This place is like a minefield.
75 kilograms at the 2017 US Greco-Roman World Team Trials, set for next weekend in Las Vegas, has everything going for it. There are hyper-talented Juniors, established Seniors, big scorers, and technically-sound rabble-rousers at each corner of the bracket. It’s survival of the fittest event for all of the wrestlers at the Trials. But when it comes to 75 kilos, turbulence is not a potentiality — it’s an eventuality. At least for most.
We all know where the brunt of the talk is going to be directed towards — 19-year-old phenom Kamal Bey (Sunkist, world no. 18), his chief rival, fellow youth powerhouse Jesse Porter (NYAC-OTS), and multiple-time National Team member Kendrick Sanders (NYAC-OTS). Any two of those three are largely expected to comprise the best-of-three final to decide who will represent the United States at the World Championships in Paris, though Bey is the presumed overall favorite. There’s a reason for that, which we’ll get to.
But just like every other weight division, there are plenty of opportunities for chaos and it won’t just be the three above who might be responsible for it.
2017 US Greco-Roman World Team Trials Preview — 75 kg
It’s scary in here
At this point, it’s almost difficult to keep up with what Bey has accomplished over the last year. There was the Junior World Team Trials (where he defeated Porter two matches to one); the advancement to another Fargo final (which he bowed out of due to injury); a 1-1 mark at the Junior Worlds; his first Senior gold at the Bill Farrell Memorial; a 2-2 ledger at the World Wrestling Clubs Cup; his first Senior National title (another victory over Porter, this one a quick tech); his first Dave Schultz Memorial title (and another victory over Porter, but this time it came late); gold at the Austrian Junior Open; and a bronze at the Grand Prix Zagreb Open. Everyone wanted to see what Bey would do with a full slate of Senior competition to go along with his exploits on the Junior level and the results have been stunning. So, yeah…good luck with all that.
But the biggest compliment to Bey is that he isn’t a favorite because a) of his recently acquired credentials or b) simply because Geordan Speiller (Florida Jets, world no. 9) went up to 80. It has a lot more to do with what you witness out of him regularly. Bey is, without hyperbole, one of the three or four most physically gifted Greco-Roman athletes in the country and best of all, he wrestles like he knows it. That means he is confident enough to repeatedly try and score big and almost always goes in for the kill as soon as it’s available. He’s hard to stop once he gets moving and the thing about that is, he gets moving very quickly.
Porter owns a win over Bey at last year’s Junior World Team Trials and came fairly close to seizing another one at February’s Schultz. Two other wrestlers here, Alec Ortiz (Minnesota Storm) and Dillon Cowan (Army/WCAP) also came away with wins over Bey in 2016. Bey avenged his defeat to Ortiz in December at the US Nationals but has yet to meet up with Cowan a second time. Nevertheless, one thing is clear — who this kid was in ’16, which was impressive enough at the time, isn’t all that close to who he is now. And he’s only 19.
Outside of Bey and 98 kilo star G’Angelo Hancock (NYAC, world no. 18), Porter is the best young Greco-Roman wrestler in the US. There are few discernible differences in the skill-sets of Bey and Porter. Both are big throwers, both have an innate understanding of transition moves, and neither seems to wear down in competition. Bey is noticeably more aggressive — that one is obvious. Also, Bey has faced a higher caliber of opposition in the early going of his career, but that’s not Porter’s fault. And it’s not like Porter is some kind of hesitant attacker, he definitely isn’t. But he does have a tendency to let things unfold a little bit before he goes on the offensive, whereas Bey is a sprinter. Thus far, Bey has a greater level of comfort giving up points and position, but who could blame him?
In the Schultz final, Porter did a terrific job of tying up Bey to counter the latter’s strong underhooks. Eventually, this led to an overhook and a two-point arm throw that at the time, loomed very large deep into the second period. Later, Bey went for a headlock he whiffed on and Porter was initially awarded two points. Following a challenge, the call was white paddled, Porter’s lead was still 3-1, and Bey came back with just under a minute left with a counter four off of another Porter arm throw attempt, and that was it.
So if you would like to go back to their most recent meeting, the argument could be made that Porter has closed the gap. That would be a reasonable perception. But it is very hard to do a comparative analysis with two young studs who have taken somewhat different roads at this stage in their respective careers. There are very few areas where Porter doesn’t excel and so long as he sticks to his strengths, which are patience and super-fast transitions, he could find himself stealing the spotlight more than once this week.
Bey and Porter are the hot names, but Kendrick Sanders shouldn’t be taking a backseat to anyone. In fact, it’s a safe bet that it is Sanders who is actually the favorite in many people’s eyes and rightfully so. Ever since he arrived on the Senior level roundabout six years ago, the Florida native has remained, every step of the way, one of the most talented and yet, most confounding athletes in the sport. He is aware of this. Sanders has won virtually every meaningful domestic tournament at one time or another, except for one — the World Team Trials. By his own admission, retired great Harry Lester played a role in his inability to make a team, but that isn’t the whole story. Part of Sanders’ issue are his unreal gifts. The guy is a complete wrestler, probably the most complete wrestler here. There is nothing he cannot do or hasn’t done on a competitive mat.
But with unbelievable talent comes expectations and those expectations haven’t been met just yet. Why? Did it come too easy for him? Possibly. A new leaf has been turned. At 26 years of age, Sanders is entering into the prime of his career and maturity comes with that. It also bears mentioning that while Bey has faced stiffer competition than Porter at this point, Sanders has faced tougher competition than everyone else during his time on the circuit. That means something at events like this.
Now, Porter did score an exciting win against Sanders in the Nationals semifinals. It cannot be ignored. Eight of Porter’s 11 points in that bout came from throws. That, too, can’t just be shuffled to the side. Even still, Sanders was in that thing the entire time and since we don’t know what happens between these two in the wrestling room in Marquette, it’s hard to put so much stock into one official match. Sanders insists he is a different person than he was in December, that he is motivated and focused. If that is true, and he’s out there Saturday with a point to prove, then the proverbial glass ceiling Sanders has been waiting to break may very well come crashing down. Finally.
Also in the running
Michael Hooker (Army/WCAP) Hooker is a for-real talent who has given some of the best wrestlers in this country fits thanks to his balanced skill-set. He just moves around so easily and explodes through moves on a moment’s notice. Everyone remembers Hooker’s upset win over Bryce Saddoris (Marines) at last year’s Olympic Trials. But following that event, Hooker had a torn labrum that required surgery. He was out for awhile and came back in February where he swept through the Armed Forces Championships. Usually a 71 kilo guy, he’s back up to 75 for the first time in quite a while. He’s not going to be the biggest, strongest or fastest on Saturday, but that’s okay. Hooker is too good to be ignored and might find himself in position to make some noise just the same.
Dillon Cowan (Army/WCAP) Cowan is a former Open finalist and consistently in contention wherever he is. He obviously didn’t have the National tournament of his life back in December, but that was a whacky tournament for a lot of other folks, too. One of the cleanest technicians in the game, Cowan is able to execute at a different level than most when/if he’s ticking right. He rebounded with a really strong showing at the Dave Schultz, taking third. Cowan looked back to his old self there, for sure. He also won all of his matches at the Armed Forces Championships, which included a gutsy defeat of John Stefanowicz (Marines) in one of the more entertaining domestic bouts so far in 2017.
Alec Ortiz (Minnesota Storm) A crowd-pleasing competitor if there ever was one, Ortiz is both helped and hurt by his approach. He wrestles an open style and would likely be much more successful battling it out with Europeans on a regular basis rather than being stuck doing his bidding against domestic foes. En-route to his fourth place finish at the Nationals, Ortiz and Cowan engaged in one of the best matches of the year, a 21-14 slugfest that went the Storm wrestler’s way. At February’s Schultz, Ortiz was quickly defeated by Porter in the semis and then Cowan got him back for December’s histrionics with a 10-7 consolation-semi win.
Mason Manville (Army/WCAP) Manville sustained an injury early on in 2017 which prevented him from being able to travel overseas as part of the big March European Tour the US Greco-Roman program embarked on and it would have been nice for him to get those matches in. Everyone knows Manville from his age-group success and that ability is still simmering beneath the surface as a Senior. It needs to be unlocked. Manville as a Senior Greco-Roman competitor displays flashes of brilliance at times, hesitation and frustration others. He seems caught in between a lot. It’s like watching a boxer holding back and the corner says, “Let your hands go!” When Manville is assertive, he’s a different wrestler. Let them hands go.
Corey Fitzgerald (NMU-OTS) Fitzgerald started off the 2016-17 campaign with a silver medal at the Eduardo Campbell Cup in Panama. After that, it was a trip to Sweden for some matches and training, and then the Nationals came about. Fitzgerald qualified by virtue of placing fifth and defeating fellow young but lesser-experienced opponents, which is exactly what his job description dictates at this still very-early phase of his Senior development. Just don’t underestimate him — Fitzgerald is quick and strong. Very strong. When he gets his hips in and takes command of the tie-ups, he is dangerous. As he progresses, he might be downright deadly. Fitzgerald isn’t supposed to do much in this event, but he could very well spoil someone else’s day.