Breakdown: Zain Retherford World Team Trials 2019

    Zain Retherford
    Zain Retherford, PA (Nittany Lion Wrestling Club) Photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo

    USA Wrestling has an embarrassment of riches at 65 kilograms. Yianni Diakomihalis amazed domestic fans with his incredible run at the US Open, then outdid himself by taking out World #1 Bajrang Punia in a wild exhibition bout at Beat the Streets. Diakomihalis teammate and former Cowboy Jordan Oliver is back on the scene and in great form, 2016 Olympian Frank Molinaro is still a force, and there’s plenty of young blood waiting in the wings. Even with the retirement of four-time NCAA champion and 2016 World champion Logan Stieber, the US is in great shape at 65. That made it all the more impressive when Penn State’s two-time Hodge Trophy winner and 2017 World team member Zain Retherford won four straight matches to earn a rematch with Diakomihalis at Final X: Rutgers.

    In anticipation of Final X, let’s take a look at how Retherford worked his way through the World Team Trials bracket. Next week, we’ll examine Retherford’s match with Diakomihalis from the US Open and attempt to predict the dynamics of their next meeting.

    All videos courtesy of FloWrestling

    vs. Dean Heil

    The main concentration of this piece will be looking at how Retherford navigated the unique styles of his opponents, and what consistent tactics are in place to set up his own attacks.

    Retherford’s first opponent was the much maligned Dean Heil. An Ohio product, Heil went on to be a three-time All-American for Oklahoma State, placing third and winning two NCAA titles before being upset by the phenom Yianni Diakomihalis and a dangerous Chad Red his senior year. Heil was known to keep matches close and limit his offensive output, even against wrestlers he should be reasonably expected to open up against. Heil is reportedly splitting time between the Oklahoma RTC while working at Campbell University with the legendary Cary Kolat.

    Zain Retherford is known for his heavy hands, mainly his constant snaps and head jabs. Ideally he will be able to move his opponent around and break down their posture, forcing them to straighten up in their stance reactively. These reactions open up entries for low leg attacks. As one of the most physical wrestlers in the country, as well as one of the best mat wrestlers, this is a process that works perfectly for Retherford’s attributes.

    Because his constant work on the head is such a nuisance, Retherford can eventually fake that he’s going back for a collar tie or head jab, and use his opponent’s reaction for a level change.

    Zain Retherford takes down Dean Heil
    If Zain is able to move you around, you’re going to have a bad time.

    Another Retherford staple is pressure. In a very linear sense, Retherford can get to his ties and push his opponents back, a very useful strategy in freestyle. From collar and elbow control, Retherford occasionally fakes the single, further encouraging Heil to step back.

    Because of the threat of a pushout, Retherford’s opponents may often feel it necessary to take back ground. This might mean giving back the pressure in ties, or stepping in on Retherford when he gives up space. You can see the aforementioned strategies employed in the clip above. Eventually Heil stands in place, and Retherford is able to time him for an explosive entry after faking level changes.

    Heil didn’t just let Retherford work him over, he attempted to counter pressure as well. Pushing Retherford toward the center, Heil waited to feel a push back before changing levels.

    Unfortunately Retherford did not commit like Heil expected, and he repeatedly ran into the heavy hips and hands of the Nittany Lion.

    It’s worth mentioning that even when Retherford is on the back foot, he’s still heavy on the head and is posted on a shoulder or arm at all times.

    vs. Frank Molinaro

    It needs to be said, Molinaro looked like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite. I’m glad I could get that off my chest.

    This matchup was fairly dramatic in 2017, many latched on to the “student becomes the master” narrative when the two Penn State alumni clashed. After losing the first of three 7-6, Retherford took control, shutting Molinaro down 6-0 and 7-4 to make the World team.

    Then representing Virginia Tech’s Southeast Regional Training Center, and now the Oklahoma RTC, Molinaro has continued to vie for spots at both 65 and 70 kg.

    Retherford vs. Molinaro is a match-up of two wrestlers often considered to be brawlers. In freestyle, “Gorilla Hulk” Molinaro is known for his abusive hand fighting and explosive and unexpected double legs. While Retherford is certainly capable of fighting Molinaro in a phone booth, the best strategy may not have been to fight fire with fire. Instead, Retherford played off of Molinaro’s aggression.

    While Retherford was still posting on the head and snapping down as he did previously, he worked to keep Molinaro on the end of his reach, and the snaps were accompanied by small, persistent steps back. When Molinaro tied up on his terms, Retherford was quick to clear the ties and keep engagements on his terms.

    After constantly pulling Molinaro in and snapping down, a couple of things could happen. Molinaro could pull back and straighten up, or he could follow momentum and let Retherford snap him on to his legs. The first option allows a clean entry from Retherford, who stutter stepped off many of those pulls, threatening the shot. The second option theoretically risks scrambling with the superior mat wrestler.

    At first, Molinaro opted to clear ties altogether and explode from mid-range. Retherford anticipated the shot and threw his leg back, quickly switching stances.

    Molinaro adjusted, becoming even more aggressive in the ties. Retherford picked up the pace of his own clubs, fakes and clearing Molinaro’s ties until he caught Molinaro in a rhythm of chasing the head. That’s when Retherford changed levels.

    Zain Retherford counters Frank Molinaro's aggression
    Sneaky Zain.

    The essential process at play was that Retherford was shutting Molinaro out of the handfight. Even from range, posting on the head and blocking shots with his head allowed Retherford to prevent any clean entries.

    Shots from the outside were clearly ineffective and fatiguing, Molinaro felt his best chance was to keep clubbing and find his way into a favorable tie, or at least convince Retherford to pressure him back enough to set up an intercepting shot.

    Instead, Zain posted on the head and pushed off. Molinaro followed. Zain drags him in the collar, Molinaro stays put, Zain fakes the club with his other hand and swings for a clean single entry.

    Zain Retherford takes down Frank Molinaro
    Check out how Zain finishes after grabbing the foot.

    I’m sure Cliff Fretwell had other reasons in mind when he named Frank Molinaro “Gorilla Hulk”, but the guy does get very mad, very often. In a hole and down 4-0, Molinaro gets even more aggressive chasing Retherford down.

    It’s hard not to use a “bull vs. matador” analogy, and it won’t be the last time in this article I’m tempted to do so.

    On his last entry, Retherford shoots immediately after Molinaro clears the tie.

    Zain Retherford shoots on Frank Molinaro
    I believe that’s three different entry setups.

    Best 2 out of 3 vs. Jordan Oliver

    The rivalry between two-time NCAA champion and perennial freestyle contender Jordan Oliver and Zain Retherford has been historically competitive and heated, but Oliver has gotten the better of their meetings. Their last match was a professional bout for the American Wrestling League, where Oliver was able to sit on a huge early lead to win 13-11.

    In a tournament format, there are some advantages afforded to Retherford. An exceedingly physical and relentless wrestler, he is designed to break opponents over time. Oliver, on the other hand, reportedly cuts a ton of weight to make 65, and doesn’t have the same gas tank as Retherford. Even in their standalone AWL match, Oliver had to hang on late to survive Retherford’s onslaught.

    With that in mind, Retherford likely came into the first match with Oliver with a gameplan of heavy, relentless pressure. The earlier Oliver faded, the better.

    Match 1

    It was immediately apparent that while Retherford could effectively back Oliver up to the edge of the mat, pushing him out was a different story. Slick and explosive from the outside, Oliver did not fight hard to win tie ups with Retherford, opting to neutralize positions or clear ties.

    Retherford’s first clean entry came from a lapse by Oliver, who stood up straight after gracefully circling out from Retherford’s pressure.

    But after that, Oliver was a nightmare on the edge.

    Jordan Oliver slides by Zain Retherford
    Sidakov would be proud.

    Fully committed to scoring the pushout, Retherford recklessly chased with his post to force Oliver out of bounds, extending himself without much of a stance. Oliver took the extended arm and passed it by with the elbow, dexterously keeping both feet in bounds as he shucked Retherford in front of him, toward the edge.

    This exchange was quite the departure from the calculated manner in which Retherford handled Molinaro. However, Oliver was presenting an entirely different style to deal with, one that has given Retherford fits time and time again.

    Oliver had answers for other typical Retherford tactics as well. He was able to successfully capture the wrist off of the head post, faked the snap with his other hand and swung to the lead ankle.

    Jordan Oliver uses the head post from Zain Retherford
    Another slick entry from JO.

    Just as Molinaro did, Zain picked up the pace of his attack, pushing to the edge and shooting whenever possible. But Jordan Oliver’s footwork on the edge was smooth and diverse, Retherford’s approach was too single-minded to catch a clean entry.

    Jordan Oliver is too slick on the edge
    NOW can we use the matador analogy?

    But after the break, Retherford was able to speak with his coaches and cool off. When the two wrestlers returned, Retherford was still pressuring, but his approach was measured, even his shots on the edge were controlled, leaving him at far less of a risk to be countered.

    While Oliver did an excellent job countering Retherford and playing the edge, a style based on the retreat is exhausting, in every combat sport.

    The tide began to turn as Retherford stalked Oliver, pulling and hanging on him, with much less reaching. Without as much fear of Oliver’s shot, Retherford could close most of the distance with his feet, using shorter motions to get to his collar tie.

    Zain Retherford wears down Jordan Oliver
    Wrestling Zain Retherford is very tiring.

    With less energy available, and a lead already built, Oliver was willing to hang out in those situations a little longer than before. Off of Retherford’s snaps, Oliver is much slower to come back up. Retherford hangs on his neck and drags Oliver down.

    In Retherford’s interview after the match, he simply stated that the next sequence played out because it had to. It wasn’t something he practiced specifically, he wasn’t confident it would work, but Zain Retherford knew he was down and had to pull the trigger.

    With Retherford’s hands locked for a head pinch, Oliver extended and drove from his knees to push Retherford out of bounds. Retherford used his grip and manipulated his hips to force Oliver to put more weight on the right side, and that’s when Retherford kicked his legs through and ripped to that side.

    Zain Retherford hits a head pinch on Jordan Oliver
    Zain knows how to wrestle freestyle now guys.

    The second exposure probably should not have counted, as it looked like Retherford’s feet were both out of bounds, but I haven’t put much thought into it and am not highly educated on the specifics of that rule. Nonetheless, Retherford put himself in range to win the match, and Oliver was exhausted.

    Retherford turns up the heat yet again, and Oliver is slow to clear ties, his footwork on the edge is serving him less and less. And so, Oliver plants, he doesn’t have the same speed to dance out of pushout danger, and one point will turn the match in Retherford’s favor on criteria.

    Zain Retherford finishes off Jordan Oliver
    Oliver wrestled a fantastic match, can’t say that enough.

    Retherford snaps off the ties and instantaneously penetrates, collecting the low double without much of a fight.

    In an intensely dramatic match, Retherford’s pace and pressure had much to do with the victory, but without the head pinch, it’s unlikely he would have been able to find enough entries in time. Adjustments would need to be made before their next meeting.

    Match 2

    But not only did Oliver make changes of his own, he adapted to Retherford’s new approach swiftly. While Retherford got back to his measured pressure, Oliver spent much less energy clearing ties and avoiding Retherford.

    Instead, he faked his own shots off these exchanges and gave enough ground to bait pressure from Retherford. Even without reckless pursuit on the edge, Oliver was able to throw by off the elbow and use Retherford’s pressure against him.

    Jordan Oliver throws by Zain Retherford
    Sidakov would have gone to Oklahoma State.

    However, Retherford’s handfighting efficacy had picked up as well. A lot of what Retherford does is closer to yanking than snapping at times, that coupled with his constant palming of the face has touched a nerve with many opponents, Oliver not excluded.

    Zain Retherford heavy hands
    At least Zain’s rough tactics are wrestling moves, I don’t think a horizontal slap counts as handfighting.

    Retherford was clearly having more of an effect on Oliver this time around, but he couldn’t stalk without consequences.

    Oliver continually attacked at angles off fakes to the head. Essentially, he programmed Retherford to react to the fakes and expect nothing after. Eventually, Oliver faked the swing single, and redirected, blasting through on a double.

    Jordan Oliver sets up a gorgeous double leg on Zain Retherford
    Beautiful process to set up a beautiful double by JO.

    But the groundwork was also there for Retherford to get to his own entries. In a best of three series, your opponent has time to get a read on you and make adjustments. On the other hand, you also have more time to program reactions and plant seeds for future attacks.

    Retherford pushed, faked the level change as Oliver walked back in on him, faked to come back up for the hand fight and level changed again to attack the ankle.

    Zain Retherford fakes and shoots on Jordan Oliver
    Double and triple up your fakes, that’s what it takes.

    On another attempt, Retherford was able to drop directly off his own head jab to get a clean grip on the leg. A controversial finish on that single may have garnered Oliver two exposure points on another day.

    Now it was Oliver who had to pick up the pace and attack. As expected, straight shots with linear setups were ineffective, but layered approaches with multiple fakes and direction changes put Retherford in dangerous positions.

    Zain Retherford holds off Jordan Oliver
    Finally, it’s Zain’s turn to hold on to a lead.

    Overall, Oliver could have done a better job convincing Retherford that his handfighting was something to worry about, his fake snaps and posts were largely harmless as setups because of this.

    In my opinion, these were the best Retherford-Oliver matches thus far. Given the rumors of Oliver’s tough weight cuts, we may see him going for a Non-Olympic World title in 2020 at 70 kilograms, but Oliver will absolute be a player at 65 if he returns at that weight.

    Zain Retherford vs. Yianni Diakomihalis 
    Final X: Rutgers

    On June 8th, on the campus of Rutgers University, Yianni Diakomihalis and Zain Retherford will wrestle in a best of three series to determine the 2019 World team member at 65 kilograms.

    Stay tuned next week for a breakdown of their match at the 2019 US Open. We will also use content from this article and Yianni’s Beat the Streets match with Bajrang Punia to make reads on what might go down in Jersey.

    2 COMMENTS

    1. […] I am here to eat my words. Not only did Yianni Diakomihalis not widen the gap on Zain Retherford, it was Retherford who improved upon his successes in their last meeting to sweep their best two out of three series. Despite being horribly wrong, it still may be beneficial to revisit my looks at their US Open match, Diakomihalis at Beat the Streets, and Zain Retherford at the World Team Trials. […]

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