Sesker Slant: Final X offers unique format

By Craig Sesker for The Predicament

LINCOLN, Neb. – A new event that offered fans a new and unique opportunity to see athletes qualify for a world team was unveiled this weekend.

USA Wrestling’s Final X debut on Saturday night at the Devaney Center provided its share of compelling matchups and high-level competition.

Seven champions, four in men’s freestyle and three in women’s freestyle, were crowned before an enthusiastic crowd at the University of Nebraska.

Champions advance to October’s World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

The remainder of the men’s and women’s freestyle world team spots will be determined at Final X events the next two weekends in State College, Pa. and Bethlehem, Pa.

Here are my takeaways from the Final X in Lincoln:

Any time Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion Jordan Burroughs steps on the mat you know he’s going to put on a show. He celebrates his 30th birthday next month, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Burroughs swept young stud Isaiah Martinez in two straight matches to make his eighth straight Senior world-level team at 163 pounds. Burroughs won by technical superiority to finish off the second bout.

I love the idea of showcasing wrestling in a shorter program that doesn’t drag on all night, but I still think the entire world team in all three styles needs to be determined at one location. There are just too many qualifiers and it is too confusing for fans after adding the challenge tournament that was in Rochester this year. It feels almost like too much time is spent on qualifying for the world team in this country. Not to mention the logistical issues with adding dates to the schedule. That’s tough on athletes, coaches, teams, fans and media with additional travel and cost.

I like the idea of a Final X. If you can’t do it all at one site, maybe go to two of these events instead of three. I guess we will have a better idea of how it all works at the end of the month. I know it’s not easy with 30 total weight classes now, but it may be a better option.

Kyle Snyder is incredible, he really is. Kyven Gadson is a very good wrestler with the talent to win a world medal. But he’s stuck behind Snyder, who beat Gadson twice Saturday night at 213 pounds. Gadson did have the move of the night, stunning Snyder with a double leg to start the second match and blasting him off the stage. But Snyder came back to score the last eight points of the bout. He never stops coming at his opponents and his level of conditioning is phenomenal, especially for someone his size.

Somebody called Thomas Gilman an underdog going into his finals series against Daton Fix. That person needs to wake up and pay closer attention. Gilman is a returning world silver medalist and beat Fix 6-3 and 2-1 Saturday at 125 pounds. Fix is a Junior world champion who is very advanced for a 20-year-old. Fix is really good. But calling Gilman an underdog is pretty insulting and disrespectful. That shows a lot of ignorance on their part.

Alli Ragan is one of my favorite wrestlers to watch. She’s a very skilled wrestler, and when she stays on her attacks she’s tough to beat. That was the case when she swept close friend Jenna Burkert in the women’s finals at 130 pounds. Ragan has finished second in the world the past two years and is eager for another shot at gold this year.

Greco-Roman wrestling is not part of the Final X. Their qualifier is coming up later this month in Tulsa, Okla. The Greco program has struggled over the last decade and seems to be the forgotten style in the U.S. It would be good to see the Greco boys have a chance to compete on the same stage as men’s and women’s freestyle did at the Final X.

The 2018 U.S. men’s freestyle world team already has two Olympic gold medalists and two world silver medalists on the squad with six spots yet to be determined. How good will this team be if J’den Cox, Kyle Dake, David Taylor and Nick Gwiazdowski qualify as well? It could be one of the best teams the U.S. has ever had. And the team will have plenty of firepower in its bid to repeat as world champions.

The whole concept of the Final X was to have a more fan-friendly program, but early on there were some glitches and long delays – especially with a 10-minute delay between the first and second matches. The first four matches, with breaks factored in, took nearly an hour. It took nearly three hours to wrestle a total of 14 matches Saturday. There was too much time in between bouts with nothing going on as fans just sat on their hands. Do you really need 4-5 minutes between matches? It didn’t need to be that long.

The crowd of 2,916 fans was very vocal, but only 2,916 people showed up. More people would show up in Lincoln to watch the third-string placekicker on the Husker football team practice. Last year’s world team trials in Lincoln drew over 4,000 fans. The fans that were there Saturday were loud, but a crowd of less than 3,000? That’s disappointing.

It’s also unfortunate that fans who weren’t in Lincoln still have to pay to watch an event with high-level wrestling like the Final X. That limits your viewers to a niche wrestling audience that has to pay to watch online, and not all of them are willing to pay. That doesn’t grow the sport at all. It needs to be on television to attract new viewers.

My final observation and takeaway from Saturday night is that the Final X was definitely entertaining and enjoyable to watch. It featured some of the best wrestlers on the planet where the stakes were high with all of the focus on just one mat. The format was very fan friendly, and easy to follow and comprehend. The remodeled Devaney Center has been a great venue for world team qualifiers the past two years.

And lastly, kudos to USA Wrestling for trying something new – and trying to build excitement and interest in international wrestling. There were a few glitches, but for the most part it was a good event. It’s a great time for freestyle wrestling in the U.S. The Americans are on top right now and possess the firepower to stay there for a while.