The Great Blue Hope: One-on-One with Eric Tannenbaum

While all kinds of debates go back and forth in the world of college wrestling, there can be no doubt as to who is its undisputed villain: Two-time NCAA champion Johny Hendricks of Oklahoma State (a role Hendricks says he enjoys). Hendricks' showboating seems to get under the skin of all except those who wear orange and black. His personality drives non-Cowboy fans nuts and the result is that there is no one that people want to see lose more.

Emotions about this champion wrestler snowballed last season with his controversial NCAA finals match against Michigan's Ryan Churella, which took place in Oklahoma City. Trailing by a point at the end of the second period, Churella countered a Hendricks shot and locked up a cradle, putting the Cowboy on his back -- many have argued flat on his back. Referee Gary Kessel awarded two for the takedown and two nearfall to give Churella a 7-4 lead heading into the third and final period. The controversy continued with a call that many wrestling enthusiasts had an even bigger problem. With 40 seconds left, Hendricks was awarded a takedown while seemingly having no more than a lock on Churella's torso and arm. Hendricks then released Churella and scored a final takedown to win 9-8.

Hendricks-haters were outraged. Furious. Incensed. Screen grabs of Hendricks allegedly pinned became signatures and avatars on wrestling message boards. The controversy escalated to the point where Kessel will not be working at this year's NCAA's, ironically hosted by the University of Michigan.

In his final season as a Cowboy, lots of people would love nothing more than to see Johny Hendricks lose. But who's going to beat him? Churella's 2006 graduation has eliminated a rematch. Third-placer Muzaffar Abdurakmanov of American University (who Hendricks had a separate, controversial win over in the semifinals) was a senior last season as well. And as much as fans may dislike Hendricks, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows anything about the sport who'd be able to deny that Johny Hendricks is simply a brilliant wrestler. Shockingly strong and active in all positions, Hendricks has an uncanny ability to invent a win in any kind of close match -- even ones without controversy. And while the 165-pound weight class is deep and filled with talent, all voodoo dolls made in Hendricks' likeness have been ineffective thus far this season.

So again, who can beat him? Based on the results of the season so far, the best prospect has surprisingly turned out to be Eric Tannenbaum, a three-time Illinois state champion and two-time All American, who finished sixth at the NCAA's last season at 149 pounds -- two weight classes down. This season, Tannenbaum is a perfect 17-0 at 165 pounds, beating all the top names in the weight with the exception of Hendricks, who he hasn't met. Ironically, Tannenbaum attends the same school and Hendricks' rival from the NCAA finals last season: The University of Michigan. While there's still a lot of season left, one can't help but look forward to a potential finals match-up between these two and wonder if the Wolverine could possibly get school revenge for the match that still rubs people the wrong way.'s Tom Franck recently caught up with the wrestler dubbed as 'The Great Blue Hope.'

Congratulations on your season thus far.

Tannenbaum: Thanks.

In 2003, there was a highly anticipated match between you and C.P. Schlatter at NSCHA High School Senior Nationals. Describe what happened in that match.

Eric Tannenbaum (Photo/Eric Bronson)
Tannenbaum: I moved up a couple weight classes. He was always bigger than me. That match was a pretty slow-paced match. It wasn't really very exciting. Excuses aside, I was pretty small. I was done with cutting weight. I didn't want to do that anymore. I knew I was a little small for that weight class. They had something ridiculous like a six-pound allowance or something, but I didn't want to avoid tough competition. I wanted to wrestle him. I remember going out there and tying up with him and thinking, 'This guy is really strong.'

You got revenge against him when you were a redshirt freshman at the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals and came out on top with a 5-4 victory. How satisfying was that match?

Tannenbaum: It's always nice to get a little payback on some losses. I think it was a good win for me … definitely to show that I had improved a little bit, that I had put on some size, and that I could hold my own against some guys that in high school had gotten the best of me.

How did you end up at Michigan? Was it through Sean Bormet (former Michigan standout and head coach of the Overtime School of Wrestling in Illinois where Tannenbaum frequents)?

Tannenbaum: No. I mean, we talked about schools and stuff, but he's pretty hands off with most of his guys. He helped me a lot with the decision process, though. It was obviously something I'd never experienced before. So we talked, but it was more about just giving me guidance as to how to make my decision, but he was just posing questions more than anything.

When did that decision to go to Ann Arbor finally come about? Was it the result of a number of factors?

Tannenbaum: It was definitely a bunch of things, but it was pretty much the academics and the combination that it was relatively close to home, but also not too close like I wouldn't be getting away. The wrestling team was tough and everyone around my weight was really tough -- (Ryan) Bertin, (Mike) Kulczycki, (Ryan) Churella, Pat Owen. It was just unbelievable the amount of workout partners I had. I actually brought it up to Sean. I was like, 'You know, am I going to be able to get through this lineup even?' Because it was stacked around my weight. And Sean was like, 'You've got to worry about winning a national title, not about breaking into the lineup.'

At the beginning of last season, you beat defending NCAA champion Zack Esposito of Oklahoma State on his home mat at the NWCA All-Star Classic. You appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season. But as the season wore on, it seemed like the weight was a struggle and it affected you. Is that accurate?

Tannenbaum: I think it's definitely accurate. I think it's one of those things I didn't even really consciously know at the time, but in retrospect, I think it was, especially with dealing with the weight this year as not being a problem. I just think if you don't have to cut weight at all, it's really the best thing to avoid. I think it's detrimental a lot of times -- not even just physically, but mentally. Sometimes you don't have the best attitude when you know you're coming into practice six, seven, eight pounds over. You just come in kind of pissed off instead of coming in and working on what you need to do to beat your opponents.

When did it become clear that you'd be moving up two weight classes instead of just one?

Tannenbaum: It really was never clear. Coach (McFarland) kind of wanted me to certify at 57. We had meetings about it. I just really did not want to cut weight ever again. I'm sure, if like this summer, I try to make world teams or whatever, I'll try to make 63 or something, so that might be like a little bit more weight. I just didn't want to be in the same boat I was last year where at the end of the year I was just so sick of cutting weight.

You're continuing this tradition 149-pound Wolverine All-Americans moving up two weights. Mike Kulczycki. did it, Ryan Churella did it, and now you've done it. Should be expect you'll be wrestling off Josh Churella next season?

Tannenbaum: (Laughs) I doubt it. Josh isn't that big.

A lot of Michigan wrestlers have moved a weight class, plenty wrestlers have moved up two weight classes, including you. Could you talk a little bit about what's going on in the Michigan weight room? You say you don't want to cut weight anymore, but obviously a lot of work has to be done lifting in order to be successful at higher weight classes.

Tannenbaum: Yeah, well, Andy Hrovat has been helping a lot with that. He and Donny Pritzlaff brought a lot of that stuff here from Overtime. They were doing a lot of stuff with these kettlebells. It's kind of like this cardiovascular, but also lifting workout. Then there are these machines that we got that I saw first at Overtime that we incorporated over at Michigan. Hrovat has been doing a lot with that and helping out a lot more than he has in the past. We'll do a whole workout and then after that we'll go in the weight room and do a circuit. Whereas last year we would do more of morning (lifting) workouts where people were kind of dragging at practice. We're more motivated now to go through a full, hard practice and get your muscles worn out and then go right from practice into some real hard lifting circuit training stuff. So I think that's been a good transition.

Do you think this is the wave of the future? A lot of guys who've gone down in weight this year are struggling, whereas those who are going up seem to be having more success. It seems like this has been going on since 1997 since the one-hour weigh-in.

Eric Tannenbaum
Tannenbaum: Yeah. I remember when I had a meeting with Coach about the weight this year, one of my main arguments or points was that if you look at everybody on our team that's had the most success, they've all been the guys that have not been cutting weight. (Greg) Wagner obviously wasn't cutting weight at heavyweight. Ryan Bertin -- Bertin would be two pounds under after practice the day before. You look at Ryan Churella -- Ryan went up to 65 from 49 and could go to IHOP or Fridays the night before a match and still be under weight. I was just looking at those guys thinking, 'Well, they're not cutting weight and they're doing really well.' They were able to get in extra workouts and not be dragging toward the end of the week.

How does Coach McFarland feel about it? Is he really on board with guys going up, or is it tough to talk him into it?

Tannenbaum: Well, I'm sure now he's happy. It was really more for the lineup. That was really the only reason we even talked about me possibly going 57 this year. Before the summer, I was telling him I'm going 57. And then all of a sudden, I come back and tell him I got really big over the summer. That kind of threw him for a loop. He was kind of concerned that it would be too big of a jump. He was saying, 'What happens if in the middle of the season you start losing some weight and it starts coming off a little easier, then you would be too undersized.' I think it's worked out well so far.

Do you feel you've lost any speed at 165 that you had at 149?

Tannenbaum: I really don't think so. If anything, I feel I'm a little quicker because I'm able to keep some of the energy I lost cutting weight. Cutting weight can slow you down out there and now I think I've got a little bit more of an explosion. I think I have a more explosive technique or style than previously. I mean, I've been hitting doubles a lot more not just my outside low single that I'm sure everybody has scouted.

In terms of scouting, in the past few years, there's really been an explosion of access to wrestling footage on the Internet. I guess I'm just curious about video scouting in general. Do you watch a lot of footage? How much do you customize your game plan based on scouting or is it the sort of thing where you just do what you do?

Tannenbaum: I try not to worry about it too much. You want to be aware of it, but you don't want to focus too much on it -- especially the type of person that I am. I tend to think too much. So if I go out there and think about what someone else is going to do, instead of worrying what I'm doing … it doesn't always work. It doesn't matter how well you watch somebody, it's all about the feel. I'm sure everyone knows I have a low single to the right leg. But whether or not they've ever felt it or can stop that or whether they're going to be ready for that off a double is something else. Wrestling is not something you can predict.

So it's a lot more valuable to actually wrestle someone and make adjustments from match to rematch?

Tannenbaum: Yeah. Definitely video of yourself wrestling somebody is a lot more useful and important than somebody else wrestling … in terms of styles, techniques and stuff.

So do you watch much video of yourself?

Eric Tannenbaum
Tannenbaum: Oh yeah, I watch almost every single match. Just to be more conscious of what's going on and go out there with better perspective.

Do you read wrestling message boards?

Tannenbaum: I don't ever read that stuff.

I understand you're quite a deejay. How long have you been doing that?

Tannenbaum: I've had turntables since I was in seventh grade. And I just kind of kept working on it. It's been more of a hobby, but recently I've been doing more and more like actual gigs. Like some volunteer work and stuff.

Is it a good way to relieve stress during the season? Or is it something you do more in the off-season?

Tannenbaum: I do more actual gigs in the off-season, but before the season started I was deejaying at this bar for a little bit. In season, I still do it, but it's more of a hobby. Actually, the only weekend we had off, I did do a party. But usually we're out of town every weekend. I'm deejaying Monday at this thing called Mock Rock. It's a charity thing and afterwards I'm doing this like after party deejay thing. I don't know. I just kind of do it as the jobs come. It's just for fun.

So you don't have any aspirations to continue?

Tannenbaum: I always say it's my ideal job, but there are people out there who put as much time into it as I do into wrestling.

You hinted before that you might continue with freestyle after you're done competing college.

Tannenbaum: I don't know. Maybe like, just to see what happens. I might try out for 2008 or something, but, I mean, I'm trying to go to med school and there's really no time between that and … you know … it's not really practical.

I know wrestlers don't really like to look ahead much, but people really can't seem to stop talking about you potentially matching up with Oklahoma State's Johny Hendricks.

Tannenbaum: Right.

It's the sort of thing where there's just so much drama involved because of the match he had with Ryan Churella last season … and there are a lot of people around the country who want to see him lose.

Tannenbaum laughs.

Well, what were you thinking when you were watching his match with Churella last season?

Tannenbaum: I don't know. You mean as far as do I think Ryan got screwed?


Pinned? (Photo/Johnnie Johnson)
Tannenbaum: Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I think he kind of got hosed a little bit, but it's one of those things where it's a tough call because it all happened so fast. I watched it again just the other day and didn't even realize that when it happened, it was happening. So it's hard for a ref in the national finals to call a pin that quickly when the other guy is winning. I think it was definitely a close call, but I think ultimately if you watch the tape, most people would say, other than Oklahoma State fans, that it was a pin.

What do you think about the second-to-last takedown? It really didn't seem like there was a lot of control there.

Tannenbaum: Yeah. I think the whole match was kind of out of whack with the reffing. I mean, obviously I wanted Ryan to win, so I'm definitely going to be on his side with that, but I think it's kind of a shame how … just the way that match went down is so odd.

It's something that people just can't stop talking about. I think a lot of people are really rooting for you to beat Hendricks this season. And I think the match-up excites people not only because of the drama of it, but stylistically a lot of people say that you're the only person who can match his activity level. And you both seem to work from the outside rather than taking your shots from a tie up or something. It looks like it could be an entertaining match. What do you think you would have to do to beat him?

Tannenbaum: I know he's a goer. I've watched a couple of his bouts. I think we have somewhat similar styles. I'm sure it would be interesting. I try not to think about it too much … because everyone says to take it one match at a time. But with him, it would be the same thing as anyone else. Go out there tough, stay in position, and work what works best for you. There's really no magic strategy I have. You just gotta go out there and wrestle.


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