa standout, though...

...that would be one Tony Ramos.  Ramos produced the most thrilling win of the night, taking down former Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo 12-8 in an absolute barnburner of a match.  Ramos fell behind early, 2-0, then got a takedown to tie things up right at the end of the first period.  He gave up a 4-point throw early in the second period and went down 6-2, but manages to score points of his own during the scramble and things sat at 8-4 Cejudo when the dust settled. Things did not look good for our favorite staredown artist.  Then things got really exciting.  Ramos got to Cejudo's legs and scored another takedown to cut the deficit to 8-6 before Cejduo had to take a brief injury stoppage with 45 seconds left.  When the action resumed, Ramos was on the attack and he finished by locking up a cradle and taking Cejudo to this back as time expired.  He didn't get the fall, but he did get a 12-8 win in front of a raucous pro-Iowa crowd.

Whatever the score, it was a great match (worth the price of the $4.99 replay by itself) and another impressive feather in Ramos' cap since he graduated from Iowa and moved into freestyle competition full-time.  Ramos has been in freestyle competition for barely a wear and he's already won a gold medal at the Grand Prix of Paris, competed in the Freestyle Clubs Cup in Iran, the Yarygni Grand Prix in Russia, and the 2014 World Championships, and now beaten a former Olympic gold medalist (albeit a former Olympic gold medalist who no longer focuses on freestyle competition).  It's going to be very fun to continue watching Ramos and seeing how he grows and improves in freestyle competition.  Ramos also confirmed his status King of the Corridor -- he famously went undefeated in all competition at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City while he was at Iowa and now he added a win in Cedar Rapids to that total.  In fact, if memory serves, the only match he's ever lost in the state of Iowa was his controversial loss to Logan Stieber in the 2013 NCAA Tournament finals in Des Moines.

The night's main event was a much-hyped showdown between Brent Metcalf, the former Iowa great and reigning U.S. standout at 66 kg, and 18-year old super phenom, Aaron Pico.  Metcalf won the match 4-1, but the action was underwhelming -- there were more fireworks in the post-match scene (when Metcalf took to the mic to call out Pico; you can read more about that situation from Andy Hamilton) than the match itself.  Perhaps that's not too surprising -- match between top-level wrestlers often devolve into cagey, low-scoring, low-action affairs because no one wants to be the one to make a mistake.

But this was not the spectacle anyone was hoping for -- Metcalf scored the match's lone takedown and both men were warned for passivity and put on the shot clock (and neither man was able to get a takedown while on the clock, either).  Pico was allegedly frustrated at Metcalf for not taking more shots, but he should probably look in the mirror -- Metcalf might not have been the all-action dynamo we've seen in many of his past matches, but he still took more legitimate shots than Pico, whose main offenses seemed to consist of trying to snap Metcalf down to the mat off a tie-up.  Pico is very good -- it's easy to forget sometimes that he's just 18 freaking years old -- and he'll likely surpass Metcalf at some point.  Just not yet.

The Metcalf-Pico match was also proof that the freestyle rules aren't a magic panacea to guarantee more action, excitement, and scoring in a match.  You can (and do) still get fairly boring, low-scoring matches in freestyle just like you do in folkstyle.  That said, it was hard not to be impressed with the overall offense on display on Friday night and all the points that were scored.

There are plenty of lessons that folkstyle can (and should, IMO) take away from the freestyle wrestling that was on display on Friday night.  Overall, there was just so much more action and more scoring than you see in most folkstyle matches these days -- especially between high level folkstyle wrestlers.  The push-out rule (awarding a point to an aggressive wrestlers who is able to push his opponent out of bounds during an attacking move) is a godsend and does a wonderful job of eliminating a lot of tedious stalling and "wrestling" at the edge that dominates so many folkstyle matches now.  There's no doubt in my mind that the NCAA should look at add a push-out rule as soon as possible.

It was also incredibly refreshing to see officials that called stalemates so quickly and returned wrestlers to their feet if there was no action on the mat.  Occasionally, long, protracted sequences in tie-ups or on the mat might lead to scoring, but most of them just end up bleeding clock (and the attention of viewers), so erring on the side of restarts and fresh action is much appreciated.  It would be nice to see officials in folkstyle matches take the same approach rather than be complicit in the stalling that is sucking the excitement out of the sport.

It was also a relief to watch over two hours of wrestling and see almost no pointless riding on the mat.  In the absence of a riding time point, there's no incentive for guys to "ride for riding time's sake" and simply hang out in top position.  Taking away the riding time point doesn't mean the absence of mat work, either -- guys on this show still attempted to turn guys and score points when they were in the top position.  The difference is that the match was that if they weren't able to do so in a reasonable amount of time, the wrestlers were returned to their feet.  It's true that overall you'll see less mat wrestling if you take away riding time and encourage refs to enforce returns to neutral more strictly... but I'm increasingly convinced that's a good idea.  Too much mat wrestling and riding results in no worthwhile action.  It becomes the equivalent of a basketball team simply dribbling the shot clock out in the corner. That's just not good for the sport.

That said, there were definitely some aspects of freestyle scoring that folkstyle would be wise to avoid for now. Outside of the technical issues with the stream, my biggest gripe about the action on Friday was the video reviews -- they took too long and they were way too frequent.  The most egregious example was the review at the end of the Kemerer-Stroker match, which seemed to take longer than the actual match itself.  That's absurd.  Reviews in folkstyle aren't great (by any means), but even they didn't seem quite as protracted or terrible as the reviews on Friday night.  (In fact, the entire video review system in wrestling could probably stand to be overhauled, but that's a topic for another day.)

Of course, part of the reviews take so long is because the freestyle scoring rules can still be a bit confusing and byzantine.  Freestyle organizers dramatically overhauled the rules a few years ago as part of their plan for getting the sport back into the Olympics and while they did a great job overall, some aspects of freestyle scoring remain confusing.  The awarding of exposure points in particular is very much a gray area and that ambiguity leads to a lot of challenges to try and sort things out.  That doesn't seem like a well-functioning system.

It also hurts that it's not always clear to the viewer (in attendance or at home) why someone has scored.  For instance, McDonough was awarded a point in his win over Escobedo because Escobedo challenged one of McDonough's takedowns and lost.  The cost of that failed challenge was one point awarded to McDonough.  That wasn't clear when watching.  Likewise, the passivity warnings and "shot clocks" are a good idea in theory, but one that still needs more fleshing out in execution.  This is also an area where it's paramount that the production staff and announcers are working to help explain the scoring, too.  Overall, the announcers (including Friends of the Pants Tony Hager and Ross Bartachek from IAWrestle) did a nice job on Friday, especially when it came to explaining the backgrounds of the wrestlers and the back stories of the matches, but the one area where they could have done a bit more was keep viewers up to date on the match score and explain why certain points were awarded.

Still, overall Agon V was a massive success.  The wrestling was very good -- exciting, dramatic, attack-oriented -- and the presentation ended up being pretty strong.  Here's to many more events like this in the future.