USA Greco

Context for Some of Tonight’s Finals Matches at the US Open

2018 us senior greco-roman nationals, las vegas
Robby Smith -- Photo: John Sachs

We celebrated how entertaining Thursday night’s semifinals were, regardless of whether or not a few of the bouts failed to benefit from excellent officiating. But to harp on that, or any of the other inconsistencies and weird endings which presented themselves, would miss the point.

This year’s US Senior Greco-Roman Nationals are intended to act as a springboard in more ways than one. The event’s primary incentive is based around champions automatically punching a ticket to the World Team Trials finals roundabout seven weeks from now. It’s a throwback procedure that certainly added a dramatic wrinkle to the proceedings last night and that will be the case again when the athletes take the mat a couple hours from now to decide once and for all who receives these coveted byes.

Right along with the finals implications is the general watchability and action involved. This, too, is important, and even more so in 2018. USA Greco fans — the hardcore Greco people as it were — did not fall in love with freestyle owning the Final X Series (even though the decision for Greco not to participate came down from National Team head coach Matt Lindland). There was no slight. Greco could have jumped on board. But Lindland had already laid out the schedule for the year ahead, and plus, there are bigger concerns facing the program currently to where adding a mighty logistical inconvenience didn’t seem like the move to make.

Be that as it may, American Greco-Roman is sort of standing on its own a little bit with how the 2018 World Team is being selected, which is why it was imperative for Thursday evening’s slate of matches to deliver more than just winners and losers. It is also a big part of why tonight’s finals carry a little extra oomph than usual. Why we need as many eyes as possible on the happenings inside of the South Point Hotel Arena in two hours.

Just in case you need more of a primer, there are several match-ups tonight offering contextual significance that sets them apart from the rest.

2018 US Senior Greco-Roman National Finals — Key Match-Ups

55 kg: Max Nowry (Army/WCAP) vs. Sam Hazewinkel (Sunkist)

We have long chronicled Nowry’s anticipation and subsequent embracing of 55 kilos’ return to the Senior curriculum. An Olympic Trials finalist and University World Champion in 2012 at this weight class, Nowry’s career began to sputter as soon as United World Wrestling broke out 59 as 55’s replacement. He never stopped being terrific. But it wasn’t a fit for the undersized Illinoisan, although his making the National Team last year pretty much scrapped that narrative quite nicely. Either way, when 55 was officially reintroduced, nearly all observers felt that Nowry was a verifiable lock to represent the US in Budapest. However, the emergence of Randon Miranda (NYAC/OTS) slowed that talk down just a little. Prior to last week, a Nowry/Miranda Vegas (and Tulsa) final seemed practically a given. And then Sam Hazewinkel (Sunkist) decided to get involved.

Like Nowry, Hazewinkel is a former University World gold medalist (2008). Unlike Nowry, he is also a two-time Senior National champ, and throughout most of his Greco career, enjoyed a memorable rivalry with two-time Olympian Spenser Mango, who now serves as one of Nowry’s coaches at WCAP.

Any speculation regarding Hazewinkel still “having it” at 35 years of age were squashed Thursday as he cruised to the semis where he eventually downed Miranda in a closer-than-what-the-scoreboard-says 10-4 decision. Nowry didn’t struggle as much in his semifinal, bombing Jabari Moody (NYAC) with a five to cap a 14-2 tech. You don’t want to say This is only the Nationals, Tulsa is what matters, although that’s true. But if Nowry is to take full ownership of 55 kilograms for the time being, a strong performance tonight would be the way to do it.

60 kg: Dalton Roberts (NYAC/OTS) vs. Leslie (Mike) Fuenffinger (Army/WCAP)

Roberts’s 9-4 win over 2016 Junior World bronze medalist Taylor LaMont (Sunkist) will likely serve as a confidence-booster as he prepares to make his first Senior National finals appearance, although he has done enough recently to where that shouldn’t be necessary. A tournament victory at Russia’s Lavrikov Memorial in December gave way to an even more meaningful bronze at the Granma Cup in Cuba, one of UWW’s new “Ranking Series” events. Fuenffinger, a DIII National champ for Augsburg, has spent much of his Senior career competing in both styles, but whenever he shows up at Greco tournaments, he impresses.

Case in point would be the 2017 Dave Schultz Memorial (the winter edition). There, Fuenffinger tossed and pinned Rio Olympian Jesse Thielke (NYAC/LOG) and tech’ed out Roberts in back-to-back matches. Four months later, Roberts paid him back. The two squared off again in the finals of the University Nationals and Roberts completely shut Fuenffinger down to the tune of a 7-0 decision that commanded a lot of attention.

To set up tonight’s showdown, Fuenffinger got past WCAP teammate Ildar Hafizov 4-3 in what was one of the more major upsets of the tournament so far. Any victory over Hafizov is a big one, but Fuenffinger is skilled enough to where it probably shouldn’t have come as a complete shock. Roberts’s heavy pressure and bulldog spirit are his main weapons as he continues to modify an already-considerable offensive arsenal. Whoever gets the nod here will have definitely earned it.

72 kg: RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) vs. Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm)

These two have wrestled each other quite a few times over the years with Perkins prevailing at a much higher rate. Prior to 2017, their most famous battle(s) came in the 2016 Olympic Trials best-of-three finals. Smith took Match 1 due in large part to that crazed pace and movement that have become his calling card; and then Perkins grabbed a close Match 2 before breaking Smith’s heart altogether when the Storm wrestler got loose on a lift attempt that resulted in Perkins earning a runaway victory.

They seemed to go in two separate directions for a minute after that. Perkins dealt with a litany of injuries, including a spinal fracture that required months of rest and rehab. In his absence, Smith picked up his first Senior National title before spending the better part of three months in Sweden during which he earned a bronze at the Thor Masters Invitational. Seven weeks later it was time for more. Smith ran into Perkins in the semis of the ’17 World Team Trials and rang up a startling 6-0 blanking that preceded his triumph in the finals over Chris Gonzalez (NYAC).

But that was a while ago now. Perkins is healed, and in his last time out, put together one of the best US performances of the year up to this point with a bronze in Denmark that very well could’ve been a gold. Smith went in another direction. Prior to yesterday, he hadn’t won a match across three international events (counting the USA/Serbia dual in February). Both looked lights out on Thursday, though. Smith’s energy was through the roof and he was rough and rugged just like he has always been. Native-Nebraskan Perkins? Well, he was frighteningly effective, unless you consider three tech’s (including one against Gonzalez) and outscoring his opponents 26-0 something different.

77 kg: Kamal Bey (Sunkist) vs. Peyton Walsh (Marines)

To make this easy to understand, no, Walsh is not seen as a real threat tonight against 2017 Junior World Champion Bey. He’s just not. The only people who believe Walsh has some semblance of a chance are likely his coach, teammates, and family members. Bey, at just 20-years-young, is considered one of the best Greco athletes in the country, if not the best. And the manner in which he continues to win matches is nothing short of astounding. Or scary, take your pick. Jon Jay Chavez (NYAC/FLWC) gave Bey a tough time in the Trials semis last year, so conventional wisdom dictated that might be the case going into yesterday. Bey’s response to this speculation was throwing a ten-spot on the board in a mere :45 to send Chavez packing.

But you see, this is where gets hazy. Walsh has his doubters in Vegas and elsewhere around the country this evening. But what people seem to miss is that despite the fact no one expected him to have made it this far, Walsh is one of the top-5 prospects the Greco program can stake claim to. An NCAA qualifier while in college at the Naval Academy, Walsh brings a lot of the best attributes folkstyle offers Greco crossovers and makes them his own. He is also a nasty competitor who brandishes the kind of mean streak that will keep him alive in matches most might expect to be above his pay grade. Plus, he’s obviously a very quick learner.

At the Bill Farrell Memorial in New York last month, 2017 U23 World Team member/Bey’s chief domestic rival Jesse Porter (NYAC/OTS) bulldozed Walsh fairly easily. That match was barely four full weeks ago. Last night told a very different tale. Porter’s dynamic explosiveness remained a danger throughout, but Walsh beat him to the punch in every exchange when it counted (although an early caution on Porter did help move things along). The Marine never broke pace, minded the new emphasis on “negative wrestling”, and capitalized on positions in ways someone of his rawness rarely ever do.

It’s not totally about who wins and loses this match (mostly because a Bey loss would probably cause the roof to cave in). It is also about Bey matching up with another young talent (not named Porter) who has an opportunity to become one of the US’ next breakout stars. Given their stylistic differences and drummed-up drama surrounding this match-up, whatever the result is, our sport has already won.

130 kg: Robby Smith (NYAC) vs. Adam Coon (CKWC)

It’s a strange time to be alive when an Olympian who has also been on four World Teams has something to prove, but such is the state of Greco-Roman right now in the United States. Smith, 31, is still the best heavyweight in the country, and going by recent history, the gap separating him from all the others doesn’t seem to have closed all that much just yet. Meanwhile, Coon hasn’t wrestled a Greco match since losing to Smith in two-straight at the Olympic Trials two years and 17 days ago. But yet, here we are, with some voices in the background tabbing Coon as Smith’s eventual, or impending, outster.

In the two-plus years since we last saw Coon on the Senior circuit, Smith has: wrestled in the Olympics; recovered from wrist surgery and a high ankle sprain; won Thor Masters; won the Trials; bronzed at Pan Ams; competed at the Paris Worlds; and went 2-2 at Thor Masters. You could also throw him getting engaged into the mix if personal stuff is of interest.

There is no doubt regarding Coon’s immense ability. Greco folks don’t love putting a ton of stock into what happens on the collegiate level, but a win and a close loss to the best upper-weight freestyle wrestler in American history has to count for something. Plus, when Coon was last active in this style, Smith was the only one who defeated him. The Michigan kid steamrolled through everybody else his last go-round and didn’t seem to struggle all that much doing so. It was just like that on Thursday, too. Coon waffled all three of his opponents and won two of those matches by pin.

Thing is, this version of Smith is not the same one from 2016. He’s better. Stronger. Displays more versatility. The only issue staring Smith in the face at this stage of his career is body maintenance. Staying healthy and free of the various dings and dents that have become a more common annoyance for him. Coon is unquestionably fantastic and if he were to choose Greco as his lockdown style of choice it is easy to see why he would be successful. But currently, even a dinged and dented Smith is likely too much for Coon to deal with in Vegas.

The 2018 US Senior Greco-Roman Nationals begin tonight at 6:00pm PT (9:00pm EST) and be viewed live on FloWrestling.org

2018 US Senior Greco-Roman National Finals

55 kg: Max Nowry (Army/WCAP) vs. Sam Hazewinkel (Sunkist)
60 kg: Leslie Fuenffinger (Army/WCAP) vs. Dalton Roberts (NYAC/OTS)
63 kg: Sammy Jones (NYAC/OTS) vs. Ryan Mango (Army/WCAP)
67 kg: Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) vs. Jessy Williams (NYAC/FLWC)
72 kg: RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) vs. Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm)
77 kg: Kamal Bey (Sunkist) vs. Peyton Walsh (Marines)
82 kg: Barrett Stanghill (Minnesota Storm) vs. Geordan Speiller (Florida Jets)
87 kg: Ben Provisor (NYAC/NLWC) vs. Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm)
97 kg: Micah Burak (TMWC) vs. Daniel Miller (Marines)
130 kg: Robby Smith (NYAC) vs. Adam Coon (CKWC)

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