The Art & The Fight: Toby Erickson On His Career As a ‘Big Man’

toby erickson, 130 kg
Toby Erickson -- Photo: Marion Stein

He’s a bruiser, but he’s thoughtful.

Toby Erickson (130 kg, Army/WCAP) measures his words the way a golfer kneels down to discern the distance between ball and cup. He wants to explain himself thoroughly, but he also wants efficiency. The 26-year-old is right now detailing what life is like for a heavyweight on the international circuit, where due to the largeness of the bodies involved, even the smallest mistake or missed attempt can decide a bout. Only, Erickson doesn’t it put it like that. Instead, he has a different way of describing what an in-match miscue often means: “You’re going to get punished for it,” he says casually. 

He’s right, of course, and that’s because he possesses first-hand knowledge of the situation. Throughout his career, Erickson has beaten up plenty of opponents, mauled them, pounded ’em into the tarp. He has also taken some beatings, too. He’s had to. How else is a guy supposed to learn? In a sport that places a high value on physical and emotional scar tissue serving as a cruel-but-necessary brand of secondary schooling, the baby-faced big man from Montana had no choice but to pay attention. Smart move, for it wasn’t too long after Erickson had established his presence on the Senior level when he began to assume his place near the top of the depth chart. And he has been there ever since.

But to Erickson, that’s part of the problem. “Near the top” isn’t THE TOP. Three runner-up finishes to Robby Smith at three separate World Team Trials (and a few Opens right along with them) are not what he signed up for. Erickson could have continued on the folkstyle/freestyle route coming over from Boise State, but he placed a bet on himself and ran with it. He has more than made it count — even despite a third-place showing at the Dave Schultz Memorial two weeks ago, Erickson is still widely considered to be one of the two best 130 kilogram wrestlers in the country. It’s just that he believes it could be him, or should be him representing the United States at the next World Championships or Olympic Games. Therefore, he finds little consolation in the trio of missed opportunities that occupy bulletpoints on his resume. 

There’s still a lot of elite Greco-Roman wrestling left in Erickson’s life and he is understandably eager to get started on it. He’ll be pushing forward, as usual, and with a revamped Senior schedule in play, he has a modicum of extra time available to get up to speed before things take an even more serious turn come the late-spring. That’s when Erickson will once again contend for a place at the table, where each small mistake or missed attempt not only decide matches, but careers. He’s up for it. Now as an officer in the US Army, Erickson knows better than anyone what a hard-worn education is worth. It’s why he is waiting for the next test.    

5PM Interview with Toby Erickson

5PM: You won a Junior World bronze in 2011. Coming off of that performance, it would seem that you already had a lot of momentum moving up to the next level. Did that help you approach your jump to full-time Senior action with a lot of confidence?

Toby Erickson: Yeah, it gave me a lot of confidence when I started wrestling Seniors because there were not a lot of guys, though granted, we had one of the greatest US heavyweights of all time in Dremiel Byers wrestling then, and he was the top dog. But after that tournament, I thought, I could do this. I could switch gears from wrestling collegiately to wrestling full-time Greco and I can make an impact. So I was excited for it, I was ready to go. That summer, I was in the process of leaving Boise State to wrestle for Northern Michigan and it was already in my mind that I was going to start wrestling Greco full-time. But when I won that Junior World bronze, I truly thought, Okay, this is my style, this is what I can do.

5PM: It wasn’t that long ago, but considering how you established yourself to this point, what do you remember as some of your early lessons as a Senior?

TE: A lot of my experience was learning not to be afraid of the fight. When I walked into the Senior room after just becoming a top Junior, it kind of knocked me down a few pegs to, Okay, you’re going up to the next level. I showed up a couple of times to the OTC (Olympic Training Center) where I’m wrestling with Byers, I’m wrestling with Tim Taylor, who was the number two guy, Brandon Rupp, and when I came in, these guys kind of were chomping at the bit to get on me to show, You’re here — and now we’re going to show you what it takes. We’re going to show you what it’s REALLY like to be a heavyweight. Yeah, I’m one of the taller guys at 6’3, but I’m not the heavyweight who is pushing the boundaries at the weight limit, even when it was 120 kilos. I wasn’t even pushing 120 kilos back then.

So I come in and I’m wrestling these guys who outweigh me, they’re stronger than me…they would come in and truly put a clinic on me. And then they would just say, Hey, don’t be afraid of it, go forward with it. Don’t be afraid of taking your licks here, it’s going to pay off, everything will work out. That was probably the biggest thing I learned, learning to stand up and go after it.

5PM: Heavyweight can have different looks depending on where you are, and rules play a factor in determining the type of action, too. But how much of heavyweight is a power game? Or is it more about running a grey area between having that kind of power necessary to deal with the other large bodies while still having that technical awareness to be resourceful? What is the balance required to be a successful big man?

TE: To answer that question, I look at heavyweight as a chess match, really. You’re exactly right, heavyweights have that power. The smaller guys, smaller guys can make an attempt and it could be a truly explosive all-out attempt and they may score on it. But as a heavyweight, if you make an attempt, and not all attempts are going to be perfect, if you don’t go all-out on it or you misplace your power somewhere, you’re going to get punished. One way or the other, you’re going to get punished. You’re either A) going to exhaust yourself for no points or that one correct throw point, but if you miss, it’s a lot of energy exerted for not a lot of ground game, or B) you miss your attempt and your opponent scores on you. Now in a sense, you’re facing a bigger deficit to come back from.

Comparing styles, over in the US, it’s a fighting style. To be a successful heavyweight, you have to be a fighter, you have to be aggressive. You’re looking for those open spaces a little more when you’re trying to fit your chess pieces going out trying to get that score. When you go overseas, you’re a little more relaxed. The guys overseas, they wrestle a very relaxed style, especially in Europe. But it’s hard to not mistake the relaxation they show for a lack of power, because in the same sense, if you miss your attempts overseas, you’re going to get punished as a heavyweight. They will take that opportunity from your missed arm throw or your missed bodylock, and maybe those are the only points scored in the match. But if they counter an attempt and have the lead, they know if you you miss a move or attempt, they can shut you out. And they will.

So yeah, it’s definitely tougher for us heavyweights to guide ourselves in a match. If you are going to go for something, you have to be absolutely certain that A) you have it, or B) you’re going to go 100% and hopefully, you’re going to get a score. But you have to have that effort to keep going with it, too. Trying to displace both sides, it really comes down to how you express your effort, I would say.

5PM: As you got going on the Senior level, right away was the 2012 Olympic Trials where you took third. That had to have been a notable step so soon, what did you take away from it?

TE: The biggest takeaway from that tournament was I’m a 21-year-old heavyweight and I made my first National Team, essentially. I just look at it like that was the stepping stone and I’m on the right path. When I left Boise State, I didn’t want to go. I had some great friends, I had a wonderful team out there and when I left, it was hard. But I left it because I always had a dream of being an Olympian, a World Team member, a World Champion or Olympic Champion — just being up there in wrestling. When I took third at the 2012 Trials, my biggest takeaway was, I can do this, my dream is not as far away as I thought it was. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but those friends I made at Boise State, they’ll be with me along the way. As long as I set my sights on this dream to chase it and keep the fire behind me, I can do this. 2012 just showed me that I had plenty of room to grow and that, You can do this, Toby, you can make this dream a reality.

5PM: Well I would have to think that coming off of a Junior World bronze and then acquitting yourself well at the Trials, that had to have provided a crazy rush of validation, right?

Toby Erickson: Oh yeah, it completely validated everything that I was doing. It was a sense of success because coming from Montana, we don’t have a lot of Greco guys. We have some amazing freestyle guys, but when I look back at it, we don’t have a single guy from Montana who made a World or Olympic Team. And I feel that, hey, I can be the first. It showed me I’m on the right path. Without sounding like a broken record, but yeah, Toby, you can do this.

5PM: That’s important to note, though, because not everyone has that kind of pivotal moment early in their careers. 

TE: Yeah, and it’s a hard thing to find. A lot of people are looking for reasons to do what they do, they’re looking for success right away, and I think that is why a lot of people give up on their dreams so quickly. They want instant results, and granted, I was only in the Senior scene a year when I made my first National Team, but I had been wrestling since I was five-years-old. Even to backtrack a little further, it didn’t just validate my dream of trying to become an Olympic or World Champion, I had the potential to go play Division I football and I said, No, I want to wrestle. So it showed everyone around me who said, Toby, you should have played football.” Why? I have something so much more special in front of me that I can say I worked for rather than playing football in college. Maybe you get into the NFL, maybe. Where, this is so much more self-satisfying and it shows you did it yourself. You put in the hours. I’ve had a lot of help along the way, especially back then, I had so much help. But it showed me that I did this. I didn’t get carried out there,worked for this.

5PM: Naturally, you’ve been linked to the top guy in the US, Robby Smith, for awhile. You were training partners and you’ve been a runner-up to him on numerous occasions. We have seen this dynamic play out a lot in this country, one guy chasing the other but train or did train together, etc. But is this about vanquishing the opponent, or is it all about the spot? Do you look at the guy on top of the leaderboard, is that who you’re eyeing? Or do you not care about that and are just more concerned with the spot?

TE: I’m more concerned with getting the spot. I want to be that guy with the big target on his back when we return to the US after the World Championships and people are gunning for me. I want to be that guy.

The issue there is that it’s hard to distance yourself from being concerned about one over the other because the guy who is there, Robby, he has been the number one guy since 2013. He has been the guy everyone has had their eyes on. Sometimes, it hard to differentiate what you’re after when the guy has been there that long. If you look at freestyle and 74 (kilos), Jordan Burroughs has not only been the top guy at the weight, he’s been the top guy in the world, and everybody is gunning for him because he’s had the spot. But what I’m looking at is, if Robby is there, he’s the guy I have to beat. If I match-up with him in the finals, he’s the guy I have to get through. If I’m matched up with Adam Coon in the finals, he’s the guy I have to get through. If it’s my teammate Jake Mitchell in the finals, he’s the guy I have to get through. I just want to get through to that number one spot. I don’t care who I have to get through, I want that number one spot.

I want to be the guy because I am infatuated with being the number one guy. I am tired of being number two. I have been number two for too long in my mind now, in my coaches’ minds. We all know I can be number one, we just have to figure out what to do to get me there and it’s all eyes on that. If it’s Robby there, fine, but I can’t be training to beat Robby, because if I train to beat Robby, maybe there is something one of the other guys had to beat Robby in the tournament and now I get to the finals and it’s a different guy other than Robby. So I can’t be focused on him, I have to be focused on everyone around me to be that number one guy.

5PM: When you went to Denmark this year and you and Robby battled, which was kind of strange in its own way, with it being overseas and not even in a final, but people came away from that feeling like you closed the gap. That led up to April and sure enough, your first bout with Robby in the finals was a close one. You then got caught in the second bout. Compared to your other runner-ups, was this the hardest one to take?

TE: Yeah, this pill was the hardest to swallow. I remember after that second match, and I have to hand it to Robby for that second match because he read me perfectly. He knew I was going to come out hot, come out firing. I was watching our first match the other day to study film on my own movement and I just saw that I became predictable in my reach, and he hit me perfectly with that arm throw. When I walked away, I wanted to be pissed, I wanted to throw my shoes and everything, I wanted to yell and cuss and scream, but I knew that’s not the type of guy my old man raised me to be. Also, I looked over and Byers was there beside me, and we both looked at each other like, Well, shit. There were so many emotions running not only through me, but also through him. Because this hurt. Me, him, and Jacob, we’re training so hard, especially last spring, for one of us to be number one and that gap is closing between me and Robby.

That hurt because I could taste it. I could almost taste that number one spot being with me. But it’s not there yet. It’s like you’re being teased with a really good dinner and you have to wait just a little bit longer for it to be finished, but you want it now. And that’s how I felt this past April. I wanted it then. I still want it, but now I have to wait a whole ‘nother season to go get it.

Toby Erickson versus Robby Smith at the 2017 US World Team Trials

Erickson (right) in the middle of an exchange with Robby Smith during the 130 kilogram finals of the 2017 US World Team Trials. (Photo: Toby Rotundo)

5PM: When you’re preparing for an event, be it domestic or a trip overseas, do you pay attention to the other 130’s from elsewhere around the world?

TE: Oh yeah. What I mainly do is sit down and I’ll watch film on guys like Riza (Kayaalp), the German Eddie (Eduard) Popp. I study those movements because I am looking for guys who have success at that next level, they are World Champs, have medaled, or are seeing that good success all over, and have a similar style to myself. I know that the Turk (Kayaalp), he likes to get down low and push, which is something I am starting to really get into now. I am starting to get down lower to push and change my elevation. Yes, I have him by about four inches in height, but he’s a guy I need to learn from in the pushing aspect because he can push anybody in the world, minus Mijian Lopez. He rules the mat. He is the king of the mat in the push, whereas Eddie, he has become more active with his hand-fighting, more active with his pummel, and turning corners and cutting angles.

Those are two guys I am watching a lot of film on to see how they’re doing it, when they’re doing it, and what they are leading with. And when I become number one and I have to wrestle those guys, I have a mindset to say, Okay, this is what he does well, so I have to step back. I’ve been emulating his style for so long, let’s take it apart and find out what will beat him now. 

5PM: I am sure that you are aware of par terre’s imminent return. You got in a good amount of matches last year with it out of the curriculum. What are you looking forward to most about it coming back, and conversely, what are you not looking forward to about it coming back?

Toby Erickson: What I’m looking forward to is putting guys down. In just about every match that I wrestled last year, I accrued passivity on my opponents. And I know I am decent on top. I can pull a lot of people in a gutwrench. I can’t wait for it to come back because as an active wrestler, that is something I like to have. I like to be able to have a reward thrown my way for them being inactive aside from a point. By giving me par terre, I have the chance to score more points besides what I can do on my feet. It opens up my wrestling a little more again.

What I’m not looking forward to about it, is if we haven’t trained bottom par terre hard enough since it’s been gone. In the past year that we have lost it, it hasn’t been on our curriculum. We’ve been so much more focused on our feet that we’ve kind of lost sight on actually starting in par terre and fighting from there. So I’m not looking forward to getting back into it and toughening my ribs up again, but nonetheless, I’m a big proponent of bringing back the forced par terre. I love it.

5PM: I had to ask you about this, but Boise State and all the news surrounding the loss of that program hit the wrestling community rather hard earlier this year. Dishonesty, mistrust, it all led to the program getting cut for baseball. What was your reaction to this?

TE: It was like a bad dream when I found out that had happened because I do remember when I was a freshman there. We were preseason ranked number two and the whole team I had there, we were all like brothers on that team. Yeah, we had guys who didn’t like each other and stuff like that, but in the end, we were all brothers. We loved going in and working hard. We’d complain about it the next day because we were sore, but we knew we were building something special. And when they cut the program, it hurt because there were guys who were there the whole time who had just finished up their careers and worked so hard to put Boise State wrestling on the map.

It was unfair because the athletic director and the president wanted a baseball team, and even when I was there, they were trying to find reasons to get rid of a program because they wanted a baseball team. It was just…it sucked. It was a sucker punch when it finally happened. One of my really good friends while I was at Boise State had just been hired on as an assistant coach the season before and he only got to work a year and now he’s left jobless, essentially. Then the coach they had there, Mike Mendoza, he was at Cal State before he came up, he had just settled in his family when they cut the program.

It was truly, from my standpoint as a former wrestler there, unfair how they went about doing it. They said that they wanted to have the only baseball team in the Northwest, or in Idaho. Well, you just cut out the only D1 wrestling program in Idaho, and aside from Oregon State, you just cut out the only other D1 program in the Northwest. It just didn’t make sense. I felt we were lied to regarding the reasoning behind it. Everybody, we’re all seeking justice for it and trying to find ways to bring back the wrestling team. If there is anyone who can do it, it is Mendoza. We just felt like so many questions were left unanswered except for the fact that they wanted a baseball team. We want justice and we shouldn’t have lost this program.

There’s a family I’m close to from Boseman who sent their kid out there and I don’t know if he continued wrestling after the program was cut, but he showed promise as a PAC 12 and NCAA wrestler. I talked to a news outlet about it, and I am still concerned about what he’s doing because I’m really hoping he continued to wrestle. He had a bunch of D1 opportunities but he chose Boise because it was closer to home. Now it’s like, where do we as Montanans go for wrestling? Yeah, we have North Dakota State and Wyoming, but we had a premier team at Boise State that could have been built back up, that had the resources to bring it back to where it was at in 2010 and 2011. It was just a pet project that someone else wanted and they cut ours. They cut something that we worked so hard for.

5PM: Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that when a program gets cut, the number of victims is actually quite far-reaching.

TE: Oh, yeah, and Idaho, it’s a nice little mine of wrestlers out in the northwest. Hayden Tuma came out of Idaho, Jon Jay Chavez, and there’s a bunch of other little studs who trained at the Suples Training Club in Boise. The whole state, when it came to wrestling, kind of revolved around it (Boise State). Even North Idaho College, the junior college up north coached by one of my teammate’s dads for a long time, John Owen, he would send the really good, promising guys down to Boise State. Now it’s almost like, Where do we go from here? Hopefully we can resuscitate a big D1 program in the Northwest again, but I think as long as we have the current AD and president at Boise State, our cries are going to fall on deaf ears right now. Even the campus was appalled by the move. The student body president and the rest of the school cabinet even went as far as to try and overturn the school president’s move. They tried to do that immediately and he did not allow it.

5PM: You cut your teeth as a Senior training at the OTC. You then joined the Army and WCAP. What was the genesis behind this move and how do you see this as a step in your career?

Toby Erickson: I saw it as a big step forward in that I was kind of flirting with the idea of going to WCAP for awhile in my own head, and then I saw they were keeping Dremiel Byers around. I had a pretty good relationship with him before he retired, so I knew I would have an amazing heavyweight coach there. I’d have Coach Shon (Lewis), who will write me up if I’m in the wrong, but will also give me a good pat on the back if I’m doing something right and guide me in the direction I need to go. And then I have Coach Bruce (Robinson), who is really a great caretaker of the team. He has a funny attitude, but he really cares if you are part of the WCAP family. They all really care, but he would also kind of help coach me coming up from 2012 University World Championships, he helped coach me out there and I’ve always enjoyed working with Bruce.

I also knew that if I wanted to go wrestle anywhere else and push my career further, I need to go to WCAP. In my eyes, it was the most sensical move. Seeing that my whole family’s background is in the military — mainly Army — but we have some family members sprinkled here and there who’ve been Navy or Air Force, and I knew I had a good path set to switch over and join the Armed Forces and go that route.

5PM: Not only did you join WCAP, but you then went onto become an officer. So by all appearances, this wasn’t just an athletic move, there was obviously an impassioned service component to it, as well. 

TE: Yes, because when I’m done with my athletic career, I will serve. I will serve in the aspect that best suits how I am in my life at that time. Whether that is going active duty or National Guard, that’s still up for debate until I approach that time, but I want to do my part and serve, just like both of my little brothers are doing right now and just like my dad did. In fact, my dad was the one who really pushed me to go the officer route. He’s a retired Major and he saw that I could make a good officer myself, and he’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t put you up for the challenge if he didn’t think you were up for it. But he was like, Toby, you can do this, go become an officer, go become a Lieutenant and start working your way up from there.

toby erickson at thor masters

Erickson waiting for the action to begin at the 2017 Thor Masters Invitational in Denmark. (Photo: Marion Stein)

5PM: The schedule of competition this year for Senior Greco in the US is different compared to recent campaigns. What is going to be your approach to events leading up to the spring when the Open and Trials come around?

TE: Right now, my approach up until January is getting back my flow, getting back to the confidence level I was at in April and May at the World Team Trials, getting stronger, and getting back in shape. I spent the summer at the Basic Officer Leaders Course, so I had been off the mat for about four months and just started training again three or four weeks ago. So right now, my first walk up until January is just getting back to the basics and then as soon as January hits, it’s going to be about getting back into that full fight mode where I’m ready to take it to any opponent who is in front of me. To go after them and really getting back into the fight of wrestling. Currently, it’s about the art. Come January, it will be about the fight. Then as we start approaching tournaments, it’ll be about combining both of those and making sure I’m not getting too lost in the art of the sport, or too lost in the fight of it, but making sure I have that good balance going again.

5PM: If you could go back and talk to the 21-year-old version of yourself, the guy with the fresh Junior World bronze who was just starting to get his career going, what would you tell him?

Toby Erickson: I’d say be patient. Your time is coming. You’re going to experience some great ups, some great downs, but just be patient and roll with it. Because there were times when I tried to almost take too much control of what I was doing instead of truly trusting the process of what I was going through. My low times were just extra low. They were lower than what I would have wanted to see myself at. So I would just tell myself to be patient, keep working hard, and to keep your nose to the grindstone. It’s all going to work out and pay off with what you’re doing, and that moving schools and all of the big choices you made at that time, were absolutely worth it.

Follow Toby Erickson on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with his career and competitive schedule. 

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