This week’s feature NCAA wrestling match is a Sunday night showdown between the top 133-pound wrestlers in the country – Wisconsin senior Seth Gross and Iowa junior Austin DeSanto.
Top-ranked Gross is a former national champion and recently qualified for the Olympic Trials by winning the Bill Farrell International, where the field included four other national champs. DeSanto has been a terror ever since he entered college, and has wins over the best of the best in college wrestling.
Seth Gross Breakdown
In 2018, Gross capped a dominant season with an NCAA championship. After that season, SDSU head coach Chris Bono took the job at Wisconsin; Gross missed the entire 2018-19 season with an injury and was granted another year of eligibility, allowing him to finish his undergrad degree and rejoin Bono in Madison as a graduate transfer.
Though he started his college career at 141 pounds before cutting down to 133, Gross amazingly got all the way down to the Olympic weight class of 57 kg (125.5 lbs) for the Bill Farrell. His victory there means he won’t have to make the weight again until the Olympic Trials in April, allowing him to build back up a little bit and focus on what makes him great on the mat.
From the neutral position, Gross likes to work collar ties and wrist control, as well as two-on-one or “Russian” ties. He is good at scoring from snap-downs and throw-bys, and has a good single leg as well. His shots often seem a bit dive-y and poorly set up, but he has a good sense of timing, and his long arms allow him to get to the leg without a perfect setup.
Where he really stands out, though, is his scrambling ability. He can score from his opponent’s shot just as well as his own, and creates scoring opportunities from positions where other wrestlers would struggle just to hold a stalemate. There are a handful of athletes who have a gumby-like ability to squirm around and make what seems like a solid, controlling position for the opponent into a loose, unstable hold; some examples are former Cornell All-American (and current internet wacko) Dylan Palacio and MMA enigma Kevin Holland.
Gross has this ability, but it does not come at the expense of his own solidity and ability to win conventionally the way it often does for others in that category. As a result, his spectacular counters are not offset by giving up head-scratching reversals but instead augmented by high-percentage finishes and a crushing top game.
Check out some of these scrambles from Gross:
Gross is also phenomenal from the top position, using his length and grip strength to implement former coach AJ Schopp’s system of wrestling. Schopp was an All-American for Edinboro who turned almost everyone he wrestled and won the Gorrarian award for most pins at the national tournament. Schopp was an assistant at South Dakota State for Gross’ first two seasons with the Jackrabbits, and in that time Gross become dominant.
The base position of the system is trapping the bottom man’s ankle (top).
This limits the bottom man’s options, as he cannot sit out or roll. This allows the top wrestler to pressure heavily and focus on capturing a wrist. Gross will often lock up a head and arm and the far side, preventing the bottom wrestler from using the far hand to help fight grips on the near side. Then, using his front knee, Gross pushes the inside arm into the opponent’s chest, where he can use his own far arm to catch it (bottom). Once the cross wrist is secured, Gross is excellent at using it to tilt his opponent, often building massive leads early in the match.
If the opponent tries to take advantage of the attempt to use a knee as a hand by grabbing the leg or turns in to try to extract their trapped ankle, Gross can punish them with a near-side cradle. If they turn away from him or go flat to avoid getting tilted, Gross will hit a cross-face cradle. His grip strength and long arms make these moves easier, but he also has an attacking mindset and ferocity that is nearly unmatched.
Austin DeSanto Breakdown
Iowa’s Austin DeSanto became an icon in Pennsylvania high school wrestling when he defeated the legendary Spencer Lee in the state final, winning his only state title while preventing Lee from winning his fourth.
After wrestling at Drexel as a true freshman and coming up one match short of All-American status, DeSanto transferred to the Iowa Hawkeyes. (He also became something of a meme after FloWrestling’s incessant coverage of his transfer).
DeSanto is a wild thing on the mat, wrestling at a frenetic pace that few can withstand. A prime example is one of his first college matches, against Lehigh’s Nick Farro. From the opening whistle he is relentlessly attacking, never letting Farro breathe in between taking him down and letting him back up to do it again. Even the way he runs off the mat and low-fives his coaches is pure intensity.
Here’s him getting a technical fall (building a lead of 15 or more points) in less than a minute of match time.
DeSanto works almost exclusively from outside control on the opponent’s left hand side. From either an elbow tie (more accurately, grabbing the triceps) or an overhook, he hits a fireman’s carry to a dump and often takes his opponent straight to their back. He can also shoot for the far leg, pulling down on the near arm to off-balance the opponent before ending up in a single-leg position. Finally, if the opponent tries to back out or circle away, he can pass the elbow for a single or high crotch to the left leg.
While the names of the moves he hits suggest some variety in his game, DeSanto’s reliance on one type of tie-up means he is extremely one-note. Astute observers noticed this from the start; as former Ohio State All-American Kenny Courts put it:
If one more person give Austin desanto their left arm for that fireman their coach should amputate it
— Kenny Courts (@Courts1nSession) November 22, 2017
Two wrestlers in particular have shown a commitment to keeping that arm safe. Michigan’s Stevan Micic was perhaps overlooking the true freshman from a small school in December 2017, when DeSanto ran away with a 22-10 major decision. When they met in the national quarterfinals that March, Micic was clearly ready. He was very diligent about keeping his left arm home; he mainly used it to clear off DeSanto’s left-hand collar tie, crossing his own body but still keeping it far from his opponent. Without a good pull on the elbow, DeSanto wasn’t able to get deep on any of his shots. Micic capitalized on those attempts and scored on reattacks, earning a dominant 13-1 victory.
Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young also came out with a clear gameplan against DeSanto, practically putting his left hand in his back pocket in their match at NCAAs in 2019. While he succeeded in preventing the carry, he completely took away his own offense as well, and after an early takedown from a merkle position DeSanto had all he needed to win the match.
Beating DeSanto isn’t quite as simple as an IQ test. He is very diligent about clearing out of ties he doesn’t want and pulls on the opponent’s head until the left arm comes forward. His high pace can also get to opponents and induce mistakes, an effect compounded by the notorious crowd at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Still, it’s clear that if Plan A doesn’t work for DeSanto, his Plan B is just “Plan A but harder”.
DeSanto isn’t much of a top wrestler, and has lost matches because he couldn’t get away from bottom. Wrestlers like Daton Fix and Jack Mueller have shut him down on the mat, and even Campbell’s Noah Gonser has ridden him out for an entire two-minute period. Worst of all was his blood round match against Scott Delvecchio as a freshman; needing a win to become an All-American, DeSanto chose bottom and then surrendered three stall points en route to an overtime loss. Against Gross, being taken down could be a death sentence.
Conclusion and Predictions
Gross’ scrambling ability should get the job done here. The Badger wrestler probably won’t be disciplined enough to take away DeSanto’s offense, which gives DeSanto a real chance to win. However, Gross probably too good of a scrambler and will win the battle after DeSanto’s shots. Even if DeSanto wins the takedown battle, Gross can fall back on mat wrestling if necessary, and is very likely to get back points (or at least a lot of riding time and stall calls).
Burning time on the mat also helps him avoid the pace Desanto puts on guys and the Carver effect. The choice of position to start the second and third periods of this match will be interesting; DeSanto was bold enough to take bottom against the feared Ethan Lizak last year, but it might be more prudent to choose neutral if he’s having success there. Gross might also consider choosing top if DeSanto is winning the battle on the feet.
This match should have moments of excitement and drama, but the overall theme will likely be a steady squeeze from Seth Gross. Line: Gross -375/DeSanto +300