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Naples' Michael Monaco, bottom, tries to get out from under Bitburg's Devon Gardner during the 130-pound finals of the 2004 DODDS European Wrestling Championships in Wiesbaden, Germany. Monaco, who won the title, is looking for another crown, this time at 140 pounds.

Naples' Michael Monaco, bottom, tries to get out from under Bitburg's Devon Gardner during the 130-pound finals of the 2004 DODDS European Wrestling Championships in Wiesbaden, Germany. Monaco, who won the title, is looking for another crown, this time at 140 pounds. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S file photo)

Mike Monaco can feel the pressure building.

As a defending European wrestling champion, the 140-pounder from Naples High School in Italy knows that winning a crown will be tougher the second time around.

The first step to that crown is at this week’s sectionals at Aviano, followed by the European championships Feb. 18-19 in Wiesbaden.

“There’s a lot more pressure on me as a defending champion,” Monaco said by telephone on Monday as he tuned up for Saturday’s sectional qualifying tournament.

“I have to prove I was worthy of winning a European title.”

Monaco, who was the best in Europe last year at 130, has a simple plan to handle the pressure: become a better wrestler.

To that end, he’s been wrestling post-match exhibitions this season against Vicenza’s Gary King, who was fifth in Europe last season with a 21-2 record at 140 pounds.

“This year, we’ve stopped avoiding competition,” Monaco said.

“We’re trying to improve by wrestling the toughest matches we can.”

In Italy, that means Monaco vs. King.

“They’ve wrestled exhibition matches after our meets this season, just to make themselves better wrestlers for Europeans,” Naples coach Jim Hall said.

King is wrestling at 145 this season, but the weight difference doesn’t factor into the equation.

“The two kids have watched each other a lot,” Hall said.

“Both are good technical wrestlers. They’ve wrestled three times this season. Mike won the first 8-0 and lost the second 8-7. Last week, Mike won 2-1 in double-overtime.”

Monaco said he welcomed the bouts, even though many times he already had wrestled four matches during the meet. The post-match bouts are a break from wrestling the same opponents week after week, he said.

And he said the sharpness gained from wrestling King will serve him well at Europeans, where he’s likely to encounter an old foe, former European champ Devon Gardner of Bitburg.

Monaco wrestled Gardner for the first time and defeated him 6-4 in last year’s title match, denying Gardner a second straight title.

“He’s very technical,” Monaco said. “He has one of the best shoots [for takedowns] in Europe. He used it on me in the final.”

Monaco and Gardner are unbeaten so far this season, but Gardner will not be Monaco’s only challenger at 140. Ramstein’s Jose Figueroa, who came a point shy of denying Patch ace Josh Anderson his fourth straight European title last year, is at 140 this season, as is Heidelberg’s Andrew Hoffman.

Whomever he faces, Monaco — who began working out with the Naples varsity as a seventh-grader — plans to wrestle his match.

“I like to counter,” he said, “but sometimes I choose to take the initiative. I like to score early.”

Early scoring is Monaco’s greatest strength as a wrestler, Hall said.

“He’s very tough to get off his feet,” Hall said.

“He’s tough to get on the mat, and if you do get him there, he won’t be there very long. He’ll feel where you are and counter.”

Pressure aside, Monaco is eager to return to Europeans, where he holds plaques for a sixth-place finish as a freshman and a third-place outcome as a sophomore. And he welcomes the chance to collect a second championship medal.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said.


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