Despite a few bright spots sprinkled throughout, the 2018 Grand Prix Zagreb Open didn’t yield the breadth of results US Greco-Roman fans were hoping for, although one man, the unmistakably-talented Xavier Johnson (60 kg, Marines), did manage to provide a silver lining to the proceedings.
Otherwise, it was a morning that offered the American audience its first pronounced look at the updated international rule-set as frustration became the other story of the day with several US athletes finding themselves embroiled in winnable matches that either escaped their grasp with little time left, or were wiped away altogether due to perplexing calls from the officials.
Johnson bounces back in a big way
A lot of eyes were on Johnson at the 2018 Grand Prix Zagreb Open, particularly because he was back in action at a more suitable weight class for him. At October’s U23 World Team Trials, the Marine wrestler went all the way up to 66 kilograms following a year-long layoff due to injury. Johnson went 63 at the Dave Schultz Memorial, but he still wasn’t right yet. On Saturday, he clicked on all cylinders, even if it took a little while to jam the throttle into gear.
Competing in Pool A in the six-man 60-kilogram bracket, Johnson opened with 2017 Junior World Champion Kerim Kamal (TUR) and he was soundly defeated via tech in the first period. Kamal had gotten on a run from top and Johnson couldn’t find an answer. But he recovered in his next bout and then some. Facing off with Bence Kovaks (HUN), it was a matter of seizing on an opportunity, something the 22-year-old is extremely adept at. A passivity point was awarded to Johnson at the 2:00 mark, which under the new rules means a par terre chance. As he exerted to lift, Kovacs escaped out and latched on a front headlock that scored two. Johnson, not willing to concede, scrambled out of the lock and reversed position, putting Kovacs on his back. Leading 4-2 heading into the break, Johnson seemed to be coming on.
Only, Kovacs managed to stick around. He was busying things up inside enough to make Johnson have to consider meaningful attempts of his own. He responded with several tries at the body but came up short. A few last-ditch efforts on the part of Kovacs were fended off to the buzzer, giving Johnson the win by that same 4-2 score.
A 1-1 record deposited Johnson into the Nordic system’s semifinal opposite 2015 Zagreb Open champ Maksim Kazharski (BLR). A topsy-turvy affair it looked to be as Kazharski erupted right away with a takedown followed by two consecutive guts and a 6-0 cushion. Johnson, who brandished this ability in the preceding bout, reversed position and rotated over his own gutwrench to climb back in it immediately. When they reset, Kazharski wrangled a go-behind and gutted Johnson once again. This time, there was no escape. Kazharski had Johnson on his back and the fall arrived just before the period drew to a close.
The bronze medal match offered Johnson another crack at Kamal, who himself was pinned in the semis by 2008 Olympian Virgil Munteanu (ROU). Oddly enough, history repeated itself. For Kamal, that is.
And it didn’t take all that long.
Johnson shucked away a Kamal tie-up and when they reset, the Turk dipped down and looped his arms around Johnson for a bodylock. Mistake — because in a flash, Johnson instantly locked an overhook-and-head (head wrap) and arched Kamal straight to his shoulder blades. He modified his grip in order to flatten Kamal out all the more. There was not a whole lot of convincing necessary after that and the referee called for the fall at just :45 into the first period.
Needless to say, Marine Corps head coach Jason Loukides liked Johnson’s day overall, and of course, how he ended it.
“For him to get a medal was pretty good for his first trip,” Loukides said. “And for him to come back and pin the guy who beat him in the first round, that was the highlight of the trip so far.”
Walsh & Miller Bring the Heat But Fall Victim to Questionable Officiating
Former Naval Academy wrestler Peyton Walsh (Marines) has already begun to demonstrate that he has the workings of a successful Senior coming off of a pair of strong showings overseas in December — but he was still expected to be outgunned in his 77-kilogram quarterfinal contest against two-time U23 European Championships runner-up Antonio Kamenjasevic (CRO). Not only was that not the case, but what would have been a big win for Walsh and the US was taken away during the most pivotal juncture of the match.
From the outset, Walsh showed why there is such a high amount of interest in his performances. Immediately upon the whistle he was after Kamenjasevic, jutting into the pummel and then lasering in for a high-dive attempt. Walsh made another high dive attempt seconds later that Kamenjasevic met with double underhooks, but there was nothing to be scared of. They resumed jousting and Walsh came close to reaching around Kamenjasevic for a go-behind. The pace belonged to the Marine virtually the entire period and he held a 1-0 passivity lead moving into par terre. Walsh was successful in lifting Kamenjasevic off the mat but he didn’t set himself all the way, allowing the Croatian to find his feet before turning to his stomach and resulting in no points.
A major deviation in activity could not be discerned in the conclusive frame. Walsh kept pressing and only erred when coming loose off of attempts; occasionally he would stay on a knee for a second or two before rising to his feet, similar to the way a collegiate wrestler might. That doesn’t fly very well in the classical style, but Walsh dutifully stuck to a more classical approach from then on out. Even still, he was dinged with around :90 remaining, giving Kamenjasevic his first chance from par terre top. This is when the match changed, but in the most bizarre way possible.
Kamenjasevic assumed the top position; at the whistle, Walsh fired up to his feet trying to break Kamenjasevic’s lock; Walsh completed the folkstyle standup with his hips forward and spun; as he spun, Kamenjasevic came loose and fell to the tarp out of bounds. The referee initially rewarded Walsh with a step-out point — however, that point was white-paddled by the chair. Walsh brought the kitchen sink the rest of the way to no avail, dropping a 1-1 criteria decision. Kamenjasevic was defeated in the semifinal by countryman and returning champ Dominik Etlinger to erase Walsh’s shot at a bronze later on.
There was confusion for everyone who witnessed the bout, including Loukides, who considered challenging the no-call but held onto the cube in fear of reprisal.
“I was just a little worried because it seemed like they wanted to call him for standing up or grabbing the fingers, or something in there,” said Loukides. “I was afraid to challenge it because one, being in Croatia and everything, I was worried they might give a caution or something and I didn’t know it was going to come down to that. But I don’t know why they took that point off the board.”
Loukides also liked Walsh’s lift attempt from par terre, as it is still a developing component of the athlete’s arsenal.
“He surprised himself,” laughed Loukides. “He hasn’t really done that many lifts, he was going for a gutwrench and he should’ve finished. He just doesn’t have that much experience in that position yet.”
Daniel Miller (97 kg, Marines) was looking to build on his strong 2017 campaign with another medal-winning performance here but found scoring chances to be scarce against two-time Golden Grand Prix bronze Sulieman Demirci (TUR). Starting off in the qualification round, Demirci netted a point via step-out to go up 1-0. Miller diligently fought for his tie-ups and would do so for the sum of the first period, and while he was moving Demirci’s feet, he couldn’t effectively wedge inside for underhooks from the pummel. He appeared busier, but neither wrestler could hone in on a usable position.
It started to seem like Miller was discovering his groove to begin the second, and both Demirci’s footing and conditioning were paying the price for it. Miller still wasn’t able to gain any clearings to the body, but he was operating at a tempo that works for him, one in which he has proven to be successful with in the recent past and he eventually forced Turkey off the line for a step-out point. Unfortunately for him, a (curious) caution-and-one for finger-grabbing gave Demirci another point midway through the second and Miller couldn’t make up the difference in time.
Demirci was then turned back by Mikhell Kaiai (SRB) in the round-of-16, eliminating Miller from medal contention at a foreign event for just the second time in nearly 18 months. Afterwards, the Marine Corps Captain took a pragmatic tone regarding his performance.
“This is a tough tournament packed full of tough guys and at the end of the day, you’ve got to score points on them,” Miller said. “If you leave it in the hands of the ref you can never count on the call going your way. Score more points and you win, it’s that simple.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his coach agrees with that assessment.
“I looked at it more as what he could have done rather than anything having to do with the refs,” Loukides offered. “I thought he could have come out more aggressive, a little more active-looking, and maybe that could’ve dictated what led down the stretch. You saw when he finally got into those situations he scored the point out of bounds. I feel like if he could have gotten into more of those situations, he could have given himself the chance to put points on the board.”
Diaz Impresses Early; Rodgers Hangs Tough In First Senior Overseas Event
Puerto Rico’s German Diaz, one of the Marines’ most experienced Greco competitors, made his presence felt in the 67-kilogram qualification round. Standing across was Argentina Ismael Lucio. Diaz didn’t hesitate to get charged up, bodylocking Lucio off of an exchange before converting the takedown into a gut. Diaz held onto the lock for one more turn and when they reset he went right back to work, crunching a front headlock roll for the match-ending points.
Up next in the round-of-16 was a decidedly different test in the form of Poddubny bronze and Russian Nationals runner-up Pavel Saleev. Saleev jetted out to a 5-1 lead and though Diaz closed the gap with a passive in the second, it wasn’t enough, as Saleev emerged victorious 5-2. The Russian lost to Mamadassa Sylla (FRA) in the semis to eliminate Diaz from the tournament.
Rodgers was taking on a very tough customer for his first Senior international event in 2016 World Military Championships winner and 2017 Euros runner-up Aleksandr Hrabovik (BLR). And to give Rodgers credit, he wrestled like he couldn’t have cared less who he was matching up against.
Rodgers didn’t hesitate to engage but Hrabovik met his gusto as the pair clashed in the center. The one thing you wanted to keep an eye on was Rodger’s stoicism to see if there would be nerves at play. If there were, they evaporated quickly, as Rodgers was doing his letter-best to dictate the tempo despite some of Harbovik’s covert finger-grabbing which took place when the two were chest-to-chest. It was plain as day and not concealed very well, though the official apparently didn’t catch the infraction(s), causing Rodgers to motion that it was happening.
As the first period unfolded, Rodgers’ level of activity was enough to get Harbovik warned for passivity only for the table to be turned soon after. Rodgers was then dinged once, and again, resulting in the first point and the first par terre chance of the bout. And Hrabovik took full advantage. He locked around Rodgers and hoisted him up with a side lift to jump out in front 5-0.
Another point went to Harbovik just as the second period began. Rodgers upped his workrate accordingly and powered into the ties with a purpose. Hrabovik maintained position, weaving in and out of the pummel with Rodgers doing his best to dig in. There weren’t any windows to exploit the rest of the way for the American, however, as Hrabovik moved on with the 6-0 decision.
With a full week-long training camp behind them before today, the principle objective for the athletes centered around improvement and tacking on heightened competitive experience. Many of Loukides’ Marines are still learning the ropes of the international game and Rodgers had been itching to bang heads at the top level ever since coming on as a resident in Colorado Springs. So while it would have been nice for the wrestlers to haul some more hardware back to the States, Loukides believes that everyone got something out of it that they needed.
“The biggest part we were excited about was the new rules and also for a lot of our guys, practicing when they’re a little uncomfortable,” Loukides said. “Coming overseas if they’ve never been here, it’s different. You’re eating a little bit different food, there is also the travel and the time changes, so for them to have a chance to experience all of those other variables that go into being successful in wrestling are good for them to practice. They will grow a lot once we get back home, even if some of them don’t feel like they did as well as they wanted to.”
2018 Grand Prix Zagreb Open — Zagreb, Croatia
TEAM USA RESULTS
Xavier Johnson (Marines) — bronze
LOSS Kerim Kamal (TUR) 8-0, TF
WIN Bence Kovaks (HUN) 4-2
LOSS Maksim Kazharski (BLR) via fall
WIN Kerim Kamal (TUR) via fall
Cohlton Rasche (Marines) — 7th
LOSS Erik Torba (HUN) 8-4
LOSS Ivan Lizatovic (CRO) 9-0, TF
LOSS Mihut Mihai (ROU) 9-0, TF
German Diaz (PUR/Marines) — 7th
WON Ismael Lucio (ARG) 8-0, TF
LOSS Pavel Saleev (RUS) 5-2
Peyton Walsh (Marines) — 9th
LOSS Antonio Kamenjasevic (CRO) 1-1 (criteria)
Vaughan Monreal-Berner (Marines) — 13th
LOSS Ilya Nikiforov (RUS) 6-4
Daniel Miller (Marines) — 13th
LOSS Sulieman Demirci (TUR) 2-1
Michael Rodgers (NYAC) — 17th
LOSS Aleksandr Hrabovik (BLR) 6-0
Trent Osnes (Marines) — 8th
LOSS Ramazan Sari (TUR) 3-1
LOSS Boban Zivanovic (SRB) 3-0