The dust is still settling following the 2nd OG World Qualifier, which took place on Friday in Istanbul, Turkey. Jesse Thielke (NYAC, 59 kg), RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC, 66 kg), and Josef Rau (Minnesota Storm, 98 kg) collectively took on the role of “the remaining three.” It was a journey that began before the 2016 US Olympic Trials. Perkins and Rau first attempted to qualify their weights for the US team back in March at the Pan Am Qualifier in Frisco, Texas. That day didn’t go as planned. Wrestling on American soil, Perkins lost first round to Jair Munoz (COL) and Rau got caught in the semifinal by Yasmany Cabrea (CUB, world no. 13), though he returned to form in the consolation round to capture bronze.
With the Olympic Trials looming, all athletes in unqualified spots were given a directive: Win in Iowa City, and you’ll be qualifying the weight. Thielke, Perkins, and Rau emerged from Carver Hawkeye Arena with each coming off impressive performances. Thielke defeated long-time entry weight standard-bearer Spenser Mango (Army/WCAP) in the semifinal before sweeping Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) in the best-of-three. Perkins didn’t have as smooth of a ride. He took on Pat Smith (Minnesota Storm) and dropped the first match to the hard-nosed grinder before coming back to take the last two bouts. Josef Rau was thrown and pinned in his first match with Caylor Williams (Army/WCAP), but then battled through the next two, scoring late in the decisive bout to seal his Olympic spot. It was a special night for all three athletes.
By now you likely know about Jesse Thielke’s thundering surge through his bracket at the 2nd OG Qualifier, and there will be plenty to discuss regarding his future later. But for the moment, it is RaVaughn Perkins and Josef Rau who need to be acknowledged. These two men both came to the forefront in different ways and while their paths might not be identical, it is worth noting how and why they could be on the cusp of breakout careers.
RaVaughn Perkins’s level of talent has been evident for years now. Coming off of winning a Junior National title in 2010, Perkins soon set sail for the Senior level and made a quick impression. Before long he became one of the elite in his weight, using his lanky build to tie up opponents before introducing them to his taste for the dynamic. With more maturity as a Senior he has improved mightily on his inside game and in 2014, he won both the Open and the World Team Trials, taking out the also-climbing Bryce Saddoris (Marines).
Since overcoming the obstacles he faced coming out of 2014, fans have seen an even more focused version of Perkins. He went into the Pan Am Qualifier coming off a impressive win at the Schultz and seemed primed to make a run in Frisco. It didn’t happen. And entering competition in Iowa City, most were pointing to reigning World Team member Saddoris or the equally-explosive Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) as the favorites at 66 kg. But both Perkins and Smith persevered through a gauntlet of a bracket at the Trials and the Nebraskan’s victory over Smith looked to be the start of something big.
In Mongolia, Perkins showcased the kind of ability everyone knew he had. He was composed and authoritative versus Benedikt Puffer (AUT); a scoring machine against Mirambek Ainagulov (KAZ); and an opportunistic vet facing Pavel Liakh (BLR). He had displayed a full skill-set and a keen sense of how to adapt his offense to each opponent. Perkins took a hard-earned bronze at the 1st OG Qualifier but it didn’t qualify the weight. Even still, it was hard not to see how many weapons he has.
The 2nd OG Qualifier brought with it different challenges but the same goal. His first match saw him pitted up against Pan Zheng (CHN), a strong, experienced grappler with some remarkable tools of his own. It didn’t matter, as Perkins easily got past him to advance. Greece’s Vladmiros Matias was the next victim, though here we got to see Perkins battle back when it counted. Down by three with less than two minutes remaining, Perkins locked up high double-underhooks and took Matias straight to his back. It was good for four points and the lead but it also told a story – Perkins recognized the urgency and did something about it.
His qualifying bid would end after falling to eventual runner-up Ruslan Tsarev (KGZ) in the quarterfinal in a bizarre, frustrating match which saw Tsarev do everything he could within the rules to stay out of danger. But that’s part of the game at the pro level, so it needs to be accounted for.
Nonetheless, RaVaughn Perkins demonstrated he has legitimate star power. At 25 years of age, he is just coming into own. Part of what has helped him is that he comes from a particularly competitive weight class stateside where all of those guys can beat each other on any given day. But now he has an edge. After enduring the travel, the long stays overseas, and two grueling, pressure-pack tournaments, this is an athlete who is on the verge of realizing his potential. That is a dangerous proposition for his US contemporaries going forward.
The past year has witnessed sort of a re-emergence of the “Rau Plow.” The popular Minnesota Storm product made plenty of waves in 2014 when he made the World Team at 80 kg, but jumping to 98 kg seemed like it might be a stretch. Despite having previously wrestled at higher weights in his career, going back up at the Senior level brought with it some question marks. However, Rau eased into 98 quite nicely and with the arduous cut out of the way, it allowed him to focus on competition. Because truth be told, that’s what this guy loves. Following the Trials, Rau intimated his deep love of the sport and it’s easy to see in the way he operates. Heck, you could probably invite Rau over to your house for an impromptu tournament in your living room and he just might show up.
To say the last bunch of months have been big for Joe Rau would be an understatement. He entered the Olympic Year kind of as a wildcard. You just weren’t quite sure what you were going to get. On top of that, at the peak of the US mountaintop at 98 kg stood Caylor Williams. Williams, a talented and fearsome competitor in his own right, had made the previous three World Teams and also hadn’t lost on American soil going on three years. Rau and Williams first met at the Bill Farrell Invitational in November in an eye-opening final in which Rau won. Okay, point made. But then Rau decided to enter the US Open, a tournament he really didn’t need to show up at considering the Farrell qualified him for the Trials.
That’s okay because Rau won there, too, defeating Williams yet again in the final. See what we mean when we say this guy loves competition? At any rate, the two wins over Williams along with numerous strong showings overseas provided all of the evidence this wrestler was hitting his stride. It all led up to the Olympic Trials, where a showdown between Rau and Williams was highly-anticipated. Their series did not disappoint. After dropping the first match to Williams via fall, Rau fought back to even the best-of-three in the second bout and then came away with a gutty decision in the third, sending him on his way to Mongolia for qualification.
His first opponent at the 2nd OG Qualifier was Carl Fredrik Schoen of Sweden, a wrestler Rau had defeated last summer in Spain. For some reason, the Illinois native just couldn’t get going in that one and Schoen walked away with a 4-1 win. It may have been a letdown but with the last chance qualifier in the horizon, there wasn’t time to dwell on it. Rau arrived in Istanbul with renewed vigor and breezed past Narek Setaghyan (ESP) to kick things off. Up next was Kevin Mejia Castillo of Honduras, who Rau defeated at the Pan Ams in March. Sometimes, when things go badly they do so in a hurry. Rau began the match with an uptick in energy, which appeared to be a good sign. But when Castillo got around him and locked around his body, Rau fought the position perhaps a little too long. Castillo was then able to trap Rau’s left arm going to the mat and gutted the American over three times for a startling 8-0 tech, essentially ending his season.
The thing is, there’s just too much there with this athlete to not come away hopeful. Yes, Rau should have been at the very least seen as a legitimate threat at both qualifiers and yes, it is puzzling how things ended up this way. But with certain athletes you can sometimes tell that despite their setbacks, no matter how big or small, a treasure trove of promise is still simmering beneath the surface. Simply put, you don’t go ahead and beat the longstanding number one guy in the country at your weight four out of five times because of luck. And you don’t positively stomp over everyone else in the process because you had a collection of “good days at the office.” These aren’t accidents. Josef Rau is very much the talent everyone thought he was prior to his last two outings. He is also an athlete other wrestlers of all ages would do well to learn from.
When the fall hits, a lot of the current chatter will have long died down. It will be about about the upcoming domestic tournaments, the anticipation of the Open, and who else is out there to keep an eye on. It’s natural. But in the context of this year, this season, last month’s Trials and the Olympics in August, these two still deserve your attention. The fan-base got attached to their stories and rightfully so. That’s how it should be. They’re not going away anytime soon.