It’s safe to go ahead and pick Yianni Diakomihalis to win everything until proven otherwise. The rising Cornell true junior made an immediate impact on the US senior freestyle circuit by winning the US Open one month removed from his second consecutive NCAA title. Now he’s established himself as a senior World title threat.
Yianni Diakomihalis (USA)
Following his clutch 141-pound title victory over Ohio State’s three-time All-American Joey McKenna in Pittsburgh, Yianni took out 2016 Olympian Frank Molinaro, two-time NCAA champion and freestyle star Jordan Oliver, and two-time Hodge Trophy winner and 2017 World team member Zain Retherford. He decimated his teammate Oliver by technical fall, 16-5, and handled Molinaro in a 10-3 victory. Yianni currently sits in the finals of Final X, where he will wrestle to win two out of three matches to make the 2019 World team.
At the annual Beat the Streets wrestling exhibition event this past weekend, Yianni faced his most credentialed opponent yet, Bajrang Punia of India.
Bajrang Punia (IND)
Bajrang has been stacking up senior level medals since 2013, but he has truly picked up steam in the past couple of years. After his U23 World silver medal performance in 2017, Bajrang won the prestigious Yasar Dogu tournament, then collected another silver medal at the 2018 World Wrestling Championships.
Since March, Bajrang has been on the warpath. He won the qualifying Dan Kolov – Nikola Petrov tournament in Bulgaria, defeating Jordan Oliver by technical fall in the finals. In late April, Bajrang won gold at the Asian Championships in China, followed by a quick trip to win the Ali Aliev tournament over the dangerous Viktor Rassadin in Russia.
Bajrang is currently ranked #1 in the world at 65 kg.
After competing in New York City at Beat the Streets, Bajrang has now wrestled in three continents in three months.
Yianni vs. Bajrang
In the United States, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who loves wrestling more than Yianni Diakomihalis. According to the mat rat himself, he is either wrestling, watching wrestling, or daydreaming about wrestling. While he is dangerous in all positions, Yianni has developed an unreal ability to scramble in both styles, scoring off his own or his opponent’s attacks more often than not.
Yianni has been known to study film habitually, he has likely been scouting his future rivals on the freestyle world stage for years. It would surprise me if he didn’t already have in-depth gameplans set up for Bajrang Punia, 2018 World champion Takuto Otoguro, or 2018 World bronze medalist Akhmed Chakaev.
I’m not a Yianni-level wrestling savant, but there are surface level observations you can pick up from watching Bajrang. He has ridiculously heavy hands and pushes a hellish pace, it’s easy to see Bajrang falling into more of an Iranian mold with his style. Overall, Bajrang had a decided advantage in power, his size and strength would definitely come into play if Yianni allowed him to get a decent grip on a chest wrap or head pinch.
Knowing those basic factors, let’s see how Yianni Diakomihalis navigated the most difficult challenge of his career.
Video footage courtesy of FloWrestling
As previously stated, Bajrang is an aggressive hand fighter. He is constantly banging on the head, snapping and dragging his opponents to set up his attacks.
Japan’s Otoguro was actually able to rival Bajrang in those phases of their match, and used his own snaps to set up quick, low-level outside singles. While Yianni is certainly growing more physical and adapting to the rough brawler styles seen commonly on the US senior level, this is not an area of strength for him.
It’s likely Yianni knew if he tried to go toe-to-toe with Bajrang in tight, he would eventually be worn down and become vulnerable. But it wouldn’t be wise to stick to the outside and completely change his style, either.
What did Yianni do? He used the momentum of the snap to his advantage. It’s a strategy that could only ever work for an elite scrambler with a near-endless gas tank, considering Bajrang’s hand fighting is relentless. If Bajrang snapped hard enough for Yianni to make contact with a leg, he was taking it.
It’s not a novel concept to let someone snap you onto their legs, but the motion of a good snap down usually means your opponent is going to be overextended on their shot, or in a disadvantageous position at the very least. But low ankle attacks were clearly part of the gameplan, Yianni was already preparing for his shot before the snap came.
From there, it was all about working through the chest wrap. If Yianni’s hips got too high, or if Bajrang gained a straight angle, he would be able to lift Yianni through and expose for two points. And so, Yianni kept his hips flat, and walked his feet off to the side, elevating Bajrang’s legs.
But Yianni couldn’t just wait on Bajrang, especially now that he was catching on to his game. He had to generate his own offense. Bajrang is fairly plodding with his footwork, so the openings were there for quick attacks.
Whenever Yianni had an opportunity to hit a single off his over tie, he was on the legs. The less time he spent tied up with Bajrang, the better.
It was a total gambit, but Yianni felt that if the exchanges were on his terms, he could control the match.
This match had some of the best scrambles I’ve seen this year. Folkstyle has a much higher frequency of scrambling, but there are fewer consequences for rolling to your back and passing ankles. In freestyle, you have to keep near-perfect position to avoid exposing. It doesn’t hurt that most of the freestyle that gets popular broadcast exposure is between the best wrestlers in the world, so of course, the scrambles are going to be insane.
While fighting the go-behind, then a single leg from Bajrang, Yianni hits a cross-ankle pick and gets back on his offense.
The referee really could have let that go the last five seconds of the period.
To open the second period, Yianni’s pace slowed, and Bajrang got his momentum. Catching Yianni sideways, Bajrang shot across his body for a quick takedown. But the next time the shot came, Yianni threw back his far ankle and caught a crotch lock.
Bajrang did not appear to be particularly comfortable wrestling through the position, Yianni angled off and got a stronger grip on the leg, threating to lift Bajrang through. He didn’t get the exposure, but it did give Yianni the angle to cross face and finish the takedown.
Yianni was able to navigate his own attacks much more easily, as Bajrang didn’t have a great sense for what to do after draping over the back and attacking ankles.
Win and Learn
There was plenty of room for improvement from Yianni, a lot of it being freestyle specific.
We’ve seen Yianni catch cradles in scrambles so many times in college wrestling, but he does often put himself in danger in the process. In this exchange with Bajrang, Yianni crunches up his opponent and begins the exposure while only controlling the near leg, looking to catch the head on their way through.
Ultimately Bajrang is able to ride the turn and reverse the position, bumping Yianni from the turk to get a quick two of his own.
Yianni is used to picking up momentum in scrambles as matches progress, he’s a closer. He may give up points here and there, but in the end, those exchanges are extended, and Yianni always ends up on top.
That may not be an excellent idea in freestyle.
In the final scramble of the match, Bajrang switched tactics and went for the crotch lock rather than the chest wrap, exposing Yianni for two. In freestyle, if you’re exposed on an exchange or taken down, scrambling through to get on top is only worth one point. For one reason or another, Yianni completely committed to winning the exchange and coming out with a reversal. Yianni opted to control Bajrang by hooking the leg, finally giving Bajrang the opportunity to lift through on a chest wrap, using the hooked leg as an elevator.
At the beginning of the exchange, Yianni was up 8-4, but after two exposures by Bajrang, the reversal was absolutely necessary to win the match at that point. However, if Yianni had stalled out the position and conceded the exchange after the crotch lock, he would still have been up 8-6 with short time left in the match.
It’s tough to fight instincts built up over more than a decade of wrestling, especially in the final moments of an incredibly hard-fought match.
Despite Bajrang’s late success, Yianni pulled off the biggest win of his career, even if it was only an exhibition. The final score read 10-8, but Yianni only completed one reversal, the correct score was 9-8, in my opinion.
Yianni’s next competition will take place on June 8th in Piscataway, New Jersey, on the campus of Rutgers University. Having won the US Open in a weight class with no returning World medalists, Yianni sits in the finals of Final X, the event determining US World team members.
He’ll face the winner of the World Team Trials, which go down in Raleigh, North Carolina, starting on May 17th. 65 kg is a stacked weight class, but my money is on Zain Retherford to make it through the bracket. The World Team Trials and Final X will both be streamed on FloWrestling.
The winner of two out of three matches will be representing the United States at the World Wrestling Championships in Kazakhstan in September.