Not unlike many US Greco-Roman athletes, Alex Sancho (66 kg, NYAC/OTS) is a decidedly different guy off the mat than he is on it. We’re used to this, particularly within the realm of combat sports. Wrestling, MMA, boxing — or whatever garden variety fighting art you can think of — they’re all crammed with personalities which present a contrasting flavor to the aggro nature their occupations are best known for. This isn’t difficult to understand. When so much of your time is spent in the pressure cooker of elite-level competition, and your ability to dish out unremorseful violence is central to your success, it would seem only natural that one might want to take advantage of the more serene moments life happens to toss your way.
This is Sancho. Times ten.
Sancho, 23, takes the word “approachable” to a new stratosphere. He’s the ultimate shoulder-shrugging dude who is altogether disinterested in pretense. Conversations, with practically anyone, be them friends, teammates, or reporters, begin ultra-casually, as if you’re merely picking up where you both last left off, even if last left off happens to mean eight months ago. The phone rings…it’s Monday night…there are topics to crack open. “Hey, Alex, how have you been doing?” Long pause. “Fine,” he says, after several seconds pass by. “Just chillin’.” Laid back to the core, this guy.
His answers, while thoughtful, are never manufactured. He just doesn’t operate that way. Instead, Sancho is much more inclined to respond as he might if he was kicking back at home in Miami with his feet in the water. He likes talking about wrestling, but you’ll never detect even the slightest twinge of self-importance when he mentions his accomplishments. Sancho knows you know what he’s achieved, so to him, there is little reason to delve too much into the past unless you’re going to somehow relate it to his future.
Which, of course, is the point of all this. After finishing as the runner-up at three US World Team Trials in consecutive years, Sancho has finally smashed the last remaining wall separating him from a shot at a World title. It happened last weekend in Rochester, Minnesota, where the Northern Michigan wrestler ran the table in the 66 kilogram weight class at the 2017 U23 World Team Trials. Throughout his march to the promised land, Sancho managed to rack up an eye-popping 46 points spread across five matches. That’s kind of his calling card, offense. Sancho is “open” — Greco-Roman vernacular for wrestlers who are eager to put themselves into potentially vulnerable positions in order to score. Not everyone in the US prefers this modus operandi, specifically not when the stakes are high and the competition more fierce than usual.
But this is how Sancho has reached new heights and also, why he stands as one of America’s most promising long-term prospects. He simply knows how to perform and if the opponent is wearing the singlet of a different nation, all the better. Since 2014, Sancho has earned seven medals at international events, though it’s what he did this year why the fanbase is more encouraged than usual. Take the Grand Prix of Zagreb in March. That’s where he took out Mate Nemes (SRB) in the semifinals before shutting down MIhai Radu Mihut of Romania to snag his first overseas gold. Fast forward to June and the perpetually-difficult Tbilisi Grand Prix. Sancho didn’t win this one, a questionably-officiated finals bout opposite Daniar Kalenov (KAZ) made sure of that. However, the silver medal in Georgia served as further evidence of what many have been talking about for awhile now: Sancho is an international threat during a time in the sport when the US needs as many as it can get.
So save the date. November 22nd in Bydgoszcz, Poland is when Sancho will have his say on the grandest stage we have in this walk of life. He is convinced he’s already prepared. Maybe that’s true. Chances are that has been the situation for more than a minute. For today, it’s all about the process that led him to this opportunity, why it matters so much to him, and how he plans on making sure everyone realizes that fact.
Alex Sancho — 66 kg, NYAC/OTS
5PM: Let’s just make this easy — true or false: you enjoy wrestling overseas more than you do domestically.
Alex Sancho: Oh, definitely true, because I like wrestling people who don’t know my style. I like going in there and looking for my throws, and I hate it when people lock up on me. I hate wrestling like that. Foreigners wrestle like that, as well, and it ends up in my favor. That’s why I like wrestling overseas.
5PM: Do you feel like competing against foreigners also suits you because even if they try grinding you down and turning things into a stalemated pummel-fest, that they are still more open than many wrestlers are here?
AS: Definitely, they’re going for the throws, you know? They are trying to score points. The Kazakhstan (Kalenov) match was a little different. I feel like he studied me a little bit before the finals. He was watching me warming up, actually. His coach was watching me. I guess he thought he could just push the pace the entire time and win on passivity, that’s what his strategy was. But throughout the whole tournament, it was more going in there with people trying to throw me and me trying to throw them.
5PM: In the bout versus Kalenov, towards the end of the second period you had a front headlock that looked pretty good and they stopped you before it could go anywhere.
AS: Yeah, if I would have had a little longer I feel like I would have turned him. If I would have taken him down, I would have ended the match instantly from par terre.
5PM: It was a nice silver medal regardless, but you were clearly the more offensive wrestler in that match. It was like the only way that bout could have gone against you is if Kalenov stalled you out while appearing active, which is what he did. He did just enough to work for passives.
AS: That’s what I’ve been working on in practice here at Northern, I’ve been working with (assistant coach Andy) Bisek a lot on pushing the pace more, scoring more with underhooks and attacking those angles. We have been working on that a lot recently because I feel that it’s one of my weaknesses. It’s been getting better and hopefully by the World Championships in Poland, I’ll have that down.
5PM: It has followed you around like a shadow, the fact you had been a runner-up multiple times. I’m sure April was extremely frustrating, as well. But knowing this was on the horizon, how did you see the U23 Trials throughout the summer?
Alex Sancho: Oh, I was dreaming about this tournament, man. Once I heard about it, I was like, Wow, this is a great opportunity for me. None of the veterans are going to be there. Plus, under-23 is a great opportunity for wrestlers younger than I am, as well. But yeah, I was dreaming about this tournament, dreaming about making this team, and performing overseas finally on the World Championship stage.
5PM: You had Sahid Kargbo in the U23 finals, he’s a really tough wrestler who would be an excellent full-timer. I remember you had him in the first round of the Senior Trials in April and he put up six against you before you came back with a whole lot of points yourself.
AS: Yeah, that was a fun match. I love wrestling Kargbo, he’s one of my favorite wrestlers to compete against in the United States because we just throw each other around and put points up on the board, and I love that. I love wrestling like that. But I’ve been doing Greco for awhile and I know how to move my body to get in those positions and win the match. He’s been doing folkstyle.
5PM: That is kind of where I was going. I don’t think fans get the true Sancho experience unless you have offense coming at you.
AS: I can make offense on my own, it doesn’t matter if you’re coming at me or not. If you’re coming at me full-fledged, I’ll arm throw you, headlock you, bodylock you. On the higher level, you have to make those things happen. You have to move the guy around to get in those positions, and throw him.
5PM: Has that been one of the biggest things you’ve had to learn and adjust to as your status has climbed the last few years?
AS: Definitely. Feeling those positions out. Giving the guy underhooks, try to get that over/under and arm-throwing him, giving the guy pinch headlocks and then trying to headlock him…you have to give up positions to throw people. You have to feel comfortable in those positions, that’s what I’ve learned over the years. You better feel comfortable from those positions, because if you don’t, that’s how you get tired out easily and get scored on. So feel comfortable in those positions and launch the guy.
5PM: That seems to be the biggest hangup in the US, the risk/reward concept. There are so many athletes who are great throwers but are hesitant to put themselves in position to do so.
AS: Yup, and that’s when those passivities come into play and you’ve got to be careful.
5PM: I think that is what people appreciate about you, that you’re always expending energy so you can get to your positions to throw, and if that doesn’t happen, you’re always looking for the first chance an opponent opens up so you can throw. You’re always looking for offense. We don’t see that enough.
Alex Sancho: It’s either throw or be thrown. That’s my motto.
5PM: In the semis of the U23 Trials you had a fun match with Lenny Merkin.
AS: Yeah, my first three matches I didn’t really get a good warm-up in, I was just bugging around the whole entire time. And then my third match came around and this guy is literally, like four feet (laughs). I get an over/under on him and then an underhook on the other side, and I am literally on my tippy toes over him trying to get into position to lateral drop him. And I ended up going over. He happened to pop his hips out and I went over, I went straight over (laughs).
5PM: You made up the ground quickly and Merkin is a very serious talent. But you win and now you know you’re going to the finals. You are familiar with how Kargbo likes to wrestle, he likes to try to score. In your head, are you like, Okay, I’m just one step away from making this team?
AS: Yes. I had to focus. I had to get my mind right. I finally clicked in the finals, actually. I started wrestling smarter a little bit, wrestling from my positions, throwing, and holding the match(es) down. I clicked in the finals because I already had that vision I was going to be the World Team member, so I had to do what I had to do.
5PM: Do you like having a quick turnaround between the Trials and the Worlds, or do you wish you had more time?
AS: No, this is perfect, actually. I’ve been training all year long, I haven’t stopped. I feel like the sooner, the better, and next month is perfect. It gives me enough time to cut my weight down smart, train with Bisek, and get all of my little flaws out of the way, work on them a little bit, and get ready for this tournament. Get my mind right.
5PM: I asked your teammate Dalton Roberts a similar question. You have an idea of the competition in your weight at the U23 Worlds, at least from a glossover perspective. Leading up, are you at all interested in scouting or looking at matches of certain guys? Or do you just show up and it’s like, Look, this is how it is, let’s do it”?
AS: (Laughs) Usually when I go overseas I don’t do any scouting or stuff like that, but I think for this tournament I’m going to have to do that for the people in my bracket.
I tell people in the room all the time, when you go overseas, you have to have confidence. You have to go in there and give it your all. Throw or be thrown. That’s what I tell all the kids who are going overseas. Alston (Nutter), I was training with him before this tournament and I was whooping his ass. Bad. But I feel like I gave him an edge and I showed him some tricks. I was talking to him after practice and I was like, You’ve got to give it your all overseas. You can’t give anything up. Just because this guy might be Russian, he doesn’t have an edge on you, you’re a full-time Greco athlete, as well.
You have to have confidence overseas. Go in there with your head up, chest out, and f**k people up (laughs).
5PM: Do you feel that sometimes younger competitors from the US might be a little bit skittish when they know they’re going over?
Alex Sancho: Yeah, they’re skittish, edgy, like, I have an Armenian next, I have a Belarus guy next. It’s like, Dude, no, who cares? You’re a full-time Greco athlete, also. Go in there and wrestle like you do in practice. And when you wrestle in practice, wrestle like how you do in a tournament, and have fun with it.
5PM: That takes me back to last year when you talked about how things were for you when you first got up to Northern and the idea of learning on those early tours across the Atlantic. Is this kind of information important for you to pass on now that you’re one of the elder statesmen in the room?
AS: Of course, yep. When I was younger, I used to wrestle the top guys in the room, always. Even though I got my ass whooped, I wrestled them as hard as I could, learned from them, and improved as a Greco athlete. I ended up learning a lot from them and it shows today. The older guys have a role to play for the younger guys.
5PM: Well right, and there is a lot going on at Northern nowadays. Northern had been coming back up the last couple of years already, that’s not a secret. But even now, there is a different vibe around the program, such as the number of top recruits coming up, wrestlers like Benji Peak, Nutter, Carter Nielsen, Calvin Germinaro, and plus, Bisek is there.
AS: Younger guys in general bring a new feel to the room. The younger guys we have this year are hungry kids who want to come after the older guys. That helps all of us. It helps everyone improve and it helps the program. Bisek is an outstanding coach, Rob Hermann is an outstanding coach, and they are doing the best they can to improve the program and develop these athletes.
5PM: This is obviously not a concern of yours today, but what is your opinion on par terre making its way back into the curriculum pretty soon?
AS: What do I think about it? I think my matches are going to go a lot faster (laughs). They’re going to swing by a little faster. I love par terre, I love it. It’s one of the key things that makes Greco, Greco, and what distinguishes it from freestyle? Par terre. Now they are incorporating it back into the style and it’s going to be good for Greco and America again. We’re going to work on our par terre game because it sucks (laughs). But now they are going to incorporate it full-time and it should be good for Greco. I’m excited about it.
5PM: A lot of people in the sport understand your ability to turn it on when you are competing against foreigners and not everyone has that yet. And I’m not sure you’re someone with a lot to prove as a multi-time finalist here who is still very young. But did you feel there was extra meaning behind your breaking through in Minnesota?
Alex Sancho: Definitely, yeah. It’s hard, man, it’s hard taking second place and losing two out of three in the finals. Not making a World Team is very hard. The people who have beaten me in the finals, I tell them all the time, You were the better men. You beat me, you go to Worlds. First place goes to Worlds, second place stays behind — that’s what I always tell everybody.
Finally making a World Team now, yeah, this means a lot to me. I feel like I do have something to prove, actually. I have to bring a medal home to America. It’s not like I have a ton of weight on my shoulders, but I’m just going to do me and wrestle how I’ve been wrestling, compete overseas finally, and hopefully, most likely, I’m going to bring back a medal. I’m going in with that mindset.
You can contribute to Alex’s quest for a World Championship by donating here. All money goes to the costs incurred training and traveling to Poland. In addition, follow Alex Sancho on Twitter and Instagram to keep up-to-date with his career and competitive schedule.