The World Team Trials were held this past weekend in Madison, WI, a two-day event to determine the eight men and eight women who will compete for the United States at the World Championships in Las Vegas this September. Two former Iowa wrestlers, Tony Ramos and Brent Metcalf, were favored to make the team and that's exactly what happened, with Ramos taking the first matches in the best-of-3 finals at 57 KG on Saturday and Metcalf doing the same at 65 KG on Sunday. Metcalf and Ramos were both on the U.S. team that competed at last year's World Championships and Metcalf is making his fourth appearance at the World Championships.
Ramos took on former UNI wrestler Joe Colon in the best-of-3 finals on Saturday, winning the first match 6-0 and the second match 3-1. Colon emerged from the challenger tournament earlier in the day after a dominant 8-0 win over Brad Pataky, a wild 17-12 come-from-behind win over former Iowa star Matt McDonough, and an also-wild 11-8 win over former World Team member Angel Escobedo. Colon's match with McDonough might have been the match of the tournament, a frenetic, action-packed bout with 29 total points scored and wild swings of fortune. Colon trailed McDonough 10-1 early in the second period, just a single point away from a tech fall lost. He went on to score 16 points (!) in the second period alone to grab a stunning victory. Colon won another high-scoring match against Escobedo in the finals (11-8), but his offense dried up against the stingy Ramos.
Ramos scored 9 points on Colon over two matches, while holding Colon to just a single point over that same period. Ramos' adaptation to freestyle has been astonishingly quick and he's consistently proving to be a cut above the other contenders at 57 KG. His defense is outstanding -- guys simply can't get to his legs often at all and against Ramos wisely stayed out of Colon's dangerous underhooks (McD wasn't so fortunate, which led to Colon's eruption of points) and wrestled a very smart, controlled match, keeping the pressure on Colon throughout and finishing a handful of takedowns.
Metcalf took the mat on Sunday and faced a common recent opponent, former Oklahoma State standout Jordan Oliver in the best-of-3 finals. Metcalf and Oliver have tussled several times in recent years, with Oliver emerging as the second-best guy in the U.S. at 65 KG. He's consistently been unable to get past Metcalf at that weight, though, and Sunday night was no different. Metcalf picked up a solid 9-4 win over Oliver in the first match of the finals, then followed that up with a 7-0 win to secure the victory and a spot on the Worlds team. Like Ramos, Metcalf has become a more tactical and patient wrestler as a freestyle competitor than he was at Iowa, owing to the fact that a single mistake in freestyle can be catastrophic, but he's still capable of turning on the offense when he needs to. His defense is rock-solid -- it's very difficult for opponents to get good scoring opportunities against Metcalf, and even harder to actually finish those chances -- and offensively he's tremendous at finishing shots when he gets hold of an opponent's leg with his high-crotch attacks. Metcalf has also adapted to the current freestyle rules exceptionally well and is adept at taking advantage of many of the "quirks" and techniques of freestyle wrestling, such as the ways to gain exposure points and rack up points in a hurry.
Oliver wrestled Metcalf to a nervy 2-1 decision loss at the U.S. Open finals last month, leading some (myself included) to speculate that he was closing the gap on Metcalf. That belief may have been premature. Oliver kept things close for a bit against Metcalf on Sunday, but overall he still looked thoroughly outclassed by Brent -- Oliver was rarely ever able to threaten Metcalf with his own attacks and once Metcalf broke down Oliver's own defense (something he was unable to do in the U.S. Open final), the writing was on the wall for Oliver. Until he can score on Metcalf consistently, it's hard to see these matches going any differently. Tom Brands agrees:
Tom Brands on Brent Metcalf: "If I’m Oliver, I’m probably thinking how in the heck am I going to score a legit takedown on this guy?"— Andy Hamilton (@Andy_Hamilton) June 15, 2015
That said, 65 KG is a weight with some serious talent: in addition to Metcalf and Oliver, former Michigan star Kellen Russell is also lurking at this weight and two younger guys, former Ohio State stud Logan Stieber and 18-year old phenom Aaron Pico, are lurking at this weight as well. Stieber was in action on Sunday and looked very impressive, even in his loss to Oliver. As he acclimates to freestyle, he's going to become an even bigger threat at this weight. Metcalf remains the king of the hill at 65 KG, but there are plenty of challengers looming for him in the next few years. In the meantime, though, Brent has another chance to claim an elusive World Championship medal in a few months -- let's hope that he (and Ramos, too) can bring home some medals for America and the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.
The full U.S. team (women and men) for the World Championships is below:
48 KG (105.5 LBS): Alyssa Lampe
53 KG (116.5 LBS): Whitney Conder
55 KG (121 LBS): Helen Maroulis
58 KG (128 LBS): Alli Ragan
60 KG (132 LBS): Leigh Jaynes-Provisor
63 KG (138.75 LBS): Erin Clodgo
69 KG (152 LBS): Elena Pirozhkova
75 KG (165 LBS): Adeline Gray
57 KG (125.5 LBS): Tony Ramos
61 KG (134 LBS): Reece Humphrey
65 KG (143 LBS): Brent Metcalf
70 KG (154 LBS): James Green
74 KG (163 LBS): Jordan Burroughs
86 KG (189 LBS): Jake Herbert
97 KG (213 LBS): Kyle Snyder
125 KG (275 LBS): Tervel Dlagnev
A few thoughts:
1) This is an incredibly strong men's team for the U.S. (and seemingly for the women as well, although I confess to far less knowledge about that side of things) and one that seems poised to challenge for medals at the World Championships. Burroughs, Metcalf, and Dlagnev have been three of the most successful U.S. freestyle wrestlers in recent years and they're all wrestling well right now. Herbert has returned from a sabbatical from freestyle looking completely rejuvenated: he's been absolutely kicking ass and taking names at 86 KG over the last few months. Kyle Snyder is the youngest member of the team (and the only current collegian -- in case you've forgotten, he was the NCAA runner-up for Ohio State at 197 lbs at the last NCAA Tournament), but he was dominant at the junior level and he's looked very good at the senior level in recent months (including consecutive wins over former Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner at the U.S. Open and here at the Trials). Ramos and Humphrey are no slouches, either, and if Green wrestles like he did this weekend, he has the potential to excel at freestyle. Given the level of talent, their current form, and "home mat advantage" with the World Championships being in Las Vegas, this looks like the chance the U.S. has had in a while to make plenty of noise on the medal stand.
2) There's one heck of a #B1G flavor to this team, too:
The only member of the freestyle team to not go to a Big Ten college will be Dlagnev— Bloodround Wrestling (@Bloodround) June 14, 2015
Dlagnev wrestled in college for Division II Nebraska-Kearney, where he won two national championships. Granted, this stat also involves a bit of fudging: Jordan Burroughs is a Nebraska alum and while the Huskers are a Big Ten school now, they were in the Big 12 when he competed there. Still, the Big Ten definitely rules the roost with this year's Worlds team: Metcalf and Ramos went to Iowa, Burroughs and Green went to Nebraska, Humphrey went to Ohio State, Herbert went to Northwestern, and Snyder is currently at Ohio State.
3) The current format gives a huge advantage to the favorite. Seven of the eight spots on the U.S. team were taken by the wrestlers who received an automatic bye into the Best-of-3 finals at their respective weights -- and even that stat is a little misleading, because the one weight that was won by a wrestler without a bye (70 KG) was the weight where the favorite (Nick Marable) wasn't able to compete because he didn't make weight for this event. Only one of those seven wrestlers even lost a match in the Best-of-3 finals (Dlagnev). Entering the Best-of-3 finals fresh and not having to wrestle 2-3 potentially grueling matches against other wrestlers in the challenge brackets certainly seems to be a significant advantage. Kyle Dake, for instance, had to wrestle tough matches against Andrew Howe and David Taylor just to get to the finals against Jordan Burroughs at 74 KG -- would the outcome have been different if he and Burroughs had been on equal footing in terms of rest and wear and tear? Maybe not, but we'll never know for certain.
To be sure, the wrestlers who received byes into the Best-of-3 finals earned them -- all of them had either claimed a medal at the last World Championships or won their bracket at the U.S. Open last month, facing many of the same guys who featured in the challenge brackets at this event. And while upsets can be fun during the event itself*, they're probably not beneficial to the U.S. in the big picture, since it's far more advantageous for us to send our best wrestlers to the World Championships. That said, it's hard to shake the feeling that the current format tilts things too far in favor of the wrestlers who earn byes into the finals and can avoid getting worn down over the course of a day's worth of action. There isn't a perfect answer here by any means, but it might be worth examining some other options for structuring this event.
* Speaking of upsets... a former Iowa wrestler almost provided the shock of the tournament.
Daniel Dennis, who stopped competing, started traveling and lived in his truck for five months, is in the World Team Trials finals.— Andy Hamilton (@Andy_Hamilton) June 14, 2015
Dennis blitzed former UNI wrestler Joey Lazor 10-0 in the first round, then stunned former Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott 8-6 in the challenge bracket semfinals before earning a spot in the Best-of-3 finals on Sunday night by shocking former NCAA champion Kendric Maple, 6-4, in the challenge tournament finals. Dennis beat Maple with a remarkable comeback, scoring the winning takedown at the final whistle.
Alas, Dennis' luck ran out in the Best-of-3 finals, where he went down 12-1 and 4-1 to Reece Humphrey. It was a tremendous run to make the finals, though, especially that win over Maple, which provided the latest example yet for why you should Never. Stop. Wrestling in a match. Dennis has never been the most physically gifted wrestler, but his tenacity is second-to-none.
While Dennis' quote about the end of his match is a little bit funny and a whole lot inspirational, it's also a stark reminder of one of the biggest problems with the current freestyle rules: it can be hard to know what the hell the score is and/or who the hell scored. This was most apparent in the Ed Ruth-Jon Reader match at 86 KG on Saturday, when everyone involved seemed baffled at what the score was supposed to be after one wild sequence. It's bad enough if fans can't follow the action and know what the score is, but if wrestlers, coaches, referees, rules officials, and match commentators are also confused, well, I think there's a bit of a problem. Along those lines, I also think they should look into revising the rules for a technical fall -- a 10-point lead just doesn't seem like it should be enough for a match termination in a system where you can get four points for a single move (a takedown where you take an opponent's back directly to the mat) and rack up exposure points in bunches with the right maneuvers (such as a leg-lace). But that might be a topic for another day...
Congrats to Ramos and Metcalf and all the wrestlers who made the U.S. team -- now go bring home some medals at the World Championships.