The Baker family out of Illinois, well, they like headlocks. A lot of headlocks. The father, Robert, a well-known age-group coach in what is a state well-known for producing age-group studs, passed on his love for the headlock to his sons. They know other maneuvers in that household. If you’ve watched the boys compete, you know that. Older brother Nelson Baker (60 kg), a creative, frenetic scorer throughout his career, could lean on any variety of techniques before whamming an opponent with what the Bakers refer to as “The Great Equalizer” (yes, a headlock). Nolan Baker (67 kg, NIRTC), the hulking hustler who earned a spot on the 2018 US U23 World Team last month, can squeeze the life of out of his on-the-mat adversaries with bodylocks and gutwrenches, although to be fair, he RSVP’d to the big dance by delivering a series of…headlocks.
They love ’em. They really do, the Bakers.
Imagine how arguments get settled in that house. Do they just square off? What is Christmas like over there? Do they greet each other by roping an arm around the neck and whipping loved ones to the floor?
Whatever the familial norms for the Bakers may look like, the spotlight now shines brightest on 19-year-old Nolan. Always a tough competitor on the age-group circuit, Baker was a two-time high school state champ and a multi-time Fargo Greco All-American. But even with all that, he was not someone most had their eyes on entering the U23 Trials. Baker himself was unsure of what to expect entering the tournament. Didn’t matter. One-by-one they fell, three stout, experienced competitors. Baker began his day with a jolting pin over NMU’s Britton Holmes; he then made quick work of 2017 University National Champion Wesley Dawkins (GEWC); and closed out his already-impressive performance by defeating two-time Cadet/2017 Junior World Team member Dominick Demas (OKRTC) two matches to one in their best-of-three finals series. Of Baker’s four wins in Akron, two were pins and two came via tech (including one of each against Demas).
Baker has had about a month to digest what he accomplished, and even more importantly, what he will need to focus on as he prepares for the biggest tournament of his life some four months and change from now. He runs the fine line between “can’t-help-it” humility and unapologetic confidence. Baker is like a boxer who knows there is serious power in his fists and that just one of his punches could end a fight. With how destructive he looked in Akron for Round 1, plenty of folks are really looking forward to what he has in store for Round 2 this coming November at the U23 World Championships in Bucharest, Romania.
Nolan Baker — 67 kg, NIRTC
5PM: What did your preparation for the U23 World Team Trials entail?
Nolan Baker: Well, after the NCAA’s we kept training and then we had a week or two off at the end of school to just go home and relax. After that, we came back and trained five days a week, commuting from my house back up to Northern (Illinois University). I was lifting three, four, five times a week and wrestling four times. It was pretty rigorous in that we were practicing almost harder at the NIRTC than we did during the season, or at least it felt like that because it was summer and we were grinding. But we were wrestling almost exclusively freestyle. It’s not that the coaches aren’t supportive of Greco, it’s just that I’m just one of two or maybe three Greco guys on the team and freestyle is what they’re looking to do as far as going out and showing out at U23’s.
Going into the tournament, I hadn’t even hand-fought Greco beforehand. I had been training and preparing with the mindset that I wanted to win the U23’s in both Greco and freestyle, but as far as training went, I was pretty much just getting into super-good shape wrestling freestyle while mentally preparing for Greco. Because, I wrestled Greco my whole life and you never lose it. It’s like driving a car. Even though you can get phenomenally better by training Greco exclusively, this time I just kind of went in there with a mentality like, Let’s go, let’s go in there, have some fun, and see what happens.
5PM: You pinned one of the toughest full-time competitors in the country to start your day. Knowing the caliber of opponent, did that do anything for you mentally insofar as provide a confidence boost?
NB: The brackets were released the night before and we saw that I had drawn #2 seed, that I’d have a bye and then get Britton Holmes as the #2 seed. I figured that he was obviously a stud because he was the #2 seed, but then I went back and looked at my Fargo bracket from last year and saw that he had placed fifth where I had lost in the bloodround. So it was like, Okay, obviously this kid is good, he’s training full-time at Northern Michigan. We knew what we were kind of up against.
I was slightly pessimistic the night before because I really wanted to get on the All-American stand, but with the way the bracket was set up, if I would’ve lost to Holmes and then lost again in the wrestlebacks, I would have still sneaked in for eighth. So my worst fear was to lose two, get eighth, still All-American, but not really have earned it. That’s what I really didn’t want to happen, so to go out there and just headlock him twice and pin him like I did was not only a super confidence builder for beating a guy of that caliber, but it was also like, Okay, we’re not falling to eighth place, we’re good. Now I can have fun for the day. I really hadn’t looked further before or after the Holmes match because that was the hump we needed to get on with the rest of the day.
5PM: The athlete you beat in the semis, Wesley Dawkins, were you familiar with him at all prior to the semis?
NB: No. I’m sure he is a very respectable wrestler and a very accomplished wrestler, but my thing, and this is a running joke among my buddies, is that I know zero names in the wrestling world besides the guys I encounter. Unless it is like, a super-known D1 wrestler or someone with whom I’m in the same division. So I hadn’t even looked at the brackets to see who I would have, I just knew that since he was in the semis of the U23’s he was probably going to be a stud. But I didn’t know his name when I wrestled him. When I beat him, I was hyped up that I was going to get one of those wooden awards but I didn’t know who I had beaten at the time. Obviously, it turned out that he was a stud and that was a really good win, too.
5PM: Okay, were you cognizant of the fact you were going to have a multi-time World Teamer in the finals?
Nolan Baker: Well, again (laughs)… I only found out or knew that Dom Demas was in my bracket when I saw him wrestle before me in the semis and my dad said, “If you beat this kid, you’ll have him.” And I knew Dom because we had a “Dream Team”, we did a USA versus Illinois dual meet my senior year of high school. He was on Team USA and I was on Team Illinois. He was a weight above me and I saw him put on a very impressive performance, so we knew he was a stud, he was very dominant in the semifinals. We knew who were going up against by the time the finals came around. We knew we were going to have to go to war to even put up a fight, so that’s how we went into it.
5PM: It’s not that you just won Match 3, it’s that it came on the heels of an exciting but tough Match 2 loss. What did it feel like to win Match 3 the way you did, especially adding on that you had just made a World Team? Did it all flush into you at once?
NB: The feeling was just so heightened by the situation around it and with how the day had progressed. It’s one thing to mentally prepare for the finals and it’s one match and you know you have to win it. But to have to go into a best-of-three against a guy who is so accomplished and such a formidable opponent made it amazing in my mind. The first match, just like the ups and downs of the whole thing, it was crazy trying to hold onto my focus the entire time. Because when I beat him in the first match 12-3 — obviously, that’s a tech fall — but it didn’t feel like a tech. I didn’t celebrate after the match or anything because there was more work to do. Also, I wasn’t sure if I had “fluke-won” it, you know? There were a lot of 50-50 positions that I had just happened to end up on top of during that match.
Going into the second match I thought, Okay, well, now he knows everything I’m coming with. I didn’t know how I could replicate that first match. So even though I lost the second one 6-8, it was way more of a confidence booster to me than the first match. Because — now that is two matches in a row where it had gone the distance, I only lost by two points, I had him on his back and pinned if I didn’t leg-foul myself.
Going into the third match, to have the roller coaster finally end and to have him on his back to see the guy’s hand go up to say You’re a World Team member was just…unimaginable. It is something you hadn’t even thought was going to come into your life and all of the sudden you’re a World Team member. You’re looking into the corner and all of the coaches are screaming, and (you see) all of your buddies in the stands. I still feel like I won’t even realize how big of a deal it is until I’m in Romania standing on the mat with a USA singlet on. But the whole deal is just unlike any other tournament I’ve ever been in. Winning the state finals or All-American’ing at Fargo are each in their own right irreplicable experiences, but winning a World Team Trials? I don’t know. It’s hard to even put into words because you don’t know the words to describe it. It’s very satisfying to have that under your belt no matter what.
5PM: Let’s talk about the headlock. It’s some kind of a Baker thing, it’s a move you’ve been honing for the past 100 years. It’s violent the way you do it.
NB: Yep, that’s the goal. Thank you.
5PM: A lot of Greco athletes have a go-to, we just saw Sam Hazewinkel win the Senior Trials mainly with an arm throw. But it’s not just an arm throw, he hits it from 90 different angles and leverage points with a wide variety of setups. So for you, it’s not just the headlock, it’s all of the working components that allow you to find it.
NB: For sure. The headlock is like, the Baker trademark. My dad teaches it, my brother is a killer headlocker himself. A lot of people call it a junk move, and granted, 95% of the headlocks being thrown are junk moves. But if you know the technique behind a good sag headlock? Then it is not a junk move.
When I was little, my go-to junk move was a neck wrench and I would catch everybody in it, but there isn’t really any technique behind it. Then people stopped falling for it and there’s nothing you could do with that because there’s no technique to a neck wrench, you just throw it and hope it sticks. But when my brother started doing a headlock when we got into freestyle and Greco, the coaches were telling us the technique and it was like, If you can get really good at this it is a match-ender. I mean, people look at my headlock a lot of times and they’re all, Oh, he’s just catching people, or, It’s a fluke. Granted, sometimes maybe it is. But at the same time, I’ve got about ten different setups to a headlock, I know exactly what I’m doing, I know where my feet are located, I know how the other guys is reacting. There is so much that goes into a headlock between where your feet are, how you follow through, where your left and right hands are, how hard you can punch it… Every single scenario is different and you have to read the situation before you go for it. That’s the beauty of a good headlock. You can hit them from anywhere and they can end a match at any time. So we love it for that reason.
5PM: You’ve got four months before the Worlds. There are going to be some team activities and whatever else, but for you yourself, how do you plan to use this time between now and the Worlds? I imagine it has to feel like an advantage to have some extra time compared to the other US World Teams.
NB: Oh yeah. I was in good shape, real good shape going into U23’s. Obviously, that part of you says, Okay, let’s just wrestle Worlds right now. But at the same time, I felt like I was able to win U23’s because for the first time in my Greco career because I was able to have that gas tank to allow me to continue my hand-fighting the entire match without having to die out.
Having four months to get into the best shape of my life I feel is the best thing for me. It’ll be at the beginning of the NCAA folkstyle season, which means I will be coming off of the preseason, and those are some of the hardest workouts there are. I’ll be training folkstyle, I’ll be training Greco, getting running in on my own — anything I can do to make myself as in-shape as I can be will give me that mental fortitude and confidence that I can just go in and do whatever I can at Worlds. Because, you can’t actually control the outcome of the match and how it actually goes. You’re going to try your best and you’re either going to win or you’re going to lose. But I love that the one thing you can control is how you prepare and the condition you are in when you go into the match. And four or five months allow for so many things to be in your control, and that takes a lot of stress off of me to know that I have a lot of it in my own hands.
5PM: There are differences between the way this sport is competed in the US and the way it is competed internationally. Foreign athletes are by and large more technically polished. There is a lot of nuance involved. Have you begun to zero in on some of these differences already?
NB: Obviously, you know you’re going to be going against people who have been training their whole lives for it and they don’t even know what folkstyle is. They are not necessarily going to be better than our superstars here in America, but your average overseas wrestler is going to be so much better at the technical aspect of Greco. I want to go into the World tournament knowing I reviewed the best technique I can, drilled it, and hone my own technical skills as much as possible. The headlock, we call it “The Great Equalizer” because you can be the best guy in the world and get pinned with a headlock by a non-great wrestler. Just because we don’t speak the same language doesn’t mean I can’t headlock you. I’m aware it is going to be monumentally-tough competition, but I am also confident that if I put myself in the right position it’s not impossible for me to headlock anybody. If you go to the technical side and they are on another level, well, I bet I have a better headlock than them. So we’ll see how it goes.
5PM: You’re someone who comes from a Greco pipeline but who is also enrolled in a college program. Now that you’ve gotten this big step out of the way, people are wondering what you’ll do after college is over and if you might become a full-time Greco-Roman athlete. Is that something you’re looking at potentially?
Nolan Baker: For sure, that’s a possibility. It will depend on how the next couple of years play out. Let’s say I get shelled the next three years at U23’s, then maybe it’s not for me (laughs). That’s one of the things I’m thinking about: it’s so cool that I won the Trials and I’m a World Team member that now I am just focused on that, having that opportunity, and not worrying about how I’ll perform over the next three years. But if anything, this whole experience has reignited my passion for Greco and has made me want to get back on the mat so much more. If you asked me that question a month and a half ago, I probably would have said, No, the main part of my life with Greco is over. But now that I see I can compete on this stage, I am just hungry for more and I can’t wait to get back out there at the World Championships, and then back out there next summer after the folkstyle season. So yeah, for sure, if I still feel like I have a chance after my college career to make a really good run at it, then that is what I’d like to pursue.