Normally at this time of year we'd be getting revved up for the start of another Iowa wrestling season. Practice would have kicked off and we'd be looking forward to some early season tune-up events before the Hawkeyes get ready to face Big Ten foes. We might still be basking in the glow of Iowa's NCAA championship in March and looking forward to the possibility of a repeat in a few months.
Obviously, this year is anything but normal. Iowa did not win an NCAA championship in March -- because there was no NCAA Tournament eight long months ago, one of the first sports casualties of the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic. Practice for the upcoming season may have begun, but the details of that season are still in desperately short supply. The best guess is that it's going to start after January 1 and featured a limited schedule, probably with somewhere around 6-8 competition weekends prior to the conference and NCAA Tournaments. Hopefully we'll find out more about the shape and form of that upcoming season soon.
But while we wait for the 2020-21 (or possibly just 2021, full stop) college season to get sorted out, at least we had a bit of Iowa wrestling action to enjoy on Sunday night. Iowa wrestling strutted its stuff at the Hawkeye Wrestling Club Showdown Open in Coralville, one of the first events hosted by the brand-new Xtream Arena. The event was broadcast on Trackwrestling and featured Iowa's entire projected starting lineup for 2021, as well as several backups. The event was divided into two halves, a free undercard featuring (almost) all intra-squad match-ups and a PPV main card that featured current Hawkeye starters taking on some top domestic and international competition, as well as two women's wrestling matches. The events featured payouts for the non-college wrestlers -- a $5000 appearance fee and an additional $5000 win bonus, as well as pay equity between the male and female competitors.
All matches were contested under freestyle rules. Freestyle features two three-minute periods and no overtimes; ties after six minutes of wrestling are decided by various tiebreaker criteria. Scoring is slightly different as well; takedowns are still (mostly) worth two points (though takedowns via big throws can score more), but there's no riding time and you have a limited amount of time on the mat to turn an opponent for exposure points before the official will return the action to neutral. While folkstyle emphasizes control of your opponent in scoring points, freestyle focuses more on exposure, allowing you to score points (or for your opponent to score points on you) even without any clear control, so long as you expose their back to the mat. (There are actually several conditions in which a wrestler can score points via exposure, but I'm not going to get into that now.) Wrestlers can also score a point if an opponent steps out of bounds voluntarily or his opponent is put on a "shot clock" (after a second warning for passivity) and fails to score a takedown within thirty seconds. There are also no major decisions in freestyle matches and technical falls are achieved when a wrestler wins by 10 (rather than 15) points.
|133||Nodir Safarov||DEC (12-6)||Jesse Ybarra|
|141||Carter Happel||DEC (11-7)||Justin Stickley|
|141||Cobe Siebrecht||TECH FALL (10-0)||Leif Schroeder|
|141||Max Murin||DEC (4-2)||Mitch McKee|
|157||Kaleb Young||TECH FALL (11-0)||Jeremiah Moody|
|165||Patrick Kennedy||DEC (8-5)||Myles Wilson|
|184||Nelson Brands||DEC (9-0)||Abe Assad|
|197||Jacob Warner||TECH FALL (10-0)||Zach Glazier|
(I don't know that weights were announced for the undercard, so consider those guesstimates.)
The most intriguing undercard matches of the night featured debuts for a pair of highly-touted true freshmen (Ybarra and Kennedy), a resumption of one of last season's more entertaining rivalries (Murin vs McKee), and a potential wrestle-off at 184 lbs (Brands vs Assad). Ybarra is a highly-regarded lightweight prospect and should push hard to make the Iowa lineup in a few years, when Spencer Lee and Austin DeSanto depart. Safarov, a member of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club who competes internationally for Uzbekistan and competed in the 2017 and 2018 World Championships, had too much veteran savvy and was able to cruise to a 12-6 decision win. Kennedy was one of the top overall recruits in the 2020 class and would be a likely option to see time early and often in the lineup... if Iowa didn't already have Alex Marinelli and Michael Kemerer at 165 and 174, that is. Kennedy fell behind early against Wilson, going down 4-1 on a big move at the edge, but methodically worked his way back into the match with a series of takedowns and was able to come out with an 8-5 decision win. It was nice to see him not get rattled by an early deficit and his motor and range of attacks is quite exciting.
Murin and McKee split their meetings in college last year, with Murin winning at the dual and McKee winning at the Big Ten Tournament, but Murin won the de facto rubber match on Sunday night, edging McKee 4-2 behind a pair of slick takedowns and some truly impressive hip defense that would have made Shakira blush. Murin should start or Iowa at either 141 or 149 this season and if he just be a bit more consistent with his offense, he could be ready to take a big leap forward. Assad beat out Brands for the regular job at 184 lbs in the back half of last season thanks to a good showing at Midlands and a few good dual wins in the winter. Brands looked more than up to the challenge of wresting back that starting spot this season, though. He looked strong in scoring three takedowns on Assad and using a gut wrench to add two more points. I'm sure that battle is nowhere close to decided, but based on Sunday's result, it could be a source of intrigue all winter long.
Carter Happel picked up an 11-7 win over Justin Stickley in one of the more entertaining (and high-scoring) matches, a back-and-forth duel that featured plenty of action. The other three undercard matches were quick and decisive routs. Cobe Siebrecht was originally slated to face Bretli Reyna (another of Iowa's intriguing true freshmen), but instead faced Leif Schroeder, who he stormed through for a 10-0 technical fall thanks to a quick takedown and a series of gut wrenches. Kaleb Young and Jacob Warner also used that same formula to dispatch Jeremiah Moody and Zach Glazier, respectively.
|57 kg||Spencer Lee||FALL (1:13)||Zach Sanders|
|52 kg||Erin Golston||FALL (0:57)||Devyn Gomez|
|65 kg||Bryce Meredith||DEC (9-3)||Austin DeSanto|
|67 kg||Jaydin Eierman||DEC (4-1)||Vladimer Khinchegashvili|
|153 lbs||Pat Lugo||DEC (7-2)||Matthew Kolodzik|
|170 lbs||Precious Bell||DEC (9-0)||Jordan Nelson|
|75 kg||James Green||DEC (5-4)||Alex Marinelli|
|176 lbs||Tommy Gantt||DEC (10-6)||Michael Kemerer|
|285 lbs||Nick Gwiazdowksi||TECH FALL (10-0)||Tony Cassioppoi|
Spencer Lee... what else is there to say? He's just an absolute phenom. Sanders was a four-time All-American at Minnesota (you may remember him from his long rivalry with Matt McDonough) and he's been a solid freestyle competitor at 57 kg for several years. And Lee went through him like he was nothing. He scored a takedown a few seconds into the match and added on a few gut wrenches with a tight hold to take a quick 6-0 lead. After the match returned to neutral, Lee quickly whipped him over to the mat and settled in for a pin in a little over a minute. One of the most amazing things about Lee is that for as good as he is at folkstyle -- and he is very, very, very good in that style, as we've seen over his last three years in an Iowa singlet -- he probably really is even better at freestyle. He's just a spectacular spectacle to watch every time he takes the mat, no matter what style he's competing in.
Lee actually didn't have the fastest fall on the show, though; Golston earned that distinction by way of a 57-second pin over Gomez. Golston is an experienced competitor, while Gomez was a last-minute replacement for Sarah Hildebrandt, who had to pull out of the event with a late illness. So this was a bit of a competitive mismatch, but Golston still looked impressive in mowing through Gomez.
Austin DeSanto's match with Bryce Meredith, two-time NCAA finalist who wrestled at Wyoming, provided the theme for the night in many of the Iowa losses on the main card: a lack of (current) experience in freestyle. Meredith only took one (maybe two) shot the entire match, but still was able to cruise to an 9-3 win because he was able to score multiple exposure points on DeSanto. In folkstyle, DeSanto's scrambles to get into scoring position once he got to Meredith's legs wouldn't cost him any points; in freestyle, they gave Meredith several opportunities to score easy exposure points. DeSanto's relentless tempo and multitude of attacks from neutral could serve him well in future freestyle competition, but he'll need to fine-tune his awareness of the freestyle rules and what he can (and can't) do in order to achieve success there.
One of the most eye-opening results of the night was Eierman's 4-1 win over Khinchegashvili, a decorated and experienced freestyle wrestler from Georgia (the country, not the home to the Dawgs). Khinchegashvili is a former World and Olympic champion and a three-time World medalist overall; he may be four years removed from his most recent medal (Olympic gold in 2016), but he's still quite good. And Eierman bested him thanks to some solid defense and a pair of slick takedowns early in the second period. He trailed 1-0 at the break after giving up a passivity point, but leapt to action at the start of the second with a pair of takedowns off of explosive double leg takedowns. Eierman has the offense and the swag to be a very fun addition to Iowa's lineup this season.
Pat Lugo continued Iowa's early success on the main card with a strong 7-2 win over former college rival Matthew Kolodzik. Outside of Spencer Lee, perhaps no Iowa wrestler missed out on more by the NCAA Championships being canceled than Lugo, who has looked spectacular in competition since March. And the disappointment of Lee not being able to compete for a third NCAA championship is mitigated by the bonus year of eligibility the NCAA has provided to winter sports athletes this year, giving Lee chances at two more NCAA championships. Lugo was denied his last (and best) shot at an NCAA championship. But he's channeled that disappointment into some impressive freestyle performances since then, picking up an impressive win over Ohio State's Luke Pletcher at an event over the summer and dispatching Kolodzik 7-2 here. Lugo opened up a 3-0 lead with a pair of step-out points and a passivity point against Kolodzik, then added a pair of nice takedowns (the second takedown, spinning behind Kolodzik after a knee tap, was particularly impressive) to cruise to victory. Even though he was denied a shot at a national title in March, it's heartening to see him wrestling so well now.
The second women's match of the evening wasn't as short as the first, but it was nearly as one-sided. Bell is one of the top U.S. wrestlers at her weight and she methodically picked up points on Nelson en route to a 9-0 victory, though Nelson battled hard the entire match.
The final three bouts of the main card did not go as well for the Iowa representatives as the earlier action, sadly. In the first, James Green edged Alex Marinelli 5-4 thanks to a big move on the edge. Marinelli actually took a 1-0 lead off a passivity point against Green in a slow first period, but Green used his trademark sudden explosiveness to nail Marinelli with a double leg attack and back exposure on the edge to turn that 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 lead. Green's attack would have scored fewer points in folkstyle (it may not have scored any, frankly), but he's a veteran freestyle competitor at this point (and a two-time World medalist) and he used that experience edge to his advantage. Marinelli continued to fight hard despite the deficit and got a nice takedown of his own on a duck-under, but couldn't get any more points before time ran out.
Like Marinelli, Kemerer took an early lead in his match, 4-2 after a takedown to start the second period. But things can snowball quickly in freestyle and they did for Kemerer as that 4-2 lead turned into a 8-4 deficit when one Gantt attack turned into three quick exposures. Gantt tacked on another takedown to go up 10-4 before Kemerer scored a late takedown to cut the margin to 10-6. Exposure is one of the funkier aspects of freestyle and one of the things that most differentiates it from folkstyle (the new neutral danger rule is folk's closest equivalent, but even that requires far more control for a wrestler to score than exposure points in freestyle). It bit DeSanto and Kemerer hard in their matches at this event. And while that's something they'll need to work on for future freestyle competition, the good news is they won't have to worry about it at all in their folkstyle matches for Iowa this season.
The final match of the card had a lopsided final score -- Gwiz beat Cassioppi 10-0 -- but it perhaps wasn't quite as lopsided as that score might indicate. Cassioppi showed some tenacious defense in fending off Gwiz's attacks in the early going, and he was only down 2-0 after the first period. But Gwiz got a second takedown early in the second period and once he was able to secure a leg lace, the match was over, as he rattled off a trio of quick rolls for exposure. Cassioppi has had great success at freestyle at the junior level, but Gwiazdowski, a two-time World medalist, was a big step up in competition. And, much like DeSanto and Kemerer, at least Cassioppi won't have to worry about leg laces in folkstyle this season.
Though it would have been nice to see the Iowa contingent win a few more matches on the main card, most of the wrestlers who lost were simply facing opponents who were more experienced and (more importantly) much more well-versed in the nuances of freestyle. There was still a lot of great action and it was refreshing to finally see some Iowa wrestlers in competition for the first time in eight months. Hopefully we won't have to wait too much longer to again see them in action in an Iowa singlet, too.