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  • Photo: Photo/Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Photo/Tony Rotundo

    Wrestling Underground Preview

    Nick Gwiazdowski gets in on a shot at the 2020 Pan American Olympic Qualifier (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    Wrestling Underground will launch its debut event on Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on UFC Fight Pass. The promotion will be the sister promotion of Submission Underground, which has been promoting submission grappling events since 2017. The event will feature five freestyle matches and one Greco Roman match with a unique caveat. All the matches will take place in an MMA-style cage, which obviously modifies the rules a bit.

    The following is a match-by-match preview of Sunday's event.

    159 pounds: Tyler Berger vs. Joey McKenna

    Berger finished his college career at Nebraska as a three-time All-American in 2019. During his senior season, he went 28-4 and made the NCAA finals at 157 before dropping a major decision against Jason Nolf. Along the way he picked up victories over the likes of Kaleb Young, Larry Early, Kennedy Monday, Ryan Deakin and Hayden Hidlay.

    Prior to the pandemic shutdowns, Berger competed at both the 2019 Bill Farrell and Senior Nationals. At the two events, he went a combined 5-4 with victories over multiple-time All-American Dylan Ness and former InterMat High School Wrestler of the Year Carson Kharchla.

    McKenna also wrestled in the finals at the 2019 NCAA tournament. Two weight classes below Berger, he faced off against Yianni Diakomihalis in the finals and ultimately fell in sudden victory. He finished his career at Ohio State at a two-time All-American, and he previously finished third during his freshman year at Stanford.

    At the 2019 Senior Nationals, McKenna got a bit of revenge on Diakomihalis as he scored a 6-5 decision over him in the semifinals. He made the finals where he came up short against Jordan Oliver. McKenna also finished fourth at the Bill Farrell with victories over Dean Heil and Ben Whitford. The Ohio State alumnus also represented the U.S. at the 2017 U23 World Championships where he brought home a bronze medal.

    This will be an interesting and somewhat unexpected clash. Berger should have a size advantage, which might pay dividends for him. McKenna likes to take advantage of his physical advantages, but that might not be an option here. If this match plays out at range it will probably favor Berger's ability to score from range. However, McKenna should be able to close the distance and slow down the contest. However, size remains a bit of a wild card factor.

    Prediction: McKenna over Berger (VPO1)

    180 pounds: Ben Provisor vs. RaVaughn Perkins (Greco Roman)

    Provisor is looking to make his third straight trip to the Olympics. After representing the U.S. at both the 2012 and 2016 Games, he faces some tough tests to return to the team this year. In 2019, he failed to make the world team after dropping matches against Joe Rau at both the U.S. Open and Final X. Provisor is a four-time medalist at the Pan American Championships/Games including a gold in freestyle after filling in as a late replacement.

    Perkins also won the Olympic Trials in 2016, but the U.S. never qualified the weight. Prior to the shutdown, he picked up a bronze medal at the 2019 Senior Nationals with victories over Andrew Berreyesa and Kendrick Sanders. He has won gold at the last two Pan American Championships at 72 kilograms, and he will be moving up in weight for the Olympic year.

    This could easily be a preview of the Olympic Trials final at 77 kilograms. Provisor seemed much smaller than Joe Rau in their series at Final X last year, so he should benefit from the weight drop. He has had the better results over the course of his career compared to Perkins. Then again, Perkins could be rounding into form. Expect Provisor to take this one, but the result could say a lot about the pecking order at 77 kilograms for the upcoming Trials.

    Prediction: Provisor over Perkins (VPO1)

    190 pounds: Sammy Brooks vs. Shakur Rasheed

    Brooks was a two-time All-American for Iowa who finished fourth as a senior in 2017. After college he stayed in Iowa City to compete for the Hawkeye Wrestling Club and quickly had success.

    In the fall following his senior season, he earned a spot on the U23 world team with a victory over former NCAA champion Myles Martin in the finals of the Trials. Brooks had a strong performance in the first half of 2019. He won the Henri Deglane Challenge, finished third at the U.S. Open and made the finals of the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament. In December, he finished fifth at the 2019 Senior Nationals, but he scored victories along the way over Aaron Brooks, Nathan Jackson and Drew Foster.

    After spending his first two seasons at Penn State wrestling as low as 165 pounds, Rasheed moved up to 197 pounds for the 2018 season and became a somewhat surprising All-American with a seventh-place finish. Last season, he got a late start due to injury and finished with an 8-6 record. At the Big Ten tournament, he upset Jacob Warner to make the semifinals but ended up finishing fourth.

    There are two key factors at play in this match. First, Rasheed has not appeared to be healthy for multiple seasons now. If he is 100% then this is a different match, but that is a big "if." Second, Brooks has been competing full time in freestyle for years now while Rasheed has been focused on folkstyle. On top of that, one of his strongest abilities as a wrestler is his cradle series from the top. That likely will not be a factor under this rule set.

    Prediction: Brooks over Rasheed (VSU1)

    213 pounds: Kollin Moore vs. Deron Winn

    The early end to the 2020 season means that Moore missed out on his last shot at an NCAA title. After finishing third as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore and second as a junior, he was undefeated heading into the NCAA tournament. He won his three Big Ten tournament matches by a combined score of 38-11.

    Moore has also had impressive age-level results in freestyle. He won a bronze medal at the 2017 Junior World Championships and a silver medal at the 2018 U23 World championships. At the recent 2019 Senior Nationals, he finished second after defeating Erik Hinckley, Derek White, Kyven Gadson then falling against Hayden Zillmer in the finals.

    Winn began his professional MMA career in 2017 and continued to compete at a high level on the freestyle circuit. In 2018, he finished fourth at the US Open and fell against Zillmer in the finals of the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament. He originally retired from wrestling in order to focus solely on fighting after dropping a match against Mike Machiavello at the inaugural American Wrestling League show.

    Winn signed with the UFC in 2019. He won his first fight over Eric Spicely before dropping back-to-back contests against Darren Stewart and Gerald Meerschaert.

    Historically wrestlers who make the full-time transition to MMA have trouble coming back. This recently happened when Darrion Caldwell returned against Luke Pletcher. Winn has had success competing in both sports at the same time, but he has been out of competitive wrestling for nearly two years at this point.

    Prediction: Moore over Winn (VPO1)

    185 pounds: David McFadden vs. Tommy Gantt

    McFadden steps into this match on short notice after Mark Hall pulled out with an injury on Wednesday night. The former Virginia Tech wrestler entered his senior year looking for his fourth All-American season, and he accomplished that goal despite the cancellation of the NCAA tournament. As a senior, he went 21-5 with victories over Evan Wick, Zach Hartman and Thomas Bullard.

    On the freestyle side, McFadden also represented the U.S. at the 2018 U23 World Championships where he won his first two matches but failed to make the repechage.

    Gantt was an All-American for NC State and has been competing full time on the freestyle circuit since finishing his collegiate career in 2016. He had multiple medal winning performances in 2019. He began the year by winning the tournament title at the Henri Deglane Challenge. Gantt then finished second at both the Cerro Pelado-Granma and U.S. Open. At the 2019 Senior Nationals, Gantt finished third after picking up victories over Josh Shields, Branson Ashworth, Anthony Valencia and Evan Wick.

    Gantt should have the edge in this match especially since McFadden took this match on extremely late notice. The former Virginia Tech wrestler is certainly a game opponent, but Gantt has the better results in freestyle. He also has looked good against multiple wrestling coming right out of college.

    Prediction: Gantt over McFadden (VPO1)

    Nick Gwiazdowski vs. Kyven Gadson

    Gwiazdowski finished his career at NC State as a multiple time All-American and two-time champion in 2016. In his final match, he came up just short against Olympic champion Kyle Snyder.

    In about a year, he established a lockdown on the heavyweight division on the U.S. freestyle ladder. He has been the representative for the past three World Championships and picked up bronze medals at the 2017 and 2018 editions of the tournament. In 2019, he finished second at the Yasar Dogu and won the Pan American Championships.

    While Gwiazdowski lost to Snyder in his final collegiate match, Gadson famously won his final match over Snyder to win the 2015 NCAA title at 197 pounds. Last year he won both the U.S. Open and the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament. However, he ran into Snyder once again at Final X and was unable to earn a spot in the World team. At the 2019 Senior Nationals, Gadson fell in the semifinals against Kollin Moore and ended up finishing fourth.

    Normally, a lighter wrestler moving up to heavyweight might have a significant speed advantage. However, that might not be the case here. Gwiazdowski is exceptionally nimble for a competitor at 125 kilograms. When he faced off against Snyder in college, he did not score the victory, but he was able to compete from a quickness perspective. Of all the matches on this card, the cage may play the biggest role in this match. Gadson has the ability to drive pretty much anyone off the mat. The cage takes away that advantage. Look for this one to be closer than expected, but Gwiazdowski should be able to escape with the victory.

    Prediction: Gwiazdowski over Gadson (VPO1)

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