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"Wrestling Saved My Life": The Story of NY's Top 99 Pounder, Brandon Nunez

By BV, 02/21/17, 3:30PM EST


EDITOR'S NOTE: Brandon Nunez won the Division 1 99 pound state championship to complete his career.  

This article was originally posted a few days prior to the state tournament. 

Courtesy of MarcAntoni Macias

Senior Brandon Nunez, the state’s top-ranked 99 pounder, began wrestling just a few years ago, as a freshman.  

But even in a relatively short period of time, the sport’s impact on him has been tremendous. In fact, Nunez has gone as far as to say that wrestling “literally saved my life.”

“Where I grew up, it’s really tough out here,” he said. “A lot of people I know are in jail,  some are dead. Some kids aren’t in school. It’s rough. I feel like a lot of times you become who you hang around with. Wrestling kept me from hanging around with the wrong people. I know my life could’ve been really different. I can’t blame anyone for what they do; everyone has their own life and makes their decisions. I’m just thankful for wrestling, because it kept me out of the wrong places.”

Why did he decide to compete at John Bowne High School as a ninth grader even though he didn’t have experience in the sport?

“I liked to do MMA when I was young and I liked watching UFC,” he said. “I wanted something to keep me focused.”

Nunez saw success right off the bat, placing fourth in New York City in his first year. But it wasn’t enough for him and he decided to get more involved.

“One day, I was in a mini-tournament at Beat the Streets and Coach MarcAntoni Macias started talking to me,” Nunez said. “He said he needed a lightweight for a tournament coming up and even though he didn’t really know me, he saw real potential in me. He said if I kept working, I could be great. Before that, I was just coming to Beat the Streets here and there. But him seeing that potential in me after just a few matches meant a lot. I started going to Beat the Streets more and more.”

Nunez improved rapidly, advancing to the New York high school state tournament as the PSAL champion at 99 pounds as a sophomore  and earning his first All-American honors that summer at Fargo after grabbing fourth place in Cadet Greco Roman in North Dakota.  

“Everything just starting clicking for me after Fargo,” he said. “I started to love the sport. Everything is a process and it took a long time to really know what I was capable of. Even though I placed in Greco, I didn’t place in Freestyle and I knew there was more I could do.”

He took more steps forward as a junior, going 30-2 in the regular season and returning to the Times Union Center. The PSAL competitor won his first two bouts in Albany before losing in the semis to eventual champion Greg Diakomihalis of Hilton.

“I sprained the MCL in my left knee unfortunately in the match [against Diakomihalis] and wasn’t able to wrestle back,” he said. “I was out for about two months but I didn’t have to do any surgery; just go through some physical therapy.”

So, after reaching the semis and forfeiting his last two bouts, Nunez earned his first state placement, taking sixth.

He returned to Fargo and excelled again, notching a double All-American performance in July of 2016 at the Junior level (third in Greco, fifth in Freestyle) at 100 pounds. After those achievements, Nunez entered his final high school campaign looking to climb the ladder in the state capital.

“For my last year, I wanted to make sure to wrestle hard in every match,” Nunez said. “My two main goals were to be an Eastern States champion and a state champion.”

The first objective has already been checked off the list as Nunez impressed on his way to the Eastern States title. On his path, he defeated a number of NYS qualifiers, including Terry Adams of Monsignor Farrell, Josiah Encarnacion of Wantagh, Ivan Garcia of Port Chester and Mason Bush of Central Valley Academy. Overall, during the 2016-17 season, he has compiled a 28-0 record with all but four victories by bonus points.

“I felt that I wrestled good at Eastern States,” he said. “I got better throughout the tournament. I wrestled through positions and didn’t get in my own head. It was important to make a statement there. My main goal going into that tournament was to put New York City wrestling on the map. People don’t look at us as a top section, but I wanted to make a name for the PSAL and New York City wrestling at that tournament.”  

He’ll have another opportunity to do that over the weekend at the state championships.  Adis Radoncic and Nate Rose captured NYS crowns in Division 2, but there has never been a state champ from the PSAL in the large school tournament.  That’s on Nunez’s mind … a lot.

“I think about that every day to be honest,” Nunez said. “I have the potential to be the first New York State champ from the PSAL in Division 1. I need to stay positive and stay humble. The state tournament is very unpredictable but I’m gonna definitely try my hardest to reach that goal.”

Wrestling is a big part of every day for Nunez, who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and commutes an hour and 20 minutes to John Bowne High, a journey that includes walking/running to bus stops and two different buses. He doesn’t return home until 10 p.m., following both high school and Beat the Streets practice.

With the departure of head coach Robert Tronolone, Nunez has taken on a new role on his John Bowne squad.

“When [Tronolone] left, we didn’t know who the coaches would be. Coaches [Peter] Mallo and Racinos came in and said they would take over even though they don’t have experience in wrestling,” he said. “They’ve done their best to learn the sport and I’m grateful because without them, I wouldn’t have a season. I mostly ran practice, having the team do what we’re doing at Beat the Streets.”

Nunez emphasized that he’s learned a tremendous amount at that program.

“I want to give a shout out to Beat the Streets for changing my life and helping me so much,” he said. “Especially MarcAntoni Macias. I thank him for everything. I grew up with only my mom raising me. I never knew my father, never had contact with him. [Macias] was definitely the father figure I needed in my life and never had. I’m really thankful for the coaches I have. I don’t know where I would be without them.”

In addition to Macias, Nunez mentioned some additional coaching influences.

“Coach Nick [Catana] from the NYAC helped a lot with my Greco Roman skills and so many other things,” he said. “We’ve had some really good talks. Last, but not least, there’s coach Penn Gottfried, who wrestled at Columbia. He always pushes me to my limits and beyond them. If I ever need help with something, he always wants to be there to help. He gives me great opportunities. All of those coaches - they don’t just help me with wrestling. They help me with life.”

And Nunez would like wrestling to continue to be part of his life.

“I’m thinking about going to Rhode Island College,” he said. “I talk to the coach there a lot. They’re a Division III program that’s having some good success at the NCAA tournament. I also want to be a physical therapist. I’m looking to fulfill that dream too.”

His next dream could come true at the Times Union Center on Saturday night.  

"I have the ability to do it and if it's meant to be, it will be," Nunez said of his state title aspirations.  

Whether that happens or not, there's no doubt that the mat is where Nunez was meant to be.