Willis World Blog: Finishing strong

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

Photo of Kyle Dake by Mark Lundy/Lutte Lens

9/22 - Today, Kyle Dake brought home the fifth gold medal for Team USA. Dake dominated his Azerbaijani opponent in the finals, 4-1. Last year, he beat the same opponent in the finals, 4-0. Dake bobbed and weaved and kept his feet moving the whole time. The Azerbaijani didn’t come close to penetrating his defense. It was a very impressive performance.

The team ended up finishing in third place, one point of ahead of Iran. Kyle Snyder took bronze and Tyler Graff won his repechage match and ended up finishing in fifth place. Without those two victories, we would have finished off the medal stand.

The world is really good at wrestling. While taking third might not have been what we hoped for coming into the tournament, it’s still an achievement to be proud of. We really had to battle for it.

While the wrestling is over, the Grappling World Championships are going on tomorrow, and I’m staying to cover them. I don’t have any experience with grappling, so I’m excited to see what in entails.

 

Cox claims gold, Burroughs gets bronze

Photo of J'den's celebration by Tony Rotundo/Wrestlers are Warriors

9/21 - My story is going up late today because last night I got pretty sick with some sort of bug. It hit Gary a couple days ago, and it has been steadily making its rounds through the U.S. contingent. We’re almost finished with the tournament, but this will definitely make the last couple days more challenging. I’m just trying to stay hydrated and well rested, but I still have a job to do.

J’den won gold and looked like the best wrestler in the world while doing it. He only won 4-0, but I don’t think the Iranian touched his legs. Honestly, I don’t even know if the Iranian tried to touch his legs. J’den is so good, that if you try to wrestle him, he’s going to make you look silly.

As always, J’den gave a great interview after his match. He’s probably the most interesting guy to watch for 2020. He hasn’t made a decision yet if he wants to bump up to 97 kg and take on Snyder and potentially Sadulaev, or go down to 86 kg and face Taylor and potentially Yazdani.

There is no easy choice, as those four wrestlers are some of the best in the world regardless of weight class. Knowing J’den, I don’t think that deters him at all, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to wrestle at the weight class he thinks is tougher.

Kyle Snyder fell in the semifinals to a tough wrestler, a 2012 Olympic champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, from Azerbaijan. Kyle started wrestling at the Senior World championships in 2015, and this is the first time he has not made the finals. That’s pretty incredible. While I know he must be disappointed, like a true champion, I believe he will come back to take bronze. Look out for Snyder in 2020 because he will have something to prove.

Jordan Burroughs did in fact come back for bronze, dominating his Japanese opponent, 10-0. It was patented JB with a bunch of blast doubles. After the match he also gave a wonderful interview and talked about how his semifinals match with Sidakov was basically reliving a nightmare from last year’s semifinal match where he also lost on a last-second step out. Jordan will come into 2020 with a chip on his shoulder. He’s taken bronze the last two years while thinking he’s the best wrestler in the world. 2020 will be his chance to definitely prove that he is.

Tomorrow Dake is wrestling for gold, and Tyler Graff is in repechage. Here’s hoping for more medals and that I feel better.

 

Three Champions lead the women's freestyle team to a third-place finish

Team USA on the podium after a third place finish in women's freestyle. Photo by Larry Slater

9/20 - For the third night in a row, I was fortunate enough to witness the U.S. crown a women’s freestyle champion. Tamyra Mensah-Stock wrestled like she had the whole tournament, dominantly. Even though she got kicked in the head on the opening takedown and reaggravated a tweaked knee, her Swedish opponent had nothing for her. Tamyra defeated her, 8-2.

With this win, Tamyra also became a part of history. For the first time, the U.S. had three women’s freestyle gold medalists at the World Championships. Not only that, but Tamyra’s win pushed the team into third place, sneaking past China by just a few points.

We took a team picture with the trophy on the podium after the tournament. I was filled with pride but felt humbled as well.

 

These athletes sacrifice their lives to the sport for moments like these, and I was lucky enough to be there to experience it happen. Every one of these wrestlers gives their heart and soul to wrestling, and when they succeed it’s truly beautiful. It’s the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice and fortitude.

 

After the tournament ended, Team Leader Jim Bennett threw the team a party at a local hotel. Initially, I was not planning on going because these days are extremely long, and I was ready for bed. However, I didn’t want to regret missing it, so I tagged along. I made the right decision.

 

Speeches were given by Mr. Bennett, USA Wrestling President Bruce Baumgartner and Head Coach Terry Steiner. The speeches were emotional and heartfelt, especially Terry’s. I will emphasize again, how grateful I am to be part of USA Wrestling. It is a special organization filled with extraordinary people.

 

Tomorrow is the third day of men’s freestyle. J’den Cox punched through to the finals this afternoon and will wrestle for gold tomorrow. Jordan Burroughs fell in the semifinals to the Russian on a last-second step out. It was another heartbreaking moment. Jordan is a true champion and will come back strong.

 

When speaking about extraordinary people within USA Wrestling, Jordan is one of the first that comes to mind. He succeeded in an era where the U.S. was not consistently winning World medals, and helped usher in a renaissance of success. When people talk about the wrestlers that changed the sport, Jordan’s name will always be near the top of the list.

 

Graff, Dake, Downey and Snyder will start their competition tomorrow. As always, let’s get some medals.

 

Witnessing History

Photo of Adeline By Mark Lundy/Lutte Lens

9/19 - Adeline Gray won her fifth World Championship last night. No other American has accomplished that feat. Legends, John Smith, Tricia Saunders and Jordan Burroughs have four. Burroughs has the chance to join Adeline in history in a couple days, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

Adeline’s gold medal ceremony was the first time I’ve seen our flag raised and heard our anthem play. During Jacarra’s medal ceremony, I was in the back of the arena chasing down an interview. I would have liked to have seen Jacarra’s ceremony, but this felt pretty special.

Every coach you talk to says Adeline is an incredible individual and the most mentally tough person they’ve ever met. I think you’d need to be to accomplish something like this.

Another highlight of the day was watching Tamyra Mensah-Stock eviscerate her opponents. In the quarterfinals, she wrestled a near-perfect match against Japan to win, 10-1. The Japanese wrestler was a 2016 Olympic champion and a 2017 World Champion, who did not compete in 2018.

In the semifinals, she beat a German, 10-0. It looked like she was drilling. Tonight, Tamyra will look to make her own history. If she wins a World title, it will be the first time the women’s freestyle team brought home three golds at a World Championships. The way Tamyra’s been wrestling, I wouldn’t want to be her opponent.

Men’s freestyle was tough. Zain lost a back-and-forth one point match to a Cuban that took bronze at the last two World Championships. Daton lost to a 2017 World champion and 2018 World bronze medalist from Japan, 3-2. Daton scored the only takedown of the match but was somehow put on the shot-clock for passivity twice. Neither were pulled into repechage.

Speaking of questionable calls, three-time World champion Haji Aliyev was thrown out of the tournament for protesting a call. In his opening round against Gadshimurad Rashidov of Russia, there was a flurry on the edge of the mat that was ruled one-point for Rashidov, giving him the win. Aliyev refused to shake hands and kept gesturing at the referee, who eventually gave him a red card. Aliyev then picked up the paddles and threw them across the mat at the referee. The whole situation was tense, and ended up with Aliyev being escorted out by security.

Tomorrow women’s freestyle wraps up, and Green, Burroughs, Cox and Gwiazdowski take the mat for the U.S in men’s freestyle. Let’s hope we witness more history tomorrow night.

Jacarra Winchester is a World Champion

Jacarra on the podium. Photo by Mark Lundy/Lutte Lens

9/18 - Today, some excellent things happened. Adeline Gray qualified our first Olympic weight class (76 kg) for the 2020 Games, and Jacarra Winchester became a World Champion.

Watching Adeline compete is something special. She has such poise about her, and is so smart and technically sound. She had a close match with Germany in the semifinals but stuck with her game plan and got her points when she needed to. Adeline is a technician, and tomorrow night will look to win her 5th World title, which would surpass John Smith, Tricia Saunders and Jordan Burroughs (JB will be able to even the score later this week).

Jacarra winning gold was beyond impressive. She went through three tough wrestlers, the Mongolian, the Turk, and the Japanese wrestler in the finals.

She showed no stage fright competing under the bright lights and wrestled incredibly calculated. By her own admission, she could have opened up more. It’s pretty wild to think that she could have potentially ran up the score on one of the best wrestlers on the planet.

Since we only have six Olympic weight classes, Jacarra will have to move up to 57 kg or down to 53 kg next year. She’s not tipping her hand just yet, but it will be interesting to see which she chooses. It’s unfortunate that she has to choose at all because we don’t have more Olympic weight classes.

Tomorrow Kayla Miracle and Tamyra Mensah-Stock will kick off the final two weight classes of women’s wrestling. Daton Fix and Zain Retherford will be the first up for men’s freestyle. They both have brutal draws. Let’s hope we can ride some momentum into tomorrow. We might need it.

Getting our first medalist

Jacarra's win has been the highlight of the World Championships so far. Photo by Justin Hoch.

9/17 - On the first day of women’s freestyle, Jacarra Winchester did the darn thing. After a fifth place finish last year, she punched through and made the finals. She wrestled a really tough Turkish opponent with a great fireman’s carry. Winchester had previously lost to her, 6-6. It was an amazing moment when she got the victory and a great way to start off the women’s freestyle action.

Watching Jacarra prepare for that match was really intense. She sat in back warm-up area by herself in the little American booth with the curtains drawn. She had her eyes closed and her headphones on and seemed completely zen. In her post match interview, she said she was listening to The Carpenters. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

Winchester looked really good all day, smashing her two other opponents prior to the semfinals. She will wrestle against Japan in the finals.

2 of our other 3 wrestlers from day one are still alive. Returning silver medalist, Sarah Hildebrandt dropped a match to a former World champion from Japan in the quarterfinals. She has a tough match in repechage against an Indian wrestler who beat her earlier this year at the Dan Kolov tournament in Bulgaria. If she wins, she will have Greece for bronze. To open the tournament, Sarah earned a tech fall over a Vietnamese wrestler

Victoria Francis is already in the bronze medal match after going 1-1 on day 1. She opened the tournament with a pin over a Canadian opponent. In the quarterfinals she lost, 4-0, to a tough Ukranian. Victoria was right there, but got hit with a headlock in the first period, which ended up being the only points scored in the match. In the bronze medal match, she will face China.

Whitney Conder had a really tough opening draw against a North Korean wrestler who defeated her in the first round of last year’s World Championships. Conder gave her best effort but fell short and was not pulled into repechage. It seems incredibly unlikely that she would have to face the same wrestler in the opening round of the World Championships two years in a row, but it happens.

Tomorrow, four-time World champion Adeline Gray will take the mat for the U.S., as well as two-time World silver medalist Ali Ragan, Jenna Burkert and Forrest Molinari. I predict they will keep the momentum rolling for Team USA, and we will have a couple more finalists.

Reviewing weird Russian chips and hanging out outside an elevator

Cheese, Gyro (?), Crab and Sour Cream & Onion

9/16 -Today was another tough day. It was nice to see Ildar get a win. Adam and Pat were both close but came up short. News flash: the world is really good at wrestling. I know all of our guys will use this as motivation for 2020. As a team we went 8-12 overall. There’s stuff to improve on, but I think the coaches will be happy with the effort given. Everyone showed heart and grit. Now it’s just a matter of fine tuning some things for the Olympics next year.

After the round, I went to the grocery store and picked up some chips. I don’t speak Russian, and I certainly don’t read Cyrillic, so I picked out a couple bags based on their design to try. I’ll rank them on a scale to ten from left to right order. Welcome to “Mike Reviews Things”.

First up we had cheese flavored. The block of cheese on the bag looks like a mix between orange cheddar and swiss, but who knows. Overall they’re fine, but kind of boring. They remind me of ruffles cheddar and sour cream but not as good. 5 out of 10.

Next up is what I assume is gyro flavored or something close to that. It has a smoky profile and a little more going on than the cheese flavor, 6 out of 10.

Third we have my personal favorite, crab. There is a crab on the bag so no guessing here. These are nothing like American crab chips, which are seasoned with old bay. These have kind of sweet artificial crab flavor. I know that might not sound appealing, but they are. 8 out of 10.

Finally, we have the blue bag, which turned out to be sour cream and onion. It threw me for a loop because I thought it was universally known that sour cream and onion chips are green, and blue is reserved for salt and vinegar. I probably should have known based on the design (a bowl of white stuff with onions), but I thought maybe they were ranch flavored. Anyways, they’re good, 7 out of 10.

The best spot for wifi in the hotel is directly in front of the elevators on my floor. I posted up there tonight to get some work done. It turns out, it’s also the best spot to meet people as there’s obviously a lot of foot traffic.

I introduced myself to some wrestlers, coaches and other Americans on the trip that I had not met before. It feels kind of silly to say, “Hi World Team member/wrestling legend, I’m Mike nice to meet you”, as they’re waiting for an elevator, but I think it’s important that they know who I am. Especially because I’ll be doing interviews with the women after their matches tomorrow. I’d rather say hello to them now, so I don’t meet them for the first time on the floor of the arena as I’m trying to chase them down for an interview.

I cannot wait to watch the women wrestle. The team is stacked, and I believe we have a legitimate shot at knocking the Japanese off as World champs. Here’s hoping for a strong start tomorrow.

Ups and Downs

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 over. It's a type of feeling 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 we 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 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 been 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 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. Buildings were being put up 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.