Wrestling breakdown: Pound-for-pound king Abdulrashid Sadulaev

Competitive depth in the sport of freestyle wrestling has never been greater. After decades of dominance, the end of the Soviet Union gave way…

By: Ed Gallo | 4 years ago
Wrestling breakdown: Pound-for-pound king Abdulrashid Sadulaev
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Competitive depth in the sport of freestyle wrestling has never been greater. After decades of dominance, the end of the Soviet Union gave way to scores of powerful wrestling nations entering the world stage, making it more difficult than ever to make the podium at the highest level.

The emergence of the internet allowed coaches and athletes to study their opposition in detail, forcing successful wrestlers to evolve or be figured out. Earning consecutive medals and titles at the World and Olympic level now takes more than a winning skill set.

It’s no surprise that nearly every weight is an absolute shark tank in the world’s “oldest and greatest” sport. The next wave of talent is coming, more and more often we’re seeing “age-level” wrestlers winning World medals immediately upon transition to senior-level competition. Almost always, that means from juniors (U21) to seniors. The age difference doesn’t sound that drastic, but in a sport as physical as wrestling, every year of physical maturity counts immensely.

Now dubbed “The Avar Tank”, an 18-year-old Abdulrashid Sadulaev demolished the field to win the 2014 World Wrestling Championship as a senior at 86 kg. Only five years after beginning serious training in the sport, the Dagestani nightmare leapfrogged the junior-level after winning two straight Cadet World Championship titles and ragdolled a bracket of veteran grapplers.

Five years later, he is the undisputed #1 pound-for-pound wrestler in the world in the strongest era of wrestling to date.

The following is a breakdown of the competition Abdulrashid Sadulaev has faced at the World and Olympic level. I will seek to highlight the accomplishments of his opposition and provide match highlights and brief technical insights.

For his opponents, medal performances at significant individual tournaments will be considered. While significance can be attributed to any tournament based on the strength of the bracket, I listed competitions which are, historically, consistently fielding the highest quality competitors.

For a similar look at another World champion, check out my career breakdown on Cuba’s explosive dynamo – Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez.

The Russian Style

In terms of technique selection and overall process, Abdulrashid Sadulaev is not at all dissimilar to most of Russia’s champions and medalists. Russian wrestlers are known for their phenomenal positioning, quick footwork, lethal reattacks, arm drags, head outside singles and overall mat generalship. They work well off elbow control, the “Russian” two-on-one tie, counter well off the collar ties of their opponents, and some of the more enthusiastic competitors like Sadulaev and Zaurbek Sidakov can be brutal punching through an underhook, occasionally they may cartwheel off the whizzer.

What sets Sadulaev apart? The simple answer is that he possesses physicality and an athletic style that is frankly absurd for a man his size. The Russian team is already considered to be the most thoughtful and technically proficient in the world. What do you get when you teach that system to a wrestler who can athletically outclass every man he wrestles? Unparalleled dominance.

In MMA we talk a lot about “Fight IQ”. For me, there is no better demonstration of IQ than when a fighter is willing to persistently push their advantages once they’ve been revealed. As we work through each of Sadulaev’s World and Olympic tournaments, it will become increasingly clear that most of his matches are won in one or two bursts of action.

Be it a counter or an attack off the elbow, Sadulaev typically explodes into an offensive flurry and pursues the go-behind above all else. While Sadulaev doesn’t necessarily have a conditioning problem, he’s a large man, there are limits to his gas tank. To best use his strengths, Sadulaev picks his spots and goes full throttle to get to his best position, the gut wrench, as soon as possible.

The sprinting nature of his flurries allows Sadulaev to get a grip under the ribs of his opponent before the takedown is completed. In freestyle, even the highest level competitors miss scoring opportunities because they treat takedowns and “par terre”, mat wrestling, as separate pieces. As soon as Sadulaev is in on an attack, he’s thinking about how best to transition to his gut.

I will point out other habits as we move on, but these are the major themes that make Sadulaev an international terror.


After his first Cadet World title in 2012, Sadulaev made his first senior-level appearance. At 16, he entered the prestigious Ali Aliev Tournament as a senior and won bronze, losing only to Shamil Kudiyamagomedov.

Shamil Kudiyamagomedov (Russia/Italy)

The few years that separated Sadulaev and Kudiyamagomedov made the difference. Sadulaev took another year to win his second Cadet World gold then entered another high-level senior tournament, the Baku Golden Grand Prix in Azerbaijan. He made the podium once again but lost to a red-hot Gamzat Osmanov, a tough Azeri making the jump to seniors as well. Osmanov has seen limited competition since then, but has medaled at the ranking-series tournaments Dan Kolov – Nikola Petrov and the Yasar Dogu.

2014 World Wrestling Championship

By the time Sadulaev made the switch to seniors full-time, it was clear he was a new man. Sadulaev won the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, widely considered to be the toughest non-World or Olympic tournament in existence. He beat none other than Shamil Kudiyamagomedov in the finals, then repeated that performance at Russian Nationals to claim the 86 kg spot.

Sadulaev continued to smash his way through top-tier tournaments and won his first European Championship leading up to 2014 Worlds in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Qualification Round: defeated Selim Yasar (TURKEY) 9-2

Selim Yasar (Turkey)

Unfortunately for Selim Yasar, he found his mojo at the senior level at the time that Abdulrashid Sadulaev emerged. This would be the first of many meetings at the highest level between the two.

Possessing a sturdy base and competent scrambling, Yasar made Sadulaev work hard for any and all scoring opportunities. Sadulaev was unable to find polished entries and took low ankle attacks off elbow control, fighting through to get to his scores. After going up 9-0, Sadulaev lacked the energy to get past Yasar’s stonewalling, even giving up a few pushouts before time expired. 9-2 is a fantastic performance, especially considering one of those pushouts was off Sadulaev cartwheeling, but it in no way foreshadowed what was to come.

1/8 Final: defeated Dzhambuli Tsotadze (UKRAINE) 13-1 Technical Fall

Ukraine’s Tsotadze had medaled at a few smaller tournaments, but he was largely outclassed any time he stepped up in competition. Watch a teenage Sadulaev rip him to shreds with a diverse array of attacks.

14 Final: defeated Mihail Petrov Ganev (BULGARIA) 17-0 Technical Fall

On paper, Mihail Ganev was Sadulaev’s first true test of the tournament. A former World champion, Ganev held a win over the greatest freestyle wrestler of all time, Buvaisar Saitiev.

Mihail Petrov Ganev (Bulgaria)

Ganev never quite returned to that form, but it doesn’t help that he was stabbed in the chest in 2010.

This match is perhaps the best early example of Sadulaev’s horrifying grip strength. Chasing the slide-by, Sadulaev has a fairly loose looking grip on the waist, his other hand tight on the wrist. Ganev can do nothing to stop Sadulaev from sitting and dragging him across his back. Once the takedown is completed, Sadulaev regrips on his forearm underneath the ribs of Ganev, presumably crushes them, and instantly gut-techs him.

It’s not all brute strength. Sadulaev steps outside the base leg on the side he wants to gut to and blocks it, then redirects as soon as the exposure is completed. Your opponent will likely be resisting in the opposite direction, making it easy to pick up another two points if you can time the redirection correctly. Sadulaev never seems to have a problem with that timing.

12 Final: defeated Aslan Kakhidze (KAZAKHSTAN) 10-0 Technical Fall

Kakhidze’s major credentials come from his respective continental tournament, the Asian Championships. The Kazakh wrestler won silver in 2014, his most recent accomplishment is a 2016 bronze.

Sadulaev torched him, but check out how quickly he gets to the grip on his gut wrench as soon as Kakhidze’s back is exposed.

Final: defeated Reineris Salas Perez (CUBA) 10-0 Technical Fall

Salas Perez was, and continues to be one of the most dangerous draws in the world for the upper weights. He may sometimes appear almost apathetic in his matches, but Salas Perez is always ready to explode with a counter off your shot, or a “big move” like the foot sweep he hit on Kyle Snyder at Beat the Streets.

For many years, Salas Perez has used this style to keep himself in medal contention.

Reineris Salas Perez (Cuba)

Despite the technical fall, Salas Perez gave Sadulaev a run, challenging him in nearly every position. Perhaps frustrated by Sadulaev’s aggressive snapdowns, at one point Salas Perez loaded up and tried to smack the Russian in the head, eliciting a playful finger wag.

Against a multiple-time World medalist, Sadulaev capped off his title run with another technical fall. The Avar Tank had arrived.

2015 World Wrestling Championship

In 2015, Worlds came to North America and Sadulaev set out for his second senior World title in enemy territory, Las Vegas. A devout Sunni Muslim, Sadulaev may not have been at his most comfortable in “Sin City”.

Qualification Round: defeated Atsushi Matsumoto (JAPAN) 10-0 Technical Fall

Atsushi Matsumoto (Japan)

This was just disrespectful.

A tough handfighter with a distinguished Greco-Roman background, Atsushi Matsumoto held off Sadulaev as long as he could before the “wrestling situations” began. Flurrying near the edge, Sadulaev cartwheeled on Matsumoto multiple times to run up a score.

The worst offense was when Matsumoto was pushing in from his knees to get a step out point and Sadulaev literally jumped over him.

Perhaps Vegas brought out the showman in him.

1/16 Final: defeated David Valentyn Radchenko (ISRAEL) FALL

With no noteworthy accolades to his opponent’s name, it’s no surprise that Sadulaev went a step beyond his usual gut-tech.

⅛ Final: defeated Uitumen Orgodol (MONGOLIA) 10-0 Technical Fall

Uitumen Orgodol (Mongolia)

Mongolia’s Orgodol was the first opponent in some time to actually get a clean bite on Sadulaev’s leg, allowing him to show off his absurd poise, hips, and balance.

Unfortunately for Orgodol, his persistent underhook attack gave Sadulaev reliable entries for his high crotch shot, from which he was able to build up and double off for the finishing takedown.

¼ Final: defeated Mihail Petrov Ganev (BULGARIA) 10-0 Technical Fall

Poor Ganev.

The first takedown was identical to their last match.

½ Final: defeated Alireza Mohammad Karimimachiani (IRAN) 6-2

For brevity, we’ll call him Karimi.

Alireza Karimimachiani (Iran)

Iran’s Karimi is legitimately one of the best wrestlers in the world, and a title contender at multiple weight classes. Unfortunately, today, he is kept out of the 86 kg weight class by his countryman Hassan Yazdanicharati, and 97 kg is now occupied by Sadulaev. He’s having plenty of success at the non-Olympic weight of 92 kg, but no one really wants to go to non-Olympic Worlds while the very best are duking it out in Tokyo in 2020.

In his 2015 meeting with Sadulaev, he proved what a strength parity and solid positioning can do. Iranian wrestlers are notoriously powerful, and savvy, from underhooks. Karimi was consistently able to get Sadulaev to the edge, keeping his hips far enough back that the high crotch counter wasn’t readily available. When Sadulaev worked from the whizzer, Karimi adjusted and put himself behind Sadulaev’s hips to block any potential cartwheel shenanigans.

Sadulaev was able to clear ties and quickly flurry to get to scoring opportunities, but Karimi showed there are ways to limit Sadulaev’s seemingly unstoppable scoring frenzies.

Final: defeated Selim Yasar (TURKEY) 6-0

Selim Yasar’s main adjustment from their first meeting was to stonewall even sooner, controlling ties and limiting his attacks. Sadulaev was able to clear and counter enough to generate offense, and Yasar showed little urgency in taking back the lead, clearly giving up in the closing moments. Another gold medal for Sadulaev.

2016 Olympic Games

Who could challenge Sadulaev? To this point, “success” against him meant avoiding the technical fall. There were still a few names left at 86 worth seeing him against, and Karimimachiani appeared to be on the rise.

These were the Olympic Games, as tough as Worlds are, athletes train entire cycles just to peak for this event. Everyone would be at their best.

⅛ Final: defeated Istvan Vereb (HUNGARY) 10-0 Technical Fall

Including Sadulaev. Recent World bronze medalist? Light work.

Istvan Vereb (Hungary)

¼ Final: defeated Pedro Francisco Ceballos Fuentes (VENEZUELA) 5-0 (4x Pan Am medalist)

In one of his lowest scoring matches in years, Sadulaev ran into some difficulty against four-time Pan American Championship medalist Pedro Francisco Ceballos.

While Sadulaev was quick to get to legs, he didn’t show the same mobility in scrambling through situations as he had in the past. The heavy base of Ceballos didn’t make it easy for him to work through to the seatbelt or double off. We saw a rare crotch lift attempt from Sadulaev when Ceballos took a shot of his own and was stuck underneath.

Holding a small lead, it was clear that Sadulaev was still world class and athletic defensively with short time.

½ Final: defeated Sharif Sharifov (AZERBAIJAN) 8-1

After a bizarrely average showing against Ceballos, how would Sadulaev fare against 2012 Olympic champion Sharifov?

Sharif Sharifov (Azerbaijan)

It appeared that the Ceballos performance was just one “off” match, he was in rare form against one of the most credentialed opponents he had ever faced. The entries hadn’t changed, but Sadulaev was chaining his attacks, mixing up his levels and switching between chasing underhooks and dropping down to the ankle. While Sharifov is a hoss, skilled and dangerous at that, he could not keep up with the ferocity of Sadulaev’s assault and soon found himself out of position.

After building a solid lead, Sadulaev relied on his head-hands defense and quick feet to keep Sharifov away. By the time Sharifov could get to Sadulaev’s legs, he was exhausted and lost control of the situation.

Final: defeated Selim Yasar (TURKEY) 5-0

Everyone hoped it would be J’den Cox. A three-time national champion for the University of Missouri, Cox made the US Olympic team by defeating an all-time folkstyle great, now a freestyle World champion, Kyle Dake.

Stylistically, Cox’s absurdly sound defense and slick leg attacks could have made for an interesting, albeit low scoring match against Sadulaev. The two seemed to be on a collision course as Cox upset the Iranian Karimimachiani.

But against Selim Yasar, Cox sat back and played defense as time slipped away, unaware that he was actually losing the match. Cox would go on to defeat Salas Perez for bronze.

Sadulaev knew how to handle Yasar, after so many high profile meetings. The Turk would plod forward and reach for a collar tie or dig an underhook, push, repeat. For Sadulaev, it was a matter of timing the reach and clearing ties or quickly dropping to a high crotch off the underhook.

As always, Yasar was difficult to score on, but he did not offer much offensively.

Sadulaev picked up gold medal number three.


Allegedly sick of cutting weight, Sadulaev decided it was time to move up from 86 kg to the next Olympic weight, 97 kg, a jump of over 20 pounds.

Fans had long awaited his seemingly inevitable match with the American powerhouse Kyle Snyder, a 2015 World and 2016 Olympic champion at 97.

At Russian Nationals in 2017, Sadulaev teched his way through as usual, meeting Vladislav Baitsaev in the finals.

Vladislav Baitsaev (Russia)

It’s hard to say there was one factor that lead to Baitsaev’s success against Sadulaev. Rumors were circulating that the now-married Sadulaev was slacking a bit, eating too much, not training quite as hard.

Looking at the match, it’s also possible that Sadulaev had grown comfortable “getting away” with certain things working. With his base broken and Baitsaev working to double off, Sadulaev committed to a head pinch purely using his arms, nearly getting pinned in the process.

His feet weren’t moving as quickly, he was a bit plodding and predictable, pressuring into Baitsaev often enough that he could be timed. The larger man was able to manipulate Sadulaev’s posture and run his feet, putting him out of position and getting to his legs. Sadulaev’s work from underhooks and stability from front headlock saved him in many situations, and two gut wrench exposures gave him a solid enough lead to hold on.

Americans rejoiced, Sadulaev appeared more beatable than ever before.

2017 World Wrestling Championship

His first World-level match at 97 kg was against a familiar foe, Reineris Salas Perez.

Qualification: defeated Reineris Salas Perez (CUBA) 3-0

After a 10-0 technical fall in their first meeting, Russian fans had to be worried about a mere 3-0 shutout in the qualification round. Salas Perez is a medal-match caliber opponent, but this was clearly not the same Sadulaev.

Salas Perez interrupted the momentum of Sadulaev’s handfighting with shots of his own, and the speed of Sadulaev appeared to be less of a factor as they engaged in scrambles. Salas Perez was never able to seriously threaten the Russian, but he limited scoring opportunities and kept the match within reach.

⅛ Final: defeated Mateusz Filipczak (POLAND) 13-0 Technical Fall

Even against a completely overmatched Filipczak, Sadulaev ran into a lot of resistance working through shots. It wasn’t until Filipczak attempted his own attacks that Sadulaev was able to counter and blow the match open.

¼ Final: defeated Elizbar Odikadze (GEORGIA) 10-0 Technical Fall

On one hand, Sadulaev still had not been scored on all tournament, and the tech falls were coming. But looking closely, there were some worrying trends. Opponents were getting to his legs, the scores were coming, but not on Sadulaev’s terms. Controlling the match is massively important as the skill gap closes.

Georgia’s Odikadze is a perennial medal threat at 97, he’s tough to deal with in ties and can score opportunistically. Although not at a World or Olympic championship, he does hold a win over Kyle Snyder.

Elizbar Odikadze (Georgia)

Being at the same weight as Russians like Khadzhimurat Gatsalov, Abdusalam Gadisov, Anzor Boltukayev, and now Abdulrashid Sadulaev, it’s been tough for Odikadze to break through on the European scene.

Against Sadulaev, he found plenty of opportunities to get to the legs, but was outscrambled or countered every time. Another instance where Sadulaev could “get away” with poor mat generalship at 97. Sadulaev didn’t seem to totally understand his range and was slow to react, hardly moving until after Odikadze was already in.

½ Final: defeated Georgii Ketoev (ARMENIA) 2-0

Georgii Ketoev (Armenia)

I’ll cut Sadulaev some slack on this one. Ketoev is one of the hairiest human beings I have ever seen in my life.

If Sadulaev wanted to limit the amount he had to touch him, I can accept that. Perhaps it was more difficult to get to arm drags and slide-bys with the friction provided by Ketoev’s thick coat.

In truth, the bottom-heavy Armenian held solid and stonewalled Sadulaev. Shots were available straight on, but ending up underneath Ketoev was taxing and potentially dangerous. Sadulaev stayed on him, taking shots when the opportunity arose and earning passivity calls for the win.

FINAL: defeated by Kyle Snyder (USA) 6-5

You couldn’t script this any better. The match dubbed “Snyderlaev” was set to go last, on the last day of World Championship competition. The team race was between Russia and the United States.

The winner of Sadulaev-Snyder would determine the 2017 team champions, a title that had eluded USA Wrestling since their legendary performance in 1995. All of America’s hopes rested on their emerging leader, Kyle Frederick Snyder.

Kyle Snyder (United States)

Snyder attacked immediately, rushing the Avar Tank.

The savvy Sadulaev capitalized on the American’s enthusiasm, snapping him forward and catching Snyder’s leg as it came to him.

But as the continued to battle, Snyder’s size, strength and strategy on the edge allowed him to move the Olympic champion and score pushouts, especially from front headlock.

Using Snyder’s momentum against him, Sadulaev allowed Snyder to snap him onto his legs. This allowed for easy entries, but the positions Sadulaev then had to fight through were sub-optimal, he was working too hard.

The two pound-for-pound talents continued to trade scores from their best positions, until there was less than one minute left on the clock. Unable to continue to give up pushouts, Sadulaev’s hands were raised to receive Snyder’s ties, leaving his legs open and giving Snyder a clear path to shoot him out of bounds.

Still down one point, Snyder continued to drive a tired Sadulaev toward the edge, who was unable to resist. As they approached the boundary, Sadulaev cut ties and swung to his right to the ankle, but Snyder immediately locked him down in front headlock and spun behind a significantly slowed Russian for the winning takedown.

For the first time in years, Sadulaev was defeated.


The rumors of Sadulaev lacking focus and overeating may be seen as excuses. Technically, they are. But I believe it wholeheartedly, largely because of how quickly and dramatically Sadulaev turned into an even greater monstrosity than we had ever seen.

No one will ever forget coach Magomed Guseinov’s haunting prediction leading up to the 2018 championship season.

American fans scoffed, our guy broke Sadulaev, the greatest wrestler in the world at the time. Snyder is young, he’s only getting better. Predicting a victory is one thing, but “10 times better”? “He won’t score a point”? It seemed ludicrous.

Vladislav Baitsaev was the first to discover that 2018 Sadulaev was an entirely different animal.

The first word that comes to mind is sharp. Sadulaev had become almost lazy in his style, stagnant. Here, a leaner, stronger Sadulaev is moving his feet, he’s chaining attacks with vigor, he’s downright ferocious. The highly mobile athletic style we had become accustomed to was back.

After nearly being upset by Baitsaev in 2017, the tough Ossetian was dominated one year later.
In their 2019 wrestle-off, Sadulaev completely trashed Baitsaev in under one minute.

2018 World Wrestling Championship

First up was a 2015 Ali Aliev Tournament bronze medalist.

Qualification: defeated Magomedgadji Nurov (MACEDONIA) 11-0 Technical Fall

The reinvigorated Dagestani was a countering machine, he hit chest wraps, he stepped out of shots and nailed acrobatic go-behinds. He demolished Nurov in style.

⅛ Final: defeated Mamed Ibragimov (KAZAKHSTAN) 14-3 Technical Fall

Mamed Ibragimov (Kazakhstan)

I would like to point out that the first two points scored by Ibragimov off the arm spin attempt were illegitimate, Sadulaev’s back did not expose.

A stocky man, Ibragimov did well to move Sadulaev backward when he could, but Sadulaev was much more polished and efficient with his pressure counters than before, finding his attacks and converting quickly.

¼ Final: defeated Magomed Ibragimov (UZBEKISTAN) 10-0 Technical Fall

Yes they’re different guys and Russian-born Magomedov Idrisovitch is actually the superior Ibragimov.

Magomed Ibragimov (Uzbekistan)

We don’t often see Sadulaev wrestle opponents at this level with a “Russian style”, but it was a great opportunity to see how he counters the two-on-one and how crisp he clears ties with his slide-by.

While underneath Ibragimov working a head inside single, Sadulaev showed a technique he hadn’t gone to since the 2014 Worlds against Salas Perez. He reached behind his back and hooked the near arm of Ibragimov, rolling across his own back and sitting through to put him in danger. Obviously at a much lower level, but Pitt wrestler Taleb Rahmani has earned a reputation as someone proficient with “back hooks”, typically hooking both arms behind his back and sitting out to pin countless D1 opponents. You can catch a glimpse here.

½ Final: defeated Elizbar Odikadze (GEORGIA) 10-0 Technical Fall

Sadulaev improved significantly upon his last tech fall against Odikadze. Even when the Georgian did find his way to a leg, Sadulaev was already working on his chest wrap counter, he saw the attack coming and the exchange took place on his terms.

Sadulaev’s motion offensively was relentless, he ran his feet and flurried until Odikadze was either hopelessly out of position or gave up.

Final: defeated Kyle Snyder (USA) FALL

Guseinov was right.

Just like against Ibragimov, Sadulaev was working underneath Snyder on the head inside single, back hooked the near arm and rolled him through.

Sadulaev found space to switch his hips down to the mat, kept control of the arms and stuck the three-time gold medalist in just over one minute.

Abdulrashid Sadulaev (Russia)

Chasing Greatness

If Sadulaev’s upward trajectory from 2018 Worlds continues, it’s hard to see him failing to dominate the next decade or so of competition.

The wrestler currently regarded as the greatest freestyle competitor of all time is the Russian Buvaisar Saitiev. Saitiev racked up nine gold medals – three Olympic titles and six World titles.

At the moment, Sadulaev has “only” three World and one Olympic title.

He’s 23. Stay tuned for the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in mid-September, where Sadulaev will likely see Kyle Snyder for the rubber match as he chases his fifth senior gold medal.

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