The 2021 US Olympic Team Trials was a very exciting event, bringing all three wrestling styles together in Texas to determine who will compete for the US in Tokyo. Many of us were excited to see the highly anticipated battle between Kyle Dake and Jordan Burroughs, and J’Den Cox clash Kyle Snyder in a meeting of 2016 Olympic medalists. 2021 also brought the return of Helen Maroulis to top form. However, how many fans looked forward to the Alejandro Sancho/Ellis Coleman final or G’Angelo Hancock taking on young upstart Braxton Amos in Greco? Before the US Olympic Trials, how many casual wrestling fans even knew who these Greco guys were?
For me, a high school wrestling coach for the past twenty-three years and a diehard Greco-Roman coach, the Olympic Trials were truly exciting; a change of the guard at some weights and the culmination of a few careers. I rejoiced with 87 kg winner John Stefanowicz, the guy who never made it to the Regional tournament in high school, and shed a tear watching Joe Rau and Jon Anderson leave their shoes on the mat, symbolizing their retirement from the sport. While some fans were intrigued by Stefanowicz’s story or hung on Hancock’s every point, most clamored for the freestyle guys to take the mat.
This has been the story of Greco-Roman wrestling in the US: the often forgotten, middle child between Men’s freestyle and Women’s freestyle. As the middle child, we know Greco-Roman wrestling is there, but it is often overlooked. Wrestling people know Greco exists, but not many are interested in learning about it because it is different from what is traditional in the US. Greco Roman does not get the same media attention as the two freestyle forms in the US. If it was not for Timmy Hands and his Five Point Move website, the only information most of about Greco would come from press releases from USA Wrestling. But if you watched the way younger wrestlers in the stands at the Olympic Trials hung on every takedown, every gutwrench, Greco-Roman wrestling may grow. My major take on the recent Olympic Trials is to tell you that Greco matters.
I have been part of an exciting program called US GRIT: Greco Roman Innovation Team for the last twelve months. Inspired and created by Gary Mayabb, the Manager of Greco-Roman Programs for USA Wrestling, US-GRIT hopes to increase opportunities in Greco-Roman wrestling for athletes and coaches, as well as show the relevance of the style to the overall sport of wrestling. With the best and brightest Greco-Roman minds in the US involved, the US-GRIT program is taking off in just about every state. In my home state of Virginia, we are working with club coaches to help implement Greco-Roman technique into practices, offer clinics across the state, and have recently opened three regional training locations that have dedicated Greco-Roman practices for whomever can attend. We are also partnering with our Virginia Women’s National Team by integrating Greco techniques into their repertoire. My comrades in US-GRIT are doing much of the same in their states. In other words, we want to show the wrestling community that Greco does, in fact, matter.
The big throws look awesome and are even more thrilling when you are the one doing the big throws, but there is so much more to Greco-Roman wrestling than “just” throws. Adding Greco skills to folkstyle or freestyle wrestling will add an incredible amount of depth to wrestling. As a coach, two of the biggest fundamental weaknesses I see in many of the wrestlers I work with are poor hand-fighting skills and staying in good position/stance. Hand-fighting skills are essential to create openings for offense and to quickly transition to defense. A wrestler who remains in good position is difficult to attack because they do not break their stance or get lazy with their movement. This was definitely illustrated in many of the Greco-Roman matches at the Olympic Trials. What many people thought looked like pushing and shoving without scoring, was actually patient hand-fighting that created openings for takedown attempts. It is physical and brutal; Greco is like a street fight without throwing punches. High-level Greco wrestlers who still compete in folkstyle often control the center of the mat and can shut down their opponent’s offense with their hand-fight and positioning.
Greco-Roman par terre wrestling teaches the wrestler how to get a quality lock and use the correct biomechanics to score a gutwrench or lift and throw. Returning to the coaching illustration, having a Greco-Roman-focused coach teach athletes how to set up and execute a correct gutwrench will help the wrestler use their hips and legs on the turn, instead of arms and chest. And in the defensive position, wrestling Greco teaches the wrestler to not depend on their legs to defend against a gut and focus on creating the correct pressure away from the gutwrench and to keep moving in the defensive position.
But why does Greco matter? It’s not relevant to wrestling in the US. It’s boring. They don’t score points.
The same can be said for freestyle, but it’s not, simply because freestyle resembles folkstyle wrestling, and in our country, folkstyle is everything. If you look to other countries like Russia or any of the other former Soviet republics or to Iran, Greco is the style of wrestling. Unfortunately, if it doesn’t resemble the type of wrestling we grew up with, so it can’t be relevant. This is a big mission of US-GRIT: to increase the relevancy of Greco-Roman wrestling. And the Olympic Trials did just that for the wrestling community. The country finally got to see the best of the best, slugging it out for one of those six spots on the Olympic team. I appreciated how NBCSN rotated a Greco match between freestyle matches throughout its broadcast. The average wrestling fan needed to see that Greco can be just as entertaining and high scoring as freestyle. It’s going to take a bit of an open mind to learn to appreciate the battle for position in neutral in the same way we appreciate how two high-level freestylers stalking and feinting for the first minute of a match.
Despite not having the plethora of resources and training opportunities as freestyle, Greco is growing in the US. Perhaps the success of guys like Adam Coon, Ryan Mango and Braxton Amos will convince RTC coaches that they should add Greco to their programs? Coaches like Nate Engel in Oregon, Zac Dominguez in Nebraska, and Brandon Paulson in Minnesota are cementing the foundation of Greco. Athletes like Peyton Walsh, a finalist at 77 kg, are growing the sport. I coached against Walsh when he was in high school at Deep Run High School in suburban Richmond, VA. Had you asked the high school version of Peyton Walsh about wrestling Greco, he would have rolled his eyes at you. But after graduating from the Naval Academy and joining the Marines, he had to learn Greco because Greco is all they do in the Marines.
Wrestling is wrestling, regardless of style. The more wrestling we learn, the better we will be as athletes, coaches, and fans. Rather than avoid a style simply because we have never bothered to try to understand, doesn’t it make sense to give it a shot? Look how much fun the Greco guys had out there in the Olympic Trials. Look at the little kids who watched the Greco guys with wide eyes, asking for Jesse Porter’s autograph after winning the 77 kg spot on the Olympic team. I hope over the next few months, we see an increase of kids wanting to learn Greco based on what they saw at the Olympic Trials. If we begin learning Greco earlier, we will improve on the international level.
The one thing I tell kids at the beginning of their first Greco practice is to take a deep breath, relax, and keep an open mind. They may find that what I teach can help them in folkstyle and begin a relationship with an enjoyable style of wrestling. I do the same with coaches looking to expand their knowledge who want to learn how to teach the specifics of Greco Roman.
I challenge you to seek out the US-GRIT representative for your state or a club or coach who is interested in Greco Roman and ask them how Greco can benefit wrestling. The more you learn about this fantastic style of wrestling will help reduce your anxiety or fear of Greco. The Olympic Trials inspired me to further break down the skills of Greco Roman for the athletes I work with, to integrate them into our practices to make them better wrestlers. Feel free to email me your comments, questions, or concerns, I’d love to chat about Greco with you.