photo courtesy of Kadir Caliskan; Germany Wrestling
If you would have told me earlier this week that Mehki Lewis and Zach Elam would have made the world finals for the Junior Men’s Freestyle team, I would have thought that Team USA would be in the driver’s seat in their attempt to win a second consecutive team championship. However, anyone that has followed, coached, or wrestled in a tournament at any level knows that the perfect tournament doesn’t exist. For every wrestler in their third freestyle tournament ever (Lewis) or late injury replacement (Elam) that makes the world final, you end up having to account for an upset or two from you proven stars. That situation played out over the past two days for the men’s freestyle team. 2017 Junior World Champion Daton Fix went down in the semifinals at 57 kg, a year after he breezed through the tournament surrendering only one single point. To Fix’s credit he bounced back today and dominated his opponent in the bronze medal match. It was his third world medal at the Junior level.
If that wasn’t enough three-time age group world champion Gable Steveson was pinned in the quarterfinals and did not get the opportunity to wrestle for bronze after his opponent, Khasanboy Rakhimov (Uzbekistan) went down in the semis. The pair met in the 2015 Cadet World Finals, in a match that was dominated by Steveson. In the two matches leading up to the quarterfinals, Steveson surrendered points to both of his opponents and even trailed late in his first match. The loss will undoubtedly make Gable only come back stronger; however, it was a stunning sight for US fans and fans worldwide to see Steveson on his back and off of the medal podium.
Even if the US would have gotten the gold medal performances that we have become accustomed to from Fix and Steveson, they would still be looking up at Russia. Through five completed brackets the Russian’s have three gold medals and one silver. Two more Russian wrestlers will be wrestling for gold tomorrow.
Four of the five American wrestlers from the first day of freestyle will come home with medals. In addition, to Fix, Brady Berge also captured a bronze medal today. He dominated his first repechage opponent Aliaksandr Kuryshta (Belarus) with a barrage of low-leg attack en route to a 13-2 tech fall. If his match against Kurystha was a beautiful display of offense, his bronze-medal match against Arman Andreasyan (Armenia) was the complete opposite. Berge needed all of his grit and toughness to eek out a 1-1 victory over the Armenian. Both of our finalists today Aaron Brooks and Zach Elam had to settle for silver medals. Brooks got into a shootout with Hayato Ishiguro (Japan) and lost on a dramatic exposure by Ishiguro in the final three seconds. Elam simply ran into a stud in Magomedkhan Magomedov (Russian). Not only has Magomedov proved he is the top 97 kg competitor at the Junior age group, but he also has had some high quality wins at the Senior level. Regardless of the final result, Elam has shown that he belongs amongst not only the top wrestlers in the country but the world and now is part of an impressive crop of youngsters at 97 kg chasing Kyle Snyder.
The only American wrestler in tomorrow’s final is the Virginia Tech redshirt freshman Lewis. Mehki dominated his three opponents today and even was able to show off a par terre game that most would not expect from a wrestler in his international debut and third freestyle tournament ever. Throughout the day Lewis picked his spots with his opponents; but when he did strike he was able to finish at an impressively high rate. He will face Abubakr Abakarov (Azerbaijan) in the finals at 74 kg. Abakarov has been almost as dominant as Lewis on his half of the bracket.
Two more US wrestlers will wrestle back through the repechage in an attempt to earn world bronze. They are Joshua Saunders at 61 kg and Louie DePrez at 86 kg. Both of these wrestlers will need to win three straight matches tomorrow to take bronze.