‘I plan on never losing again’: Paniro Johnson’s goals now in sight


Daniel Jacobi II

Iowa State’s Paniro Johnson takes down California Baptist’s Chaz Hallmark during the match on Saturday Nov. 12, 2022.

Anthony Hanson, Sports Reporter

AMES – Paniro Johnson started his college wrestling career with a win over the No. 2 wrestler in his weight class.

It was a statement win at the time, but it wasn’t a part of the bigger picture for Iowa State’s 149-pound freshman. Johnson earned the Big 12 Wrestler of the Week award after that win, but he had his sights set much higher.

“Beating [Wisconsin’s Austin Gomez] was not on my goal sheet,” Johnson said after his college wrestling debut. “My goal sheet is to be the best in the country.”

Johnson’s high expectations came one step closer to reality Sunday night when the Erie, Pennsylvania, native defeated No. 1 Brock Mauller to win the Big 12 Championship at 149 pounds. He became the first Cyclone to win a conference championship at the 149-pound weight class after his 8-4 win in the finals.

Still, Johnson’s mind was back on his goal sheet. He still wants to be the best in the country.

“I characterize it as: it’s not done,” Johnson said on Sunday night’s ESPNU broadcast of the Big 12 Championship session. “I plan on winning an NCAA title. I plan on never losing again.”

“Two more weeks I’ll be right back at it on the big stage again.”

Confidence has been a theme for Iowa State head coach Kevin Dresser as the 2023 season nears its end. Multiple wrestlers, including heavyweight Sam Schuyler, have taken a step up because of confidence in the season’s final months.

“Confidence is the most dangerous weapon in sports,” Dresser said Wednesday, just before the Big 12 Championships.

For Johnson, confidence is something that has always been there, and it’s a trait shared with all great wrestlers according to Dresser.

On the mat, Johnson has been able to back it up with wins but not before a difficult offseason where he learned what it takes to be a college wrestler. This year, Johnson finished with a 17-4 record in the regular season. One of his losses came to Mauller, who Johnson rematched with a win in the Big 12 Championship finals Sunday.

Mauller pinned Johnson during the pair’s first meeting. Sunday, Johnson added a final takedown and nearly forced a pin in his 8-4 win.

Johnson himself always expected success, but to achieve what he has this season, Johnson had to embrace the work behind the scenes.

Johnson was a four-time state medalist in Pennsylvania. He then gray-shirted in 2021-22, beating three NCAA qualifiers as a member of the Cyclone Regional Training Center. He also competed in and placed second at the U20 men’s freestyle championships.

Still, Johnson found himself hitting a wall in practice after officially joining the Cyclones during the off-season. The Cyclone training staff discovered Johnson had sickle cell anemia which was slowing him down in practice. The Cyclones fine-tuned his diet and nutrition and then fully unlocked his potential to train.

Johnson elevated his conditioning to a higher level, a trait he has demonstrated by winning matches late in the third period and in sudden victory. 

“I’m in the best shape ever,” Johnson said after his finals performance Sunday. “I used to have a problem. I used to get tired. Now every single match I’m in overtime.”

“I knew I was the better guy.”

Johnson’s journey to an NCAA Championship and a fulfilled goal sheet is not without a viable field of competitors. In the final rankings of the regular season, Johnson was No. 10. Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis is the three-time defending champion in the weight class and will be the No. 1 seed.

The entire field, including Gomez, who Johnson defeated to start his career, is chasing the senior from Cornell. Johnson lost 3-1 to Diakomihalis in sudden victory when Iowa State and Cornell faced each other in a dual earlier this season. No wrestler in the weight class has been closer to defeating Diakomihalis since.

Also in the field will be familiar wrestlers for Johnson. The Iowa State freshman lost to Arizona State’s Kyle Parco this season, who became the Pac-12 Champion earlier this week. 

However, Johnson defeated Iowa’s Max Murin in December. Murin was third in the Big Ten Conference behind Gomez from Wisconsin and Sammy Sasso from Ohio State.