We’ve written before about the best way to start and maintain a professional wrestling league in America. With the off-season well underway and other sports holding their drafts, we thought it would be interesting to gather a group of wrestling people to hold a draft of our own as if the professional league was just getting underway. We started with six teams, a modest yet attainable target. The plan was for a freestyle league that would feature duals between the teams and an end of year tournament. Teams were to be made up of wrestlers that will no longer be in high school by this fall and are either eligible to wrestle for Team USA or wrestled in college in the United States. We granted one exemption to that rule per team to draft anyone in the world. This setup is common in sporting leagues around the world forcing teams to rely on homegrown talent while also allowing for international stars.
The roster of owners included TOM’s founder Eric John, contributors Bryce Villa, Rich Brunetti, Clay Sauertieg, and Nick Alspaugh as well as me, Alex Steen. Using the current eight international weights, we drafted using a snake system where the last team to choose in one round gets the first pick in the next to fill out our starting line-ups. Remember that this is an ongoing league so not only were the participants tasked with building a winning team, but also laying the groundwork for future success. Here is how it went down. After you check it out, head over to Twitter @theopenmat or The Open Mat’s Facebook page to let us know who built the best team and who made a terrible mistake.
Nick – Kyle Snyder, 97 kg Ohio State
Eric – J’den Cox, 86 kg Missouri
Rich – Zain Retherford, 65 kg Penn State
Clay – James Green, 70 kg, Nebraska
Alex – Thomas Gilman, 57 kg Iowa
Bryce – Jordan Burroughs, 74 kg Nebraska
Starting off, everyone is afraid to take an international star while the best Americans are still on the board. Snyder is the obvious choice at number one and five other 2017 world team members go right behind him. Burroughs falling to sixth might surprise some, but the youth of the others picked ahead of him proved too enticing.
Bryce – Logan Stieber, 61 kg Ohio State
Alex – Nick Gwiazdowski, 125 kg North Carolina State
Clay – David Taylor, 86 kg Penn State
Rich – Kyle Dake, 74 kg Cornell
Eric – Dom Bradley, 125 kg Missouri
Nick – Tony Ramos, 57 kg Iowa
The eight world team members go in the first eight picks and likely the two best American wrestlers not on the team go right behind them in Taylor and Dake. Eric eschews taking Zach Rey to snag Bradley, but now that he has two former Missouri Tigers he may be planning to base his team in the Show Me state. Still no international exemptions used, but as we push past the top tier domestically, it can’t be too long now.
Nick – Jordan Oliver, 65 kg Oklahoma State
Eric – Nathan Tomasello, 57 kg Ohio State
Rich – Jason Nolf, 70 kg Penn State
Clay – Bekzod Abdurakhmanov, 74 kg Clarion
Alex – Alex Dieringer, 74 kg Oklahoma State
Bryce – Zahid Valencia, 86 kg Arizona State
This round got interesting as Nick gambles on Oliver’s positive drug test not resulting in a suspension. That could be a fantastic pick or a complete waste, depending on how that situation plays out. Rich was ecstatic that Nolf fell to him as he likes that young man’s future potential and who could blame him? Clay makes wise use of the NCAA wrestling loophole to snag a former world bronze medalist who beat Burroughs in Rio without using his exemption, then I take the man that beat Bekzod last November right behind. Wrestling can be strange.
Bryce – Kyven Gadson, 97 kg Iowa State
Alex – Abdulrashid Sadulaev, 97 kg Russia
Clay – Taha Akgul, 125 kg Turkey
Rich – Zach Rey, 125 kg Lehigh
Eric – Mark Hall, 74 kg Penn State
Nick – Bo Nickal, 86 kg Penn State
Two men who have each won world or Olympic titles the last three years break the international exemption seal. Sadulaev’s recent close call at Russian Nationals and pending showdown with Snyder doesn’t scare me off. Besides, who doesn’t want to see Sadulaev and Snyder clash more often? Akgul becomes far and away the best heavyweight in this league and despite Rey’s upset loss at the Trials, he is in the conversation for second or third best making Rich’s pick a good one. Eric continues to largely build for the future, picking up the 2016 Junior world champion at 74 kg.
Nick – Chris Perry, 74 kg Oklahoma State
Eric – Mitch McKee, 61 kg Minnesota
Rich – Vladimer Khinchegashvili, 61 kg Georgia
Clay – Kollin Moore, 97 kg Ohio State
Alex – Frank Molinaro, 65 kg Penn State
Bryce – Ryan Deakin, 70 kg Northwestern
This time in the draft calls for creativity as the obvious choices are largely gone, especially domestically. Nick goes for a veteran who tends to fight the top guys hard in Perry. Eric, Clay, and Bryce speculate with young talent. Rich locks down an international star that should have highly entertaining bouts with Stieber. With my international exemption used up, Molinaro was by far my best option, though his age and the emergence of Retherford gave me pause. He’ll still win a lot in this format and it is the fifth round after all.
Bryce – Daton Fix, 57 kg Oklahoma State
Alex – Vitali Arujau, 61 kg Cornell
Clay – Nick Lee, 61 kg Penn State
Rich – Spencer Lee, 57 kg Iowa
Eric – Justin Mejia, 65 kg Clovis
Nick – Kendric Maple, 61 kg Oklahoma
Bryce takes Fix and the floodgates open on graduating high school seniors. No doubt this is a talented bunch and there are more like them out there. The Daton Fix/Spencer Lee rivalry could reach legendary proportions and with the relative lack of depth at 61 kg domestically, it makes sense to gamble on Vitali Arujau and Nick Lee. Just as I thought we might see petitions to draft junior high kids, Nick takes Maple who doesn’t wrestle much but is really good when he does. The former Sooner would be the league’s third best 61 kg, behind Stieber and Khinchegashvili, but it would be interesting to see how long he could stay there as the youth movement works to catch him.
Nick – Micah Burak, 125 kg Penn
Eric – Hayden Zillmer, 97 kg North Dakota State
Rich – Jacob Warner, 97 kg Iowa
Clay – Boris Novachkov, 65 kg Cal Poly
Alex – Pat Downey, 86 kg
Bryce – Ilyas Bekbulatov, 65 kg Russia
As it gets late, team needs start to dictate picks a bit more. Zillmer making both national teams was an impressive accomplishment and one wonders if Eric can pay him enough to focus on freestyle. Considering last round we drafted a bunch of kids that we’d have to pay enough to skip college, let’s assume he can. Clay probably did the best job of taking advantage of the rules as he finds Novachkov in a round where internationally experienced scrappers are few and far between. When I ended up taking Gilman in the first round, I always had Downey in the back of my mind if for no other reason than my press conferences would be must see television. If we can keep Downey on the straight and narrow, he just might pay off in a big way. Bekbulatov has had a big year already, winning the Yarygin and the European Championships. He should be Russia’s representative at worlds so Bryce takes him as his international exemption. Nick took Burak as a 125 kg as he already has Snyder at 97 kg. No doubt Micah will appreciate not having to cut weight anymore, but it remains to be seen if he can be effective at heavyweight.
Bryce – Tony Nelson, 125 kg Minnesota
Alex – Alec Pantaleo, 70 kg Michigan
Clay – Nahshon Garrett, 57 kg Cornell
Rich – Nick Heflin, 86 kg Ohio State
Eric – Alex Marinelli, 70 kg Iowa
Nick – Jimmy Kennedy, 70 kg Illinois
It became clear in the final round, with three of us needing to fill the weight, that most of us weren’t sure how to handle 70 kg when we didn’t get James Green. Pantaleo might outgrow it. Marinelli might be several years away. Kennedy was great in Lincoln, but was the oldest wrestler in the finals. By the final round, there are no sure things, of course. Clay picks up Garrett who many continue to expect big things from. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen too much from Nahshon yet and questions are starting be asked a little bit. Can he beat Ramos or Gilman? Is he better than Tomasello right now? How long can he hold off Fix and Spencer Lee? This is a good pick for the final round as the upside is clear, but it remains to be seen how valuable it will be.
57 kg Tony Ramos
61 kg Kendric Maple
65 kg Jordan Oliver
70 kg Jimmy Kennedy
74 kg Chris Perry
86 kg Bo Nickal
97 kg Kyle Snyder
125 kg Micah Burak
With two 97 kg guys and Oliver facing a potential suspension, this squad could be a little short handed. That said, Ramos, Maple, and Kennedy were all trials runners-up so they can be counted on for wins most nights, Nickal might get there, and Snyder was a deserving number one pick. If Oliver gets his issues sorted out, this team could win plenty of duals and push anyone. Compared to the others, this isn’t a young crew. They need to win now.
57 kg Nathan Tomasello
61 kg Mitch McKee
65 kg Justin Mejia
70 kg Alex Marinelli
74 kg Mark Hall
86 kg J’den Cox
97 kg Hayden Zillmer
125 kg Dom Bradley
A painfully young roster in spots, Eric’s squad might struggle in their first season as McKee, Mejia, Marinelli, and Hall get a taste of the senior level. Hall in particular might be ready to compete, but he is walking into a loaded weight with Burroughs, Dake, Dieringer, and Adburakhmanov. We’ll definitely find out more about him. With Cox as the line-up’s anchor and still young himself, this is a roster built for the future.
57 kg Spencer Lee
61 kg Vladimer Khinchegashvili
65 kg Zain Retherford
70 kg Jason Nolf
74 kg Kyle Dake
86 kg Nick Heflin
97 kg Jacob Warner
125 kg Zach Rey
We go live to Rich on how his draft went, “I love my draft as I think I have a core of five young guys in Lee, Retherford, Nolf, Dake and Warner who should represent the US at Worlds or in the Olympics at some point in their careers. Retherford has already won that right barring a successful appeal from Jordan Oliver. Throw in one of the best wrestlers in the world, Kinchegashvili, at a weight with slim US pickings, a veteran in Rey with World Championship experience and Heflin, who may never overtake the top guys but is probably the third best 86 kg in the US right now and my squad will be tough to beat in any format.”
57 kg Nahshon Garrett
61 kg Nick Lee
65 kg Boris Novachkov
70 kg James Green
74 kg Bekzod Abdurakhmanov
86 kg David Taylor
97 kg Keegan Moore
125 kg Taha Akgul
Taylor proved he was right with Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox at the trials and has beaten many of the worlds best this year. Akgul is the world’s best heavyweight. This line-up is a bit vulnerable down low in this format and Keegan Moore isn’t yet ready to take on Snyder and Sadulaev, though he obviously knows Snyder well. Still, with international veterans like Novachkov and Abdurakhmanov as well as a world bronze medalist in James Green, this team is a title contender right away. If Garrett can find his way while Lee and Moore develop, Clay could lay claim to the first few titles as the league’s first dynasty.
57 kg Thomas Gilman
61 kg Vito Arujau
65 kg Frank Molinaro
70 kg Alec Pantaleo
74 kg Alex Dieringer
86 kg Pat Downey
97 kg Abdulrashid Sadulaev
125 kg Nick Gwiazdowski
If this team can keep from turning on each other given the odd mix of personalities, they have a chance to be really good. Downey is, obviously, a powder keg, but I’m hoping training with Sadulaev will not only help him reach his potential, but inspire him to live the life as well. Arujau lost at the Junior World Team Trials, but he has been on the path to international success for a long time. With the possible exception of Molinaro, all of these guys could be around a while. Even with the youth, this crew should be competitive right away.
57 kg Daton Fix
61 kg Logan Stieber
65 kg Ilyas Bekbulatov
70 kg Ryan Deakin
74 kg Jordan Burroughs
86 kg Zahid Valencia
97 kg Kyven Gadson
125 kg Tony Nelson
Bryce has assembled an intriguing mix of potential and proven excellence. If Burroughs can hold his position as the best 74 in the country long enough for Fix, Valencia, and possibly Deakin to progress, this line-up has a chance to be really special in a year or two. We don’t really know how those three stack up right away, but the potential is there. Stieber and Bekbulatov have done a lot of winning lately and Gadson is a clear number three behind Snyder and Sadulaev. Nelson’s defense might be critical in these duals as bonus points could make the difference. He beat Rey, 1-1, at the trials before falling to Bradley, 8-1, which is a 3-1 team score split in freestyle.
So, how’d we do? Who has the best team? Who made a huge mistake? Chime in on twitter @theopenmat or The Open Mat’s Facebook page and let us know!