A hearty congratulations goes out to those who witnessed Xavier Johnson‘s (60 kg, Marines) stunning run to bronze at the 2018 Zagreb Open in Croatia on Saturday. On a day when international wrestling was overshadowed by a collegiate folkstyle dual meet, it was difficult for a wrestler like Johnson to receive the kind of attention he (and the other US guys overseas) deserved. That’s the tenor in this country pertaining to Greco-Roman and its athletes, something that has been long understood and accepted in spite of its relative ugliness. Alas, there is a time and place for that discussion, but it’s not now and it’s not here. Not today. But perhaps eventually.
Instead, it’s much more worthwhile to break down Johnson’s performance and what made it so special. The fact that it was the 22-year-old’s first overseas tournament, and by extension, his first overseas medal, had something to do with it. In some ways, Johnson is still very new to high-level Greco-Roman training and competition. When previewing the US roster for Zagreb last month (which was comprised primarily of wrestlers from the Marine Corps), Marines head coach Jason Loukides said of Johnson, “He wrestled in high school in South Carolina for three months a year, or whatever it is, and that is all he did prior to getting into the Marines. So, Johnson is getting his feel as he goes along and he is picking up Greco really fast.”
You can say that again. Johnson was (and still is) raw when he caught the entire 59 kilogram field off guard at the 2016 Senior Nationals in Las Vegas. But before he could capitalize on the momentum he built up from that one event, injury struck. Sort of. It was discovered that Johnson’s knee didn’t have an ACL. No, he didn’t tear it off but more like it was never there to begin with. What came next was a prolonged stint on the shelf and it wouldn’t be until the U23 World Team Trials this past October when he resurfaced again in the 66 kilogram bracket. Johnson also got a couple of matches in at the fall edition of the Schultz a few weeks later, but that had been it leading up to Saturday.
Johnson’s first opponent in Croatia was Kerim Kamal of Turkey, who won the Junior Worlds in August after making the previous two World finals. The bout didn’t go too well for the American, nor did it last it very long. Kamal piled up the points quickly, turned Johnson a couple times, a blur it all was, and moved on with a crisp 8-0 tech. The next match in Pool A pitted Johnson against Bence Kovacs (HUN) and he rebounded nicely though he wasn’t in control from start to finish. Kovacs escaped a Johnson lift attempt and managed to nail a front headlock for two. Johnson reversed the position and caught Kovacs on his back to go up 4-2 and held on the rest of the way to pick up his first win.
Because it was a six-man bracket divided into two pools — and because Johnson had a 1-1 record — he was put into the 60-kilogram semifinal opposite Maskim Kazharski (BLR), a Zagreb winner in 2015 among various other accolades. If you’ve watched enough international events over the last bunch of years chances are he’s been on your screen. At any rate, this was another match of Johnson’s that saw him out-experienced by a wide margin, although, he definitely didn’t go quietly. Kazharski raced out to a 6-0 lead with a takedown and two guts before Johnson, just like he had against Kovacs, scrambled and reversed to roll the Belarusian with his own gutwrench. Following the reset, Kazharski hit a go-behind, gutted Johnson to his back, and held him there for the fall with just seconds left in the opening period.
So think of it: this was Johnson’s first international tournament of any kind. He also hadn’t exactly been a ball of activity since coming on as a Senior. And aside from being wiped out by Kamal in the opening bout, he was acquitting himself rather decently, exerting a blend of opportunism and athleticism that so many US Greco athletes possess but fail to display nearly enough. Johnson wasn’t supposed to beat these guys, this tournament was much more intended to provide him with some competitive experience following what was a week-long training camp. In fact, the camp was the main reason he and the other Marines took this trip in the first place. Whatever happened after that, certainly from a fan’s perspective, was to be seen as a bonus.
That’s why when Johnson was getting set to take on Kamal for the second time in the bronze medal bout, all anyone could hope for was a glimpse of improvement from their first meeting a few hours earlier.
Then lightning crashed.
Kamal was prepared to end the rematch quickly as he dipped down for a bodylock the first chance he had. With the way he bulldozed Johnson in their previous bout, who could blame him? However, what Kamal wasn’t prepared for — nor were too many others, for that matter — was Johnson’s lack of hesitation when it came to completely smashing this error of presumption. As soon as Kamal locked his hands around the Marine’s back he had sealed his fate. Johnson immediately clamped an overhook on Kamal’s right arm, wrapped around Kamal’s head with his own right arm — arched — and then waffled the Turk straight to his back. Johnson adjusted his hips and sat through in headlock position, and Kamal had nowhere to go. The signal for the pin arrived in an instant, leaving Johnson to rise to his feet whilst clapping his hands in celebration. Whatever happens from now until October, this was a moment many of us in the sport will remember as one of the highlights of the season.
The best part is that you cannot call it a fluke. Upsets happen in commonality, both Greco-Roman’s dynamics and point distribution dictate as such. Moreover, if you are at all familiar with Johnson’s capabilities, you should know that this is why a whole lot of folks are so pumped about his future. He can turn it on in the blink of an eye. The Marines have several athletes like this, guys who demonstrate raw instincts with tremendous upside. If Johnson did anything on Saturday, it was that he likely made even more people aware of this fact.
Not bad for a first-timer.
Walsh Got Hosed
Another of the All-Marine team’s big prospects, Peyton Walsh (77 kg), only had one match on Saturday and it came against the extremely skilled Antonio Kamenjasevic (CRO), a two-time U23 European Championships runner-up. No US bias intended, but there was zero question Walsh was the more talented “wrestling athlete” throughout the course of this match. He was quicker, more explosive, and despite his limited Greco acumen, the more decisive wrestler. Walsh was trying to be offensive and came fairly close on a high dive or two early on. The Marine received the first passivity par terre chance of the match and attempted a lift that looked okay going up, but ultimately didn’t have the arc necessary to put Kamenjasevic in danger, thus no points were scored.
It all came down to that second period. Neither athlete was able to generate any meaningful scoring chances and the ref saw fit to give Kamenjasevic his point and subsequent par terre chance. This is when things became confusing and chaotic in whichever order. Walsh, either due to his collegiate roots or his overall inexperience in this style — or maybe because he felt it was the right move given his skill-set — chose to stand up on Kamenjasevic’s lift attempt. And he completed the stand-up. Walsh executed it just like you see in any folkstyle match, for the most part, and Kamenjasevic seemed altogether lost when Walsh spun around to face him.
As you can see in the video, Walsh is awarded a step-out point by the ref after Kamenjasevic flops out of bounds. With 1:29 left in the bout, that’s obviously a big deal. But then the point is white-paddled at the table. Why? Who knows? The above clip was sent to three USAW/UWW officials — all of whom requested to remain anonymous — but unanimously agreed that the point should have stayed on the board. Kamenjasevic stayed upright from that moment on, earning a 1-1 criteria decision over Walsh that left a bitter taste in the mouths of every US fan who watched this bout unfold.
USA vs. Serbia This Coming Weekend!
On Saturday, members of the US Greco-Roman National Team are set to take on a Serbian squad that includes 2016 Olympic Champion Davor Stefanek (67-72 kg), 2017 World Champion Viktor Nemes (77 kg), and 2007 World bronze medalist Kristijan Fris (60 kg), who this past year won the European Championships for the first time at 33 years of age. The event begins at 3:00pm at Bishop Kelly High School in Boise, Idaho and tickets as of press time are still available ($10 for adults, $5 for students). Throughout this week, both teams are participating in a joint training camp in Boise presided over in part by US National Team head coach Matt Lindland and Suples founder/former NMU head coach Ivan Ivanov.
We will have more on this event throughout the week starting with the upcoming edition of the Coach Lindland’s Report (due to be released tomorrow) and the next episode of the podcast, which will feature two-time Trials winner RaVaughn Perkins (72 kg, NYAC) and 2017 US National Teamer John Stefanowicz (82 kg, Marines). Both Perkins and Stefanowicz are scheduled to compete on Saturday, though Perkins’s status is currently tentative.
USA vs. Serbia — February 11th, 2018
Max Nowry (USA) vs. Tamas Nad (SRB)
Ildar Hafizov (USA) vs. Kristijan Fris (SRB)
Ellis Coleman (USA) vs. Mate Nemes (SRB)
Alex Sancho (USA) vs. Davor Stefanek (SRB)
Patrick Smith (USA) vs. Aleksandar Maksimovic (SRB)
RaVaughn Perkins OR Kamal Bey (USA) vs. Viktor Nemes (SRB)
John Stefanowicz (USA) vs. Zarko Dickov (SRB)
Ben Provisor (USA) vs. Nikolai Bodrev (SRB)
Barrett Stanghill (USA) vs. Vladmir Stankic (SRB)
Hayden Zillmer (USA) vs. Mikhell Kaijai (SRB)
Look for our preview of the dual and other insights/analysis later in the week!
Austria Tour Coming Soon
The annual trip to Austria is right around the corner for the US and as always, it will mainly feature athletes from Northern Michigan. The accompanying names are some good ones, however. 2017 Cadet World Champion Cohlton Schultz (120 kg), new NMU signee Delon Kanari (60 kg, Ill), returning champ Nick Boykin (120 kg, Sunkist), and a few others not from Marquette are also on board. We will have the full roster leading up along with additional news and info courtesy of NMU head coach Rob Hermann in the next Northern News, and that should be out soon enough.
If you are seeing this on Monday, February 5th, it is United States Greco-Roman legend and Five Point Move Podcast co-host Dennis Hall’s 47th birthday. If you are a regular listener of the podcast, you know that Hall’s seeming disinterest in social media is a common topic. So — feel free to get him involved by tweeting at him right here!