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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    2023 Final X: Men's Greco-Roman Preview and Predictions

    It’s almost here! We’re only a few days away from the best domestic event of the year during the freestyle and Greco-Roman season, Final X. For the first time since it was established in 2018, will all three styles be held at the same location on one day. Saturday’s winners will go on to Belgrade, Serbia in September to represent the United States at the 2023 World Championships. 

    We’ll finish up our previews by looking at the Senior Men’s Greco-Roman matchups. The 2022 team was held without a medal and we could be looking at a transition of power as four world team representatives from 2022 are not competing in Final X this year. At least two weights will have a first-time world rep and two others had a recent U20 rep (2021/2022) win the Open. 

    Before we get ahead of ourselves and look at Belgrade, we have a preview of the action in the ten weight classes, with information about each wrestler and their previous head-to-head matchups, if any. 
     

    55 kg - Brady Koontz vs. Dalton Duffield

    Max Nowry had made the last three world teams at 55 kg; however, he did not participate in the qualifying process, so we’ll have a new representative at the weight. A familiar face to viewers of Final X is Brady Koontz, who lost to Nowry in each of the last two editions of the event. Last year’s loss came via the thinnest of margins, as he lost both bouts, 1-1. Koontz seemed to separate himself from the rest of the 55 kg bracket at the US Open, when he captured three straight wins via a 9-0 score. 

    That final US Open opponent for Koontz was Dalton Duffield. He was quite impressive, himself, getting to the finals with a pair of techs. That carried over to the World Team Trials where Duffield posted 10-0 techs against Jacob Cochran and Camden Russell. 

    These two have represented the United States at the Pan-American Championships in each of the last two years. Both came home with gold, Koontz in 2022 and Duffield in May. Duffield was also fifth at the Zagreb Open earlier this year. 

    Aside from the Open finals, this pair has tangled a handful of times over the past four years. Each has gone Koontz’s way and he’s tended to extend the margin of victory as time has progressed. 

    Pick: Brady Koontz

     

    60 kg - Dalton Roberts vs. Ildar Hafizov

    The only 2022 Final X rematch comes at 60 kg between Army WCAP teammates and training partners Dalton Roberts and Ildar Hafizov. It would be difficult to find a pair of wrestlers so evenly matches in this set of ten bouts. Since Roberts moved up to the Senior level, they’ve met 11 times, with seven bouts going the way of Roberts. These two also have fought to the third match in a three-match series three times, including last year’s Final X NYC meeting. I’d be surprised if Saturday wasn’t the fourth instance of this happening. 

    Roberts got the first Final X bid based on his 7-6 win over Hafizov in the US Open finals. That match was an uncharacteristically one-sided affair; however, Hafizov tossed Roberts to his back late in the bout and almost garnered the fall. 

    Both wrestlers are on another level from the rest of the weight class domestically. Roberts tech’ed all of his non-Hafizov opponents at the Open, while Hafizov’s closest pre-finals match was a 7-1 victory. 

    After winning the Open, Roberts was selected to compete at the Pan-American Championships, which he won for the first time. Both he and Hafizov have combined to make the Senior World team on five occasions. Hafizov was our 2020(1) representative at the Olympic Games and also made the 2008 Olympics and three world teams wrestling for Uzbekistan. 

    Pick: Dalton Roberts

     

    63 kg - Hayden Tuma vs. Xavier Johnson

    This is the second and final weight where we are guaranteed to have a first-time world team member.  After competing for most of his Senior level career at 66/67 kg, Hayden Tuma dropped down to 63 kg and won his first US Open title. To win his title, Tuma had to go through a pair of past Final X participants in the semis (Leslie Fuenffinger) and Sammy Jones (finals). Tuma is a two-time Bill Farrell Champion and a two-time Junior and Cadet World Team member. 

    Xavier Johnson made Final X despite coming into the World Team Trials as the third seed in a four-man bracket. It’ll be his second appearance in Final X after losing to Ryan Mango in 2019. At the 2023 WTT’s, Johnson downed Dylan Gregerson and Sammy Jones to clinch a spot in Newark. He and Jones were slated to meet in the US Open semis; however, he did not wrestle due to an injury. Johnson hasn’t competed overseas in a few years, but he did capture a gold medal at Pan-Am’s in 2021, his most recent international tournament. 

    You have to go back to 2019 to find a meeting between these two. On that occasion, at the Armed Forces Championships, Tuma scored an 8-0 tech over Johnson. 

    Pick: Hayden Tuma

     

    67 kg - Robert Perez III vs. Alex Sancho

    In our next two matches, we’ll see a young phenom against a past world team member and in both instances, it was the young wrestler who comes in as the US Open champion. The 67 kg bracket was in flux after the quarterfinals when top-seeded Alex Sancho was pinned by high school senior Joel Adams. A match later, Robert Perez III downed Adams, 6-3. Perez III would lock up a spot in Final X after he disposed of 2016 Olympian Jesse Thielke via tech, 8-0. Perez III went on to wrestle in the Pan-American Championships and had to settle for 12th place. He does have plenty of international experience, wrestling at U20 World’s last year and U17’s in 2019. 

    2020(1) Olympian and 2022 World Team member Sancho solidified his place in Final X with two wins at the WTT’s before receiving a forfeit from Thielke in the finals. Earlier this year, Sancho entered the Zagreb Open and was 11th. He traveled east last year and earned his trip to Belgrade after two wins over Alston Nutter in Final X NYC. 

    These two have not met before, so there isn’t much to go off of. Can Perez knock off two past Olympians in less than two months? 

    Pick: Alex Sancho
     

    72 kg - Justus Scott vs. Patrick Smith

    Another matchup with a young upstart against a grizzled veteran takes place at 72 kg with Justus Scott and Patrick Smith. The two squared off in the US Open finals and it was Scott who shocked Smith with a 6-4 win. That meant that Scott took out the top-three seeds at the Open after coming in as the sixth seed. After edging Nolan Wachsmuth in the quarters, Smith downed 2022 Final X participant (77 kg) Britton Holmes 4-1. Scott, a 2022 U20 World Team member, proceeded to wrestle in the Pan-American Championships and came away with a gold medal. 

    Smith has made three of world teams and is a two-time Final X participant, winning one (2019) and losing another (2022). In both instances, his series went the full three matches. There’s a good shot that history could repeat itself. During Smith’s only international trip this year, he was 13th at the Zagreb Open. After the Open loss, he rebounded at the World Team Trials shutting out Michael Hooker and Wachsmuth to book the rematch with Scott. 

    The Open finals match is the only prior meeting between these two. I could see the crafty veteran, Smith, coming up with a way to win the first match, but it ultimately going three. 

    Pick: Justus Scott

     

    77 kg - Kamal Bey vs. Aliaksandr Kikiniou

    2022 marked the return of 2017 Junior World Champion, Kamal Bey, however, the return did not turn out as planned at the world level. Bey finished 31st at Belgrade in his first World Championship event since 2018. If the 2023 US Open is any indication, Bey might be creeping closer to the wrestler that won worlds in 2017. He teched all four of his opponents and outscored the field 38-1. A week later, Bey went and grabbed his first Pan-American gold medal. 

    The opponent that Bey blitzed in the US Open finals was Aliaksandr Kikiniou whose performance was a stunning revelation. Kikiniou was a 2009 world bronze medalist for Belarus and wrestled for the bronze at the 2012 Olympics. He put on a display himself to get to the finals. Kikiniou needed less than two minutes to down Payton Jacobson in the semifinals. Despite Kikiniou’s dominance in his pre-finals matches and his history/pedigree, Bey rolled to a 9-0 tech in only :33 seconds. 

    The Open win, combined with Pan-Am, gold can only help Bey’s confidence, which is a scary proposition. Kikiniou will have to go back to the drawing board and pull out every trick in the book if he hopes to slow down Bey. 

    Pick: Kamal Bey

     

    82 kg - Spencer Woods vs. Ryan Epps

    Last year, Spencer Woods got the late call and competed at the World Championships for the first time as a replacement for Ben Provisor. At Final X Stillwater, Woods fell 8-0 and 5-3 to Provisor. At the 2023 Open, Woods turned the tables on Provisor and captured the title with a 4-3 victory. Woods went on to strike gold in his first appearance at the Pan-American Championships. 

    I’m sure many expected a Provisor/Woods rematch, but Ryan Epps had other plans. Epps was seeded sixth in a six-man World Team Trials weight class, but came out on top. He edged Tommy Bracket, then teched Andrew Berreyesa before meeting Provisor in the finals. Epps scored twice in the second period to upset the Olympian, 2-1. 

    These two have not met in 2023, but clashed twice in 2022. In both instances, it was Woods who got his hand raised 8-1 at the Bill Farrell, then 8-0 a few weeks later at the Open. 

    Pick: Spencer Woods
     

    87 kg - Alan Vera vs. Zac Bruanagel

    Alan Vera has quickly established himself as a mainstay on the Greco world team with appearances on the squad in each of the last two teams. Vera teched his way through the 2023 US Open, his third win in Vegas in as many tries. The only wrestler that scored on Vera was U20/U23 national champion Mikey Altomer. In the semifinals, Vera teched his Final X opponent Zac Braunagel, 9-0. He finished his tournament by rolling through 2020(1) Olympian John Stefanowicz. After the Open, Vera went to the Pan-American Championships and came away with a bronze medal, his first medal at the event while representing the United States. Earlier in the year, he was 28th at the Zagreb Open. 

    Braunagel, the collegiate star at Illinois, ended up third at the Open after teching Vera’s 2022 Final X opponent Timothy Young. The two would meet right away, in Brauangel’s next bout, at the World Team Trials. Once again, Braungel won via tech. For the berth in Final X, Braunagel shut out the Minnesota Storm’s Richard Carlson, 6-0. That win came a match after Carlson upset Stefanowicz. 

    This year’s US Open win for Vera is the only past meeting between these two. Though still a collegiate wrestler, Braunagel has an excellent Greco background and a great coach (Bryan Medlin), so he could make things more interesting in this meeting. 

    Pick: Alan Vera
     

    97 kg - Joe Rau vs. Christian DuLaney

    Could we see Joe Rau make a world team at a third different weight? Rau has been up and down throughout the upperweights throughout his entire career. He’s made world teams at 80 and 87 kg, but is now up at 97. Rau spent 2015-17 competing in the old 98 kg weight class. After an incredible showing at the US Open, Rau is only two matches away from doing so. In four bouts, he put up three techs and a fall. A few weeks later, Rau went to the Pan-American Championships and won his third career gold medal at the event. 

    Christian DuLaney comes to Newark on the strength of his title at the WTT’s. DuLaney defeated Brandon Marshall and Cade Lautt (8-0) to make Final X. He was sixth at the Open after losing 7-5 in the semis to Nicholas Boykin and defaulting out of the tournament. DuLaney gained some valuable international experience earlier this year with a 12th-place finish at Thor Masters. 

    Despite the weight changes for both wrestlers, they do have a prior meeting. Back in 2020 at Senior Nationals, Rau teched DuLaney, 10-0

    Pick: Joe Rau
     

    130 kg - Cohlton Schultz vs. Adam Coon

    We’ll finish things off with one of the more interesting series’ of the evening, from a Greco standpoint. Adam Coon was “the guy” at 130 kg, capturing a world silver medal in 2018, making back-to-back world teams and winning the Olympic Team Trials. After the Trials and the weight qualification attempts, Coon turned his sights on making it in the NFL and spent time with the Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons. Earlier this year, Coon announced his intentions to return to wrestling and to try and regain his spot atop the ladder at 130 kg. 

    Coon’s first event in his return was the 2023 US Open. He seemed to cruise on his way to the finals, taking out 2022 Final X participant Tanner Farmer, 5-1 in the semis. That set up a finals match with young star Cohlton Schultz. Schultz stunned the big man from Michigan with an 11-0 tech, highlighted with a match-ending four-point throw. 

    With Coon out of the picture, Schultz has made back-to-back world team appearances. He’s still searching for an elusive Senior World medal after winning three at the age-group level. With his US Open dominance, Schultz looks as good as ever posting a fall and three techs on his way to a title. 

    Coon made Final X on the strength of two techs at the WTT’s, including one of veteran Donny Longendyke in the finals. 

    Not only did these two meet in the Open finals, but they also clashed at Final X 2019 and the Olympic Trials finals. Along with the 2021 Matteo Pellicone. In all of those previous instances, Coon prevailed. With more mat time under his belt, could Coon be ready to assert himself, or has Schultz improved too much in the interim?

    Pick: Cohlton Schultz

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