Zero Hour: USA Greco Pan Am Olympic Qualifier Preview

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By Timmy Hands


It has been circled on the calendar since mid-September, back when the United States’ Greco-Roman delegation began their long trek home from Nur-Sultan. Not one of the six wrestlers who occupied Olympic weight categories at the 2019 World Championships had managed to place within the top six, creating even more pressure for an already under-the-gun American Greco program that, by now, has grown accustomed to Monday-morning quarterbacks who only seem to pay attention to their shortcomings. 

Thus, USA Greco entered the Olympic Season fully understanding the directive. Every blessed component of the National training plan was carefully arranged for one purpose — to ensure peak performance for what is about to transpire this coming Friday in Ottawa. 

Retracing the steps doesn’t require much effort. Just like the smooth flip of an hourglass.

It started with a two-week camp with the Georgians in November, continued with trips to Rome and Denmark in January, set the tone for a special prep camp in Springs two weeks ago, and even the just-wrapped Pan-American Championships event was accounted for well in advance of the grand objective that is now, at last, almost removed from its previous hypothetical status. 

The hourglass was upended in the midst of an autumn that promised nothing but hope. Precious hope remains, even as the falling grains of sand have slowed to a trickle. 

All measurements of time cease to matter once it becomes zero hour. 

The mission: each of the six US athletes competing on Friday has to appear in their bracket’s final in order to qualify their respective weight categories for the Tokyo Olympics. There is no repechage leading to an eventual “true second.” Entering the tournament, one wrestler holds a #1 seed (G’Angelo Hancock, 97 kg) — and three more will be seeded second (Alex Sancho, 67 kg; Joe Rau, 87 kg; Adam Coon, 130 kg). The other two athletes are subject to the blind draw. 

60 kg: Team USA — Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP)

Entries

  • Marat Garipov (BRA)
  • Adam MacFayden (CAN)
  • Luis Orta Sanchez (CUB)
  • Andres Montano Arroyo (ECU)
  • Emerson Felipe Ordonez (GUA)
  • Samuel Gurria Vigueras (MEX)
  • Josh Medina (PUR)
  • Gustavo Rodriguez Martinez (VEN)

Seeds

  1. Dicther Toro Castaneda (COL): 18 points
  2. Jancel Pimentel Gonzalez (DOM): 14 points

Two-time National champ Mike Fuenffinger competed in teammate Hafizov’s stead at the Pan Am Championships last week, coming up with silver. If Fuenffinger was going on Friday, he’d have the #2 seed. Since he is not, and points/seeds don’t carry over from athlete to athlete, Hafizov will be randomly drawn into the bracket. 

Hafizov fell to Castaneda at the Pan Am Games last summer, but the Colombian is not the only issue. ‘16 Olympian Montano Arroyo is iron-tough, well-rounded, and opportunistic. No breaks during tie-ups with an athlete like him; he is as intuitive as it gets when it comes to making opponents reset their feet before making them pay. But, he’s had to play with his weight cut after spending the majority of his time at 63 kilos.

There is also Luis Orta Sanchez (CUB), who won Pan Am Championship titles both in ‘18 and ‘19, but took a pass on competing last weekend. A little slicker than Montano Arroyo, Orta Sanchez is strong in all phases, and depending on who grabs your ear, might be the bracket’s biggest favorite (even without a seed). 

From a technical standpoint, no one here is cleaner or more refined than Hafizov, and a few nice international wins this past year show that age hasn’t slowed him down. But he needs to bring it like never before on Friday to get the job done. That means getting to his lift, and avoiding the mental lapses that have occasionally been responsible for disappointing outings. Technique is nice; the ability to scratch and claw will come in even more handy for Hafizov in this tournament. 

67 kg: Team USA — Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP)

Entries

  • Joilson de Brito Ramos (BRA)
  • Daniel Coles (CAN)
  • Cristobal Torres Nunez (CHL)
  • Julian Horta Acevedo (COL)
  • Enyer Feliciano (DOM)
  • Cristhiam Rivas Castro (ECU)
  • Manuel Lopez Salcedo (MEX)
  • Nilton Soto Garcia (PER)
  • German Diaz (PUR)

Seeds

  1. Anthony Palencia Puentes (VEN) 22 points
  2. Alex Sancho -- 16 points

To make a very long story short, here’s what happened: reigning three-time World Team member Ellis Coleman was, like the rest of the ‘19 Team, slated to compete this Friday. Unfortunately, a triceps injury Coleman endured in the fall led to a frustrating recovery process. The US decided nearly two months ago that they would bring both Coleman and Sancho to Ottawa, with the latter’s purpose to enter the Championships, and the former, the Qualifier. However, Coleman has been scratched, Sancho — coming off of a bronze last week — is in, and away we go. 

Also, Mexico’s Diego Martinez (silver last week) has been replaced by the very-experienced Manuel Lopez Salcedo. This change in MEX’s lineup resulted in Sancho sliding right into the #2 seed.

Without ‘16 Olympic/two-time World champ Ismael Borrero Molina (CUB), 67 kilograms is not nearly as scary of a proposition. Not for Sancho, not for anyone. But there are a couple of heavy-hitters. Joilson de Brito Ramos (BRA) has been more than solid throughout this quad, and has traded wins/losses with Coleman fairly recently. Sancho hasn’t faced the Brazilian yet, but Ray Bunker has, and broke him towards the end of their 72-kg final on Friday.

Rivas Castro is capable, decent in spots as far as offensive par terre. Defense is questionable, but whose isn’t? One athlete who very well may have a run in him is All-Marine wrestler German Diaz (PUR). Diaz has been around the block; he’s also very aggressive. Wide open. He had a lead on Sancho with just a minute remaining until Sancho came up with a clutch score. Part of what makes Diaz exciting likewise makes him vulnerable. He will score. He will also give up scores. 

Sancho trains with Coleman on a daily basis and has known for quite some time that this situation might arise. He beat up a couple of opponents last week and lost to Borrero. Of the three, only one is still in play (Horta Acevedo). Maybe that served as a primer more so than a relevant sample size. Either way, the US program is comfortable with who they have entering the arena on Friday morning. You should be, too. 

77 kg: Team USA — Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm)

Entries

  • Angelo Marques Moreira (BRA)
  • John Yeats (CAN)
  • Jair Cuero Munoz (COL)
  • Jose Vargas Rueda (MEX)
  • Maricano Ali (PUR)

Seeds

  1. Wuileixis Rivas Espinoza (VEN) 26 points
  2. Yosvanys Pena Flores (CUB) 18 points

77 kilograms is best summed up in two parts: 1) It is a weight category seen as a four-horse race between Pena, Cuero Munoz, Rivas Espinosa, and Smith; and 2) Smith went 1-1 against Pena last week en route to silver and survived a(nother) dogfight with Cuero Munoz in between — begging the question: do any of these guys really want to wrestle Smith again?

Part of what makes Smith “Smith” is that regardless of match result, no one leaves unscathed. His battering-ram style punctuated by those short drags, long drags to reach-arounds and go-behinds, and general in-your-face-nonstop nastiness, has a tendency to wear opponents down into oxygen-starved messes. It does not matter what the scoreboard says, for this is Smith’s canonical pattern.

But familiarity breeds contempt. Smith has banged it out with Cuero Munoz enough over the past three seasons, and now Pena is fresh off of having battled Smith twice in the same day. Log this all into the database to go with Smith’s vast overall experience against Pan Ammers as well as his Games title last summer, and it is a slam dunk to surmise they all know what they’re getting when the bushy-haired Minnesotan is standing across from them. And what’s more, they have provided very stiff tests, with most bouts being decided during critical moments of the second period. 

No, Smith’s South American counterparts are not looking forward to the endurance race that most certainly awaits. They also have had a week to ruminate on the inevitable and replay various exchanges in their minds. That’s their job. They are stout competitors who feel Smith is beatable. 

Except, everyone in this bracket is beatable. Only one of them has shown to be unstoppable. Smith is in a corner, and that is where he does most of his best work. 

87 kg: Team USA — Joe Rau (TMWC/Chicago RTC)

Entries

  • Ronisson Brandao Santiago (BRA)
  • Ionnis Narlidis (CAN)
  • Carlos Munoz Jaramillo (COL)
  • Carlos Adames Palmer (DOM)
  • Ariel Alfonso Rodriguez (HON)
  • Lesyan Cousin Otomuro (JAM)
  • Daniel Vincente Gomez (MEX)
  • Luis Avendano Rojas (VEN)

Seeds

  1. Daniel Gregorich Hechavarria (CUB) 30 points
  2. Joe Rau -- 28 points

US observers had to feel extremely encouraged by Rau’s performance at the Pan-American Championships, particularly due to his quarterfinal victory over Avendano. The Venezuelan has become a thorn in the US program’s side over the past few years, and even hung an “L” on Rau in the opening round of the ‘19 Pan Am Games. As such, Avendano was and is seen as a major player in this bracket, which is why it was all the more pleasing to watch Rau bully him around like nobody’s business. 

It wasn’t just a tech fall; it was a definitive beatdown. Rau’s triumph was not the result of getting on top and gutting out the string. Instead, he scored his points in spurts while completely shutting Avendano down in each and every exchange.

But Avendano is not the only name on which to focus. ‘19 U23 World bronze Hechavarria defeated Rau in the bronze round at the aforementioned Pan Am Games, and is a balanced athlete boasting some good explosiveness to go along with robust fundamentals. However, Hechavarria dropped a weird decision to Jaramillo last week. The unexpected development allowed Jaramillo to eventually make the final, where Rau took control early and cruised to his second shutout of the tournament. 

Despite all of the above, none of this makes Rau — or anyone else in the tournament at any weight — a “lock.” The level of intensity available on Friday will surpass what was on display last week, and everyone is going to play it a little closer to the vest. And do you know what that means? It means that a weight class like this one, an upper-weight, is going to wind up plodding and dependent on passivity to figure most of the matches out. Hopefully, Rau does not fall into that trap. 

Rau won the tournament last week because he demonstrated resolve. Conviction. And when he felt there was a chance to plow through on an angle or capitalize with a premium follow-up score, he did. And now, he needs to do it again. The US has the strongest athlete in the bracket. So long as Rau agrees with that assessment, it is he who owns the floor. 

97 kg: Team USA — G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist)

Entries

  • Guilherme Evangelista Divas (BRA)
  • Thomas Barreiro (CAN)
  • Kevin Mejia Castillo (HON)
  • Luis Rivera Alvarado (MEX)
  • Luillys Perez Mora (VEN)

Seeds

1. Hancock -- 32 points

2. Gabriel Rosillo Kindlan (CUB) 30 points

Prior to Friday afternoon last week, Hancock had lost to Rosillo three times: first in the final of the ‘19 Pan Am C’Ships, then in the final of the ‘19 Pan Am Games, and, oddly, in the first round of pool competition Friday morning. 

All of those preceding three bouts had one thing in common — Hancock being unable to do anything of note from par terre top. But when they met in last Friday’s final, it was over within the first minute and change. Hancock received the first period passive, clamped a front headlock, threw it for four; kept his lock, and netted four more. 

Highlighting one sequence from one match is never a good idea. It is certainly tricky to do in this case given Junior World champ Rosillo’s obvious skill-set and competitive moxy. Though he was on the wrong end of as one-sided of a loss as it gets, it was just one match. 

Thing is, that one match said more about Hancock than it did Rosillo.

Often in Senior Greco, one tiny hint of vulnerability can prove fertile ground for further exploitation. Hancock now knows he has a technique on which he can rely, one that has proven successful. But even if history fails to repeat itself in precise order should they lock horns again this Friday, he also knows -- as does Rosillo -- that at the very least, there is no true ownership in the series between them. And for an athlete as formidable as Hancock, that’s enough. 

It bears mentioning that Hancock didn’t exactly mow down Perez Mora, who proved a fitful challenge himself. Castillo, once the American’s most valuable stepping stone, is still in the hunt, as well. The only problem with that is Castillo is no longer someone either Hancock, or the US program, for that matter, is sweating too much any longer. 

Yes, Perez Mora put up a solid fight, and sure, Castillo knows his way around a wrestling mat. But no one is fooled. The expectation here is that somehow or another Hancock and Rosillo will both find a way to make the final, thereby qualifying 97, and then perhaps combining for a classic that for the time being provides a semblance of bragging rights. 

130 kg: Team USA -- Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen)

Entries

  • Luciano Del Rio (ARG)
  • Eduard Soghomonyan (BRA)
  • Bradley Hildenbrandt (CAN)
  • Yasmany Acosta Fernandez (CHL)
  • Luis Barrios (MEX)

Seeds

  1. Moises Perez Hellburg (VEN): 28 points
  2. Adam Coon: 26 points

It’s not an everyday set of circumstances when the Greco program can claim a World silver medalist, and at the same time, feel as though they have to hold their collective breath thinking about his qualifying chances. Such is the vibe two days prior to what might be Coon’s most important Senior tournament yet. 

To be fair, it is also more of an optics issue, not an actual “wrestling” one. That includes Coon’s loss last week to Angel Pacheco Romero (CUB), which was just an underwater, frustrating type of bout, and one that doesn’t hold any relevance relative to this week since a) Cuba is already qualified for the Olympics at heavyweight thanks to Oscar Pino Hinds; and b) Coon dumped and decked Pacheco in the ‘19 Pan Ams. The only thing Coon’s defeat to Pacheco last Friday accomplished was to switch the seeding order between he and Perez Hellburg, and maybe make Pacheco feel good about himself. 

Hellburg got a win over Coon in Italy two months ago. While the Venezuelan big man is definitely solid, it shouldn’t have happened. Coon is a much better, stronger wrestling athlete, and the dynamics of that match were all wrong. Coon tried to play position instead of narrowing his field of vision and fighting for position, which are two separate concepts. On Friday, what Coon did was negotiate the ties back to his over/under bodylock and punish Hellburg badly to the tune of a four-pointer off the edge -- before returning to the hold and planting Hellburg flat for a much-needed pin. 

That is the kind of stuff everyone knows Coon is capable of, and when it doesn’t happen, people scratch their heads. Sometimes, justifiably so. Sometimes, not. The field at the Pan Ams is ever-improving, especially at heavyweight. A few of the wrestlers, in this very bracket, are indeed quite excellent.

That brings us to the man deemed the bracket’s biggest favorite on Friday, ‘17 World silver Acosta (Fernandez). 

Acosta is Coon’s worst memory as a Greco athlete. The Chilean-by-way-of-Cuba bombed Coon right out of the ‘19 Games and it is difficult to ignore that. Coon had gotten in plenty of reps with Acosta previously, as well, during various training camps, and those practice room skirmishes did not go too smoothly, either. 

The draw is the draw, is the draw is the draw. And Yasmani is going to be drawn. Wherever he is placed in the bracket will cause immediate consternation for the opposition. That is reality. You can deny it, you cannot escape it. 

Coon can hang with Acosta, even if he’s not completely sure of it just yet. The proverbial “wrestle your match” ethos equates to the how and why. And to be sure, Coon can absolutely demolish everyone else. 

One thing you can take to the bank: Coon is going to have to nail down the biggest win of his career thus far on Friday. The other name attached to that result will hardly matter.

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