The name Zain Retherford and the word “underdog” don’t go together very often.
The Pennsylvania product ended his collegiate wrestling career at Penn State in 2018 with a record of 126-3, and as one of the most dominant athletes the sport had ever seen, owning a 94-bout winning streak and 53 pins.
Yet on Saturday night at Final X Rutgers, most people were picking the other guy.
That proved to be a mistake. Retherford cut through the noise Saturday and clinched an upset over Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis — who wrapped up his sophomore season in March with his second national title — by beating him two bouts to none to earn a spot on the U.S. world team. He’ll next compete Sept. 14-22 at the World Wrestling Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The win, however, was not without controversy,
as a challenge by Retherford’s corner in the final seconds of the second bout got two points subtracted from Diakomihalis, and handed Retherford the 6-6 win on criteria — a call Diakomihalis’ team is trying to get overturned.
Controversy aside, Retherford’s win came after an incredible streak by Diakomihalis that made him seem unstoppable. After shocking most of the wrestling world by taking out a former national team member in Jordan Oliver, former Olympian in Frank Molinaro and former world team member in Retherford in his senior-level debut at the U.S. Open in April, Diakomihalis went on to defeat world’s then-No. 1 -ranked wrestler at 65 kilograms in India’s Bajrang Punia at Beat the Streets in May.
But Retherford, who had already taken out one opponent who had previously bested him in Oliver just to get to this match, had a different plan for this time around — to let loose.
“Yianni wrestles a very interesting style and it’s very unpredictable,” Retherford told reporters ahead of the match. “That benefits him, obviously. But I think the fact that it is unpredictable, I’ve just got to keep my effort high. I’d wrestle more strategic than I normally would in a match. I’m just looking forward to letting it fly and not worrying about the unpredictability.”
When the first bout of the best-of-three series began Saturday, Retherford did just that, getting in on a shot right away. It was Diakomihalis, however, who came away with the two points.
But the “Zain Train” didn’t stop rolling. He got in on another shot, and this time picked up two points for himself, then another, and another — eventually winning the first bout 10-4. Between the two wrestlers, there was scarcely a moment without action.
“I don’t really have a game plan other than compete hard and have fun and keep circling my feet, keep shooting,” Retherford said. “The more chances you take, the more opportunities you’re gonna get to score and Yianni’s a great opponent and shooting on his legs is dangerous. But I know I’ve got to take that risk or else I’m not gonna beat him. My thought was to just keep going.”
Retherford carried that same mindset into the second bout, shooting in on a double as soon as the whistle blew to start the match. That shot ended in an exchange that tied the match 4-4 just 10 seconds in. The pair continued pushing the pace, as the crowd sat on the edge of their seats, unsure in whose favor any given exchange would end.
Although the match ended 8-6 in Diakomihalis’ favor, the challenge brick thrown by Penn State coach Cael Sanderson reversed two points scored earlier by Diakomihalis and resulted in victory on criteria for Retherford.
Clearly unhappy with the call, Diakomihalis also threw a brick, but the decision was upheld.
Following the match, Cornell coach and State College native Rob Koll signaled that Diakomihalis’ camp would be filing an official protest and petitioning for a third match.
Retherford, however, believes he’s the rightful victor.
“I had a hold of the leg and it’s whatever the refs wanna call at that point,” he told reporters after the match. “I know I put myself in the best spot if I’m rolling to keep hold of the leg and that’s what I did, so obviously it made sense to throw the cube and that was the right call.”
If the result stands, this will be the second time Retherford has made a senior-level world team. The last time was in 2017, before he largely took the next year off from competition — a decision he said he made to refocus and get himself excited again about competition.
“Especially in 2018, my mind was on the (NCAA) team race, even though you try not to let it happen,” he said. “Ohio State had a great team. I had made the World Team the year previously and it just felt like a lot of wrestling and I was like ‘wow.’ After I won the national title that year, I felt relief. I didn’t feel good about winning.”
However, Retherford has steadily gotten himself back into the competition circuit. He fell 13-11 to Oliver at the inaugural American Wrestling League event in December, narrowly lost to Russia’s Gadzhimurad Rashidov at the Ivan Yariguin Grand Prix in January, then went undefeated at the World Cup in March before the U.S. Open in April. Falling 6-4 to Diakomihlais in the open finals, Retherford had to make his way through world Team Trials in Raleigh a month later to set up the rematch.
To do that, Retherford had to beat former coach and training partner Molinaro and Oliver. Having not previously beaten Oliver, Retherford had again found himself associated with that word — “underdog.” But this time, the former Nittany Lion solved the former Cowboy in two matches.
Training now full-time at the Lorenzo Wrestling complex in Rec Hall with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, Retherford says it’s like he never left Penn State.
“I’m just grateful that I still get to train there. I see the Penn State logo everywhere and I pretty much live in Rec Hall,” he said. “I’m grateful for that and that I don’t have to go to class or anything.
“It’s just awesome that I get to do this for a living.”