Photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
The 2017 World Championships in Paris, France, closed an incredible week of competition with an electrifying final day. Russia and the United States entered the second day of men’s freestyle competition separated by just two points with Team USA hunting their first team title in this discipline since 1995. United World Wrestling billed the expected 97 kg final between Kyle Snyder (USA) and Abdulrashid Sadulaev (RUS), who had five world-level gold medals over the last three years between them, as the match of the century and it was difficult to find any argument with that. The US, after three medals on Friday, had a chance to rewrite their own record books. They weren’t perfect, but they produced one of the most memorable days in the history of American wrestling on the international stage. In the only final that did not involve an American on day six, Zurabi Iakobishvili (GEO) turned his first world medal into gold by taking down Magomedmur Gadzhiev (POL), 4-1.
Zain Retherford, 65 kg
The World Championship debutante from Penn State drew former Edinboro wrestler and current European bronze medalist David Habat (SLO) for his opening bout, bringing a little bit of Pennsylvania to Paris. Retherford was on the attack early but had to work for both his takedowns in the first period. Habat, trailing 4-0, started to look for points more in the second, but it was Retherford who found them, tossing Habat for four off of a counter attack, then spinning behind his opponent to finish the 10-0 tech. Next up was former Russian Adam Batirov. The 2009 Yarygin champ who was fifth in his only trip to the World Championships back in 2011 now competes for Bahrain. Now 32, he may be a bit past his peak, but he is still a dangerous foe with plenty of tricks up his sleeve. An early scramble saw Batirov roll Retherford through for exposure points before coming out on top. Despite a close call both ways after that, Zain trailed 2-0 at the break. Retherford opened the second with a solid takedown and put the legs in. However, Batirov countered gracefully for a reversal that gave him back the advantage, 3-2. The scrambles continued with Retherford bowling Batirov over as he countered a shot, but just missing a score. As the clock ticked under a minute remaining, Retherford needed something, but it was Batirov who found a fireman’s to build his advantage to three points, 5-2. Even that nearly wasn’t enough as Zain got one takedown and finished a second just after time had run out. The hopeful challenge by the US was denied and Batirov got the victory, 6-4. The veteran looked spent by the end of the match and wasn’t expected to be a medalist here anyway so it was no surprise when he bowed out to Alan Gogaev (RUS) in the quarter-finals, eliminating Retherford.
James Green, 70 kg
Green entered this tournament a bit under the radar with his college career having ended in 2015, the same year he won a world bronze medal. Those paying close attention, though, knew what Green was capable of, starting the day as the top seed in addition to being one of the three most likely wrestlers to claim the title. One of the other wrestlers many saw as a potential champion, Mostafa Hosseinkhani (IRI) defeated Green earlier this year and lurked as a potential semi-final opponent. Green also began the day with a former NCAA wrestler, Nestor Taffur, then of Boston University, now representing Colombia. Taffur was involved in some wild, high-scoring matches as a Terrier such as his 18-11 scrap with Alex Dieringer in the 2014 NCAA quarterfinals, but Green wasn’t interested in any of that. A smooth, methodical start to the day saw the former Nebraska Cornhusker advance, 8-0. Green’s quarter-final was much closer, but the American built a 3-0 lead on Zurabi Erbotsonashvili (GEO) and then held on after giving up a takedown with 55 seconds remaining to win 3-2.
The last time Green wrestled in the world semi-finals, in 2015, he was defeated by Hassan Yazdanicharati (IRI) who won the 86 kg title yesterday after winning at 74 kg in Rio. This time around, the opponent would be Yuhi Fujinami (JPN), a Junior world medalist in 2015 and 2016, who announced himself to the world by tearing through his first two opponents, then upset the Iranian, 7-6. It was easy to see why Fujinama was having so much success as he and Green were constantly on the move. Though neither scored a lot, this was an encounter balanced on a knife’s edge with points always seeming to be about to come. The Japanese man ran through a shot for a takedown to open, but Green scored a pair of his own off of flurries. When the American managed to escape a quadpod position by catching his opponent’s arm and getting back to his feet, he took that 4-2 lead into the break. In the second, there were several more lightning quick exchanges, but no one scored until a very late step-out for Japan. That flurry was challenged as time was nearly out and one point wasn’t enough. When the challenge was denied, Green was on to the finals, 5-3.
Waiting for Green would be a man who had been a world champion before. Frank Chamizo (ITA) should be familiar to US fans by now, having won his 2015 gold in Las Vegas, narrowly defeated Frank Molinaro for bronze last summer in Rio, and thrilling the crowd as he took out Jordan Oliver at Beat the Streets earlier this year. Green has become a master of controlling his opponent, shutting off any avenues to points, and picking his own spots to score in big matches. However, there was no shutting down Chamizo on this day. Despite leaving his feet and briefly levitating on Green’s back during an early scramble, Chamizo yielded nothing and when they put him on the clock, he calmly snagged a leg for the opening takedown. When Green did pull the trigger he had trouble finding the Italian by way of Cuba, missing completely at one point as Chamizo hopped over him. When Frank decided he wanted to score more, he did, running off three more takedowns to claim another gold medal. Green earned the silver medal, one spot better than his first time on the podium two years ago.
Jordan Burroughs, 74 kg
The four-time world-level gold medalist entered a yearly championship without a medal from the year before for the first time since his first World Championships in 2011 after his disappointment in Rio. Though his only loss since was to Kyle Dake in a thrilling best of three series at the trials, no one was sure whether the man who been nearly invincible for so long could return to the top of the podium. For much of Saturday’s early session, that question remained unanswered. Burroughs road was a particularly difficult one and his opener against two-time world bronze medalist Ali Shabanov (BLR) set the tone with Burroughs falling behind 5-2 in the first before rallying for a 7-5 win. Jordan would trail in each of his four matches on his way to the final, but each time found a way to win. Another win over world silver medalist Sohsuke Takatani (JPN), who Burroughs defeated at Beat the Streets this year, and a handling of Zelimkhan Khadijev (FRA), a dangerous wrestler buoyed by the home crowd, came by way of technical superiority despite early deficits.
The semi-final provided an intriguing story line as Bekzod Abdurakhmanov (UZB) would be the foe. Abdurakhmanov wrestled for Clarion, won a world bronze medal in 2014, and was the man who ended Burroughs’ tournament in Rio when they met in the repechage. Bekzod’s results are up and down, but when he is on, he is among the world’s best. This was one of the best versions we’ve seen of him, entering the match having outscored his opposition 31-0. Keeping a low stance and picking his spots opportunistically, Abdurakhmanov earned the only takedown of the opening period among several step-outs to lead 3-2 at the break. If Burroughs fell behind further, Bekzod looked well capable of protecting a lead. The next score was vital and Jordan claimed it with a double leg that led to another step-out. The American still trailed on criteria with all his scores being of the one point variety, but an ankle pick off a flurry made that irrelevant. After another step-out, Burroughs led, 6-3, giving him enough margin to absorb a late caution and two for fleeing. The final was 6-5 as Burroughs made his fifth world-level final.
With Team USA clinging to a one point lead over Russia in the team race, Burroughs and Khetik Tsabolov (RUS), the 2014 world champion at 70 kg, met for the title. For the fifth consecutive match, Burroughs fell behind as the Russian opened the scoring with a takedown 25 seconds in. There would be plenty more action to come. The counter attacks from both men were deadly, yet that didn’t stop either from taking risks. Burroughs blasted through a double to tie the score, only to fight to stay in bounds a little too hard and give up another takedown to Tsabolov. Jordan nearly took a significant lead just before the end of the first, fighting through the Russian’s quadpod defense to score a lace on the edge. The sequence was initially ruled a takedown and an exposure, but the Russian’s challenged saying the takedown had not been secured before the exposure, which would be just two points. Because of the point awarded for a failed challenge, this was either going to be a 7-4 lead for the US or 4-4. In the end, the challenge was deemed correct and the match was tied at four. At the start of the final period, the two exchanged heavy hands and went nose to nose at one point, underscoring the intensity of these battles. Moments later, Tsabolov got a leg and had Burroughs headed to the edge of the mat, only to see the American somehow stop his momentum and flip the position to lead, 5-4. Not one to go away quietly, Tsobolov went right back to work, building from flat on his belly into a takedown to take the lead back, 6-5. Burroughs added still more to this spectacular scrap, getting behind for a 7-6 lead that no one could feel was safe. 47 seconds remained as the action began again with the crowd eagerly anticipating the decisive exchange. It was fitting that the man who has evolved so much since that first title in 2011 would return to his roots to clinch his fifth, nailing a double leg on a reshot to seal it, 9-6! After all that happened last summer and since, Burroughs proved he was the best in the world once again. With five world-level gold medals, he now sits tied with Bruce Baumgartner just behind John Smith’s six on the American all-time list.
Kyle Snyder, 97 kg
When you’re the world and Olympic champion, you’re expected to reach the finals and, typically, favored to win. When the three-time defending world-level champion at the weight below moves up and is on the opposite side of the bracket, the entire wrestling world holds its breath in hopes that you’ll meet him in the finals. So it was for Snyder on Saturday. Everyone expected him to advance, but as we’ve seen throughout this week, nothing is given. Still, the Ohio State rising senior had no trouble earning his way to the dream match-up. A pair of 10-0 techs to start the day didn’t make it to the second period and put Snyder in the semi-finals. There, Kyle met Aslanbek Alborov (AZE) who had beaten him, 5-4, at this year’s World Cup. Proving once again that he is at his best when the lights are the brightest, Snyder was relentless, harrying Alborov constantly and building a 7-0 lead before the Azerbaijani was able to respond with a takedown of his own to cut his deficit to five at the break. The action would slow in the second period, but Snyder added one last takedown, catching an ankle as he so often does, to win 9-2 and hold up his end of the deal.
Abdulrashid Sadulaev (RUS), the 2014 and 2015 world champion as well as the Rio gold medalist all at 86 kg, held up his end as well, refusing to surrender a single point on his way through the bracket, though he did have a 3-0 and 2-0 decision to his credit. This was the match everyone had circled as soon as it was confirmed that Sadulaev was moving up to 97 kg. With the new 92 kg weight class just announced, the possibility that this could be the only time the two legends in the making would meet made this all the more enticing. Rarely do such hyped matches live up to the hype. This one was all we hoped for and more. It was clear from the opening whistle that Snyder, as expected, wanted to push the pace and test Sadulaev’s gas tank. This can be a dangerous strategy against someone as skilled as the Russian Tank because making any mistake can lead to points and falling behind can end all hope of victory. Early on, that is exactly what happened. Snyder got overly aggressive after a snap down, seeing a chance to get a takedown and the Russian scored himself to lead, 2-0. A leg attack from the American earned a step-out, but another, moments later, was thwarted when Sadulaev simply grabbed Snyder’s leg instead. That Kyle only gave up a step-out was a win, but he trailed 3-1 and was on the verge of falling in a tough hole to dig out of. Instead, Snyder adjusted, reacting in a much more calm and methodical manner to a similar snap down that had seen him over-eager early on. This time he worked his way to the takedown, knotting the match at three. More snaps were coming as the plan to wear down Sadulaev continued unabated before the break. After the break, the Russian pushed back in front with a takedown and Team USA once again found themselves with an athlete on the brink of falling too far behind.
This was the point in the match where fatigue became evident for Sadulaev. The danger seemed to lessen by the second as his approach flipped from looking to counter for points and simply playing defense. It didn’t appear to be done as a choice, but out of necessity. When Snyder earned another step-out, it was clear, this was going to be an incredible finish. Even still, the Russian led by one and scoring even on a tiring Sadulaev is a daunting task. The clock ticked down. Sadulaev clung to ties and gamely battled. Snyder couldn’t find his way through. Then, with 24 seconds remaining, he did. The Russian found himself on all fours again and Snyder’s pace was too much, allowing the American to get behind for the winning score! Even on the restart, Sadulaev tied up and then conceded with several seconds left. He was defeated! Kyle Snyder won his third consecutive world-level title by taking down a man who many believed to be the best, pound-for-pound, in the world. In doing so, he pushed Team USA over the top for the team title. Now he heads back to Ohio State for his senior year. Snyder’s legend continues to grow.
Entering the day two points ahead of Russia, Team USA put three in the finals, but Retherford’s early elimination kept him just out of the top 10, the positions that score team points in international wrestling. Russia pushed two into the finals, one into the bronze medal match, and got a seventh place finish, four team points, at 70 kg which loomed large as the medal matches began. Russia and the United States would go head-to-head in the gold medal matches at 74 kg and in the match of the century at 97 kg, the final bout of the night. When Burroughs won, any further American win or Russian loss would be enough to crown the Americans champions for the first time since 1995. However, Alan Gogaev (RUS) claimed bronze before Chamizo took down Green. After all that had come before it, Snyder and Sadulaev would settle the team champions. Snyder’s win clinched the closest men’s freestyle team race since 1994 when Turkey beat Russia after their heavyweight, Mahmut Demir, knocked off Bruce Baumgartner (USA) to win gold. The final tally was Team USA 54, Russia 53. Georgia snagged third place with their title at 65 kg, finishing with 40 points while Turkey (39) and Azerbaijan (32) rounded out the top five.
Russia failed to win a gold medal all week, but they are still the best wrestling nation overall, taking the unofficial combined team title for the eighth consecutive year. They put up 116 points, topping second place Japan, who saw improvement from their men’s teams to go with their dominant women, who scored 98. Turkey (97) was third, one point back of Japan, while the United States (93) rebounded to fourth after a rough Greco performance. The rest of the top 10 were Belarus (73), Georgia (70), Azerbaijan (54), Iran (52), Kazakhstan (49, Germany (44), and Armenia (44).
Match of the Day: Zelimkhan Khadjiev (FRA) vs. Vasyl Mykhailov (UKR)
Despite not being a world power, the French fans have been boisterous whenever they’ve been given a chance to find their voice. Early on the final day, Khadjiev was inspiring them, knocking off the Iranian in round one before storming out to a big lead against Mykhailov. The Frenchman scored with a shot off the whistle on his way to three takedowns in the opening frame. His 6-0 lead has the crowd rocking before a nifty change of direction from a front headlock position by the Ukrainian made it 6-2 entering the break. The outcome still looked like a foregone conclusion, especially after Khadjiev won a head to toe scramble on the edge for a fourth takedown and an 8-2 lead. However, one mistake can sink you in freestyle wrestling. Mykhailov turned a takedown of his own into a trapped arm gut, tilting Khadjiev twice to tie the score and take the lead on criteria. Suddenly, France was the country needing points. As time grew short, Khadjiev was looking for a crotch lift near the edge only to land with the Ukrainians hips on top of him. Mykhailov’s head hit first, but he was awarded two which was immediately challenged by the French corner. When the call was overturned, the French crowd exploded and eight seconds later Khadjiev was a 9-8 winner.