When it comes to the price of admission, all you care about is getting your money’s worth. With 71 kilograms at the 2017 US Greco-Roman World Team Trials, that’s exactly what you’re going to get and quite possibly, a whole lot more.
71 kilograms for this tournament is a trident. There are three athletes who own current, relevant credentials. Chris Gonzalez (NYAC) is the reigning World Team member, having won his spot in November prior to the first-ever Non-Olympic Weight World Championships. Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) sealed the deal in December to secure his first Senior National title. And RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) won the Olympic Trials last April. It’s somewhat unusual circumstances to have three wrestlers, two of them World-level team members in the same calendar year, along with a National champ (who has been a finalist at other Trials, no less) all packed in the same bracket. The situation is important enough to where technically, it is holding up the finalized roster for the Pan Ams next week in Brazil.
2017 US Greco-Roman World Team Trials Preview – 71 kg
Let them settle it like men
Perkins is the only one of the three who holds a very important distinction — he’s been through the wringer twice to come away victorious. The native Nebraskan won the World Team Trials in 2014 only to miss out on the World Championships due to his ingestion of a diuretic. Redemption arrived in Iowa City last year. Perkins ran the table, defeating friend and onetime rival Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) in the semifinals before overcoming Smith in the best-of-three final. They had met numerous times previously, but on the grand stage the Olympic Trials represents, the vibe was naturally different. Smith won the first bout on the strength of two opportunistic step-outs before Perkins took the last two matches in a row. In the third match, Smith locked Perkins up for a lift that was countered when Perkins adjusted his own hips and scrambled to reverse position and put Smith on his back. Exhilarating for Perkins, heartbreaking for Smith.
Perkins then nearly secured his spot on the Olympic Team at the 1st World Qualifier in Mongolia, advancing all the way to the match for true-third. There he lost to one-time World bronze Edgaras Venckaitis (LTU). That meant a last-ditch attempt at the 2nd World Qualifier in Istanbul. Perkins started off well, winning his first two matches. A loss to eventual qualifier Ruslan Tsarev (KGZ) ended his bid early.
Not that excuses play into these things — the sport demands that if you’re healthy enough to step on the mat you should be healthy enough to win. But a spinal fracture isn’t exactly a stubbed toe, and Perkins was wrestling with the former. After doing his best to serve as a workout partner for the 2016 US Olympic Team, Perkins was put on the shelf following his diagnosis. An initial comeback at the 2016 Non-Olympic Trials was halted, as Perkins still wasn’t deemed healthy enough to compete. But he came back for the Schultz and shut down the field for his second consecutive win at the tournament.
Perkins then went overseas with the rest of the vast US Greco-Roman contingent in March and participated in two events. The first was the Thor Masters Invitational in Denmark and a 2-2 record on the day. A week later at the Grand Prix Zagreb Open, Perkins delivered a very strong performance. Aside from a loss to German stud Dominic Etlinger, the 24-year-old was practically lights out, accumulating a 3-1 record and a 15-1 point differential in his three victories to go along with a bronze medal.
All three of the top contenders at 71 kilograms have a following, but Smith is beloved for different reasons. His consistency is one factor. Smith has been a Trials finalist on numerous occasions and has been a serious, serious contender at every domestic event he’s entered for several years. The other side of the Smith popularity equation is his style. It is completely devoid of pretense. Smith works for every single position every second of a match. He tirelessly comes forward and in the past, it was pressure alone that he relied on the most. But as time has gone on, Smith has learned how to use his pressure to force opponents into making bad decisions. When he capitalizes on these miscues, there may not be another wrestler in the country who can mercilessly take advantage of them as well as he does.
The aforementioned Olympic Trials loss was certainly a downer for Smith — he was right there with the gifted Perkins every step of the way. After the summer, Smith began prepping for November’s Trials in New York City. It was a significantly deep field, the unusual circumstances dictated as such. 66 kilo stalwarts Coleman and Alex Sancho (NYAC-OTS) were there, as was Gonzalez, who is much more suited for 71 than he ever was 66. In their semifinal match-up, Gonzalez took advantage of a rare Smith mistake and threw him to the mat for a surprising pin. Smith would wind up finishing third.
From there on out, he’s been a busy man. At the Golden Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, Smith lost his first and only bout. But a week and half later at the World Wrestling Clubs Cup in Hungary, the Chaska, Minnesota resident bounced back in a big way. Smith went 3-2 in Budapest, and was the only US wrestler outside of G’Angelo Hancock (98 kg, NYAC, world no. 18) to finish the five dual meets with a winning record. A week after that, Smith powered through the 71 kilogram bracket in Las Vegas to pick up his first National championship.
Smith then went over to Sweden for both training and some college coursework. He got on the mat at the Paris International in January and didn’t fare too well, losing in his only bout of the day. But yet again, he managed to rebound. At Denmark’s Thor Masters in March, Smith lost his first match but won the next three, which included a win over Sancho to nail down bronze. His two and a half month stay in Sweden now complete, Smith is back in the States training with his team, the Minnesota Storm.
Whereas Perkins and Smith are established, successful Seniors, Gonzalez, admittedly, is pretty green in terms of his overall career. Weight plays a role in that. For the Olympic year of 2016, Gonzalez made a concerted effort to enter the argument at 66 kilograms. That was not a good weight for him, especially considering it probably forced him to focus more on cutting than honing in on his technique. At 71, he is an altogether different human. The contrast is eye-popping. Go ahead — watch video of Gonzalez at 66 and compare what you see with how he has looked at 71, particularly at November’s Trials. He’s so athletic that he was able to put forth a good effort nonetheless, but there has been way more vitality evident in his approach at this weight.
Gonzalez has been a fixture for some years dating back to his time at Northern, though while there, his development was hindered by various issues off the mat. He is now a grown man who tackles Greco-Roman wrestling like his profession. The results? If you push off to the side last year’s exploits at 66 (which for all intents and purposes, weren’t that bad by any stretch), you see a complete, dangerous athletic freak who is capable of just as much, if not more, than everyone else in this weight class. That does not mean his overall wrestling ability surpasses his prime competitors. But if a match is close and the action picks up, things could definitely veer in his direction.
To earn his place at the 2016 World Championships, Gonzalez and Sancho engaged in a brutal three-round tug-of-war. Offensive points were at a premium and given Sancho’s incredible balance and miles and miles of heart, he was able to give his former NMU teammate fits in every exchange. But Gonzalez was a tick better, winning the series two matches to one. The World Championships a month later did not just mean Gonzalez’s first Worlds, it also meant his first overseas event of any kind. He impressed more in his two matches there than he maybe even did in New York City. Gonzalez won his first-ever international match against Flip Dubsky (CZE) via tech fall. In his next bout, he was in control heading into the second period. Up 2-0 over Ilie Cocojari (ROU), Gonzalez yielded a passivity point and a step-out in the latter stages of the bout to fall on criteria 2-2. For his part, Cocojari would eventually bronze.
The one hiccup on Gonzalez’s surge was not his doing. A bilateral hernia he had been dealing with for years required his attention. The proceeding operation put him on the sidelines for most of the winter, causing him to miss out on the March European tour. Though some more matches overseas might have served him well leading up to Las Vegas, Gonzalez could actually benefit more from the extended training block. Since he hasn’t been forced to travel and make weight, more time has been spent armoring up for this important event.
Could one of the top three fall early and throw this whole thing into chaos? For sure. Especially this year. But at the very least, these three are the projected National Team, in whatever order.
Also in the running
Anthonie Linares (NYAC-OTS) “Twinkie” will be in the above group eventually. Kind of like Gonzalez, you can chart Linares’ progression. Most recently, Linares lost out to Sancho at last year’s University Nationals. He won the year before that. In November, he entered the Non-Olympic Trials and showed some grit there. In the consolation semis, it took an Ellis Coleman criteria decision to knock him out of medal contnetion. Linares was on his game at the US Open in December. A technical fall win over Brad Dolezal (Minnesota Storm) and an entertaining victory against Chase Nelson (BWC) put him in the finals against Smith. He didn’t prevail there, but his overall day was a step up. The Schultz was just as impressive. Linares won his first, lost to Japanese prospect Shogo Takahashi, and then powered through the consolation bracket, taking out Je Frim Sambula (HON) 4-1.
Linares, lik most, is better with his head up. When he sticks to staying chest-to-chest and can use his legs to create angles off his ties, he can be an offensive machine. So long as he doesn’t wrestle hesitantly, expect to see him advance.
Chase Nelson (Bison) Nelson carries with him varying levels of success in both college and freestyle, and you can see it in how he wrestles. He wants to chain moves together. One thing holding him up a little is that he does not explode into exchanges. Nelson paws his way into tie-ups a little too often for someone who is trying to score, which he is. It’s not him being passive but likely, more the result of needing more seasoning. Once he develops a taste for hard contact at all times, a new world will open up to him. A strong all-around effort at the US Open in December saw Nelson take third, with two of his victories coming against the now-retired Marco Lara (Army/WCAP). Assuming he has put a focus on improvement, Nelson’s performance in Vegas might make for an interesting storyline depending on where he ends up.
Cody Pack (Legends of Gold) All the ability is there. Pack is one of the new breed who wants to play an open style but is stuck trying to navigate his way through what is often a grinding, pummel-happy era of Greco. Because of this, he is apt to give up points. Like a fighter who needs to take some punches in order to give some. When Pack has an opponent on his level who is willing to meet him halfway, he’s an aggressive scorer. He’s always willing to go big. Older, more battled-hardened competitors are going to give him problems. However good he may be offensively, they are better defensively. But that will change. Once his game is more balanced, Pack could likely be an elite name for years to come. Most recently, Pack went 1-2 at the Bill Farrell/Non-Olympic Trials and followed up that effort with a top six showing at the Nationals.
Logan Kass (NMU-OTS) One of Northern’s meanest up-and-comers, Kass is a strong, patient workhorse who still has plenty of room for growth. He also flies under the radar compared to some of his more well-known teammates up in Marquette. The curious thing about that is the fact Kass is beginning to show signs he may just have as high of a ceiling as the other guys. Reaction is an area where he stands out. Kass pounces angrily on openings and is never content to let the action simmer down. With age will come refinement and he’ll be able to turn transitional positions into chain scores against stiffer competition. He’s also had himself a very good year thus far, with a gold at the Austrian Open and a silver at the Malar Cupen in Sweden. Kass is winding down as a Junior, so the next rung of the ladder is staring him in the face. How he responds with a heavy workload this week will be something to watch.
Brandon Mueller (Air Force) Wisconsin native Mueller is another service member at the World Team Trials who if given a full-time opportunity to train, would probably be considered a viable contender here. Since that isn’t the case just yet, Mueller has only been able to make appearances at the Armed Forces Championships the last couple of years where he has hung in there with some of the country’s best talent. Even with limited time to train, there just aren’t many deficiencies here, suggesting a natural flair for Greco-Roman competition. Mueller keeps his base to pummel in effectively, hits throw-by’s that rival most competitors, and has shown he will continuously attack the body. He is someone you want to see more of and maybe one day, you will. For now, Mueller’s assignment is to try and play spoiler, a task he is likely more than up for.