Iowa wrestler Tony Cassioppi is a leaner and meaner heavyweight this season. Here’s why.

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — The new Tony Cassioppi has muscles bursting through his sleeves. Makes it easy to notice the new tattoo, a black cross on his left forearm. It gets bigger when he flexes, and he does that more often nowadays.

The new Tony Cassioppi still smiles that same big, cheesy smile that makes Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands laugh. Last week, Brands looked at Cassioppi, who is headed overseas this week, and cracked a joke. 

“Are you guys going on vacation to the beach or something after you get back from Serbia?” Brands asked.

Cassioppi giggles, then starts laughing. His teammates all start laughing, too.

“You see that smile?” Brands continued. “He loves the mat.”

Iowa wrestler Tony Cassioppi will compete at the U23 men's freestyle world championships in Belgrade, Serbia this week.

The new Tony Cassioppi will be in action before the rest of the Iowa wrestling team this season. He and Myles Wilson are both competing for Team USA at the U23 men’s freestyle world championships this week in Belgrade, Serbia. Cassioppi is the rep at 125 kilograms (275 pounds) and Wilson is the rep at 86 kilos (189). 

Both Cassioppi and Wilson will wrestle on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 6 and, if they win, Sunday, Nov. 7. They’ll return in time for the top-ranked Hawkeyes’ season-opening home dual against No. 21 Princeton, set for Friday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m.

Their participation is intriguing, for a number of reasons.

For Wilson — who has a wonderful mullet nowadays (think Sam Brooks circa 2016) — it’s a chance to continue a seemingly rapid ascent. He wrestled just eight matches for the Hawkeyes from 2018-21, yet stormed to a world-team spot in May. He’s in the mix to start at 184 for Iowa this season, alongside Abe Assad and Nelson Brands.

“Very excited and ready to go,” Wilson said. “We’re going there to win the thing, so you have to be ready to go, then you come back to the season, already ready to rock and roll.”

It’s also a chance to see the new Tony Cassioppi in action.

The Illinois native looks like a brand-new man, a leaner, meaner heavyweight wrestler. He’s spent the last seven months meticulously tracking his diet, counting his macros and watching what he eats. It’s not that he ate a bunch of junk beforehand. He’s just monitoring it more closely. 

More:‘We need to win it again’: New motivations push Iowa wrestling team after NCAA championship

Cassioppi said he now consumes about 300 grams of protein per day, which is about the equivalent of 50 eggs per day. He’s a huge Chipotle guy, much to the chagrin of Iowa natives everywhere who love their Pancheros. His normal order is a bowl with white rice, pinto beans, chicken, cheese, lettuce and sour cream.

“I know the macros off the top of my head. It’s like 725 calories, 52 grams of protein, 65 grams of carbs, 29 grams of fat,” Cassioppi said, and surely there’s an NIL deal in the works here.

“I’m a math major,” Cassioppi continued, “so I like numbers, and I like having the ability to track that. Tracking it made me pay more attention to what I’m putting into my body. Like maybe I ate more carbs at times when I didn’t need it before.”

The result looks like a ripped-and-chiseled heavyweight wrestler. Cassioppi said he walks around at 250 pounds after sitting closer to 270 over the past two seasons. He basically shed most, if not all, of his baby fat. He feels quicker on the mat, and stronger in certain wrestling positions, too.

“My strength is the same, if not stronger, than it’s ever been,” Cassioppi said. “I think I’m faster, and I can put myself in positions where my strength can really shine even more. Maybe I’m half-a-step quicker to a position and that gives me a lot more leverage so I feel a lot more stronger in that position.”

“I’m just continuously working to improve my wrestling in any way I can,” he continued, “and I thought maybe leaning out a little bit and getting a little quicker would help my wrestling.”

That’s the key point here — "continuously working to improve my wrestling" — because that comment reveals Cassioppi’s intent behind his body transformation.

Iowa heavyweight Tony Cassioppi took third at the 2021 NCAA Championships. He enters the 2021-22 season ranked No. 3 nationally by InterMat.

Last season, Cassioppi took third at the NCAA Championships, scoring 16.5 team points for an Iowa team that scored 129 points and won the 24th national team title in program history. But he finished behind both Minnesota’s Gable Steveson and Michigan’s Mason Parris.

Steveson won Olympic gold this past summer, and Parris is a past Junior world champ. Cassioppi is sick of looking up at both of them. He is 33-6 over the last two seasons. Against Steveson and Parris, he’s a combined 0-6 (two losses to Parris, four to Steveson). Against everybody else, he’s 33-0 with 20 bonus-point wins.

When you’re seemingly that far ahead of everybody else but still trailing two of the best in the world, you find whatever edge you can to not only close the gap on the top two, but stay ahead of the rest as well. For Cassioppi, that meant paying closer attention to his diet and shedding a few pounds to get a little stronger and move a little quicker.

“Any time you think you know everything and you close your mind to wisdom and getting better every day, you're setting yourself up and you're violating excellency,” Brands added, “because an open mind, open ears, open eyes is important to getting better, no matter what you do. You’ve got to have an open mind.

“If you're not a predator in this sport all the time — if you're not hungry for more and you're complacent, it's probably time to take your shoes off at center mat and kiss the mat goodbye. We try to win a national title every year.”

The U23 world championships will be the first opportunity to see how this experiment works. The early returns look promising. Cassioppi took second at the Senior national championships in May, then beat two age-level world medalists, Lehigh’s Jordan Wood and Northwestern’s Lucas Davison, to make the U23 world team later that month.

The competition doesn’t slow down once he returns, either. Iowa will compete at the Collegiate Wrestling Duals on Dec. 20-21, and a bunch of top-tier heavyweights are expected to attend. Then comes the Big Ten slate, which features nine of the top-25 heavyweight wrestlers in the country according to InterMat’s preseason rankings.

So Cassioppi will be tested plenty between this week and March. Iowa also hosts No. 10 Minnesota on Jan. 7, so he’ll get his shot at Steveson after the New Year. He may not see Parris until the Big Ten Championships in March, but his progression toward closing the gap on those two will be a storyline worth monitoring in the months ahead.

Because this season may feature a new Tony Cassioppi, but his goals remain the same. He’s ready to stop talking about his lean and mean physique, and let his wrestling speak for him.

“I feel really good. Best I’ve ever been. Stronger, faster, better than ever,” he said. “But I’m not the defending national champ, and my goal is the same as it’s always been — to be the national champ.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.