Feb. 7, 2011
By Larry Watts
The chances of his opponent appearing in a Spiderman costume are nil. So Tyler Graff can safely say he has no fear once he steps on a wrestling mat.
"I hate those things," Wisconsin's redshirt sophomore says of his fear of spiders. "I just don't like the way they crawl around. But I would have to say, if I saw one on the mat, I would have to smash it."
Since he first took up the sport as a 7-year-old, this 5-foot-4 Loveland, Colo. native has had a habit of smashing things on the mat. In addition to winning a number of youth national tournaments, he compiled a 162-1 record, including 101 pins, and won four state titles while in high school. His lone loss, a 3-2 decision, came as a freshman in a dual meet.
"My dad wanted me to get involved in a sport and I remember him taking me inside a wrestling room," Graff says. "It was just something I liked from the first day I started."
At the age of 12, he brushed aside other sports and dedicated himself to wrestling. That's when he won his first youth national title.
"I started winning and as soon as I had the taste of success, I wanted to keep going," he says. "Winning and dominating is one of the greatest feelings I can think of. And to think, I was learning to do it at a young age."
Before coming to Wisconsin, the 133-pounder placed second at the 2007 Junior Pan-American Games in Venezuela and also competed twice in the Junior Worlds (2007 in China and 2008 in Turkey).
His path to Wisconsin was assisted by former Badger Tom Clum, who he trained with at the Mile High Wrestling Club in Brighton, Colo. Clum, who also wrestled at 133 pounds, was a two-time Big Ten champion and All-American while competing for the Badgers through 2006. As a high school wrestler in Colorado, Clum won three state titles and posted a 148-1 record with the lone loss coming in the state championship of his senior year.
"Tommy started telling me how there were a lot of similarities between me and (Wisconsin head coach) Barry Davis," Graff says. "He thought it would be a good idea for me to visit Wisconsin. I had visited other schools, but once I came to Wisconsin, it was a done deal. It was a good situation for me as far as coaching and training to reach my goals of where I want to be."
While wrestling at Iowa, Davis set records for career (162) and season (46) wins. A four-time Big Ten champion, he won three NCAA titles and earned All-America status four times. Davis did take one year off at Iowa to follow a path to the silver medal in the 1984 Olympics.
According to Graff, the similarities he noticed he had with Davis were "a huge passion for wrestling, high energy, the motivation to always do more and the pursuit of dominance, because winning is not enough."
Through a mutual decision with his coach, Graff wrestled unattached during his true freshman season in Madison. He posted an 18-2 record, losing decisions to fifth-ranked Nick Fanthorpe of Iowa State and second-ranked Jayson Ness of Minnesota. He won tournament titles at Stevens Point and Northern Iowa before ending his year with the championship at the Dan Gable Open.
"It was in my mind to wrestle unattached because I want to develop as much as possible," he says. "I am glad I did it and don't regret anything because my ultimate goal is to win NCAA and Olympic titles."
Graff posted a 31-9 mark and reached a national ranking of No. 5 in his debut for the Badgers last season. The highlight of his season was the title at the Midlands Championships, where he posted a 5-0 record.
He wound up fourth at the Big Ten Championships, losing to eventual champion Ness and two-time 133-pound champ Franklin Gomez. Two weeks later, he would again drop decisions to both Ness and Gonzalez while taking fifth at the NAA Championships and earning All-America status.
"I'd be lying if I told you I was happy with fifth," Graff says. "I was not satisfied; I really wanted to win that thing, but I didn't do what I was supposed to do. I learned a lot from that and the World Team Trials."
Competing at 60 kilograms, Graff took seventh with a 3-2 record at the ASICS U.S. Open and then headed to World Team Trials, where he was hoping to land a berth in the World Championships in Russia. However, he wound up a disappointing fifth out of 11 contenders.
"I came up short on the things I wanted last year, but I am growing and learning," he says. "I am better from doing it.
"I want to wrestle in the 2012 Olympics and in the World Championships. Those goals are right in front of me and I just have to do it.
"What last year taught me is winning isn't enough for me now," he adds. "Winning used to be enough and I would just have to try and hold on in tight matches, but that thought process had a tendency to bite me in the rear end near the end of some matches. I just want to let the cards fall now and dominate."
Intermat ranks Graff No. 3 nationally at 133 as of its latest ratings, but he says he never pays attention to any of the rankings.
"In my mind, I am the top guy at any weight whenever I step on the mat," he says. "If I get told there's a match and someone is out there in front of me, I'm the No. 1 guy and I'm going to show them why. I believe it's necessary to have to have that attitude in order to get where I want to be."
Graff is thinking about a major in sociology at Wisconsin, but his main focus is to keep wrestling "as long as my body holds up."
"Thinking down the road, I think I would like to be a coach or own a wrestling or training facility," he says. "I want to be involved in this for the rest of my life."