2023 Senior World Championships

The Complete USA Greco-Roman World Preview

The Complete USA Greco-Roman World Preview

Greco guru Timmy Hands delivers a scouting report on the USA Greco-Roman team and what's ahead of the Americans this week at the World Championships.

Sep 19, 2023 by Timmy Hands
The Complete USA Greco-Roman World Preview

“Pressure” in wrestling is the byproduct of perception and it exists in two facets. The first, and most obvious, is consequence. Outcomes are supposed to matter. The second has to do with taking advantage of an opportunity. Athletes are not guaranteed to be in position to compete for World medals ever again, especially not if they are from the United States due to this nation’s multi-tiered selection process. Thus, “making it count” right here and right now has no choice but to elevate the stakes. 

Team USA Greco-Roman, as is the case with many other federations at the 2023 World Championships, has arrived in Belgrade with both types of aforementioned pressure. All 10 of the roster members will, of course, be fighting their hearts out in hopes of entering the medal chase. However, six athletes in particular have another carrot that they will pursue simultaneously.  

The 2023 World Wrestling Championships is serving as the first leg of Olympic qualification for next year’s Games in Paris. This means that for 60, 67, 77, 87, 97, and 130 kg, it is almost an entirely different tournament. The wrestlers in these weight categories still share a goal of earning World hardware; but qualifying their respective weights for Paris is, in a sense, just as important. Though two more chances to do so will be made available come the springtime, achieving this critical objective in Belgrade would not only be an enormous milestone, it would also instantly remove a lot of the pressure that the USA Greco program encounters on a quadrennial basis. Medals are the ultimate goal, but those things go home with the individuals who earn them. Olympic quotas belong to the country. 

Alas, it is the individuals themselves who comprise the biggest part of the story. There is a gap in Senior World experience in certain spots throughout the lineup, but not enough to characterize it as disadvantageous. Each of the 10 American Greco-Roman athletes who will suit up in Belgrade bear legitimate reasons for their candidacy, regardless of their ages or stations-in-life – or the antagonists residing in their brackets. 

Athlete Breakdown

First-time USA Senior World Team

(*Olympic weight)

55 kg: Brady Koontz (TMWC/Dubuque RTC) – 2015 Cadet World Team, ‘18 Junior World Team, ‘19 U23 World Team, ‘22 Pan-Am Championships gold, ‘23 National Champion

63 kg: Xavier Johnson (Army/WCAP) – ‘21 National Champion, ‘21 Pan-Am Championships gold

*87 kg: Zac Braunagel (IRTC) – ‘19 Junior World Team

Koontz and Braunagel have both previously appeared in World Championships at the age-group level, while Johnson is the one true neophyte of the group. But that is misleading. Although the Marine-turned-WCAP rep might not have prior World experience, he has competed plenty of times internationally and claims three overseas medals thus far in his career. 


(*Olympic weight)

*60 kg: Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) – 7X World Team (3X for UZB), 2X Olympian (1X for UZB), ‘19 Military World bronze

*67 kg: Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP) – ‘20 Olympian, 2X World Team, ‘17 U23 World Team, ‘14 Junior World Team

72 kg: Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) – 4X World Team, 4X Pan-Am Championships gold, ‘19 Pan-Am Games gold, ‘14 University World silver

*77 kg: Kamal Bey (Army/WCAP) – 3X World Team, 4X National Champion, ‘23 Pan-Am Championships gold, ‘17 Junior World Champion 

82 kg: Spencer Woods (Army/WCAP) – 2X World Team, 2X National Champion, ‘21 U23 World Team

*97 kg: Joe Rau (TMWC) – 3X World Team, 3X National Champion, 3X Pan-Am Championships gold, ‘14 University World Team

*130 kg: Cohlton Schultz (Sunkist) – 3X World Team, 4X National Champion, ‘17 Cadet World Champion, ‘18 Junior World bronze, ‘19 Junior World silver

Athlete Scouting Reports

55 kg: Koontz

Beholden to one of the better gutwrenches on the U.S. roster, Koontz can turn even the most stubborn defenders thanks in large part to a deep elbow-to-elbow lock that is maneuverable from both sides. Getting to that position is the hard part. Passivity certainly occurs in the light weight classes, but it’s not automatic. Points in any form or fashion on-the-feet for Koontz could be pivotal. 

60 kg: Hafizov

Hafizov desires a steady diet of competition when preparing for a World tournament, which helped make this summer his most productive in several years. He competed twice following Final X, the second of which bore fruit in the form of a silver medal from the German Grand Prix. No, he is not young (35), but he is the best and most complete Greco-Roman athlete in America. He is also acutely aware of his competition and studies accordingly. 

63 kg: Johnson

It used to be that Johnson would just stand in the batter’s box and swing for the fences. It was a useful tactic that helped propel him to big results even when he was still green. Now that he has matured in his skill set, Johnson navigates the ties with more feel and timing, but it is par terre top from where he does the most damage. The Hungarian Grand Prix in July did not go well for him. It happens. So long as he has moved past that and his confidence is where it should be, there is currently no discernible reason why he cannot make a podium run. 

67 kg: Sancho

Next to Hafizov, Sancho wields the most understanding of the international landscape in terms of match rhythm, strategy, and execution. He has also defeated more than a few top names from his weight category, including this past July when he scored a nice victory over Husiyuetu of China. He is undaunted when it comes to high-caliber competition, probably because he is sufficiently accustomed to it. His tremendous hybrid straddle lift is a go-to, which is positively vital at the elite level. Sancho does not have to think about his scoring options. He knows what he is looking for as soon as his chance arrives. 

72 kg: Smith

Smith is a potentially strong medal contender because, again, he is one who holds a great deal of experience internationally, has traded paint with a whos’-who of World-level competitors, and has a style that works – and has worked – for him. Smith is versatile, more than he even used to be, but it is his hard pace that gives foreigners trouble. They struggle to keep up with him. Physical conditioning is a different thing for Smith. His charging mechanics demand it, which is why he trains with such a high degree of fanaticism. This is how he breaks people. A challenging road to the World Team spot a year after just missing out has made him frighteningly determined. Could be interesting. ‘23 might very well usher in the breakthrough World performance Smith has long been anticipating. 

77 kg: Bey

Even if Bey had not surged to the Hungarian Grand Prix final, he would still be seen as a possible medalist. Such is his reputation. Everyone – as in, literally everyone in the sport – is aware of his capabilities. But what you saw in Hungary was the best version of Bey yet. He scored when he needed to, of course. He was also finding ways to redirect or wrestle out of the types of tie-ups foreigners have often used to slow him down. That, in fact, was the best part about his performance. Most at 77 kg are wary of Bey. They’re afraid to give up big points on account of his explosive, creative attacks. And, in the past, they had a solution for it, whether or not the officials did their jobs. With Bey having appeared to figure out how to take that away from them, keeping him from scoring has become more difficult than ever before. 

82 kg: Woods

The “Alaskan Assassin” Woods is listed as having been on two U.S. Senior World Teams, but really this year is his first. This one is totally his. He earned it (by defeating teammate Ryan Epps at Final X, and Ben Provisor in the National final). That has elevated his confidence. It used to be that Woods was a superb wrestling athlete who was equal parts physical and unorthodox. He still betrays some of those same sensibilities, but what has improved the most is his direction. His ties, attempts, and attacks have more of a purpose. Woods is still apt to brawl, it is just that now when he does there is a strategy behind it. You love that he snaps and can get heavy on the head. It suits his wrestling personality, plus it just plain makes opponents uncomfortable. Defense from bottom par terre is obviously key, though that’s the same for every single athlete in the entire tournament. 

87 kg: Braunagel

Reflect on Braunagel’s Greco “season” for a moment. He placed third at the Nationals, won the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament, defeated both Rich Carlson and last year’s Final X runner-up Timothy Young twice along the way, and then came back against incumbent Alan Vera to earn the World Team spot. If you knew nothing else, all of that would be enough. But then Braunagel dueled ‘21 World champ/’20 Olympic bronze Rafik Huseynov in Hungary and had the Azer on his heels and close to hitting the wall in what eventually became a tight 2-1 decision. That bout alone should have made peoples’ ears ring. While that was not a World match, it was against an absolutely stellar opponent and Braunagel demonstrated beyond a doubt that he belonged. He will be tested more in Belgrade. The intensity will increase, which won’t scare him. Creating motion on the feet and defending the lock are how he can advance. And yes, advancement for him is indeed plausible. 

97 kg: Rau

What started in the spring as more of a fun opportunity to compete than anything else has turned into one of the Greco program’s “feel good” stories of the year. Upon his return to action at the U.S. Open this past spring, Rau immediately picked up where he left off. If anything, he might be even better than he was at 87 (or 98 before that). 97 with same-day weigh-ins fits him like a glove, and his bruising yet fluid style has more effectiveness in this weight category. Not to be discounted is how he has fared outside of the U.S.. He won his third Pan-Ams gold before Final X and downright decimated Iranian Vahid Abadi in Hungary. What you want out of Rau is the same attitude from April – fun. This needs to be fun for him. It should be, too. It has been easy to tell that he has enjoyed himself whilst back out there in the trenches, and his monstrously-competitive ways now pack more punch. A tough bracket, for sure, but he is one of the reasons why that’s the case. 

130 kg: Schultz

Schultz recently explained that he has at times been hindered by not “gaming the system the way these guys are” – which is another way of saying that most heavyweights latch onto “go nowhere” ties as a ploy to look busy enough to get a passive call. Schultz does not want to play that way. He wants to score offensive points. He can, too, and from more positions than the majority of those in his weight class. But it’s not very easy to do that, and so Schultz is left to lament the lack of actual wrestling present at 130 kilograms. The question is if he can strike a balance between the two concepts without compromising his preferred methodology. Schultz does have more weapons than most of his international contemporaries; his problem is that windows to use them fade quickly once opponents feel threatened in what are traditionally low-risk positions. Just how it works. Schultz has already demonstrated a capability of both hanging in with and beating some of the best guys in the world. He needn’t be frustrated by anyone else’s manner of doing business. Keeping it simple and just wrestling his way – which is brutish yet opportunistic – offers his clearest path to a big two days in Belgrade.