86 kg Senior US Open men's freestyle champion Aaron Brooks (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Wrestlers love fighting. It's a built-in part of the sport. To get your hand raised, you have to have that fighter spirit in you. That fighting spirit also tends to carry over to other areas of your life as well. It can manifest itself on social media as wrestlers, parents, fans, media, and everyone else in between can get into verbal scuffles over a variety of topics.
We've seen it recently with the proposed rule changes for college. Three-point takedowns and no riding time without near-fall points. Changing our sport over to freestyle for good. These are all arguments that people have vigorously fought for or against.
Looking at a bigger audience than the wrestling community, society rarely gives their respective governing body credit. It's more fun to fight against "the man."
But after attending and covering the 2023 US Open, I have to give USA Wrestling their just due. The changes they have made for qualification to the 2023 World Team made the Open more important and more intriguing than any one in recent memory. This is one change that the wrestling community should be able to agree upon as a positive in our sport.
This year's world team measures basically stated that if there was a 2022 world medalist returning at their 2022 weight, he/she would be invited to participate in Final X. Their opponents would be decided at the US Open. The winner would move on to Final X. No World Team Trials needed.
If there was no returning world medalist, then the Open winner would still move on to Final X. His/her opponent would be decided at the 2023 World Team Trials, which will occur on May 20-21st.
That simple change contributed to an increase in Open entries across all three styles. In past years, wrestlers with world medals, world team experience, and other strong credentials likely were able to bypass the Open and wait at the WTT's. So, who are the wrestlers with world medals and world team medals? In many cases, those are some of the most talented and popular wrestlers. Basically, they didn't "have" to wrestle in the Open. Some chose to anyway, just as a chance to get mat time and tournament simulation.
Not only did the Open suffer in the prior format, but the Trials ended up being lackluster, which came to a head last year in Coralville, Iowa. This year's version of the WTT's will be in Colorado Springs with all ten Greco weights being contested, along with three men's freestyle and four women's freestyle. It likely won't be a huge event, but neither was last year's.
Another factor that can't be overlooked is the participation of two of the top young stars in the sport, both intriguing for different reasons. 2020 Olympic gold medalist, Gable Steveson, announced he was returning to the mat after spending the last year training for the WWE. The Open would be the site for his return since it was needed to make the world team. Spencer Lee, on the other hand, would be wrestling freestyle for the first time since December 2019. Lee also was wrestling for the first time after he was pinned in the semifinals of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
The women's tournament also saw the return of one of its all-time greats in Adeline Gray. The six-time world champion missed the 2022 world team qualification process as she was pregnant with twins. Gray competed at the 2023 Open three weeks after getting cleared to return to the mat. Even so, she made the finals and fell to the young phenom, Kennedy Blades. Gray will now have to win the Trials to make Final X opposite Blades.
Those three stars, combined with a loaded field, led to attendance from spectators that seemed to double compared to recent years. In our post-match interview with 92 kg men's freestyle champion, Mike Macchiavello, he mentioned how the size and noise of the crowd made the match seem more special than it already was.
This final set of men's freestyle matches was probably the best, most action-packed championship matches I've watched in years. That goes for any age group or style. Planning may or may not be responsible for that. While it may have just been a positive clash of styles, it also included high-caliber, popular wrestlers that may not have been at the Open under previous conditions.
USA Wrestling takes a lot of heat for whatever the wrestling world can think of. Some justified and some not. But, in this case, the US Open was a major win for wrestling.