'It's just business': At Final X, brothers Mark and Chris Perry set for another coaching clash
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Mark Perry will see a few familiar faces when he looks across the mat on Saturday night.
He’ll see Daton Fix, a 2019 NCAA finalist and, more recently, the reigning U.S. Open champ. He may also see John Smith, his uncle who also happens to be a six-time world and Olympic gold medalist and the longtime coach at Oklahoma State.
Another family member is likely to be in the corner, too: Chris, Mark’s younger brother.
“We’ve done it plenty of times,” Mark Perry said this week. “It’s just competition at the end of the day. Would we prefer not to? Yeah, but when it’s time to go, we’re both extreme competitors and we’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
Final X, the last leg of USA Wrestling’s world team trials process, is set for Saturday at the University of Nebraska's Bob Devaney Sports Center. Men’s and women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestlers will tangle in best-of-three series to decide the 2019 United States Senior World Team.
In total, six wrestlers with Iowa ties are expected to compete. Four are from the Hawkeye Wrestling Club — Thomas Gilman, Alli Ragan, Lauren Louive and Kayla Miracle — as well as Northern Iowa graduate Joe Colon, the returning world bronze medalist at 61 kilograms (134 pounds) and Iowa State alum Kyven Gadson.
For Gilman, it’s a rematch with Fix, who he beat at last year’s Final X, two matches to none, but lost to in the U.S. Open finals two months ago. Winner gets the men’s freestyle world-team spot at 57 kilograms (125 pounds), and will compete in Kazakhstan in September.
“Wrestling is one of those things where you need to leave the past behind, move forward, and take care of what’s now,” Gilman said after last month’s world team trials challenge tournament. “It ain’t worth my time to get caught up in the hype. The hype is not for me or my opponent.
“Everybody gets all hoo-rah-rah for Final X. It’s a pageantry show. We’re workhorses. We’re not show-ponies. Let’s keep it in perspective.”
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What’s more, the Gilman-Fix matchup presents another opportunity for the Perry brothers to coach against each other.
They came from wrestling royalty. Their father, Mark, was a two-time All-American for Oklahoma State. Their mother, Cathy, came from the legendary Smith family — Lee Roy, John, Pat and Mark combined for 13 All-American finishes, seven NCAA titles and seven World and Olympic medals (anchored mostly by John’s six-straight golds from 1987-92).
As such, Mark and Chris grew up in the Oklahoma State wrestling room, seemingly destined to become Cowboys like the rest of their family. Everything was a competition. Mark joked that he’d let Chris, six years his junior, build a lead, only to storm back and pin him.
“We always went to Tulsa Nationals, or the local tournaments in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas,” Mark said. “We were always there together. He had a lot of success when he was young. He was really mature for a kid. He would cow-catch and pin like 60 guys in a row.”
Mark deviated from the family’s history when he left for the prestigious Blair Academy. The New Jersey-based boarding school is home to one of the finest prep wrestling programs in the country. Mark flourished, winning the 2003 Junior Hodge Trophy as a senior. He became the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country and chose Iowa over Oklahoma State.
Chris, meanwhile, stayed in Stillwater, where he won four state titles from 2006-09 as well as the Junior Hodge. Mark won NCAA titles during Chris’ sophomore and junior seasons. Looking back, Chris admits it was tough not having Mark around.
“I lost the person I looked up to at the time,” Chris said. “When you’re that age, you don’t really think about it like that, but it was hard. When I realized that he wasn’t coming back, it kind of hit me.
“I didn’t really think much of it until like six months into it. I was like, ‘Where the heck is this guy?’ I thought he was taking a vacation or going to a training camp or something.”
The two stayed in touch as Mark embarked on his coaching career — first at Penn State, then Cal Poly, then Illinois before returning to Iowa City to coach the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. Chris won 122 matches at Oklahoma State and matched Mark’s two NCAA titles in 2013-14.
Their paths crossed during the 2012 NCAA Championship in St. Louis. Mark, then the associate head coach at Illinois, coached against Chris during his quarterfinal match with Jordan Blanton. Chris won, 3-2, in overtime. Mark sweat through his shirt in the corner. (Chris and Blanton met again in the third-place match that weekend. Mark was not in Blanton’s corner for that one.)
A year later, Mark worked out with Chris ahead of the NCAA finals. Chris went on to beat Penn State’s Matt Brown, 2-1, for his first national title inside Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena. An ESPN camera operator found their father in the stands, rocking back and forth during the first overtime while wearing an Illinois hat.
Chris jumped into coaching shortly after, and called Mark for advice. He coached Alex Dieringer and Dean Heil to national titles in 2016 and 2017. He was promoted from volunteer assistant to full-time assistant in the summer of 2017.
Around that same time, Mark left Illinois for the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, and played an integral role in helping Gilman to a world silver medal just a few months later. Gilman followed that up by beating Fix to earn a spot on his second world team last year.
“More than the skills,” Gilman said when asked what he’s learned from Mark and Iowa coach Tom Brands. “I think it’s the mindset of taking care of business, taking care of what’s right now, and what’s in front of us. They’ve taught me the lifestyle that’s needed to compete at this level.
“We’re ready to go. Cavalry’s coming.”
Now, Mark and Chris are set to coach against each other once more. Both downplayed the idea of a heated rivalry between them — Mark said that Chris actually sent him film of Gilman's potential opponents not long after Final X last year.
Both also said it’s ultimately up to their athletes to win the matches.
“We don’t even pay attention to it really, like people might think,” Chris said. “Our business is our business. He’s taught me a lot of great things, but when it comes down to it, you separate business and family. Last year, I think we had dinner before the match.
“I know who our guy’s got, and I believe these are the two best guys in the world. We can do everything we can, but they still have to go out and compete.”
Added Mark: “We’ve been fortunate as a family. We’re just getting started on the coaching side. I expect big, big things out of myself, and he’s the same way. We’re shooting for the stars year after year, day after day.”
But, still, beating your brother has to be nice, right?
“Deep down, maybe secretly, there’s that edge,” he said. “Of course you want to win.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
Final X Lincoln
Session One – Noon CT
- Women’s FS 59 kg – Alli Ragan* vs. Lauren Louive*
- Men’s GR 60 kg – Leslie Fuenffinger vs. Ildar Hafizov
- Women’s FS 55 kg – Jacarra Winchester vs. Dominique Parrish
- Men’s GR 72 kg – Raymond Bunker vs. Alex Mossing
- Men’s GR 63 kg – Ryan Mango vs. Xavier Johnson
- Men’s GR 97 kg – G’Angelo Hancock vs. Lucas Sheridan
Session Two – 6 p.m. CT
- Women’s FS 62 kg – Mallory Velte vs. Kayla Miracle*
- Women’s FS 53 kg – Sarah Hildebrandt vs. Katherine Shai
- Women’s FS 76 kg – Adeline Gray vs. Precious Bell
- Men’s GR 130 kg – Adam Coon vs. Cohlton Schultz
- Men’s FS 61 kg – Joe Colon* vs. Tyler Graff
- Men’s FS 97 kg – Kyle Snyder vs. Kyven Gadson*
- Men’s FS 70 kg – Ryan Deakin vs. James Green
- Men’s FS 57 kg – Daton Fix vs. Thomas Gilman*
- Men’s FS 74 kg – Jordan Burroughs vs. Isaiah Martinez
*Indicates wrestler with Iowa ties