Kizhan Clarke isn’t afraid to wrestle the top guys in his weight class. The 149-pounder from Gibsonton, Fla. has made that clear over recent weeks.
“I love it,” Clarke said. “When I face the toughest guys it’s just time for me to have no worries, it’s time for me to prove myself and prove to the world who I am. That’s my whole mindset when I’m wrestling the top guys.”
A redshirt junior for American University, Clarke is 30-3 on the season. He has the most wins of any ranked wrestler in his weight class, but he still finds himself behind guys from powerhouses like Iowa, Oklahoma State and Missouri when it comes to the rankings.
Polls don’t matter when it comes time to step on the mat, though, and Clarke has proved that. In a match against North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor recently, Clarke took the No. 2 wrestler in the country to overtime before ultimately losing 5-3. Despite the loss, he saw that as progress on his way to the top.
“If I can keep stepping up on that ladder a couple more steps, I could beat him,” Clarke said. “I was there with him. I’m there with a top-two guy. I feel great about that.”
At the Midlands Championships last month, Clarke placed fifth in a crowded field that included multiple top-10 wrestlers. He picked up wins over two ranked wrestlers at the tournament, including No. 10 Kanen Storr of Michigan. The tournament is one of the toughest in-season competitions due to the amount of quality competitors, but Clarke says it’s not exactly a preview of the NCAA Championships.
“I think it’s more of a stepping stone. It’s a place where you kind of see where your weaknesses fall and where you need to work on,” he said, adding that his losses against Iowa wrestlers showed him some of his own weaknesses. “So I’ve just got to keep it going, keep it going. That’s all I see it as is just a stepping stone. I plan on seeing those guys at nationals.”
One of Clarke’s best performances this season was in early November at the AU Round Robin. American hosted VMI and Maryland in a round-robin style tournament at Bender Arena. Clarke went 5-0 on the day, picking up two tech falls on his way to a perfect outing.
After the event, Clarke outlined his three biggest goals for the season: making it to the NCAA Championships, winning a national title and going undefeated on the year. With his three losses, the latter is now out of reach, but he’s set on accomplishing the other two goals.
“I feel like it’s still attainable,” Clarke said about making it to the NCAA Tournament in March. “Making nationals is a small goal but it’s a goal I haven’t achieved yet, so that’s definitely still a big goal in my mind.”
He came close to achieving that goal last season. Wrestling at 157 pounds a year ago, he had to place in the top six at the EIWA Championships, but a 10-7 loss in the consolation bracket sent him to the seventh-place match.
This year he’s the highest-ranked EIWA wrestler at 149 pounds, and the season he’s having certainly seems like it would end with an NCAA bid at the very least. Clarke is so set on making it to the tournament, that he has a wager going with his coach.
“I have a bet with my coach that if I make it to Nationals I’m cutting all my hair off,” he said So I look forward to that. I’ve been growing this thing out for like two years now. So I’m looking forward to just cutting it all off and going to nationals.”
While a trip to the NCAA Championships would be his first, he’s not willing to settle for just making an appearance. He wants to take the title.
“National champ is definitely still a big target,” he said. “That’s my ultimate goal whenever I step in the room, whenever I’m in workouts, whenever I’m at home planning what to eat. That’s always the first thing on my mind. First thing on my mind is a national championship.”
Once he gets to the NCAA Championships, he’ll be used to the tournament format. American competed in six tournaments during the first half of the season, four of which Clarke won. He took first place at the Battle at the Citadel, AU Round Robin, Navy Classic and Patriot Open this season. His first setback came at the Midlands Championships, but even a fifth-place finish at that event is impressive.
Despite his success at tournaments this year, Clarke prefers wrestling in a dual meet environment.
“Man, I love duals. I love duals more than anything,” he said. “It’s just one match, you have your whole team there to support you, you’ve got all these people here just to cheer you on and it’s a great feeling.”
He pointed out the contrast between duals and tournaments, saying that he likes the energy he gets from everyone in the arena focusing on one match, whereas in a tournament, there can be eight matches going on at once with everyone focused on something different.
That’s a good attitude to have with the remaining dates on American’s schedule. The Eagles travel to Bethlehem, Pa. this Friday for a match against Lehigh before taking on Columbia on Sunday.
“Their crowd is ridiculous,” Clarke said of Lehigh’s fans, before finishing his thought with a little bit of fire. “And I’m ready to piss them off a little bit.”
Other notable duals left for AU include hosting Navy and travelling to George Mason.
Then there’s the big one. The Eagles end the season on the road in State College taking on Penn State. But, as you can probably guess, Clarke isn’t fazed. He’s looking forward to going into a hostile environment and making the home fans upset at the end of the night.
“I’m ready for those duals,” he said. “Top guys, like I said, I love wrestling the top guys. That’s what I’m there for. So I love wrestling those duals, specifically.”
Matthew Atkins, Journalist and Baseball fan.