Daton Fix and Nick Suriano's match this past Sunday lasted over 30 minutes (Photo/Juan Garcia)
Last weekend's mega match between Daton Fix and Nick Suriano lasted just about 31 minutes, produced no offensive points, and ended in overtime based on the assessment of a penalty point.
In the minutes that followed the match a majority of those weighing in placed blame on the "hands to the face" rule and its employment by the referee. There was also some anxiety about the referee's general lack of match management, which some saw as leading to the reviews and other on-the-mat fiascos.
For me the match was indicative of something much larger. As I watched (in fast-forward) the failure of the match seemed akin to the stomach-churning announcement on Feb. 12, 2013, that wrestling would no longer be included in the Olympic Games. The system responsible for the match (sport) had completely failed to meet the baseline standard for adequacy, much less success.
While one match from one dual meet doesn't carry the same weight of losing Olympic preference, there are powerful parallels to examine, primarily match pacing, incentives to score, and rules governing out of bounds.
As you'll recall, in 2013 international wrestling consisted of three, stand-alone two-minute periods, takedowns were one point, and matches were abysmal to watch. To say nothing of ball grabs and clinches when the matches went into overtime.
In response, the executive board in charge of the international governing body sought ideas on how to improve the competitiveness and presentation of the sport. A lot was offered, but fundamentally the consultants agreed that pace of scoring should be increased, mat space limited, and to do everything possible to ensure offensive wrestlers were rewarded for action.
Today, international wrestling is growing and is arguably the healthiest it's ever been, both inside our local communities and within the Olympic movement.
After watching the Fix vs. Suriano match I think it's evident that high school and college wrestling make immediate changes to the rules of the sport. There are no magic solutions, but there are a number of positive improvements that can make an immediate and positive impact on the pacing of the matches and style of wrestling put on by opposing athletes.
The most important improvement is to enforce a neutral "pushout" rule, with one point being rewarded to wrestlers when their opponent steps out of bounds. The hard edge limits the mat size and pushes the action to the center, which then increases unbroken wrestling times which typically results in an increase in offensive points. The impact on the nature of the collegiate style (control-based point system) is limited, while optimizing the most exciting aspect of collegiate wrestling, the takedown.
The second rule is to limit referee reviews to no more than two minutes per challenge. That's an easy fix that will focus the referees on making the right call without breaking up the action for longer than in necessary to achieve the correct call. The Suriano-Fix match saw far too much hemming and hawing from the referees.
The third is to eliminate riding time. The notion that riding someone is entertaining to fans is farcical. International wrestling has a rubbery 10-15 second rule once wrestlers enter par-terre and yet the number of falls at the NCAA and international level are pretty similar. Why? Because most falls come from transition, not from a double boots, parallel ride for 4:15. Buck 'em Bronco simply doesn't translate to entrainment for fans and causes far too many out of bound and stalemate situations. Think of all the stalling calls eliminated when a wrestler doesn't feel the need to hang on to an ankle to ensure their riding time ticks from :56 to 1:01!
Finally, there should be a stop-match warning given before a "hands to the face" call is made resulting in points. This was done at the international level for a number of calls so that the wrestlers, fans, coaches, and other referees knew that a point was possible. The outcome has been that wrestlers have improved behaviors and there is less outrage when these calls are made. (This is most often seen with fleeing the mat calls late in the match.)
These are four simple and easy-to-implement changes that will improve the pacing of the collegiate style. Without some of these changes the gamesmanship within the sport will continue to escalate and we'll be left with a scholastic style at-risk of major overhaul by outside bodies, or worse, elimination and replacement with freestyle -- an outcome most fans don't welcome.
To your questions …
Q: Expanding a bit on the question of whether Penn State's dominance is good for the sport, which I think you make some very strong points to conclude yes, I often wonder whether the fact that since only a small handful of teams even have a remote shot at an NCAA title (and many times it may only be a two-horse race) in some ways may make the dominance less legitimate? Certainly not trying to take anything away from Penn State currently, or Iowa/OSU in the past, but to draw a parallel when UConn's women's basketball team was winning titles every year and beating other major conference Division I teams by 50 points, it seemed the results spoke more to the sport and overall depth/quality of athletes than it did to UConn's program.
I just wonder whether there may be a cap to growth of interest in the sport when if you're an NDSU or Fresno State sports fan, and decide to attend your first wrestling match against a premier wrestling school and the results are that your favorite school was only able to win 1 or 2 individual matches, how often are you going to come back?
-- Jon H.
Foley: Fair question. I think we both can agree that nobody wants to watch their favorite program take a drumming at the hands of anyone, even if they are the best in the nation.
I'd first advise those programs from holding off on scheduling those types of dual meets until they get a few more years of established results before asking Cael and co. to come over and hand out a whipping. The discrepancy between the top five and the rest will almost always be fairly significant, but I do share your concern that the No. 1 team in this situation could potentially shut out 95 percent of the other collegiate programs.
Though it is a limited problem since dual meets aren't very valuable in the NCAA. The tournament structure and the incentives to attend and perform well at them somewhat masks the failures (and triumphs) of most schools. There is a balancing effect, and while I do agree with fans that tournament results can produce good press at home, I think that a well-matched dual meet can provide much, much more continuity and team pride. With some in-arena activities for families the event can also be something that the community gets behind, though as you said, not as much if they can't chalk up a win or two.
Your point is well taken. I'm definitely going to watch these margins and the reactions of the programs and the fans in the future to see if over-dominance is having a chilling effect on programs.
Q: Rank these college wrestlers in order (1-5) from the most likely four-time NCAA champion to the least likely four-time NCAA champion: Daton Fix (Oklahoma State), Gable Steveson (Minnesota), Spencer Lee (Iowa), Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell), Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State).
-- Mike C.
1.Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State)
2. Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell)
3. Spencer Lee (Iowa)
4. Daton Fix (Oklahoma State)
5. Gable Steveson (Minnesota)
I'm not spotting either freshman an NCAA tournament title!
Q: Wrestler with the best chance in the Pac-12 other than Zahid Valencia to reach the top of the podium?
Foley: Ronnie Bresser of Oregon State at 125 pounds. Tough to think that he would beat both Spencer Lee and Sebastian Rivera, but should he get an upset at the NCAA tournament, it's not unimaginable. There are just not that many elite guys (this year) who can outpace the established class of NCAA champions.
Q: How would you respond to John Smith calling your (Fix-Suriano) take "silly" telling you to "shut up" and that "you don't know what you're talking about?"
Foley: As I always do … with a smile and "Thanks, coach!" He's here to defend the wrestler he's coaching and is way too competitive to admit to me (or anyone else) that some win wasn't earned or well-deserved.
And to his point I can understand that since he knows the effort of his wrestlers, and just doesn't give a hoot about what fans think about how his wrestlers get the win, just that they do.
Q: Prediction on Nick Suriano vs. Austin DeSanto on Friday night?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Suriano by four points. I imagine that DeSanto will slow him down from the start and maybe even find a few takedowns. His wrestling has improved, and I think there are transitions from bottom that he makes that puts opponents in trouble, maybe even Suriano.
Still, Suriano is the better wrestler right now and should be finding a takedown in the second period and another in the third, all while stopping DeSanto's attacks. If he can frustrate DeSanto and/or get him upset then it'll be an easier close for Suriano since DeSanto makes more mistakes the more passionate he becomes.
Q: Biggest villain in college wrestling, Gable Steveson, Austin DeSanto or someone else?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Austin DeSanto took hate from just about every corner of the internet this week. His outlandish behavior on the mat is a little more obvious that Steveson's after-the-whistle extras. I've been critical of him in the past and hated the way he behaved this week, but I have a soft spot for the kid. I know that he's a nice kid. He's just having trouble adjusting to … something.
For now, DeSanto is the biggest heel in the sport, and I can't see that changing until we start a new season. However, should Steveson win the NCAA title in 2019, he'll be the new guy that wrestling fans will love to hate.
One thing a fan will never forgive is success.
Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix
Tom Brands is a riot … Pay-per-view match
Q: Best potential Yarygin matchups?
Foley: The Russians have been a little lax in uploading their wrestlers for the tournament, which makes predicting matchups difficult. The New Year in Russia lasts until Jan. 9 or so depending on how long the department you're trying to reach stays closed. So I do have sympathy for their late entry problem even as I send them email after email!
Anyway, that is just a long way of saying that I haven't seen their lineups and I suspect most of the top matchups USA fans want to see include an American versus a Russian.
On the women's side, some notable entries include Grace Bullen, who just won the U23 World Championships in November and Sarah Hildebrandt who Team USA has been happy to see progress well over the last 18 months.
Q: Did you see Bald Eagle Area just won its 700th match? Two forfeits for a storied program. WPIAL and Northwest PA are averaging three forfeits a dual per school. All this after the PIAA put an emphasis on dual meets. Wrestling is dying in PA which is a bad sign for the sport. Not sure what can be done but thinking dual meets is some magic dust isn't helping.
-- Steve M.
Foley: I hadn't seen that news, nor had I learned about the forfeits.
Is the lack of interest in this area a canary in the coal mine for the sport at-large? Maybe. As you rightly pointed out Bald Eagle Area is a storied program and lack of interest there might indicate something larger is amiss. However, I think that with registrations up at USA Wrestling and the sport showing growth in watch hours and attendance there probably isn't a huge fall off.
What I think might be happening is that the raw numbers are down in certain areas due to a number of societal factors. A freelance-based job market means that fewer have the free time to pick up and drop off younger athletes for programs. The proliferation of video games is keeping younger kids on the couch and out of sports. And finally a population of kids who are growing and who have poor diets aren't finding weight classes or nutritional programs that allow them the opportunity to succeed.
I'd like to the see the NWCA's numbers on forfeits. If forfeits are found to be systemic then maybe there is a solution in pruning weight classes and/or shifting the categories to accommodate for walking around actual weights of typical high school wrestlers.
And you're right, magic dust should never be used to solve any wrestling issue.
Q: Where is Kurt McHenry in the rankings? InterMat and FloWrestling do not have him in the rankings at 113 pounds or 120 pounds. Is he still wrestling at St. Pauls?
-- Tom L.
Foley: McHenry has been in and out of the Olympic Training Center and indications are that he intends to stay there for the remainder of the season.
Q: Gregor Gillespie fights on the main card of UFC's first ESPN+ event on Saturday night. He faces Yancy Medeiros. Gillespie is 12-0 but I have to believe this will be his toughest test to date. Any thoughts on the fight?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Gregor Gillespie by three-round decision.
Medeiros has range, striking power and pretty solid defensive wrestling, but I think Gregor is able to stay out of danger long enough. The key is whether Gregor has prepared for this fight to be his most disciplined to date. If he gets over anxious or stands in front of Medeiros too long he'll get TKO'ed in short order. If Gregor closes the distance, takes it to the mat and punishes Medeiros from half guard I see him taking two of three rounds.