Penn State Wrestling’s Bo Nickal Doesn’t Care About Winning. He Just Does It A Lot
Ohio State’s Myles Martin likely did the wrestler’s equivalent of cracking open a beer for a toast with his fellow 184-pounders when Penn State wrestling announced Bo Nickal was moving up to 197 lbs. for his senior season.
For two years, Nickal terrorized the 184 lb. weight class, winning two national titles and 57 matches, while losing only once. Nickal is 16-2 against opponents who are currently ranked by InterMat at 184 lbs. Thirty-three of those 57 wins came by way of pin fall. And he enters this season on a 38-match winning streak.
Although Martin is the only wrestler to have beaten Nickal at 184 lbs., the Buckeye was one of his most frequent victims. Nickal is 7-2 against Martin with two pins and two major decisions. The two met twice in the NCAA Finals, with Martin upsetting Nickal in 2016 and Nickal avenging the loss last year with the most memorable win of his career.
Penn State needed Nickal to win against Martin to hold off Ohio State in the team race after a wild, back-and-forth weekend between the two foes. In the first period, Martin took Nickal down and put him on his back, a position foreign to the Nittany Lion. Yet, moments away from being pinned for the first time in his college career and squandering a national title, Nickal calmly flashed a move he claims he’s been doing since he was six. In a matter of seconds and with one fluid motion that appeared scripted, Nickal reversed Martin, put him on his back, and clinched the team title for Penn State.
No matter how many times you watch the clip, you still believe Nickal is going to lose and can feel yourself holding in “Oh, shit!” when, out of nowhere, he tosses Martin across his body and onto the mat.
It was the type of move that you hope for out of desperation but know is far too improbable to realistically expect. Yet, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, considering it was Nickal, after all — the same way you feel a strange sense of confidence anytime Aaron Rodgers chucks up a hail mary pass as time expires.
That win was probably the most fitting way for Nickal to go out against Martin. In their ninth meeting, Nickal beat Martin for the third consecutive time after losing to him in the 2017 Big Ten Championships semifinals. The win effectively defeated any argument that the Buckeye may have had his number.
Although Nickal moved up to 197 lbs. as a way to prepare himself for freestyle wrestling after college, the symbolism of him moving on to bigger (literally) and better things at 197 lbs. after that win is too perfect.
He’s undertaking a new challenge this season by entering and preparing to conquer a new weight class that values a slightly different style of wrestling. Although Nickal said the transition to 197 lbs. wasn’t difficult, considering his normal weight is already around 200 lbs., the new weight class will still take some adapting. However, Nickal is more than up for the challenge. The uncharted waters excite him.
“I like being able to compete against new guys and wrestle some new faces,” Nickal said. “When you wrestle the same guys all the time, it gets old. They kind of just try to hold you off, so I’m excited to have some new competition.”
His first taste of “new competition” will be the perfect start for someone so eager to be challenged. He begins his season with a tough matchup with the No. 2 wrestler in his weight class: Kent State’s Kyle Conel, who stormed onto the scene during the NCAA Championships last March, upsetting top-seeded Kollin Moore of Ohio State twice and taking third place.
Whether it’s Conel, Moore, or whoever else emerges at 197 lbs. this year, Nickal has the skill set not just to win, but to put on a show every time he takes the mat. And his teammates, who all know a thing or two about putting on shows every they time they take the mat, believe it.
“He’s the man. Everybody knows he’s the man,” 174-pounder Mark Hall said. “He can go at any weight, I believe, and do some damage and win.”
“He adapted to the weight. Now he’s bigger and thicker,” said Shakur Rasheed, who switched places in Penn State’s lineup with Nickal by moving from 197 lbs. to 184 lbs. “He still has that speed and agility that he had at 184. You’re looking at a guy who’s going to run through the competition.”
As impressive as Nickal’s statistics are — from his winning streak to the program career pin record he and close friend Jason Nolf are simultaneously chasing to his run of dominance over the nation’s best 184-pounders — they seem to mean nothing to him. Neither do the lofty expectations he’s brought onto himself. At least his nonchalant, too-cool-for-school demeanor will lead you to believe that.
“You can let the pressure either get to you in a negative way or a positive way,” he said. “I want that pressure. If I come in and work as hard as I can every day than it doesn’t make sense to do something easy. I want a challenge. I want it to be enjoyable.”
Even when he talks about moving up a weight class, Nickal exudes both a love and an appreciation for the activity of being a wrestler. At Penn State wrestling’s preseason media day this week, he said, “It was fun getting to lift a lot this summer.”
Nickal is an artist on the mat. Executed with fluid grace and born out of hours of trial and error in the wrestling room, every “secret move” is a symphony — a display of both his creative genius and divinely endowed physical ability.
ESPN’s Quint Kessenich’s interview with Nickal after his latest virtuoso performance against Martin in last year’s finals was the Allen, Texas native in a nutshell. The first words out of Nickal’s mouth were about the move and how long he’s been using it — not the outcome of the bout or the fact that he had just won a national title.
“I don’t really care too much about winning and losing, and accolades so much,” he said. “I just want people to have felt excitement and some joy of being able to watch me compete. I just like to wrestle in an exciting style and keep people on the edge of their seats a little bit. I think that kind of style is more important, rather than any accomplishments I’ve made the last four years.”
Apparently, when you’re this good, national titles are just collateral damage.
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