Standout Clarion wrestler Fleming truly a work of art
As a young wrestler, James Fleming would attack his opponent's leg and refuse to let go. Such tenacity reminded his coach of a snapping turtle's powerful jaws, and Fleming was nicknamed “Snapper.” He was 8. It stuck.
Now a senior at Clarion, Fleming is ranked fourth nationally at 157 pounds — he placed fifth at last year's NCAA Division I Tournament and earned All-American honors. He has etched himself into the university's strong wrestling tradition, but he also has proven adept at taking pencil to paper.
Fleming is an artist. He draws and paints and designs tattoos for friends and has earned money for it. He said he has “messed around” with poetry. He also is outspoken and impulsive. Last summer he jumped on his sport motorcycle and rode to Colorado, getting there in 26 hours, just because he felt like it. He uses words like “straightforward” and “cocky” to describe himself. He was shaped, in part, by some difficult teenage years during which he did not live at home.
“It wasn't real stable as far as, like, being somewhere,” he said.
“He's an interesting character,” said Teague Moore, who recruited Fleming out of West Mifflin High School and coached him for two years at Clarion before moving on to American University. “He's not your cookie-cutter wrestler, not your cookie-cutter athlete.”
And then there is the “snapper roll,” Fleming's signature move, highly effective and violent. And his very own. It started in high school, evolving into a powerful weapon that has produced complaints, controversy and many of his 121 collegiate wins, which rank 10th in school history.
The name derives from his nickname and not because he is trying to break off his adversary's head, even though it might look that way. After frequent and vehement resistance, coaches and officials gradually have come to accept the move. Rival fans unaccustomed to it still react harshly.
“We had some problems my freshman and sophomore year,” Fleming said. “They said I was choking people. The thing is, it's a one-of-a-kind move, and most people would think you'd be choking somebody.”
One coach was so convinced that he sprinted onto the mat when one of his wrestlers screamed in pain. Other coaches and officials “were literally all over (Fleming),” said Moore, who lobbied the NCAA for the move, sending a video to prove its legality.
“Officials would come into the prematch meeting and say, ‘Look, I know what this guy does. I'm gonna call it,' I'd say, ‘What are you gonna call? The way he locks it up is legal.' Just because it's extremely painful, there's nothing in the rulebook that says it's illegal.”
The move, which can slightly deprive an opponent of oxygen, has several variations. In the base move, Fleming locks his hands across the opponent's jaw line with his left thumb by the right ear and his right shoulder covering the left ear. The head is turned sideways, and “I'm torquing his head underneath him,” Fleming said. “The pressure on the jaw and on the neck is what inclines people to go over.”
Meaning on their back. Where they get pinned.
“It's tight and uncomfortable, but it's under constant pressure, more than like a hard snap or anything,” he said.
Fleming does not hide the move's effectiveness and how it inflicts what is known as “legal pain.”
“The good thing about my move is that a guy won't want to go out on the mat and wrestle me again,” he said matter-of-factly. “I stay in people's heads. I want them to know that the next time they wrestle me again, it's gonna suck. I make that part of my goal. People don't like that.”
Clarion coach Troy Letters said, “There are a lot of guys that are afraid to wrestle him. James can sense that. And when he does, it's lights out. He's like a lion that way.”
Among the unafraid is Fleming's teammate and wrestling partner, Mikey Pavasko, who has felt the wrath of the move more than anyone. He said he is “extremely fortunate” for the privilege.
“He's a great leader,” said Pavasko, a sophomore from Munhall. “He shows me what I'm doing wrong, and he wants to build me up as a better partner.”
But it hurts, right?
“You can't even put it into words,” Pavasko said. “Yeah, it's painful.”
Using tactics, familiarity with the move and his considerable skills, Northwestern's Jason Welch is 3-0 against Fleming, beating him twice in the NCAA Tournament. The first time, Fleming said, the referee called the move illegal but not before he made an impression. “My neck was killing me for like a week afterward,” Welch said.
The two have developed a mutual respect and friendship. They even hung out together after last year's NCAAs. Welch is ranked No. 1, and another meeting in the tournament is possible. “I'd love to see that,” Welch said.
Amateur wrestling is tough, demanding and often violent. Yet even in that context, “You rarely get kids this aggressive,” said Moore, a former North Allegheny High School star and NCAA champion. “When we brought him into Clarion, the first thing we said was, ‘Don't change your style at all.' We wanted to tweak some things, but my thought was, ‘If he wrestles with this tenacity in college, he's gonna go far.' ”
But there is another side of Fleming. His art presents a marked contrast to his aggression. Before heading to a recent practice, he showed some of his work in the small apartment he shares with Kayla Hayden, his high school sweetheart from West Mifflin, along with a pair of lizards — a bearded dragon named Wyatt (as in Earp) and an unnamed baby leopard gecko.
A large acrylic painting of flowers with an “Alice in Wonderland” motif was especially striking. His specialty is portraits. Fleming has sketched Sidney Crosby and other famous people but mainly family and friends. He pointed to a large, flat-screen TV in his living room and proudly noted it was paid for by selling sketch portraits to high school classmates. “I had a whole pay scale going,” he said.
When he had more of his art displayed, “People would come into the house, and it would never go through their minds that I did them,” he said. “They go, ‘Man, where'd you buy this?' I said, ‘That was me.'
“Like most athletes, I have my cocky side and I believe in everything I do, and I have this swagger about myself,” he said. “And I'm pretty hyperactive. Most people don't think I'd have the patience or skill to draw or paint for hours.”
Fleming said he mainly taught himself. He said he flunked art as a high school senior because he liked neither being told what to draw nor his teacher.
“He's unbelievable,” said Letters, a former standout at Shaler. “I can't believe he's that good.”
“I really think once he comes into his own professionally, he's gonna tap into that,” Moore said.
But Fleming said his art “is more like a hobby, more like a relaxing thing.” His immediate objective is winning an NCAA championship. Beyond that, he would like to try mixed martial arts and eventually use his degree in sports management.
The ultimate goal is “a house, a family,” he said. “Be comfortable and have stability.”
Much of Fleming's youth was devoid of that. His parents divorced when he was 15. He lived with neither, choosing to stay with relatives and friends, including Kayla.
“They invested a lot of time and money in my wrestling,” he said of his parents. “They gave me my values and principles when I was younger.”
The divorce, he said, was a “rough time” for all involved. “They couldn't give me the stable environment I needed,” he said, avoiding specifics. He also acknowledged he might have handled things better. “I was young,” he said. “I was immature.”
Fleming said his relationship with his parents has improved, adding that anger no longer fuels him as it once did. “I have no grudges against anyone,” he said.
Before every match, Letters tells Fleming to just go out and have fun.
“It's like a freedom, almost,” Fleming said of wrestling. “I try to keep the anger part out of it.”