Willis World Blog: Ups and downs

By Mike Willis, USA Wrestling | Sept. 12, 2019, 4:37 a.m. (ET)

Max Nowry in his third place match. Photo by Sandy Slater.

9/15 - Day three was an emotional roller coaster. Gary had to tell me it was uncouth to cheer from the media section. Whoops. That’s something I have to be conscientious of because it’s hard for me to not get worked up when our team is wrestling.

The day was a mixed bag. Max Nowry looked phenomenal in repechage defeating the African Champion and becoming the first American to make a medal match. Then John Stefanowicz got knocked from the competition, by a really tough Chinese wrestler.

The second round of action started off great with Ellis Coleman dominating last year’s bronze medalist, who was from Kazakhstan, and had the hometown crowd behind him. Then Joe Rau controlled an Asian Championships silver medalist for a very authoritative win, and G’Angelo Hancock completely shut down a Ukrainian wrestler, who frankly wrestled dirty.

Then nothing went our way.                               

In his next match, Ellis got hit with an arm throw for four in the first 30 seconds, and his opponent completely shut down after that. It might be my American bias speaking, but I think Ellis should have been awarded a passivity point. Given he has one of the best gut wrenches in the world, I think he would have turned the guy, but it wasn’t meant to be. Ellis lost 5-0.

Next, G’Angelo was in control, 2-1, against a former World champion from France. With 40 seconds left, he pushed just a little too much into him and got thrown for five. It made me sick to my stomach. G’Angelo had looked so good and so poised. I really thought this was the year he was going to break through and get his medal. One tiny technical mistake derailed it. He went down 6-2.

 G’Angelo has U23 Worlds coming up in November. I fully expect him to win them and contend for gold in 2020.

In his match, Joe was leading 1-0 at the break. In the second period, he was hit with passivity and put down. He was turned with a gut wrench, but it looked like he was about to escape after only one turn. Unfortunately his opponent re-positioned, tightened it up and turned him three more times for the 9-1 technical fall.

That round was like a punch to the gut. We were in all of those matches, and it felt like we could have won them all. It just didn’t go our way. I credit the athletes for competing their hardest and putting it all on the line. I don’t think there is a sport that can make someone more vulnerable than wrestling. You have to be courageous to even step on the mat.

Watching the quarterfinals was a nightmare. One by one, all of the wrestlers we needed to win lost.

I’m just a guy covering wrestling from the stands, and I felt gutted. I can’t imagine how it must feel for a wrestler to have to sit and watch their fate be decided in a match they have absolutely no control of. Some type of “not good” most people probably never experience I would reckon.

Max had the returning World champion Azizli from Azerbaijan for bronze. Azizli showed his pedigree and took Max down and hit him with a gut wrench for three turns to take the match.

Max looked unbelievably good this tournament, and should be proud of performance. He dominated two very good wrestlers and took the eventual silver medalist to the absolute brink. I’m sure it didn’t end how he wanted it to, but he has a lot to hang his hat on.

Yesterday was tough. Let’s hope tomorrow is better.

Our Guys Wrestle Tough, and I rescue an American from a Kazakhstani stairwell 

Ryan Mango mid-smash. Photo by Larry Slater.

9/14 -  After day one, we’ve got two guys still in contention for medals. John Stefanowicz and Max Nowry will be wrestling in repechage this morning and hopefully going for bronze medals later today.

The thing that stood out to me from the first session was how hard all of our guys wrestled.

Ryan Mango torched his first opponent and then gave a returning World medalist all he could handle, including smashing him for a huge 4.

Raymond Bunker showed big heart when he dug out a tough comeback win against an Indian wrestler in the opening round. In his next round, he competed admirably against another returning World medalist.

Nowry smoked the German who had beaten him early this year. In the semifinals he took the Kazakhstani wrestler to the brink, dropping a one-point match. In the semifinals, that guy would thrash the returning World champion to pull Nowry back in.

Stefanowicz battled tough the entirety of his match even though he got put down twice. The Georgian that beat him cruised into the finals and pulled him back in.

It was a great effort from our squad and if we continue to wrestle this way, we will be bringing home some medals.

On the way back to the hotel, we missed our departing bus by one minute, so we were supposed to wait an hour for the next one. Luckily, schedules aren’t adhered to strictly here. We only had to wait 20 minutes. During that time the driver blasted Russian (I think) pop music. It wasn’t terrible but not something I would listen to again if I had the choice.

The bus driver was a total pro and hit some maneuvers in high speed Nur-Sultan traffic that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable trying to pull in a compact car, let alone a bus. I was grateful for his expertise and his ability to get us back to the hotel quickly and unscathed.

After we got arrived at the hotel Gary Abbott got a call from one of the Americans in our contingent. For the sake of anonymity, I will refer to him as “American X”. Unfortunately for American X, he had gotten himself locked in a stairwell at our hotel. The doors behind him closed and locked, and the doors leading outside were also locked.

Gary and I left our hotel to find the stairwell American X was trapped in. When we reached it, we realized there was not one, but four sets of locking double doors separating us from our compatriot. Shedding our shoes to use them as door stops, we were able to prop open the locking doors and reach American X, albeit barefooted. Everyone made it back to their hotel room without further incident.

Wrestling (and cycling) practice.

Look closely and you can see the Kazakhstani track cycling team on the curved wall.

9/13 - The Greco-Roman portion of the World Championships starts tomorrow, and while you’d think the anticipation would create a tense environment, everyone seems pretty loose. I went over to watch the Greco guys practice, and everyone was in good spirits. All of the coaches and wrestlers I talked with said the acclimation camp, which they held a couple blocks away in the city, went really well.

They warmed up in the beginning of practice with some mat ball and then broke into drilling sessions. Each wrestler worked on whatever they thought they needed to, and the coaches watched, giving input or demonstrating technique occasionally on a one-on-one basis.

Originally the plan was to practice in the gym connected to the arena where the competition will be held tomorrow. However, when we got there, other teams were already using the mats. We went across the street to a velodrome where some mats had put inside of the track. Apparently, the team had been using this facility frequently this week. We had the mats to ourselves, but the Kazakhstani track cycling team showed up and held practice while ours was going on. It was actually pretty cool to watch the cyclists riding up the walls in the background while our guys drilled on the mats.

Tomorrow the four non-Olympic weights will wrestle which means, Max Nowry, Ryan Mango, Raymond Bunker and John Stefanowicz will be competing for Team USA. All four of these wrestlers are military, with Nowry and Mango representing the U.S. Army and Bunker and Stefanowicz representing the Marine Corps. This will be the first Senior World Championships for all of them.

Nowry is a 2012 University World champion and also competed on a pair of Junior World Teams. Mango was runner-up at the men’s freestyle Military World Championships in 2017. However, this is the first World Championships of any level for Stefanowicz and Bunker.

Our draws are decent for the most part, but Stefanowicz definitely has the toughest opening match. He’ll face Lasha Gobadze of Georgia, a 2015 World bronze medalist and 2019 European runner-up.

I’m hitting the hay because tomorrow is going to be another long day, but boy I can’t wait to watch our guys compete. I have no doubt they’re going to leave everything they have on the mat.

Welcome to Nur-Sultan

Photo of digital backdrop from the arena. 

September 12: I’m halfway across the planet and almost 6000 miles from home, and it feels pretty surreal. For someone who has never traveled outside the country before, going to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan is jumping head first into international travel.

I took a seven-hour flight on a giant double-decker plane from Philadelphia to Frankfurt, Germany. I left at 6 pm and arrived at 7 am. It felt pretty bizarre to lose hours like that. I was pretty amped up, and couldn’t sleep at all, so I watched a couple movies. Shazam! and The Disaster Artist are both movies I would recommend. 

After a six-hour layover, I met up with some of the other USA Wrestling staff who flew in from Denver. We hopped aboard another plane and six hours later we were in Nur-Sultan. Luckily, I was able to get a few hours of sleep on this on this flight, so I didn’t feel like a total zombie.

After landing, I got my passport stamped for the first time. Funny enough, the Kazakhstani official put it smack in the middle of a picture of Independence Hall in my passport. I live less than a mile from that building back in Philadelphia.

We got in around midnight, so there wasn’t too much activity going on in the city. A lot of the buildings in Nur-Sultan are lit up with glowing blue lights. From what I could see from the van, it looked like a pretty modern city.

We got to the hotel around 1:00 a.m., and everyone was pretty beat. It took us a little while to check in because we were stuck behind the UWW film crew. Apparently, they were at the wrong hotel. Luckily for them, the hotel they were supposed to be staying at was less than a block away.

This morning, I got breakfast in the hotel. It was a solid spread with a couple different kinds of sausages, eggs, breakfast potatoes, pastries and fruit. After breakfast, we left to go get our credentials and check out the arena. I got to see a little more of the city during the day time. They had some really interesting looking architecture, and it seems like they’re constantly adding more to the city. There were constructions being built in every direction you turned.

I’m incredibly excited to watch Team USA compete, but I’m a little nervous about the logistics. In addition to this being my first time travelling abroad, this is my first World Championships. I’ve covered some big tournaments like the U.S. Open and Fargo, but this is a whole different animal. The media are seated on the 5th floor, so I’m going to have to book it down the stairs to grab athlete interviews in the mixed zone.

Wrestling doesn’t start until Saturday, but there is still a lot of work to be done before then. I’ll be updating this blog for the next two weeks, so follow along if you’re interested.