Tokyo Olympic Games – Top men’s freestyle wrestling contenders to win gold

In a way, the Tokyo Olympics will be the first major wrestling championship event since the World Championships in the summer of 2019. COVID-19…

By: Ed Gallo | 2 years ago
Tokyo Olympic Games – Top men’s freestyle wrestling contenders to win gold
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In a way, the Tokyo Olympics will be the first major wrestling championship event since the World Championships in the summer of 2019. COVID-19 kept several major wrestling powers out of a potential 2020 World Championship, resulting in an unofficial “Individual World Cup” tournament in Serbia, which functioned as Worlds last year. Which means this year’s Olympics will finally let fans see the absolute best collide for the most prestigious prize in all of sports.

This preview will cover the top title contenders for all six men’s freestyle weight classes. For a look into potential dark horses and medal threats, stay tuned next week.

Before we get started, however, I have one important concept to impart: the difference between ranking and seed. Seed determines placement in the tournament bracket, but seeds are not based on a large body of work. Seeding “points” are earned by attending “Rankings Series” tournaments hosted by United World Wrestling, such as the Matteo Pellicone in Italy. It is often the case that the top seeds for World and Olympic level competition in wrestling do not reflect the actual ranking hierarchy. In this preview, both tournament seeds and rankings (via Seth Petarra on Intermat) will be referenced.

The most relevant competition to reference prior to the Games will be the 2019 Wrestling World Championship. Check out my guide and playlist on which matches to watch!

57 KG – Uguev stands alone

Top seeds:
#1: Stevan Andria MICIC (SRB) (ranked #20)
#2: Zavur UGUEV (RUS)
#3: Suleyman ATLI (TUR)
#4: Kumar RAVI (IND)

Top ranked competitors:
#1: Zavur UGUEV (RUS)
#2: Suleyman ATLI (TUR)
#5: Kumar RAVI (IND)

The landscape of 57 kgs has not changed much since 2019. The two-time reigning World champion Zavur Uguev has won five-straight tournaments, in increasingly dominant fashion. He crushed #2 Atli by technical fall in the 2019 World finals, but had relatively close semifinal and quarterfinal wins over #5 Ravi and #8 Erdenebat. Since then, Uguev won the 2020 and 2021 Russian National tournaments over #3 Mongush and #4 Tuskaev.

Zavir Uguev celebrates a gold medal win at the 2018 World Wrestling Championships.
Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Uguev is extremely patient on his feet, waiting on his opponent’s pressure to hit explosive super-duck entries in the blink of an eye. His skill in par-terre is what sets him apart from the field, as Uguev can blow open a match with a series of gut wrenches from the finishing position off his duck-under. Uguev’s last loss was an upset at the hands of Azerbaijan’s Amiraslanov, who will not be represented in this field.

This feels like one of the easiest weights to predict at the top – Uguev rolls.

65 KG – Familiar faces run it back

Top seeds:
#1: Gadzhimurad RASHIDOV (RUS)
#2: Bajrang BAJRANG (IND) (ranked #12)
#3: Daulet NIYAZBEKOV (KAZ) (ranked #14)
#4: Iszmail MUSZUKAJEV (HUN)

Top ranked competitors:
#1: Gadzhimurad RASHIDOV (RUS)
#2: Vazgen TEVANYAN (ARM)
#4: Ismail MUSUKAEV(HUN)
#5: Takuto OTOGURO (JPN)
#6: Haji ALIYEV (AZE)

At one point the strongest weight in the world, 65 kg briefly fell to pieces at the 2020 Individual World Cup. The rivalry between 2019 World champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov and three-time World champion Haji Aliyev continued early in the second round of the tournament, but an explosive start was cut short by a serious Rashidov knee injury.

Gadzhimurad Rashidov competing at the 2018 World Wrestling Championships.
Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Soon after, 2019 World bronze medalist Ismail Musukaev tangled with Aliyev, defeating him – in an incredible match. Musukaev went on to lose in the finals to the young, surging contender from Armenia, Vazgen Tevanyan. Aliyev took bronze, but not without suffering an injury himself. In the fallout of that tournament, two of the top contenders for the Olympic title were badly injured.

Since then, hope has been restored. Rashidov comfortably won the 2021 Russian Nationals over #3 Zagir Shakhiev, and looked healthy running through the outmatched field at the Sassari in June.

Aliyev returned at the Olympic Qualifier, punching his ticket with a runner-up finish to Tevanyan. Musukaev qualified via his finish at 2019 Worlds, but has looked terrible ever since the World Cup. He failed to place at the European Championship or the Ziolkowski ranking tournament.

At 2019 Worlds, returning champion Takuto Otoguro took out Tevanyan before being upset by Rashidov in a frustrating performance. He defeated Haji Aliyev on the backside, but dropped the bronze medal match to Musukaev. He has been undefeated since, most notably notching wins over #12 ranked Bajrang Punia.

Aside from Tevanyan’s rise to contention, the medal and title field is identical to 2019 Worlds. Rashidov, Otoguro, and Aliyev have the best shot at gold.

74 KG – Pound-for-pound elites will clash

Top seeds:
#2: Daniyar KAISANOV (KAZ) (unranked)
#3: Zaurbek SIDAKOV (RUS)
#4: Mostafa Mohabbali HOSSEINKHANI (IRI) (ranked #20)

Top ranked competitors:
#1: Zaurbek SIDAKOV (RUS)
#2: Kyle DAKE (USA)
#3: Magomedkhabib KADIMAGOMEDOV (BLR)

Understandably, everyone’s attention is on the potential clash between two-time World champions Sidakov and Dake. It’s #1 vs. #2, it’s Russia vs. USA, and it’s two top five pound-for-pound elites meeting for the first time. Dake is riding a three-year undefeated streak, one that contains two World titles and wins over the great Jordan Burroughs.

At one point, Zaurbek Sidakov had a claim to the pound-for-pound #1 spot. He took out numerous multiple-time World champions like Khetik Tsabolov, Frank Chamizo, and Jordan Burroughs on his dominant reign of terror. However, Sidakov was upset by Tsabolov in October 2020 at Russian Nationals. Tsabolov was then upset by Razambek Zhamalov, and the pecking order in Russia, and internationally, was thrown on its head. Sidakov did not take long to return to form, defeating Zhamalov at the next Russian National tournament. Tsabolov transferred to compete for Serbia, then failed to qualify for the Olympics.

Kyle Dake at the 2021 Olympic Team Trials.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Where does this leave two-time World champion and Olympic bronze medalist Frank Chamizo? Since taking silver to Sidakov at 2019 Worlds, it’s been a rollercoaster. He defeated World champion Gazimagomedov at the 2020 European Championship, then lost to Zhamalov at the 2020 Individual World Cup. He defeated Jordan Burroughs to win the Matteo Pellicone in March, then lost to World bronze medalist Taimuraz Salkazanov at Euros the next month. Chamizo participated in one final ranking tournament in Poland, defaulting in the finals after earning his #1 seed. At the moment, it seems that Chamizo can still hang with the best in the world, but is vulnerable to taking losses that could keep him from even earning a medal.

The dark horse contender, to medal at least, is Russian transfer Kadimagomedov. Now representing Belarus, Kadimagomedov looked phenomenal in taking out World and Olympic bronze medalist Soener Demirtas, as well as #4 Salkazanov. He may not be a true gold medal threat, but he could very well push any man in the bracket to the brink.

86 KG – It’s 2018 again

Top seeds:
#2: Deepak PUNIA (IND) (unranked)
#3: Myles Nazem AMINE (SMR)
#4: Artur NAIFONOV (RUS)

Top ranked competitors:
#1: David TAYLOR (USA)
#3: Artur NAIFONOV (RUS)
#7: Javrail SHAPIEV (UZB)
#12: Myles AMINE (SMR)

2016 Olympic champion Hassan Yazdanicharati is set to challenge for another title. In his way will be a man he has never defeated, the American David Taylor. The two first met at the 2017 World Cup, where Taylor broke the great Iranian and pinned him. Their highly anticipated rematch went down in the very first round of the 2018 World Championship. Both men had made adjustments and Yazdanicharati improved on his first performance, but ultimately the pace and scrambling ability of Taylor made the difference. Taylor went on to win the World title with ease.

Hassan Yazdanicharati poses with his gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games.
Photo by Yifan Ding/Getty Images

A serious knee injury kept Taylor out of competition in 2019, and the United States did not participate in the 2020 Individual World Cup. Taylor has competed a few times since, but never against elite international competition, he was tested by a few domestic challengers, including the great Jordan Burroughs wrestling up a weight class. While Taylor has not suffered a loss since failing to make the 2017 World team against J’den Cox, he doesn’t appear to be in the legendary form that led him to an incredible streak of dominance against the best in the world.

Since the loss to Taylor, Yazdanicharati has been perfect. most notably defeated Naifonov and Amine by pin and technical fall respectively at the 2019 World Championship.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Taylor or Yazdanicharati winning Olympic gold in Tokyo. Has Taylor slowed down, or will the American notch a third straight victory over “Yazdani the Greatest”?

97 KG – Sadulaev set to build legacy

Top seeds:
#1: Abdulrashid SADULAEV (RUS)
#2: Kyle SNYDER (USA)
#3: Alisher YERGALI (KAZ) (unranked)
#4: Magomedgadji NUROV (MKD) (unranked)

Top ranked competitors:
#1: Abdulrashid SADULAEV (RUS)
#2: Mohammad MOHAMMADIAN (IRI)
#3: Kyle SNYDER (USA)
#6: Suleyman KARADENIZ (TUR)
#7 Elizbar ODIKADZE (GEO)

“The Avar Tank” Abdulrashid Sadulaev is on track to become one of the greatest freestyle wrestlers of all time. He has four World titles and a 2016 Olympic gold medal to his name, and he’s only 25 years old. Check out this in-depth career breakdown!

Between 2013 and today, Sadulaev still only has one senior level loss: Kyle Snyder. The two did battle at the 2017 World Championship finals in Sadulaev’s first competition up at 97 kg. It was Sadulaev’s match early, but Snyder kept himself in range, and ultimately his pace and conditioning saw him through for the massive upset. Snyder himself is a multiple-time World and Olympic champion, but this was by far the most significant accomplishment of his career.

Abdulrashid Sadulaev celebrates with his gold medal at the 2016 Olympics.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Their rematch came one year later in the 2018 World finals. Sadulaev pinned Snyder in the first period. He has won every major European and World level competition since, and looks in fine form heading into his second Olympic Games.

Snyder, on the other hand, has met some resistance. After 2018 Worlds, he failed to place at the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, took bronze at 2019 Worlds after losing to Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan, and was absolutely demolished by Mohammadian in 2020. Of course, Snyder also dominated the American domestic scene, and notched a significant tournament championship at the 2019 Alans, defeating #4 Vladislav Baitsaev. Snyder is no stranger to taking losses in-between major international achievements, it would be unwise to count him out entirely. He has moved his training to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club to work with the legend Cael Sanderson, which has already paid dividends in increasing his mobility and variety of attacks.

Mohammadian has held steady after pinning Snyder in Rome, taking out #18 Ibragimov and #8 Shahbanibengar in the lead-up to Tokyo. As an unseeded wrestler, he could appear in Snyder or Sadulaev’s path very early. If he cannot push either of them, it will likely be another gold medal for Abdulrashid Sadulaev.

125 KG – Rivalry threatened by young phenoms

Top seeds:
#2: Yusup BATIRMURZAEV (KAZ) (ranked #9)
#3: Taha AKGUL (TUR)
#4: Oleksandr KHOTSIANIVSKYI (UKR) (unranked)

Top ranked competitors:
#1: Taha AKGUL (TUR)
#3: Amir ZARE (IRI)
#4: Sergey KOZYREV (RUS)
#6: Gable STEVESON (USA)

Top ranked Taha Akgul is a legend in the heavyweight division. After winning three-straight World championships, followed by an Olympic title in 2016, his dominant streak was finally challenged by the rising Georgian, Petriashvili. Petriashvili defeated Akgul in 2017, and outplaced him again to win the 2018 and 2019 World Championships.

Just judging by those trends, it would seem that Petriashvili clearly has the edge in the present day. However, Akgul defeated Petriashvili at the 2019 European Championship, and again in the first round of the 2021 European Championship, 6-1. Despite Petriashvili holding the more recent World title, Akgul actually has had the upper hand in two out of three matches since 2019.

Taha Akgul and Geno Petriashvili face off at the 2018 European Wrestling Championships.
Photo by Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images

Will they clash in the finals once again, or can one of the new era of rising heavyweights break through? By far the most hyped contender is the American Gable Steveson. A three-time age-group World champion, Steveson recently jumped levels and has left his domestic counterparts in the dust. He dominated his way to an Olympic team spot over two-time World medalist Nick Gwiazdowski, and ran up a score on his next closest competitor, Junior World champion Mason Parris.

Mason Parris’ World title actually came by fall over the now #3 ranked Amir Zare. After the loss to Parris, Zare rebounded with a U23 World title in 2019, and a big technical fall victory over Nick Gwiazdowski at the 2019 Alans tournament. The Iranian truly broke into the top five in 2019 with a shocking, high scoring win over Geno Petriashvili. Zare is riding an undefeated hot streak and could make serious waves in this division.

Wrestling fans should always make sure to never count out the Russians. While heavyweight is not typically one of their best spots, Sergey Kozyrev has made a serious run in the last year. After failing to place at the 2020 Russian National tournament, he rebounded with gold in 2021. Eight of the top 20 heavyweights in the World are Russian and Kozyrev’s spot at the top is no small feat. With his only recent loss coming to #1 Akgul, could the young upstart make an impact on this bracket?

When the brackets come out, I will break down the draws and make a few official predictions. Comment with your favorites and potential dark horses to win Olympic gold!

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