After taking a two-year break from wrestling competition, Jesse Delgado impressed in his Senior freestyle debut last month, securing a bronze medal at the Cerro Pelado in Havana, Cuba.
Graduating from Illinois in 2015, two-time NCAA champion Delgado took what he felt was a much-needed break from wrestling. He suffered from shoulder and hamstring injuries his senior year.
“After college, I couldn’t do much because of my shoulder and hamstring, so I took some time off to recover,” Delgado said. “At that point, I just needed a break from it. After rehab, I was training with the MMA guys and going back and forth from Chicago to Champaign. One day, I just missed it a little bit more than usual.”
That day came this past summer when former Illini teammate Zane Richards came to the MMA gym in Chicago where Delgado was training.
“We were just flowing around and playing in positions and I was like, ‘wow, I miss it,’” he said.
Shortly after, Delgado was offered the volunteer assistant coach position at his alma mater. Since then, he has immersed himself more in the wrestling world and has begun training freestyle, a discipline he hadn’t competed in since 2012.
In his Junior freestyle days, Delgado won the 2011 UWW Junior Nationals while still at Cal Poly and was third at the 2012 University World Team Trials while at Illinois.
While he has turned his focus from MMA back to wrestling, Delgado still has one foot in the MMA door, helping up and coming featherweight Yair Rodriguez, ranked No. 8 in the UFC, prepare for his May 13 fight against No. 2 Frankie Edgar.
“You have to pick one at a time or else you won’t excel in either,” Delgado said. “My plan is to focus on wrestling for the next four years. I’ll play around with MMA and maybe take a fight in between if that opportunity arises. But wrestling is the priority right now.”
Training with guys like two-time All-American Richards, Illinois assistant coach Jeremy Hunter and some of the Illini freshmen, Delgado announced via Twitter that he was making his comeback.
He headed out to Havana, Cuba, in late-February with other members of the Titan Mercury Wrestling Club, which boasts some of the best wrestlers in the nation.
Once on the mat and competing again, Delgado said he felt like he was right where he belonged.
“I got a little nervous before I wrestled. Everybody does, but if anything, it felt more comforting. That whole week of preparation, cutting weight and warming up just felt like I was back in my comfort zone,” he said.
After a first round bye, Delgado faced fellow American and freestyle vet Frank Perrelli in the 57 kg/125-pound quarterfinals. The two went toe-to-toe, with Delgado coming out on top of a 4-2 win.
Next up was Minghu Liu of China in the semis. The two put up 16 points in the bout, but it was Liu who took the victory to move on to the finals, 11-5.
Delgado found himself in the third-place bout against Alejandro Garfias of Mexico. The American dominated the match, ending it in the first period with a 10-0 tech and a bronze medal at not only his first Senior freestyle tournament but also his first international competition.
“I don’t think that how I wrestled was 100 percent me or what I can be,” Delgado said. “For me, it was more about getting out there and competing again. I wanted to win and I was upset that I didn’t, but the pleasure of the whole experience outweighed the frustration of losing. The way I’m looking at it is a four-year process. The main goal is 2020 and that’s what I’m focused on.”
U.S. Freestyle National Coach Bill Zadick was encouraged by Delgado’s performance and is convinced the NCAA champ has what it takes to shake things up domestically at 57 kg.
“Knowing what we know about him, he’s a great competitor, so [his freestyle debut] doesn’t surprise you and it’s encouraging to see that,” Zadick said. “With the U.S. Open coming up soon, it’ll be exciting to see what he does. There are some very tough competitors domestically, some veterans and some newcomers that I think are going to step in and make some noise. He’s certainly one of those who can do that. It’s a weight class where we’re looking for someone to step up and establish themselves. I’m encouraged by his progress and ability, and I think he’s going to be fun to watch.”
Next on Delgado’s schedule is the U.S. Open, which is set for April 27-29 in Las Vegas. The top-seven in each weight class will earn a bid to the 2017 World Team Trials in Nebraska in June.
As he prepares, he’s taking advantage of everything available to him across the country, flying out to different facilities to train with some of the country’s best wrestlers.
This week, Delgado is spending time in Stillwater, Okla., home of Oklahoma State University, getting time in with 2017 All-American Nick Piccininni, top-ranked high school senior Daton Fix and OSU’s coaching staff, which includes 2004 Olympian and three-time NCAA champion Eric Guerrero, NCAA champion Zack Esposito and two-time Olympic gold medalist and four-time World champ John Smith.
“In college, it was me vs. Iowa or Penn State or whoever, but now I look at it as I have the whole country as a resource to use. It’s not just my team anymore,” Delgado said. “We have some amazing coaches all over the nation like John Smith, Tom Brands and Cael Sanderson, so why not use as many of those resources as much as you possibly can?”
Back on the national scene, healthy once again and motivated to excel in freestyle, Jesse Delgado should be traveling a whole lot more in pursuit of his goals.