Just a little less than eight months ago, the United States selected its first-ever U23 Greco-Roman World Team in Rochester, Minnesota. If you are wondering if in that time the wrestling world has gotten used to the idea of the U23 age group, the answer is a resounding “yes”, though it’s not because of the compartmentalization at play, but rather, what has been going on at the actual Senior level. At the 2017 World Championships in Paris, France, the average age of the gold medalists came in at 26.5 years-old. The average age of all 32 placewinners? 26.1, with two-time World bronze medalist Balasz Kiss (97 kg, HUN, world no. 8) as the oldest at the time of the 2017 tournament (33).
Age matters on a grand scale globally and it also matters in the US, where the best Greco-Roman competitors have traditionally trended older, not younger. However, the 2017 US Senior World Team featured only two athletes over the age of 30 — Cheney Haight (80 kg, 32) and Robby Smith (130 kg, 30). The average age of their six teammates at the Paris Worlds? 24.3. It doesn’t mean that fans can expect every US World or Olympic Teamer from now on to be in their early 20’s, but there’s no question that youth is playing a vital role in supplying the American program with talent at a much higher degree than previous generations, hence why U23 is actually a very important age group to pay close attention to.
U23 is also important enough to get over the fact that it has essentially nullified the University division. Worldwide, University served as a vital measuring stick and a worthy platform for powerhouse countries to show off their up-and-comers, or to give their young-but-established Seniors some additional high-quality matches. For the US, it even delivered several World Champions, like recent high-profiles names such as Spenser Mango (55 kg, 2006), Max Nowry (55 kg, 2012), and Sam Hazewinkel (55 kg, 2008) as well as a collection of other medalists. But domestically, it was often a mess. Too many mismatches at the Nationals each year, oddly lax academic parameters used to determine University eligibility, and somewhat-vast age discrepancies that do not befit a legitimate age group.
U23 fixes all that, wraps it up in a neat package that just so happens to showcase many of the nation’s top competitors. Put simply, it is just an easier age group to understand and get behind.
The even better news is that for 2018, all ten weight classes are offering something (or someone) to look forward to. With the U23 World Championships set for November in Bucharest, Romania, there is plenty of time for athletes to prepare accordingly in effort to improve upon the results from 2017. Which honestly, shouldn’t be too difficult to pull off.
2018 U23 Greco-Roman World Team Trials Watchlist
Senior Open semifinalist Jabari Moody (NYAC) is the lead dog of a weight class, that believe it or not, still needs time to re-develop above the Junior level. Two-time Fargo National champ Dalton Duffield, coming down from his collegiate weight of 133 lbs, should be a potent contender and is certainly capable of making an enterprising run. Williams Baptist College sparkplug Sean Sesnan also needs to be considered. He didn’t fare very well at the Junior Nationals, but with over a month to make adjustments, will be expected to put forth a stronger effort.
There is a very good possibility that fans are treated to yet one more go-round between returning U23 World Team member Dalton Roberts (NYAC/OTS) and Northern stablemate/two-time Junior World Teamer Randon Miranda. You might think that the U23 Trials is just their warm-up — after all, Roberts earned a bye to the Senior Trials best-of-three finals thanks to his gutty win in Vegas; and Miranda is seen by most as a potential finalist opposite Nowry at 55 kilos — but it’s not. Both are ferocious competitors and would love to make multiple teams in ’18. That Miranda is choosing to go up in weight could be a smooth move. He wants to win in Akron and Tulsa, obviously, but without draining his body through two weight cuts.
Most regular observers of US Greco-Roman wrestling have learned how dynamically gifted Xavier Johnson (Marines) is and his pair of international medals in 2018 along with a surprising defeat of Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) only serve to punctuate why he should be considered the favorite here. But NMU’s Travis Rice is coming off of the most inspired performance of his Senior career thus far at the Nationals, where he upset Hayden Tuma (Army/WCAP) in the quarters before taking fifth, so he’ll be working with some confidence, as well. Ty Pelot (X-Factor Elite) is another skilled, roughhousing type of athlete who possesses plenty of relevant experience and deserves to be looked at as a sleeper. The same can be said of Erik Spence (NMU/OTS), who has added meaningful matches to what is a developing arsenal.
As you might expect, 67 kilograms is one of the deepest weight classes available at the 2018 U23 Greco-Roman World Team Trials and features a handful of youthful yet productive monsters many believe will turn out to be Senior stars. Three-time age-group World Teamer Dominick Demas (Oklahoma RTC) commands respect due to his offensive prowess and heat-seeking ability to open up scoring opportunities most athletes his age have a tendency to ignore. Britton Holmes (NMU/OTS) is the meanest and grittiest competitor at 67, but is still looking to make his first Team. That could happen in Akron. 2017 University National champ Wesley Dawkins (Nebraska Golden Eagles WC), like Demas, is a hungry scoring machine with the gas tank to match. But out of all these guys, perhaps the most interesting right now is William Baptist’s Duncan Nelson, who keeps finding himself in medal contention this year. Whatever Nelson lacks in the technique department is made up for in spades with brisk in-fighting and a competitive mean streak similar to Holmes. However this weight class winds up, it will be in good hands come November.
Alex Mossing (Air Force RTC) will be looking to make his second U23 World Team in a row, but things are a just a little different this time around. Mossing is no longer a complete newbie who is going to be overlooked or underestimated. He is going from “hunter” to “hunted”, and just a tiny slip on a banana peel could wind up costing him big (though the odds of that happening are rather slim). Utah Valley’s Dre-Son Scruggs could be a problem. Raw as a Junior, Scruggs compensated by leaning on mindblowing explosiveness and sharp natural instincts to carry him through. He’s still learning, however. 2015 Fargo Junior National champ Brett Bye (LOG), even more so than Scruggs at this stage, is the one to watch out for. As a Greco-Roman competitor, Bye is aggressive, intuitive, and has demonstrated a willingness to bully his way into exchanges if he thinks points are available. College wrestling has likely also provided him with a deeper understanding of hand-fighting, and if he can use that to create high-percentage chances, he will be very hard to stop.
This is not intended as a slight to any of the other athletes at 77, but let’s be honest here: this one will very likely — and should — be decided by returning U23 World Team member Jesse Porter (NYAC/OTS) and Jon Jay Chavez (NYAC/FLWC). There is a relative mountain of unfinished business here and though Tulsa could offer that, too, Akron is a more appropriate place. That’s because last October in Rochester, Chavez led Porter in both of their U23 finals bouts before Porter uncorked two of the most beautiful correct throws in modern history along with some timely offense elsewhere to steal the series. Neither had the tournament of their lives in Vegas (although they were due to meet in the fifth-place bout until Chavez defaulted out). Both also figure to contend at the challenge tournament in Tulsa. What goes down at the Senior event matters more, but we’d all be kidding ourselves if we didn’t want to see these two battle it out this weekend.
If you’re going to point your finger at 67 kilos as the deepest weight in Akron, that’s fine. But 82 might be where the most action unfolds, which is saying something for a middle-upper weight class. Fargo National champs Andrew Berreyesa (NYAC/FLWC) and Tommy Brackett (NMU/OTS) are naturally mentioned together, probably because they have been the most active, even with Berreyesa now enrolled at Cornell. Collegiate wrestling didn’t hurt Berreyesa in Vegas, as he gritted his teeth to score the 82-kilogram Junior National title (and a bye to the Trials finals in Indiana) at the expense of Brackett (who actually tech’ed Berreyesa in Rochester last year). Both wield exceptional talent and enthusiasm that makes you feel really good about their futures.
Only, they’re not alone. NMU’s Carter Nielsen is back following ACL repair, and before he spent the last five months rehabbing, was coming on like a ball of fire during his first semester in Marquette. It is also worth noting that Nielsen placed third at the ’17 U23 Trials and his showing included a win over Berreyesa. But that doesn’t mean much right now. All three have upgraded their skill-sets, all three have something to prove. Okie State’s Chandler Rogers is too good of a wrestler to outright dismiss and guys like him usually find a way to assert themselves. Nielsen’s teammate Spencer Woods is going to someday soon develop into a consistently-threatening competitor capable of entering the argument, but maybe not this year. For now, the trio of Berreysa, Brackett, and Nielsen deservedly stands above the rest.
It’s like the “Wild West” up in here. Whereas the majority of weight classes at the 2018 U23 Greco-Roman World Team Trials are anchored by well-known, well-schooled Greco athletes, 87 is a melting pot of raw projects who are trying to make a name for themselves in the classical style. Of course, that isn’t a bad thing, we welcome all of ’em. Northern’s George Sikes raised his hand for a lot of work this season, taking trips to Panama, Sweden, Russia, and who knows wherever else. He has been very busy. Kaleb Gaede (Olympia WC) still requires a lot of seasoning in this discipline, but he does have the talent to cross over fully. One wrestler who might be an interesting watch is WBC’s Timothy Eubanks. Eubanks went 1-2 at the Junior Nationals, but don’t let that deter you. Eubanks and Sikes are young and still trying to figure things out. In case you haven’t noticed, those types of athlete often make the biggest improvements from one event to another.
Similar to 77 kilos, 97 is expected to come down to two full-timers with Senior credentials.
Next-gen star G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist) met up with Blake Smith (OTC) a year ago in the special wrestle-off to decide the 98-kilogram spot on the Junior World Team. Smith won the Junior Trials, but Hancock had earned the right to face the winner at a later date. So the pair tangled in Akron with Hancock running away with back-to-back tech’s. No big deal. Following that tournament, Hancock went on to compete in the Junior and Senior Worlds, and then both made the inaugural U23 squad later on in the fall (with Hancock up at heavyweight). Now that the 2016 Junior World bronze is back at 97, he is focused on making sure everyone knows how important the weight class is to him. Hancock also has some critics in the country he wants to silence. For his part, Smith is not the same guy he was a year ago. He competed well in a loss at the Worlds and persevered to take fourth at the Senior Open in April. He has gained valuable experience, and now that he is an OTC resident athlete, his technical sharpness is on a higher level, as well. Will that be enough for Smith to get over the hump? Maybe not, but he is making noticeable strides.
2017 Cadet World Champion Cohlton Schultz (Sunkist) is on track to make two World Teams for the second year in a row but he might have to sweat it out in some spots on Friday. U23, by definition, is a Senior age group. Schultz is in a class of his own technically, but he might not be able to just bully every single opponent around the mat like he does at Junior. Either former University National champ Matt Voss (Patriot Elite) or “Big” Nick Boykin (Sunkist) figure to be Schultz’s primary antagonists when all is said and done, depending on how this weight is bracketed. Newcomer Conor Karwath (WBC) has the potential to develop into a viable heavyweight and can muscle his way into the picture here, too. Marine Trent Osnes, provided he can avoid making big-time mistakes, should contend for a medal, but he has to remain upright for that to happen. Otherwise, Osnes’ considerable physical gifts will be wasted.
The 2018 U23 Greco-Roman World Team Trials begin Friday and can be viewed live on FloWrestling (subscription required).