Photo of Kyle Snyder by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Team USA’s thrilling performance in men’s freestyle at the 2017 World Championships, culminating in Kyle Snyder’s victory over Abdulrashid Sadulaev, a match United World Wrestling dubbed the Match of the Century, which gave the United States their first official team title in the discipline since 1995 in the final match of the competition, seemed, on the face of it to be one of the best ever. You will certainly find the 2017 team on this list of the top five team performances, all-time, by Team USA in men’s freestyle at a World Championship. However, looking through the history books, this is an incredibly difficult list to make. 2017 was the eighth year that the Americans put at least half of their lineup in the finals. Any of those teams would be worthy so chopping it down to five, especially considering one of the teams that made the cut came up just short of that mark, was a difficult task. Team USA has a proud men’s freestyle tradition and it appears, after a bit of a downturn since the break up of the Soviet Union, the program has returned to the level it once reached year in and year out.
There are many interesting aspects to consider with regards to this list. We’ve investigated the effect the break up of the Soviet Union has had on how difficult it can be to win medals. With two bronze per weight class coming into play in 2005, that is also a factor, though that was taken into account in our previous research. There were 10 weight classes from 1969 through 1996, eight from 1997 through 2001, seven from 2002 to 2013, then eight again through this year with 10 coming again in 2018. Location may also be a factor for a lot of reasons. 2017 was Team USA’s first men’s freestyle team title since 1995, but it was also the first ever outside of North America. While advances in travel and teams going to the competition site early to help acclimate have probably lessened the importance of where the tournament is held, it still likely has some effect. That effect appears to have been magnified the further you go back in time. For this list, we largely left subjective judgments such as that for the reader to make and focused on the objective, which includes the number of weight classes and the performance of each wrestler. Here is our top five.
5) Mar de Plata, Argentina, 1969
Five-time world-level medalist Rick Sanders won his only title at 52 kg while Fred Fozzard was the champion at 82 kg. Those two became the first American wrestlers to win a World Championship gold in any style despite the US sending their first team in 1954. Don Behm followed up his 1968 Olympic silver with another medal of that color at 57 kg. Wayne Wells (74 kg) continued to progress, moving from fourth at the Mexico City Olympics to second a year before his first world-level title. Larry Kristoff (100 kg) won the fourth of his five world medals, earning silver. Henk Schenk finished third at 90 kg to round out the medalists. While five finalists and six medalists is a strong performance, it was the depth of this US team that made it stand out from the others in contention. The other four wrestlers all placed with Dale Kestel (48 kg) fifth, Michael Young (62 kg) sixth, Bobby Douglas (68 kg) fourth, and Rocky Rasley sixth at heavyweight. It was the only time in the 10 weight era that no wrestler from Team USA finished outside the top six leading to a second place finish behind the USSR in the team race.
4) Paris, France, 2017
Kyle Snyder won his third world-level gold in as many years by preventing Abdulrashid Saduleav from winning his fourth after the Russian moved up from 86 kg to 97 kg. Their gold medal match was the last bout of the tournament and broke a tie between USA and Russia in the team race, giving the US its first men’s freestyle title since 1995, 54-53. Joining Snyder atop the podium was Jordan Burroughs (74 kg) who rebounded from missing the podium for the first time in his Senior-level career in Rio to win his fifth world-level gold medal. Thomas Gilman (57 kg) made the world finals in his first trip to this tournament and James Green (70 kg) added world silver to his 2015 world bronze. J’den Cox (86 kg) was a bronze medalist for the second consecutive year while Nick Gwiazdowski (125 kg) joined Gilman as first timers that placed when he earned a bronze medal of his own.
3) Clermont-Ferrand, France, 1987
John Smith’s Senior-level World Championship debut yielded the first of his six consecutive titles at 62 kg when he beat defending world champion Khazar Issaev (USSR). Mark Schultz (82 kg) won his third world-level gold, having won previously in 1984 and 1985. Team USA had half of the lineup in the finals once again as Barry Davis (57 kg), Dave Schultz (74 kg), and James Scherr (90 kg) each notched runner-up finishes. Andre Metzger (68 kg), Bill Scherr (100 kg), and Bruce Baumgartner (130 kg) were all bronze medal winners. In all, the eight heaviest weights stood on the podium, the only time Team USA has come home with eight World Championship medals in men’s freestyle, for the Americans while Tim Vanni (48 kg) kicked in a fifth place finish to keep the US within shouting distance of the Soviet Union. The final tally was USSR 52, USA 41, with Bulgaria finishing third with just 18 points.
2) Atlanta, United State, 1995
The year before the Atlanta Olympics, the World Championships came to town and Team USA took full advantage of wrestling on home soil tieing the American record for most World Championship crowns won in a single year by one style. Terry Brands (57 kg) got back on top two years after his first world gold. Kevin Jackson (82 kg) had missed the podium twice since winning titles at the 1991 World Championships and 1992 Olympic Games, but returned to form, winning gold again. A year before his famous final against Abbas Jadidi (IRI), Kurt Angle was the world champion at 100 kg. Bruce Baumgartner (130 kg) won his fifth world-level gold, his 12th of 13 medals overall, to give Team USA four champions. Zeke Jones (52 kg) and Melvin Douglas (90 kg) each took bronze to round out the medal haul. Before the 2017 team came along, this was the last team title for the United States in men’s freestyle and that would not have happened on the strength of those six wrestlers alone. However, Rob Eiter (48 kg) was seventh, Tom Brands (62 kg) was ninth, Townsend Saunders (68 kg) was eighth, and Dave Schultz (74 kg) was fifth giving the Americans a relatively comfortable margin in outdistancing Iran (59) and Russia (58) with 71 points.
1) Toronto, Canada, 1993
While Team USA had to wait 22 years after the 1995 team title before they won again, the title in Atlanta was their second in three years. The contingent sent north to a boiling hot arena in Toronto shares the record with four champions, seeing Tom (62 kg) and Terry Brands (57 kg) each win their first world titles. Melvin Douglas (90 kg) won for the only time in his stellar career which included four world medals and Bruce Baumgartner, coming off of his second Olympic gold, anchored the lineup with title number four for both himself and the team. Dave Schultz (74 kg) was the only American to lose in the finals, earning his last of seven world-level medals. While no one from the US was able to finish third, Zeke Jones at 52 kg, Townsend Saunders at 68 kg, and Kevin Jackson (82 kg) all finished fourth, tieing the 1987 team for most individuals in the top four at a World Championships in men’s freestyle. The US raced away with the team title, their first ever at a World Championships, 76-54, over Russia.