Surprise, surprise, the 133-pound weight class will be a tough one to win at the NCAA championship in March again. Just like last year, these weight class is chock full of skill, youth and energy, and each match will be one to watch.
The talent pool is slightly weaker than last year with the top three athletes from 2019 in Olympic redshirt, but the re-emergence of 2018 NCAA champion Seth Gross and the bumping up of 2019 Big Ten champion Sebastian Rivera has added new intrigue into what was already a fascinating potential bracket.
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The current top-ranked athlete at the weight is sixth-year senior Seth Gross, a graduate student who will look win a second NCAA individual title under head coach Chris Bono and his first as a Wisconsin Badger. Gross picked up his first championship in dramatic fashion, and the win completed the comeback redemption story that Gross had been writing since he arrived in Brookings, South Dakota three years prior.
He started his college career at Iowa but left after his freshman year following some legal trouble, and he struggled to find his groove again back on the mat. After an up-and-down first year as a transfer at South Dakota State under then-head coach Bono, Gross then made the NCAA finals the following year and won it all in his fourth year as a college wrestler.
Last season, Gross recovered from a back injury and sat out the year while head coach Chris Bono started a new job at Wisconsin. Now, after transferring to Wisconsin to be with Bono for one final run, Gross is on a mission. He wants to win a title with the coach that gave him a second chance at South Dakota State, and he wants to win a title in one of the most difficult weight classes in the country. But the journey won't be easy.
RBY letting Mr Gross know how close the match was 😂 pic.twitter.com/TsS5Zz5tbT— Bloodround Wrestling (@Bloodround) February 8, 2020
Standing in his way is a group of ranked wrestlers who want to take down the champ, but three competitors in particular stand out as the biggest threats to a second title for Gross. He's wrestled and beaten all of them so far, but one, a scrappy Iowa junior, did also get a win over Wisconsin's senior leader.
Each match was close, and a few different moves could have flipped the result. Let's break down each of these matches, and each of these competitors as we unpack the wildness that is 133 pounds.
ALL ABOUT SETH GROSS: Read what the 2018 champ had to say about his first national title
The flashiest athlete that poses a problem at this weight is Roman Bravo-Young, a Penn State sophomore who finished eighth in his true freshman and suffered two losses last year to another frontrunner, Iowa’s Austin DeSanto.
Bravo-Young is ranked second on Intermat and third on FloWrestling, but rankings aside, he's dangerous. Watching Bravo-Young wrestle, it’s easy to see similarities between his unique technique and the creativeness of former teammates Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal.
While Bravo-Young doesn’t have quite the resume of his two Nittany Lion championship peers, he wrestles with excitement, gratitude and fearlessness. Bravo-Young was undefeated at 15-0 prior to his match with Gross, and he battled the Wisconsin wrestler to the very last second just last week.
Watch the full match between Bravo-Young and Gross here:
The key takeaways from this match are simple. Bravo-Young took the first shot, and he took the last shot. He wasn’t scared when Gross held him down for back points, and he wasn’t scared when he trailed by two with 10 seconds left. Bravo-Young didn’t win the match, but boy did he compete; the riding time point in his favor says everything you need to know about his fight against the No. 1-ranked 133-pounder.
Bravo-Young has also impressed this season with his ability to execute in high pressure situations and fight for bonus when he’s comfortably ahead in a match. He showed off a nearly flawless Winn-Dixie against Navy and won a key sudden-victory match against No. 10 Sammy Alvarez with a clutch move in overtime. This is a wrestler who has moves in his back pocket that he's ready to whip out when the time comes.
He’ll need to maximize his top-level technique to emerge as the champion at this weight, but he’ll see all three of his highest-ranked foes at the Big Ten tournament. If the tournament bracket plays out based on the current seeds and the duals go chalk in the early rounds, Bravo-Young will have Austin DeSanto in the semifinals.
Here’s how the Bravo-Young vs. Austin DeSanto match went earlier this season:
In Carver-Hawkeye Arena, under the reigning taunts of hostile Hawkeye fans, Penn State’s Bravo-Young stayed calm and composed, never wavering even when DeSanto took the first shot or when the Iowa junior called for injury time before forfeiting out.
Bravo-Young hit two cradles in that match before picking up six team points for the forfeit, and his performance sent one message to the Iowa faithful: he’s hungry to beat DeSanto and win the 133-pound weight class. The DeSanto match came just one week before Bravo-Young took on Gross, and he brought that same composure and class to Madison to take on the 2018 champ.
Give Seth Gross (@GodsWrestler133) all you've got, he'll still find a way.— Wisconsin On BTN (@WisconsinOnBTN) February 8, 2020
The country's top-ranked wrestler at 133 survives a knock-down, drag-out battle with Roman Bravo-Young to win by decision. #OnWisconsin@BadgerWrestling | @FloWrestling pic.twitter.com/oW4Z0TaBK0
The Penn State schedule didn’t include a prestigious winter tournament like Midlands or the Southern Scuffle, but the schedule should have allowed Bravo-Young to see all four of the top competitors in the weight class. He’s met DeSanto, and he’s met Gross. However, a fourth title contender, Sebastian Rivera, didn’t wrestle against Bravo-Young when the Wildcats came to Rec Hall.
Rivera’s current health situation isn’t clear, as he didn’t wrestle last weekend either, but he did wrestle Seth Gross in the semifinals of the Midlands tournament, and that match offered great insights into how Rivera could factor into the 133-pound title race.
Rivera took on Gross at Midlands with boldness just like he took on another NCAA champ, Spencer Lee, last year. He was looking for the same kind of upset he pulled off against Lee, and he nearly found it.
Gross took the lead in that match first with an escape, but Rivera dominated the takedowns. He scrambled for the first two points, and the second two points, and the third three points. This was Rivera's match, until one wrong move sent him to his back for four points in favor of Wisconsin. That one turn cost him the dual, but, come Big 10s and NCAAs, you know the 2019 Big Ten champ wants more.
He came inches away from a last-second points series at the end of the dual as well, an upset that could have sent Gross further down in the rankings and prevented him from the Midlands title. But such an outcome never occurred. Gross snuck away with the win, went on to win the tournament, and Rivera finished fourth after an injury default.
𝘙𝘰𝘤𝘬-𝘢-𝘣𝘺𝘦 𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘐𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘦𝘦 𝘵𝘰𝘱,— Wisconsin Wrestling (@BadgerWrestling) December 31, 2019
𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘥𝘢𝘸𝘯 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘬𝘴, 𝘠𝘰𝘶’𝘭𝘭 𝘣𝘦 𝘰𝘶𝘵
𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘶𝘱 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘨𝘰 𝘎𝘳𝘰𝘴𝘴𝘺...
𝐂𝐫𝐚𝐝𝐥𝐞 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐚𝐥𝐥🌜 pic.twitter.com/pKvWuwyddQ
All things considered, if you watch that Midlands match in slow motion, Sebastian Rivera is the wild card. He’s the only athlete to beat 125-pound two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee twice in college, and now Rivera has since bumped up to 133 pounds and pushed Gross to the wire.
Knowing that Rivera did make 125 pounds all last season, and now has the freedom to hold 133, means that the Northwestern All-American has room to wrestle at full strength without fading. He showed all of this in Midlands.
Rivera will wrestle at 57kg (125.663 pounds) for Puerto Rico in the 2020 Olympics. Gross, despite his height (he was listed as 5-9 on the South Dakota State roster from 2018), is also planning to wrestle at the Olympic Trials at 57kg, creating an interesting weight dynamic for the 2020 NCAA tournament, less than three weeks before the trials.
Gross' length gives him an unusual advantage at this weight, but Rivera is strong, and he showed that he can out-muscle his opponents and fight for a national title at this weight. The Northwestern junior is 7-2 on the year with his only losses to Gross and the injury forfeit to Travis Piotrowski at Midlands. If he's at full strength, Rivera is absolutely in the title conversation.
Rivera, however, has never wrestled Iowa’s Austin DeSanto in college, posing a wrinkle in the 133-pound title analysis. DeSanto could be considered the quickest athlete at the weight, though Bravo-Young might have something to say about that claim.
Like Rivera, DeSanto also beat Spencer Lee, though he did so in high school and has not wrestled in Lee’s weight class in college. Since arriving on to the NCAA scene, DeSanto has gone 65-15 but has only lost eight times since transferring from Drexel and becoming a Hawkeye in 2018.
DeSanto finished fifth in last year's NCAA tournament, beating Bravo-Young in the Round of 32 to send the then Penn State freshman into the consolation bracket where he had to get past No. 10-seed Chas Tucker of Cornell, No. 15-seed Ben Thornton of Purdue and No. 4-seed Mickey Phillippi to make the podium. The Iowa junior is 12-2 on the year, but had a brief stint as the No. 1 wrestler in the country after his first match against Gross in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Watch that full match here:
What DeSanto did in this first match against Gross was nothing short of impressive. He came out firing from the start and removed 2018 champion Seth Gross from the Hodge Trophy conversation with a win over Gross in DeSanto's house. DeSanto matched Gross move for move, defending each of Gross' attacks and pulled out the big moves.
In the press conference after the match, DeSanto kept a subtle grin on his face knowing that he had done something big. He’s still the only wrestler in the country to have a win over Gross, and while the injury forfeit to Roman Bravo-Young has caused some concern, DeSanto did show that he can hang with the best of the best.
Listen to the full Austin DeSanto press conference after his win over Gross:
So where does that leave us at 133 pounds?
DeSanto has a win over Gross, a loss over Gross and an injury default against Roman Bravo-Young. Rivera and Bravo-Young both have narrow losses to Gross littered with challenge calls. You can analyze the film all day long, you can know that Gross has length, DeSanto has speed, Bravo-Young has technique and Rivera has power, but knowing that isn't enough to possibly predict a winner for this weight class. We'll leave that challenge up to you.
Oh, and this is just in the Big Ten. Undefeated Chas Tucker and Round of 12 Mickey Phillippi also pose threats to these four guys, though DeSanto, Gross, Rivera and Bravo-Young have shown themselves to be on a different level. Only one thing is clear: this weight class is wild.