How fundamental wrestling has helped Iowa heavyweight Tony Cassioppi become a national star
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It's probably fair to say that most of the announced 14,905 that packed Carver-Hawkeye Arena last week for the Iowa wrestling team’s thrilling win over Penn State have seen some form of wrestling before.
But the first 80 seconds of the final match, between Iowa’s Tony Cassioppi and Penn State’s Seth Nevills? Probably fair to say many wrestling fans, period, haven’t seen anything quite like that from a couple of heavyweights.
With his left arm in an inside tie and his right hand with hand-control, Cassioppi swooped inward and grabbed Nevills’ left leg. Nevills brought Cassioppi down to the mat, then swung backward and ended up with Cassioppi’s left leg before lifting it into the air.
Cassioppi immediately fought Nevills’ hands and evaded four different finish attempts. He ultimately used a whizzer and bumped Nevills to his right hip and score a takedown himself, sending those clad in black and gold into a frenzy.
“He had me a little worried,” said Michael Kemerer, Iowa’s starting 174-pounder, “but I guess I shouldn’t have been.”
That takedown resulted in the first two points of an eventual 7-0 decision over Nevills, clinching the top-ranked Hawkeyes’ 19-17 comeback victory over No. 2 Penn State. Given the magnitude of the moment, it could be argued as Cassioppi’s biggest win to date.
Iowa’s star redshirt freshman will get a chance at bigger wins over the next couple of weeks. This Saturday, the Hawkeyes (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) wrestle No. 17 Michigan (6-3, 5-1) at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. The following week, Iowa hosts No. 5 Minnesota back at Carver.
That means back-to-back matchups against the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked heavyweights for Cassioppi, who’s ranked third nationally by Trackwrestling. Michigan’s second-ranked Mason Parris is up first this week, followed by Minnesota’s top-ranked Gable Steveson the week after.
“They’re good tests before the postseason and Big Tens,” Cassioppi said. “They keep me motivated.”
Cassioppi is now 15-0 this season after last weekend. He’s scored bonus points in nearly half — five pins and two major decisions — and has beaten seven other wrestlers currently ranked in Trackwrestling’s latest poll. He’s recorded more total wins than total match points allowed (14). He’s yielded just two takedowns all season.
Those are eye-popping stats, even from a wrestler that’s made it publicly known that he wants Iowa’s all-time pin record. But the biggest key in his development, Iowa coach Tom Brands says, has been Cassioppi’s emphasis on fundamentals.
“Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals,” Brands said this week. “He’s wrestling well. He has to keep wrestling well.”
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Cassioppi’s natural athleticism has helped separate him from other top heavyweights. He grew up playing many sports, but focused on football, wrestling and boxing in high school. He tried golf and basketball, too, but didn’t stick with either for very long.
“I got in trouble for fouling a lot,” he said and smiled.
He actually credits boxing for helping with his wrestling. Cassioppi was pretty good, too, finishing first at the Ringside World Championships in both 2013 and 2014. His dad’s great uncle was Sammy Mandell, a world-champion boxer from 1926-30.
“Footwork and foot speed,” Cassioppi says. “There was a lot of jump-roping and running in boxing. Probably helped my hand-fighting, too. But wrestling was my favorite sport, because it was the one I had the most control over.”
More opportunities for success on the mat piqued his interest. The two-time Illinois state champion and Junior Triple Crown winner is proving as much this season. That scramble against Nevills was just the latest example.
“Put the weight on the leg, or at least tried to. That leg was straight,” Brands recalls. “Then he got a whizzer in, and the whizzer was there. There was no rolling, draping, looking for a bunny rabbit right there” — at this point, Brands took off his hat and pantomimed pulling out a rabbit.
“It was fundamental,” Brands continued. “He’s very good when he’s fundamentally sound.”
Could Cassioppi have won that scramble last season?
“Probably not, no,” Cassioppi answered. “It still would’ve been a good scramble, but I don’t know if I would’ve come out on top.”
He tends to think big when he emphasizes the importance of fundamentals.
“Fundamentals have been the big focus,” Cassioppi continued. “I got pinned at (the U23 men’s freestyle national championships) because I was draping over the top. Even in the biggest matches, that’s when fundamentals are the most important.
“Look at the world championships. I saw a stat that 40 percent of shots that score are single legs. Another 30 percent are double legs, then there’s front headlocks, too. That’s fundamental, basic positions we learn when we’re 10 years old, and they work at the highest levels.”
Cassioppi will need his best fundamentals against both Parris and Steveson. The former won a Junior world title last summer. The later is a three-time age-level world champion who placed third at the 2019 NCAA Championships as a true freshman.
These could be the first of many meetings, as both Parris and Steveson are sophomores. With the influx of younger, talented heavyweights, Cassioppi craves every opportunity to solidly his standing near the top of the national polls — and to show off in front of large wrestling crowds.
“He just goes out there and takes care of business,” Kemerer said. “It’s his first year in the lineup, and he’s really enjoying it. He’s just going out there and letting it fly. He’s a fun guy to watch, for sure, especially as a heavyweight.
“Some people leave during the heavyweight match because they don’t like watching it. With him, I think everybody is staying. I kind of knew it would be that way.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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No. 1 Iowa (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 17 Michigan (6-3, 5-1)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan
WATCH: Big Ten Network