65 kg at the 2019 World Wrestling Championship was the bracket of death.
On one side, you had Gadzhimurad Rashidov, three-time World champion Haji Aliyev, Olympic gold medalist Vladimir Khinchegashvili, 2018 World champion Takuto Otoguro, two-time World bronze medalist Alejandro Valdes Tobier, three-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford, and Russian national contender turned Hungarian representative Ismail Musukaev. Just to name a few.
For mini breakdowns and video on some of these matches, I wrote up some of the “must-see” bouts of 2019 Worlds.
Rashidov edged Aliyev in a controversial match, Musukaev upset Khinchegashvili, Tobier survived Retherford, Rashidov took out Otoguro, Tobier was upset in suspicious fashion, then Rashidov controlled Musukaev to reach the championship final.
In freestyle, the “wrestlebacks” are set up in a system of repechage. If the wrestler who defeated you makes the finals, you’re pulled back in and wrestle in a mini-bracket with the other wrestlers who last to that same wrestler, for a shot at bronze.
That same “bracket of death” had to play out again on the backside.
Because Otoguro went down in only the second round, he would have to win three straight matches to take bronze.
A quick technical fall over Hussein of Egypt set up a showdown with Haji Aliyev, a meeting of World champions. In an absolutely stunning match, Otoguro prevailed 11-9 for yet another round of repechage. A 6-1 victory over Ali, the wrestler who defeated Tobier, took Otoguro to the bronze bout.
After clawing back, the returning World champion failed to place when he lost to the explosive athlete and crafty tactician Ismail Musukaev. It was a tumultuous 2019 for Otoguro, after coming back from a serious injury, he suffered an upset loss to his countryman, 2016 Olympic silver medalist Rei Higuchi. Otoguro avenged the loss on his way to Worlds, but it was clear that his physicality was limited.
Heading into the Olympic year, Otoguro is still a medal threat, and if he’s at his best – a title contender.
2020 Asian Wrestling Championship
Since that disappointing Worlds performance, Otoguro seems to be sharp. He won the Japanese National Championship over U23 World champion Rinya Nakamura in December before heading to the Asian Championship in New Delhi in February.
The Asian Championship is typically the second strongest continental tournament behind Euros, this year’s 65 kg bracket truly only posed two major challenges for the surging Otoguro, both being returning World medalists.
The “lighter” sections of Otoguro’s bracket included Iraq’s Mohammed Al Jawad Zuhair Kareem, a newer Asian competitor who only appearances were non-medal performances at the past three continental championships. Later on he met Nyamdorj Battulga, a seven-year veteran of the Central Asian scene and bronze medalist at the Dmitri Korkin tournament.
Traditionally, Otoguro’s game has revolved around his snapdown series. Using heavy handfighting and a dynamic level change off the collar, Otoguro either cuts to an angle off the snap and attacks a low outside single, or times the reposturing of his opponent and hits a gnarly blast double.
The great DPS put together a phenomenal breakdown about Otoguro’s tactics after his 2018 World gold run.
But after coming back from injury, Otoguro’s ability to break his opponents’ posture and manipulate positioning appeared to be diminished. He still looked elite in scrambles and once he got to the legs, but his setups were demonstrably less reliable. It was a huge blow to his game, it’s largely what made it difficult for him to defeat Russian opponents Rashidov and Musukaev, perhaps the best two defensive footwork artists at the weight.
While we certainly didn’t see vintage Otoguro at the Asian Championship, he seemed to be finding more reliable motion and hand-fighting tactics to set up his shots. These were elements of Otoguro’s game in the past, but now there appears to be a clear shift toward outside attacks rather than a straight-on, up-and-down offense.
When Otoguro did find himself in front headlock, he looked excellent with his motion, fakes and go-behinds, but because he wasn’t forcing exaggerated actions from his opponents as often, the Japanese phenom had to capitalize on smaller openings.
Still a heavy hand-fighter, Otoguro used his steel grips to lock and plant his opponent in place, fake swift leg attacks like the swing single in one direction, then hit the shot on the vulnerable leg. Pure horsepower was a large component of Otoguro’s game in the past, here we see an emphasis on speed and misdirection.
Quickly turning the corner and or getting height on his shots, Otoguro found plenty of opportunities to finish in strong par terre positions like the leg lace or low gut. Success with those setups creates discomfort in his opponents, they’re more reactive in the ties, which allows Otoguro to start to get to his quick snaps and level changes thereafter.
vs. Daulet Niyazbekov
If Takuto Otoguro truly was physically diminished in any way, Daulet Niyazbekov would be one of the worst possible matchups in the world. The stocky Kazakh is known for his brutal strength, relentless underhook attack, and his willingness to exploit any weakness and mercilessly bend the rules.
#19 Daulet NIYAZBEKOV (KAZ)
At the 2019 World Championship, Niyazbekov pulled the singlet, clawed the skin and generally abused international treasure Bajrang Punia in their controversial semifinal bout. A chest wrap attempt saw Niyazbekov pick up a crucial four points, points that many believed should have been awarded to the Indian wrestler.
Against his most sturdy and powerful opponent yet, Otoguro showed off a new wrinkle to his snapdown game. Essentially, he incorporated a “snap-up,” whipping up the hands and transitively the posture of Niyazbekov before explosively dropping back down off the head to get to the legs.
Of course, the traditional snap, pressure and underhook game of the Kazakh wrestler was still very much in play, Otoguro was going to have to run up a score to hold a lead over this fierce competitor.
Ultimately, it was the fluid, athletic motion of Otoguro that gave him the edge. Chaining together snaps and fakes in swift flurries, Otoguro exploited the reactions of the slower man to drop low on leg attacks.
Resisting and retaining posture, Otoguro avoided the powerful chest wrap and head pinch counters of Niyazbekov and took a comfortable lead.
In a potentially disastrous stylistic matchup, Otoguro hustled his way to a dominant 10-3 victory.
vs. Bajrang Punia
With silver and bronze medals to show for himself in his last two World Championship appearances, India’s star wrestler Bajrang Punia is a clear medal threat heading into Tokyo.
#4 Bajrang PUNIA (IND)
While refined and well-rounded, Bajrang’s game most resembles that of an Iranian, focusing on pressure and underhooks to create clean opportunities to score and wear down an opponent.
We saw this approach, with its strengths and flaws, against Yianni Diakomihalis at Beat The Streets.
Beating Bajrang means stopping, neutering or countering the underhook game.
One option shown early from Otoguro was to take the initiative and get to his own underhook game, facilitated by snaps and the manipulation of posture. These positions tend to feed into the front headlock, but Bajrang was far too familiar with that process to give up ground or make any committed maneuvers.
To get his best attacks going, Otoguro was going to need to hand-fight for extended periods, and against Bajrang, giving up an underhook was unavoidable.
Bajrang’s best attack is the underhook throw-by, a move we covered in depth with Hassan Yazdanicharati and David Baev.
On several of Bajrang’s attempts to throw-by, Otoguro went hip to hip on the mat with the Indian star using his whizzer, then limp-armed out to either slip off to the back or disengage entirely, keeping his feet moving to ensure Bajrang didn’t gain a dominant angle to finish.
When Bajrang was more overzealous, pushing straight, Otoguro was more keen to torque the whizzer and slip out, aiming to shoot quickly while Bajrang was adjusting.
After effectively demonstrating that he could deal with the underhook attacks of Bajrang, Otoguro got to his offense.
Countering the relentless pressure of the two-time World medalist, Otoguro snapped off the ties and capitalized on Bajrang’s forward momentum to drop off to his shots, attacking both sides from both stances.
When he got his preferred space, Otoguro could get to his misdirection game, shooting off the wrists like Yianni Diakomihalis to his swing singles in either direction.
Down in the second period, Bajrang was forced to open up and wrestle through disadvantageous positions, allowing the superior scrambler Otoguro to further cement his lead.
Another dominating victory over a returning World medalist.
Heading into 2020, this new and improved version of Takuto Otoguro will be his nation’s best hope for men’s freestyle Olympic gold in Tokyo.
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