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Final X Stillwater Men’s Freestyle preview

by Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling

On June 3, the nation’s top two Senior level athletes in 15 weight classes will battle for the opportunity to represent Team USA at the Senior World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia (Sept. 10-18) at Final X Stillwater, presented by Tezos, at the Gallagher-Iba Arena on the campus of Oklahoma State University.

The first matches of the series will be held in session one starting at 2 p.m. CT. Session two featuring match two and three (if necessary) of the series will start at 7 p.m. CT.

The men’s freestyle matches in Stillwater feature one Olympic champion, three World champions, three Olympic medalists and four World medalists. There is a past World Team member in every match, competing against an opponent who has never made a Senior World Team. That means all five of the winners could be a past World Team member, or there could be as many as five new World Team members.

Final X Stillwater men’s freestyle match-ups

Bout 4 – 70 kg MFS - Zain Retherford (NLWC/TMWC) vs. Jordan Oliver (Sunkist Kids)

This match has so much to look forward to. Hometown fans are excited that past two-time Oklahoma State NCAA champion Jordan Oliver has earned the right to compete again in Gallagher-Iba Arena, against a past three-time NCAA champion from Penn State in Zain Retherford. Although Oliver leads the head-to-head freestyle series between the two by a 3-2 margin, Retherford has made two past Senior World Teams, while Oliver has never been on a Senior World Team. Then there is the fact that Oliver won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials last April, but could not qualify the weight class and did not get to compete in the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Both of these athletes spent a good portion of their competitive careers down a weight class at 65 kg, although Oliver often wrestled up at events that were not for World or Olympic Team selections. Both seem to fit well at 70 kg, the weight class which had been dominated by James Green for years before he retired this year to become the USA Wrestling National Freestyle Developmental Coach. Regarding experience, Oliver is 32 years old and Retherford is 27, although Retherford may have a bit more high-level international experience based upon his two World Championships appearances. Both had big wins in the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament, with No. 4 seed Retherford beating top seed Alec Pantaleo, 5-2, while No. 3 seed Oliver stopped No. 2 seed Ryan Deakin, 7-4.

How will this one go? Who will set the pace? Retherford has always been a grinder who keeps coming at you, while Oliver has strong defense and is a bit crafty with his offense. Their previous matches have always been close, with a few very high-scoring battles mixed in with some low-scoring affairs. It may not matter that this event is in Oliver’s old gym, as they would probably have just as close a battle if this were held in Rec Hall. Expect fireworks for sure.

Recent results

September 11, 2021 – World Team Trials quarterfinals – Oliver dec. Retherford, 2-2

May 17, 2019 – World Team Trials Challenge Tournament Finals Bout 2 – Retherford dec. Oliver, 7-6

May 17, 2019 - World Team Trials Challenge Tournament Finals Bout 1 – Retherford dec. Oliver 7-6

November 30, 2019 – AWL 1 – Oliver dec. Retherford, 13-11

April 26, 2017 – U.S. Open semifinals – Oliver dec. Retherford, 5-3

Bout 8 – 57 kg MFS – Thomas Gilman (Nittany Lion WC/TMWC) vs. Vitali Arujau (Spartan Combat RTC/TMWC)

Thomas Gilman has been competing at the highest level of his career in the past year, claiming an Olympic bronze medal after losing a razor-thin match to the Olympic champion in Tokyo, then coming back with a powerful World title a few months later in Oslo, Norway. He wrestles with a confidence and a mat presence which comes from experience and talent, and always seems to be able to get that takedown just when he needs it. The former Iowa star who now trains at Penn State with the Nittany Lion WC could be in the prime of his career and seems to be improving as he goes.

His opponent has earned the right to challenge for this position. Vito Arujau comes in with a strong pedigree, a son of a World champion and Olympic medalist from the USSR who taught him strong freestyle skills as a youth. Arujau showed his international abilities with a Junior World silver medal, and also won a Senior U.S. Open title while still in college. Like Gilman, he has been a multiple NCAA All-American, but has yet to win an NCAA title for Cornell.

A little over a year ago, Gilman swept Arujau in two straight matches in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, with bout one going to Gilman by fall, but bout two ending as a 2-2 criteria decision. How much progress has Arujau made since last April? Arujau was not pushed at all in the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament finals, beating Jakob Camacho in two straight technical falls. It will be important for Arujau to come out in bout one and show he can score on Gilman and establish himself. If Gilman is able to win the takedowns and set his pace, Arujau will have difficulty turning the tables on the defending World champion.

Recent results

April 4, 2021 – U.S. Olympic Team Trials Finals Bout 2 – Gilman dec. Arujau, 2-2

April 4, 2021 - U.S. Olympic Team Trials Finals Bout 1 – Gilman pin Arujau, 5:42

January 5, 2021 – Henri Deglane Challenge (France) – Gilman dec. Arujau, 6-2

Bout 10 – 61 kg MFS – Daton Fix (Cowboy RTC/TMWC) vs. Seth Gross (Sunkist Kids)

The pride of the current Oklahoma State Cowboys, 2021 World silver medalist Daton Fix will have a home-field advantage in Final X at Gallagher-Iba Arena, facing the always exciting World Team Trials Challenge Tournament champion Seth Gross. Fix has a decided advantage in international freestyle achievements, with a Senior World medal, two Senior World team berths, a Junior World title, four age-group World medals and a Youth Olympic Games medal, against Gross, who made two age-group World teams without winning a medal. Yet Gross always seems to find a way to make his matches exciting, and is not afraid to let it loose against whoever is his opponent.

Their college careers are a bit different, with Gross winning an NCAA title for South Dakota State, then finishing up at Wisconsin, and current OSU student athlete Fix still a bit snake-bitten with three NCAA runner-up finishes. In their only recent freestyle match, Fix scored an 11-0 technical fall over Gross in the 2021 World Team Trials quarterfinals. Both have seemed to find a home at 61 kg, although they will both need to find a different weight class for their run at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. Gross comes off a nice effort at the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament, as a No. 5 seed, beating the No. 4 (Jesse Mendez), No. 1 (Nico Megaludis) and No. 6 seeds (Daniel DeShazer). But Daton Fix is a whole different challenge for Gross, a wrestler who doesn’t give up points in freestyle, has a very strong offensive attack, and knows how to score and defend in par terre. Gross will need to reach a new level if he is to make this Senior World Team.

Recent results

September 11, 2021 – World Team Trials quarterfinals – Fix tech. fall Gross, 11-0, 4:41

Bout 12 – 92 kg MFS – J’den Cox (Cliff Keen WC/TMWC) vs. Nathan Jackson (New Jersey RTC/NYAC)

J’den Cox is one of the most successful men’s freestyle wrestlers on the planet. When he enters a World-level event, he has always won a medal. Starting with his 2016 Olympic bronze medal after his senior year in college, Cox has gone 2017 World bronze, 2018 World gold, 2019 World gold and 2021 World bronze. The gap in his career came at the 2020 Olympic Trials, where he did not weigh in. He has won two medals at 86 kg, and three medals at 92 kg, including a pair of World titles. This is the weight class which he has been very strong, able to shut down his opponent’s offense and score points on a consistent basis.

Nathan Jackson is one of those athletes who made a commitment to freestyle after college, and has made tremendous progress. An All-American for Indiana University, Jackson has thrived at the New Jersey RTC and made consistent advances in his performances. Jackson wrestled as much as anybody else during the pandemic shutdown, stepping up for a number of wrestling cards and entering all the events he could. While starting his international career at 86 kg, he is very strong and confident at 92 kg. He was dominant at the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament, outscoring his opponents 40-0 and getting three technical falls in his four bouts.

In their previous battle, Cox defeated Jackson, 6-1 on the FloWrestling Burroughs vs. Taylor card in January 2021, which marked Cox’s first match back after a competition pause. Some things have changed for Cox since that battle. After doing some time at the NJRTC, he has switched to the Cliff Keen WC in Michigan, and is once again working with Wolverine coach Kevin Jackson, as well as a different set of coaches and training partners. Cox is looking to improve on his bronze finish at the 2021 Worlds in Oslo, highly motivated to return to the top of the Worlds podium. Jackson is a long-shot against Cox, but has shown no fear in his rapid rise on the Senior level.

Recent results

January 13, 2021 – FloWrestling Burroughs v Taylor Card – Cox dec. Jackson, 6-1

Bout 14 – 97 kg MFS – Kyle Snyder (Nittany Lion WC/TMWC) vs. Kollin Moore (Ohio RTC/TMWC)

What can you say about this battle between college teammates and regular training partners for many years at Ohio State? Kyle Snyder has set a standard that Kollin Moore is looking to reach. A three-time NCAA champion and four-time finalist for the Buckeyes, Snyder also won Olympic and World titles while a college undergrad. A few years younger than Snyder, All-American Moore was truly a victim of the COVID-19 shutdown, losing his senior year to a cancelled NCAA Tournament in which he was heavily favored to win. Snyder wrestled heavyweight in college, with Moore at 197 pounds, and they wrestled each other constantly for many years.

Snyder is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame after he retires. He won the 2016 Olympic Games (youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champ), the 2015 and 2017 World title (youngest U.S. World wrestling champ), 2018 and 2021 World silver medals, 2019 World bronze medal and 2020 Olympic silver medal. With seven medals in seven tries, if Snyder keeps going through Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028, his resume could be the deepest in U.S. wrestling history. His first step in getting another medal is beating Moore in Stillwater. After Snyder moved to the Nittany Lion WC for his RTC, he and Moore only wrestle in competition. Snyder beat him in two straight in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials finals last April.

Moore is coming off strong effort at the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament, with four wins including three shutouts. The real question here is how much has Moore improved since last year? Snyder is tremendously consistent, with a great defense and the kind of offense which gets better as he wears out his opponents. Moore needs to find a way to score multiple times on Snyder in competition, something few have done worldwide in the last decade. Will this be any different than at the Olympic Trials in Fort Worth? It will be interesting to see how it sorts out.

Recent results

April 3, 2021 – U.S. Olympic Team Trials Finals Bout 2 – Snyder dec. Moore, 5-1

April 3, 2021 – U.S. Olympic Team Trials Finals Bout 1 – Snyder tech. fall Moore, 10-0

Final X Stillwater will be held alongside the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Honors Weekend, which is happening at the Hall of Fame facility next door, June 3-4.

FloWrestling will serve as the host broadcasting partner for both Final X Stillwater, presented by Tezos, and Final X New York, presented by Tezos.

Click here for the Final X Stillwater FloWrestling Broadcast

Tickets for Final X Stillwater, presented by Tezos

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