USA Wrestling Sesker's Slant: Talk...

Sesker's Slant: Talking NCAAs, Worlds, World Cup, Ironman and more

By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling | Dec. 17, 2014, 4:21 p.m. (ET)

Iowa’s Cory Clark takes control in a win over Iowa State’s Earl Hall in a battle of All-Americans last month. Darren Miller photo.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – This is one of my favorite times of the year.

Not only are we in the midst of the holiday season, but the competition on the wrestling mats is starting to kick into high gear.

The high school and college seasons are in full swing, and U.S. freestyle and Greco-Roman athletes will start competing in full force overseas shortly after the calendar flips to 2015.

I’m excited to have the opportunity to cover the Midlands Championships for the first time at the end of this month. I’ve been to virtually every major wrestling event you can think of, but this will be my first Midlands trip and I can’t wait.

As we head into the holidays, I want to offer a few random thoughts as we put a bow on a great 2014 that thankfully saw the sport back in the good graces of the Olympic movement.

Race for the NCAA title is intriguing

How close does the race for the 2015 NCAA team title appear?

Consider this: two teams are ranked No. 1. Iowa has been No. 1 in the coaches’ poll and Minnesota holds down the top spot virtually everywhere else.

Iowa, seeking NCAA title No. 24 this season, has a very strong, experienced and balanced lineup with the potential to send all 10 starters to the NCAA tournament in March.

The Hawkeyes likely will need a balanced attack with everybody contributing to win its first title since 2010. A big question mark remains the status of 197-pounder Nathan Burak, who has been sidelined with an injury. Losing Burak would be a big setback for Iowa, but the Hawkeyes are still very strong without him.

Minnesota coach J Robinson has a lineup with five proven performers who all potentially could reach the national finals. The Gophers, seeking their fourth team title under Robinson, likely need some newcomers and lesser-known athletes to step up and deliver.

You can’t forget about Cornell or Ohio State either.

Cornell has two legitimate national title contenders in Nahshon Garrett and Gabe Dean, and also has a number of other top athletes who can make an impact in St. Louis.

Ohio State is led by the great Logan Stieber, who is gunning for history and NCAA title No. 4 this season. The Buckeyes also have two-time All-American Hunter Stieber, Logan’s younger brother, who just returned to the lineup. They also have three of the best freshmen in the country in Nathan Tomasello, Bo Jordan and Kyle Snyder.

Penn State, winners of the last four titles, looks primed for another title run next year with a handful of studs redshirting this season. But the Nittany Lions still have a very strong lineup and can’t be counted out by any means.

I would still like to see more scoring and action at the collegiate level. There is still too much backing up and wrestling on the edge of the mat. Officials need to call stalling more and get the athletes to open up more.

I still have a strong dislike for the tiebreaker rules. Make the wrestlers earn an overtime takedown to decide a match that is tied after regulation. 

When Dylan Ness and James Green step on the mat, I want to see some fireworks from two of the nation’s most exciting wrestlers. They are two of my favorite guys to watch, but the match in the Cliff Keen finals in Las Vegas fell way short of the hype.

They could meet again at Big Tens and NCAAs, and I’m looking forward to seeing them battle again. Hopefully, with more action included next time.

2015 is big year with U.S. hosting World Championships and World Cup

Believe it or not, the U.S. has never hosted a World Championships that feature all three styles of wrestling.

That will change when the 2015 Worlds come to the U.S. on Sept. 7-12 in Las Vegas.

The 2015 World Championships is a hugely important event as it serves as the main qualifier for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The top six World finishers in each of the 18 Olympic weight classes, six in each style, qualify their countries for the Rio Games.

A strong home contingent was important the last time the U.S. hosted a World Championships, when the 2003 Worlds in freestyle and women’s freestyle were held at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. American teams finished second in both styles in an event that served as the main qualifier for the 2004 Olympics.

Not only are the World Championships being held on U.S. soil in 2015, the World Cup returns to Los Angeles for a second straight year. The World Cup will be held April 11-12 at the Forum.

The U.S. agreed to host the 2014 World Cup just a few months before it was wrestled, but the freestyle dual-meet event was still nothing short of outstanding.

The event was held in a great venue, the historic Forum, and wrestled on two spotlighted mats. There was outstanding wrestling, highlighted by strong teams from the U.S., Iran and Russia, and the atmosphere was tremendous with a large contingent of Iranian and American fans in attendance.

Having a true team competition brings out plenty of emotion and national pride.

This will be the first time since 2003 that the U.S. has hosted the World Cup and World Championships in the same year. The U.S. won the World Cup in freestyle that year in Boise, Idaho before the men’s and women’s freestyle teams both took second at the 2003 Worlds in New York.

In 1995, the U.S. hosted both the World Cup and World Championships in freestyle. The U.S. won the World Cup in Chattanooga, Tenn., that year before capturing its last freestyle World Championships team title in Atlanta.

If you get a chance, plan a trip to L.A. or Vegas, or both, to see these exciting events.

Great battles at the Ironman

The annual Ironman tournament in Ohio continues to be a phenomenal event with a number of the nation’s best high school athletes competing.

One match in particular is worth checking out if you haven’t seen it:

The 170-pound final between Anthony Valencia of St. John Bosco and Kamal Bey of Oak Park River Forest. Both wrestlers are well-known while developing through the USA Wrestling ranks and through their local programs. And both are hugely talented and gifted.

There were some great scrambles and great displays of athleticism in the match between two of the nation’s best.

Valencia prevailed 12-3, but Bey nearly caught him in a headlock early in the match and put up a strong fight.

Valencia’s blast double where he took Bey to his back early in the bout is a thing of beauty. I still have no idea how Bey got off his back during that sequence.

One issue I had with that match was the size of the mat. The mat looked about as big as the small, hard-as-a-rock mat my dad put in our basement for me and my brothers to wrestle on while growing up in Iowa.

Too many of those great scrambles between Valencia and Bey were stopped because they went out of bounds. I would have loved to have seen the action continue on a bigger mat.

There was still room for Valencia to stick a textbook flip after the exciting bout.

Best match of the year?

I was asked that question recently, and that requires some thought. I watch thousands of matches every year, but a few did stand out this year.

Domestically is actually a fairly easy choice for me. The U.S. Open freestyle finals between Jordan Burroughs and David Taylor.

Burroughs was in huge trouble late in the match against an upset-minded Taylor before pulling out an improbable win in the match’s closing stages at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Burroughs scored two takedowns in the final 30 seconds to prevail.

The post-match emotion told the story as Burroughs flexed while a frustrated Taylor slapped the mat.

Look for more great battles between these two outstanding wrestlers in the very near future. And throw Kyle Dake into the mix as well. It’s going to be fun to watch. Wish we could enter all three at the Worlds.

Three international matches come to mind when thinking about the best bouts of the season.

The first is the epic women’s freestyle match between American Adeline Gray and China’s Zhou Qian in the first round of the 2014 Worlds in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Gray trailed 9-2 late in the match before scoring a takedown and a succession of leg laces to tie the match 9-9.

Zhou came back with a pushout to lead 10-9 before Gray countered a shot and exposed Zhou’s back to the mat with six seconds left for two points to earn a dramatic win.

Gray went on to win her second World title. She’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at competing at a high level when the stakes are highest.

My favorite Greco-Roman bout also came from the 2014 Worlds. American Andy Bisek, perhaps better known for his moustache than his wrestling, rallied from deficits of 4-0 and 5-2 to knock off the Olympic and World champion Roman Vlasov of Russia.

Down 5-2, Bisek turned Vlasov twice in the final minute on a pair of gut wrenches where he was awarded one point for each turn. After a U.S. challenge failed, Vlasov was awarded a point with 30 seconds left.

Bisek then powered in near the edge of the mat, taking Vlasov down to tie the match 6-6 with just five seconds left. Bisek won on criteria by virtue of scoring last.

Bisek is a hard-nosed and aggressive wrestler, but he’s also more athletic and more technical than you might think. Don’t be surprised to see him in a World or Olympic final at some point. He’s a damn good wrestler.

And finally, my favorite international freestyle match was the battle between World champions Viktor Lebedev of Russia and Hassan Rahimi of Iran at the 2014 World Cup in Los Angeles.

The two lightweights met in the first bout of the championship dual with Lebedev pulling out a dramatic 4-3 win. There wasn’t a ton of scoring, but there were some incredible scrambles and an abundance of great action between two highly skilled competitors.

It ranks as one of the best freestyle matches I’ve ever seen.

Happy holidays everyone! Hope to see a few of you at the Midlands in a couple of weeks, and a bunch more at the World Cup and World Championships.

Feel free to provide any feedback to me at