CEDAR FALLS – The Final X is almost here.
The U.S. world team in freestyle wrestling will be determined in a new format that will be held over three June weekends at three different sites.
Wrestlers will compete in Lincoln, Neb., State College, Pa. and Bethlehem, Pa. to determine who advances to October’s World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
The U.S. likely will be favored to repeat as world team champions after it edged Russia by one point in a dramatic finish last year in Paris.
Here is my breakdown of the men’s freestyle matchups at the Final X:
57 kg: Thomas Gilman vs. Daton Fix
This is a very intriguing matchup. Fix is only 20 years old and he still hasn’t wrestled an official collegiate match, but the Oklahoma State freshman isn’t afraid of anybody.
Fix proved that by storming to the title at the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament. He swept two-time world team member Tony Ramos in the finals.
Now comes an even bigger challenge – trying to knock off a returning world silver medalist in Gilman. Fix is very slick and skilled on his feet, and he really has nothing to lose against the favored Gilman.
Gilman has had an up-and-down season, but he obviously delivered last year to make his first world team before reaching the finals of the World Championships in Paris. This matchup definitely could go the full three matches.
My pick: Gilman
61 kg: Joe Colon vs. Nahshon Garrett
One guarantee is that you won’t see any 2-1 or 3-2 matches when Colon and Garrett square off in the Final X.
Colon rallied for a wild 20-13 win over Garrett in the U.S. Open finals this year. These are two guys who obviously aren’t afraid to open it up.
Their Final X matches should be some of the most entertaining of any that determine a world team spot. Expect plenty of points, fireworks and momentum swings in a battle of wrestlers seeking their first world team spot.
My pick: Colon
65 kg: Joey McKenna vs. Logan Stieber
This is a battle of past Junior world silver medalists who know each other well. They both train together at Ohio State, where McKenna has one year left with the Buckeyes.
Stieber, of course, is the more established star. He won four NCAA titles before capturing a world title at 61 kg in 2016. Stieber fell short of medaling at the 2017 worlds before bumping up to 65 kg this season.
Stieber came back strong from a U.S. Open loss to Jaydin Eierman. He swept Eierman in the challenge tournament finals in Minnesota.
Stieber has wrestled well this season. He downed three-time world champion Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan at the World Cup.
My pick: Stieber
70 kg: James Green vs. Jason Chamberlain
James Green is one of the favorites to win a world title at 70 kg this year. Green reached the world finals last year before earning a silver medal in Paris.
But defeating Jason Chamberlain will be no easy task for Green, even though Green is competing in the Final X in his backyard in Lincoln.
Chamberlain won a gritty, three-match battle with Olympic fifth-place finisher Frank Molinaro to land a berth in the Final X.
This could be the year for Green with Italy’s Frank Chamizo bumping up to 74 kg this year.
My pick: Green
74 kg: Jordan Burroughs vs. Isaiah Martinez
Fans cannot wait to see this matchup between two of the most exciting wrestlers in the country.
Burroughs is one of the greatest American wrestlers of all-time. He’s won four world titles and an Olympic gold medal, and he will be wrestling at home in Lincoln.
Martinez is the same age Burroughs was when he won his first world title in 2011.
Both of these wrestlers are dynamic, athletic and highly skilled on their feet, which could make for some entertaining bouts at the Final X.
Martinez has nothing to lose, and if he lets it fly, we could be in for a treat when he battles Burroughs on his home turf. It should be enjoyable to watch.
My pick: Burroughs
79 kg: Kyle Dake vs. Zahid Valencia
How much fun is this going to be? Dake has wrestled incredibly well this year and looks ready to make a strong run at a world title.
Dake has beaten a number of world medalists this season and looked very dominant at the World Cup.
Valenica is a tremendous young talent who is progressing even more rapidly than expected. In the past year, he won a Junior world silver medal and an NCAA title. He followed with a stunning sweep over three-time NCAA champion and Junior world medalist Alex Dieringer to qualify for the Final X.
Dake is favored here, but Valencia is a fearless young competitor who is on a roll and really has nothing to lose. He still has two years of college eligibility left, but that won’t prevent him from making a run at his first Senior world team.
My pick: Dake
86 kg: David Taylor vs. Nick Reenan
Taylor will be heavily favored in this series no matter where it is wrestled. And it just happens to be in Taylor’s backyard in State College.
Taylor is wrestling at an extremely high level right now and he looks poised to win a world title this year.
Reenan, to his credit, turned in a superb performance to win the challenge tournament and earn a shot at Taylor. He’s a gifted young wrestler.
Reenan is just 21 years old, and he has made U.S. Cadet and Junior world teams in Greco-Roman wrestling. He still has three years of college eligibility left at North Carolina State.
My pick: Taylor
92 kg: J’den Cox vs. Hayden Zillmer
J’den Cox was a force during his two years at 86 kg, earning Olympic and world bronze medals. Now he bumps up to a weight class he is more comfortable in and he’s adjusting to it well.
He will face a tough challenge against Hayden Zillmer, a gritty, hard-nosed competitor who makes his opponents work. He is now thriving in freestyle after initially looking like a top prospect in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Zillmer continued his rapid progression by downing Deron Winn in two straight bouts to prevail at 92 kg in Rochester.
Cox has been solid after moving up to the new weight class of 92 kg this year, but Zillmer will provide a stern test for him.
My pick: Cox
97 kg: Kyle Snyder vs. Kyven Gadson
If there is one guy in the U.S. who has any shot at dethroning Snyder it is Gadson, who pinned Snyder to win the 2015 NCAA title.
Gadson has had good results since transitioning full-time to freestyle, but Snyder has taken his wrestling to the highest level.
Since the loss to Gadson, Snyder has won two world titles, an Olympic gold medal and three NCAA titles.
Snyder never stops wrestling. That was evident in his 9-8 come-from-behind win over world silver medalist Reineris Salas of Cuba, in the Beat the Streets event. You are going to have to really work to beat Snyder twice in a best-of-3 series.
Gadson is wrestling well. He turned in a strong showing in reaching the Final X. He’s a dangerous wrestler with big-move capability.
My pick: Snyder
125 kg: Nick Gwiazdowski vs. Adam Coon
This is a battle of different styles between two excellent young heavyweights.
Gwiazdowski won a world bronze medal last year and he’s tough to match up against. He is an athletic, agile heavyweight with strong leg attacks in an offensive-minded arsenal.
Coon is big and powerful, and his forte is body locks and an upper-body style of wrestling. He also moves well for his size. He can wear down his opponents, which could be key in a best-of-3 match series.
My pick: Coon