Abbott Blog: The top 10 wrestling stories of 2017

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Dec. 26, 2017, 11:20 a.m. (ET)
2017 World champion Helen Maroulis and Kyle Snyder podium photos by Tony Rotundo, Wrestlers Are Warriors.

Coming up with the top 10 wrestling stories of the year is something I enjoy doing, a holiday tradition which I look forward to each year. The holiday season is an appropriate time to take a look back, before turning your focus to what comes next.

I started covering wrestling full-time right out of college in 1982, and, without a doubt, the 2017 year has been one of the greatest for American wrestling in my career. Some years, it takes some extra effort to figure out what stories deserve to be elevated to the Top 10. This year, there are way too many deserving stories that should make the grade. With that said, this is my best attempt at jamming in 10 stories into a list that should be 20.

1. The best two wrestlers on earth are Americans, Maroulis and Snyder – This could be a first time in my wrestling memory that the two absolute best wrestlers on earth, regardless of style or gender, are Americans. Ironically, they are also both from Maryland. The amazing show that World champions Helen Maroulis and Kyle Snyder gave the wrestling community at the 2017 Senior Worlds in Paris will be long remembered. These special stars have now won three straight golds (2015 Worlds, 2016 Olympics, 2017 Worlds), and both are getting better every year. Maroulis was untouchable, winning five straight technical falls and beating her rivals by a combined 52-0. Her technique was spectacular, not only crisp but also creative. Snyder won what United World Wrestling called the “Match of the Century,” stopping fellow Olympic and World champion Abdulrashid Sadulaev of Russia in the final bout of the World meet, with not only bragging rights but also the team title in the balance. As is his style, Snyder kept coming hard for six minutes, and his takedown in the final 30 seconds for a 6-5 win over the talented Russian superstar was one of the most dramatic victories in World wrestling history. In a year in which team achievements could have gotten the top spot on this list, these two individual achievements stand out in my mind above all of the other great things that went on in 2017.

2. USA wins Freestyle World Team Title for first time in 22 years – 1995 was a long time ago. The last time the USA was Freestyle World Champion was in the Omni in Atlanta, Ga., and led by individual champions Terry Brands, Kevin Jackson, Kurt Angle and Bruce Baumgartner and a total of six medalists in the 10 weight classes. This time, the location was in Paris, France, and led by individual champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder and a total of six medalists in the eight weight classes, the United States won its third World Team Title in men’s freestyle. The sweet one-point victory over the powerful Russians came down to the absolute last bout, when Snyder beat Sadulaev in the “Match of the Century.” But there were so many other great performances that made this happen, a victory which truly gives the word “team” its meaning. The triumphant comeback of one of the greatest to ever wrestle, Jordan Burroughs, was an inspiration to everybody. There is no doubt that Burroughs and Snyder are the leaders of this great group of athletes. The silver-medal runs by James Green for his second World medal and by World Team rookie Thomas Gilman were huge in the team race. The bronze medals by another rookie, Nick Gwiazdowski, and the second straight World-level bronze by special star J’den Cox, also scored big points for the team. It was National Freestyle Coach Bill Zadick’s first full World Championships leading the USA program. His coaching staff with Assistant National Coaches Joe Russell and Kevin Jackson, as well as Volunteer World Team Coaches Sammie Henson and Coleman Scott, had the U.S. athletes relaxed and ready for battle. I have seen all three USA Freestyle World Team victories (the first was 2003 in Toronto), and this one was the most exciting to be a part of. We will leave the argument about which of the three World Champion Teams are the best (1993, 1995 or 2017) to another day, but I can’t remember the feeling of joy being more than this year’s victory.

3. Burroughs triumphant return to the podium nets him his fifth World-level gold – Most years, this is the No. 1 story, hands down. After being the dominant wrestler of his generation, 2012 Olympic champion and three-time World champion Jordan Burroughs had an off-year at the 2016 Olympics, falling short of the medals. Going into the 2017 year, after taking a little time to recharge his body and his spirit, Jordan Burroughs came back with a laser focus. No longer the young superstar, he was the veteran leader of the improving freestyle program. In addition to his amazing skills and mental toughness, Burroughs competed in 2017 with a true grittiness. He won a memorable three-match series against Kyle Dake in the finals series of the World Team Trials on his home mats in Lincoln, Neb. At the World Championships in Paris, his road to victory was paved with close matches, where his determination was on display. In the semifinals, he avenged an Olympic repechage loss to Bekzod Aburakhmanov of Uzbekistan. In the finals, he outlasted past World champion Khetig Tsabalov of Russia. Once again, Jordan Burroughs was the best in the world, and this time around, he got to share that joy with the entire U.S. team. The program which he has led for many years also reached the top of the podium as World Team champions. Burroughs now has five World and Olympic golds, including four World titles, and is building a case for becoming the GOAT for U.S. wrestling.

4. The Zain Train dominates college, and gets started on his Olympic journey – If there was one thing that was certain during the 2016-17 NCAA season was that Zain Retherford of Penn State was going to win his match with dominance. In a season with exceptional individual performances, as well as a strong team of other Nittany Lion stars, Zain Retherford was the clear choice for the Dan Hodge Trophy at the end of the season as the best college wrestler. It was not just his 28-0 record, or his second straight 149-pound NCAA title. He scored bonus points in all but two of his matches, and manhandled his opponents in every position, on his feet, on the mat, mentally and physically. Just weeks after winning the NCAA crown in St. Louis, Retherford was third in a deep U.S. Open field. He upped his game in June, when he went to the World Team Trials in Lincoln, Neb., and won the Senior World Team berth at 65 kg. He not only powered through the Challenge Tournament, but then beat regular workout partner and Olympian Frank Molinaro in the championship finals. Zain dropped the first match, then came back strong to win the next two bouts over Frank. His World Championships in Paris fell short of his goals. He won the first bout over past Edinboro star David Habat of Slovenia, then dropped a 6-4 match to former Russian Adam Batirov of Bahrain, who did not pull Retherford back into the repechage. For college fans, Retherford gets one more year to add to his legacy as a senior at Penn State. For Team USA fans, we can expect many more years of Retherford pushing the envelope.

5. Penn State’s five in a row in the NCAA finals caps off fantastic finish to the NCAA team title – Going into the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Penn State appeared to have the inside track on another team title and add to its dynasty. The tournament started off with distraction, as injured 125-pounder Nick Suriano was unable to compete, in a weight he was expected to be a high All-American if healthy. The Nittany Lions had enough firepower without Suriano, and powered five into the NCAA finals, clinching the team title well before the championship round. The final session of the tournament was one of the most impressive displays of individual talent in a team setting, as Penn State ran the table with five straight victories. The first was expected, as Zain Retherford teched Lavion Mayes of Missouri, 18-2 at 149. Jason Nolf continued his impressive season with the title at 157, a 14-6 major over Joey LaValee of Mizzou. The unexpected happened at 157, as Vincenzo Joseph, seeded No. 3, scored a stunning pin of two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez of Illinois, ending Martinez’ quest to be a four-timer. Junior World champion Mark Hall, who was pulled out of redshirt during the season, showed his big-match clutch skills in a 5-2 win over Bo Jordan of Ohio State at 174. And in the most anticipated final of the night, No. 2 Bo Nickal beat two-time NCAA champion and senior Gabe Dean of Cornell in the 184 finals, 4-3. Going into the finals, everybody knew that the Nittany Lions had won their sixth NCAA title in the past seven years. Few had expected the amazing five-for-five gem that the Lions stars pulled off to finish with a bang.

6. Gable Steveson jumps to Junior level, and wins third World gold medal in a row – Everybody knows that big-man Gable Steveson of Minnesota was among the best high school stars in the nation. Dominant on the prep level, Steveson won back-to-back Cadet World titles in freestyle for Team USA coming into the year. People did not know what to expect when after he won the Junior World Team Trials and would enter the challenging Junior World Championships as a first-year Junior (who still had Cadet eligibility). During training camp in Colorado Springs, Steveson was hanging tough in workouts with the U.S. Senior National Team heavyweights. At the Junior World Championships in Finland, he showed he was ready for the step up in age. He won his half-bracket with four straight technical falls, including a wild 21-10 victory in the semifinals over Zaur Kozonov of Russia. In a situation just like Kyle Snyder faced at the Senior Worlds, Steveson needed to win the last match of the tournament to give Team USA a team victory, additional stress added to a challenging finals against Iran’s Naeiim Hassanzadeh. Steveson was up to the task once again, taking the early lead and beating Hassanzadeh, 5-1. Steveson returns to Apple Valley as a senior this season, and has three more years of UWW Junior eligibility. Easily the best pound-for-pound wrestler in high school, Steveson could become the greatest age-group wrestler in American history in the coming years (although you could argue that he is already there).

7. USA wins historic Junior World Team Title, showing amazing depth in the pipeline – In 2017, the USA proved it had the best Senior men’s freestyle team on earth. The prospect for future World Team titles is also bright, after the 2017 U.S. Junior World Team also brought home the first-place trophy from the Junior Worlds in Finland. The team had been winning medals and individual World titles in recent seasons, just falling short of taking the team trophy. This year’s crop of U.S. stars at the 20-and-under level took the next step. Led by individual champions Daton Fix at 55 kg, Mark Hall at 74 kg (his second Junior title in a row) and Gable Steveson at heavyweight, the USA won medals in seven of the eight weight classes to edge the mighty Russians by one team point. Every single team member contributed, with silver medals from Mitchell McKee (60 kg), Ryan Deakin (66 kg) and Zahid Valencia (84 kg) and a bronze medal from Kollin Moore at 96 kg. The team title would not have happened without the non-medalist, Malik Heinselman taking eighth at 50 kg and scoring three team points. Kevin Jackson, in his first year as the Assistant National Coach working with the Junior program, helped this talented group to get the most of its potential at arguably one of the toughest tournaments on the planet. You have to go back to the early 1980’s when the USA pulled together a Junior World freestyle team title.

8. Age-group Greco-Roman World champions Bey and Schultz headline emerging program – The U.S. Greco-Roman program has run into a tough patch on the Senior level, having difficulty getting medals at the World level in the classic style. Andy Bisek’s World bronzes in 2014 and 2015 were the highlight of the last Olympic quad, and the 2017 World team in Paris also did not produce a medal. However, individual age-group gold medals from talented young Greco-Roman stars provide a ray of sunshine and big hopes for the future. Kamal Bey, with a wide-open style with big throws and lots of points, became the first U.S. Greco Junior World champion since 1999 with his gold-medal performance in Finland at the Junior Worlds at 74 kg. You have to go back to 1997 for the last U.S. Cadet World Greco-Roman champion before Cohlton Schultz claimed his Cadet gold medal at 100 kg at the Cadet Worlds in Athens. Also throw in Cevion Severado’s Junior World silver medal at 50 kg, and the individual efforts of the young U.S. Greco athletes show what could be ahead for USA Greco-Roman in the coming years.

9. Four USA World Team trophies and 32 medals shows overall program strength – While the USA international program is celebrating its two World Team titles in men’s freestyle from 2017, they were not the only big-time performances by USA teams at the World level this year. The U.S. Women’s Freestyle World Team, and the U.S. Cadet Men’s Freestyle World Team also brought home second-place trophies from their World tournaments, great achievements in their own right. The U.S. Senior Women were led by gold-medalist Helen Maroulis (58 kg), silver medalist Alli Ragan (60 kg), bronze medalist Becka Leathers (55 kg) and a fifth place from Victoria Anthony (48 kg), winning the second-place tiebreaker with Belarus to finish second behind Japan. At the Cadet Worlds in freestyle, the USA won six medals, with four champions (Kurt McHenry, Will Lewan, Aaron Brooks, Daniel Kerkvliet), plus bronze medalists Jacori Teemer and Gavin Hoffman, to place second behind Russia, with a legitimate chance to win it all. When you add up all of the World medals won by USA wrestlers at the age-group levels (Senior, U23, Junior, Cadet) in all three styles, you have 32 total medals, including 14 gold medals. This overall effort by Team USA stacks up as one of the best ever, with no doubt. 2017 was a wonderful year full of many World medal performances, a summer and fall that will be remembered for a long, long time.

10. NCAA Emerging Sports Status proposal headlines big boost for U.S. women’s program – You might put another of the big individual efforts by U.S. athletes in the Top 10, but when it comes to long-term achievement, the growth of the U.S. women’s wrestling program, especially this year, stands out in a big way. Although there has been many years of steady growth for women’s wrestling at all levels, the sport seems to be exploding at this time. You can point at Helen Maroulis’ historic Olympic gold medal as a big boost, but there is so much going on in addition to her inspiring achievement. In a joint effort of five major wrestling organizations, led by USA Wrestling, the sport has officially submitted the proposal for Emerging Sport Status with the NCAA. This was big news in college sport circles. Colleges around the nation have been adding varsity women’s wrestling at all levels, with NAIA schools leading the way. The WCWA is up to 38 programs for the 2017-18 year and six more schools already adding this fall for next season. USA Wrestling has seen record numbers at all of its age-group women’s national championship events the last few seasons. With six states with official high school status for girls wrestling, a national effort is underway to pursue state tournaments for girls in many other states. A full-time effort by non-profit Wrestle Like A Girl, led by its Executive Director Sally Roberts, is helping add to the momentum. A second woman, two-time World champion and nine-time World medalist Kristie Davis, has been elected to the Hall of Fame. There are far too many people to credit for the women’s wrestling boom than this column has space, but many years of hard work and sacrifice is starting to pay off for women’s wrestling in the USA. Expect much more to come.

As always, I feel like creating a top 10 is very difficult. Some stories that are deserving may not jump into the top level on my list. There may be some others that I leave out all together that should also be noted and appreciated. This is my best effort, and I truly do encourage others to give their opinions on stories that should have been included on this list. I do feel like this was one of the best USA Wrestling years ever, and really hope we have many more like this very soon. Below are a few more stories that I think deserve recognition.

• USOC Awards for Kyle Snyder and Bill Zadick show wrestling’s Olympic impact – Usually, winning awards don’t make this kind of list, but the recognition for wrestling at the year’s U.S. Olympic Committee Team USA Awards event was historic. Olympic and World champion Kyle Snyder became only the fourth wrestler to win the USOC Male Athlete of the Year, joining superstars John Smith, Rulon Gardner and Jordan Burroughs as recipients. Bill Zadick, in only his first year as USA Wrestling’s Freestyle National Coach, won the USOC Olympic Coach of the Year after leading the USA to World Team titles and numerous individual medals. He was the first to win this Coach of the Year award (and only second wrestling coach to win a USOC coaching award ever as Dave Bennett was a past winner of the USOC Doc Counsilman coaching science award). Helen Maroulis was a women’s finalist who many felt should have also won, as swimming legend Katie Ledecky earned this honor on the women’s side. The entire event was shown on NBC to a national audience. The success of USA Wrestling was recognized within the Olympic family, something to celebrate for sure.

• What a year for Mark Hall, with a second Junior World title and an NCAA title as a freshman – You can’t have much better year than Mark Hall had, winning his second straight Junior World freestyle title, and throwing in an NCAA Div. I title as a true freshman for Penn State, to boot. In college, in effect wrestling up in weight, Hall came out of redshirt to win the 174-pound national title. After making his third straight Junior World Team, Hall won his second straight Junior World crown at 163 pounds. Add in his 2014 Cadet World title and he is a three-time World champion already. This is a special athlete and person who will continue to make a big impact.

• Russia did not win a single Senior World gold medal in any style – Anybody who went to the Senior World Championships in Paris had to notice that World superpower Russia did not have a single Senior World champion in any style, for the first time since the nation burst onto the World wrestling stage in the late 1950s. There were 30 national anthems played in Paris, and not a single time did we hear the Russian anthem. The depth of the program remains solid, with a World Team title in Greco-Roman, a second-place finish in men’s freestyle and an 11th place finish in women’s freestyle. Who knows the full story why there were no Russian champions in Paris, but there are many theories. One thing is for sure. The Russian wrestling program was very unhappy about returning with no gold medals and will look to change that in 2018.

• Kurt McHenry wins second straight Cadet World gold
– Repeating as a World champion at any level is a very difficult task, and kudos must go to lightweight Kurt McHenry out of Virginia, who won a second Cadet World title in a row for Team USA in freestyle. McHenry moved up a weight class this year, competing at 46 kg, and came through with an impressive clutch performance to win Cadet World gold number two. The coaches say he was also a leader on the team, which adds to his great effort this year.

• J’den Cox wins third NCAA title and adds World bronze to his list of achievements – 2016 Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox finished off an amazing college career in 2017, becoming the first wrestler from Missouri to win three NCAA titles by claiming the 197-pound title at the NCAAs in St. Louis. Instead of deciding to pursue football for a year, which Cox talked about for a while, he returned to the freestyle scene and had a strong season. He defeated David Taylor in a memorable three-match series at the World Team Trials in Lincoln. At the Worlds, after a flat performance in a 6-3 semifinal loss to Boris Makoev of Slovakia, Cox came back to win the World bronze, beating Mihael Ganev of Bulgaria, 8-0.

• Second straight World silver medal for Alli Ragan – Winning silver medals is a difficult experience for any highly-motivated, talented wrestler, which has been the case for Alli Ragan, who has won World silver medals for the USA in both 2016 and 2017. It is a great achievement to make the World finals for two straight years, even though it is painful to fall short of gold. Although Ragan is nowhere near satisfied with the outcome, she deserves credit for becoming a top star on the World level.

• Richie Lewis blasts onto World scene as America’s first U23 World champion – A year ago, Rutgers wrestler Richie Lewis was off the mat, missing a year with an injury. A product of junior college, this NCAA qualifier had one more year to achieve Div. I All-American status as a senior for 2016-17. He had a fall to remember, winning the U23 World Team Trials at 70 kg to make the U.S. team in the first-ever U23 World Championships, held in Poland. At Worlds, Lewis showed a toughness and an ability to score points, winning five matches in a row. He beat India’s Vinod Kumar 3-1 in the finals. The world now knows about Richie Lewis, and we can expect him to build from this great achievement.

• Maya Nelson wins Junior World title and second career Junior World medal – We can not overlook the great year that Maya Nelson had in women’s freestyle. A 2016 Junior World bronze medalist, Nelson became a full-time USOTC resident athlete this year and showed improvement, taking the No. 3 spot on the U.S. Senior Women’s National Team. She returned to the Junior Worlds and had an impressive effort by winning the 63 kg gold medal, the first for U.S. woman at the Junior level since Victoria Anthony won her second in 2010.

• King wins its fourth straight WCWA women’s college national title – Led by three individual champions in the light weights and enough depth across the lineup, King University won its fourth straight WCWA women’s college national title, beating runner-up Simon Fraser by 17 points in the team standings. Gold medals went to Marina Doi (101), Breonnah Neal (109) and Haley Augello (116), a third for Augello and a second for Doi. Jason Moorman’s Tornado team has been excellent, even as the WCWA continues to grow and more strong programs are challenging each year.

• Dean Heil wins second NCAA title, and aims for a third this year – With so much going on in wrestling, it would be easy to overlook Dean Heil’s achievement by winning a second NCAA title for Oklahoma State in 2017. Heil is not as flashy as some great champions, but he is tough and wins under pressure as well as anybody. His 2017 NCAA finals victory at 141 pounds came over No. 6 seed George DiCamillo of Virginia, 6-3. Heil’s college winning streak was halted at 55 with a loss to Bryce Meredith of Wyoming in a dual meet at Wyoming on December 20. Yet, he has a chance to become a three-timer this March in Cleveland, and cement his spot among the greats in Oklahoma State history.

Please feel free to add to this list, either below this article or on USA Wrestling’s Message Boards. We hope everybody in wrestling is having a great holiday season, and we look forward to sharing with you the best of wrestling in the New Year ahead.