Justus Griffith, who graduated from DPHS in 2013, took the top spot in the nation at 133-pounds at NCWA Nationals in Texas last month.
Justus Griffith wanted another shot at Darius Bunch.
Griffith, a Dr. Phillips alum and a wrestler for the club team at UCF, had been defeated by Bunch by decision in back in February at the NCWA Southeast Conference Championships.
It was a match Griffith, 21, thought he had won, and he wanted a second go at it.
And as luck would have it, that opportunity came on an even bigger stage — at NCWA Nationals last month in Allen, Texas.
“(The loss to Bunch) definitely was a fuel for the fire the last two weeks of the season,” said Griffith, a junior. “I knew if I were to make it to the finals (at Nationals), it would be against him.”
Griffith made the most of that opportunity, scoring a victory by a 2-1 decision. It did more than just avenge an earlier defeat, though — it made him a national champion.
“After I got my hand raised, it was euphoric,” Griffith said. “I feel like that match was bigger than myself — I feel like I got over the hurdle, just to show everybody that it’s doable.”
The victory was a milestone in a journey that started back in 2009 at Dr. Phillips High, when Griffith was a freshman and a friend encouraged him to come out for the wrestling team.
That first year, Griffith won just twice, but instead of being deterred, he was hooked.
“I came in, got beat up a bunch, and I fell in love with the grind,” Griffith said.
Griffith went to work, getting stronger and working at the craft, and when he came back as a sophomore for the 2010-11 season, the results were tangible. Griffith went 40-12 as a sophomore, a season he recalls fondly.
Expectations went up for Griffith as a junior, but an injury got in the way. As a senior he recalls being his own worst enemy, struggling with the mental aspects of the sport.
“I was fighting an uphill battle against my head,” Griffith recalled.
Despite not making it to state during his varsity career, Griffith showed enough skill and potential to earn a scholarship to Cumberland University. It was a rewarding experience, but after one year, he was ready to come back to the City Beautiful, where the hometown university just happened to have a club wrestling team.
“Going away for school was great — it definitely gave me a different outlook on the sport,” Griffith said. “But, definitely, being able to compete in my hometown is a luxury that I don’t take for granted.”
The program at UCF is no ordinary club team, either. Run out of the USA Wrestling Southeast Training Center in Oviedo, the Knights are coached by JD Robbins — a legend in the wrestling community with decades of experience at levels from the Olympics down to working with youth.
“If you didn’t know UCF was a club team, you would think it was a Division I sport,” Griffith said.
It is something Robbins, who also runs the ultra-competitive Florida Jets Club Wrestling team out of the facility, takes pride in.
“I’m an Olympic coach for the U.S. Greco-Roman team, and I run my practices (at UCF) with the same intensity,” Robbins said. “We go to Division I tournaments, Division II tournaments … we don’t show up in an airplane — we drive in a minivan — but we show up and compete the same as a Division I program.”
When Griffith arrived at UCF, Robbins recalled meeting a young man with a lot of potential.
“He’s improved his work ethic,” Robbins said. “He’s very consistent now, and he understands what he’s got to do — he’s sacrificed a lot more this year than he has in the past.”
Griffith, who works on the weekends at the same Publix in Dr. Phillips that he has worked at since he was a freshman in high school, is also a budding entrepreneur. In addition to his studies, he is working on creating a “smart” nightstand that he will market to luxury hotels.
“It’s easy to stay motivated. I don’t want to take anything away from myself for winning a national title, but there’s guys in there (at the facility) training to get on an Olympic team."
— Justus Griffith
In what little free time he has, he has also started coaching youth wrestlers at the facility in Oviedo.
“I like working with kids and getting them through the tough spots,” Griffith said. “I like when they get that ‘aha!’ moment in their eye.”
With a year left of eligibility, the former Panther is not done yet, either. In June, he will travel to Ohio to compete at the UWW Cadet & University Nationals for a spot on the World team.
National champion though he may be, he’s not satisfied.
“It’s easy to stay motivated,” Griffith said. “I don’t want to take anything away from myself for winning a national title, but there’s guys in there (at the facility) training to get on an Olympic team. … I’m just using it as a milestone and hopefully through the summer I can … work my way up the ladder.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at firstname.lastname@example.org.