Two-time US Trials champ Joe Rau (Chicago RTC) advanced to the 87-kilogram final of the 2018 Haparanda Cup on Saturday where he faced off with 2011 World bronze/two-time Olympian Rami Hietaniemi (FIN). Rau, on a bit of a hot streak, was appearing in his second consecutive overseas final, having won the SA Lavrikov Memorial the week prior, albeit via forfeit.
Like most established US Seniors, Rau enjoys participating on foreign tours primarily for their training benefit. But his enthusiasm for preparation pales in comparison to his lust for competition. This is not something from which he hides. Rau is unapologetically devoted to banging heads with top-flight athletes from all over the planet, for he holds strong to the belief that a high level of activity in Europe or elsewhere serves to not only bolster his resume, but his ability to refine his arsenal, as well.
Rau’s bout against Hietaniemi left an unusually bitter taste in his mouth, and it hasn’t exactly gone down so smoothly for US fans who have viewed the affair. After dominating the action for close to six full minutes, the Chicagoan was penalized for fleeing with mere seconds remaining. Hietaniemi, all but out of answers, essentially tried ramming inside Rau like a spazzed-out horse. In effort to avoid getting bucked towards the edge, Rau observed standard protocol: he didn’t back up so much as he ardently worked to stay within the confines of the boundary. If anything, he appeared in complete control.
Of course, it wasn’t enough. Virtually at their first opportunity, the officials called the foul on Rau and awarded Hietaniemi two points. That was certainly not standard protocol. Instead, if Rau was deemed to in fact be fleeing, a warning would have been the appropriate response. Unfortunately for Rau and the US, that isn’t how it all unfolded. Rau lost, Hietaniemi won and celebrated as though it was the Olympic final rather than a tournament in December, and an early season hosejob worthy of reexamination was born.
Although Rau (who even two days later still speaks with anger dripping from his vocal cords) is keen to move on from Saturday, he was willing to walk the audience through the match with Hietaniemi on a call from Sweden. And so as not to focus on just one aspect of his time overseas, he also shared how his body is feeling given the amount of training and matches he has experienced of late. That is important to note, too, because when you count Germany, Poland, US World Team Camp, and now this tour, it is the most action Rau has logged dating back almost three years.
Joe Rau — 87 kg, Chicago RTC
Rau on the final with Hietaniemi
“As far as the match goes, I was pretty pissed off with the way the refs called it at the end. Going through it, I felt like I controlled the whole match. I wanted to get to my ties, I wanted to push him back, and I felt like I did that for the majority of the match. I made first contact, I made him back up the whole match. I got the first passivity call but I should have stuck to a different turn. I went low when I tried to snatch up a lift and he just ran forward as fast as he could and I was touching his legs because of his movement. They called me up instantly, so they didn’t really give me a legit chance on top. But I think if I wrestled that again I would go for a different attack.
“I continued to control the ties and control the center of the mat. Going into the second period I think I was winning 1-0. I was feeling pretty confident; I was controlling ties, movement, everything, but I wasn’t getting any takedowns. I felt like I was close on maybe an attempt or two, like maybe I was chipping away at that. In the second period, of course they put me down regardless of whether I was controlling or not. I felt like he didn’t do anything the whole match. He’d get one spurt where he was in good position and bum rush me, obviously not trying to attempt to score. But they would call me for it instantly.
“That’s what felt like was happening on the previous tours I have taken recently. Obviously, they’re looking for certain things, certain positions, or whatever. But I just feel like a guy can an underhook or a certain position and then bum rush, and you’re the one who is going to get hit with passivity — even if that is the only thing he has done the whole match. It’s kind of frustrating.
“So, they put me down in par terre. I felt good. I defended his gut, all of his attempts, his lift. Of all of these tournaments I’ve gone to, I think I only got turned once and I’ve been put down a lot. Maybe not as much on this (current) tour, but in Germany and Poland, most matches more than once and I didn’t get turned very much. So there is easily stuff to work on in par terre but I feel confident on top and on bottom. It is somewhere I like to be.
“I pushed back on his neck, maybe his face a little, and they threw a challenge. Because, he went to lift. I got a point because they lost the challenge. I didn’t think I did anything wrong and I defended his lift. He was whining about it. We get back to our feet and I’m still controlling ties. There was short time and I think the main problem for me was that I needed to score. But — it’s kind of hard when someone hasn’t done anything the entire match and then he’s just bum rushing — even with that, I’m still looking for two-on-one’s, and I’m still getting my two-on-one’s. And he’s doing one thing, running at me like a madman. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do other than try and circle without getting pushed out.
“As I am trying not get pushed out by a bum rush from a good, strong guy who holds good position, I have to circle in so I don’t get pushed out. And if I do circle, they say it’s fleeing the hold. If that was the case, why didn’t they call it before? Why did they wait until the last ten seconds?
“I think the officials reffing the match and the people who run the tournament should be ashamed of themselves. Patrick Smith (77 kg, Minnesota Storm) and I asked why there wasn’t a warning because there should have been one — and — why call it in the last ten or fifteen seconds. Why decide a match that way? They told me, Get back on the mat and keep wrestling. You know what? That guy took like ten time-outs. They said I hurt him on the first throw and he took what seemed like two minutes. Then they challenged and he got more time. He was taking all of the time-outs he could get. But in the last ten seconds they give him that call and won’t even hear my case. They didn’t warn me at all and there is supposed to be a warning, so shame on them.
“I don’t think highly of that guy. I know that guy. I know he has done some things, maybe he has been successful, but I don’t care. I know I can beat him — and I know I will. I just have to keep coming, and hopefully, I will either get the calls and the right calls will be made; or, I will be able to wrestle through them and have time to wrestle through them. The goal is to be up by enough points to where the bad calls don’t matter. I don’t know if the first throw I hit was really legs. They didn’t give me that, and I think I should have gotten that. I hit that throw in Russia, they didn’t call legs. I’ve hit it in New York, they didn’t call legs. Maybe it was legs, maybe it wasn’t, but the plan was to get high enough up on the scoreboard so they couldn’t screw me. Because, he’s from around here, so of course they are going to try and give it to him.
“That’s really all I have to say about it. I’m losing a lot of respect for my competitors and for the officials when it runs like that. I try to be really respectful, I try to be a happy, nice person and I am trying to redirect my anger about all of this in a positive way to motivate my training, to keep wrestling better, to keep trying to score. It’s just, Greco gets really frustrating because it becomes a Sumo wrestling match where we are pushing each other. It kills the sport when there are ways to score that are not absolute scores.
“I’ve said this, I think there should only be absolute scores. If I take him down, it should be two points. If I throw him, four or five. If I turn him, two; if I lift and turn him, four. If I push him out, one. I don’t like the idea of control in the refs’ hands. That’s enough control, deciding whether or not it was a takedown, or whether or not it was exposure. That’s enough control. They have enough control there. I don’t think all of this other stuff, passivity, negative wrestling, or even fleeing the hold is good for the sport. Whatever the rules are, guys are going to take advantage of things. I’m sure I have won plenty of matches on bad calls that were in my favor, so you just kind of take it as it comes, keep wrestling, and try to win.
“It was just unfortunate that it was with such short time left. I think I wrestled a really smart match and they already took away that throw, so it was kind of frustrating. It’s still new, it’s still fresh, so I am trying to have a short memory and move onto the next tournament and see him there. I don’t really focus on opponents or care who they are, but if/when I see this guy again, I am going to be happy about it.”
Rau on enjoying his recent surge of activity
“I’ve wrestled in Germany, Poland, the camp in Colorado, Russia, Sweden, and now I’m going to Finland. I’ve been putting in as many camps and tournaments as I can. I always want to do that. Don’t get that wrong. If I could always be on the road and competing, I would be. I have an RTC that is funding trips and helping me out. In the past, I had a lot of help from USA Wrestling, which I am appreciative of. But now that I’m older, support hasn’t been given as often, and my not being able to wrestle for a National Team spot doesn’t help. But even last year when I was #2, I wasn’t getting any trips paid for like I used to. I’m super grateful for everything they’ve done for me in the past, but the more ways to get overseas and attend tournaments and camps, within the country or out of the country, the better in my eyes.
“I like to compete. I like to train. With the new RTC it’s exciting and I’ll keep looking to get overseas to train and compete. Right now, I feel pretty good about the way I am competing. I went out to Germany and Poland for those camps and tournaments without really any training. I broke my jaw, I came back, and six days later I got on a plane to go overseas. I threw together a couple of workouts in those six days. I didn’t know how I’d feel, what my shape would be, my timing, or how it might go after being out for a couple of months. I just did it because I wanted to compete, I wanted to get overseas. Maybe I wasn’t successful in those tournaments, but maybe it set up these two tournaments. And maybe these tournaments will set up the next tournament.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of bad luck as far as my body goes lately. I tore my knee in 2016. Pretty much my whole Senior career hasn’t been a healthy one, but I’m successful in the gaps where I can hold it together (laughs). But the big ones were tearing my knee in ’16 and then re-tearing my knee again in ’17. I wrestled in Hungary and at the Trials, both of those tournaments, with a torn knee. And then I wrestled freestyle’s Last Chance (Qualifier) and the freestyle Trials with a torn knee just because I want to compete. It’s frustrating.
“Then I came back. I had a good (2018) US Open, had a good NYAC (Bill Farrell Memorial), wrestled some freestyle and had fun doing that. And then I broke my jaw from a guy punching me while I wasn’t looking. That’s something I can’t really control. It is unfortunate when I can’t compete but I am really glad when I do. The older I get, I know that I’m not going to do this forever. But when I’m healthy, I’m successful. Whenever I’m healthy, I know what I can do. I want to build momentum, I want to stay healthy, and I’m doing everything I can to do that.
“I stretch a lot more, I focus on recovery. I advocate for myself when coaches and other athletes might think of me as a baby for needing rest. I don’t care what they think because I tried to be the tough guy in the past and rub some dirt on it, but what did that get me? Surgeries, sitting out, knee tears, and other serious things.
“No one fully knows what I’m about or who I am. I always want to compete, I always want to be at practice going hard. Being an older guy and putting in a lot of tournaments and camps like this, I have to be smarter. I take recovery seriously with my diet and I’m trying to get better with my rest, sleeping habits, and mental health. Meditation was huge for me. Doing a lot of things like stretching and saunas, and I have to link up with some chiropractic care. I was lucky enough to get free chiropractic care in the past.
“That’s something that is important and that I am not shy to talk about or stick up for myself over. My 2016 and my 2017 (knee injuries) wouldn’t have happened if I had someone advocating for me when I was hurt. ‘Oh, he’s being a baby saying he has a torn knee.’ No, I actually have an MRI and people aren’t listening to me, but instead, ridiculing me as far as coaches and teammates. You have to be above that stuff and be a professional. When you’re banged up, hurt, and bad things are starting to happen, you have to step up and say, This is my plan.
“That’s another thing, come in with a plan. Like today, we had eight two-minute go’s. But going in, my plan was to do three because I feel like I need a live match. I compete in a couple of days and competed in tournaments the past two weeks. I’m doing a match of live, and when I’m done. I’m going to stretch, sauna, and shower because I am my own coach, and I am going to advocate for myself in those situations when I am banged up.
“It’s only me who has to live with this body, and it’s me who has to live with these performances. So I am going to do my job and keep my best interests at heart when I am thinking of recovery and how much I am going to be training. My body doesn’t feel like it used to (laughs). But, that’s why I have to take care of myself and stick up for myself. Half the guys on these tours are teenagers or in their early 20’s, and my body doesn’t feel like that. But I know what my body can do and what I have to do to get the most out of myself, and I think I’m doing that.
“I am excited to wrestle in Finland again (Saturday’s Haavisto Cup — Ed.). I just want to keep this momentum rolling. I think I should have won that last tournament. I should have two golds and I am ready to be in a third finals. Right now, what’s key for me is to keep things simple — just wrestle. We hear that a lot and it’s cheesy maybe, but that is all I’m focused on. Be present and just wrestle. That’s cheesy also, mindfulness. It’s on every Instagram of a girl doing yoga. But for me, it really is key. Mediation being a part of my daily routine and being back on that and reading up on it helps a lot. I feel like my state of mind at these last two tournaments has been great, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be present, just wrestle, and not worry about things that I can’t control. And like always, have fun out there and help my teammates as much as I can.”