TheMatside View by Gary Abbott Top 10 wrestling stories of 2007Each year, during the holiday season, I have the pleasure of writing a column about the top 10 wrestling stories from the year which has passed. This has become as much a part of my annual holiday routine as putting up a Christmas tree or sending holiday cards to friends and family.
The fun part about this topic is the opportunity to review the year that has gone by and to remember all the great moments in wrestling during the past year. The sport of wrestling continues to change and to grow, and every year there a different things that make an impact in the sport. Narrowing the list down to 10, with a few honorable mentions, is a challenge because there are so many important stories within wrestling each year.
Here are my top 10 stories for the year. Please look back for yourself and make your list of important wrestling stories. No matter how much time I put into researching this topic, there are always a few other great stories which don't make my list. As we have done in recent years, we will ask wrestling fans to post their selection on TheMat.com's Bulletin Boards.
1. U.S. Greco-Roman World Team wins World Championships - If you go back 25 years, anybody who thought the United States could win a World title as a team in Greco-Roman wrestling would have been considered crazy. This sport has been dominated by Europeans, and America's success has been taken a long hard road. The performance of the 2007 U.S. Greco-Roman team is inspiring. Brad Vering's march to his first World medal and Harry Lester's repeat medal performance were admirable. The victory by Dremiel Byers in the bronze-medal match at heavyweight under tremendous pressure shows the kind of character and poise that he has. Lindsey Durlacher's gutsy fifth place effort was also a big factor. They did this without 2006 World champion Joe Warren in the lineup. The USA beat Russia by one point, and National Coach Steve Fraser lifted the trophy to show to the world!!! U.S. Greco-Roman athletes and coaches celebrated decades of struggle when this special group of athletes came home as World Champions.
2. Kristie Marano captures record ninth World medal - Open the dictionary and look for the word consistency, and you might see a picture of women's wrestling star Kristie Marano. Nine times, Marano has represented the USA at the World Championships. All nine times, Marano has come home as a World medalist. This year, she won a World silver at 72 kg, the top performance on the U.S. women's team. This tied Marano with the legendary Bruce Baumgartner with nine World Championship medals. Marano has won two World titles among her nine medals. She has an incredible mental toughness and poise under pressure, and her confidence is amazing. All that is left for Marano to achieve is to win an Olympic medal, a quest which she will undertake in the next few months. This woman is a future Hall of Famer and an inspiration to the wrestling community.
3. Minnesota captures 2007 NCAA Championships - Going into the 2007 NCAA Div. I Championships, the Minnesota Gophers were heavily favored to bring home the team title. Coach J Robinson downplayed his team's potential dominance, and proved to be right when the tournament unfolded. After a miserable Friday night effort, Minnesota fell behind Iowa State in the team standings after two days. Returning champion Dustin Schlatter was beaten in the semifinals, and only heavyweight Cole Konrad advanced to the gold-medal round. However, Minnesota's depth came through in the wrestleback rounds, as Schlatter and Roger Kish placed third, pulling the team back into the lead in the standings. In the finals, Konrad won his second NCAA title and the Gophers held off the Cyclones, 98 points to 88.5 points, giving Minnesota a hard-earned team title. Robinson returns a strong team for the 2007-08 year, seeking a repeat.
4. Grappling is added as international wrestling style - During the winter of 2007, the international wrestling federation FILA announced that Grappling (also known as submission wrestling) had been added as an international wrestling style. USA Wrestling hosted a historic summit in March, bringing together the existing Grappling community and key USA Wrestling leaders to begin to putting together a program. Qualifying events were created, and the first Grappling World Team Trials was held alongside the Olympic styles of wrestling in Las Vegas in June. No Limits was secured as a sponsor, and the U.S. sent a strong team to the first FILA World Grappling Championships in Turkey in September. Under coaches Bob Anderson and Jason Townsend, the American performance was spectacular, sweeping all nine gold medals in the tournament. USA Wrestling has hired Townsend to manage its Developing Wrestling Styles program starting next year. Grappling is a growing sport all over the nation and world, especially with the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts. USA Wrestling's Grappling program has tremendous potential moving forward.
5. Russia dominates World Freestyle Championships - Everybody knows that Russia is considered the world power in men's freestyle wrestling, but the Russian performance at the World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan is clearly one of the most impressive in wrestling history. Russia won six gold medals and one bronze medal, losing only one match the entire week with a combined 37-1 record in Baku. The Russian team was a mix of veterans and young talents, with newcomers Georgi Ketoev and Beylal Makhov taking World titles on their first try. With World champions in every single weight class, including a few divisions with more than one World champion in the system, Russia will be heavily favored in freestyle going into the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Can Russia continue this dominance at the Olympic Games?
6. Askren mania moves from college into freestyle - Ben Askren is a popular wrestler, an athlete with tremendous skill and style on the mat. His long hair helps draw attention to him when he wrestles, but it is his technique and dominance that makes him special. Competing for the Univ. of Missouri, Askren dominated college wrestling in 2008, pinning or tech'ing most of his rivals. He defeated Pitt's Keith Gavin in the NCAA finals to win his second career NCAA gold, and was awarded the Dan Hodge Trophy for the second straight time. A free spirit, Askren brings a passion for the sport with him at all times. Once his college career ended, he switched over to freestyle, where he is seeking a spot on the 2008 Olympic Team. Already this fall, Askren has won two international tournaments, including a victory over 2005 World bronze medalist Donny Pritzlaff at the New York AC Holiday International. In short order, he has become a serious contender for the 74 kg spot for Beijing, China. Wrestling fans can expect more spectacular wrestling, as well as tremendous entertainment, as Askren pursues his goals in international wrestling.
7. Heskett retires with heart condition shortly after Worlds - The 2007 season was the most successful ever in freestyle wrestling for former Iowa State star Joe Heskett. He won his first U.S. Nationals title in Las Vegas, then followed it up with a victory at the World Team Trials to make his first U.S. World Team. An assistant coach at Ohio State, Heskett competed in the Pan American Games, then went to Baku, Azerbaijan to wrestle in his first World Championships. His fifth-place performance was just short of a medal, and included some outstanding efforts. He almost defeated World champion Mahkach Murtazaliev of Russia in the semifinals. Only a few days after returning from Baku, in a workout at Ohio State, he suffered a severe heart condition and needed shock defribrillation. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and ventricular tachycardia, conditions which forced Heskett to retire from wrestling. Heskett responded with courage and class, focusing on his family and his future rather than dwelling on the loss of opportunity as an athlete. Heskett has truly been a role model as a person, with a focus on the proper priorities in his life.
8. Sanderson takes Iowa State to NCAA runner-up - When Olympic champion Cael Sanderson took over as the head coach at his alma mater Iowa State, many wondered how successful this young coach would be in major college wrestling. There was certainly pressure on Sanderson to show that he could coach as well as he could compete. Sanderson inherited a strong team, which seemed to thrive under the new coach's leadership. After two days at the NCAA Championships, the Cyclones held the team lead. Although Minnesota passed Iowa State on the final day, Sanderson's team featured a NCAA champion in Trent Paulson at 157 pounds, and NCAA runners-up in Jake Varner (184) and Kurt Backes (197). The Sanderson era has begun at Iowa State and with the improvement of the Iowa team under Tom Brands, the intrastate rivalry has heated back up (which is great for wrestling)!!!
9. Fight for Oregon program challenges college wrestling - Not all big news is necessarily good news. When the Univ. of Oregon announced that it was dropping its varsity wrestling team and adding a baseball team, the wrestling community received a huge jolt. Oregon is an original Pac-10 program and has sponsored wrestling for many years. The Ducks were given one more year of competition (2007-08) before the cut was made. Losing Oregon will be a setback for wrestling in the West, and could cause the loss of the Pac-10 as a wrestling conference. A fight was initiated among alumni and wrestling supporters, with many activities planned to Save Oregon Wrestling. The 2007 NWCA All-Star Classic was hosted at Oregon, and a crowd of over 4,000 showed up to support the Oregon program in a sign of unity among wrestlers. The university has not conceded anything, holding strong with its decision to eliminate the sport. This fight for survival is expected to continue through the year ahead
10. Cormier gets World medal after many years trying - In American freestyle wrestling, the most dominant wrestler in recent years has been 96 kg star Daniel Cormier. He made his first World team in 2003 and has held his top spot every year since. The closest Cormier came to a medal was at the 2004 Olympics, where he finished fourth. Cormier trained hard prior to the 2007 World Championships, and raised the level of his wrestling in Baku, Azerbaijan. Cormier won his first two matches, before losing a third-round match to Saeid Abrahimi of Iran. In the wrestlebacks, Cormier battled back with two more wins, including a 1-0, 0-1, 1-0 win over Alexey Krupnyakov in the bronze-medal match. Finally getting the monkey off his back, Cormier enters the Olympic year with renewed confidence and high expectations for himself.
Below are another 10 stories worth noting:
LeVesseur finishes as four-time undefeated D-III champion - With his victory at 165 pounds, Marcus LeVesseur completed his college wrestling career as a four-time champion, with an undefeated record of 155-0. LeVesseur competes for Augsburg College on the Div. III level. His feat matches the achievement of Cael Sanderson, who was a four-time NCAA champion without a loss on the Div. I level. Like Sanderson, LeVesseur had to deal with the special pressures of keeping the winning streak alive and performing at his best.
U.S. team has successful trip to Takhti Cup in Iran - Although USA Wrestling has done this before, a trip by the men's freestyle team to compete in Iran made big news in January. With support from the U.S. State Department, Team USA competed in the Takhti Cup in Bandar Abbas, Iran. It was the first time the U.S. competed in Iran since 2004, and was during a time of high diplomatic tension between the two nations. Mo Lawal won a gold medal and the U.S. was treated with warm hospitality during the entire trip. Once again, sport proved to be a bond between cultures, regardless of the politics between their governments.
Jenkins and Conder win Junior World titles - In late August, the Junior World Championships were held in Beijing, China, in the arena where the Olympics will be hosted next summer. The Junior World Championships is the only age-group World event run by FILA, and all of the major nations attend with very strong teams. The U.S. claimed its first gold medal with USOEC product Whitney Conder put together a strong tournament at 51 kg in women's freestyle, defeating India's Kumari Babita in the finals. A few days later, in the men's freestyle finals, Penn State's Bubba Jenkins claimed a gold medal at 66 kg. He beat the Asian Junior champion from Iran, then the European Junior champion from Turkey in his last two matches, and wrestled with a confidence and wide open style that brings excitement to the sport.
Perry upsets Hendricks in NCAA finals - Oklahoma State's exciting and controversial Johny Hendricks came to the NCAA Championships seeking his third career title. However, Iowa's Mark Perry had different plans, upsetting Hendricks in the championship finals 4-3. Perry had lost all six previous meetings with Hendricks, but put it all together on the center stage. Hendricks is the kind of wrestler who brought excitement to the sport, with many fans who enjoyed rooting against him because of his flamboyant attitude. Hendricks has since left competitive wrestling to pursue a career in Mixed Martial Arts, while Perry is back trying to defend his NCAA title this year.
Moore and Glenn bring first NCAA titles to their schools - Two colleges were able to celebrate their first NCAA Div. I individual champions in 2007, when Derek Moore of UC-Davis won the 141 pound title and Josh Glenn captured the 197-pound crown for American University. Moore was named Outstanding Wrestler after dismantling Ryan Lang of Northwestern in a 17-2 technical fall. Glenn had to go overtime to defeat Kurt Backes of Iowa State in his finals bout. Both athletes prove that college wrestling is an individual sport, and great athletes can win national titles at less prominent programs by working with talented coaches (Lenny Zalesky at UC Davis and Mark Cody at American).
Lester wins second medal, and shows off in freestyle, too - Harry Lester has become a mega-talent in international Greco-Roman wrestling, winning a World medal for the second straight year at 66 kg. The last two years, he has put together an amazing run at the World Championships, losing just one match and battling back to win a medal. He truly showed his athletic and wrestling abilities when he won a double title at the University Nationals in Akron, wrestling up from his normal weight class. It was no big news when he won the Greco-Roman division, but when he competed in freestyle for the first time in years, he put on a show. Lester beat Travis Paulson in the freestyle finals at 74 kg, making fans wonder how he might have done had he selected that style. Meanwhile, Lester is a top gold-medal hopeful for the Beijing Olympics in the classic style, with the first step on that journey being the Olympic Trials process.
Cejudo catches attention as young star takes No. 1 spot - It was big news a year ago when high school student Henry Cejudo won a Senior National title in freestyle. This year, Cejudo took the next step in his development, becoming No. 1 in the nation on the Senior level in his first full season after choosing to forgo college wrestling to concentrate on freestyle. Cejudo won the U.S. Nationals and World Team Trials, and was only U.S. champion at Pan American Games. He was featured in an extensive article in Sports Illustrated, which gave extensive details in the personal side of his life and brought great attention to the sport. Alas, Cejudo was unable to medal at his first Senior World Championships. However, the skill that this young star has shown in freestyle wrestling, and his success under pressure makes him a top story going into the Olympic year.
Re-emergence of Iowa in college wrestling - The Tom Brands era of college wrestling seems to be building, after the storied Hawkeye program has rallied behind its new coach in his second season. After placing eighth in the 2007 NCAA championships, Brands' team has had a very strong start in the 2007-08 season, holding the No. 1 national ranking with a 7-0 record going into the Christmas Holiday. The Hawkeyes went into Ames and scored an impressive victory over interstate rival Iowa State, which was ranked No. 1 at the time. A crowd of almost 9,000 watched Iowa win six of the 10 matches. All four of the Hawkeye starters who had transferred from Virginia Tech along with Brands won their bouts. The fact that Iowa is again high in the nation rankings shows that this traditional power will be a threat once again, in the era where college wrestling has reached a level of parity among the top programs.
Zillmer only third Cadet Triple Crown winner ever - Hayden Zillmer of Minnesota became only the third wrestler to win a Cadet Triple Crown since the program was created. Zillmer won USA Wrestling Cadet national titles in all three styles, joining Taylor Moore and Zach Sanders as the only Cadet athletes to achieve this level. Zillmer beat Jade Rauser of Montana in the 84-pound finals in both freestyle and Greco-Roman in Fargo in July to achieve this feat, after winning a folkstyle national title in Cedar Falls, Iowa in April.
Oklahoma City Univ. adds women's team - Women's college wrestling has had slow growth in recent seasons, but the decision by Oklahoma City University to add a women's team this year has added momentum to the sport. Coach Archie Randall and his university are serious about success with both the men's and women's program, and in just its first semester of competition, the Stars have climbed to a No. 2 ranking in the women's division. If a few more colleges would put the same enthusiasm into women's wrestling, it would greatly strengthen the entire U.S. women's wrestling program.
I am certain that I have left off some important news items, and appreciate if wrestling fans would share their thoughts about the top stories of the 2007 year. Please give your opinions about what you believe were the biggest news item in the year that has passed. You can give your feedback on the following thread on the message boards.
Happy New Year to you and your family. Have a great 2008 wrestling year!!!!