Vito Arujau in the 2023 NCAA finals (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
In a flash, Cornell's Vito Arujau attacked the far leg of Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young, plucked his right ankle, elevated, and drove the opposite direction to score his second takedown of the 133-pound NCAA final. That clip has become one of the most prominent of the NCAA Tournament, and at the moment, all ESPN analyst Jordan Burroughs could say was, "Wow."
Bravo-Young, a two-time defending national champion, had no answer for the power of Arujau on those clean finishes, which included a second-period reversal to his back where RBY stood little chance.
But to the surprise of many, RBY, who is billed as perhaps the sport's quickest athlete, also seemed to have no good response for the incredible speed of Arujau. The visual of Bravo-Young looking helpless to Arujau's leg attacks was striking.
The Cornell junior also out-powered Oklahoma State three-time NCAA runner-up Daton Fix and made it look easy in an 11-3 major in the semis. Two different opponents, two different styles, and Arujau took the action to both of them in dominant performances.
"He's world-class, I've been saying it a long time," Cornell coach Mike Grey said. "Those two guys, they're fast and powerful. Vito is just stronger and faster than Daton and RBY."
Those two wins capped an electric tournament for Arujau, who won his first NCAA title and received the Outstanding Wrestler award. Cornell might have had the top two candidates for that honor in Arujau and freshly minted four-timer Yianni Diakomihalis, but Arujau left no doubt about who was most deserving.
He got rolling early as the No. 3 seed in the 133-pound bracket with a 12-6 win over No. 30 Ethan Rotondo of Cal Poly in his opener, a 12-4 major over Iowa State's No. 14 Zach Redding in the Round of 16, and an 8-5 win over No. 6 Sam Latona of Virginia Tech to set up the monster wins over Fix and Bravo-Young.
"How often does it happen that a guy wins his fourth title and doesn't get OW?" Grey wondered. "He had to make it undeniable because he wrestled his ass off and did a great job. That's exactly what Vito did.
"It's good for Vito because he's now getting credit for the great work he's put in."
Arujau's body of work has been undeniable as an Olympic trials runner-up at 57 kilograms in 2020 and a Final X participant in '22, a silver medalist at the Cadet World Games in 2017, and now a three-time NCAA All-American.
Perhaps the final piece to place Arujau on the country's elite tier of wrestlers was to unlock the ability to complete tournament runs, instead of being left to wonder where he went wrong. Arjujau went on that journey of self-reflection last offseason after falling to Princeton's Patrick Glory and taking bronze.
"I thought I was the most skilled wrestler in last year's tournament, and then I ended up losing in the semis to Glory," Arujau said. "There was constantly this battle of, I couldn't figure out why I was losing. It's so much easier to be able to lose to someone who's really good and be like, 'OK, that guy is just better than me.' But that just didn't seem like it to me.
"It didn't seem like that was the reason I was losing. That disconnect was definitely rooted in some doubt in my own abilities, but it's just a part of the process. And I guess, just learning how to deal with that was something that I did this year and found the ability to trust myself."
That process started with the kind of pain that so often leads to growth in wrestling. Without question, Arujau had shown the skill and physical tools to win a national championship, so he set out to work with his coaches, sports psychologists and others to start figuring out how to better win the mental battle.
That work paid off at NCAAs and perhaps set the stage for an even better version of Arujau moving forward. Those mental tools made his physical skill set pop in wins over Fix and Bravo-Young, They were also a good way for Arujau to bury any self-doubts and wrestle with a freer, clearer mind.
"I have a very good grasp of the technique and how wrestling works," he said. "What I did work on was just the competition mindset, really, really focusing up for those seven minutes and actively finding a good place to perform at mentally. I was happy that I was able to really utilize those skills at the tournament."
2023 NCAA champion Vito Arujau (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
What that looked like in the finals against Bravo-Young was Arujau completely checking his thought process at the door. He was moving freely without hesitation as he executed that plan, staying at least one step ahead of RBY both mentally and physically, which had previously looked impossible to do before Arujau snapped RBY's 56-match winning streak.
That was everything in a match of that magnitude, but Arujau finished on the right side of it this time.
"I let my body take over," he said. "I tried to cut out all that decision-making process during the match. I trusted my body to be able to know where to go and what to do and, you know, it did it."
The mental and physical sides of wrestling came together at a perfect crossroads for Arujau in this NCAA tournament. A big part of that effort was the decision to move up from 125 to 133 pounds, which Grey said was made soon after last postseason.
The plan remains for Arujau to make the descent to 57 kilograms and try to win a spot on the 2024 United States Olympic team, but the grind and frequent weigh-ins of the NCAA season made the bump to 133 a no-brainer for Arujau and the Cornell staff.
The result was a fresher mind, stronger legs, more power and an overall better wrestling experience.
"I think I have much more energy," Arujau said. "I'd say I have more power now that I'm at 133. I'm in a much better place with a much better attitude. I'm definitely not sucked out and sad all the time."
With that fog lifted and the work he did on his mindset, Arujau was primed for his best performance, and not just in terms of the NCAA tournament.
That highlight reel takedown to help win the match against Bravo-Young was the product of a full season of energetic practice work that Grey says wouldn't have happened if he were still wrestling 125 pounds.
With fewer concerns about weight, Arujau had more time and attention for fundamental improvements.
"He went elbow pass, head outside, ankle grab for his second takedown," Grey said. "It was beautiful. Attacking both sides of the body is something he needed to work on, and he finally had the ability to address it all season long.
"It showed in his biggest moment."
The next big step for Arujau is to apply the lessons he learned and the confidence he gained at 133 pounds and take it back with him to 57 kilograms. That work will begin with the U.S. Open next month, and as Arujau knows quite well by now, will never stop.
But what Arujau did at NCAAs is raise the bar on his own performance and perhaps unlock something greater that will help him win bigger and bigger matches on his way to his ultimate goal: world titles.
"Vito is really special," Grey said. "We've known he's been that great, and he'll only get better if he continues to believe in himself and put in great work. I'm excited for the U.S. Open for him. He's doing really good stuff. Everybody should be aware of him."