2003 Freestyle World Team Trials preview at 84 kg 185 lbs

By Gary Abbott | June 09, 2003, 12 a.m. (ET)
Cael Sanderson of the Sunkist Kids is the biggest name in U.S. wrestling. Winner of four straight NCAA titles at Iowa State, Sanderson ended his college career undefeatead at 159-0. For the last three years, Sanderson has been the No. 1 freestyle wrestler in the nation at his weight class. Winner of three straight U.S. Nationals titles and two straight World Team Trials events, Sanderson is among the best that America can boast. His picture is in all the magazines, and he has picked up sponsorships and speaking engagements. The only problem is that the world does not even know about Sanderson yet. Sanderson has not yet had his World-level debut. Two times his chance was taken away. In 2001, after the World Trade Towers were taken down by terrorists in New York, the World meet was moved from NYC to Europe during the college season, and Sanderson did not participate. Last year, along with his six other teammates, a threat of violence against the team kept the USA athletes home rather than on the mats in Iran. This winter, Sanderson started getting the international matches needed to climb that ladder, and he lost a few bouts. His takedown wrestling is superior, but he is still learning the game on the mat. In spite of some of those challenges, Sanderson came to Las Vegas and beat his U.S. challengers once again. Emerging as the top challenger to Sanderson has been Lee Fullhart of the Gator WC, who dropped a 5-0 bout to Sanderson in the U.S. Nationals finals. Fullhart won the first match against Sanderson of the best-of-three series at the World Team Trials last year, only to lose the final two bouts and the series. Fullhart is getting the international bouts needed for improvement, and has shown the ability to beat the other U.S. challengers. Now he must figure out a way to knock Sanderson off his game, and get into position to score the points needed for victory. The fact that he is a former star at Iowa gives him an additional incentive to knock that Cyclone off the top of the U.S. ladder. This is by no way an easy weight class, with the kind of depth that makes U.S. freestyle coaches smile. Placing third at the U.S. Nationals was Brandon Eggum of the Minnesota Storm, himself a proven World-level competitor. The year that Sanderson skipped the Worlds to concentrate on his senior year in college, Eggum went to the World Championships and captured a silver medal, a move away from taking the entire show. His 2002 season was lost to injury, but Eggum is back in top form, working for another shot at the rest of the world. One of the freestyle stars being developed at the Univ. of Minnesota, Eggum has the training environment and support to reach his dreams. Placing fourth at the U.S. Nationals was Muhammed Lawal of the Gator WC, who completed his college career by placing third in the NCAA Championships for Oklahoma State. Lawal has chosen to drop down in weight to pursue his freestyle goals, and his high placement in Las Vegas means that he has made a great decision. Lawal is still learning the international game, but is in a talented stable of stars training together in Stillwater that could help speed up the process. Lawal was a University Nationals champion this year. The athlete that can not be overlooked here, in spite of a few challenging seasons, is 2000 Olympian Charles Burton of the New York AC. Burton earned his trip to the Sydney Olympics by defeating past World Champion Les Gutches in a Special Wrestle-off. His fifth-place finish at the Olympics could have been even better, after making a mistake and losing a match late that he could have won. Burton has had a difficult time with Sanderson, but has the experience, skills and focus to get past other challengers and take another shot at the young champion. The rest of the field is also talented and interesting. Placing fifth in Las Vegas is veteran freestyler Aaron Simpson of the Sunkist Kids, who has beaten many of the other challengers and has the stuff to move high in the standings. A new young talent, Tony Gansen, training in Michigan, captured the sixth-place position in Las Vegas. Gansen won a FILA Junior National title in college, and has shown strong freestyle skills. The final spot in the Challenge Tournament from the U.S. Nationals went to Clint Wattenberg, who had a strong career at Cornell Univ. and has been a U.S. Nationals placer for two straight years. Randy Pugh of the Gator WC, ranked No. 4 on the Team USA ladder, gets into the field by winning a medal at a major international event. Pugh was also eighth at the U.S. Nationals, an indication that he can hang with this bunch and will be a force in Indianapolis. This former Northern Iowa talent has been a pleasant surprise in freestyle. Veteran Markus Mollica of the Dave Schultz WC makes the tournament by winning a Regional title. Mollica has been training in Colorado Springs to expand his freestyle skills, and will not be a welcome draw to anybody in the Challenge Tournament. Two other athletes will get a place in the field by winning a Regional, Pat Popolizio of the New York AC and Ben Askren of Missouri Elite. Askren is a young college talent just making a name; Popolizio is now in the college coaching ranks but continues to compete at a high level. Four NCAA Div. I finalists are permitted to participate in the Challenge Tournament. There is no certainty that they will compete, although NCAA runner-up Carl Fronhofer of Pitt has been a Greco-Roman specialist and may choose that style only. Robbie Waller of Oklahoma, Jake Rosholt of Oklahoma State and Scott Barker of Missouri could gain some valuable freestyle experience if they choose to compete in Indianapolis. This weight class will have a strong Challenge Tournament field, with some great matchups expected even in the early rounds. Winning the Challenge Tournament will be an achievement in itself. Based upon results of the last season, Lee Fullhart will be favored to survive this war. However, it is conceivable that another athlete could emerge, with Brandon Eggum and Charles Burton already having proven they know how to win under this kind of pressure. Waiting for a single opponent will be Cael Sanderson, who has that special ability to win the big events. Until one of these challengers actually stops Sanderson, the edge goes to the living legend. Nothing would mean more to Sanderson than getting the chance to actually show the international stars what he is all about and why the American wrestling fans are so excited about his future. 2003 U.S. Freestyle Nationals results at 84 kg/185 lbs. 1st - Cael Sanderson (Ames, Iowa/Sunkist Kids) dec. Lee Fullhart (Chattanooga, Tenn./Gator WC), 5-0 3rd - Brandon Eggum (Minneapolis, Minn./Minnesota Storm) dec. Muhammed Lawal (Stillwater, Okla./Gator WC), 5-2 5th - Aaron Simpson (Tempe, Ariz./Sunkist Kids) dec. Tony Gansen (Mt. Pleasant, Mich./Unatt.), 3-1 7th - Clint Wattenberg (Ithaca, N.Y./Cornell) by inj. default over Randy Pugh (Cedar Falls, Iowa/Gator WC) 2003 Freestyle World Team Trials qualifiers at 84 kg/185 lbs. National champion - Cael Sanderson (Ames, Iowa/Sunkist Kids) National placerwinners - 2. Lee Fullhart (Chattanooga, Tenn./Gator WC); 3. Brandon Eggum (Minneapolis, Minn./Minnesota Storm); 4. Muhammed Lawal (Stillwater, Okla./Gator WC); 5. Aaron Simpson (Tempe, Ariz./Sunkist Kids); 6. Tony Gansen (Mt. Pleasant, Mich./Unatt.); 7. Clint Wattenberg (Ithaca, N.Y./Cornell) Team USA member - Charles Burton, Lincoln, Neb. (Sunkist Kids); NCAA Div. I finalists - Robbie Waller (Norman, Okla./OU Underdogs); Carl Fronhofer (Pittsburgh, Pa./PWC); Jake Rosholt (Stillwater, Okla./Gator WC); Scott Barker (Columbia, Mo.; TigerWC); Regional champions - Markus Mollica (Colorado Springs, Colo./Dave Schultz WC); Pat Popolizio (West Point, N.Y./New York AC); Ben Askren (Columbia, Mo./Missouri Elite); Medalist at Group A Tournament - Randy Pugh (Cedar Falls, Iowa/Cat WC)