What does it mean for the tournament to be in Cleveland?
There’ve been so many good wrestlers that have come out of the state, especially the Cleveland area. Tough people are bred down there and wrestling is a tough sport so they appreciate it. I’m from Maryland, but for a lot of guys on the team whose home state is Ohio, it works out perfectly where they can compete in front of everyone who’s seen them wrestle their entire life.
With the tournament so close to Ohio State, what atmosphere can fans expect in the Q come March?
Oh man. Completely sold out. Close to 20,000 people in the blood rounds and over 100,000 people for all the sessions combined. It’s probably the most intense environment there is in college sports.
You’ve wrestled in some of the most hostile places in the world — Siberia, Paris, Rio. What’s it like to go into an environment like that?
At first you don’t know what’s in store for you. Now I’ve been there a couple times, and I understand what it’s going to be like. The refs aren’t going to do you any favors. All the calls are going to go towards the home country’s athletes. I like that challenge. I like when all the cards are stacked against me and I still have to compete at a high level to beat the guys that I’m wrestling against.
How do you prepare for an environment like that?
Take each match as seriously as you can. No matter how small the match, I want to wrestle well so by the time I get underneath the big lights, it’s just normal, the way I always compete.
How does it feel to be in the conversation of greatest wrestlers of all time at only 22?
As a kid, it was something I always wanted to be. Now as I’ve gotten older, the sport means more to me than the title of “best ever” does. My goal each day is to become a better version of myself. I want to become better physically, which means stronger, faster and more explosive. I want to be mentally stronger to the point where I can put all of myself on the mat with no fear of the risk of what could happen. And then technically, I just want to become so much superior than everybody in the world that no one can wrestle with me. I value that way more than I do any title.
So it’s not about accolades or medals but where you progress as an athlete?
Right. Every day I get to training I can work on that. Only one time a year can I wrestle in the World Championships or Olympics. You can work on a goal that you get the opportunity to accomplish once or you can work toward a goal that every day you have the ability to get closer to, and I just choose that one.
While you have plenty of international wrestling left to do and you do work with youth wrestlers at camps, I’ve heard you talk about eventually making a run at MMA. What’s next after college?
I can’t tell you what the future can hold exactly. I know I want to wrestle as long as I physically can and then I’ll figure out what I want to do after that. I haven’t really worked on striking or Brazilian jujitsu at all. I’ve talked to (other former wrestlers who now fight MMA) a little bit. (Former Oklahoma State University and Olympic wrestler Daniel) Cormier told me to wrestle as long as I can, and then if I want to fight, I can. Cormier is almost 40 years old and he’s still the champ at 205, so you can make the transition later than you think.
What would you say to younger wrestlers who look up to you?
I would tell them to try to have as much fun as they can and try to score as many points as they can. Don’t cut weight. Losses happen to everybody throughout their career, so it’s not about that, especially when you’re young. Just focus on trying to become a better wrestler.
It’s interesting you say don’t cut weight, because it’s so ubiquitous with the experience of the sport.
I hear stories all the time of people talking about their wrestling experience, like you said, and it’s always I cut this much weight or I have to run around in a trash bag after school. I never cut weight growing up, and I feel like I don’t really have any of those stories. Mine are all just about getting better at wrestling.
What’s the story behind the pin chain?
The pin chain was created this year by Coach (J) Jagger to motivate the team to work for the pin when we can and it really has done that. It’s made me work a lot harder for the pin, and I see that in other guys too. It was modeled off the turnover chain used by the University of Miami football team. Coach Jagger’s wife made it for like $30. It’s not serious bling, but it looks really cool, and that’s all that matters.
Ohio State’s road to a national championship likely goes through Penn State. What do you think about when you look at that team?
The keen aspect this year of being able to compete other great wrestlers is part of the reason why I’m back. They’re our biggest competitors this year, and I just want to destroy them. I’m friends with a lot of the guys, but there’s something about the team itself that makes me just want to obliterate them.
If you could matchup against one wrestler in their prime, who would it be? Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson, who went 159-0 at Iowa State University and won a Gold Medal in the Athens Olympic games in 2004, comes to mind as a good matchup, considering he’s pretty close to your weight.
Sanderson. You got it. That’s the guy. I just think there would be so much hype around that match, and so many people would want to see it. He was so good that I know he’d be a worthy competitor.
What do you think outcome would be?
I think I would win. But I think I’m going to win every match. I think I’m going to win every practice. So. I think that way about anybody.
8:00 AM EST
March 14, 2018