Wrestling: Hassan Yazdani and the pain of being second best

Hassan Yazdani may be the biggest "what if" in wrestling today. With David Taylor sitting on the throne, what if Yazdani will only be known as second best?

By: Blaine Henry | 3 months ago
Wrestling: Hassan Yazdani and the pain of being second best

In Belgrade, Serbia, United World Wrestling is wrapping up the World Wrestling Championships. Champions are being crowned and weights are being qualified for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. A particularly wild year, the event is always a blast to watch as the best in the world compete at the highest of levels. In the weight of 86 kilograms, an Olympic weight, Team USA’s David Taylor defeated Hassan Yazdani for the gold medal.

Talk around the wrestling circuits is that David Taylor is approaching best-of-all-time status at 86. That leaves many wondering how good Yazdani would be if David Taylor was not around.

Being second best in wrestling: Hassan Yazdani and David Taylor

Since the 2016 Iran Olympic trials, Hassan Yazdani has only lost to David Taylor. Let’s rephrase that: Yazdani has been near unbeatable for seven years with David Taylor being the lone exception. He’s beat names like Alex Dieringer, Aniuar Geduev, and Deepak Punia among many others. He even as a singular win over Taylor.

But for the most part, Taylor has had Yazdani’s number. After Yazdani won the gold medal in the 2016 Olympic Games at 76 kilos, the question then turned to just how far the newly minted 21 year old Olympic champion could go.

Leading into that Olympic cycle, a young David Taylor failed to make Team USA. Instead, J’Den Cox was the representative at 86 kilograms. After cutting his teeth at 74 against American greats Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Dake, Taylor decided the weight cut was too much.

The two met in the 2017 World Cup in the finals. Taylor ran through Yazdani and won via fall. Yazdani would go on and win two World Championships where Taylor was not involved. Taylor won the 2018 World Cup and the world turned to the World Champions. Yazdani and Taylor met in the first round. Taylor managed to win 11-6, knocking the Iranian o

ut of the world championship race. Taylor would, of course, win.

Things got very interesting at the 2020 Team USA trials when David Taylor has a career best outing. Gabe Dean, Jordan Burroughs and Bo Nickal all fell at Taylor’s hands. The Olympic stage was set.

Both Yazdani and Taylor advanced through the Olympics in Tokyo and met in the finals. Yazdani was closing the gap on Taylor but lost the big match 4-3. But it was the Olympics, the big dance. Yazdani had tasted that glory before and this time he’s on the other side of things, sitting in defeat.

In 2021, the same year as the 2020 Olympics oddly enough, it seemed Yazdani had caught up to Taylor, beating him 6-2 in the World Championships. But even that win was a little hollow given that Yazdani lost in Tokyo.

And then we look at the 2022 World Championships. Just as Hassan Yazdani thought he’d finally closed the gap and surpassed Taylor just in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, Taylor goes out and puts Yazdani away 7-1.

While Yazdani is already an insanely accomplished wrestler, there’s that question of what could have been. He won gold at the 2016 Olympics and three World Championships in 2017, 2019 and 2021. But since Taylor has been around, Yazdani has lost out on three World Championships and an Olympic gold medal at the hands of David Taylor and only David Taylor.

If David Taylor did not exist, it’s not too farfetched to believe that Hassan Yazdani would have six World Championships and two Olympic gold medals.

If you ain’t first, you’re last

Hassan Yazdani and David Taylor’s rivalry reminds me of Daniel Cormier. A wrestler in his own right, Daniel Cormier was always only second best. Like Yazdani’s 2016 Olympic gold medal, Cormier once tasted the top when he finally beat Stipe Miocic in 2018. But throughout most of his career, Cormier was always in the shadow of someone else.

In the 2001 NCAA Championships, Cormier lost to Cael Sanderson in the finals. He came up short in the 2004 Summer Olympics, dropping his last match against bronze medalist Alireza Heidari. He was never the best in wrestling.

UFC 182 he took on Jon Jones and, while the fight was close, Cormier couldn’t get it done. He would go on to win the title against Anthony Johnson at UFC 187 but that was because Jones was stripped of a title. When Jones returned, he looked decent but was ultimately knocked out by the left high kick he swore Jones wouldn’t get him with. He retained the title but everyone knew it was actually Jones who was the rightful heir. Daniel Cormier was never truly the greatest light heavyweight.

After moving up to heavyweight, Cormier got the taste of undisputed glory when he knocked Stipe Miocic out in round one. He defended his title against Lewis and looked great. Miocic finally returned a year later and knocked Cormier out in the fourth round. A trilogy would be required to determine who the best heavyweight was. UFC 252 would determine that Miocic would retain the title. If you look at the head to head and squint your eyes a bit, Cormier was never the best heavyweight either.

Daniel Cormier was always second best.

How will you be remembered?

Everyone knows Ryan Lochte because he was always number two to Michael Phelps. Alex Zulle was behind Lance Armstrong. There is Daniel Cormier behind Sanderson, Jones, and Miocic. The Utah Jazz behind Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 90’s. History remembers those who fell to second, but it’s never adoringly as the winners, the champions.

Hassan Yazdani will always be an Olympic champion and three time World Champion. Nothing short of a major doping scandal can take that from him. But with David Taylor around, his growth and accomplishments were nearly completely stopped in their tracks. When it’s all said and done, Hassan Yazdani could be seen as the man who could not beat David Taylor.

That’s not to say that Yazdani will not be able to make a leap in skill and overtake Taylor in the 2023 World Championships and 2024 Olympic Games. These types of stories always have some adversity and a motivating factor for our protagonist to overcome. But that’s Hollywood. David Taylor is not a bad guy, nor is Yazdani. The motivation is needed but to get to the level Hassan Yazdani is at and to stay there, that’s necessary.

It’s going to be the hard work from Yazdani to overcome the American, David Taylor. But that’s what makes wrestling such an exciting sport. It is mano e mano, you versus him. The only way to become better than someone is to out work them every single day.

Hassan Yazdani will be doing that. Which means David Taylor will be working even harder than that. That will make Yazdani step up his game. Then Taylor…you get the point. That’s how we determine the best. That’s how you become the best.

Hassan Yazdani may go down as second best. He may be the man who couldn’t beat the great David Taylor. But is there any shame in that? Aside from Taylor, there was not a better wrestler than Hassan Yazdani. That’s a great place to be. And in 25 years, when someone talks of Taylor, Yazdani will be brought up and will see how great he was, even if he was around at the same time as a generational talent.

Or perhaps he will become the best. The only way to find out is to let time take it’s course and see how the land lay in 10 years. Yazdani or Taylor?

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Blaine Henry
Blaine Henry

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