Photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com and Mark Lundy (@LutteLens)
After two days of Greco, women’s freestyle took the stage at the 2017 World Championships in Paris, France on Wednesday. The shift was jarring but welcome. After Greco too often devolved into who would get called for passivity the fewest times, the women rarely went on the shot clock, scoring points in bunches and putting on a show. Africa enjoyed a history making breakout performance, eight countries were represented among the eight finalists, Japan looked vulnerable, and Helen Maroulis proved once again to be one of the best wrestlers in the world.
Even when they’re bad, by their incredibly high standards, Japan is pretty good and 2016 Cadet world champion Haruna Okuno gave them a champion at 55 kg. She could be the next Japanese superstar after winning world gold at just 18 years of age. Orkhon Purevdorj (MGL), who ended 14-time world-level champion Kaori Icho’s (JPN) 13 year long winning streak in January of 2016 was supposed to be an emerging star in Rio but finished seventh. It just took one extra year as the Mongolian moved up a weight class and hasn’t lost since, running the table at 63 kg to claim her first world crown. Yasemin Adar of Turkey closed out the day with a world title at 75 kg and then, as she was celebrating, received a marriage proposal in the middle of the mat! It appeared she said yes. We’ll discuss 58 kg below.
Despite the bad day, Japan ends day one of women’s freestyle where they have found themselves almost always in recent years, atop the team standings. They have not lost a team race since the 2012 World Championships held after the Olympics that year and they hold a two-point lead, 21-19 over Belarus, while bringing a strong contingent tomorrow. The United States ended the day in third place overall just three back of Japan with 18 points while Nigeria (17), Canada (16), Turkey (16), and Mongolia (15) all stayed within earshot. In all 12 teams tallied at least 10 points, leaving the team leaderboard tightly packed. Expect it to change often on Thursday, but unless something incredible happens, expect Japan to pull away for the win.
Match of the Day: Ningning Rong (CHN) vs. Pooja Dhanda (IND), 58 kg
Few eyes were on the round of 16 bout between these two as Rong is a relative unknown and Dhanda hadn’t competed at the Senior level since 2014, being best known for a 2011 trip to the Cadet world finals. When the Indian ran through a seemingly innocuous near arm, far leg position for four, it was eye opening. After she tacked on a second takedown and a gut wrench to make it 8-0 less than a minute into the match, it appeared she might be ready to fulfill the promise she showed all those years ago. Nothing is ever easy at this level, though, and Rong exposed a huge weakness in Dhanda’s game when the Chinese woman got a takedown of her own. Dhanda seemed to have no defense for the gut wrenches that came after, exposing four times before they went out of bounds, though one was not scored as it was ruled Pooja had not returned to a defensible position after the previous turn. Suddenly, with time left on the clock in the opening period, the match was tied, though Dhanda held criteria thanks to her early four point move.
Early in the second, that became irrelevant as the Indian missed on a shot, gave up a takedown and another gut as they went out of bounds to trail 12-8. At this stage, it became clear that Dhanda couldn’t afford to go underneath and her attacks became cautious. That played directly into the hands of Rong who easily kept Dhanda at bay, completing the remarkable comeback with no further scoring. Rong would fall to finalist Marwa Amri (TUN), earn her way into the bronze medal match with a win in the repechage before finishing fifth.
Becka Leathers, 55 kg
When the draws came out, Leathers path to a medal was clear, beat Ramona Galambos (HUN), an opponent she defeated 11-0 last month, in her opener then take a shot at Haruna Okuno (JPN), one of the gold medal favorites. A loss there would still likely lead to a repechage berth. The first step looked easy as Leathers found a double leg to open the scoring then hooked an ankle and balled up the Hungarian with crushing forward pressure for the fall. The match with Okuno, a 2016 Cadet world champion expected to be one of Japan’s next great female wrestlers, was largely one-sided. The Japanese woman methodically built her lead with Leathers unable to impose her will, eventually falling 8-0. No one could do anything with Okuno in the early session as she advanced to the finals by a combined score of 27-0 over three matches before topping Odunayo Adekuoroye (NGR), 5-4 for the title. Leathers needed one win in the repechage to earn a spot in the bronze medal match and she got it, pulling away from Carola Rainero (ITA) in the second period to turn a 4-2 lead into a 13-2 technical superiority.
Wrestling for the bronze against European champion Bilyana Dudova (BUL), who had been victimized by Okuno 11-0 in their semi-final tussle, Leathers went to work early, but couldn’t score after a pair of leg attacks. Dudova was put on the clock and attacked, but Leathers wriggled out of danger, turning it into an attack of her own. It was nearly four on the initial move and an exposure after the takedown gave Leathers a 4-0 lead heading into the break. The Choctaw, Oklahoma native is a tough grappler and she was not going to give an inch with three minutes between her and a world medal. A shot clock point didn’t phase Leathers and by the time Dudova scored a step-out, it was much too late. Becka Leathers won her first World Championship medal, a bronze, by the final score of 4-2.
Helen Maroulis, 58 kg
Team USA’s first ever women’s freestyle Olympic gold medalist who stunned the legendary 16-time world-level champion Saori Yoshida (JPN) last summer in Rio took aim at her third gold medal in as many years on Wednesday, competing in her third different weight class during that time span. With Yoshida looking on from press row, Maroulis made quick work of the opposition despite wrestling in a class five kilograms heavier than she did in Brazil. Her four matches in the early session took just less than 10 minutes total with Maroulis displaying her usual varied attack in addition to debuting a couple of new tricks added to her arsenal. At the start of the day, most expected a semi-final clash with Valeria Koblova-Zholobova (RUS), two-time world-level runner-up to 14-time world-level champion Kaori Icho (JPN), to determine the gold medalist, but the Russian injured the same knee that kept her out of the 2015 World Championships and was forced to default just after the break in her opening bout. With Koblova-Zholobova out of the running, Maroulis cruised to the gold medal match.
Marwa Amri (TUN) awaited Helen there after surviving a pair of nail-biters to become the first women’s finalist, at a World Championship or Olympic Games, from the continent of Africa. Amri, who was also the first African woman to win an Olympic wrestling medal when she claimed bronze in Rio, was joined in the finals minutes later by another African woman, Adekuoroye. This was supposed to be the hard part. The gold medal match at a higher weight against an opponent that was a proven winner, motivated by a chance to make history. Instead, the freight train that was Helen Maroulis on Wednesday just picked up steam. There was an authoritative foot sweep to start, nearly resulting in a fall, some defensive magic for a second takedown, a step-out, a cat quick counter and an exposure to complete a comprehensive 11-0 victory in just 2:55. The grand total came to five matches, five technical superiorities, and a 52-0 total score as Maroulis claimed her third world-level title in as many years. She joins Adeline Gray and Tricia Saunders as the only American women to win at least three world-level gold medals. Saunders holds the record with four.
Mallory Velte, 63 kg
A two-time WCWA champion from Simon Fraser who will begin her senior campaign this fall, Velte made her World Championship debut two years after a fifth place finish at the Junior-level. In her opening match, she squared off with Blessing Oborududu (NGR), a seven-time African champion and two-time Olympian. Velte drew first blood in a scrappy opening frame, working her way around the Nigerian for a takedown and a 2-0 lead. Oborududu countered with a double leg and a leg lace to take a 4-2 lead into the break. After both wrestlers struggled to score in the second, the match opened up late with Oborududu getting a crucial takedown off of a scramble to lead, 6-2, then picking off Velte’s attacks late to win 10-2. Blessing would lose in the quarter-finals to Orkhon Purevdorj (MGL), eliminating Velte, before earning a spot in the bronze medal match.
Victoria Francis, 75 kg
Two-time Asian bronze medalist Gulmaral Yerkebayeva (KAZ) was the first rock Francis, a two-time WCWA champion for Lindenwood and a 2014 Junior world bronze medalist, would need to move in order to advance on Wednesday. The contrast in body styles and approaches to wrestling was clear from the start as the rangy Yerkebayeva aimed to work from space, while Francis tried to close the gap in order to use her strength. All of the scoring hinged on who was successful in wrestling their style at any given time. The Kazak used her speed for four single-legs with Francis only able to respond with a step-out when she did finally tie Yerkebayeva up. With the score 8-1, Francis got her hands on her opponent enough to slow the next shot attempt, bringing her powerful hips into play and cutting the gap to 8-3. It was clear Yerkebayeva was tiring, but she could coast on her lead. She added one last takedown when Francis, forced to come forward aggressively, stumbled into a shot. The final was 10-3 and Francis saw her repechage hopes dashed in the next round.