J'den Cox (left) and Nate Jackson (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
By Friday evening, we'll know one-half of our 2020 Senior world team as the first leg of Final X will conclude competition. That marks the end of a qualifying process that started at the 2020 Olympic Trials (in April 2021). From the US Open, the field was narrowed down and at the World Team Trials, a week ago, matchups for Final X were determined.
Now that we know who will compete in Final X, InterMat has previews of each style, by site. We're starting with the Stillwater half of Final X, one that gets underway Friday afternoon. Here are the five men's freestyle matchups, a preview of the action and the competitors who will square off in Oklahoma.
57 kg - Thomas Gilman vs. Vito Arujau
The 2020 Olympic Team Trials final at 57 kg was destined to be run back here with Thomas Gilman and Vito Arujau. Vito faced very little competition at the World Team Trials and was able to book his rematch after outscoring the competition 30-0 in three matches in Coralville. Even if Arujau is coming in fresh, he'll have to contend with a Gilman that has looked as good as ever. After narrowly missing out on a shot at Olympic gold, Gilman got the next best thing, then captured his first world title and recently won the Pan-Am's. When these two met in the Olympic Trials, it was Gilman who earned a fall in the opening bout, then scooted by on criteria, 2-2, in the clinching contest. In order for Arujau to turn the tables on Gilman, he'll need to wrestle an extremely sound bout, be able to handle Gilman's pressure, and finish his shots. That might be the case as Arujau works out with a great Spartan Combat crew that has three other men's freestyle teammates in Final X. But, Gilman also is with the Nittany Lion WC, who has proven time and again to be one of the best staff's in the world.
61 kg - Daton Fix vs. Seth Gross
Since Gilman won an Olympic bronze medal, it forced Daton Fix to go up to 61 kg for the 2021 World Team Trials. That proved to be a blessing as Fix made his second Senior Team and claimed his first medal after reaching the world finals. Up a weight, the Oklahoma State star looked more explosive and dangerous than in recent appearances at 57 kg. Daton will also have a partisan crowd on his side as he wrestles in his home arena, Gallagher-Iba. On his way to making the 2021 world team, Fix rolled through 2018 NCAA champion Seth Gross. In our recent talk with Gross, he explained why this version of him will be much different than in September of 2021. Gross staged a remarkable comeback at the World Team Trials, when he was within a point of losing to high school sensation, Jesse Mendez, in the opening round. Gross survived the scare, then proceeded to pin US Open champion, Nico Megaludis. He would lock up a spot in Final X after a pair of close wins over Daniel DeShazer. A key to this series is Gross limiting giving up reckless points. With Fix's par terre abilities, one takedown could end up turning into a tech, quickly.
70 kg - Zain Retherford vs. Jordan Oliver
Without James Green in the picture at 70 kg, most fans were unsure how this weight would play out at the Open and WTT's. Suffice to say, unless you have ties to another contender, I think most fans are glad to see another chapter in the Zain/JO saga. Overall, Jordan Oliver has the series lead (4-2) though Zain has wins when the stakes were highest, at the 2019 World Team Trials, to secure a spot in Final X, before making his second world team. The most recent meeting between the pair of Pennsylvania high school legends, who finished multiple collegiate seasons undefeated, came in the 2021 World Team Trials. Surprisingly enough, they met in the quarters and Oliver prevailed 2-2 on criteria. That score is a bit surprising as both have been able to rattle off points in past matches, familiarity never seemed to be an issue.
Though they have different ways of going about it, both can be methodical in their offensive approach. Oliver from space and Retherford in your face. Either way, both pick and choose their shots wisely. With a world team berth hanging in the balance, I'd expect matches to be lower scoring than some past matchups. Like Fix, Oliver should benefit from the crowd. He was a legendary four-time All-American and two-time national champion for the Cowboys; whose fans certainly will remember on Friday.
92 kg - J'den Cox vs. Nate Jackson
Our final two matches will feature wrestlers that have been teammates or training partners. At 92 kg, in the case of J'den Cox and Nate Jackson, they are close friends, as well. Cox is looking to ascend back to the number one spot in the world, as he won titles in 2018 and 2019, before having to move up for the Olympic Trials. He made the 2021 World Team, but ended up falling just short, with a bronze medal. Domestically, Cox has rarely been challenged at 92 kg. This will be his third Final X appearance and in his previous two, he's outscored the competition 24-4. On the other half of Cox's 2021 WTT bracket was Jackson, who fell to Kollin Moore in the semifinals. Jackson shook off the unbelieve distraction of an overturned positive test for PED's, which kept him out of the US Open, before cruising through the WTT's. Showing no rust, Jackson breezed through his bracket outpacing the opposition, 40-0. One note that has stuck in my mind since the WTT interviews, is that Jackson doesn't believe Cox has gone into a bout(s) like this, having to face a more athletic opponent. With their training history, Jackson would know if that's the case. Over the past three-plus years, there may not have been an American man that has improved as rapidly as Jackson. Could this continued growth include a monumental upset of a two-time world champion? Time will tell, Friday.
97 kg - Kyle Snyder vs. Kollin Moore
Former Ohio State upperweight teammates Kyle Snyder and Kollin Moore will renew acquaintances with the 97 kg spot on the world team hanging in the balance. For Snyder, he's looking to make his eighth straight World/Olympic team at the weight. Without Russian legend Abdulrashid Sadulaev and the Russian contingent at the 2022 World Championships, Snyder has the inside track on winning World/Olympic title number four. While Snyder's status as an all-time great for American wrestling is already set, getting another title only places him higher on the list. But, we're getting way ahead of ourselves. Snyder will have to contend with Moore, who shut out Mike Macchiavello in two WTT bouts, for the distinction of another series with Snyder. The two also met in the 2020 Olympic Trials finals, with Snyder sweeping the series 10-0, 5-1. In a normal scenario, one may expect the loser of that series to close the gap in another meeting. But with Snyder and Moore's past, there are no secrets and no "getting more familiar." It just comes down to Moore "getting tired of being the little brother," as he mentioned in his post-WTT interview. If he can channel that frustration into positive energy on the mat, who knows?