Britton Holmes has just begun his third year for Northern Michigan University’s vaunted Greco-Roman program, and he can’t help but recount the ones that got away.
On this evening, Holmes is in the process of winding down after returning from his kitchen job at a local Marquette establishment. The daytime offered a couple of workouts, ratcheted up in part by US National Team head coach Matt Lindland’s presence in the wrestling room. Holmes affirmed the productive nature of the training sessions thus far and is eager to get back at it the next day. So even though he might be a little tired, wrestling is still on his mind, which provides a sort of boost to continue the conversation.
The deal with Holmes is that he’s beholden to talent and experience that project major success down the road. His issue? He already feels the sting of opportunities missed, despite the fact he just turned 20-years-old in April. It’s not as if Holmes is haunted by a ticking clock hanging over his head; he knows better than that. All the same, rough losses that he feels can be traced directly back to an aggressively stubborn approach are easy targets at which to take aim.
Then again, that’s what makes Holmes Holmes. Mentored since middle school by retired Olympian TC Dantzler back home in Colorado, Holmes learned quickly that self-belief has a tendency to run in concert with a merciless attitude. Not only is position never ceded, any momentary indication of retreat is almost considered downright surrender. Opponents who stand toe-to-toe with Holmes on a mat understand that they’re not going to exit contests unscathed, win or lose. He doesn’t gesture, showboat, or pound his chest. All one has to do is initiate requisitely hard contact and something inside Holmes springs to life. He is always grateful you’re down for a fight — but will punish you for testing his resolve.
Even before Holmes arrived in Marquette to begin the 2017-18 season, word was already out. The previous fall saw the then-high school senior win Sweden’s Malar Cupen, an enormous mixed age-group event. His glimmering potential didn’t take long to gain even more traction during his first semester at NMU. That was when Holmes, practically out of nowhere, finished third at the first-ever U23 World Team Trials in Rochester. He was only 18. By now, there have been many more tournaments and many other strong performances, but the goal of securing a World Team berth is yet to be achieved.
Holmes advanced to the best-of-three finals at the ’19 U23 Trials this past June and was in control against Lenny Merkin (NJRTC) through most of Match 1 before the second period led to his undoing. Regrouped and seemingly undaunted entering Match 2, Holmes hardly got the chance to rev his engine when Merkin bombed a headlock that clinched the series. That’s the kind of thing Holmes remembers most, an obviously typical behavioral quirk for an elite competitor. He doesn’t remember the two tough matches that opened the tournament, nor does he rest on the wonderfully exciting act of vengeance he delivered against Junior World Teamer Tyler Eischens (CARTC) in the semifinal. In what was an inspired all-around effort, Holmes merely points to the pair of finals losses and is devoted to ensuring they never happen again.
Where’s his head at now?
As one of the United States’ most encouraging (and crowd-pleasing) prospects, Holmes is gearing up for what could be the biggest season of his young career. He is checking into a new weight class (see below); has re-intensified his training; will be making a sincere push for the Olympic Trials; and is gradually learning how to harness all of that blessed aggression in the right direction. It’s a good time to be Britton Holmes, and he’s pumped for the future.
If you’ve watched him go to work, it’s easy to see why.
Britton Holmes — 77 kg, NMU/OTS
5PM: How has the transition been thus far with Andy Bisek taking over as head coach?
Britton Holmes: To be honest with you, not a lot has changed. The routine throughout the week has been the same, wrestling live Mondays and Fridays with lifts on Tuesday. So, nothing like that has changed. I definitely miss Rob (Hermann). Rob is the one who recruited me and got me in here. That aspect of it is different, not having him physically there. But the team is still trucking along. We’re getting stuff done, still striving for our goals. Not a lot of big changes, I would say. But — I definitely miss Rob. I have to say that.
5PM: What is the most important thing you’ve learned during your time with NMU’s Greco program up to this point?
BH: This program has opened up a lot of things to me, and a lot of flaws, I guess, in the way that I was doing things. The mental aspect. I know that I am there physically and can wrestle with anyone out there, but my mental ability is sometimes blocking me. I just need over to get over that hump and I’m working on it. Ever since I got here, I’ve been working on it.
When you get in a room full of guys who are beating you up everyday, sometimes you come back and lie in your bed thinking, Man, what am I even doing? I’m going out there getting tech’ed by these guys and they might not even make World Teams, or they’ll make Worlds and go 0-1. So then you’re like, What does that mean for me? I just know that NMU is all mental and I need to get over that and say, F everything and F everyone else, I need to get down and gritty and focus on myself. That is the biggest thing, mental. Mentality is the biggest thing in the sport.
5PM: You tend to turn on a mean streak…
5PM: You are definitely someone who knows how to turn up the physicality. Is it a challenge for you to channel your aggression during matches? Do you hit moments during matches when you feel like you need to answer back hard and that’s what gets you in trouble?
BH: Yeah, there are times, like my first year at Senior Trials. I was wrestling (Ray) Bunker. He came out there, and he’s Bunker — very focused, mean-faced, ready to attack, ready to go to war. And I matched that. We were butting heads the whole time. He went at me, I went at him, I was shoving him. Just getting out of my game, where I should have been. All I wanted that whole match was to get on top. I finally got my chance and I was so hyped up to get on top. I got down, I got ready, and he stood up and got out, and I lost 6-3. I look back at that and I’m like, Gosh dang it! I lost my head.
And I’ve done that a lot of times. You can ask Coach Hermann. I have been overseas and refs (there) are definitely not on our side. And I will freak out. I am a headcase sometimes, and I’m bad about that and I try not to show it, and I work on that. But it is just that sometimes, the fight that I like bringing gets me in trouble. And sometimes, I do hold back and it gets me in trouble. Like this last year at Junior Trials wrestling Tyler Eischens. I was wrestling conversative. It was a close match, 1-1, and I get on top and go for a front headlock. I don’t know why I went for a front head; I lifted everyone that whole tournament. But I go for a front head, slip, and get caught on my back. Two weeks later (against Eischens) at U23 World Team Trials), I stay on my game plan, I go to my lift, and I’m up 7-0 in the first period.
It’s a win and lose battle. But it’s something I am working on. It definitely comes back to the mental aspect. I need to bring the fight when I need to — and I need to focus and conserve when I need to.
5PM: Describe TC Dantzler’s impact on your career.
BH: TC Dantlzer, TC Dantlzer. TC Dantzler is the man. He is the one who put me on this path. My father started me in wrestling and is one of my biggest influences, but once I hit middle school, TC brought together Front Range Twisters and ever since then I could not get away from Greco. It would be folkstyle season and all I wanted to do was get back to Greco practice with TC.
TC’s style of coaching is in your face. It messes with your head, your mental game, and that is something I wish I had sometimes here, to have TC push me in that mental game.
Take my junior year at Fargo. I lost in the bloodround and he just kept on saying, “You lost to a world-class bum, so what does that make you?” (laughs). It kind of brought me down but then I was like, He’s right, I just wrestled down to this person’s ability. TC put me on this Greco grind and I can’t even put it into words. TC? I love the man.
5PM: Last year, I mentioned your name to him before the Junior tournament and I didn’t even realize he had coached you. As soon as I said your name, TC goes “Britton? He’s the ‘Bad Motherf***er, that’s who he is. Tell him I said that.” I asked him what he was talking about and he told me this whole story of bringing you up.
BH: The funny thing is, TC would always come up to me during practice or at tournaments and say, Who are you? Who are you?! And I’d mumble it back to him. But he would make me yell it out, I’m a bad motherf***er! He kept making me do that (laughs).
I remember at Fargo, it was my first year. I didn’t even think I was going to sniff the podium my first year at Cadet but I took sixth. I went up to my mom and dad in the stands and was talking to them. Then TC comes up and he’s like “Who are you?!” I’m like, TC, come on. I can’t say that here. “Say it! Say it!” He makes me yell out in front of my mom — and I don’t think my mom at this point had ever heard me say a cuss word in my life — but he makes me scream out I’m a bad motherf***er! Then as soon as I say it, he kicked me right in the stomach. “What are you doing? Your mother is right here!” (Laughs)
That was the thing, that was part of the mental game. He made you believe that you were the bad motherf***er on the mat taking these big names out, and that you were the big name other people were looking out for. So, yeah. I love the man.
5PM: When you compete against Seniors, in matches not just in practice, what have you noticed about them that is different, if anything?
BH: There is almost like a big brother aspect to it. I don’t know if that’s just in my head. I’ll go out there and it’s almost like, Man, these guys are way stronger, this, that, and the other. As if they are almost muscling me around. But there is not much difference, to be honest with you. They are the same guys who went from Junior to Senior, there is just a little bit of a mental edge that some of them have.
Senior Trials this past year was difficult for me. I saw the bracket and it was all set up with Colin Schubert on the other side. Since he was on the other side, I asked if he wanted to warm up, and he agreed. We started warming up and warmed up for like, 40 minutes. We get back, there are ten minutes left and I was supposed to be one of the first matches up. I look at the bracket again and Colin Schubert is now my first match. I had a game plan for him; I had things set up that I wanted to do. But again, that mental aspect. I got off track and he kind of big-brother’ed me that match and it frustrated me.
But there is not much difference, to be honest with you. I know I can compete and be at a high level on the Junior stage, and I can be at a high level on the Senior stage. And I plan to put that out there this year.
5PM: The 2019 U23 Trials finals, your first major final. Was it a disappointment that took a while to recover from or did you bounce right back given the short turnaround for Raleigh?
BH: That was frustrating. Going out there for my first match with Lenny, I felt like I had him beat. Made a couple mistakes. I went back, came up with a game plan, and felt like I was ready to win the next two matches. It was the second time he caught me in a headlock like that. Lenny is very explosive. It was frustrating, very frustrating. I definitely thought for sure that I was going to be on at least one World Team between Junior and U23. The other frustrating part was beating Eischens in the semis that next week. It was just a bad taste in my mouth.
I don’t think it had any effect on Raleigh, though. I always come into every tournament with a clean slate. I’m here to win this tournament, and no tournament before this one defines me. No problem there. It definitely left a bad taste all summer, but I’m good now. I’m ready to beat Lenny and anyone else they put in front of me.
5PM: We all know what year this is. What is going to be your weight class?
Britton Holmes: Last year, I was planning to go 67 (kilograms) for the Worlds, and was hoping on making 67 again this year. As the year went on, I got a nutritionist. I was very serious about it and got my weight down. I got down to about 72 kilos and I would be sucked. My energy was really low. I was eating about 1,400 calories per day. And then once I got the water weight off, I felt dead. I made it once in Austria, but that was 69 kilos — so I didn’t even make 67. I had a good tournament, I wrestled Finland’s World Team member and lost 2-1, and then wrestled another Finnish wrestler who was competing for that same spot and it was another really close match.
But it really took a lot of out me, so I went up to 72 and felt better there. I knew this year that 67 would be out of the question. I am still not sitting at a weight that I’d like. I don’t need to cut weight or anything like that to feel good, but I would like to naturally stay at a heavier weight because I weigh about 76 and-a-half to 77 and-a-half. But yeah, 77 is my weight this year. It’s a little difficult because it’s a big mystery — I have never wrestled anyone in this weight class. But that doesn’t scare me. If anything, that probably helps me out. No one knows what I feel like, my feel. So I’m going in there ready to take some names out.
5PM: You have a good amount of foreign experience by now, and there are several important areas they tend to do better and know more about than US guys — but at the same time, US guys are often better conditioned and in a lot of cases, better pummelers. What do you see as the middle ground in order to be successful internationally?
BH: Par terre is the name of the game. There is a whole strategy. The weights are always changing, the rules are always changing, and you can’t keep a hard-headed game plan when the whole match has changed. Right now, par terre is the game and it is something that I have been working on. Foreigners might not be as well-conditioned, but they know how to dance in Greco. They know how to pummel, look active, and get that passive call to get on top. That’s where the middle ground is, they are figuring out and coming up with game plans for how the rules are now. And if they change the rules after this Olympic Year, then they are going to adjust their game plans that way. That is something that I think I need to do because sometimes, I get caught up in thinking I need this takedown. Well, maybe I don’t. Maybe I need to pummel, control the match, get on top and get some points.
The middle ground is definitely par terre. Par terre is where the game is. You’re not always going to get that passive call, so your par terre defense has to be… When I go down, I create a whole nother match in my head. I feel like at Juniors, my par terre was outstanding. Not a lot of guys at Juniors could turn me and I was confident about that. Now going up to Senior and at a heavier weight, I do realize that I am a little smaller and maybe a little easier to lift, but it’s something I am working on. And I want to be that confident again going onto the Senior level. But par terre is definitely the middle ground.
5PM: I’m sure you’ve watched the Worlds this year. You have been around this sport a long time and were coached by an Olympian. Do you see par terre as the main thing separating the US program from returning to elite status globally?
BH: I would say yes to that. Par terre, I almost see it as a completely different match. You are either getting turned or lifted and tech’ed; or we’re getting two points and then going back to the feet and they’re doing the same dance without wasting a lot of energy, pummeling and controlling the match. Sometimes, maybe they are even getting that second passive. And, even if they are put down, they know they will still have their turn. Say it’s 3-1 now, and they know their defense from par terre is way better. I would say it is one of the things we need to focus on as a whole in the US. It is where we’re getting beat.
5PM: What are your immediate plans competitively? New York? Sweden? The Open in December?
BH: NYAC, that tournament will be the first thing I’m headed to. After that, I think I would like to go on the Russia trip. From guys who went last year, it was a good trip, good camp. Guys will come back not even know they are talking about it, but they say stuff like, Man, I felt like I could hang with all these guys on the feet, but once we got to par terre, I kept getting lifted and thrown, lifted and thrown… Any chance I can get to touch those guys and that par terre feel, I am ready to do it. I’d like to get to Russia and work on my par terre. Anything else, I’ll just be in the NMU/OTS room with Andy Bisek.
5PM: This is the dawn of your career still, but this is an important season. We talked about mentality and attitude, approach; you’re also stepping into a nice, deep weight class. What is your overall mindset going into this, the Olympic Year?
Britton Holmes: I’m not trying to think too far ahead. You can get yourself caught up that way. My goal right now is qualifying for the Olympic Trials, that is first and foremost. After I do that, then I will be creating my goals and my plan for the next step. But right now, I am headed to the Olympic Trials and giving myself a chance to get on that Olympic Team. These next tournaments are going to be big for me. I am ready to show up, put everything I’ve been working on into action, and leave it all out on the mat.
Follow Britton Holmes on Instagram to keep up with his career and competitive schedule.