Losing to a giant
undersized. Other opponents in the weight-class would have nearly 100 pounds on him.
Khalil McFadden, one of four Banneker Blake heavyweights entered into the tournament alongside Dakuwuan, wasn’t so confident. He had seen the size of the other kids in the weight class. They were big and tall and strong. He announced to the team that if he had to wrestle the opponent the boys had nicknamed “the giant” — who weighed in at nearly 280 pounds — he would lie down and let himself be pinned.
Coleman, overhearing this talk, feared such a defeatist attitude would poison the team. “Technique beats strength,” he interjected.
Finally, the first whistle in a ref’s mouth blew, and then it felt like all the whistles were blowing. The matches were coming fast, and Coleman and Vazquez began running around the gym trying to keep up with their 10 athletes, some of whom were wrestling at the same time.
To observe a youth wrestling tournament in Baltimore is to watch pandemonium. Wrestling is a sport that eventually instills a stoic mindset in its adherents. But few are born that way.
So, upon their first experiences on a wrestling mat, the good children of Baltimore will cry, throw fits and generally act out. Especially after a loss. The decibels in the gym rose as the first round began.
McKim had entered a squad in the tournament this year, and there was little doubt they would field the top team.
Baltimore Collegiate formed a circle on an open mat, beating the ground in unison, looking serious and revved up.
First up for Banneker Blake was little Elijah, who at 75 pounds was the smallest kid on the team. He shot in aggressively against his opponent from McKim, but he was outmatched, and pinned quickly. The McKim side cheered loudly. Elijah got up with tears in his eyes. Michael tried to comfort him, but Elijah pushed him away and stormed off.
Later, Elijah would say that what really upset him was a lack of support. As he wrestled, all he’d been able to hear were the shouts for his opponent. He noticed that some of his teammates had stayed in the stands during his match. “It was hard,” he said, “because nobody was here to cheer me on.”
Then it was Michael’s turn to cry. He’d been gaining weight rapidly and could no longer make his 95-pound weight class. He would have to wrestle at 100 pounds and was scared of facing kids that size. Pinned by a boy from Cherry Hill, he walked over to a corner of the gym alone, tears running down his face.
He had been one of the first kids to join the wrestling team at Banneker Blake, and he was demoralized. His hard work never seemed to pay off. After two years, he was still winless.
Other Banneker wrestlers lost too, but then the tide started to turn. Collin Lomax, who was emerging as a leader on the team, won a match, and Azziz Grooms, a lightweight who liked to post rap videos online, pinned his opponent from Morrell Park. Sadeeq took the mat against a kid from Waverly whom he pinned in just 37 seconds. The boy reacted angrily, yelling uncontrollably. His coach picked him up, put him over his shoulder like a baby, and carried him off. “I don’t want to wrestle no more!” the boy shouted. “Get off of me!”
As the first round neared its close, spectators gathered around the mat closest to the door for a marquee matchup. Dakuwuan, undefeated at lighter weight classes, had drawn the “giant” the boys had feared at weigh-ins.
Dakuwuan remained confident.
The whistle blew and the two boys began hand-fighting. Coleman sat on his knees, little Patrick in his lap, yelling instructions. Vazquez paced back and forth. From the outset it was clear that Dakuwuan was the better wrestler. In a fair world, that should be worth something. He quickly scored two takedowns. The giant was big, but Dakuwuan was smooth. He moved his feet well; he had superior balance and agility.
“Hands up! Hands up! Snap him down!” the coaches shouted as Dakuwuan piled up points. “Get behind him!”
As the match wore on, it grew more chaotic. Dakuwuan, on top, tried to rock his huge opponent onto his back. He got sloppy with the move, and the giant boy from McHenry ended up on top of Dakuwuan, the 100-pound weight difference plain for all to see. Flat on his back, Dakuwuan fought hard, but he was too small.
The ref slapped the mat. Dakuwuan’s dream of becoming the 2018 city champion had died. He got up slowly, looking bewildered. He shook his opponent’s large hand, then patted his rival on the shoulder, as if to acknowledge he had been beaten by a better man. Then he walked around the mat aimlessly for a moment, not knowing what to do next.
A shift, and some hope
As the tournament marched on, five Banneker Blake wrestlers advanced to the championship finals: Azziz, Sadeeq, Rosano Harris, Antoine and Collin. Azziz, Rosano and Collin lost close matches to tough opponents.
At 85 pounds, Sadeeq trailed his opponent, from Baltimore Collegiate, late in the match. But he rallied in the final seconds to win 10-7. He ran over and leaped into Vazquez’s arms. Together, they jumped up and down in celebration.
After two seasons, eighth-grader Michael Rawls wins his first match. It took him a minute to realize he had won. Then he ran around the mat, hugging the referee, coaches and others. He never gave up.