There is good and bad that goes along with our 2018 Watchlist. The good: hopefully, it helps fans of the sport get to know the acknowledged athletes a little more prior to the most important points of the season (i.e., Nationals, World Team Trials). The bad: since those events are a long ways off and the calendar year itself includes a string of noteworthy tournaments each fall, the only way to discern this list’s accuracy is to wait until another 12 months has passed.
Then again, the purpose of The Watchlist is not intended to predict performance so much as shine a light on wrestlers who deserve your attention for various reasons. A few may appear to be on the cusp of a breakout, while others offer interesting backstories that could play a role in determining how they might fare once the action heats up in the spring. And with the new weight class alignment as well as the impending return of forced par terre, there are more ramifications ahead than usual, both for the undercover athletes fighting for notoriety and the familiar stars everyone is by and large familiar with.
Note: Part III of the 2018 Watchlist will be categorized according to weight class, not club/team affiliation.
2018 US GRECO-ROMAN WATCHLIST PART II
Benji Peak — 60 kg
You can’t get off to a much better start than Peak has. We call him “Mr. Fantastic” — he is all arms and legs it seems like. But it’s one thing to have long limbs and another to understand how to use them, and Peak does. He can get to the body from a distance and wrap around for an assortment of throws, headlocks, bodylocks, you name it. His length is even more of an advantage while he is still banging around in the lighter weight classes, though given his age (17), it’s an eventuality he moves up, especially with the weigh-in format changing. What you like most about Peak is not that he earned a gold and two bronze overseas already, despite how impressive that might be. Instead, it’s his competitiveness, his will to score. Peak is unafraid to make attempts regardless of in-match circumstances. So long as this approach doesn’t change anytime soon, neither will his stock price. 60 kilos at the Junior World Team Trials is going to be crowded, and he’s a primary reason why.
Britton Holmes — 67 kg
There is an argument to be made that Holmes is one of the most underrated young Greco athletes in the country. It’s an odd set of circumstances. Holmes got more notice last year countrywide while still in high school, due largely to his out-of-nowhere win at the 2016 Malar Cupen. That’s one tournament. Now a full-timer at Northern, Holmes is wrestling better, even if he hasn’t added more international hardware. For US fans, his biggest recent highlight might be the U23 World Team Trials, where he stormed back into the fray following a first-round loss to eventual champ Alex Sancho (NYAC/OTS) and then proceeded to run the table in the consolation bracket, a startling 9-2 decision over stout talent Lenny Merkin (NYAC) among his glitzier victories on the day. Holmes is just a bear with a competitive mean streak that has to be seen to be believed. He is a ferocious, determined come-forward type of worker who wears on opponents, and when it’s time to strike, he does. There will be other wrestlers getting more press leading to the Junior Trials, but counting this guy out would be downright foolish.
Colin Schubert — 72 kg
No one wears the “can’t-miss prospect” label as well as Schubert. Prior to 2016-17, what you had with the Wisconsinite was a very tough but overall raw work-in-progress. He could make things difficult for the higher-profile names, but ultimately, he wasn’t ready to step to that level yet — yet. As we embark on the remaining two-thirds of the new season, Schubert needs to very much be considered a top Senior. His fourth at the Trials in April was a revelation more because of how he went about his business than where he placed. He was a locomotive in spots, just chug-chug-chugging away before snapping off one brutally beautiful scoring sequence or another. He’s a grinder, but not in a way that suggests all he is good for is pummeling for passives. Schubert wants to impose his will so he can set up throws. That runner-up ending at the U23 Trials probably still sticks in his craw, but it is what happens in the Open later this spring that matters more.
Curt Calovecchi — 77 kg
It could be that things are starting to click for Calovecchi. Incremental improvement has been the order of the day for the Michigan native — solid showing here, a decent match there, and to watch him battle, even going back a couple of years, you could sense that there was more than simmering beneath the surface than what the results read. Maybe Andy Bisek has made a difference, maybe Northern’s room picking up is yielding benefits, or maybe Calovecchi is just beginning to come of age. Whatever the recipe is, it’s leading somewhere good. Calovecchi won the University Nationals last June, his first at any age group. To nail that one down required getting past NMU teammate Schubert. He then delivered one of his best performances to date at the U23 Trials, where his lone defeat came at the hands of Jesse Porter (NYAC/OTS), and he hung in there well the entire time. Calovecchi has some of that classical flow in his game and looks to doggedly fight for position so he can force openings. Also — and this is important — he has a great gas tank. Throw some more polish on the project and look out.
Carter Nielsen — 82 kg
After only roundabout 13 matches in his full-time Greco thus far, Nielsen has already provided compelling evidence that NMU has another future star in the room. Like most Northern wrestlers, he performed well in Rochester, dropping a close bout to Alex Meyer (HWC) in the quarters before grabbing revenge in the third-place bout. Three weeks later, Nielsen went 1-3 at the Klippan Cup, a result that is meaningless unless you actually watched his matches. His third bout that day was a criteria loss to Oskar Johansson (SWE), who was close to breaking. Six months from now, that kind of bout will be a tech win for Nielsen. This is a guy who gets what international competition calls for. He is relentless and up to this point has shown to be unflappable. Whenever there is a pause in the action, Nielsen is usually waiting to get started again immediately as if he doesn’t have time for breathers. An impressive silver at the Malar Cupen followed the Klippan, and the only shame in that is his matches weren’t streamed. A skilled bruiser who could go far in this sport, and maybe quicker than most expect.
Sammy Jones — 63 kg
A sprained ankle kept Jones from being able to compete at the World Team Trials in the spring, a definitive downer because he was a live candidate to make the National Team. A top-three slot would have represented a milestone for him, but he is just as much in the hunt this year with the new weight classes. A University World bronze medalist in 2014, Jones was forced to round into form at 59 kilos, a weight class that had been overstacked domestically and then some. Equal parts power and technique, Jones is the type of competitor who is at his best when chaining together attempts. He can go from one attack to another seamlessly, and with ordered par terre coming back he will have more opportunities to show off his straight lift, which is a thing of beauty. Most recently, Jones finished fourth at the Dave Schultz Memorial with a white-knuckle 5-4 victory over Mostafa Hassan Mohamed (EGY) serving as his most impressive bout. Provided he keeps sharp heading to the Open, his will once again be thought of as a fearsome contender.
Jesse Thielke — 63 kg
By all appearances, 63 should be the perfect fit for 2016 Olympian Thielke. We’re talking about a guy who has placed overseas at 66 — and found making 59 to be a challenge on occasion. Therefore, you would think 63 is right in his wheelhouse. Regardless of whichever weight Thielke occupies this year, it is all going to be about what happens on the mat. Shoulder surgery following Rio wound up derailing his momentum much more than he likely anticipated. If Thielke needs anything, it’s matches, just so he can re-establish his rhythm. One of the United States’ most gifted and explosive competitors, his is a skill-set predicated upon creating motion. There’s elegance in what Thielke does. His ability to set up transitions is nearly unrivaled and few can pile up scores the way he can. The Schultz last month saw Thielke drop an odd 5-2 decision to Mohamed on Day 1, but the American was back to his old tricks the rest of the way, going virtually untouched en-route to third. That is the Thielke fans remember. When he’s on, he is undoubtedly a World-level threat.
Alex Sancho — 67 kg
Seen by many observers as a legit medal favorite at the U23 World Championships, Sancho instead fell in his only bout of the day. Over a month later, it still haunts him. That is reason enough to include him on this list, seeing how he will respond once the crunch time domestic tournaments re-enter the horizon. But there is more going on here than just that. Despite a few events where he went 71, Sancho hasn’t had a whole lot of trouble making 66 throughout his career and now with an extra kilo, he might feel better than ever. That is good news for him, especially since chief rival Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) is also looking forward to the added cushion in the weight class. By now, everyone understands what Sancho is about. Simply put, he is one of the country’s most capable weapons against foreigners. Sancho knows this, and that is why he so badly wants another shot at a World event as soon as possible. But before that happens, it will be intriguing to see what he does in the meantime. If he is looking to prove a point to himself and everyone else, the matches in between will matter, too.
RaVaughn Perkins — 72 kg
For as massive as Perkins looked in November, it’s still hard to believe he can function a full two weight classes up from where he has done his best work. Perkins didn’t appear to be huge for 66 kilograms when he won the World Team Trials in 2014. Two years later, he displayed a little more thickness in his frame, nothing to go crazy over. But following his recovery from a spinal fracture, Perkins sized up by hitting the weight room a little more and the result was noticeable instantly. Last winter, the Omaha native committed to 71 and performed admirably, netting his second straight gold at the Schultz along with a bronze in Croatia. The heavier weight class agreed with him, and both his strength and length still showed up in matches. Just entering his mid-20’s, Perkins is going to enter most events at the new 72 but will also leap up to 77 on occasion in preparation for the Olympic Year. He’ll no doubt be focusing on the ’18 Trials given his history and that extra kilo will likely go a long way towards easing some of that burden. (A previous version of this preview listed Perkins at 77 kilograms.)