Jordan Oliver gets in on a shot on Bajrang Punia at the Matteo Pelicone in Rome (Photo/Kadir Caliskan, United World Wrestling)
FloWrestling will host its second 8-Man Challenge on Friday. This time, it will be for competitors 150 pounds and under. The field features multiple world medalists as well as some of the top domestic wrestlers. The following is a match-by-match preview of the opening round and projection for the following rounds of the tournament.
Bajrang Punia vs. Pat Lugo
Bajrang is a three-time world medalist who represents his native India in international competition. In the most recent World Championships, he brought home a bronze medal in the 65-kilogram division. Bajrang defeated Krzystzof Bienkowski, David Habat and Son Jong-choi before falling in the semifinals to eventual silver medalist Daulet Niyazbekov from Kazakhstan. Over the years, Bajrang has faced off against multiple American wrestlers and holds wins over the likes of Zain Ratherford, Joey McKenna and Jordan Oliver. Regardless of how this tournament plays out, Bajrang already has his next date booked. He will face off against Zain Retherford on the Dec. 22 NLWC show.
Lugo was certainly a contender for the NCAA title at 149 pounds last year before the cancellation of the NCAA tournament. He had a 21-1 record on the season and won the Big Ten title. In the finals of that tournament, he avenged his only loss of the season against Sammy Sasso. During the year, he also knocked off the likes of Brayton Lee, Jarrett Degen and Austin O'Connor. Since the end of the folkstyle season, Lugo has picked up a pair of high profile domestic freestyle victories. First he defeated Luke Pletcher with a one-sided 5-0 victory. Lugo then returned on the debut HWC Showdown Open show and defeated Matt Kolodzik via a 7-2 score.
Bajrang really excels at turning an opponent's leg attacks into points. Even if Lugo is able to clear hands and get to his leg attacks, he may struggle if he gets caught up in scrambles. Look for this one to start out at a slow pace before Bajrang starts winning exchanges and taking the bout.
Prediction: Bajrang VPO1 over Lugo
Evan Henderson vs. Anthony Ashnault
Henderson has had a very strong 2020 season so far. Back in January, he brought home a bronze medal from the Henri Deglane tournament in France. Henderson then returned to action for the 2020 Senior Nationals and made a somewhat surprising run to the finals. Along the way, he scored victories over Dayne Morton, Doug Zapf, Ian Parker, Rob Mathers and Jaydin Eierman before ultimately coming up short against Andrew Alirez in the finals. The two-time All-American at North Carolina then took an 8-3 victory over Anthony Echemendia on the undercard of the Jordan Burroughs vs. Zahid Valencia card.
Ashnault bounced back from an injury suffered at the 2019 World Team Trials Challenge Tournament this year. He entered the Pan American Championships back in March and won the tournament. In his four matches, Ashnault scored three falls and a 12-2 technical superiority. He was set to return to action this summer, but he pulled out of a match with another injury. The former NCAA champion for Rutgers is reportedly healed and ready to go for this tournament.
This should be an interesting contrast of styles. If Ashnault is able to create distance and score takedowns from the outside, he should be able to take this one. However, Henderson does well when he is able to get to the ties and muck up the bout. If he can get his hands on Ashnault, he should be able to make it his match and take it.
Prediction: Ashnault VPO1 over Henderson
Jordan Oliver vs. Alec Pantaleo
After an eventful 2019, Oliver has only wrestled in a few events this year. He began 2020 with a silver medal performance at the Matteo Pellicone. At the event, Oliver outscored his first three events by a combined 21-0 score before running into Bajrang in the finals. Oliver's only other action came at the Rumble on the Rooftop card where he dropped a lackluster match against Jason Nolf. During the 2019 year, the former NCAA champion won medals at the Dan Kolov0Nikola Petrov tournament, Bill Farrell Memorial and Senior Nationals.
In his first full post-college year, Pantaleo has been active on the domestic freestyle circuit. The three-time All-American for Michigan faced off against Zain Retherford on the debut NLWC show back in September. It was a close match, but the former Penn State wrestler took a 3-2 decision. Pantaleo returned earlier this month for the RTC Cup. He won all four of his matches at the event as he bested Kevin Jack, Brayton Lee, Tariq Wilson and Matthew Kolodzik, and his team, the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club, won the event.
Pantaleo's frame and style makes him very hard to score against in freestyle. He holds stance very well, and wrestlers have trouble getting under him. With that being said, Oliver mixes up his leg attacks well and scores against even the best at this weight. This one might be close, but in the end Oliver will be the aggressor. That should be enough to escape with a victory.
Prediction: Oliver VPO1 over Pantaleo
Bryce Meredith vs. James Green
Meredith finished his collegiate wrestling career in 2018 as a three-time All-American and two-time finalist, but that has not stopped him from challenging some top college wrestlers this year. He began the year with a match against incoming Penn State freshman Beau Barlett on the second NLWC show. Meredith took the match 8-6. The former Wyoming wrestler then returned at the HWC Showdown Open show and defeated Iowa All-American Austin DeSanto via an 11-3 score. Meredith then took a step up in competition and dropped a bout back-and-forth bout against Seth Gross on the debut WRTC Underground show.
Green also challenged a top current college star as he faced off against Alex Marinelli on the HWC show. While the bout was close at time, Green exploded for a four-point move and took the bout 5-4. The two-time world medalist then joined the combined NJRTC/SERTC team for the RTC Cup. Green went 2-2 at the event with wins over Brayton Lee and Anthony Echemendia as well as a pair of losses against Yianni Diakomihalis.
Meredith is adapting his scrambling folkstyle tactics to freestyle. At times this helps him score points during odd exchanges. However, it might get him into trouble against Green. The veteran has the experience on the freestyle circuit and has shown he can finish his takedowns while avoiding scrambles. Look for Green to be in the driver's seat throughout this match.
Prediction: Green VSU over Meredith
Bajrang Punia vs. Evan Henderson
This should be an interesting semifinal. Unfortunately for Henderson, his best path to victory seems to play into Bajrang's game. If Henderson is able to muck it up and create scramble situations, he may end up giving up a fair share of points to Bajrang. This one could be closer than most expect, but Bajrang should be able to take it.
Prediction: Bajrang VPO1 over Henderson
Jordan Oliver vs. James Green
Considering Green is moving down to 65 kilograms for the Trials, this could be a preview of a key match on the path to the Olympic team. With that being said, Green has never really looked like himself cutting this far down in weight. Even at the RTC Cup, which had an allowance, he did not appear to be in peak form. Green's saving grace here is that Oliver does not always push the pace. However, he could control the pace and turn this into a one-move match.
Prediction: Oliver VPO1 over Green
Bajrang Punia vs. Jordan Oliver
These two have met previously with their most recent encounter coming at the Matteo Pellicone. In that bout, Oliver was able to score the first points and close the gap. Unfortunately for him, Bajrang kept coming with his attacks. He ended up scoring on a counter off an Oliver shot and held on to win. Oliver will need to keep attacking for six minutes to win this one, and it will hard to keep that pace against someone as active as Bajrang.
Prediction: Bajrang VPO1 over Oliver