Photo By: Tony Rotundo
Team USA had to overcome many hurdles just to reach Friday’s championship dual against five-time defending champions Iran in the 2017 Freestyle World Cup. From the initial political squabbling that threatened to keep the team from entering Iran to a group that included every strong team with the exception of Iran, the odds of the Americans reaching the final were long.
However, cooler heads prevailed on the political front and day one wins over Georgia and Russia set up a winner take all dual with Azerbaijan to begin day two. For American fans watching early Friday morning or late Thursday night, depending on which time zone they were in, the drama was building. With Iran waiting for the winner, Tony Ramos fell at 57 kg to open the match. Wrestling fans were deprived of the highly anticipated clash between 2016 world champion Logan Stieber and the man who had ruled the weight-class in 2014 and 2015 before dropping to 57 kg to win Olympic bronze, Haji Aliyev. Stieber survived a wild 12-11 thriller at 61 kg with Aliyev bumping up to 65 kg and taking out Frank Molinaro. When James Green came through with a 10-0 tech-fall at 70 kg, the US looked to be in good shape.
The good feeling wouldn’t last long as Jordan Burroughs was put to his back and trailed, 5-1, at the break against Murad Suleymanov. However, the four-time world and Olympic champion continued to push the pace in the second period, eventually leading to two shot clock cautions and a fleeing caution for Suleymanov that ended the bout by disqualification. With the classification points being slanted towards Team USA, they needed just one more win to likely reach the final. They got it in style when David Taylor rolled past 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Sharif Sharifov, 12-2, at 86 kg. Though Kyle Snyder and Nick Giwazdowski would both fall to close the dual, the US was the winner on classification points, 20-14.
After all the hurdles to reach the final, one giant one stood in the way of Team USA lifting the World Cup trophy for the first time since 2003. That hurdle was five-time defending champion Iran, bolstered by a raucous home crowd who had often supported the US throughout the competition but was understandably against them as the finals got underway. It looked like this may be a bridge too far for the Americans early on as Ramos, Stieber, Molinaro, and Green went down in order to put Iran on the cusp of clinching the dual. The fact that two of the decisions for Iran were shutouts which means a team point spread of three instead of two for each match, made the situation even more dire for Team USA.
Burroughs kept the Americans alive with a 3-2 victory, but bonus points were needed when Taylor took the mat against 74 kg Rio Olympic champion Hassan Yazdanicharati in the 86 kg bout. The Iranian looked plenty big enough early and manhandled Taylor with a classic Iranian underhook that the former Nittany Lion had no answer for. After Taylor had been forced off the mat three consecutive times, he found himself down 3-0 and with two cautions, one more and he would be disqualified. With the match still being in the first period and Taylor not being able to hold his ground, what happened next was nearly impossible. Taylor adjusted and managed to stay on the mat. What’s more, he started finding his offense, scoring a takedown at the end of the first period to narrow the gap to 3-2. After a step-out to make it 4-2 Iran, Taylor rattled off three consecutive takedowns to take an unexpected lead. A win over the reigning Olympic champion would have been big on an individual level but would have left Team USA still in trouble in the dual. However, off the last takedown, Taylor kept Yazdanicharati in danger and, after adjusting a couple of times, pinned the Iranian to swing classification points in favor of the United States!
After Snyder handled Amir Mohammadi, 6-0, the 2017 Freestyle World Cup came down to the final bout at 125 kg. Even after clearing every hurdle to get to the World Cup, reach the finals, and claw their way back into a dual that looked hopeless halfway through, Team USA still had to clear one final hurdle, two-time Olympic medalist Komeil Ghasemi, who took silver in Rio. The Americans countered with Nick Gwiazdowski in an attempt to complete what could only be described as a miracle comeback.
The thing about miracles is they are a rare thing. Eventually, Cinderella’s carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Ghasemi is one of the best in the world at what he does. Gwiazdowski hopes to be there someday. Today was not that day. The Iranian heavyweight built a 3-0 lead at the break and never wavered on his way to a 5-0 win, clinching the World Cup for Iran for the sixth consecutive year.
While the end result was, I’m sure, disappointing for a team that had goals of bringing the title back to the United States, there were many positive takeaways from the competition. Jordan Burroughs returned at 74 kg and went undefeated. While his competition wasn’t the best, many world and Olympic champions or medalists were beaten in the past two days. Those included Logan Stieber and Kyle Snyder, though both have sunny outlooks going forward. David Taylor continuing to emerge as a legitimate threat against the best in the world was, perhaps, the most promising aspect of the World Cup for American fans. Facing strong competition in every match, Taylor went undefeated and few will ever forget his pin of the Iranian Olympic champion that nearly pulled Team USA to victory.
In the end, sport won over politics, Team USA survived a group with some of the toughest countries in the world, and Iran won again. The World Cup was a thrilling competition with a fantastic atmosphere for two straight days. The whole thing comes to Iowa City in 2018.