Abbott Blog: The top 10 wrestling stories of 2018

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Dec. 27, 2018, 11:27 a.m. (ET)
Adeline Gray of the USA celebrates after beating Olympic champion Erica Wiebe of Canada in the World Championships semifinals at 76 kg. Photo by Larry Slater.

Most families establish holiday traditions, the little things that make this time of the year so special. For me, one of the things I do annually during this season is put together my Top 10 wrestling stories list. You know it is a tradition when you can’t remember when you started doing something annually. That is the case for me, as I clearly don’t recall the first year I posted this column.

The 2018 year was incredible within wrestling, and the top 10 was as difficult to choose as any other year I remember. The USA is having record success in international wrestling, the college scene is as exciting as ever and is continuing to grow, wrestling for women and girls is exploding, and the stories of our athletes seem to be getting even more compelling. This is a time of the year to be grateful for the good things in life, and I truly believe the American wrestling community has a wealth of things to feel thankful for.

With no additional delay, here is my top 10 of 2018:

1. Adeline Gray wins fourth World gold, matching most of any American in any style – Already a cinch to secure her spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, three-time World champion Adeline Gray entered the 2018 international season with a ton of question marks. After missing on a medal at the 2016 Olympics, Gray skipped the 2017 season for surgery and a chance to heal. When she returned, Gray had re-ignited her love of wrestling and was ready to excel again. Quickly wrestling back at a high level, Gray dropped a few bouts during the season but had a strong year. Like a legendary champion, she put it all together at the Worlds in Budapest in remarkable fashion, powering through a loaded weight class to win her fourth career World title. All four of her opponents were World and/or Olympic medalists, and two had wins over Gray this season. She scored a tech fall in her opener against World medalist Epp Mae of Estonia, then pinned Olympic medalist Elmyra Sydzykova of Kazakhstan. Her semifinal win over 2016 Olympic champion Erica Wiebe was by a close 3-1 margin, with Gray getting the only takedown. In the finals, locking up her patented ankle lace, Gray blasted 2017 World champion Yasemin Adar of Turkey with 13-0 technical fall and ran joyously with the American flag. She tied all-time greats John Smith, Tricia Saunders and Jordan Burroughs with the most World titles by a U.S. wrestler with four. Although she is taking her career one year at a time right now, wouldn’t it be great to see her continue to excel all the way through the 2020 Tokyo Games?

2. J’den Cox changes weight, claims World gold title and a third straight medal – The last two international seasons, J’den Cox was oh-so-close to reaching his goal of being the best wrestler in the world. His big problem had been getting past the semifinals at the most important events. Coming off an amazing college career at Missouri, where he won three NCAA titles, Cox made the 2016 Olympic team at 86 kg. He reached the Olympic semifinals in Rio de Janiero, where he was edged 2-1 by Selim Yasar of Turkey, before winning bronze. At the 2017 Worlds, he got to the 86 kg semis once more, falling to Slovakia’s Boris Makoev, 6-3, then again taking the bronze. In 2018, Cox made some key changes which ended up making a big difference. With UWW going to 10 weight classes at the World level, Cox decided to move up to the new 92 kg division. He also moved to Colorado Springs to become a USOTC resident athlete, training daily with Assistant National Coach Kevin Jackson and the USA coaching staff. Cox made the USA World Team at the new weight class, and put together a complete tournament at the Worlds in Budapest. He opened with a 6-2 win over Olympic medalist Dato Marsagishvili of Georgia, who had beaten him at the World Cup in April. Next was a 6-0 win over Nicolai Ceban of Moldova. In the semifinals, against World bronze medalist Alireza Karimimachiani of Iran, he knocked down the barrier with a 5-2 victory. In the finals against Ivan Yankouski of Belarus, Cox overcame the slow-it-down game plan of his opponent to win 4-1 and claim his first World title. An amazing athlete and an impressive individual, Cox now has three World or Olympic medals in three tries, and can take pride in being the absolute best on earth this year.

3. Kyle Dake and David Taylor cash in with impressive World titles at their first Senior World appearance – You don’t have to tell U.S. wrestling fans that Kyle Dake and David Taylor are truly special wrestlers. In college, Dake won four NCAA titles in four different weights for Cornell, and Taylor was a four-time NCAA finalist and two-time champion for Penn State. However, the road to the top in Olympic freestyle was a big challenge for them both. For a few years, they were both behind Olympic and World champion Jordan Burroughs at 74 kg. In 2016, both went up to 86 kg, and finished behind J’den Cox at the Olympic Trials. In 2017, Dake dropped down and fell to Burroughs again, while Taylor stayed up and fell to Cox again. In 2018, with UWW going to 10 weight classes, these four USA stars ended up in different weights and all four made the USA World team: Burroughs at 74 kg, Dake at 79 kg, Taylor at 86 kg and Cox at 92 kg. Dake and Taylor boasted some very dominant victories at major international events, but Budapest was their first Senior World meet. Both cashed in their opportunities in a big way. Dake was unstoppable, winning his four matches without allowing a point, by a 37-0 margin. Dake’s first three bouts were technical fall wins, including a semifinal victory over Russian Akhmed Gadzihmagomedov. In the finals, Dake’s defense was the big difference in a 2-0 win over two-time World medalist Jabrayil Hasanov of Azerbaijan. Taylor drew World and Olympic champion Hassan Yazdani of Iran and fell behind 6-2 at the break, but rallied for an 11-6 win. After a technical fall over Hajy Rajabau of Belarus and an 8-0 shutout of Cuba’s Yurieski Torreblanca, Taylor drew European champion Dauren Kurugliev of Russia in the semis. Falling behind 5-1, Taylor powered back for a 7-5 win over the Russian. In the finals, he blasted Fatih Erdin of Turkey in a 12-2 tech fall. Dake and Taylor worked long and hard for their chance to become World champions, and both made American wrestling fans very proud when they shined on the big stage.

4. Penn State wins third straight NCAA title and seventh in the last eight years – Coming into the 2017-18 college season, two-time returning NCAA champion Penn State was heavily favored to repeat, led by five returning individual champions. NCAA titles are not won on paper, and Cael Sanderson’s team for sure did not take it for granted that they would come out on top at the nationals in Cleveland. After the Saturday morning medal round, Ohio State led Penn State by six points. However, the Nittany Lions had pushed all five returning champions into the finals, while the Buckeyes had only two finalists. Still favored, Penn State had to perform in those finals to win as a team. Zain Retherford got it going by winning his third NCAA title with a 6-2 win over Lock Haven’s Ronnie Perry at 149 pounds. Jason Nolf, who had returned from a late-season injury in time for the NCAAs, was also sharp at 157 in a 6-2 over freshman No. 1 seed Hayden Hidlay of NC State. A key win came at 165 pounds, when Vincenzo Joseph defeated two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez of Illinois in the finals for the second straight year, this time by a 6-1 score. Joseph avenged a loss in the Big Ten finals to Martinez. Ohio State’s hopes were still alive after 174 pounds, when Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia beat 2017 NCAA champion Mark Hall, 8-2. The team race was decided in the next bout, as 2017 NCAA champion Bo Nickal of Penn State faced 2016 NCAA champion Myles Martin of Ohio State at 184 pounds. Martin got a leg-attack takedown, which Nickal rolled through, getting Martin on his back and securing a stunning first-period pin. The Nickal victory clinched the title, which ended as a seven-point victory after Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder won his third title at heavyweight. With seven of the last eight team titles, Penn State is truly a dynasty, and is again favored to win another in the 2018-19 season now underway.

5. Burroughs vs. Chamizo and Snyder vs. Sadulaev rivalries heat up international wrestling – Nothing gets sports fans more excited than rivalries, and two of the best U.S. wrestlers are involved in international rivalries that have captivated fans around the world. Rewind to the 2017 World Championship finals, when Olympic and World champions Kyle Snyder of the USA and Abdulrashid Sadulaev of Russia met in the 97 kg finals, after Sadulaev moved up in weight to challenge Snyder. That match went to Snyder. Early in the 2018 season, with an increase to 10 weight classes, Sadulaev dropped to the new 92 kg weight class. At the start of the new season, a new rivalry began when World champion and Olympic medalist Frank Chamizo of Italy jumped up to 74 kg and started calling out Olympic and World champion Jordan Burroughs of the USA on social media. Mike Novogratz and the folks at Beat the Streets New York made the Chamizo vs. Burroughs battle happen as the main event of their benefit at the South Street Seaport, and Burroughs emerged from an intriguing battle with an 8-5 win. Match II between them came in the finals of the Yasar Dogu International in Turkey in July, when a crafty Chamizo stormed back to beat Burroughs by criteria, 10-10. Sadulaev revived his rivalry with Snyder by announcing he was going up to 97 kg again at the 2018 Worlds in Budapest for a rematch, which fans started calling Snyderlaev II. Going into the Worlds, fans were hoping to see both of these battles and they got what they wanted. Burroughs and Chamizo were in the same half-bracket in Budapest, and both were upset by Russian Zaurbek Sidakov. Burroughs-Chamizo III was for the bronze medal, and another classic match ensued, with Burroughs winning the rubber bout in a 4-4 criteria win. Snyder and Sadulaev, on opposite sides, held up their end of the deal by reaching the finals. UWW made it the last match of the entire tournament for the second straight year. The team title was not at stake this time, as Russia had clinched it already. Early on, Sadulaev was able to hook Snyder’s arm and launch him to his back, securing a pin in 1:11 and shocking the world with his quick pin. With two full seasons left until the 2020 Tokyo Games, we can expect these rivalries to continue.

6. Multi-style star Adam Coon wins World Greco-Roman silver in first Senior appearance – Heavyweight Adam Coon of Michigan completed his college career in 2018, going up against two-time NCAA champion and international freestyle star Kyle Snyder of Ohio State for the top spot. Coon won the dual meet held in Michigan, but Snyder came back to beat Coon in the finals of the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. Fans wanted to know if Coon would compete in freestyle or Greco-Roman after college, and his answer was to wrestle both. At the U.S. Open in Vegas, Coon won the national freestyle title and was second behind Robby Smith in Greco-Roman. By winning the Freestyle World Team Trials Challenge Tournament in Rochester, Minn., Coon put himself into Final X against Nick Gwiazdowski. The Greco-Roman Trials and Final X were set on consecutive days, and Coon decided to go for them both. At the Greco Trials in Tulsa, Coon made the finals, then upset Smith, winning in two straight matches by 3-1, and by pin. Coon jumped quickly on a plane, flew to Bethlehem, Pa. for Final X. He weighed in the next day, and lost to the Gwizz, 6-1 and 6-1. Coon threw himself fully into Greco-Roman for the summer, and reportedly struggled at times as he immersed himself in the classic style. By the time the Worlds rolled around in October, something clicked for Coon. In one of the more amazing performances in U.S. Greco-Roman history, Coon pinned four straight Greco heavyweights to earn a spot in the gold-medal finals in his first Senior World competition. The finals didn’t go his way, losing by pin to Olympic medalist Sergey Semenov of Russia, but Coon gave wrestling fans a World tournament, and an entire season, that will be remembered for a long, long time.

7. USA Wrestling brings home a record 36 World medals at all age-groups – It is the goal of USA Wrestling to be the dominant wrestling nation on earth, in all three styles and at every age level. International wrestling is so very competitive, and while this dream is realistic, it is extremely hard to achieve. This passion is shared by USA athletes, coaches and leaders at each and every level. The 2017 season was great for USA Wrestling, with a record total of 32 World medals in all ages and styles. It is true that UWW added weight classes in 2018, which provided more medal chances, but also provided more opportunities for all of the top wrestling nations. Every year, our overall program is put to the test at four UWW levels – Senior, U23, Junior and Cadet. This year, all three styles and every age level contributed to the USA medal total. The tally included a record 12 Senior medals, 11 Cadet medals, eight Junior medals and five U23 medals for a new record of 36 World medals for the year. The color breakdown was eight golds, 12 silvers and 16 bronzes. This only happens when an entire nation gets behind Team USA, creating the opportunity for growth and excellence from the youth levels all the way up to the Senior program. What is encouraging is there is still much room for improvement. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bar is raised even higher in years to come. Congratulations American wrestling!!!

8. Eight new state associations announce official girls high school wrestling programs – There has been tremendous momentum for wrestling opportunities for girls and women in recent years, and 2018 will stand as one of the best in terms in terms of growth. The college level seemed to be on a roll, with the NAIA giving women’s wrestling invitational status and the NCAA considering emerging sport status. But it was at the high school level where the biggest news came along. Coming into the 2017-18 high school year, six states had official high school championships for girls. USA Wrestling has been an active leader in the movement to add more states, led by its Girls High School Development leaders Joan Fulp and Andrea Yamamoto. One-by-one during the 2018 year, the hard work of local wrestling leaders with national support starting to pay off big time. By the end of the year, an amazing eight states had created official competitions or started the official process to create girls high school state championships. The new states are Missouri, Georgia, Oregon, Massachusetts, Arizona, Colorado, New Jersey and Maine. With the six previous states of Hawaii, Texas, California, Washington, Tennessee and Alaska, we are now up to 14 states. As the new states expand their programs, and new states join in, the number of girls competing in wrestling should increase dramatically moving forward.

9. Olympic wrestlers Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo collect UFC Belts – Everybody knows that wrestling is a core skill needed for Mixed Martial Arts success and that wrestlers have been among the best athletes in this popular professional sport. In 2018, Olympic wrestlers who went into MMA had some amazing achievements and represented wrestling with both skill and class. Two-time Olympian Daniel Cormier, already a UFC champion and fan favorite, was the 2018 ESPN Fighter of the Year. He became only the second fighter in UFC history to hold two belts simultaneously, moving up to heavyweight to defeat Stipe Miocic for his second belt, to go with his light-heavyweight crown. He won three fights during the year, becoming the first to successfully defend a title belt in multiple weight classes. Many picked Cormier as No. 1 in the Pound-For-Pound rankings. Cormier’s 2008 Olympic teammate, Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, also had an amazing achievement. He earned a second title fight at flyweight against future Hall of Famer Demetrious Johnson, who had set the UFC record for the most consecutive title defenses. Cejudo told me during his Wrestling Hall of Fame induction that he was going to beat Johnson, who was heavily favored. I don’t know why people haven’t figured out that Henry can back it up when he commits to doing something great. Cejudo shocked Johnson to win the UFC title belt, beating one of the greatest athletes in MMA history, He became the first person to win both an Olympic gold medal and a UFC champion belt. We can add another Olympic wrestler to this story, as Olympic wrestler Ben Askren helped make history in the first trade between MMA organizations, as the ONE Championship and UFC swapped Askren for Demetrious Johnson. Olympic wrestlers made big news in MMA this year, reflecting very well on wrestling and giving us considerable public attention.

10. Final X brings puts spotlight on World Team selection with first-class presentations – The partnership between USA Wrestling and FloWrestling to create a new way to select the U.S. Senior World Team developed into Final X, a three-event series held in three locations. The new structure was founded upon a goal of better promoting the amazing athletes in our sport. Placed in college wrestling hotbeds in Lincoln, State College and Bethlehem, the format was simple. The top two athletes in each weight class in men’s and women’s freestyle would decide the World Team member in a best-of-three series at a Final X event. Working together, USA Wrestling and FloWrestling put in considerable effort to tell the stories of the Final X finalists, promote the events to spectators, and build excitement for the live broadcast. Press conferences and public weigh-ins, similar to a boxing/MMA model, were part of each Final X event. Although there are some things which can and will be improved in the future, Final X was a success for a number of reasons. The events had first-class production and presentation, the athletes were given a new platform to share their stories with the nation, and the level of competition was superb. We feel strongly that Final X will get even better moving forward and something that will showcase the sport and its stars at their best.

There are many other big wrestling stories from 2018 worthy of mention. Some of these were very close to making it into my Top 10, while others were significant enough in my mind for special mention as we look back on what could be one of the best years our sport has had in a very long time. In no particular order, except for how they came up in my mind, these other stories include:

Zain Retherford wins third NCAA title and second Hodge Trophy – After winning a second NCAA title and first Dan Hodge Trophy as a Penn State junior in 2017, fans had high expectations for Zain Retherford in his senior season at 149 pounds. In his own unique and intense way, Retherford met and exceeded those expectations. He went undefeated for the year, claiming a third NCAA title with a 31-0 record, scoring bonus points in 83.9% of his matches. That included 17 pins, five technical falls and four major decision. He defeated unheralded Ronnie Perry of Lock Haven in the 2018 NCAA finals, 6-2, which was more a testament to Perry’s toughness than a question about Retherford’s dominance. Voters gave Retherford his second straight Dan Hodge Trophy, only the fourth person to win the award in consecutive years. A member of the 2017 World Team in freestyle, Retherford chose not to compete in freestyle in 2018, and came back this fall to begin his run for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team.

Nickal pins Martin in battle of NCAA champions for 184-pound title – With the team race still not finalized, the 184-pound finals at the 2018 NCAA Championships in Cleveland featured a pair of past champions, 2017 NCAA champion Bo Nickal of Penn State and 2016 NCAA champion Myles Martin of Ohio State. Nickal had beaten Martin 7-4 in the Big Ten finals two weeks earlier. This match had bigger implications than just their personal rivalry, as Ohio State and Penn State were in a close battle for the team race. Martin came out aggressively and had a deep shot on Nickal, converting for a takedown. However, as the athletes landed on the mat, Nickal was able to roll through it and get Martin onto his back, suddenly securing a pin to claim his second straight NCAA title. Nickal had an emotional celebration after the big win, which also clinched the team title for Penn State. This match was stunning in how it all went down.

Emily Shilson and Robert Howard win historic Youth Olympic Games gold medals – The International Olympic Committee created the Youth Olympic Games, a multi-sport competition, as a showcase for young athletes across the world. The third edition of the Summer Youth Olympic Games was held this year in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the USA had four athletes qualify to compete in the wrestling. On back-to-back days, Emily Shilson of Minnesota and Robert Howard of New Jersey won Youth Olympic gold medals, becoming the first U.S. wrestlers to win this prestigious event. Shilson, a Cadet World champion, won five matches to win her title, including an 11-6 win over Simran of India in the finals. Not only was she the first U.S. wrestler to claim YOG gold, but she also won the first gold medal for the United States in any sport at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. The next day, Howard had a strong effort in men’s freestyle. He won his pool with two straight wins, including a 10-5 win over Vladyslav Ostapenko of Ukraine, who had beaten Howard in the 2017 Cadet Worlds by technical fall. His finals win came against Hernan Almendra of host Argentina, who had a strong local following. The wild match ended with a 17-6 technical fall win for Howard.

Snyder ends college career as three-time champion and four-time finalist
– Kyle Snyder’s amazing international freestyle career tended to overshadow the marvelous career he had in college for Ohio State. Olympic and World gold medals will do that. Snyder made the decision to wrestle all four years in college, even though he could have made more money by turning pro after becoming an Olympic champion. As an undersized heavyweight, Snyder used his skill and speed to beat bigger men at the college level. The coaching staff at Ohio State allowed Snyder to compete in freestyle overseas and miss some college competition, something that seemed to work out well for both parties. Snyder’s senior season included a dual meet loss to Adam Coon of Michigan, but Snyder came back to beat Coon in both the Big Ten and the NCAA finals. His final college tally included three NCAA titles and one NCAA runner-up finish, a great college career by any standard.

Joe Colon cashes in on second chance with a World bronze medal – It was a crazy, up-and-down year for former UNI star Joe Colon, who coaches and trains at Fresno State. Colon settled in at 61 kg this year in freestyle, and had an impressive season. Fans are still talking about his thrilling 20-13 victory over Nahshon Garrett in the finals of the U.S. Open in April. Colon also had a strong international year, winning the Pan Am Championships and claiming medals in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. In Final X at Lehigh, Colon won the first bout against Garrett, but Garrett rallied with two straight wins to make the World Team. Unfortunately for Garrett, he was injured working out this past summer and could not compete at the Worlds in Budapest. Colon stepped in, and based upon his many international medals, he received a seed at 61 kg. Colon won his first two bouts before falling to eventual champion Yowlys Bonne of Cuba, 9-4. In his bronze-medal bout, Colon hammered Mohammedbagher Yakhkeshi of Iran, 13-2 and returned home with a World bronze medal in his first Senior World meet.

Macey Kilty reaches Cadet and Junior World finals, getting a gold and a silver – Winning a World medal is a great achievement, at any age-group level. However, to win World medals at two different age groups during the same year is something special, a feat achieved by high school wrestling star Macey Kilty of Wisconsin. Kilty had a great spring in USA Wrestling competition, earning spots on both the Cadet and Junior World Teams. First up was Cadet World Championships in Zagreb, Croatia. Kilty, a 2016 Cadet World bronze medalist, returned on a mission, powering through all four opponents to capture the gold medal this time. Kilty had two pins and a technical fall to make the finals, where she stopped Julia Fridland of Sweden, 9-3. At the Junior Worlds in Trnava, Slovakia, Kilty also had a red-hot start, winning her half-bracket with two technical falls and a pin. In the finals, she fell to two-time Cadet World champion Khanum Velieva of Russia, 7-0. It is very rare for an athlete to make the World finals at two different age levels during the same year, giving Kilty a season to remember.

Age-group World champions Ramos, Shilson, Lewis bring more gold back to USA – A World gold medal at any age level is a fantastic achievement, and joining Kilty as American age-group World champions in 2018 were Cadet wrestlers Matt Ramos and Emily Shilson and Junior wrestler Mekhi Lewis. Illinois native Ramos got behind in all four of his matches and showed amazing desire in battling back to win every bout, including a stunning pin in the finals over Kota Takahashi of Japan. Shilson, who had won a Cadet World silver in 2017, dominated her half-bracket with bonus point wins. In her final against 2017 Cadet World champion Shahana Nazarova of Azerbaijan, Shilson was behind 4-0 early in the second period, but turned Nazarova multiple times with a gut wrench to secure a 14-4 technical fall. Lewis, a New Jersey native who wrestles for Virginia Tech, had only wrestled freestyle for a few months prior to going to the Junior Worlds in Slovakia. In his first major international event, Lewis showed a great offense, earning a spot in the finals with two technical falls and a pin. In the gold-medal bout, Lewis had great poise in his 5-1 victory over 2016 Cadet World champion Abubakr Abakarov of Azerbaijan. Seeing U.S. athletes running around the mat with the American flag after claiming World titles never gets old.

True freshmen Lee and Diakomihalis win NCAA titles to launch college career – It is pretty rare to see a freshman win an NCAA Div. I national title. To have two true freshmen win the NCAAs on the same year is even more uncommon. That was the case in 2018, when freshman Spencer Lee of Iowa claimed the 125-pound national title and Cornell freshman Yianni Diakomihalis won the 141-pound national title. Both of these wrestlers had amazing backgrounds coming into college, with Lee winning three age-group World titles and Diakomihalis claiming a Cadet World title. Diakomihalis and his coaches chose to commit early in the season to competing as a true freshman, while Lee was brought out of redshirt after the first semester. Both had lost at least one bout going into the NCAAs, with both getting the No. 3 seed in their weight class. Lee dominated his first four opponents, with two technical falls and two pins. He avenged his loss to Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State from the Big Ten finals with a pin in 6:04 in the NCAA semifinals. Lee finished it off in the finals with a 5-1 win over Rutgers’ Nick Suriano. Diakomihalis won his first two matches handlily, then had to beat some heavy hitters the rest of the way. In the quarters, he topped two-time NCAA champion Dean Heil of Oklahoma State, 6-5. In the semis, he avenged an earlier loss to Jaydin Eierman of Missouri with a 6-4 win. In the finals, he stopped 2017 NCAA runner-up Bryce Meredith of Wyoming, 7-4. After the event, it was revealed that Yianni won his NCAA title competing with a torn ACL. Lee and Diakomihalis still have three more years of eligibility to thrill college wrestling fans.

Gwiazdowski wins second straight medal, Hildebrandt, Velte, Mensah-Stock reach World podium – It took numerous great performances for Team USA to come back from the Senior Worlds in Budapest with a record 12 medals in all styles. While the gold-medal victories of USA athletes got much attention, each of the USA medalists had efforts to brag about. In men’s freestyle, heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski proved convincingly that he is one of the world’s best, winning a World bronze medal for the second straight year. Team USA won a medal in seven of the 10 weights in men’s freestyle, placing a close second behind Russia. On the women’s side, Sarah Hildebrandt capped off a fantastic season by reaching the World finals at 53 kg, coming home with a silver medal after losing to Japan’s tough Haruna Okuno. Showing heart in their bronze medal matches to reach the podium were Mallory Velte and Tamyra Mensah-Stock, who medalled in their second World appearances. The four-medal effort by the Team USA women gave them a World trophy once again, placing third behind Japan and China.

American Wrestling League launches new attempt for pro level in the USA – There have been a number of attempts to create a professional league for Olympic wrestling in the United States in the past which have fallen short. The latest effort is the American Wrestling League, created by Wayne Boyd and his colleagues from the Titan Mercury WC, something which showed great promise. Its inaugural event was AWL I, held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 30. World champions Kyle Dake and David Taylor were named captains of two teams for the event. A list of draft eligible athletes was released, and Dake and Taylor selected athletes in a draft, picking two wrestlers in each of 10 weight classes. Prior to the event, they finalized their lineups. There were some intriguing matchups in AWL I. The event was entertaining with some great battles. Jordan Oliver beat Zain Retherford, 13-11 at 65 kg. Alex Dieringer stopped Isaiah Martinez, 4-2 at 79 kg. Cory Clark stopped Tony Ramos, 8-0 at 61 kg. It was a good show, and organizers are aiming to take what they learned in Cedar Rapids and move forward with more AWL events in the future.

UWW creates, then improves, seeding for World Championships and Olympics – Wrestling fans, especially from the United States, have long complained about the fact that international wrestling never used seeding at the World Championships or Olympic Games. Often, the best wrestlers would have to compete in the early rounds because of the random draw. This year, United World Wrestling created a point-scoring system at select events during the season to allow for four seeded wrestlers at the 2018 World Championships in Budapest. The shortcoming of this system was the fact that the results from the 2017 World Championships were not included in the formula. In Budapest, a number of high quality wrestlers were seeded, but because many top wrestlers did not enter enough ranking tournaments, there were other major stars who did not earn a seed. Right before the end of this year, UWW improved its seeding system, giving points from the 2018 World Championships as part of the formula for seeding in 2019. We should see a fair separation of top stars at the 2019 Worlds in Kazakhstan.

Freestyle World Cup title returns to USA as Iowa City hosts first-class event – U.S. wrestling fans have long known that Iowa City is a great wrestling town. The rest of the world learned about that in 2018, when United World Wrestling awarded the Freestyle World Cup to Iowa City and historic Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It was the 30th year that the USA had hosted this entertaining event, and this year’s edition helped raise the bar for the competition. A strong crowd attended the two-day event to cheer on Team USA, which captured the team title for its first World Cup title in 15 years. Led by numerous members of the 2017 World championship team, the USA defeated India, Japan and Georgia in its pool, then stopped a talented Azerbaijan squad in the finals, 6-4. It was a great chance to see the top American stars competing against world-class foreign opponents right here on U.S. soil.

Biggest Fargo ever headlined by Triple Crown winners Cassioppi and Gehloff – Known by the wrestling community simply as “Fargo,” the 2018 U.S. Marine Corps Cadet and Junior Nationals at the Fargodome at North Dakota State set a record for entries, with 4,999 entries. There was substantial growth in the girls divisions, and all six of the tournaments had strong fields. Two wrestlers were able to leave Fargo with the coveted Triple Crown award, after claiming USA Wrestling national titles in folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman in the same year. At the Junior level (grades 9-12), Illinois heavyweight Anthony Cassioppi was able to win a Junior Triple Crown for the second straight year, only the second person to ever do that (joining Michigan great Adam Coon). On the Cadet level (ages 15-16), Minnesota’s Mason Gehloff had a great performance to win the only Triple Crown at his age group. What made Gehhoff’s interesting was that he won his freestyle title at 88 pounds, then went up to 94 pounds to win his Greco-Roman title.

Valencia beats Hall in NCAA finals, as rivalry continues into 2019 season – Zahid Valencia and Mark Hall grew up as star wrestlers in USA Wrestling’s age group system, and both went into college with great expectations. As freshmen in 2017, Penn State’s Hall and Arizona State’s Valencia both ended up at 174 pounds. Hall beat Valencia in the 2017 NCAA semifinals and won the national title, with Valencia finishing third. Both won Junior World medals for the USA in 2017, Hall a gold at 74 kg and Valencia a silver at 84 kg. They met again in the All-Star Classic to start the 2017-18 college season, where Valencia beat Hall 3-2 in a bout that did not count toward the NCAA season. In the 2018 NCAA finals, Valencia and Hall battled again, but this time, Valencia had the upper hand in an 8-2 victory over defending champion Hall. Both are back for their junior years in college, again at 174 pounds. On December 14, in a dual meet in State College, Pa., Hall controlled Valencia, 4-0. We can expect this story to continue through 2019 and beyond.

Sage Mortimer wins historic three Fargo All-American honors – High school freshman Sage Mortimer of Utah had a fantastic Fargo performance this summer. She won a gold medal at 100 pounds in the women’s Cadet Nationals, then followed with a silver medal at 100 pounds in the women’s Junior Nationals, losing in the finals to Cadet World champion Emily Shilson of Minnesota. But what caught everyone’s attention was when Mortimer entered the Junior Greco-Roman tournament, competing against boys. Showing great toughness and competitiveness, Mortimer became the first girl to become an All-American in the Junior Nationals in Greco-Roman with a seventh-place finish. There is a push in parts of our nation to develop a Greco-Roman program for girls, and Mortimer’s gutsy effort in Fargo should add momentum behind this effort.

Campbellsville wins first WCWA title behind four-time champion Miracle – There is a new national champion in women’s college wrestling. Led by National Team member Kayla Miracle, Campbellsville University edged Simon Fraser by five points to win the WCWA team title in only its fifth year as a program. The Tigers, coached by Lee Miracle (Kayla’s dad), trailed Simon Fraser by a point going into the final match at 136 pounds. Kayla Miracle became only the fourth four-time WCWA national champion when she pinned Desiree Zavala of Grays Harbor in that final match. Joining Miracle as WCWA champion for Campbellsville was Grace Bullen at 130 pounds, who hails from Norway, plus WCWA runner-up Mariah Harris (170) and a total of 10 All-Americans. It was a great year for Campbellsville, which was unbeaten in duals, won the National Duals, and claimed a No. 1 team ranking for the first time in program history.

Div. I wrestling is expanding – The growth of college wrestling has been at all levels except at Div. I, where the sport has halted a decline and has been holding its own in recent years. Back when I competed in the late 1970’s, there were over 150 Div. I teams. Now, the number has been hovering in the 70’s. The loss of Eastern Michigan was difficult, but the addition of Div. I programs for men and women at Presbyterian College has offset that loss. California Baptist is now into its transition period from Div. II to Div. I, and while not eligible for the NCAAs, it is wrestling at Div. I now. The new Div. I program at Little Rock will begin to compete next fall. This fall, a pair of Div. II colleges with wrestling announced that their athletic departments were moving up to Div. I, Long Island University (NY) and Augustana (SD). The wrestling community needs to support these transitioning programs and keep them strong during this period, and we will see an expanded Div. I in the near future.

RTCs opening opportunities for women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman athletes – One of the key factors in the U.S. success in international freestyle, as well as the strengthening of skills of college wrestlers, has been the establishment of Regional Training Centers on campuses. The nation’s Olympic hopefuls are training in the college setting, getting better themselves while sharing their abilities with college athletes and the local wrestling community. There were some nice additions to RTCs this year which expand the opportunities in the other Olympic styles. A group of women athletes, including World Team members Alli Ragan and Forrest Molinari, are now training with the Hawkeye WC. Joining the Tarheel RTC are World medalist Becka Leathers and Olympian Haley Augello. Greco is joining in on this as well, with Olympian Robby Smith and World Team member Joe Rau going to the Chicago RTC, and Travis Rice at the Illinois RTC. The Cliff Keen WC is training Greco-Roman wrestlers Kevin Beazley and Adam Coon (who also does freestyle). This great concept has helped build men’s freestyle and has the potential to impact the other disciplines now and in the future.

Kristie Davis becomes second woman inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame – In its Honors Weekend in Stillwater, Okla. in June, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame inducted two-time World champion and nine-time World medalist Kristie Davis as a Distinguished Member. She became the second woman inducted in this category, joining four-time World champion, five-time World medalist and pioneer Tricia Saunders. Now that the Hall has started this process, we encourage them to very soon add other deserving women such as Sara McMann, Patricia Miranda, Sandra Bacher, Shannon Williams and others who meet eligibility requirements and deserve to be enshrined among our sport’s greatest athletes.

I hope you enjoyed these thoughts. I am sure I missed a few, and fans are encouraged to post their choices on our message boards and elsewhere. Happy New Year!!!