Prior to last month’s CISM Military World Wrestling Championships in Klaipeda, Lithuania, we ran an interview with Air Force Greco athlete Brandon Mueller (71 kg). If you’re just catching up, Mueller, 26, is still semi-new to Greco-Roman, despite growing up in Wisconsin, one of the style’s regional hotbeds for the US. In fact, Mueller just recently began his second full year of Senior-level competition, picking up whatever lessons he can as he tries to play catch-up.
Even with that, he has managed to make an impression. No, he hasn’t surged to the top of the rankings just yet. That’s tough to do when you are as fresh as Mueller is and unable to train and compete on a full-time basis. You see, Mueller is a physicist of some such variety in the US Air Force and holds numerous important work responsibilities which preclude him from being able to just stop what he’s doing so he can hit the mats. That’s his lifestyle: work, work, train; work, work, compete. But in what is still a limited sample size, Mueller has made the most of his chances thanks to a very physical, charged-up pace and loads of apparent natural ability that has plenty of others beginning to take notice.
Due to Michael Hooker (75 kg, Army/WCAP) going up in weight over the summer, Mueller was tabbed to take his spot at the CISM Worlds on fairly short notice, where he went 0-2. But look at who his two opponents were — 2015 World bronze medalist Adam Kurak (RUS) and 2014 World bronze medalist Afshin Byabangard (IRI, world no. 8). Mueller dropped both bouts by a combined six points against two of the most accomplished wrestlers in the entire tournament. It’s probably not the brightest idea to get too worked up over a pair of close losses, but when you consider that Mueller is a) still a neophyte and b) has to piece together his training regimen, it is hard not to sense that he’s onto something with this whole Greco thing.
Since we covered his entry into the CISM Worlds, a follow-up with Mueller seemed in order to get his insights on what happened in Lithuania, how he felt before, after, and to see what his competitive plans are going forward.
Brandon Mueller — 71 kg, Air Force
5PM: The day before the CISM Worlds, at the weigh-in, for instance, does the gravity of the situation settle in? Do you have butterflies?
Brandon Mueller: I was wrestling pretty late in the week, so I was still okay. There were times throughout the week when I’d get a little nervous and then I’d calm back down. Like when I got my gear order with my USA singlets, things like that where it would feel like, Okay, this is the real deal. But then it lulled out a little bit because I had a few days there and then I’m just focusing on weight management.
It really set in at weigh-ins, Now it’s here, and then I started focusing and getting some chills, that sort of thing. But at that point, I still didn’t know who I had competition-wise, either. I was just, I know I’m going to have good guys. When I found out who I had, I was like, Okay, now I really need to be ready to go.
5PM: Before you found out exactly what your draw was, did you have a general idea about the names of the guys who were going to be in your bracket?
BM: No, and even if I would have, I don’t follow the UWW (United World Wrestling) rankings close enough and I don’t know the history of Greco well enough. I haven’t been doing it that long. Before the tournament, I wouldn’t have even known who Kurak was (laughs). I mean, right? So, that’s the way it is. But you expect there to be a handful of guys who are going to be real studs in the bracket and you don’t know how it’s going to line up. I didn’t know if it was going to be drawing numbers at first, I just assumed I was going to have the best guy first. I’m the bottom seed, I’m going to have the best guy first. But it wasn’t like that, but yet it was. Someone was like, “You’re the bottom seed.” No, I’m the 12th seed. Kurak is the bottom seed, he’s 13th. So I was joking with people on that end.
With the way I’ve been warming up lately, I’ve been feeling really good first-round at tournaments, so I feel like I maybe have an edge first-round, which is the polar opposite of where I was earlier in my career. So I felt like, This is a great opportunity, I’ve got a great guy first-round and the opportunity to knock him off. That was my mindset before I even knew who I had.
5PM: Obviously, you received an education as to who Kurak is now. You did mention the prospect of facing a Russian before harkening back to your tournament in Estonia.
BM: I did an interview with the Air Force paper beforehand. They asked me my goals and stuff. I don’t really know, I guess pin a Russian or something. And I did pin the Russian, so it was pretty funny I thought (laughs).
5PM: With Kurak, at least up until you wrestled the next match, you were going against the most accomplished wrestler you ever faced. There really isn’t footage of the bout…
BM: I took him down and was winning 3-1 and I blew it (laughs).
5PM: Walk through it a little if you don’t mind.
Brandon Mueller: My coach Nathaniel (Augustson), he scouted him a bit. He knew Kurak was going to be a left leg lead, so we kind of angled off. I was like, This is going to be a good thing, because Nathaniel is a left leg lead and I practice with him quite a lot, more so than a normal wrestler probably because every day it’s a left leg lead. We worked on that, he showed me a couple of positions he likes. We worked on arm drags, we worked on underhooks, this, that, and the other.
I started moving him (Kurak) and we were battling for position a lot, but I got the first passivity call and then we were going back-and-forth. It was 1-0 and then 1-1. He ended up getting double underhooks on me and I was pushing into the zone. So I’m staggered-stance and battling for position, but I’m right on the edge and I’m just telling myself, Okay, be smart here, step out if I have to. Don’t get tossed. They’re yelling Action to Kurak, so he tried a throw-by and I turn it into a bit of a scramble and get the takedown as we went out of bounds.
I wish I had video of how that ended up because he had me pretty dead-to-rights on the edge of the mat with double underhooks, but somehow I scrambled into a takedown. After that, I was like, Oh my God, I’m winning 3-1 against a pretty good guy, and I think that was maybe a little inexperience, getting a little over-excited there. I just told myself, Keep the pace up and keep wearing this guy down, because I was moving him around quite a bit.
But I think I got a little over-excited there and it caused me to push too much. And he did this move where I’m on top of his forearm and he chucks it by like a limp arm, and he got a gut off of it. Then later in the match, he got a throw-by that actually worked from double underhooks. So he got two, two, and two again, that’s six total points there. But I think if I had wrestled smarter and calmed down a little bit there, I would have had a better opportunity.
The whole second period, I just couldn’t open him up. He was really slippery and I was reaching around. I wish I had a better high dive because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was going for these positions and then they would put me into bad underhooks and I would have to battle my way out of it. I talked with Ryan Mango (Army/WCAP, who silvered in freestyle at the event) a little about it and he was saying I need to go around the side a little bit more just because he was angling off so much that there was no way I was going to dig an underhook with the way his body was positioned. So it was a unique look that I just couldn’t find any offense to get into it for that whole second period. I was just grinding, grinding, grinding. I think by the end of that he didn’t want to be on the mat with me anymore, but either way, he stopped me from scoring (laughs).
5PM: Byabangard was another close one.
BM: I don’t know, maybe I have to get a little more offense, maybe I have to get a little more patient. When he got the takedown, they gave him a lot of time in par terre. The week beforehand, I was getting chucked in the Army room from par terre bottom. Somehow, he had a gutwrench he almost got, he switched sides on the gut and almost got it, he went to a reverse lift and I stopped that, and then he went to a front headlock and they stood us up. But I couldn’t believe I made it that long. That was my proudest technique moment, or maybe my most taking-pain moment, but I was pretty worried going into the tournament there.
5PM: Relatively speaking, it’s like you’re a dude at this tournament who isn’t supposed to be there. You’re an underdog kind of a guy…
BM: Who didn’t really qualify, I lost to Hooker.
5PM: But knowing you just hung in there with these guys, with your circumstances, are your crushed and disappointed afterwards?
Brandon Mueller: It’s hard to feel great after losing two matches and you’ll tell yourself, Oh, but they were good wrestlers and I did wrestle well, but there were points where I could have wrestled better. There is still that thing, I could have wrestled better there, maybe if I wrestled smarter at the beginning of that second half of the first period, I would have had an opportunity in the second half to win it. So there is a little bit of that what if?, but I try not to be too hard on myself. The fact that I got a takedown, the fact that I got the first point on him, as well, I think that was exciting. It’s bittersweet, I guess. There’s some good, some bad.
5PM: To me, you’ve been in this sport a short period of time, you’re not even a true full timer, and you go in there and wrestle two consistently successful, well-known foreigners back-to-back and you lost by a combined six points. Does that tell you something?
BM: I think one of the things that I really took home was that they didn’t feel too much differently than anyone else I’ve ever wrestled. It wasn’t like, Oh my God, these guys are so much better than me. It didn’t feel like there was a giant cliff I had to get over to beat those guys. It was like, Okay, that’s the difference between me and them? That’s a difference I can maybe get over.
5PM: You return home and I would assume life and your responsibilities with the Air Force once again take over. How soon after you arrived in the US did you get back on the mat?
BM: I got back and I had a work trip for three days later, I knew I was going to be gone for that, so I got back in the room for two practices right away and then I was gone for about a week. And now, I’ve been kind of going just as much as I can. Maybe I would have taken a longer break, but the Dave Schultz Memorial is so close and I knew I was going to be gone in LA this week, and in LA I have no training partners. I have an old (Air Force) Academy buddy here, so maybe we’re going to do the whole Rocky/Apollo thing on the beach (laughs). I’ll see if he’s into that, but it’s hard to get in a room here, there’s just not a lot of Greco in this area.
I’m texting around to see what I have because it’s like, There’s a month in there I’ll still be in shape, but it’s a new weight class, and plus, there are a couple of technique points I want to work on that I saw over there (in Lithuania). So I’ve been as consistent as I could be around my work schedule since coming back. I really want to go to the finals or win the Schultz, so I’m pretty motivated to train right now.
5PM: That’s where I wanted to go next, you have a decently quick turnaround between events. Was Schultz something that was on your radar anyway even before the Worlds?
BM: Well, the Bill Farrell was on my radar and then the Schultz was definitely on my radar. Because originally, I though the WCAP applications were in December, so I wanted an opportunity to show that I’m competing leading up to it, and have a good opportunity to get that fall tournament in. Then they switched the Bill Farrell and the Schultz tournaments, and I was like, This is even better, because I live in Albuquerque and it’s just a small thing. What I’m actually doing this time, since it’s expensive to fly from Albuquerque to Green Bay, I’m just going to fly from the Schultz to home two weeks before Thanksgiving. It’ll be $90 instead of $800 or whatever I spent last time.
5PM: The schedule for events this year is different from the past couple of years. Given your profession, your career, and everything else, how are you planning on fashioning your approach to competition this season?
BM: Obviously, I want to be National Team, so top-three at Trials and then the Open leading up to that. I’m looking at the schedule, I have to do Armed Forces and Estonia seems like a good tournament in the middle. I felt good at that camp and then at the competition, so it’s a pretty quick three or four weeks: Armed Forces, Estonia, and the Senior Nationals. That’s basically what I’m looking at there. The Schultz is an opportunity for me to experiment with this new weight class and get used to it. I don’t know what they are going to do at Armed Forces, if they are going to have me wrestling freestyle and if we have to weigh in twice, if we get an allowance, I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen. But at least getting a ballpark answer of, Is 72 the weight class I can do a second weigh in at?, and that’s something I can learn from at this point. And if I need more time to adjust, I have until the middle or end of February.
I was looking at some other tournaments in December, or maybe doing a camp in December. It’s not a lot of time to get up to a new weight class if I had to and plus, with work it’d be harder, also. That’s another factor. I did kind of want a little bit of a slowdown after these tournaments, so a couple of weeks off in November would be nice.
5PM: You might not have stepped on the podium in Lithuania…
BM: I took tenth on criteria. Out of 13 (laughs).
5PM: But at the same time, did you imagine as short as 22 months ago that not only are you competing, but that you have turned into a viable competitor people have to pay attention to?
BM: It’s a bit of a shock. Like you said, going to Lithuania it was like, Am I someone who belongs here? Well, I’m scoring on guys who are top in the world, so that’s an exciting thing to see. Sometimes it’s, Wow, I got wrestle two World bronze medalists. That’s awesome, that is an awesome opportunity. And then it is, I actually competed with both of them, and that is even cooler. It is kind of in and out, Oh my God, that’s an amazing thing, and then I forget about it, get busy, or I’m frustrated working on a new technique or something, and then it comes back — This is worth it, this is something I can be good at. Something like that.
5PM: I would think it’s not a stretch that your competitive expectations have been raised.
Brandon Mueller: Yes. Yeah, you have to move the goalposts each time you advance. Originally, two years ago, it was, Can we place top seven? Can we qualify for Trials? Can we All-American, can we keep moving forward? Now at this point, I don’t see why I can’t be top-three in the country, I don’t see why I can’t be number one in the country. Beyond that, why can’t I get on these podiums at international tournaments? I’ll take it day by day. If I can put the right time into it and I can stay healthy, I don’t think it’s impossible.
Follow Brandon Mueller on Twitter to keep up with his career and competitive schedule.