It is no secret that Greco-Roman’s second heaviest weight class hasn’t exactly been considered a source of strength for the US program in recent years. The top athletes finding themselves in consistent contention at the US Open or the Trials were often not the beneficiaries of being pushed, which is to say challenged by lower-ranked or lesser-experienced wrestlers throughout the season, or in either of the two major domestic events. If you dig hard enough there may be exceptions, but in keeping to form, those only serve to prove the rule.
The concept of depth is defined in two ways. For several other countries, a deep weight class does not mean that it is well-populated with athletes. Instead, the phrase refers to a weight class where multiple wrestlers are likely seen as candidates to win or place at the Olympic Games or World Championships, and in some cases, have done so previously. For the United States at the moment, depth is observed differently. What the country’s program is looking for nowadays is a collection of athletes who demonstrate the capability to give whomever the top guy is a difficult time cementing his place on a World Team.
This is not a bad thing for it is the natural order. Russia and Iran enjoy the advantage of living up to a different standard. And for what it’s worth, the US may very well not find itself that far away from boasting this kind of depth, at least when talking about a handful of weight classes, most of which reside on the lighter side of the spectrum.
Save for 85 kilograms. Over the past two seasons, no other domestic weight class has showcased the same number of athletes sporting credentials worthy of being deemed premier contenders. But the gap in talent between 85/87 kilos and the next highest weight has been significant in terms of viable challengers. The confounding bit about all of this is that historically, this is an area of the lineup where the US has enjoyed more than a semblance success, particularly when it comes to one Mr. Dennis Koslowski.
Brad Rheingans (100 kg) — 1979 World bronze
Dennis Koslowski (100 kg) — 1987 World silver, 1988 Olympic bronze, 1992 Olympic silver
Garrett Lowney (96 kg) — 2000 Olympic bronze
Justin Ruiz (96 kg) — 2005 World bronze
Adam Wheeler (96 kg) — 2008 Olympic bronze
It should be noted that for Wheeler to make the 2008 Beijing squad, he was forced to get past Ruiz in the Olympic Trials best-of-three finals after falling short to him in previous years. That’s the continuation the US program is hoping to achieve.
The good news is that 97 kilograms for American Greco-Roman wrestling is coming up fast and projects to be on track to provide more than its fair share of storylines leading up to the 2020 Olympic Team Trials. A quick glance at the 2016 bracket from Iowa City offers a constructive baseline to operate with. That Trials tournament offered nine athletes at 98 kilos, with Joe Rau occupying the first seed and defeating Caylor Williams two matches to one in the best-of-three series. This is also where G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist) made his first National Team via placing third.
2016 Olympic Trials
- Joe Rau
- Caylor Williams
- G’Angelo Hancock
- Orry Elor
- Jake Kasper
- Jarod Trice
- John Wechter
- Zach Merrill
- Daniel Miller
By comparison, the World Team Trials this past June saw eight athletes compete, with two notable absences: two-time National Teamer Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm), who opted out due to his appearance in the Final X Series; and 2017 U23 World Team member Blake Smith (OTC), who suffered an injury a week prior to the event. Although the ’18 Trials offered one less competitor than the ’16 tournament in Iowa City, the perception was starkly different, and for the best possible reason — Senior development.
USA Greco-Roman — 97 KG
*Current National Team member
2018 World Team member: G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist)
There is no question about Hancock’s talent, if only because it has been evident since Day 1. A Junior World bronze medalist in 2016, the 20-year-old hasn’t even scratched the surface yet in terms of what he might be capable of down the road and already possesses big wins over decorated foreign stars and a growing collection of international medals. Not to mention he has made every Team from Junior to Senior dating back to two years ago. Hancock could very well rocket to contention in Budapest, and if he does, it would certainly not come as a big surprise.
*Daniel Miller (Marines)
Once thought of as the most perplexing Greco athlete in the US. Miller, who is barely over two years into his Greco-Roman career coming out of the Naval Academy, earned a bronze medal right out of the gate at the 2016 Grand Prix Zagreb Open. He added a few more overseas placings to his resume, but none of them changed the fact that Miller, for whatever reason, just couldn’t match those performances at the Open or Trials. Fast-forward to 2018 and Miller is not only the reigning National champ, he gave Hancock some dicey moments in their Trials finals series and there’s enough material to go on to suggest that gap might grow even narrower moving into next season.
*Lucas Sheridan (Army/WCAP)
A product of California’s Community Youth Center and a two-time Junior World Team member, Sheridan took a nice leap forward between 2016 and ’17, just missing out on the latter year’s National Team at 87 kilos following a close scuffle with WCAP teammate Jon Anderson. Sheridan endured an injury and subsequently bumped up to 97 this season and dominated his way to gold at the Bill Farrell Memorial/NYAC Open. He was turned back in the National semis by Micah Burak (TMWC) but scored a measure of revenge in the Trials before falling to Hancock and eventually taking true third. Immensely powerful despite giving up a little height in this weight, Sheridan will and should be expected to contend for the top spot going forward.
Kevin Beazley (Cliff Keen WC)
Like Sheridan and Hancock, Beazley is a former two-time Junior World Teamer who demonstrated a ton of potential when he began his Senior career. People seem to forget that he was a runner-up to Williams in 2015, likely because Beazley refocused his efforts on the NCAA level where he became an All-American for Old Dominion (2016). After suffering an elbow injury that ended his collegiate season, Beazley returned to Greco in the late-spring, qualifying for the Trials thanks to a third at Italy’s Trophee Milone tournament. He is known for his whammer of a headlock and given his intense competitive nature, this is an athlete whose presence instantly makes this weight class that much more formidable.
Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm)
Everyone remembers the Hancock/Zillmer saga from a year ago, as the two met in each and every tournament final contested on domestic turf. What you saw throughout the 2016-17 campaign from Zillmer was consistency. Even overseas, he never got his doors blown off and his improvement from month-to-month was hard to miss. His most encouraging performances, at least prior to his crossover to freestyle, were also his last up to this point. Zillmer scored a bronze at Serbia’s Gedza International last summer and then earned his first Senior Greco gold at the Dave Schultz Memorial in November. In both matches, Zillmer was behind on points and bodylocked his opponents to jump ahead. When he gets his arms around people, they die.
Micah Burak (TMWC)
Burak was one of the nation’s nicest Greco surprises this past season. It’s not just because he managed to upset Sheridan at the Open and then give Miller a problem in the finals. Burak, perhaps due in large part to his outstanding skills in the other styles, is beginning to adapt to Greco-Roman’s more nuanced positioning points at an increasing rate. He is still prone to hiccups and needs to become more aggressive in trying to open up scores, but his results should be acknowledged in concert with his on-the-mat improvement. If Burak can round out his game to include more offensive viability from top he will be “right there” with the elite.
Enock Francois (NYAC)
Another “if” guy. If Francois could ever completely immerse himself in Greco-Roman training and competition, he might be one of the most lockdown competitors at this weight. And that is recognizing he isn’t exactly 22 years old (he turns 32 next month). Still, the crossover-loving Francois is too good of an all-around wrestler not to pay attention to. His main issue is that his competitive appearances are spotty, which hasn’t done him many favors when it comes to garnering the type of experience necessary to challenge the upper tier. He got out there a little more this season and looked good at times, particularly at the Bill Farrell Memorial where he snared third. The deal with Francois for now is that if you get to see him, great. It’s just, who knows how many times that will be?
Blake Smith (OTC)
Smith’s first full year as a Senior Greco-Roman athlete virtually coincided with his first full year competing in the sport, period. Nevertheless, he managed to win both the Junior and U23 World Team Trials in 2017. An impressive start, to say the least. Following the fall semester at Northern Michigan, Smith bolted for Colorado Springs and the Olympic Training Center. He then grabbed a fourth at the Senior Open and was expected re-engage with Hancock at the U23 event, but the Roy Nash stopped him in his tracks (though an ankle sprain had something to do with that, as well). Another injury, this time to his pectoral, ended his season altogether just before the Tulsa Trials. A hungry Smith should be rearing to go later in the year.
Pete Gounaridis (Army/WCAP)
The elder statesman for 97, Gounaridis has logged the most Senior mat time out of everyone here, experiencing a good deal of success along the way. He’s a multi-time National Team member with a couple of finals appearances. That right there elevates him above others who have yet to break through in full. Stops and starts during his career, particularly post-2014, interrupted Gounaridis’s trajectory, as did his appearance at 130 last year in Vegas. This isn’t a riddle. Gounaridis is an excellent competitor who on occasion has pressed some of the best guys who had previously gobbled up space in this weight class. If his career is going to continue, look for him to have a bit of a bounce-back next season.
Roy Nash (NMU/OTS
Once again, 97 kilograms is home to a former Junior World Team member, which is what Nash was back in 2013. He’s an interesting case — Nash spent a substantial amount of time in Japan on a missionary trip when he temporarily left the sport. He is also less than a year into his return to Greco but there is already ample reason to get excited about what his future holds. Nash competed at heavyweight in March for the NYAC tournament, but throw that out. In Akron, he advanced to the finals, and though Hancock breezed past him, Nash eagerly brought forward pressure, which we saw even more of at the Senior Trials where he edged Burak on criteria. He’s big, strong, possesses meaningful experience, and his positioning is superior to most young monsters in this weight.
Dan Olsen (Unattached)
The owner of solid age-group experience from University on up, former Wheaton College assistant coach Olsen should be better than he actually is, and that is not intended as a slight. Olsen’s premier issue has been a tough one for him to solve — consistent high-level training partners. Go ahead and ask around, other wrestlers will tell you that Olsen offers everything physically you want in an athlete his size. The only thing missing is that nuance, that feel Greco guys can only get when they are constantly working out with top-caliber partners. Olsen is a strong, tireless workhorse who deserves a training environment that can give him what he needs.
Zach Merrill (NYAC/FLWC)
It seems like only yesterday when Merrill was a delightfully-mobile heavyweight, but it is now just about two full years since he has made the drop down. Last year, Merrill created a stir when he tech’ed out an asleep-at-the-wheel Hancock in the University National finals –although, Merrill did score offensive points in that contest, including a very nice arm throw to end it. That bout is a mere snapshot, however. Merrill is skilled in every area that matters and is a beneficiary of increasingly competitive workout partners. Every athlete at 97 kg is better with a guy like Merrill around, and it’s not crazy to imagine him one day leaping up the ladder even further. He can be that good.
Nick Boykin (Sunkist)
Recruited as a heavyweight out of high school (technically, this weight class is heavyweight and 130 kilos is super heavyweight, but let’s move on), Boykin has done everything he can to boost his seasoning, including getting himself overseas several times throughout the past year-and-a-half. With Cohlton Schultz ahead of him at 120/130 kilos, it had been difficult for Boykin to gain the kind of traction casual observers tend to appreciate. Plus, he was a little short for the weight, and that caused issues on occasion. After winning the Junior Greco World Duals, Boykin hopped down to 97 and came up short at the Junior Trials before going 0-2 in Tulsa. But he is still so young and his knowledge base is sophisticated enough to understand that sizable steps should be anticipated.
Eric Twohey (Minnesota Storm)
Out of nowhere, Twohey debuted as a Senior Greco-Roman competitor at April’s US Nationals. No one really knew much about him other than that he wrestled for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse previously, so naturally, very little, if anything, was expected out of him. Then he got double underhooks on Blake Smith. Then he fought Miller to the final whistle. Then he won two more matches and finished fifth. Twohey looked and wrestled exceedingly raw in Las Vegas but showed so much gameness that it didn’t matter. His feet naturally followed into tie-ups and even when he gave up position (which was semi-often), he tried to keep his legs moving the right way. But yeah, between Twohey being enrolled in medical school at the University of Minnesota and an apparent back injury following the Open, you might have to wait awhile.
Devon Amburgy (WBC)
Amburgy is a) not yet a full-fledged Senior and b) is very new to the style. But you are going to like him pretty quickly if you’re willing to forget that he’s still only developing, because you can rest assured that Amburgy is going to bring a fight. Part of that is because that’s his approach. It’s difficult to ignore. Amburgy wants to own first contact — and since he isn’t shrewd or experienced enough to play the game for passives — he has no choice but to try and throw. That’s something he’ll want to stay true to, because Amburgy has a nasty bodylock if/when he gets into position. His best result thus far was a fourth at the U23 Trials. Not bad for a new guy. But since Amburgy is just getting started, consider that performance the ground floor.
Remember: the above list is fluid and does not take into account variables such as who might emerge from the Junior ranks, as well as if there will be a crossover star or two willing to throw their proverbial hats into the ring. Regardless of how it shakes out and even if an athlete or two above drops off the board, 97 kilograms in the United States is healthier than it has been in quite a while, which is exactly how it needs to be heading into the Olympic year not too long from now.