On the Mat with Derek Papagianopoulos
Derek Papagianopoulos is not your typical heavyweight wrestler. He bounces around the mat with a quickness and motor that few wrestlers possess at his weight class. While he lacks some of the size and girth of the normal heavyweight, he balances it with his speed and technique, which leads to a much more exciting style than what the standard heavyweight matches produce. After suffering an injury the second week of the season, The Burlington, Mass., native returned to action last week after a two-month absence and racked up a pair of wins – both by major decision – against Duke and North Carolina. He leads the No. 22 Cavaliers into a big match with undefeated and 13th-ranked Maryland at 1 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Gymnasium. Papagianopoulos is the focus in the latest installment of On the Mat.
What was it like getting back on the mat last week?
Papagianopoulos: I was really excited of course. I was ready to go. I got so anxious and nervous; there were all these different feelings going through my head. I didn’t think about the injury at all because I knew I was ready. Mentally, I was so anxious, but it worked out for the best and now we have to keep rolling.
Were you happy with your performance?
Papagianopoulos: In some parts I wrestled well and other parts where I usually wrestle well I didn’t do as hot. There’s always room for improvement and that sounds cliché, but it’s true in wrestling. My hands weren’t moving as fast as I wanted to, but my shots were working. Against the bigger guys I have to move my hands a little more to set up the shots, but the actual shot felt good and that’s an easy adjustment I’ll work on this week.
What was rehab like for you?
Papagianopoulos: At first I didn’t think of it as a bad injury. In my head I’m thinking right away ‘I’ll be back, it’s just a little tweak.’ Then I started doing these little exercises and it was really tedious, but the trainers did an unbelievable job. I knew it was the right thing to do. At times it felt great and at other times it was a little sore, but the trainers did a great job in getting me back.
What was the moment of your injury like?
Papagianopoulos: I felt something and I knew it wasn’t right. It was surreal and I wondered if it was really happening. Then I met with doctors and they told me what had happened. I knew I had a little road ahead of me, but you just have to beat it.
Do you think you could be fresher at the end of the year because of the time off?
Papagianopoulos: In general, but not on our team, a lot of guys have been known to burn out by the end of the season and kind of wish for the end of the season. My middle of the season would be what their end of the season would be so I’ll be fresh. Hopefully I keep rolling and feel good.
Why did you choose to attend UVa?
Papagianopoulos: Why wouldn’t I? Getting recruited, I was being pulled by different schools and different sports — I was going to play football also. The coaches would call and I was really confused. You hear all the good stuff about the places and some bad stuff, so my parents helped me out a lot with it. My family and I made a pros and cons chart. It sounds really stupid, but it helped a lot with organizing everything. You come back from a school and think ‘oh I want to go there.’ Coach Garland and Coach Clemsen brought straight honesty, and that’s what I love. They said ‘here’s the deal, this is what’s going to happening, this is the school, take it or leave it,’ and I could not turn down this place.
You also were an all-state football player at running back and linebacker. Was it a tough choice to pick wrestling over football?
Papagianopoulos: During wrestling season you want to be a wrestler and in football season you want to be a football player. Our football team was really good in high school and my coach told me to do whatever I want. Once I came here I committed two days later. My parents knew too that this was my place and nothing has been wrong since.
Did you receive a lot of offers to play football?
Papagianopoulos: I got a few Division I offers. You want to play football in front of a huge crowd, you get all the gear, this and that. When it came down to it though I knew UVa was the place I wanted to be, I wanted to wrestle for the University of Virginia with these coaches and teammates.
If you were three to four inches taller would you still be wrestling (he stands 5-foot-11)?
Papagianopoulos: I think I would. More schools would have offered for football and it would have been even harder to say no to top-10 programs, but now that I know UVa Wrestling I would choose it over anything.
Talk about your style of wrestling.
Papagianopoulos: The heavyweights are usually 6-3, 285-pound big monsters, but usually those guys can’t move too well. So I’m trying to move my feet, move my hands as fast as possible, and get these big guys off balance because that’s when I take my shot. Rather than blast a 260-pound guy, you have to get him off balance. I like to use my speed and Coach Clemsen always says to use my explosion, my quick twitch muscles.
How does football correlate to wrestling?
Papagianopoulos: A lot of things like your hips, explosion, and hand fighting are similar, but football doesn’t help you with wrestling. Wrestling helps you with football a lot more; wrestling helps you with anything. Nothing compares to wrestling mentally. You could have a great practice and then Coach says ‘get on the line we are doing sprints.’ You push yourself, that’s what I’m still working on. There are so many improvements I have to make; it’s little things that make a huge difference.
What is something about you most people wouldn’t know?
Papagianopoulos: All the guys say I can’t take anything too seriously. I’m very light-hearted. I take the matches seriously, but once they are over I flip a switch. Not that I’m joking around, but I’m upbeat and happy. Once the match starts I kind of become a different person. I zone in during competition and training, but outside of wrestling I’m really laid back. I feel like I’m always smiling.
How often do people actually say your name right?
Papagianopoulos: Not too much, but everyone is getting better. It’s easy – read the syllables and we are good to go.
Food: Steak and Cheese
Spot on Grounds: The steps at Old Cabell
Wrestling moment: Coming back last weekend
Class: Psychology of Personality
Music: Rap, Hip-Hop, Techno
Artist: Moufy, Star Gang Affiliate
Professional Sports Team: Boston Celtics
Movie: Happy Gilmore
TV Show: Prison Break