The constant refrain you hear in USA Greco-Roman wrestling is how an early start is imperative to long-term success. It makes sense. We hear this all the time. We talk about it all the time, too. The vast majority of American wrestlers grow up learning a style that is exclusive to their country. Folkstyle has some applicability, particularly towards freestyle, where the legs are still not off-limits. But Greco, with its restrictions, its equally hyper-concentrated and yet abstract skill-set, requires as early of an introduction as possible if you want to be a successful competitor. We are told this. Often. And it’s true. For the most part.
Brandon Mueller (71 kg) hasn’t won anything yet, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite growing up in Wisconsin, one of the nation’s prime “Greco states”, Mueller was a very, very good high school wrestler who likely would have been a solid candidate to continue on in the classical style had that been his choosing. Except, he didn’t wrestle Greco-Roman. Not really. Before he joined the United States Air Force, Mueller only had a couple of local matches under his belt, and he’d go on to acquire only a couple of more before he made the switch over just short of two years ago — at 25 years of age.
Even up until today, Mueller has a total of around ten Senior-level matches to his name. It’s insanity. What is all the more confounding is that he’s good. Really good. To the point where he almost has no right being as capable as he has demonstrated. Take for instance the 2017 Armed Forces Championships. Mueller, 26, defeated stout Marine contender JayShon Wilson and the only loss he took on the day was to Army’s Michael Hooker, another talented natural who the year before earned a berth in the Olympic Trials semifinals.
A better example might be what happened a month and a half later. That’s when Mueller went over to Estonia for the Kristjan Palusalu Memorial and grabbed a silver. It was his first international tournament. He didn’t fare as well at the US World Team Trials a few weeks later, losing to eventual runner-up and 2016 World Team member Chris Gonzalez, Chase Nelson (BWC), and funnily enough, Air Force Academy wrestler and 2017 University National champ Alex Mossing. But he scored a couple wins in there, too, and it has all been a part of a compressed crash course in Senior Greco-Roman during a period of time when most wrestlers at his station in life are well-established.
But that’s also what makes Mueller the story. He is not burdened by slogging around some giant-sized ego about what he has achieved — his Senior resume is virtually blank outside of Estonia and this year’s Armed Forces. He also recognizes where he falls short and is quick to note the areas in need of rapid improvement. However, Mueller absolutely does believe in himself, because if he didn’t, why would he put himself out there the way he has? He loves wrestling and in a very short amount of time, has managed to make enough of an impression competitively to where later on this month, he’ll be competing for a World title.
Mueller was recently selected to represent the United States at the CISM World Military Championships in Klaipeda, Lithuania, which begin next week. In a way, he is perhaps the most unlikely World Team member going, and that is part of the story, as well. An officer in the Air Force, Mueller will be donning the country’s colors and potentially battling it out against some of the most credentialed Greco-Roman wrestlers on the entire planet. That’s the deal. It has all occurred quickly. You’ll see that. Mueller lacks any and all pretense and is very keen to offer up plenty of funny self-deprecating comments. You’ll see that, too. His easy-going personality makes him enjoyable to talk to, and maybe it plays a role in why he is able to adapt so deftly to what are, in essence, unconventional circumstances.
For now, it’s all about how Brandon Mueller sees the landscape in front of him and what has led him to be on the cusp of leaving for the biggest tournament of his life thus far.
5PM Interview with Brandon Mueller
5PM: Why, how, did you end up in the Air Force?
Brandon Mueller: Oooh, tough question. Originally, I wanted to be a pilot. I didn’t get many Division I college offers, but I wanted to wrestle and I really wanted to go to a good academic school. The Air Force Academy presented itself as a pretty good opportunity where I could wrestle D1. I could keep wrestling, which I was super-passionate about. But at the same time, I could be in the Air Force. I battled back-and-forth between scientist, engineer, and pilot the whole way through, but I’m pretty happy with my decision to go scientist at this point.
Being an Air Force pilot I thought would be a pretty cool thing, but I think I contribute more to the fight this way. I had the option to go pilot while I was at the Academy, but I decided to go scientist instead. Everybody in my class who asked for pilot, got it. They got to go to pilot training, not all of them made it through. There was a shortage at that time, so like, 800 people applied and got it.
5PM: Is actually becoming a pilot that extraordinarily difficult?
BM: Yeah, it’s long, long hours and there is a lot of training. You have to be pretty smart memorizing a lot of information. If you’re super smart, you can get through it a lot easier. It might be easier for you, but if you’re a C-average student, you’re going to have to study your ass off to get through. I have some buddies working F-16’s and it’s just kind of brutal, some of the training they go through. Long hours, long days, memorizing all sorts of details.
5PM: How did you happen upon competing in Greco for the Air Force?
BM: I stopped wrestling after the Academy for two years. I was going to grad school down at Rice in Houston. I had a buddy who was on the Air Force’s World Class Athletes Program and he was just going to CISMs, the big one they had the year before the Olympics, and he got to wrestle in Korea. I didn’t really know much about what options were available. I knew that Cole (Von Ohlen) was better than me. He was ranked third at the Academy a couple of times, he was never able to All-American, but he was super-tough. He was the team captain at the Academy and he made the World Class Athletes Program as a freestyle guy. So I was like, I’m not as good as him, but at the same time, I didn’t know who was wrestling in these other weight classes. I just started hitting him up and he said, “You can go out to the Air Force camp and then go to the Armed Forces (Championships). I’ll let you into the camp, I’ll just let Floyd (Air Force coach, Winter) know. Since you have some college experience, I’ll definitely be able to get you in.”
This was right when I was switching to Albuquerque and I talked to my coach there and we looked at my past performances in folkstyle. He was like, If you want to keep competing at the Senior level, you should be realistic and start doing Greco. And that’s when I started training Greco.
5PM: Coming from Wisconsin, had you ever competed at the age-group level in Greco when you were younger?
Brandon Mueller: No. What happened was, I did club for two years, my junior and senior years. Kangaroo, it’s a club in Northeastern Wisconsin. I was able to win freestyle state one time, but the only Greco technique I really got was to wrestle freestyle, but don’t grab their legs. And that’s just not the right amount of coaching to excel there. I mean, obviously, I was taught gutwrenches and whatnot. I don’t know if I went 0-2 or what at states. One of the years at the Academy, I think it was the Northern Plains Regional, and I went 0-2 in Greco again. I didn’t really train any Greco, but I thought, I’m going for freestyle, so I might as well wrestle both.
But really, very little Greco. After I won the freestyle states my senior year, they wanted me to go to Fargo, but I had to go to basic training, so I never did that. I started wrestling Greco at the age of 25., you could say.
5PM: Given the scope of your education and the type of field you were entering in the Air Force, how did you learn to manage picking up a new style, training, and meshing those with your work responsibilities?
BM: It’s been really tough. The first year it was easier because my girlfriend was long distance, so leaving super-early and coming home at nine or ten o’clock at night every day was easy. I had nothing to do at home, anyways. I could do two morning practices, go to work, and then I’d leave work to coach some kids’ practices and do my practice after them. It was certainly a challenge, but I found time when I could to be efficient. I travel a bunch for work, so on days I travel, I try to do conditioning, such as get in a lift or a run. Sometimes, I’ll go to places where there are some wrestlers. Wherever it is, I can try to find a partner and get a different look because I don’t get a lot of looks in Albuquerque.
It’s a struggle. But, I find that I am lucky because as I’ve started doing better and the Air Force has given me some permissive TDY (temporary duty), my commanders have been pretty nice. Leading up to this tournament, I was like, I don’t want to be gone for two weeks of camp or something, but can I come in on Saturday and Sunday and do some work then and come in for shorter amounts of time during the week? I was lucky, because my commanders have been pretty flexible with that. Like last week, on one of the days I had a morning workout and then I had to do some rehab with a physical therapist, so I didn’t get into the office until 11:00 (am). But at the same time, I worked all Saturday and Sunday.
There are ways to balance it out. I’m lucky that I am not in the most stringent career field as opposed to security forces, maintenance, or pilots, where it’s every day you have to be here at 0700 and it’s super-strict. I’m lucky that I am in a place where I have the leaders who let me be a little more flexible.
5PM: In terms of wrestling, the Air Force is not a full-time training program the way the Army or Marines are. It’s much more pieced together. When you talk to your teammates and you all come together for the Armed Forces or something else, do you find that they also face similar challenges?
BM: I’d say that some of them have more challenges and some of them have less. I know one of the guys works in personnel somewhere and they were giving him a bunch of flexibility, he was training out at the Ohio RTC (regional training center). But other guys maybe have less opportunities. At the end of the day, I just don’t know how many of those guys think about wrestling outside of those two months (in preparation for the Armed Forces Championships) and how much they are really putting in. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the training opportunities or if it’s, Hey, I’ll take two months off… I don’t know how many of them are looking at those national-level type things.
For instance, this year there are a ton of young guys who might be new to Greco and I don’t think they realize what Greco at the Senior level is or know what the big tournaments are. Poll the whole team and ask them what the Bill Farrell Memorial is, or what the Dave Schultz Memorial is, and half of them might not even know.
5PM: It’s not like you have had a lot of Senior matches in Greco…
BM: About nine or ten (laughs).
5PM: Right. But in the limited time that you have competed, you’ve impressed people and you beat a really good full-time guy at the Armed Forces in JayShon Wilson, he’s very, very tough. What do you attribute this to? You were a very capable wrestler coming into Greco, but there has to be some natural inclination towards it for you to perform the way that you have so far. Do you feel a natural pull towards this style?
BM: I never thought I’d be a natural in Greco because I never had a Greco coach before, whether it was that one or two tournaments I went to as a senior high school, or that one tournament I did as a Cadet. But once I actually got a guy coaching me who knew Greco, I started picking it up pretty quickly. A lot of it I think was focusing on what I was good at and working towards those positions, and trying to stay out of the positions I’m bad at, while gradually adding more and more tools to my arsenal and I can apply those when needed.
It’s been working. Luckily, I pick up technique quickly. Maybe that’s because I’m a nerd and some of my work is creeping into my wrestling. Physics is helping me (laughs). I appreciate some of the finer points. If I’m learning a new hip toss or something, I think, Okay, I step here, I’m trying to get the fulcrum here, whatever it is. I guess after starting wrestling in third grade and the coach showing you technique, whether it’s folkstyle, freestyle, or Greco, you start seeing what parts to look for and that is what I’ve been focused on.
5PM: Are you like doing equations in your head or something when you’re pummeling?
Brandon Mueller: (Laughs) No, no, certainly not. I guess when I’m breaking down a new move that I’m trying to add to my kit, or if I have a move that hasn’t been working for me, I’ll go watch some film of it. Then it’s like, Okay, if I move my foot this way, I’ll have a little bit more leverage. Something like that. Just seeing the whole picture and being able to break it down to individual components. Maybe that’s helping me, I don’t know (laughs).
5PM: A month and change following the Armed Forces, you went over to Estonia for the Kristjan Palusalu Memorial and added to the medal count for the US Seniors in 2017 by picking up a silver. What did you learn about wrestling foreign opponents that you found to be different, or even similar to competing against US guys?
BM: Well, their par terre is certainly better (laughs). They are a lot better at consistently keeping their hips in, and they are a lot better at par terre because their whole lives they have been wrestling Greco and wrestling par terre. I really noticed it in Estonia. There’s not a lot of freestyle, it is basically all Greco. And in that room, if I’m digging an underhook and the guy circles away from me, I kind of had a tendency to bend at the waist a little bit. That didn’t fly at all in the practice room over there. As soon as your hips come out, they are hitting a move on you. They are just consistent at some of those positional points just from years of doing it and not having the bad habits of folkstyle/freestyle creeping into their stance.
One more thing to add, I don’t know if it’s Estonia-specific, but a lot of those guys were hitting low guts as opposed to Minnesota mid-guts. I don’t know if that’s relevant or not (laughs).
5PM: Coming into the tournament, did you have camp first?
BM: Yes, it’s one of the reasons I picked that tournament. I had hip surgery last July. I tore my labrum in my left hip and it was pretty bad. In December before the Armed Forces, that is when I just started being able to jog and I just started being able to drill in January. I didn’t know how I would be for the Armed Forces, but I really wanted to qualify for the (World Team) Trials. I looked at the schedule, found this tournament, and thought, This could be an opportunity to qualify and plus it has a camp with it. Even if I go over there and spend the money, at least I know I’ll get better because it has a camp. I picked it for the camp and then I got invited to a second camp afterwards, so I extended my stay. It was camp, tournament, camp.
5PM: Going into the tournament, what were you expecting competitively? It was your first international event, you’re obviously going to try to win. But all the same, you had to figure the deck might be stacked against you in terms of experience. So what was your attitude — do your best and worst case scenario you learn? Or were you more confident than that?
Brandon Mueller: I actually had a similar problem with the World Team Trials. I really like setting goals. If you want to set a goal, is it to win the tournament? Or is is to medal at the tournament? It’s the same thing with the Trials. I didn’t really know where I was in that pack and so, I didn’t really know where to put my goals at. It was a little bit of a struggle for me and I did spend a lot of time thinking about it. I ended up not even tapering for that tournament in Estonia because it was three weeks out from the Trials and I was like, Hey, the main thing is that I am learning for Trials, but let’s go here and practice. It was a lot of mental stuff, mental technique, and to just get more experience wrestling at the Senior level.
I was looking at it that way, and then I saw that I had a pretty small bracket and I was like, Okay, that should at least get me on the podium, and I was happy to do it (laughs).
5PM: But you did more than that, you made the finals. You do realize that given the current climate of American Greco right now, you getting to the finals of an international tournament is an achievement, that it means something, right?
BM: Yeah, I was pretty shocked (laughs). But it was exciting.
5PM: After this was in fact, the Trials. I don’t know what your viewpoint was going into that, obviously.
BM: The main thing was, I wanted to show people that I belonged wrestling at that level. The original way that I qualified for that tournament was the Armed Forces. They had changed the qualifying procedures. Typically, it was if you had won the Armed Forces, but top three qualified this year (for the Trials). I got in with a second place medal and I didn’t want an asterisk next to my name competing at Trials. So I was like, Okay, let’s go in and prove that I belong there. I was happy I won some matches.
5PM: What did you learn from Trials? What did you learn about the top Senior-level guys in the country, how they compete, and how your style matches up?
BM: I’m in the mix and there’s no need to fear going up against anybody. There are some matches that I lost. I got to wrestle the number one seed, Chris Gonzalez, and I felt like in the second period there I was maybe going to close the gap. But I attempted a move in the first period that I learned in Estonia and drilled two times, and gave up some points from it. Maybe if I hadn’t done that, it would have been closer, maybe I could have made a comeback. I ended up losing all of my matches by tech fall because there was no point in losing in a close match, so I kept going for big throws I don’t know to do (laughs).
5PM: The World Team Trials wrapped up in late-April. What was your life like between the time Trials ended and you finding out that you’ve been selected to the US Military World Team?
Brandon Mueller: I am pretty crippled at this point. I had this plica thing come up in my knee and it was bothering me going into Armed Forces. And then at Armed Forces, I hyperextended my other knee wrestling freestyle. It was just a couple of muscle strains and a ligament. They didn’t tear, but I was training with a knee brace that had metal in it through Estonia, and then I had a regular brace. At Trials, I didn’t have a brace, but I tweaked it again there. It was just like, Okay, let’s heal up this body. I looked at the calendar and I didn’t have anything until November, which I assumed was the Bill Farrell at that point, and I wanted to try to just heal my body and actually rest.
For six weeks, I did nothing. I regret it a little bit because I think I should have gone to Universities. But I was so burnt out, I was behind on work, and I figured, It’s time to rest, get my life in order, and then get ready for November. So I basically did nothing — aside from some lifting, stretching, some yoga — but very little on-the-mat stuff until July. I had just started getting back in the room, picking up the intensity, doing some drilling, and a little bit of live go’s. I was doing this for basically, two, three weeks, and then I got the call. I had actually received an email that asked about it and it was, Oh dang. And then I had whatever it was, about a month or six weeks to get ready for this. It was like, Oh crap, now I have to jack up my intensity really quickly, which is not necessarily the best thing for my knees. But I’m feeling good right now (laughs). I’m a little nervous for this tournament, but I had two great practices today (laughs).
5PM: Let’s get to that, then. The implications of this tournament to legitimate, knowledgeable wrestling fans, are significant. This isn’t just an overseas event, it’s the World Military Championships and a lot of the best wrestlers in the sport participate in this. So right away, it is the biggest tournament of your life.
BM: You’re psyching me up, this is perfect. I’m getting tingles. I try to use that.
At Trials, that was the biggest tournament of my life up to that point. On the second day of the tournament, that was my day to wrestle, I was the first match on Mat 1. I was up on the stage a little bit and I just got so amped for that. I felt so good going into that match. And then I ended up having a great win there.
I’ve been getting better at the mental game over the last few years and hopefully, that’s not going to hold me back. But I am certainly looking at this like, Wow, there are going to be Olympians at this tournament, the best guys in the world. I just hope I’m ready.
5PM: I would think one of your advantages, outside of your obvious natural talent and anyone who has seen you compete recently would agree that’s undeniable, is the fact that no one really knows who you are. They don’t know you.
BM: Yeah, exactly. Maybe I’m a little unorthodox, as well, so maybe it’s going to be a little awkward wrestling me. Their go-to stuff might not be quite lined up because I’m not going to necessarily dig for that underhook most guys are going to go for. Whatever the position is, I might be a little different, and as long as I have the right mindset going in there… I’m also probably not well-scouted, things like that.
5PM: Having wrestled internationally before, you know they play a different game. How do you approach it knowing what you know now? You know that the feel is different, the positioning, a little more disciplined. Is that something you have brought into your training, these nuances?
BM: Yes. Just recently working with my coach in Albuquerque (Nathaniel Augustson), we went through some of my matches in Estonia and figuring out what positions we need to work on. He was trying to give me the looks of some of those guys. So I am going to stick to my game plan, whatever I decide that is, and just try to control position, and then how I defend against whatever position they’re trying to get to.
I will say, I was surprised that the practices over there (in Estonia) were really hard but at the same time, at the tournament, I felt like my conditioning was great. If I just look at those practices, then there is no reason why I should have an edge conditioning-wise in a match, but that is certainly something I will try to rely on over there, too.
5PM: Hopefully, this is just one opportunity ahead of many others for you…
BM: If I don’t blow it too badly (laughs). Well, what’s really nice is, and I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself, but if I perform well, that might go a long way towards getting me into WCAP. The fact that I am competing is going to help, but the fact that I’m ranked, we’ll see if Air Force Sports is willing to do that.
5PM: What are you looking forward to the most about the Military World Championships and what do you hope to do with this opportunity?
Brandon Mueller: Leaving high school, I wasn’t even sure I was going to wrestle in college. And then after a very uneventful college career, I thought I was for sure done. And then two years later, I came back into the sport and now I’m doing it. The Air Force is essentially paying me to wrestle. That is outrageously exciting. To be on a World Team gives me chills, and I’m extremely excited for that, as well. If you watch the Olympics, people wave the flag and represent their countries. I guess I got a little bit of that wrestling for the US over in Estonia. The win over the Russian, I was just laughing thinking of Rocky IV (laughs). But getting to go with a whole team, I think that is going to be a lot of fun and that is kind of why I still do it. I have a ton of fun wrestling and now I get to do it on the world stage.
Follow Brandon Mueller on Twitter to keep up with his career and competitive schedule.