IOWA CITY, Iowa – Pat Smith (Minnesota Storm) started off Saturday displaying the patented attacking yet measured approach he has become known for. It wouldn’t leave him as the day progressed. However, this “in your face” style also served as the shield in which Smith would go out on.
On the first day of the 2016 US Olympic Wrestling Trials at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, both Pat Smith and RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) entered on a collision course. It all began innocently enough. Two-time World Team member Bryce Saddoris (Marines) reigned as the top seed when the day’s activities unfolded. The top-ranked wrestler at 66 kg, Saddoris was thought to be the clear-cut favorite, with RaVaughn Perkins taking on the role of his potential ouster.
Michael Hooker (Army/WCAP) had different ideas.
In a tensely contested quarterfinal battle that was as much nail-biting as it was illuminating, Hooker kept the pressure on Saddoris all match long and escaped with a surprising 4-4 criteria victory. Saddoris enjoyed an early 4-0 lead only to see it evaporate before his eyes. Alas, this was merely the setup for what Smith was about to do.
In his first match of the day, Pat Smith got past durable Christoper Gonzalez (NYAC) 5-2 in an affair that spoke to what the Minnesota native would be about in this tournament: an unforgiving level of aggression standing up, and a refusal to buckle to the razor-thing margin for error that permeates throughout a tournament like this. So when Hooker and Smith saddled up for their semifinal clash, it was going to take more than the WCAP representative’s seeming rise in confidence to overcome the adversity he was about to face.
From the whistle Smith went after his foe parsing and swaying inside in the the manner that has become his signature style: by becoming a menacing presence who never turns the volume down. Two points would arrive with a “whoa” from the crowd. By the time the second pair of points would be awarded it all seemed academic. Pat Smith just wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip through his fingers.
“You know, most of the time I wrestle it’s pretty much the same – get after it, dictate the pace, and control the ties looking to score constantly”, Smith said. “I knew he had some big moves, he’s had a hell of a tournament so I had to make sure I was watching that. Keyed in on my position and dominated the tie. I also wore him down I think, so everything worked out how I was hoping it would.”
The bottom half of the bracket still needed to be decided. Perkins matched up with fellow rising star and 2012 Olympian Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) in one of the most-watched semifinals of the day. Both wrestlers are intimately familiar with each other and are regular workout partners at the Olympic Training Center. The action early on belied the intimacy at play, as the two jockeyed for position inside with Coleman constantly trying to wrangle away from Perkins to find space. A passivity call would throw a wrench in the works for Coleman, giving Perkins the chance he was waiting for. It wasn’t the high-flying canvas of drama fans were probably expecting, but Perkins did enough to defeat his friend 5-2 and move on to face Smith in the best-of-three later in the evening.
If an inch can equal a mile then there was some decent distance between Pat Smith and RaVaughn Perkins in the first of the series. Smith stayed heavy on the head from the whistle, almost as if to send a message that this match would take place on his terms. Perkins moved inside for a lift attempt, but the frenetic Smith ambled out and bullied forward, subsequently earning a push-out point for the effort. A passivity call (from seemingly out of nowhere) hung in the air over Smith, but he was the more aggressive party through most of the first period.
An explosive arm-drag attempt by Smith was met with Perkins going heavy to thwart the attack. In the ensuing action, the over-under position proved to be a benefit for Smith, because he capitalized nearly instantly and mowed Perkins out of bounds once more to earn another point. A passivity call a short time later would provide yet another opportunity for points, but Perkins managed to bottom out and avoid any more damage. A few desperation-inspired setups by Perkins were not going to cut it as Patrick Smith took match one 2-0 looking energetic, yet composed and ready for more.
The second match started off similarly to the first with Smith taking an aggressive launching position to deflect the lengthy reach of Perkins. Perkins learned from the first match, as he tried to lure Smith to the edge for a step-out point of his own. That would be a mistake. Smith re-set his feet and changed direction, turning the tables and taking the point for himself.
A passivity call in the second gives Perkins yet another shot at a home run. That’s a major part of his game. Smith stayed heavy and fought all elements of buoyancy, which led to a re-set. The match became tied when Perkins picked up a point, also giving him criteria. Smith then took the initiative by coming forward intent on taking a final point any way he could get it, even if that meant forcing a late passivity call. It wouldn’t arrive and Perkins walked away from match two tying the series.
In the finale, whatever momentum Smith entered sundown with appeared to be waning. It didn’t appear as if his energy level had dissipated, more that his customary “grinding” wasn’t readily apparent. It wouldn’t lead to a favorable outcome for him. Perkins kept trying to pressure Smith into providing an opening while the two zigged and zagged in the center of the mat. The referee signaled for passivity on Smith, and before the Minnesota Storm athlete could prove an uptick in activity, another one followed. This would be the turning point of the match.
RaVaughn Perkins immediately clasped around for a gutwrench and got it, rolling once for two, re-rolling for two more, and then again for another pair of points, which would be a six-point lead. Smith’s side challenged and the last two points were scrapped. With a renewed sense of urgency, Smith turned the heat up. As soon as he could find enough traction to create a lock he did so, once again revving forward for what at first appeared to be a push-out but wound up being confirmed for two points as Perkins careened to the surface off the edge. Down 4-2, Pat Smith was still in it.
The second period would be the unraveling for the 25 year old Pat Smith. He gripped and grabbed, getting heavy on Perkins’s head. This strategy would lead to a passivity call in Smith’s favor, but any favorability the position offered would soon blow away like ashes in the wind. Smith locked on a mid-range gutwrench and then heightened his clasp. He then lowered his grip once more to achieve a lift. In the resulting motion, Perkins writhed away and violently twisted his hips, his considerable length proving valuable in the decision. It would become a huge four-point play and another resulting challenge from the Smith side would tack on another, making the score 9-2. Stunningly, Perkins was one point away from ending the match prematurely.
In the closing moments Smith admirably did everything he could to stave off elimination. An arm-drag, a snap…any kind of opportunities to latch onto one of Perkins’s appendages comprised the objective. But the talented Perkins managed to fend off every attack and walked off of the mat in celebration as the 66 kg Olympic Trials champion.
There is no doubt RaVaughn Perkins holds enough talent to qualify the weight class and compete well in the 2016 Olympics. The former US Open champ (2014) and winner of the Dave Schultz Memorial this year is someone on the rise who is also steadily improving from year to year. But what a run for Pat Smith. The two-time Pan Ams titlist has seen a good brunt of his competitive exploits over the last couple of seasons at 71 kg (aside from his 66 kg appearances) and is every bit the old-school kind of battler that would present a problem for anyone in his weight on the international level. It just wasn’t his night. The problem is, he’s going to have to wait for another dusk to see a dawn.
Image credit: John Sachs/Tech-Fall.com