Sometimes you witness a sporting event where the result is so dramatic that a team or an individual goes from being not just a good team or athlete, as you kind of thought they were, to an untouchable leader. Usain Bolt comes to mind, or the 1985 Bears against the Cowboys. In my own personal experience the first time I saw it was a high school wrestling teammate who stumbled around being pretty good but not great. Then out of nowhere he threw and pinned the presumptive best wrestler in the state and from that moment no one ever touched him again.
I thought I was witnessing such a moment like that in the B1G wrestling championships last year on the campus of the University of Illinois. James Green from Nebraska had seemed to “arrive” after his win against 157 pound favorite Derek St. John. That was impressive enough, but the way he was dominating his championship match was proof enough that a star was bursting onto the scene in the way I had witnessed those previous elevations to greatness.
I cannot really remember exactly when I became aware of Northwestern’s earnest and erudite looking Jason Welch, but I know there were several things I liked about him as a wrestler (meet a reflective and self effacing Welch from a few years ago here–including his references to former Northwestern teammate and eventual Olympic silver medalist Jake Herbert). He was succeeding not as a guy with overpowering strength, but as a lithe battler who seemed to enjoy being in unconventional and harrowing scrambles. As he would contort himself in ways many wrestling fans seldom see, one had the feeling he had only a confidence in his venture but little idea where he was headed—but it was just as apparent his opponent had only the unnerving inkling that what was coming wasn’t going to be good. He also had this unflappable demeanor that neither overtly celebrated success nor showed the signs of panic or despair. And I will admit, as was evident in witnessing the recent NCAA title runs of wrestlers from Stanford and Harvard, I enjoy the episodic athletic success of righteous underdog athletes from great academic schools. So somewhere along the way I cast off any partisan rooting to adopt Jason Welch as one of my own favorites.
As I watched the 2013 157 pound B1G championship match, reality seemed to be colliding with hope, though not in a crushing way—results should be celebrated for the reality they are. Lightning quick and muscular James Green was winning handily over Jason Welch as the match moved into the third period. Nice effort by Welch, I thought, to make his school proud by advancing to the B1G final, but James Green was ascending the mountain in clear view of everyone.
The sequence is somewhat vague without going back to look at the tape, but a few remembrances stood out in that third period. In a remarkable show of energy and assertiveness, Welch violently picked up Green’s ankle (Green was on all fours) and jammed it into his own thigh to render any burst to Green’s feet impossible. Once a wrestler starts to dominate as Green had been doing, the other wrestler almost always visibly submits to reality that physically he is getting whipped. But at that moment Welch seemed to have no motor memory of the preceding two periods. Rather he seemed almost as if he were back in his Walnut Creek days dominating while in pursuit of his three California high school titles. In an improbable ending, Welch struck like a boa and drained all energy from a now docile Green who had no weapons to counter the match ending fall Welch then administered. It is rare to see such a reversal of destiny or such obvious and dominant strength and quickness being overpowered by simple will and confidence.
Well enough. A star had in fact announced himself in that final match even if the result ended up differently than it had appeared it would. (As for James Green, it seems his arrival was only delayed a year. Freed from the specter of the wild style of a now graduated Jason Welch, he has vanquished all comers, including a convincing defeat of St. John and seems to be on a clear course of success.)
One could say that the events two weeks later would suggest that an announcement of Welch as a predominant force was premature, but that is not likely correct. The story is untold at this point—numerous NCAA runners-up have gone on to wrestling greatness. Buckeyes JD Bergman and Reece Humphrey are two current and two time national freestyle champions who finished no higher than second in their NCAA career. As Jason Welch begins his post-collegiate freestyle career there is every reason to believe his momentum has not stalled, and a reflection on the 2013 NCAA 157 pound final contains bears that out in my mind.
Wrestling has certainly begun to emerge from the trappings of tradition that have held the sport captive. Wrestling is fighting—it lacks none of the drama that its close fight cousins boxing and MMA conjure, but traditionalists have long seemed uninterested in creating the same kind of fan experiences those other fight sports promote. It really took the almost unthinkable near banishment of the sport from the Olympics to get the entire community to wake up to the resource they were bottling up and the fun they were stifling.
The two wrestlers meeting in the NCAA finals emerge as opposing football teams enter the Super Bowl—from opposite ends of the arena through a tunnel amidst lights and smoke. Then like boxers in a title fight, they ascend a raised platform to go for their gold before a screaming capacity crowd. On that March night in Des Moines, Iowa, number 1 seed Jason Welch greeted a familiar foe in Derek St. John for the right to become NCAA champ.
Jason Welch lost that fight (watch here) but not without a few scenes which by then were typical. By the middle of the third period Welch was again behind and looking beaten, though he was certainly not aided by a one point penalty call that went against him for locking hands. Jason does not know if he did and has not thought about it much since, but if there was in fact an illegal touch it was momentary and incidental—a seemingly harsh call in such climactic circumstances. But then Jason again brought forth his inexhaustible late period effort and came storming back. Looking back on it, Jason believes he should have just cut St. John so that he would have had more time to gain a takedown. Welch was able to eliminate St. John’s riding time, but some of that came on a subsequent takedown, and the ride-out attempt also resulted in the handlock. Welch nearly had St. John on his back several times. It is hard to know what the result would have been but Welch later said, “I never should have tried to ride him out.”
Perhaps, though looking back on it, it is understandable why Welch would have attempted a ride-out given the punishing blow he delivered to Green in his most recent title bout. With that experience so fresh, why would he have thought the result would have been different? The problem was that St. John, while not particularly physical, is about as technically a perfect wrestler as one will find. As Welch continued his attempt to turn St. John for a near fall, he was only playing into St. John’s strength. It is hard to turn any wrestler for back points, but it is particularly hard to turn one with acute defensive skills who is risking nothing.
So in the end, Welch probably has it right—he would have been better off cutting St. John and launching his assault from his feet with ample time to finish the job. Tactical mistakes happen, but the good news is that great athletes make those mistakes and adjust. It is no coincidence that many athletes who have suffered crushing defeats learn and go on to great things. Jason Welch has climbed to the top with his own brand of wrestling that seems to put him in a great position to add more conventional tools, perhaps even a more physical presence. Viewed in that light the ceiling for him seems it might be very high.
The only real question is whether the goal is actually big enough to satisfy a person as diverse and adventurous as Welch. The world has not heard much from Jason Welch since last March. He stopped wrestling, spent extended time in Spain sleeping on a friend’s couch, and eventually enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts fiction program at Northwestern. Recharged, he delighted the wrestling world by announcing he would continue a freestyle career, now training with the Chicago Regional Training Center on the Northwestern campus.
But this is a guy who seems to thrive in living his life as he wrestles. He does not particularly have an end game in mind—he is a person very happy with life and friends who is just enjoying the journey. Seemingly liberated he says he wakes up every morning and says, “hey, I get to wrestle today. Not I have to wrestle.” He is off to Cuba next week for his first international competition and is hopeful of getting selected for future national and international events. Still, right now, wrestling is something that is a fun part of a journey that has few preconceptions about the route it will take. Wrestling, writing, coaching, teaching, mentoring, community assistance or something that has not come across his radar may make up a part of the journey but you get the sense that no one thing will be allowed to dominate his life—it must all fit into one happy and determined scramble.
You can follow Jason on twitter at @welchsgrapevine. I can be found at @twuckeye or @streeterwyatt