Aaron Pico (Photo/T.R. Foley)Pico, a high school sophomore from California, is one of the best young wrestlers in the United States. Last season he breezed through California's one-class state wrestling tournament as a freshman, before earning his spot on the Cadet World Team and capturing a Cadet World championship in Zrenjanin, Serbia. Later this fall he beat a much older Russian opponent at an event in upstate New York.
Given his talent and well-established love for MMA it wasn't a huge surprise when this week Pico decided that he's going to pursue the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games, and then make a smooth transition into MMA. To accomplish his goals Pico and his family decided it was best for him to leave high school for online courses and focus on his training.
Pico is starting his senior level experience in two weeks at the Ivan Yarygin tournament in Krasnoyarsk, aka "The Toughest Tournament in the World." That might be a little much for the teenager to tackle, but in Pico's estimation that level of competition will drive him to compete at a higher level.
Though Pico has plenty of supporters, his decision to leave high school is drawing the ire of some who think leaving behind a full scholarship and a college education in pursuit of Olympic gold is an irresponsible decision.
The backlash, while admittedly minor, seems to come from Americans using other wrestlers as a guide for Pico's path. Dan Gable, Cael Sanderson and Jordan Burroughs all went the collegiate route. Why not Pico?
Pico is American, but there are fewer similarities to those American wrestling greats than many people realize. Pico has been a full-time high-level wrestler for almost ten years. He's had limitless access to technique videos and some of the world's best coaching. Though Gable bleeds toughness, and Cael drips technique, their experiences were much different.
We're all engineered to take on bigger challenges and Pico has a skill set that has introduced him to new challenges at a younger age than others. He prefers freestyle to folkstyle, and traveling the world to staying in high school. It might not be right for everyone, but it sure seems right for Aaron Pico.
To your questions ...
Q: Can you address how Aaron Pico could sign a contact with an MMA company, and for a sport he won't compete in until 2020?
-- Uriel C.
Foley: Pico is signing with an MMA-focused agent, not joining an professional fighting league.
As a professional athlete, Pico is able to hire any professional he likes to help manage his career and create additional income. His choice of DeWayne Zinkin stems from location, and the ever-present crossover between wrestling and MMA.
Joey Davis (third from left) with NCAA Division I champions Darrion Caldwell, Bubba Jenkins, and Jordan BurroughsQ: Would Notre Dame's Joey Davis (174) be a potential NCAA finalist in Division I? He has beaten several ranked Division I wrestlers this season. How would he stack up against the likes of Andrew Howe, Chris Perry, Matt Brown, Robert Kokesh, Logan Storley, and Mike Evans?
-- Mike C.
Foley: I've only seen a few match videos of Joey Davis, but what comes out on film is often dramatic and impressive. Had he chosen a Division I school, he would be ranked in the top five.
Where in the top five is tough to say, but I have a few predictions.
Davis dec. Perry, 3-2
Davis dec. Kokesh, 9-4
Davis dec. Storley, 8-4
Davis maj. dec. Evans, 10-1
Howe dec. Davis, 4-2
Brown tech. fall Davis, 15-0
Q: In three years or less, will Cornell dominate NCAA wrestling? They are loaded with talented freshmen. What are your thoughts?
-- Karl S.
Foley: The biggest response to Gabe Dean's win has been the increase in mailbagger's asking about Cornell's potential to win an NCAA title.
Yes, Cornell can win an NCAA title. They have the coaching, academic support and money to field a team with ten nationally ranked wrestlers. More than any program I've seen up close, wrestlers from Cornell really believe that they can win the NCAA title. No matter who they are, or what they did or didn't do in high school, they are certain of their abilities, and carry that confidence on the mat.
Weight-by-weight projections would get bogged down in the minutia of "what-if," but if you look at how they are trending -- younger and nastier -- it's conceivable that Cornell comes knocking for the NCAA title in two to three seasons.
I also wouldn't count them out of a top-five finish in 2014.
Q: Do you think Ruth is just bored? I don't take anything away from Dean. He took it to him, but college wrestling is an insane grind and five years of Cael-style discipline without a high profile rival might have Ruth burnt out. Do you think Ruth looks burnt out?
-- Bryan R.
Foley: Ruth has been almost unstoppable for two seasons. He's always had a reputation of picking his opponents apart and looking bored while doing so. He's a senior. He's been winning a lot, and is coming off suspension. Is he bored? Maybe. He could also be distracted.
For some athletes boredom is the side effect of greatness. Michael Phelps could win another half-dozen medals in Rio, but has retired because he's conquered that game. Like Aaron Pico, maybe Ruth thought the challenges would come after March, not in January.
Athletes aren't owed a challenge, or entitled to take off matches, but in the course of being better than most anyone around you, there are times when you will feel distracted by a lack of a challenge. Ruth might have fallen into that competitive slumber.
Regardless of his prior motivation, or lack thereof, Ruth can't allow his distraction or apathy to grow. The Dean loss should remind Ruth that the wrestling is not as easy as he expected. There is still fight left in his opponents.
Penn State is facing another two months on the mat, and those are the last two months of Ruth's collegiate wrestling career. It would be foolish and shortsighted of America's most dominant collegiate wrestler to not reinvest himself in the sport and find some entertainment in domination. He should plumb the depths of his talent and see if he can achieve a level above his previous performances, and that of the rest of the championship field. He has the option, right now, to take that loss and either make it a glitch in an otherwise incredible career, or let it signal the end.
But, again, all this is assuming he lost due to boredom. There is a chance, a good one, that Cael and Ruth were outcoached and outmatched by Gabe Dean and Rob Koll.
The Rise of Cornell or the Fall of Ruth? We'll find out in Oklahoma City.
I've put this on in the past, but thought we could all enjoy a nice compilation ...
Q: I understand your concern about singlets -- it certainly made me uncomfortable when I started wrestling in high school, and I can see why it would be a major burden for others. But I've been thinking about singlets and wrestling's place as a major international sport, particularly in regards to the Olympics. And it occurs to me that a number of major Olympic sports (even many of the biggest Olympic sports) feature singlets or tights or spandex of some sort: swimming, diving, track and field, gymnastics, weightlifting, downhill skiing, speed skating, figure skating, bobsledding, and others. You've also got cycling and MMA stars (GSP and Anderson Silva come to mind) wearing spandex. So what's the difference between these sports and wrestling? Why does the singlet inhibit wrestling's prominence when swimming thrives despite the speedo and the 100-meter dash despite the tight shorts?
-- Tim B.
Foley: There are plenty of individual reasons each of those sports is less visually offensive, but I think it boils down to these athletes not rolling around with one another. Swimmers are largely under water, divers are only on screen for a hiccup, runners are running, and many MMA fighters wear spandex, which still doesn't eliminate the wandering query of the mainstream media.
Wrestlers are on the mat with each other for several minutes and their actions, and bulges, can be distracting to the average viewer. Our reality is that the rest of the world is not yet desensitized to men and women grappling together with only a thin sheet of spandex between their privates. Though we might not find it a problem, we aren't the issue. Wrestling needs to expand to grow into new markets in order to survive. Our platform can't continue to be tradition.
We need to make positive, thoughtful and engaging choices about how we can attract new wrestlers and fans. Singlets are the first step, but certainly not the last.
Q: I noticed that the popularity of the NFL exploded when everyone started doing fantasy leagues. Well, some friends invited me to join their college wrestling fantasy league. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think it would help to increase interest in wrestling? I was a casual follower of college wrestling before this season, but now I'm slowly becoming an expert. I watch all that I can. I follow the InterMat live blog for those that I can't watch. I think if InterMat added a fantasy link, where guys were ranked according to their point value and advice was provided as to who to pick up, trade, drop, etc., according to their performances and upcoming schedules, I think it would popularize the sport (and increase traffic on your site).
-- Jon M.
Foley: Bless you, Good Sir. The wrestling world could have a league, but there has been significant pushback from the ... you guessed it ... NCAA.
I'd be willing to start a site and host it for fun, but numbers and layout aren't my specialty. No guarantees it makes money, but if a fun and simple way to pull for wrestlers was created, there would be a little bump in viewership.
For now we have Brian Muir making the best lines in the business. Follow him on Twitter at @MuirOrLess and bet with your friends. Makes the matches you don't normally watch a little bit more intriguing.
COMMENT(S) OF THE WEEK
By Bob S.
Why do you think we are seeing so much success out of true freshmen nowadays?
If I could give a hypothesis it would be that the high school coaching and training has caught up to the college level and possibly even surpassed it. High school sports have become completely specialized at this point and wrestling is at the forefront of this. The top high school wrestlers basically all have individual coaches that were at least high-level college wrestlers. The one-on-one focus and year-round training is, in reality, in front of many college programs. Also, at the high school levels the top guys have at least 10-15 opportunities a year to compete against the best guys in the country. They are more used to Scuffle/Midlands/NCAA-type tournaments than ever before. Still there is no replacing those first few months once a freshman gets to school and begins to train with a college team. I think more improvement is done there than any other time, but something has definitely shifted in the past few years and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it. While this is a positive for freshmen, do you think it has a negative effect, that college upperclassman are more inclined to burn out? College wrestling for four or five years is hard enough. Now adding another four years on top of that, the normal college lifestyle would definitely be a bit more tempting. Not sure what this says or means, just some thoughts.
By Jimmie D.
The loss by Ed Ruth to Gabe Dean is more of a commentary on just how difficult it is to be an undefeated national champion, than a referendum on the new rules. Yes, we have seen several undefeated/superhuman wrestlers lose this year. Their losses show how close Division I wrestlers really are. With the loss of Division I programs across the country, and the increase in youth and high school wrestling, Division I is becoming more and more of a buyer's market so to speak. This narrowing of schools really has translated to the best of the best of the best being the athletes in Division I programs. There is no longer the easy-out that we saw in years gone by.
Gabe Dean and Zain Retherford both showed up to wrestle. Dean exploited weaknesses that Ruth has consistently shown (failure to return opponents to the mat quickly, not setting up shots) and wrestled a very solid match. Retherford did the same against Stieber. Both of these kids showed just how amazing it is every time that any wrestler wins a match at the Division I level. The top guys can get beat any time, by anyone that comes out to wrestle. The losses restore the sense of awe that comes from watching them and appreciating that a win is not an inevitable, or a forgone conclusion.
Another factor to consider in all of this is the actual abnormality that the recent domination by a few individuals that we have seen in recent history. Look back at the past. It was a very rare thing to be an undefeated national champion in Division I, let alone carry an 84-match winning streak, much less have 100+ bonus-point wins going into the first part of an athlete's senior year. Look at the record books for perspective. How many four-time national champs are there? How many three-time national champs are there? How many four-time Big Ten champs are there? How many four-time Big 12/Big 8 champs are there? How many four-time EIWA champs are there? How many times has an athlete won two or more of any of these titles by bonus points? Think about past greats Like Pat and John Smith, Joe Williams, Lincoln McIlravy, Joe Heskett, Johny Hendricks, Kyle Dake, Brent Metcalf, Jim Zalesky, etc. All of these individuals have losses on their record. The losses by Ruth, Stieber, and Ramos really are the norm, not the abnormality when looked at in historical perspective. It is much more of a case that the dominance we have seen by the likes of Ruth, Taylor, Stieber is the historical anomaly.
Rather than blame the recent rule changes for the losses these individuals suffered, applaud the winners. They earned those victories. I think the new rule changes are yet another step in the right direction to making wrestling, a thrilling and exciting sport for both participants and spectators. The matches so far this year have been some of the best I as a wrestling fanatic have watched in years. These rule changes have made the men and women on the mats wrestle more and eliminated a lot of the "stalfense" that had become so common. As you yourself have so often pointed out, a takedown-only style is more fan friendly, so any rule change that can eliminate the amount of time that wrestlers are tied up on the mat in the pretzel position going nowhere, and scoring nothing is great. Now if we can get the singlet eliminated and really sell some wrestling merchandise we will be on the same path as MMA.
As much as it pains me to see these individuals lose, it also thrills me to see the young and hungry win. These losses will only motivate these individuals to work harder and become sharper. We as fans will get to see a better version of them when they step on the mat, as well as getting to watch some amazing and jaw-dropping matches (Joe Colon). Not to mention it reminds us all of just how amazing and astounding a feat it is to be a multiple-time national champion, or conference champion, undefeated national champion, or the rarest of rare, 159-0.