As evidenced by the massive popularity of the modern NFL, sports fans love parity. Athletic competition is just more interesting when more competitors have a reasonable shot at winning. I suspect that parity is the reason that many freestyle wrestling fans will find the Olympic's men's sixty-six kilogram weight class so interesting. This weight features a myriad of highly accomplished wrestlers, and any of them stands a decent chance of going home with a gold medal.
Most of the world's greatest wrestling nations will have a star wrestler vying for gold at this weight. This preview aims to give readers a better idea of who the major players are and their real chances of victory.
Olympic Wrestling Previews
After the jump, we examine the sixty-six kilogram weight class in freestyle at the Olympic games.
As always, I begin with a list of competitors and results from world-level championships from the past Olympic cycle:
The Field At 66kg
Mehdi Taghavi, Iran
Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu Japan
Yabrail Hasanov, Azerbaijan
Livan Lopez, Cuba
Leonid Bazan, Bulgaria
Alan Gaughan, Russial
Ali Shabanau, Belarus
Devid Safaryan, Armenia
Ikhtiyor Navruzov, Uzbekistan
Akzhurek Tanatarov, Kazakhstan
Haislan Garcia, Canada
Jared Frayer, USA
Abou Ahmed, Egypt
Haitem Ben Alaiyech, Tunisia
Sushil Kumar, India
Otar Tushishvili, Georgia
Andriy Kvyatkovsky, Ukraine
Zalimkhan Yusupov, Tajikstan
Ramazan Sahin, Turkey
2011 world championships
1.Mehdi Taghavi, Iran
2.Tastsuhiro Yonemitsu, Japan
3. Yabrail Hasanov, Azerbaijan; Livan Lopez, Cuba
2010 World Championship
1. Sushil Kumar India
2. Alan Gogaev, Russia
3. Yabrail Hasanov,Azerbaijan, Geandry Garzon, Cuba
2009 world championship
1.Kermani Taghavi, Iran
2.Rasul Dyukaev, Russia
3.Spiridonov, Leonid; Kazakhstan, Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu
1. Ramazan Shahin, Turkey
2.Stadnik, Andrey, Ukraine
3.Sushil Kumar, India; Otar Tushishvili, Georgia
My Thoughts On This Weight:
This is a fascinating weight, well rounded in talent and though possessing favorites, no one favorite's chances dwarf another's. Contributing to these circumstances is the fact the Russian at this weight, Gogaev, is merely excellent, and not a pound for pound best in the world. Russia is arguably the favorite to win gold at five of seven weights; this is one of the two where their chances are the lowest. This weight provides traditional wrestling powers Japan, Iran, and Cuba with their best (and maybe only realistic) shot to bring home a freestyle gold at these Olympics; pressure on their respective wrestlers will be immense.
I suppose Russia's wrestling greatness can be understood more richly when you look at the rest of the great wrestling countries in the world and realize they are all fighting over the same scraps fallen from the Russian feast. Russia simply doesn't leave enough spots at the top of the podium to go around after they are done gorging on gold. 66 kilos is the juiciest morsel potentially dropping from the Russian table.
Going Supposed to Win This Weight:
Mehdi Taghavi is the reigning world champion, most accomplished wrestler at this weight and should be considered the favorite. I love the way Taghavi wrestlers, he sets up shots simply and beautifully, generally looks to score with his own moves rather than to counter, and possesses a wide array of skills. All of the aspects of Taghavi's wrestling are entertaining, but when they are combined with Taghavi the person, a precious property emerges which is so often lacking in this sport: star power.
I've always seen Taghavi as a born star, he is charismatic, he wrestles with emotion and he relishes the praise of the crowd. I always assumed that he would achieve great celebrity in Iran, but I may be wrong. I have recently heard that since the massive freestyle rule changes after the Athens Olympics, the Iranian usual public's adoration of their wrestling stars has waned. Current Iranian wrestling standouts no longer enjoy the same household name status as past champions like Abbas Jadidi, Ali Reza Heidari, and Ali Reza Dabir. I theorize that Iranian resentment of the rule changes stems from their view that freestyle wrestling is their sport. By changing the sport so radically, FILA divested Iranian fans of a precious possession.
Anger over rule changes or not, Iranian wrestling fans are still the best in the world, and they will undoubtedly be out in droves in London. When I attended the wrestling world cup in Fairfax, Virginia, I estimate that Iranian fans outnumbered American fans three to one. Iranians love wrestling and expect big things from their team in London, a team which they hope can unseat Russia as the best in the world. They are the reigning world cup champions,and the time may have finally come for Iranian wrestling to stand on top of the world.
There is little chance of this coming to pass. This Iranian team is extremely good, but I see potential for great disappointment in the Iranian fans when the final medal count is tallied. Iran's team is balanced from top to bottom and stacked with quality. Unfortunately, tournaments like the Olympics do not reward a team's balance, as the world cup does, rather, they favor only exceptional individuals. Though Iran won the world cup last month as a team, not a single one of their wrestlers went undefeated and captured individual gold. This is a bad omen for Olympic success, where individual perfection is absolutely necessary. Iranian fans should take great pride in their team, it is truly the second best in the world, but they should also embrace the fact that there is a good chance that they may not win even a solitary gold medal.
Who Will Win if the Favorite Does Not:
This weight is deep and there are a few wrestlers with notably strong chances to win.
Japanese wrestling is rising just like the sun on their flag, and Yonemitsu represents this proud wrestling nation's best chance at a gold. Yonemitsu beat Taghavi while winning gold at last month's world cup, avenging his loss to him at last year's world championships. Yonemitsu has won multiple world medals and certainly has proven that he has what it takes to be an Olympic champ.
This is the first time I've mentioned a Cuban in a preview, which is a shame. Cuba is traditionally one of the best wrestling countries in the world and still would be if they were fielding the team they should have had. Sadly, Cuban wrestling has been plagued by off the mat issues including defection and the selling of matches. Apparently Cuban wrestlers are a common party to this kind of curruption; they are good enough to find themselves in crucial matches at big tournaments and they are poor. I'm not a fan of fixing matches, but I'm even less of a fan of poverty, so when I reach into my emotional cupboard to grab some moral outrage and sanctimonious judgement over this issue, I can't seem to find any.
Lopez was a bronze medalist at an incredibly tough weight last year in the world championships. This alone marks him as a gold medal contender at these Olympics. He's explosive and has no problem going big with high amplitude throws(seen here tossing American, Teyon Ware).
I mentioned Lopez, so I should mention Hasanov, the other Bronze medalist from last year. I think his chances for gold are a bit weaker than Lopez's after his recent losses to Taghavi at the world cup and American number two, Brent Metcalf at the Olympic test event in London.
A two time Yarygin champ and world silver medalist, Gogaev is tough and stands a serious chance of winning this weight. It is hard to gauge his chances against the top dogs here as he has no track record against them save for a world finals loss to the next wrestler to be discussed...
Dark horse from an unlikely land:
India's Sushil Kumar is physically impressive and fun to watch; simply put, he is a beast. As India's only wrestling world champion and their second Olympic medalist in the sport, he seems to enjoy a decent level of mainstream Indian media coverage. A topic of discussion within this coverage is whether or not his recent marriage has made him complacent and caused his recent decline in form. Supposedly, he has made adjustments in his training accomodations to compensate for the success subverting matrimonial bliss. His convincing defeat of Olympic Medalist, Gerogia's Otar Tushishivili, at a recent Olympic qualifying tournament may be a sign that the recent changes are working.
How the American Will Do:
I've made a strange habit of completely disregarding Jared Frayer throughout his freestyle career. When I previewed this weight for the Olympic trials, I didn't even list him as a contender for the Olympic spot. In my Darrion Caldwell article I failed mention the fact that he was the only wrestler to beat Darrion at the 2009 world team trials. I've never given him the chance he deserves, and though it pains me greatly, I'm not giving him much of a chance at these Olympics.
Frayer does possess a puncher's chance. He's a big move guy and capable of ending matches instantly with something spectacular. He also distinguishes himself from most other American wrestlers by being a counter wrestler and using many native freestyle techniques. Frayer is good enough to medal if he receives a favorable draw, but this weight has too many studs, and there will be no where in the bracket to hide. Jared Frayer's odds to medal at this weight are long, and his chance at a gold is minutely slim.
In the interest of eliminating any internal consistency to the rationale behind my picks, I am predicting a final between the two wrestlers with the best odds. Yonemitsu and Taghavi will wrestle in the finals with Yonemitsu prevailing, replicating the results of their match in the world cup. Yonemitsu will vault himself into celebrity status in Japan, will probably perform weird song and dance numbers on Japanese talk television, and will compete in Ninja Warrior where he will advance to stage three and fail at the Ultimate Cliffhanger, which has proved impossible for all but three contestants. I'm serious about how good he will be at Ninja Warrior, dude's been doing his pull ups.
Frayer + 1000