In June, we at The Open Mat named the top 10 greatest Olympic wrestlers in each style in preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Those Olympics have come and gone so the rankings must be adjusted! In addition, one of our #1s was stripped of his medal for drug use. As with the prior rankings, these focus on Olympic achievements with other considerations only used as tie-breakers. It will be four long years before these rankings change again, unless more legends lose their medals, so enjoy!
As for Artur Taymazov (Uzbekistan), he was only stripped of his 2008 Olympic gold medal. This leaves him officially with two golds and a silver to his credit. However, I’m removing him from this list. While no one can say for sure how many other athletes have taken illegal substances and gotten away with it, I can’t fathom putting a known drug cheat above any of the other contenders.
A very young group of wrestlers won gold medals in Rio so they could all be back to defend in Tokyo. Valdimer Khinchegashvili (Georgia) now has a gold and silver medal to his credit. Another gold in 2020 would almost certainly put him on this list. All of the other champions, Soslan Ramonov (Russia), Hassan Yazdanicharati (Iran), Abdulrashid Sadulaev (Russia), Kyle Snyder (USA) and Taha Akgul (TUR) won gold in their first attempt. All but Yazdanicharati were already world champions coming into the Games. Odds are that at least one, and possibly more, of the 2016 Olympic champions makes this list after 2020. Jordan Burroughs (USA) chances to finish his career in the top 10 took a big hit when he missed the podium. Given the competition for the last few spots on this list, Burroughs would need to do something truly spectacular to make it happen.
#10 Yojiro Uetake (Japan)
After an undefeated NCAA career at Oklahoma State, Uetake defeated four time world champion Huseyin Akbas (Turkey) to win his first Olympic gold medal in 1964. Four years later in Mexico City, Uetake separated his shoulder in his final match while trailing 2-0. Despite the injury he came back to earn a 2-2 tie that was enough to win his second gold medal.
#9 Levan Tediashvili (Soviet Union)
If it weren’t for Tediashvili, the Peterson brothers, John and Ben, might have been on this list. Levan defeated John Peterson (USA) in the 1972 Olympics at 82 kg while Ben Peterson (USA) won gold at 90 kg. In 1976, Tediashvili moved up to 90 kg where he defeated Ben while John won gold at 82 kg. After his victory in 1976, Tediashvili was awarded the highest honor bestowed by the Soviet Union, the Order of Lenin.
#8 John Smith (USA)
So remarkable were Smith’s on the mat exploits that he was voted one of the 100 Greatest Olympians of All-Time, in any sport, at the 1996 Olympics and was the first American to ever win the Master of Technique and Wrestler of the Year award from FILA. His second gold medal, in 1992, capped a run of six consecutive world level titles.
#7 Arsen Fadzayev (Soviet Union)
The 1984 communist boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics probably cost Fadzayev a third gold medal. After all, he won every world-level championship he entered at 68 kg from 1983 to 1992, taking silver, behind Kenny Monday (USA), up at 74 kg in 1989. As it stands, Fadzayev won Olympic gold in 1988 and 1992. He retired after the 1992 Olympics, but made a comeback to wrestle for Uzebekistan in Atlanta in 1996, but he was not the same wrestler, going 1-2.
#6 Makharbek Khadartsev (Russia)
After winning back-to-back gold medals in 1988 and 1992, Khadartsev had a chance for a third at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Makharbek once again reached the final where he faced his rival Rasoul Khadem of Iran. Khadem had bested Khadartsev in the finals at both the 1994 and 1995 world championships. He now stood between Khadartsev and a third Olympic gold. Unfortunately, Khadem was too much for the aging Khadartsev who had to settle for silver to close out his career.
#5 Ivan Yarygin (Soviet Union)
The wrestler whose namesake tournament has become one of the toughest in the world was the ultimate team player. After pinning every opponent he faced on his way to gold in 1972, Yarygin was still dominant in 1976 with two broken ribs. He didn’t pin everyone this time, but still won gold decisively. He was set to pursue his third title on home soil in the 1980 Moscow games but, when he realized that a young challenger, Ilya Mate had a better chance to win gold for the Soviet Union, he stepped aside and retired rather than stand in his way. Mate went on to win the gold in 1980.
#4 Sergei Beloglazov (Soviet Union)
Beloglazov was one of many athletes whose Olympic careers were greatly affected by the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. Sergei won gold in 1980, starting a run of eight consecutive world level titles with the glaring exception of 1984 in Los Angeles. Had he won there, and he would have been the obvious favorite, he would have joined the elite group of three-time freestyle Olympic gold medalists. As it stands, he won gold in Moscow (1980) and Seoul (1988) and checks in at number five on our list.
#3 Bruce Baumgartner (USA)
No one has ever won four Olympic gold medals in freestyle. Only two men have claimed medals of any color in the event across four Olympic Games. Baumgartner is one of those men having won gold in 1984 and 1992 to go with silver in 1988 and a bronze in Atlanta in 1996. His gold in 1992 must have been particularly satisfying as he got revenge on David Gobejishvili (Soviet Union) who had defeated him in the 1988 final.
#2 Buvaisar Satiev (Russia)
Certainly one of the greatest freestyle wrestlers of all time, Satiev lost just twice in his international career. Due to the oddities of the best two out of three periods system, he was only outscored once. Unfortunately for him, that one match came at the 2000 Olympics when American Brandon Slay beat him 4-3. That loss, in the round robin, eliminated Satiev from the tournament. The man who won gold in 1996, 2004 and 2008 had to leave Sydney empty handed.
#1 Aleksandr Medved (Soviet Union)
His last name means “bear” in Russian and Medved mauled his opponents on his way to three Olympic gold medals. He was never defeated in Olympic competition, though he did have a draw against Ahmet Ayik of Turkey in 1964. Ayik would win gold himself in 1968 when Medved moved up to a higher weight class. He was picked as the greatest Belorussian athlete of the 20th century in 2001 and was one of the first 10 inductees to the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame.