photo courtesy of Kadir Caliskan; Germany Wrestling
It took until the last finalist on the last day of competition at the Junior World Championships for the United States to crown a 2018 world champion. The Greco-Roman, women’s freestyle, and men’s freestyle teams combined to put four other American wrestlers in the world finals and all of them had come up short in the quest for a world title. That was until Mekhi Lewis took the mat for his gold medal match at 74 kg. His opponent, Abubakr Abakarov (Azerbaijan), was 2016 Cadet world champion and 2017 European Junior champion. On paper, it seemed like a hefty task for a wrestler that was competing in only his third freestyle tournament, ever.
The match itself started off slowly with Lewis giving up the first point of the match after a shot clock violation. As the shot clock was winding down, Abakarov took a shot which was countered by Mekhi and who changed directions multiple times as he attempted to and was ultimately successful in spinning behind his Azeri opponent for a takedown. Lewis held a 3-1 lead with about 30 seconds left in the match, and the ensuing sequence proved to be the most critical flurry of the bout. Abakarov was in deep on a double leg and drove the American across the mat seemingly on his way to a takedown that would have given him the lead, or a push out at the minimum. Lewis was well aware of his location on the edge of the mat, deftly sidestepped and threw Abakarov by for a step out a point of his own. Instead of trailing with 23 seconds left on the clock, Lewis was in the driver’s up 4-1. In the final ten seconds of the match, Abakarov showed his frustration by throwing two uppercuts, one of which landed, giving Mekhi another point after a caution and one on the Azeri wrestler. Lewis kept his composure and closed the match out, a 5-1 victory for the gold medal.
The gold medal performance by Lewis makes him the first Virginia Tech wrestler to win a Junior world medal. He is also the third consecutive world champion for the US after Mark Hall won each of the last two titles. His finals win prevented the American team from going without a world champion for the first time since 2014. The men’s freestyle team finished in second place behind a Russian team that went home with five gold medals.
Joshua Saunders, at 61 kg and Louis DePrez at 86 kg, both competed in the repechage round prior to the medal matches. Both wrestlers lost their respective matches, though they both provided game efforts.