Interviews

Point Proven: Kendrick Sanders Is Forging a New Narrative

kendrick sanders, 2019 us open greco-roman champion, 82 kg
Kendrick Sanders -- Photo: Larry Slater

The last time Kendrick Sanders (82 kg, NYAC/OTS) took time out for an interview here, the circumstances were a little different.

You see, back in April of 2017, Sanders was in the midst of his final preparations for the World Team Trials. He had taken on an enigmatic air by then. The preceding years had been filled, from a competitive standpoint, with enormous highs (like his first Senior National title in 2014) and devastating lows (like his exit from the 2016 Olympic Trials brought on in large part by broken ribs).

In fact, shortly after those Iowa Trials, Sanders nearly opted to leave the sport. He had intended to venture into MMA with Bellator, the same promotion for which 2006 World Champion Joe Warren and ’16 World Team member Chris Gonzalez (77 kg, NYAC) compete.

Sanders changed his mind, citing a desire to finish out his wrestling career knowing it was on his terms. Understandable. What wasn’t understandable, and had become the premier theme surrounding his career, was how someone so clearly gifted and skilled could even flirt with walking away before the job was done. And by “job”, in Sanders’ case that meant a World Championships appearance, if not a medal. His ability so severe that even a gold one wouldn’t seem so crazy.

In conjunction with his near-exit was also his reputation. It followed him around like a hovering cloud. At least anecdotally, it wasn’t fantastic. Similar to many extraordinarily talented athletes who see success early on, Sanders wasn’t fully aware of the cost that is normally required to actually shake hands with one’s potential. He said then, in 2017, and he said again this week that perhaps “it came too easy”. The techniques, the throws, the positions, it was as if he could go on cruise control and still put forth the kind of performance mere mortals would never take for granted.

Until those performances began disappearing.

Part of that was his fault. Part of it wasn’t. Even though Sanders might not have emptied the tank during various points of his career, he did deal with a litany of nagging injuries which were also responsible for his interrupted trajectory. Combine that with the crushing personal losses he endured off the mat, and it’s enough to gain a sense of why his passion for competition was often interpreted as lukewarm — and why so many outside of the Marquette eco-system wondered if he’d ever become whole again.

So you fast-forward. There’s no choice. Sanders’ past two seasons ended in unceremonious disappointment. First it was the 2017 World Team Trials and a loss against the now-retired Dillon Cowan; last year, Sanders took third at the Bill Farrell Memorial but washed out of the National tournament less than a month later. Both instances involved injuries, but they were also framed within a pattern that suggested Sanders’ best days were in the rearview mirror due to long-held frustrations. The thought was that the consistent betrayal of his body had at long last fully suffocated his will to win.

Entering this season, Sanders still popped up in conversations because of the human brain’s storage unit known as “long-term memory”. What was going on in the here and now with Sanders, no one really knew. Again, Northern Michigan’s Olympic Training Site is like its own little biosphere. Insular. Tight-knit. But since it is impossible to forget the unique ability Sanders used to demonstrate on a regular basis, any discussion involving his (previous) weight class had to include some throw-away sentence or two beginning with the word “if” — i.e., If Sanders can get his act together and stay healthy… That’s how you talked about him. He was the furthest thing removed from an undeniable competitive force who would have a say in what the next World Team might look like.

If anything, the only reason why he was mentioned centered around covering your proverbial bases. You know, just in case he managed to actually, for the first time in years, hop into a tournament with a semblance of fire and a healthy enough physical profile to do something special.

So anyway, when was the last time the US Greco-Roman program had itself a legitimate tale of redemption? Been a while, no?

A week ago in Las Vegas at the South Point Hotel, Sanders began the 2019 US Open seeded sixth in the 82-kilogram bracket. The seed itself was kind of a story; a little low even for a dude whose recent ledger didn’t exactly jump off the page. It also didn’t matter. The 28-year-old thumped his way to the semifinal where he faced two-time National Team member John Stefanowicz (Marines). Sanders had soundly defeated an immensely capable Jon Jay Chavez (NYAC/FLWC) in the match prior, a win that temporarily hijacked the imagination. Is momentum a real thing? But Stefanowicz presented a different sort of test. No one is tougher. No one fights harder.

Then again, Sanders was now fighting. Fighting back, fighting for the first time in a long time under the bright lights. Fighting to change a narrative he feels has been a mischaracterization of who he really is.

A moment or two might have been dicey in the early stages but once Sanders received an opportunity to put his personal touch on the affair, it began to appear academic. His patented lift ushered in the points needed and most of the exchanges thereafter failed to deviate from the story’s direction. That on the opposite side of the bracket young teammate Spencer Woods was coming of age — and coming out of nowhere — to stamp down his place in the next night’s final delivered an exclamation point on what was shaping up to be one of the most magical tournaments in Northern Michigan’s significant history.

Around 24 hours later, Sanders ousted Woods for his second National title, five years after the first. The method of victory was familiar but almost besides the point. Forget the win. It’s what the win represented, which is that regardless of who is standing across the mat eager to do battle, If Kendrick Sanders has his act together and can stay healthy, nights like the one this past Friday shouldn’t come as a verifiable shock to the system.

A few days following the tournament Sanders remained in Vegas. Just an extra breathe-out period. He was relatively subdued in spaces, though happy for the chance to take his girlfriend sight-seeing. One thing he most certainly wasn’t? Satisfied. Sanders is never defensive. On the contrary, he has been nothing short of utterly and completely revealing. Humbled you care enough to know him as a person instead of as just an athletic commodity. But that doesn’t mean the record didn’t need a little straightening. Everyone has the right to underline proven points with the hope such an endeavor acts as a reminder for the next time doubt creeps into the background.

Sanders’ remarkable run in 2019 still has some steps to go. Next up will be the Final X Series at Rutgers University in June where he’ll have the opportunity to make his first Senior World Team. Should that go well, the World Championships arrive some three months later. All we know right now is that it is he owns the narrative. And he has everyone on the edge of their seats wondering what he’ll do with it. Just don’t doubt him. A fool’s errand.

5PM Interview with Kendrick Sanders

5PM: 82 kilograms. I think the last time you went 82 was in New York in ’16. What was the deal, why not 77?

Kendrick Sanders: For me, I just didn’t want to risk any injuries. I feel like I can compete at any weight class but with my being hurt all last year, cutting weight was just out of the question. This year, I told myself that I’m not cutting any weight, I just want to wrestle whatever my weight is. I just wanted to compete. Then I became comfortable enough in my training to where I wasn’t going to go 77. Rob (Hermann) and I made that decision and we stuck to it for the Open.

Plus, it’s a two-day weigh-in. Making 77 this year was going to be, I don’t want to say harder, but it’s draining cutting weight. You could see it in people’s performances. Me? I came in, felt great training, I was actually enjoying my training and getting more out of it, instead of focusing on cutting weight. I weighed in at 82 kilos on the second day. I could have easily made 77 but I felt like there was no need, and I think my performance showed.

5PM: Don’t you think that’s the way it should be anyway?

KS: It should be! I think it should be that way, I think guys get better results that way. At least for me, I’ve had better results when I’m not cutting weight. I haven’t lost a match at 80 kilos or above since I started really. I think the last match I lost was at that 2016 Non-Olympic World Team Trials to Pat Martinez in the semis, it was a 2-1 match.

5PM: Yeah, that was not a very thrilling match. No par terre rules, all that. 

KS: No par terre, nothing. But other than that, I’ve won every tournament that I’ve wrestled this weight. So going 82 for me was a no-brainer this time around.

5PM: Off the mat, you’ve had a lot going on very recently in terms of work. You have a job, contracting or whatever it is. 

KS: Yes, it’s a home solutions company that some guys I know started. That’s what I had been more focused on while I wasn’t wrestling or was injured. Actually, it was heavily a part of what I was doing before the Open, as well. I was working and making two practices a day. I was busting my ass the whole time. It was grueling (laughs). I was shoveling snow, waking up in the wee hours of the morning, plowing, and then going to practices. It was tough. I can’t lie, it was definitely tough. But I made it work. I think by me doing that and going through this process of grinding and grinding, it made me hungrier this time around for the Open. It was like, I didn’t do all this work for nothing. I put my work to show out there.

5PM: That’s important because a theme that makes its way into the conversation regarding you is how you’ve always had insane talent, skills, and ability — and all of this is undeniable — but we’ve talked about how in the past maybe it came too easily for you. How maybe you didn’t put in the work because of that. It came easy to you, so sometimes the preparation wasn’t there. But now, you’re 28, you have been through so much shit in your life, and now you have all of this off-the-mat responsibility. I wonder if now you understand what it is “normal” competitors have to go through. 

Kendrick Sanders: Yes, I think it definitely was a maturity thing for me. In the past, everything did come super easy to me, as opposed to now when I’m dealing with a lot more, and taking on a lot more. I just had to settle down and prioritize a lot of things, especially with my work and my training. I had to sit down and actually be like, Hey, this is what I need to do to get to this point and that point. In the past, I honestly did not do that. I just went day by day. There was no planning. I didn’t take a lot of things seriously and it definitely hurt my performance, for sure.

I remember earlier this year, one of my first practices back was with Ivan (Ivanov). He was at camp and on my first day back at practice he goes, “Where have you been? I’ve been asking around about you. I’ve been looking around for you.” I told him I had been working. So he says, “You’re 28 now, right? These are your prime years right now.” We went through that camp, it was my first week back, and I felt great in my training right away. That was something. Usually that first week back is hard, it’s grueling. Your body is aching, you’re not moving as well, but this time around everything was clicking right away.

But also, I’ve been healthy. I think that was a big downfall for me, that I’ve been so injury prone and getting hurt at the wrong times. Like I said in my interviews (after the US Open), this is the first time I have actually been healthy. I think when I’m 100% that I am one of the toughest guys to beat.

5PM: People forget that you came up in an era when you had to have every skill. Not that it’s different now, but I think people see you as just a thrower when you are extremely well-rounded. 

KS: You had no choice. You had zero choice. When I came up, and I started at 74 kilos, that weight class was a bunch of dogs. You had (Andy) Bisek, Ben Provisor, Jake Fisher, Jon Anderson, Jesse Hargrave, (Aaron) Sieracki…just those names alone, and Harry (Lester) would pop in that weight class, as well. There were just so many people in that weight class and this was during my beginning stages of Senior-level wrestling and you had to learn super fast — how to hand-fight, your par terre, everything had to be on point when you wrestled these guys. Every match was a potential US Open semifinal or final. I think that definitely helped push me to a level where like now, my IQ of the sport is way more advanced than some of these younger guys who I’m wrestling.

Kendrick Sanders, 2014 US Open champion, 80 kilograms

Sanders (blue) after defeating Aaron Sieracki in the finals of the 2014 US Open. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

5PM: Earlier this winter you and Kamal Bey participated in the Beat the Streets Chicago event. I saw what you had to say afterwards and I talked to Coach Mike Powell about it, as well. It seemed like your involvement in that event made a big impact on you personally. What did you get from being a part of that?

KS: I grew up in the inner city, so obviously, I was in the same shoes as a lot of those kids. When Powell called me because Ellis (Coleman) couldn’t make it, it was a no-brainer for me to take on and do the whole thing. I went out there with no expectations about getting paid, I went out there to participate in the event because I had some of my own personal things that I had to grow up seeing, and the people I love seeing at these events are kids, and they needed it. The city of Chicago needed it at this point. I flew out there with the intent to put on a show, whether it was me wrestling Kamal or speaking in general. Anything that I could do, I wanted to do to help these kids. Because, I was one of these kids. I was lost and had no direction until I saw someone doing the same thing for me. It motivated me to become a better wrestler.

When you see someone who has the same background as you, it’s just pure inspiration. These kids, they may feel like I can’t do this because this and that is going on in my life. They may not have the support system that I had or their situation may be even a little worse that I had it. Growing up in the hood, a sport was your way out. It was my way out, at least. Some of these kids, for them their only escape from that world is through wrestling. I just put it in their heads that if they kept it up, wrestling teaches life lessons. It teaches you what you need to do in order to deal with the daily aspects of your life. And like I said, if they keep up with it, anything can happen.

I’ve seen some of my best friends who were horrible in school, just horrible, and coaches gave up on them. They stuck it out with wrestling and some of them had behavioral issues or learning disabilities. And now? They have a college degree from wrestling, and working better jobs because of it. So I just wanted these kids to know they had someone in their corner. Doing this event I hope exposed them to the idea that One day it could be me. 

5PM: You used the term “inspirational”. When I look back at this event, which was a couple months ago, now I don’t mean to project here, but did going to this event do something for you competitively?

KS: Definitely. I think me doing that event definitely fired me up for the season to come, just because for one, I hadn’t wrestled or done anything like that before, or in a long time. So being out there, watching these kids wrestle, and putting on the show that we did made me feel like This is the year for me.

I got questions. These kids were asking me stuff like, Hey, are you wrestling this year? We’re hearing you’re done, you’re retired (laughs). All of these questions. I was just like, Listen, I’m wrestling. Only a handful of people knew. If you were at NMU, you knew I was coming back, and that I was coming back with a vengeance. That event definitely sparked something in me.

I had a little kid come up to me at the event. I was sitting down. He asked me, “Hey, are you really a National champ?” I’m just like, Yeah, I won the US Open once. He says, “Well, Kamal won it this many times.” (Laughs) I know, I know. So then he goes, “Did you guys ever wrestle?” Yeah, we wrestled once, he beat me last year. “Do you think you guys are going to wrestle again?” Eventually. “Who’s going to win?” Well, if I’m healthy, me. “Alright, we’ll see.”

This was before the whole showdown with the throws and the moves. Once we started getting into the routine and showing these kids all the moves, after the show that same kid comes up and says, “Yeah, I think you can beat him now.” (Laughs)

It was a great experience for me, and like I said, it definitely made me hungrier to come back to the sport just to show these kids that Hey, this could be you, too. After the US Open, Kamal and I took pictures together and sent them to Beat the Streets and they put them on their website. They got some really good feedback from it, too.

5PM: In consecutive matches at the US Open, you defeated Jon Jay Chavez and John Stefanowicz, two superb competitors. Did beating Chavez the way you did boost your confidence when it came time for the semifinal against Stefanowicz?

KS: I wouldn’t say it did whatsoever just because I knew what I was capable of doing. It was just a matter of me putting it all together. I know what I’m capable of, I know my abilities in wrestling. I had never wrestled Jon Jay but I did wrestle Stefanowicz, and that was a long time ago. I do my homework. I watch film. Just watching film on them and knowing tendencies, so knowing what I was capable of doing it was a no-brainer. Like I said, I think I have the best par terre offense. I feel like I have the best lift.

I just knew that it was a no-brainer I would beat both of them. And also, like I tweeted you, reading that article before that was just like, Oh wow, that’s crazy (laughs). It wasn’t crazy in like I thought you wrote it and were dissing me at any point, but it was funny because I was actually hearing that from people. I was actually hearing it beforehand, people were talking trash to me like So-and-so is going to beat me, I’m not going to medal or even place. It was so disrespectful, so I went out there with the intention like, I need to prove a point. I didn’t want to win 2-0 or 3-0, I needed to let these people know that Hey, I’m back and this is what you’re going to see from me. 

5PM: Does it surprise you that the perception around an athlete can change like that just over the course of a season or two? I mean, for years, any tournament you entered you were automatically considered a very serious threat to win. Fast-forward to last week, and the mood was more like ‘Well, Kendrick’s here but maybe he’s not expected to do too much’. Do you find that to be surprising, especially in our sport where there isn’t a whole lot of turnover?

Kendrick Sanders: I think it was shocking to me just to hear some people’s responses and see how quickly some people forget. Which, I get; I haven’t done anything big over the past couple of years whatsoever. I had poor performances, I wasn’t finishing out tournaments, I was hurt. And yeah, I’ve lost to people I shouldn’t have lost to. So their perception of me was as it should have been, and I don’t blame them. But in the same sense, it was also like, Wow.

I was shocked that some people felt a certain way. They’re so quick to forget, they thought I was washed up. People thought I was done, that I retired. So for me, what I did at the tournament doesn’t surprise me, but I definitely think it surprised a lot of other people. I think it surprised a lot of coaches, a lot of athletes, and they were shocked to see the level I was at. They saw me show up to the tournament and they were shocked. Even coaches were. I remember Spenser (Mango) and (Dremiel) Byers coming up to me, “Where have you been?” I told them I was hurt and dealing with some things and being low key about my training.

Like I said, unless you were at NMU you didn’t know I was wrestling. You didn’t know I was coming back. The guys in the room knew. My teammates knew what I was capable of. I just needed to showcase that here at this tournament.

5PM: Your teammate Spencer Woods making the final against you was a giant thing, one of the stories of the tournament. What I think said a lot about you as a person and the OTS as a whole is that it seemed like you both were celebrating that fact. 

KS: Yeah.

5PM: Even though we do see teammates face each other in big finals from time to time, this was a little different, there was like a really good vibe around it. 

KS: Well, before the semifinal session and Spencer’s match with Cheney (Haight), he came up to me and was asking me questions about how he should approach his match. I told him, I said, Hey, you are ten times more athletic than Cheney. By far. He’s going to try to slow you down, and so on. I gave him the in’s and out’s. I said, You have nothing to lose, and if you wrestle like you do in practice… Which, he’s a wrestler who will throw the kitchen sink at you. Spencer does not care what he does and that’s a dangerous wrestler. You just cannot be in certain positions with him because he can throw you from anywhere, and that’s what Cheney got himself in trouble with. If you wrestle Spencer in the room, you know that there are certain positions where he is dangerous.

So I told him, You have nothing to lose, go out there and wrestle your match, and that’s what he did. He shocked Cheney, you could see it in his face. That four-point throw took the wind out of him.

After he won and we had both made the finals, I sent him a message telling him how I proud I was. He had a helluva tournament. He was unseeded, first off, and to make the finals taking out the #1 seed? That was huge for him and his confidence, it was huge for our program. I was proud of him. He was having a helluva week in practice, too. He’s really peaking.

From a teammate standpoint, I was proud to see him do well. It looked good on our program in general to have two NMU guys make the finals, guys who were not predicted to make the finals, and to take out the seeds that we did, I think it just says a lot about the program and NMU as a whole. Rob texted the group later that night and said how it was probably the best Open performance in NMU history. That just says a lot about the work guys are putting and the work the coaches are putting in. I was happy about that.

Kendrick Sanders vs. Spencer Woods, 2019 US Open

When Sanders and Woods battled Friday night, it had marked the first time in ten years that two athletes from NMU’s Olympic Training Site comprised both halves of a US Open final. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

5PM: You have space here. I keep asking the champs this, how there is the bye and the Trials tournament in between. When that Trials tournament happens, are you going to be locked into the results from your weight class? And also, is your preparation going to be customized within a specific training block depending on who your opponent is?

KS: I think I will just focus on my training because there are a lot of things I need to clean up from the tournament. I think I had a pretty decent showing for that being my first tournament of the year. I don’t think I was quite in the shape that I wanted to be, for the most part. I definitely think I need to put more time in the cardio aspect.

I really don’t care who I face at Trials. When the results show up, then I’ll know who I’m facing and go about it and we’ll work from there. But for the most part, I think I’m just going to focus on myself and I think that’s what helped me win the Open. I wasn’t too worried about what anyone else was doing, I was worried about what I was doing and sticking to my game plan. If I can do that, I’ll be good.

But yeah, I want to go back into the room because I need to get my cardio way back up. I felt good out there, but definitely not in the shape that I wanted to be. But to be honest, it was first tournament of the year and I think I did great.

5PM: Do you think people will still be doubting you at the Final X Series?

Kendrick Sanders: I think so. I know for sure people don’t want to see me on that Team. I think they will doubt me. I don’t think they’ll believe that the US Open was a for-sure version of me. To be honest, I don’t too much care about what people say anymore or if they doubt me because I know the type of work I put in. When I go to practice, I know the type of work I’m putting in. That’s what really matters to me at the end of the day. I push myself daily whether it be on the mat or off. I mean, they doubted me a lot. They definitely doubted me for the Open, so I don’t see why not. I think they’re going to have to come to terms with a lot because I’m healthy now. And it’s going to take a lot to beat me this year, as opposed to last year, or the years prior.

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