If you have been paying even a cursory amount of attention to the US Greco-Roman scene this year (as in 2018), chances are you know who Xavier Johnson (Marines) is. The 22-year-old banked his first overseas medal in January, a bronze at the Grand Prix Zagreb Open that saw him dispose of Junior World Champion Kerim Kamal (TUR) via fall after having lost to the young talent earlier on in the day. A month later came the Armed Forces Championships, where Johnson jolted 2008 Olympian and 2017 US World Team member Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) with a big bodylock that set the tone for what wound up an even bigger 6-5 victory.
For his next act, Johnson zeroed in on the Bill Farrell Memorial in New York City. Following a close loss to Egyptian stud Hasan Mustafa, a scintillating showdown with 2014 University World bronze medalist Sammy Jones (NYAC/OTS) awaited. The pair had previously met at the 2016 US Nationals and delivered quite the show, although it didn’t last very long. Johnson raced out to a 6-0 lead before Jones battled back within two and eventually rocked a match-ending headlock. This time around the result went the other way. Jones remained competitive for most of the bout, but it was Johnson who caught fire early and stayed that way as he wrapped up his Farrell bronze with an eye-opening tech fall.
But that has been Johnson’s deal in a nutshell — eye-opening.
Johnson’s ascension domestically has become one of the most noteworthy stories of the season, and with the US Senior Open but a mere week away, he discussed some of the highlights this year has offered so far, as well as the approach and inspiration that has helped usher him to the brink of Greco stardom.
Xavier Johnson — 63 kg, Marines
5PM: Do you know right now what weight you plan on going for the World Team Trials?
Xavier Johnson: Not at this moment. I’m kind of in between 60 and 63 (kilograms). So no, not at this moment. I have to consult with Coach (Jason Loukides) and find out what he thinks is best for me.
5PM: I’m going to go ahead and guess that it’s not so much the weight class but the weigh-ins, right?
XJ: Yes. So, I made 59 a year ago and then I had the injury. Of course, with not being on the mat I put on weight and the transition to getting back to that weight is a little harder now. That’s mainly the thing right now. It’s not like, a big problem, but it is different now.
5PM: How did you feel in Croatia?
XJ: I actually felt good. It was plus-two kilograms, so it was 62. I felt good and the weight came off pretty easily, so I didn’t really have any problem with it at that time.
5PM: That was a significant tournament, not just because you took bronze, but the manner in which that happened. You drew the reigning Junior World Champion first round (Kerem Kamal) and on paper, that’s not a match you’re supposed to win just then.
5PM: So the first match doesn’t go your way. But that second match against him, the one for bronze, was amazing. You went and launched that headwrap and pinned him. Was there something from the first match that you noticed where he could potentially be vulnerable to a throw? Or was it just an attitude change where you knew what he had and you needed to blast him soon into the bout?
Xavier Johnson: Not exactly. I felt like in that first match I didn’t really get to my offense and I was just chasing. That’s not usually my style, but I don’t know, maybe it was the atmosphere and with it being my first time overseas I might have gotten a little flustered. But I knew if I saw him again, or any match after that, I had to take my chances and do my offense.
5PM: Your match with Ildar Hafizov was absolutely the biggest one coming out of the Armed Forces Championships. You just said that you don’t want to be the one chasing and how you need to get to your offense. Wrestling Ildar, who is one of the most polished and experienced wrestlers we have in the US, you opened with a four-point bodylock and won 6-5. Was that the key to getting that win, starting hot and going after him early?
XJ: Yeah, well, my style is usually to get to my offense first but I also know that I have to be cautious about what I do and not go crazy. I have to be smart and pick my shots like everybody else. I knew I had to wrestle my match, but like you said, he is a very polished wrestler. I knew I had to pick my shots, but when I picked them, I had to pick them precisely.
5PM: What did you take away from that match afterwards regarding your offensive approach and overall confidence level?
XJ: On the scale of confidence, I have a lot of confidence in myself and so do my coaches and teammates. But from that individual match personally, that, in my opinion, was the one that stood out the most because of his standard of wrestling. When you compete with someone like that and you compete well with someone like that, it makes you feel like you’re supposed to be here, that you’re supposed to be doing these things. It shouldn’t be out of the ordinary. I should expect to win these matches, or I should at least expect to be in these matches.
5PM: What was your experience in Greco, and what was your experience in wrestling overall prior to joining the Marine team?
XJ: I’ll start with Greco first. I had never done Greco before joining the Marines and I’ve been on the team for almost three years, two-and-a-half years now I think to be exact. As for folkstyle, I went to a small school in South Carolina. You know, not really big on wrestling. I believe I was the first African-American to win a state title for my school. My senior year I won it and my sophomore year I took third. I never went to any camps or any of that stuff. Just financially, didn’t have it. Honestly, that’s really all I have in my wrestling background. I went to the high school nationals one year and I believe I went 3-2. So I am still raw in the sport and I’m learning everyday. I’m just trying to get up to speed.
5PM: What is it about Greco that attracted you? Was it a chance to keep wrestling while serving this country? Or really, just what is it about the style you enjoy so much?
Xavier Johnson: I’m a pretty athletic guy and I was always big on throws. Even in folkstyle I would try to throw people. And then when you come around Greco, it’s all throws really, and upper-body moves. I grew attracted to it very fast just because of the throws, the lifts. And like I said, I’m really athletic, so it fit my body style and I attached to it, and I grew to love it.
5PM: What was the learning curve like for you at first insofar as becoming acclimated to the different positions, the rules, and all of the other nuances involved in Greco?
XJ: When I first got on the team, we had some pretty good guys in my opinion. Ruben Navejas and Aaron Kalil were there, so I got brought up to speed pretty well. But the hardest thing for me was not backing up or keeping my head down, not bringing my elbows in. That was pretty much the learning curve for me. I was always ready to go forward and tussle in the scrambles and everything. But when it came to keeping my elbows in or my head up, those are problems that I found myself fixing a lot. Even to this day I still work on those things, my fundamentals and the small things.
5PM: There are other differences with this sport. Sometimes styles clash, sometimes matches are officiated oddly, and things can go weird against opponents that are out of your control. How have you managed to adapt to those kinds of things as you have progressed?
XJ: For me, the biggest thing is composure. Coming into the sport, I was flustered, I was new. When I would find myself in trouble, I did things I shouldn’t have done or didn’t need to do, and then I would find myself in even more trouble. So for me, the biggest thing in each match is just composure and trusting in my ability.
5PM: What does a typical day look like for you as a Marine and a Greco-Roman wrestler right now?
XJ: A typical day on the team is training from 9 to 12, and then we usually have a few hours off and get back into it for like a two-and-a-half practice. We have two practices a day and that is mainly the work day. When I come home, it’s usually my wife and I and we go to the gym. That’s pretty much the day, honestly. My life is training. If I’m not training, I’m playing with my daughter and relaxing.
5PM: Croatia was your first overseas tournament, which also means it was your first overseas camp. Was that an important experience for you, getting exposed to the way foreigners train?
XJ: Yes, it was. It was different. My style definitely clashed over there. They could probably tell that I wasn’t accustomed to being over there. But I learned a lot just from going with different partners as well as my teammates. I learned a lot in Croatia.
5PM: One of the big benefits of being on the Marine team is that they like to travel.
5PM: Is that something you’re looking forward to doing a lot more of?
Xavier Johnson: Definitely, definitely. After I got back, you know I have a two-year-old daughter, so of course I was a little homesick because it was my first time being so far away from her. But once I got out there I really enjoyed myself, and I love learning new things. There was so much stuff I wasn’t used to. I’d do something one way and they would show me another way to do it. I fell in love with learning differently. You always love rolling around with different people. The big thing I took from there is different styles. It’s okay to change up your style. You don’t have to be, My style is working, this is what I’m sticking to. It’s okay to have different styles across from a different opponent.
5PM: You had a great tournament in New York bouncing back for bronze. I’m sure you were going to enter this tournament no matter when or where it was, but the fact it was taking place a few weeks from the US Open, did it seem important for you to get in there for a tune-up before Vegas?
XJ: Personally, I wanted to get as many matches as possible. I knew 60 (kilos) wasn’t going to be as big, or that’s what I thought. When I consulted with my coach, we decided I should go 63, which we knew was going to be really competitive, or in other words, stacked. I knew I was going to get really good matches in New York, and that’s what we want to do, put ourselves in the best position against the best guys.
5PM: You had a tight match against Mustafa in the semifinal and it was entertaining to watch. The third-place bout versus Jones was big. It ended early and you were way ahead, but even with that it was still competitive. What was your view on Jones going in, especially considering that if you go 63 he is going to be seen as very tough contender in that weight class?
XJ: Honestly, and I know it’s going to sound cliché, but I honestly try — try — to go into each match with the same mindset, which is get to my offense. Of course with a guy like him, who is also explosive, we clash very well. He likes to throw, I like to throw. We’re both spontaneous. We love the big moves. I knew that. I wrestled him at the last US Open. So I knew who he was and I watch matches on everybody. I knew what he had, and I also knew what I could do with my ability. I just try to trust in my ability.
The match, yeah, it did go my way. But there were a lot of things I took from that match and I went back to the drawing board, like, Okay, I did this wrong, or I could have done this better. But there were also things like, That’s exactly how that should have went, and Oh, I capitalized on this very well. That was definitely a big bout for me, and when I say for me, I mean a learning bout for me just because of who he is and he’s a very experienced wrestler.
5PM: Outside of your room, are there any wrestlers you look up to or have looked up to?
XJ: (Laughs) I know it’s going to sound cliché again, but usually the guy I look up to now is my coach. I’m still new to this style of wrestling, so I am not going to sit here and say I know the last five World Champions from my weight. I’m not that guy so I am not going to try and sound like I do know who that is. But I know the guys who I see everyday, which are my coach and my teammates, and a lot of them are experienced in Greco, and other styles, of course. Those are the guys I look up to now and they are whom I go to for advice, guidance, and when I have problems or any concerns.
5PM: Okay, who are the current athletes competing in this country you like to watch?
XJ: Jon Jay Chavez, I like watching him. (Alex) Sancho. I like watching Ellis (Coleman). Honestly, I like watching all of the big-move guys. The guys who are going to go for it, leave nothing on the table and leave it all out there — those guys. The big move guys, because that’s what I’m basing my game off of, I’m not holding back, your best is going to have to beat my best, and I’m going to give you everything I’ve got — those are the guys I like to see. There are other guys, of course. I love watching my teammates because we all have that same mentality, go hard or go home.
5PM: The Marine team is, by all appearances, a tight-knit unit led by a coach everyone holds so much respect for. That right there, is that the main reason why the Marines have been coming on so strong as a program recently?
Xavier Johnson: I believe so. I really think everyone is buying into the process and buying into the program. We’re one family, and if you don’t bring your best, you’re kind of screwing me over. Everyone buys into that. When you step on the mat in the room, no matter who the guy is or his skill level, he’s going to give you his 100%. And the next guy you have is going to give their 100%. And I believe everybody is buying into this process. That’s why you can see that the program is on a steady incline. When you see that, it really makes you proud to be on this team because you can see where it started. You see onesies and twosies grabbing it, and now this side is grabbing at it. Everyone is buying into this process and they are believing in each other. It’s not just one guy, everyone is getting better, no matter what the outcome is.
That is what the coach is instilling in this process. And this is a daily thing. It’s not just before a tournament or before the Armed Forces. It is really preached to us to believe in each other and give your all, because if you’re not doing that, honestly, we don’t need you on the team. We have a really good group of guys. We have warriors. All of them have that warrior mentality. That’s why I believe everyone, and I’m pretty sure even a blind man can see, that the Marine Corps team is inclining. And that is solely because of the inspiration our coach has given us.
Follow Xavier Johnson on Instagram to keep up with his career and competitive schedule.