To compete as a wrestler in the Tokyo Olympic Games, it is not enough just to “make the team”. In men’s freestyle, only 16 spots are allocated per weight class, meaning there is a qualification process that narrows down the field. The first qualification event was the 2019 World Championships in Kazakhstan – the top five place-winners at Olympic weights automatically qualified their weight class for Tokyo, for their nation. That means if Nation A sent wrestler X to Worlds at 57 kg, and they placed fifth or better, Nation A can send anyone they want to the Olympics at 57 kg.
The second chance for qualification occurred at sets of Continental Qualifiers. The Pan-American, European, Asian, and combined Africa/Oceania Qualifiers each held a number of allocations up for grabs. At the Pan-American Olympic Qualifier, for example, only the top two placers per weight earned qualifications. For those nations that failed to qualify any of their Olympic weight classes at those two events, there was one more shot – the Last Chance Qualifier.
A casual observer might assume that these Last Chance brackets were not particularly deep, considering they are for wrestlers who did not place high at Worlds or their Continental Qualifiers. However, a huge portion of the Last Chance competitors are wrestlers who either A) have been competing at non-Olympic weight classes such as 61, 70, 79, and 92 kg, or B) have recently transferred to compete for a different nation. Additionally – the world is very good at wrestling. At tournaments like the European Olympic Qualifier, many elite competitors went down before they could earn a bid. The best example of this surprising depth occurred at 74 kg, the first or second toughest weight in the world, depending on who you ask.
74 kg at the Last Chance Qualifier featured some of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the world. Khetik Tsabolov, currently ranked #7 by Intermat, is a 2014 World champion, 2017 World silver medalist, and a four-time Russian national finalist. He picked up another win over two-time reigning World champion Zaurbek Sidakov at the 2020 Russian National Championship. Tsabolov transferred to Serbia following Russian Nationals, as he was unable to defeat the rising star Razambek Zhamalov.
However, Tsabolov was not even the top contender at this weight. #3 ranked Taimuraz Salkazanov, another Russian transfer who now represents Slovakia, carried tremendous momentum into this tournament. Already a 2019 World bronze medalist at 79 kg, Salkazanov announced himself as an Olympic gold medal contender at 74 kg at the European Championship. There he defeated #10 Avtandil Kentchadze, #5 Frank Chamizo, and #2 Razambek Zhamalov, all in one day.
To the dismay of many, United World Wrestling uses a “random draw” to arrange their brackets at most of their tournaments. As fate would have it, Tsabolov and Salkazanov were on the same side – meaning only one of them would be able to qualify for Tokyo. They each took care of business in their first-round matches, but soon after, a World champion went down.
Magomedkhabib Kadimagomedov emerges from loaded 74 kg bracket
Taimuraz Salkazanov rolled past is overmatched Romanian opponent in the 1\8th final, but Khetik Tsabolov had his hands full. 2016 Olympic and 2017 World bronze medalist Soner Demirtas of Turkey was in fine form. Tsabolov looked noticeably flat on his feet, and largely took sloppy shots to get to the legs of the rock-solid Turk. He was plainly outwrestled, dropping an 8-3 decision and losing his shot at an Olympic bid.
Brimming with confidence, Demirtas moved on to the quarterfinals. He had a tall order ahead of him in Magomedkhabib Kadimagomedov. A Russian transfer to Belarus in 2020, Kadimagomedov spent most of his career down at 70 kg, where he won a Russian National title in 2017. It was slow and steady progress in his move up in weight, but Kadimagomedov announced himself as an elite when he knocked off #5 (86 kg) Magomed Ramazanov at the European Championships in February of 2020. Kadimagomedov took bronze at the unofficial World Championship last year, but failed to qualify for the Olympics at the Euro Qualifier in March.
Demirtas wrestled brilliantly, pressuring hard and getting to the legs of Kadimagomedov consistently. However, this was a totally different stylistic matchup than Tsabolov. Kadimagomedov lives on the counter and relies heavily on his tricky defense. Getting to his legs is only the beginning.
Kadimagomedov did a brilliant job shutting down Demirtas’ attacks and creating exposures, most of those points came from the interplay between his head-pinch and chest-wrap counters, he was able to threaten each to back Demirtas off from his finishes, buying him time to make adjustments and look for scores. His most beautiful work came off Demirtas’ pressure on the feet – Kadimagomedov hit clean arm-drag and underhook throw-by counters to capitalize on the Turk’s momentum. He won 8-4, setting himself up for a semifinal vs. Salkazanov.
While a bit more patient with his pressure and shots than Soner Demirtas, Taimuraz Salkazanov is even more effective on his finishes once he gets to the legs. This meant that Kadimagomedov could not sit back and fish for counters all match – he had to attack. The Russians are excellent on the “reattack” – meaning they set up their shots through their defense off their opponent’s attacks. This is different from a counter, which is a built-in scoring technique that capitalizes on the opponent’s attack.
Because of Salkazanov’s high attack rate, the positions between the two were fluid, and Kadimagomedov found situations to attack from. After changing levels to his knees to respond to Salkazanov, Kadimagomedov stood, hit a powerful snap-down to his left, then burst off to an angle – attacking the legs on his right side. He was able to build up off the legs and stand, hitting a gorgeous “golf swing” finish on his single leg. I broke down a similar single leg finish in my article on Frank Chamizo vs. Razambek Zhamalov.
Taking an early lead was crucial for Kadimagomedov. It put the pressure on Salkazanov to score, meaning he would be much less careful picking his spots. Now Kadimagomedov could truly open up with his counters. Salkazanov consistently pushed in with underhooks, giving Kadimagomedov the opportunity to hit one of his favorite techniques – the overhook shuck. I broke down Abdulrashid Sadulaev’s use of the overhook shuck previously.
Kadimagomedov’s brilliance from these transitional upper body positions was obvious. Look at how seamlessly he transitioned to the underhook throw-by on the edge after Salkazanov attempted to deal with the overhook shuck.
When Salkazanov did get to Kadimagomedov’s legs, it was that same chest wrap counter threat that saw him through. Showing off absurd strength and balance, at one point Kadimagomedov, seated on his butt, stood up with the chest wrap and rolled for exposure points.
Salkazanov was crowned a top five wrestler in the world less than one month ago – and Magomedkhabib Kadimagomedov absolutely demolished him, winning 12-4. Ranked #18 previously, expect Kadimagomedov to be recognized as a top 10 wrestler at 74 kg and a threat to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics. There he’ll face elite pound-for-pound opposition like Zaurbek Sidakov and Kyle Dake.
Although he had already qualified for the Olympics after defeating Salkazanov, Kadimagomedov continued on to wrestle in the gold medal finals, defeating the unranked Ukrainian and officially winning the Last Chance Olympic Qualifier tournament. Kadimagomedov means business, and 74 kg continues to grow deeper and more unpredictable.
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