It’s time for the annual Top 10 stories of the year, a chance to look back and remember the key wrestling moments of 2014. We all still remember for the drama of 2013, when the Olympic crisis took all of the energy and passion the worldwide wrestling community could muster. The 2014 year was a bit different, as the wrestling community seemed ready to lead a renaissance for the sport, working harder at promotion and setting a higher bar for wrestling at all levels.
The renewed spirit within the wrestling world brought about many exciting and interesting events and activities. Here are the top stories of the year from my perspective here at USA Wrestling…
1. Adeline Gray gets gold and U.S. women take third at Worlds – The World Championships are the ultimate test, and Adeline Gray does her best wrestling on the big stage. Competing at 75 kg in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Gray fell way behind in her opening match against Zhou Qian of China, trailing 2-9, but battled back for an amazing 11-10 win. From there, she powered through her bracket with four more wins. Her quarterfinal win was huge for her, topping Japan’s Hiroe Suzuki, who has beaten her only weeks before. In the finals, she was in total control for a 2-1 win over Brazil’s Aline da Silva for her second World title. Gray led a USA women’s team that featured silver medalist Elena Pirozhkova, bronze medalist Helen Maroulis and fifth-place finishers Alyssa Lampe and Alli Ragan. Team USA placed third in the standings for the second straight year, putting our women in a strong spot halfway through the Olympic cycle.
2. Burroughs shows true grit in winning World bronze medal – Coming into the 2014 season, Jordan Burroughs was still undefeated on the Senior level, with three straight gold medals to his credit at 74 kg (two World titles and an Olympic gold). His 69-match win streak was snapped in February, when American Nick Marable beat Burroughs in a 4-4 criteria match in the quarterfinals at the Yasar Dogu in Turkey. Burroughs started a new streak, winning the World Cup, U.S. Open, Beat the Streets, World Team Trials and Pan Am Championships in a row. At the Worlds in Uzbekistan, Burroughs drew little known August Midana of Guinea Bissau in his opener, and injured his leg, barely escaping with a 4-3 win. Clearly hobbled by the injury, Burroughs knocked off athletes from Korea and Uzbekistan to reach the semifinals against archrival and two-time World champion Denis Tsargush who was ready and motivated. Tsargush beat Burroughs 9-2, but the American came back in the bronze-medal match to pin Ukraine’s Rustam Dudaev. Although his record is no longer spotless, Burroughs showed once again that he can overcome adversity, and remains the top wrestling talent on the planet.
3. Penn State wins fourth straight NCAA title – The definition of dynasty seems to change over time, as it seems harder than ever to win consecutive team titles in any major sports activity. The days of running the table year after year in wrestling, going back to Iowa and Oklahoma State dynasties of the past, may have gone away. But nobody told that to Cael Sanderson and his Penn State Nittany Lions. After three straight NCAA titles, Lion seniors David Taylor and Ed Ruth were on a mission to make it a four-pete. At the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City, three teams had a mathematical chance to win the title going into the final day, Minnesota, Penn State and Oklahoma State. Two of the greatest college stars in history carried the ball over goal line, as Taylor beat Tyler Caldwell in the 165-pound finals, 6-0 and Ruth took out Jimmy Sheptock of Maryland, 7-2 at 184. Taylor finished as a 2-time champ and 4-time finalist (2-1-2-1) and Ruth won three straight titles (3-1-1-1). Penn State finished 5.5 points ahead of Minnesota, allowing the Lions to hoist the trophy and continue the redefine the word dynasty in wrestling.
4. Andy Bisek gets U.S. Greco on World podium with bronze – Until this fall, Andy Bisek may have been known more within wrestling for his healthy mustache than his mighty achievements. Not any more. Bisek, who put together two strong seasons on the international circuit, had a break-through performance at the Worlds in Uzbekistan. After a solid 5-0 win over Petros Maoulidis of Greece, Bisek drew World and Olympic champion Roman Vlasov of Russia in round two. Bisek went toe-to-toe with his talented opponent, but fell behind 5-2. Bisek scored a pair of one-point gut wrenches, and after a failed U.S. protest, was behind 6-4. It was a takedown with five seconds to go which gave Bisek a 6-6 criteria decision. His win was the buzz of the tournament, and the international fans started calling Bisek “the Cowboy.”In the quarterfinals, he dropped a tight 0-1 match to Neven Zugaj of Croatia, but was pulled into repechage when Zugaj reached the finals. Bisek responded with a 6-5 win over Finland’s Veli-Karri Suominen to reach the medal round, where he opened up this offense for an 8-0 tech fall over Hiroyuki Shimizu of Japan for the bronze. An American Greco-Roman wrestler stood on the medal podium for the first time since Dremiel Byers’ silver medal in 2009. Bisek’s ability to turn opponents from the top, coupled with his fierce competitiveness, has made him a leader within Greco and a legitimate medal contender for Rio.
5. Lindland, Burnett assume National Coach positions – There was a coaching change at the top of two of the three Olympic-level programs at USA Wrestling this year. In Greco-Roman, after 18 years as National Greco-Roman Coach, Steve Fraser took the new post as Chief of Donor and Alumni Relations for USA Wrestling. After 5 ½ years as National Freestyle Coach, Zeke Jones returned to his alma mater to become Arizona State’s head wrestling coach. USA Wrestling reached back into its history to fill those key National Coaching Posts. In freestyle, Bruce Burnett returned as National Freestyle Coach, after serving in that position from 1992-2000. Burnett, who had retired as head coach from the U.S. Naval Academy, agreed to lead the U.S. through the 2016 Rio Olympics. Burnett has one task in mind – to maximize our performance for Rio. In his first stint, the USA won two World team titles and the 1996 Olympic medal count under Burnett’s leadership. For the Greco-Roman National Coaching post, USA Wrestling brought back Olympic and World silver medalist Matt Lindland, who had left wrestling to compete and coach in Mixed Martial Arts. Lindland was part of some of the best U.S. Greco-Roman teams in history as an athlete, and will be working to bring the Greco program back to world prominence.
6. David Taylor finishes college on top, then pushes Burroughs in freestyle – It would be fair to say that it was a magical final college season for Penn State’s Magic Man, as David Taylor went out at the top of his game. He went undefeated as a senior, leading the Lions to their fourth straight NCAA team title, then swept all the big awards. He added his second Dan Hodge Trophy as the top college wrestler, was named Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year, was a First Team Academic All-American and was nominated for an ESPY. He then jumped right into the freestyle season, at 74 kg, the deepest weight class in U.S. wrestling. Taylor reached the U.S. Open finals against World and Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs, and gave the wrestling community an instant classic. Taylor turned Burroughs twice with cradles, and led 6-3 with less than a minute left, before Burroughs made a remarkable comeback with two takedowns for a 7-6 win. The two met again in the finals of the World Team Trials, with Burroughs winning in two exciting bouts, 5-2 and 6-5. Now you know that Taylor is nowhere near satisfied with being No. 2 behind Burroughs, and was very disappointed with his close losses in the freestyle finals events. However, he has set the stage for an exciting run towards the 2016 Olympics. And don’t ever forget that the weight class should also include Kyle Dake, David Taylor and others. You can expect the USA to be very, very strong at 74 kg in Rio.
7. Tervel Dlagnev breaks through for second career World bronze – For three straight years, Tervel Dlagnev reached a World or Olympic bronze-medal match but did not come home with a medal. There is no doubt that he has been one of the most consistent and successful freestyle heavyweight stars on the planet, yet each year ended with disappointment and frustration. At the 2014 Worlds in Uzbekistan, Dlagnev turned it around with a win in the bronze-medal round. After early wins over athletes from Moldova and Slovakia, Dlagnev fell in the quarterfinals to the top ranked heavyweight in the world, Turkey’s Taha Akgul. When Akgul reached the finals, Dlagnev had new life. He beat Alan Dzebisov of Azerbaijan in repechage, then won his bronze-medal match over 2011 World champion Alexei Shemarov of Belarus, 2-1. His hard work, skill and determination paid off, and will give Dlagnev a boost in his quest to return to the Olympics and win a medal in Rio.
8. USA wins team trophies in freestyle at three age-group levels – The age-group World Championship events are a great indication of the strength of a nation’s wrestling program and its potential for future Olympic-caliber success. If that is so, then USA Wrestling should be encouraged about men’s freestyle, which had its best age-group results in years. At the University Worlds in Pecs, Hungary, the USA won an amazing seven medals, including golds from Tyler Caldwell and Tyrell Fortune, to capture the World Team title. At the FILA Junior Worlds in Zagreb, Croatia, the USA won six medals, including silver medals from Joey McKenna and Aaron Pico, to place second in the team standings. At the FILA Cadet Worlds in Snina, Slovakia, the USA won four medals, led by champions Spenser Lee, Mason Manville and Mark Hall, to place third in the World standings. Trophies are awarded only to the top three teams as the World level, and winning a trophy at every age level World meet is a great achievement worth bragging about.
9. New professional promotions get started – Ever since the international wrestling community emerged from its successful fight to retain its Olympic status, there has been a renaissance within wrestling. One of the new initiatives in the USA has been the creation of a variety of professional competition opportunities for our nation’s elite stars. It started with some special challenge matches at events like the Grapple at the Garden, as well as the AGON promotion, and has expanded this year. Teague Moore created Tour ACW, which provided prize money in a tournament setting. Flowrestling started its own promotion, the Flo Premier League, which set up challenge matches for money alongside existing wrestling events. The Global Wrestling Championships has been launched by the leaders of the Titan Mercury Wrestling Club, and is setting up title matches for belts and prize money. All of these promotions are using live webcasts through pay-per-view to help fund the effort. This allows fans to see great wrestling presented in a new way, and rewards the athletes for their abilities and success. 2015 will be a key year to see how well these promotions fare, and what will the long-term future look like.
10. Alo and Manville win Cadet World titles, then fly back to win Fargo – Winning a World title is the highest achievement possible for a wrestler, regardless of age group. Two U.S. athletes who won the ultimate honor at the FILA Cadet World Championships (ages 15-17 years) in Snina, Slovakia this year were not satisfied with just their World title. Women’s freestyle Cadet World champion Teshya Alo and men’s freestyle Cadet World champion Mason Manville flew back immediately from Slovakia to Fargo, N.D. to participate in the ASICS Junior Nationals. In spite of the long travel and having to compete in two major events within a week, both Alo and Manville were able to win their weight class in Fargo. An added bonus was that Alo was named Outstanding Wrestler in the Women’s Junior division. Both of these amazing athletes just love to wrestle and compete, ingredients to success in their future.
In no particular order, I’d like to note some other stories which stand out in my mind during a busy, busy year.
Coon wins FILA Junior World medals in both styles – Young heavyweight Adam Coon continued his progress in the international styles with an impressive performance at the FILA Junior World Championships in Zagreb, Croatia this summer. Winner of both styles at the FILA Junior World Team Trials, he made the decision to compete in them both in Zagreb. Coon started with Greco-Roman and won his first three bouts to reach the semifinals, where he lost to Russian Sergei Semenov of Russia. In the bronze bout, he pinned Arata Sonata of Japan. In freestyle, Coon had another great start, then lost a heartbreaker to Canadian Amar Dhesi in the semis. He rebounded with a pin of Yusuf Dede of Turkey to win the bronze. What style will Adam Coon eventually master? At this point of his career, he is excellent at both styles. Maybe he will ultimately continue to wrestle both…
Ruth and Ramos win NCAA titles, then make their first U.S. World Team – It is getting more and more difficult for college wrestlers to quickly move to the top of their weight on the Senior level in freestyle. It usually takes a few years of focusing only on freestyle for them to get the chance to represent the USA at the Worlds or Olympics. This year, we had two special athletes who went right from NCAA gold to the Senior World Team. Tony Ramos, who won the 133 title for Iowa as a Senior, decided to drop to 125 pounds for the World Team Trials in Madison, Wis. He powered through the Challenge Tournament, then beat Olympian Sam Hazewinkel in two straight bouts in the finals. Ed Ruth claimed his third NCAA title for Penn State as a senior at 184 pounds. After taking third at the U.S. Open, Ruth had a great run at the World Team Trials at 189 where he reached the finals against 2013 World Team member Keith Gavin. The series went the full three matches, with Ruth winning the deciding bout. Both fell short of the medals at Worlds, but head into the second half of the Olympic cycle at the top of the heap in America.
Stieber wins NCAA title No. 3 and sets up a run for four – After winning NCAA titles as a freshman and sophomore, Ohio State phenom Logan Stieber continued his march towards one of the greatest college wrestlers in history. His junior year was one of dominance, where he owned his opponents at the 141-pound class. Of his 30 matches, Stieber won 28 where he scored bonus points. He added a third Big Ten title, and a third NCAA title to his collection. He didn’t have a close match at NCAAs, and put away tough Devin Carter of Virginia Tech in the finals, 10-1. Now in his senior season, Stieber has a chance to become the fourth four-timer in NCAA history, looking to join Pat Smith, Cael Sanderson and Kyle Dake in that lofty company. His Ohio State Buckeyes are good enough to make a run at the team title in March. The scary part is that Stieber may be better in freestyle than folkstyle, meaning there are more big achievements possible in the future.
Anthony and Maroulis first four-time WCWA Women’s college national champions – With more than a decade of competition on the women’s college level, no athlete had won national titles for all four years of eligibility until 2014. Simon Fraser stars Victoria Anthony and Helen Maroulis became the first four-timers with wins at the WCWA Nationals in St. Louis. Both are big-time stars for the USA, who went north of the border to Canada for college. Maroulis started her career at Missouri Baptist where she won title No. 1, then added three for Simon Fraser, while Anthony won all four of her crowns for SFU. As seniors, no college athlete gave either of them a difficult match. Both now have their gaze on the 2016 Olympic quest.
Aaron Pico climbs wrestling success ladder and signs for MMA with Bellator – No young American wrestler captures the imagination and interest of wrestling fans like 18-year-old Aaron Pico of California. His decision to skip both high school and college wrestling to focus entirely on freestyle only in high school took courage and a unique focus. He travelled the world for training and competition throughout the year, entering both Junior and Senior tournaments. Already a Cadet World champion in 2013, Pico added a Junior World silver medal in 2014. On the Senior level, he won gold medals in events in Spain and France, and a bronze in Russia. He boasts a win over the 2013 World Champion. American fans can’t wait until the 2015 U.S. Open to see how he does against the best 65 kg athletes in the nation. This fall, he signed a contract with Bellator MMA, looking to set up his future after wrestling. Like I said, nobody creates a buzz within wrestling like young Aaron Pico.
Japan’s Yoshida and Icho continue to set records – I know I am giving an American twist to this blog, but it is hard to ignore the international story of Japanese superstar women wrestlers Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho. Until somebody beats these two stars at a World Championships or Olympic Games, they are head-and-shoulders above all other wrestlers on the planet. With the change in weight class structures, both dropped in weight this year. Their numbers are staggering. Both are three-time Olympic champions. Yoshida has 12 World titles and Icho has nine. Both won Asian Games golds this year to boot. Their quest to become four-time Olympic champions with wins in Rio seem on track. Unless somebody figures out how to beat them.
Foxcatcher movie hits the big screens, showing wrestling in a realistic fashion – Consider all of the past motion pictures which have included wrestling as a central theme, and list the number of films in which the wrestling scenes looked authentic. Having a little trouble there? No worries about the new movie Foxcatcher, which tells the tragic story of Mark and Dave Schultz and Foxcatcher founder John E. DuPont, and the events which led to du Pont murdering Dave Schultz. It is a dark and sad story, one that is way too close to many of us from that era. The direction from Bennett Miller, and acting from Steve Carell (du Pont), Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz) and Mark Ruffalo (Dave Schultz) was superb, and should be worthy of some major film awards. Credit Miller for his passion to portray wrestling realistically by detailed research and listening to the wrestling community.
USA wins three silver medals at Youth Olympic Games – The Youth Olympic Games is a huge deal around the world, and were held for the second time for summer sports this August in Nanjing, China. This event is for teenage athletes, and in wrestling featured FILA Cadet competitors. The USA qualified three for the event, and all came home with silver medals, Mason Manville in Greco and Cade Olivas and Daton Fix in freestyle. Their medal sweep was named one of the top 14 U.S. performances at Youth Olympic Games.
USA hosts 2014 World Cup and gets bid to host again in 2015 – The Freestyle World Cup was created by the United States, with its early history developed in Toledo, Ohio. After a decade without the event held on U.S. soil, USA Wrestling was able to step in when the tournament needed a host. Andy Barth and his local organizers in Los Angeles worked hard with very little time, and put together a great event in March 2014. The wrestling was outstanding, with Iran winning the title, Russia second and the USA third. Jordan Burroughs, Brent Metcalf and Clayton Foster had great efforts for the USA. The World Cup returns in 2015, this time in April, and the goal is for more fans and an even better show. Make plans to attend.
Wyoming Seminary wins Prep Nationals, halts Blair’s streak – Blair Academy has been the top high school program in the nation for many years, consistently producing national-caliber teams and star athletes for our college and international programs. Blair started a streak of team titles at the National Prep School Championships in 1981, and ran off 33 straight titles until 2014. It took a perfect storm, but the streak was stopped at the 2014 Prep Nationals in Bethlehem, Pa., when Wyoming Seminary (Pa.), under coach Scott Green, beat Blair by 43 points to win the team title. Kudos go to Green and his team for their achievement, but you also have to truly respect the greatness of the Blair program that ruled the event for well over three decades.
King wins its first WCWA women’s college national title – Led by four individual champions, King University edged Oklahoma City University to win its first WCWA women’s college national team title. Tornado champions included Haley Augello, Alli Ragan, Sara Hildebrandt and Julia Salata, all who have been top USA Wrestling age-group stars in women’s wrestling. King’s individual fire-power was just enough to beat OCU’s depth, giving coach Jason Moorman his first national title.
USA dominates World All-Stars in BTS Gala in Times Square – This annual event is always a lot of fun, and a great way to showcase our sport to a wider audience. This year, the Beat the Streets leadership moved the competition back to Times Square, and put a strong USA team up against a team of international All-Stars. It was a great day for Team USA, which emerged with an 8-3 win. Fans got to enjoy great bouts from stars like Brent Metcalf, Helen Maroulis, David Taylor, Ed Ruth, Randi Miller and Jordan Burroughs. The event was televised nationally on NBC Sports Network and drew a good audience. What will be in store in New York in 2015? Stay tuned.
FILA changes name to United World Wrestling and continues reforms – When Nenad Lalovic of Serbia took over as president of the international wrestling federation in 2013, he promised changes and has done a good job delivering them. The IOC was pleased enough to keep the sport on the Olympic program. This year, when FILA changed its name to United World Wrestling, it was continuing on a path toward modernization and improvement. It’s harder to say UWW than FILA, but the message shows a commitment to change. We all know there is a ton of work to do to improve our international federation and boost our sport. One welcome update has been the UWW website and social media efforts. We are getting more information and entertainment from UWW than ever before.
USA wins No-Gi Grappling Team titles, as UWW welcomes back Grappling – A year after FILA dropped Grappling during the quest to retain Olympic status, the sport is back, and the USA remains a major player in this non-Olympic style. For 2014, No-Gi Grappling was re-titled Pankration-Submission, and hosted as part of the Pankration Worlds in Hungary. The USA had a Trials and sent a team under Coach Sheldon Marr. Led by five champions and nine medalists, the USA won the team title, ahead of Hungary and Ukraine. Golds went to Matt Betzold, Jayson Patino, James Clay, Laura Anderson and Colleen Schneider. In 2015, it is back as Grappling and will have its own World Championships again.
I am sure I missed some great stories, and of course, many other people take a different view of wrestling than I do. I encourage you all to share with us, and with each other, what you consider the top stories of the year. I am going to start a thread on TheMat.com message boards, in the college section, to allow everybody to have their say. The good news is there is so much going on in wrestling every year that we have tons of room for disagreement and discussion. Happy New Year to you all…