Building up to their World team wrestle-off at Final X: Rutgers, we’ve already taken a look at recent matches from both Yianni Diakomihalis and Zain Retherford. In their first meeting in April at the US Open, Diakomihalis capped off his eye-opening run with a 6-4 victory.
Since then, the two-time NCAA champion and two-time Cadet World champion Diakomihalis took on World #1 Bajrang Punia in an exhibition match at Beat the Streets. You can check out a breakdown of his incredible performance here.
Three-time NCAA champion, two-time Hodge Trophy winner and 2017 World team member Retherford battled his way through a loaded World Team Trials bracket to earn another shot at Diakomihalis at Final X.
Now that we’ve seen more recent work from both men, it’s time to revisit their first match, break down the action and make predictions for Rutgers.
Yianni Diakomihalis (TMWC) vs. Zain Retherford (NLWC)
Videos courtesy of FloWrestling
Zain Retherford is known for being a bit of a brawler, but there is a ton of process that goes into his approach these days. His first layer of defense is near-impenetrable, and the heavy hands of Retherford eventually break down most domestic opponents.
Contrary to popular belief, Yianni Diakomihalis may be the greatest mind in wrestling today. According to Diakomihalis, he’s a drastically different wrestler for week to week, constantly improving. He allegedly learned the funk roll (adjusted for freestyle) he hit on teammate Jordan Oliver from watching a Ben Askren video just days before. He is a wrestler who gameplans.
As seen in the World Team Trials breakdown, Retherford is able to adjust in certain ways, but he has a more rote approach than Diakomihalis. Take a look at the unique problems each wrestler presented the other, how they reacted, and what that means for their Final X showdown.
Countering the Head Post
Leading up to the US Open final, Diakomihalis commented that he knew Retherford would be handfighting hard, consistently posting on his head. Diakomihalis clearly stated that he was planning on capturing the wrist and using it when Retherford posted.
Within seconds, Retherford’s lead hand is on Diakomihalis’ head, and Diakomihalis reaches across to control the wrist. They fight grips and disengage, Retherford posts again, this time Diakomihalis pulls the wrist in and gets a two-on-one.
Diakomihalis switches one hand to elbow control, passes the elbow and swings around beautifully to enter on a single.
Most wrestlers, even at the elite level, have an incredibly difficult time getting past the hands of Zain Retherford. His combination of physicality, pace and savvy makes it difficult for any one clear approach to be effective. Frank Molinaro tried to come in heavy with his own clubs and posts, and Retherford frustrated him by clearing ties and controlling the center of the mat, forcing him to take bad shots from the outside. Jordan Oliver encouraged Retherford to chase him, but eventually pace and opportunistic attacks made the difference.
Countering the immense pressure of Retherford is tricky, because his brutal handfight does not allow many openings, and against the freestyle elite, Retherford is not taking committed shots until he’s had time to wear them down, or if he’s behind on points.
With these considerations in mind, Diakomihalis seemed to intend on gaining favorable positions by playing off Retherford’s preferred tie-up entries. However, constantly reaching for Retherford’s hands left Diakomihalis exposed.
As crafty as Diakomihalis is becoming on his feet, it’s his ability as a scrambler and mat wrestler that makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the country. Whizzering off of Retherford’s single, Diakomihalis continuously hops his free leg away from the attacking arm, eventually reaching the far ankle. It happens quickly here, but Diakomihalis waits for Retherford to make a move to step around before he commits to attacking. We’ll see that again later.
But Retherford, perhaps the best mat wrestler in the country during his folkstyle reign, would not be outmaneuvered so easily. Taking the leg over his head, Retherford spins around to catch Diakomihalis with his legs together. In total Kyle Dake fashion, Diakomihalis swiftly jumps back into a split and fights the attacking hand, giving himself time to get the whizzer back.
As Retherford stands with the leg, Diakomihalis drops to attack the ankle, using his head and shoulder as a post to keep him from exposing. It seems the best way to adjust funk to freestyle is to use your head, in a very literal sense.
This was one of the most beautiful exchanges of the year, and no one scored.
That sequence began because Retherford was able to time Diakomihalis reaching for his wrists. After the opening flurry, Retherford shut down those counters and began to stifle Diakomihalis in the ties.
He continued to post on the head, but when Diakomihalis went for his wrist, Retherford used his free hand to push up on the elbow while raising his controlled arm. Pressuring forward off this tie-up, Retherford kept Diakomihalis standing tall and uncomfortable, forcing his opponent to take action to break the situation.
Unable to get to his preferred ties, Diakomihalis had a much more sensitive trigger, shooting off of attempted snaps from space. Diakomihalis was getting beat up by clubs and posts, and was unable to work past the hands of Retherford to get a clean entry.
To make matters worse for Diakomihalis, Retherford’s handfight was taking its toll. As it happens for many wrestlers over time, Diakomihalis become more static in his stance and reactionary to avoid getting moved around or snapped on his face. A full period of handfighting from Retherford opened up the opportunity to drag the head and shoot a misdirection single.
After each of his two NCAA tournaments, Yianni Diakomihalis has led me to believe he is the most clutch wrestler alive. He has a ridiculous ability to get exactly where he needs to be and score points in the nick of time, often in crazy scrambles. After having little additional success countering the handfight, Diakomihalis knew his best shot was in a scramble. But he couldn’t get his own attacks going, and Retherford had little reason to lead after his four point flurry.
Uncharacteristically, Diakomihalis began aggressively pressuring Retherford, he became the one getting to a collar and wrist and snapping hard. That work could add up quickly, and Retherford knew his was either going to get pushed out, or be unable to dictate the terms of their next exchange. With Diakomihalis walking him down, Retherford took a low attack to intercept him. It was exactly what Diakomihalis needed.
The FloWrestling staff loves to joke about certain wrestlers being “aliens.” Essentially any wrestler who consistently defies logic or appears to have superhuman athletic qualities can qualify for the alien squad. Yianni Diakomihalis may have an alien brain, but his flexibility and hip pressure are out of this world as well. Off Retherford’s shot, Diakomihalis angles off to his right while extending the defending leg to find height.
From there, Diakomihalis weaponizes his hips and pressures hard, completely breaking Retherford’s base. We saw that powerful ability on display again when he wrestled Bajrang Punia.
With little time to spare, down on criteria, Retherford shot straight in on Diakomihalis and got to a leg. This shot was there the whole match, but as we saw, Diakomihalis will punish you if your entry isn’t setting up a quick finish.
Once again, as Retherford goes to step behind a whizzering Diakomihalis, that’s when Diakomihalis starts his motion and steps around to attack the leg and lock through the crotch.
In the past, we’ve had to worry about folkstyle stars developing “freestyle savvy.” While there is room for improvement, as we saw against Bajrang Punia, Yianni is as freestyle-ready as any USA wrestlers.
Implications for Final X: Rutgers
What can we take away from this match?
By my estimation, Zain Retherford wrestled a great match. He had a habit exploited early, but adjusted to shut down that counter in short time. He got to work on his usual post and club routine, setting up a beautiful misdirection single.
What went wrong? You could call it an error in match management. When Diakomihalis turned up the heat, it may have served Retherford better to attempt to disengage rather than attempt to halt that momentum. In my opinion, he’s not going to win the majority of scrambles against Diakomihalis.
At the World Team Trials, we saw essentially the same wrestler, but there was a clear demonstration that Retherford can improve his discipline from one performance to the next. Against Jordan Oliver, he was punished badly for reckless aggression, but made great adjustments in their second match.
Yianni Diakomihalis won, but I don’t think he wrestled his best match. Diakomihalis has revealed in interviews that he sometimes gets hung up on setups, entries and finishes being “clean.” He wants everything to be pretty and perfect at times. This is strange to hear from a wrestler who often wins by engaging in high-risk scrambles.
There was a stretch in that match against Retherford when he looked lost. He couldn’t get past the hands, shots from the outside weren’t penetrating, and Retherford was starting to wear on him. Against the very best in the world, you may not be able to come back from having those moments, especially when officiating may not be going the way the United States would hope.
Diakomihalis had an excellent opportunity to prepare for and perform against a pressure-heavy wrestler in Bajrang Punia. While they handfight differently, Bajrang and Retherford are both heavy on the head, and make use of near-constant snap downs. If you want to see how Diakomihalis countered that aggression in a way he didn’t against Retherford previously, check it out.
I expect those new tactics to come into play. At the US Open, Diakomihalis and Retherford had to prepare for a score of wrestlers at 65 kilograms, not each other specifically. Time to gameplan and add new layers will benefit Diakomihalis, the wrestler who tends to vary strategy and is visibly improving at a faster rate.
It also hurts Retherford that he wrestled such a great match in a defeat. Does he change his approach? Does he relentlessly work scrambling to shut it down? There are a lot of question marks for Retherford and his coaching staff. Luckily, he has Cael Sanderson and a host of other great wrestling minds to help answer them.
However, at Cornell, Diakomihalis has Jordan Oliver, who has had great success against Retherford historically, and is the last man to have wrestled with him in competition.
On that note, is there a completely unscientific, simple answer here? Will Kyle Dake and Yianni Diakomihalis just never lose to Penn State wrestlers? If so, this entire article series was a huge waste of time, and I apologize.
I’m taking Yianni Diakomihalis, with confidence. I feel he’ll have a nuanced, layered approach to Retherford this time, and it’s going to be a much improved performance. I can’t wait for Saturday.
The best 2 out of 3 series goes down on Saturday, June 8th at the RAC on the campus of Rutgers University. Final X: Rutgers will be streamed on Flowrestling.org and I’ll be updating live results here at MMASucka.