‘This is what I live for’: Richard Figueroa defies odds, wins ASU’s first NCAA individual wrestling championship since 2019

Arizona State’s Richard Figueroa won his school’s first individual national championship in five years when he defeated No. 3 Drake Ayala recently. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

PHOENIX – If there is one thing that can be said about Richard Figueroa, it’s that he really hates to fail.

“Losing, even if I lost in high school, it would just get to me,” Figueroa said. “I’m a winner, and losing just doesn’t comprehend with me. I just can’t do it.”

Figueroa doesn’t lose often. And he didn’t at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Kansas City, where he entered as the No. 8 seed but emerged as the 10th NCAA champ in Arizona State wrestling history.

It was a successful finish to what began as a frustrating season for Figueroa. He lost four of his first eight matches to begin the 2023-24 wrestling season, but the losing wasn’t the only thing eating at him.

The loss of his best friend Jacob “Pee-Wee” Rivera in a vehicle crash in 2021 deeply affected Figueroa, and he was still processing his grief early in the season. It compounded his struggles on the mat to the point that Figueroa considered quitting wrestling altogether.

He found reassurance after talking to his mom, who made sure Figueroa knew that quitting was not the answer.

“We’re not quitters,” Frances Barocio, Figueroa’s mother, told him. “If you quit now, you will regret for the rest of your life and you will be a quitter for the rest of (your) life, and is that how you want to end your legacy?”

Figueroa, a redshirt sophomore who competed at 125 pounds this season, has known winning his whole life, only losing two matches during his entire high school career en route to three California state championships.

Figueroa came out of Selma High School ranked as the No. 1 pound-for-pound wrestler in the class of 2021 by one wrestling publication, and the No. 2 ranked recruit overall by another.

His sister, Gracie, was also a very accomplished wrestler, winning four California high school championships and going undefeated over that span. She also won a WCWA College Women’s National Championship for Menlo College in California before a knee injury derailed her career.

Winning wasn’t just something Richard Figueroa desired; he expected it. So the losses weighed on him, and the loss of his friend added to the mental toll.

Barocio knew he needed help, and encouraged Figueroa to see a sports psychologist at ASU. She informed ASU wrestling coach Zeke Jones about her son’s struggles with grief and losing.

Figueroa’s mother said the counseling had an immediate impact on his mental health.

“Night and day, night and day,” Barocio said. “I think even if an athlete is doing good, they should be talking to somebody once a week. That should be mandatory.”

After receiving counseling and support from his fellow Sun Devil wrestlers and Jones, Figueroa began rattling off wins. He was named Pac-12 Wrestler of the Week for the week of Feb. 26 after going 3-1 and beating the No. 2 and No. 5 ranked wrestlers in the nation. Feeling like he got his “mojo back”’ Figueroa was fully confident he was healthy and ready to dominate his upcoming matches.

Despite being a longshot, Figueroa entered the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments brimming with confidence.

“It doesn’t matter what rank they are,” Figueroa said on Feb. 26. “None of these guys scare me. They should be worried that I’m coming for them.”

Going into the Pac-12 Wrestling Championship, Figueroa was ranked No. 3 in the 125-pound class, but prevailed in the tournament, beating No. 1 ranked Brandon Kaylor of Oregon State.

Heading into the NCAA Wrestling Championship, Figueroa wasn’t daunted by the task at hand, having won 10 straight matches going in. In fact, like he had done most of his wrestling career, he expected to win.

“Once I got to Nationals, felt the arena and walked around it, I was like ‘Oh, this is easy money,’” Figueroa said. “This is what I live for.”

Figueroa entered the NCAA Championships seeded below athletes from wrestling powerhouses like Penn State and Iowa. Barocio knew that for Figueroa to come out on top, he would need to stick to his game plan and not leave anything up to chance. Or officiating.

“I said ‘You cannot leave it up to the refs because of the status of Penn State and Iowa,’” Barocio told Figueroa. “Don’t leave it up to that, do what you’ve got to do.”

After beating No. 25 Ethan Berginc of Army, No. 9 Patrick McKee of Minnesota, shocking No. 1 Braeden Davis of Penn State and then beating No. 12 Anthony Noto of Lock Haven University, Figueroa faced No. 3 Drake Ayala of Iowa in the final.

It was a chance to avenge a 5-3 decision Figueroa lost to Ayala at the 2020 Who’s #1, a national high school tournament.

The match was evenly fought through the first period, with neither wrestler scoring. In the second period, Figueroa took command, taking a 1-0 lead on an escape that Ayala conceded. Then he scored three points on a takedown just before time expired. A lengthy review and coach’s challenge confirmed the takedown and gave Figueroa a 4-0 lead.

During the final period, Figueroa sought to maintain his lead, but he knew Ayala wasn’t going to give up and would be on the attack. Figueroa was ready to do the same.

“I’m up 4-0, I’m chilling, but I knew he was going to come hard,” Figueroa said. “I wanted to score. I wanted to show people I’m not a staller.”

In the closing seconds of the match, Ayala attempted a takedown of Figueroa with both wrestlers going to the mat and locking each other’s legs, Figueroa essentially in a full split.

But Figueroa knew he had an advantage. He had been told by coaches since he was young that if he wanted to be the best in the world, he had to be flexible. It led Figueroa to work on his flexibility by stretching every day and doing gymnastics.

After scrambling for several seconds with Ayala, Figueroa gained the leverage he needed to get on top of Ayala, scoring another three points to take a 7-1 lead and lock up his victory. When Figueroa realized he was going to win, he shared a special moment with his mom and family.

“Once I came up on top, I looked at my parents, smiled, and knew I had it locked in, “ he said. “It was a great feeling.”

ASU placed sixth overall at the championship, and Figueroa became the first ASU wrestler since 2019 to win an individual wrestling championship. Despite the odds, Jones had no doubt Figueroa could do it.

“Richie got it done and we all believed he could do it,” Jones said. “He knew it, we knew it.”

After winning it all, Figueroa is only hungry for more, with lofty goals such as winning an Olympic gold medal.

He knows he has to remain humble and keep working to reach those goals because, after all, he can’t comprehend losing.

“There’s someone out there right now that’s training to beat me,” Figueroa said. “Just focusing on my game, becoming more better on my feet, I mean everyone can improve more.”

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Braeden Steele expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in communication studies.