Maestro of the Mat

Wrestler Jesse Jantzen '04 is the nation's top 149-pounder

Last December, at the Cliff Keen Invitational wrestling tournament in Las Vegas, something unusual happened: Jesse Jantzen '04 lost a bout. In the semifinals, Alex Tirapelle of the University of Illinois took an 11-4 decision to give Jantzen his only loss of the tournament, and, at this writing, of the season. Perhaps it was some consolation that Tirapelle is the nation's top college wrestler in his weight class. Another factor: that class is 157 pounds, and Jantzen wrestles at 149: the Harvard captain was wrestling "up." At that early tournament, Jantzen hadn't yet reached his fighting weight, and "I just wanted to get in some good competition," he says. (Wrestling weight classes peg athletes' maximum weights at 125, 133, 141, 149, 157, 165, 174, 184, and 197 pounds, plus an unlimited "heavyweight" class.)

As teammates practice in the background, wrestling captain Jesse Jantzen stands atop the wrestling mat.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Opponents at 149 pounds have had a hard time giving Jantzen much competition at all, at least as measured by won-lost records. "He's had his hand raised a lot in his career," says head wrestling coach Jay Weiss, referring to the referee's convention of holding the winner's hand aloft. As a sophomore and a junior, Jantzen was an all-American, going 37-3 and 39-2 respectively; in both seasons, his only losses came against the national champion and runner-up. His third-place finishes at the 2002 and 2003 NCAAs were the best showings by a Crimson wrestler in the half-century since John H. Lee Jr. '53 finished third in 1953. (Lee later coached wrestling at Harvard from 1956 until 1986, and was head coach from 1968.) This year, Jantzen is ranked as the nation's number-one 149-pounder.

Thus, he could become the first Harvard grappler in 66 years to win a title at the NCAA tournament this March. The Crimson's only previous national champion is John Harkness '38, M.Arch. '41, who won at 175 pounds in 1938. An architect who lives in the Boston area, Harkness was undefeated in dual meets as an undergraduate. He has watched Jantzen compete both at Harvard and the NCAAs, and calls him a "very good wrestler."

Indeed. Jantzen became good with solid coaching, a fierce dedication to his training regime, and by wrestling competitively 12 months a year, which he has done since starting high school. Many college grapplers train year-round, but far fewer do what Jantzen does; after the college season ends, he wrestles "freestyle" from April through August. (Along with Greco-Roman, freestyle is one of the two wrestling events in the Olympic Games. Greco-Roman rules prohibit touching an opponent's legs. Freestyle is closer to standard collegiate wrestling, but with slightly shorter bouts and rules that make it much easier to score points, and give greater advantage to the "top" wrestler in the par terre, or referee's, position.)

Another Jantzen edge is the chance to practice against top-flight competitors like assistant wrestling coach Jared Frayer, a former all-American and bona fide Olympic aspirant, and volunteer coach Dustin DeNunzio '99, who placed fourth at the NCAAs in 1999. "He's so explosive," says Frayer. "Jesse's the strongest guy in his weight class, bar none — I don't see anyone holding him down."

"I have an aggressive style," Jantzen says. "I work hard and am in good condition, and I do very well from the top position." He wins an unusually high proportion of his bouts via pins; last year, for example, 18 of his 39 victories (46 percent) came by pinning an opponent. "His stuff on top — you can't defend against it," says Weiss. "You can't look at film and figure out how to counter it." In one especially effective move, the "crab ride," he controls his opponent using both legs, both hips, and both arms, instead of arms alone — "He's like an octopus on you — you can't move," says Weiss. "And once you feel him doing it, it's too late." Frayer chooses a different animal metaphor: "He's just suffocating, like a boa constrictor — the more you try to get out, the tighter it gets."

Father Don Jantzen wrestled in high school and at C.W. Post before becoming a county police officer and coaching the wrestling team at Shoreham Wading River High School on Long Island. There, he coached his son, who passed a state-mandated physical-maturity test so he could wrestle high-school athletes as a seventh grader. "I enjoyed it — Dad had coached me ever since I began," Jantzen says. "He was always in my corner during matches. Like the rest of the family [Jantzen's mother Deborah, is a daycare provider; he has three sisters and a brother], he was never overbearing — if I lost, he was never hard on me."

As it turns out, that proposition was rarely tested. Beginning the sport in a youth wrestling club at age 6 has paid dividends: as a seventh- and eighth-grade wrestler, Jantzen compiled a 71-3 record and twice finished third in the state tournament. Then he went undefeated throughout high school, becoming the first four-time state champion in New York history. He was twice national champion and had an overall high-school record of 150-0. Harvard was Jantzen's only choice, one partly influenced by family friend Andrew McNerney '83, an all-American wrestler who placed fourth at the NCAA tournament.

Jantzen, a sociology concentrator, has been a sensation at Harvard, where he has wrestled at 149 pounds all four years and captained the team for two years. Even as a freshman he qualified for the NCAA tournament by finishing second at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) tournament, where he lost to an eventual NCAA finalist. He was also Ivy League Rookie of the Year and First Team all-Ivy. In his sophomore year the EIWA tournament named him Most Outstanding Wrestler after he pinned his final two opponents en route to the title. Currently, his top Ivy League rival is Cornell sophomore Dustin Manotti, ranked third in the nation.

There are some remaining goals — big ones. One is to lead the Crimson to a successful season; while some injuries have hurt the squad this year, there is ample talent, including standouts like sophomore Max Meltzer, who is nationally ranked in the top 15 at 141 pounds. Another is winning the national title at the NCAAs this March. A third is to coach wrestling and attend business school. And last, to compete at the Worlds and the Olympic Games in freestyle. "That's been a goal ever since I was 6 years old, watching the Olympics in 1988," Jantzen says. That was the year he started wrestling, and right now, nothing and no one can stop him.

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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