The best Olympic wrestling preview on the web is back with the eighty-four kilogram weight class in men's freestyle wrestling. Here, the United States' Jake Herbert looks to improve on his silver medal performance in the 2009 world championships and stand on top of the Olympic podium. Standing in his way is a host of impressive contenders hailing from the shadows of the Caucasus mountains.
While the odds may be long, and the competition fierce, every Olympic games seem to bring us the tale of an American wrestler accomplishing something truly amazing. In London, that American wrestler may just be Jake Herbert. This preview will tell you why.
Olympic Wrestling Previews
Keep reading after the jump for a discussion of the eighty-four kilogram weight class at the 2012 London Olympics in men's freestyle wrestling, and lengthy thoughts about the absence of American wrestling legend, Cael Sanderson.
I'd also like to add that though their are many Americans, both northern and southern, competing in wrestling in these Olympics, I use the locution "American" to describe someone from the USA. I sincerely hope this does not offend anyone.
As always, I begin with a list of competitors and results from world-level championships from the past Olympic cycle:
1 Sharif Sharifov, Azerbaijan
2 Ibragim Aldatov, Ukraine
3 Anzor Urishev, Russia
4 Dato Marsagishvili, Georgia
5 Jake Herbert, USA
6 Armands Zvirbulis, Latvia
7 Gadzhimurad Nurmagomedov, Armenia
8 Ibrahim Bolukbasi, Turkey
9 Ehsan Lashgari, Iran
10 Zaurbek Sokhiev, Uzbekistan
11 Humberto Arencibia, Cuba
12 Jaime Espinal, Puerto Rico
13 Mohamed Louafi, Algeria
14 Andrew Dick, Nigeria
15 Jose Diaz, Venezuela
16 Soslan Gattsiev, Belarus
17 Yerbek Baiduashov, Kazakhstan
18 Yusup Abusalomov, Tajikistan
19 Uitumen Orgodol, Mongolia
2011 World Championships
1 Sharif Sharifov, Azerbaijan
2 Ibragim Aldatov, Ukraine
3 Albert Saritov,Russia; Dato Marsagishvili, Georgia
2010 World Championships
1 Michail Ganev, Bulgaria
2 Zaurbek Sokhiev, Uzbekistan
3 Soslan Ktsoev, Russia; Reineri Salas, Cuba
2009 World Championships
1 Zaurbek Sokhiev, Uzbekistan
2 Jake Herbert,United States of America
3 Ibragim Aldatov, Ukraine; Sharif Sharifov, Azerbaijan
1 Revaz Mindorashvili, Georgia
2 Yusup Abdusalamov,Tajikistan
3 Taras Danko, Ukraine; Georgi Ketoev, Russia
My Thoughts on This Weight
I value honesty in sports writing, and try to behave in a way which reflects my own personal values, so I'll be frank, 84 kilos on paper is the least interesting freestyle weight class in this Olympic games. It lacks star power, and it possesses little in the way of prepackaged compelling story lines. This is an open weight where many competitors have a very good shot at gold, and while I lauded this very same characteristic at sixty-six kilos, I find the openness of eighty-four to be somewhat...empty. I do, however, believe that an interesting story will emerge where there was not one before, but more on that later.
Nigeria's qualifier here is named Andy Dick.
I would say this is Russia's weakest weight as Anzor Urishev doesn't have world or Olympic level experience, but he is a Yarygin champ and a European champ, and beat out last year's world bronze medalist Albert Saritov for the Olympic spot. If Urishev were to go and win gold, it would be no big surprise.
What the heck happened to Michail Ganev of Bulgaria who won worlds two years ago? Or maybe I should ask, in hindsight, how the heck did Michail Ganev win worlds in 2010? His results since then have been very pedestrian and he didn't even come that close to qualifying for these games.
I don't know much about Arencibia, the Cuban at this weight, but I saw him handle a tough Jaime Espinal at the Pan American Olympic qualifier, and the Cuban he replaced, suspended Reneiri Salas, was a world bronze medalist. Keep an eye on Arencibia, he could be dangerous.
Who Should Win This Weight
Cael Sanderson should be winning this weight at the London Olympics. The force behind this "should" statement stems solely from my selfishishness. I really want to see him wrestle, and because of this, Sanderson ought to have continued his Olympic run after his let down of a world championships in 2011. In keeping with my fanboyism, I find it irrelevant that Cael has obligations as a father, husband, head coach of the number one wrestling team in the NCAA, and to his own happiness. It is far more important that Cael pleases me, Mike Riordan; I write clever wrestling stuff on the internet.
Returning to seriousness, Sanderson may have quit competing after the 2004 Olympics, but he never stopped wrestling. I get the impression that he has been on the mat quite a bit in his role as a coach, often partnering with one of his proteges and friend, ninety-six kilogram Olympian, Jake Varner. Varner has been the United States' very best at his weight in three different years, but when Cael was asked why he, himself, did not attempt to win the Olympic spot at ninety-six kilos, his response was that he did not want to take Jake's spot, as if defeating Varner would be a foregone conclusion. In his retirement, terrifyingly, the greatest collegiate wrestler ever and Olympic gold medalist was improving.
This is purely speculation, but I think that freestyle wrestling after college was more something Cael was obliged to pursue than something he truly wanted to do. He had already endured mountains of pressure during his years in college as he attracted substantial attention during his quest do the impossible in NCAA division one wrestling: win four NCAA titles without a loss in the process (Undefeated had happened before, as did a four time champ, but not both. And yes, Cael did lose in unattached competition during his red shirt freshman year, it doesn't count, it shouldn't count, it is not a worthy topic of discussion).
Cael completed an immaculate collegiate career, defeating all comers, and should have felt the burden of expectations lift from his shoulders, but instead, he found himself instantly encumbered with a heavier load. The expected and demanded encore from the sports greatest collegiate wrestling career was an Olympic gold medal. Anything less would be forever viewed as unsatisfactory, a blemish on his legacy.
When it comes to winning Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling, there are no sure things. Being the world's best American collegiate wrestler in no way guarantees becoming the world's best freestyle wrestler. Collegiate wrestling's only other four time champion, Pat Smith, did not even sniff at Olympic glory. It looked possible that Sanderson's monumental success, ironically, was setting him up for great disappointment.
Thankfully, Sanderson won gold in Athens and there was no disappointment. But there was something strange about the reaction to his triumph, both from him and from the wrestling community. Generally when an American wins gold, wrestling fans rejoice and the wrestler is exultant; take Henry Cejudo's gold medal celebration in Beijing as a prime example. The overpowering emotion I detected from Sanderson and American wrestling fans after Cael's Olympic championship was relief in the fact that the greatest ever practitioner of the American style of wrestling could indeed beat the rest of the world in the international style. I think Cael felt liberated, his duty had finally been fulfilled, and he could move on to far more enjoyable matters.
Cael, and I am continuing to speculate here, is a person who keenly feels the pull of duty, and it was duty more than anything else which brought him back to competition last year. He knew, and many others suspected, that he was the country's best hope for a Gold medal at last year's world championship and this year's Olympics at eighty-four kilos; I believe that Cael felt this imposed a duty on him to represent his country once more. Cael lost the weight, won the spot, and looked poised to make another Olympic gold medal run.
This run did not go as planned; something strange happened at last year's world championships that changed things: Cael wrestled a bad match and lost. Granted, this match was against the eventual world champion, but Cael made many uncharacteristic mistakes. He squandered a lead and lost the first period, then he fell behind in the second period, got sloppy, and got beat, and just like that, his bid for a world gold medal was over. His Olympic aspirations were effectively finished as well. Cael still had a shot at a bronze medal, which he didn't achieve after falling victim to a questionable call, but I think that even had Sanderson captured third place, he would have called it quits. I am of the mind that Cael had an epiphany when he lost the first match. He realized that he was in a foreign land, away from his family, competing in a wrestling style that he didn't particularly enjoy just to satisfy the demands of fans, and he was doing this despite the fact that he had absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. To top it off, he was now losing, and losing is painful. Duty or not, Cael became aware that the whole endeavor was simply not worth it. The expected benefit no longer outweighed the potential cost.
[Author's note: I spend so much time on Cael, more than half of this post, because his importance warrants it. I feel immensely blessed that I was a wrestling fan during the Cael Sanderson era, just as I am blessed to be exposed to similar virtuosity as it happened during my lifetime. Watching Cael wrestle gave me the same feeling as listening to a Cliff Burton baseline, reading Cormac McCarthy paint a picture with sparse language, or watching Daniel Day Lewis slobber and beat the Little Miss Sunshine guy with a bowling pin. Cael demonstrated greatness of the sort that often made his contemporaries look like fetid heaps of poop, and he demonstrated it while I was around to appreciate it. I intend to justify a writing about Cael Sanderson's wrestling with even the flimsiest of excuses.]
Cael retired again and I have no doubt he is at peace with his decision and fully content. He should be, he's done nothing wrong and doesn't owe me a dang thing.
Still, it sucks that we won't see him competing for gold in London.
So the person who should be favored at this weight is Azerbaijan's Sharif Sharifov, the returning world champ and the wrestler who bested Sanderson in the match discussed above. Much like Azerbaijan's other star wrestlers, Sharifov is not Azerbaijani, he is of Russian of origin, or, to be more specific, he is Dagestani. Stylistically, Sharifov isn't sexy and he isn't exciting; he wins because scores when he needs to and never ever makes mistakes. If Woody Hayes were a freestyle wrestling coach, his prototype wrestler would be Sharifov. Personally, I would like to say that Sharifov isn't that good, but the fact that he beat Sanderson pretty handily, and the rest of his very impressive resume, proves otherwise.
Azerbaijan has the world's third best national wrestling team, even if it is filled with non-Azerbaijani's, and Sharifov is their best wrestler with the best shot at Olympic gold. If Sharifov doesn't come through, we could be living in a world where both Iran and Azerbaijan go goldless in freestyle wrestling.
Who Will Win it if Sharifov Doesn't
Let's go with another Russian wrestler from a Caucus republic wrestling elsewhere, Uzbekistan's Zaurbek Sokhiev. He won a world championship in Denmark a few years ago and like Sharifov is extremely good in a fantastically unspectacular manner.
How the American Will Do at This Weight
In 2009, Jake Herbert won a world silver medal at eighty-four kilos. He was fresh off a fantastic collegiate career where he spearheaded a renaissance in Northwestern University's wrestling program. He looked to be the future face of USA Wrestling and to contend multiple world and Olympic championships.
Since then, his results have been mixed at best. He, along with every other American, failed to place in the 2010 world championships in Moscow (what a debacle), and he didn't compete in last year's world championships after losing in the world team trials to the unretired Cael Sanderson. Though he was competitive with Cael in his trials matches, he clearly appeared be the lesser wrestler.
After Cael's re-retirement, Jake once more occupies the top spot for the U.S. at this weight, but concerns remain as to whether he can replicate his success in 2009. I believe that Jake will once more have a medal hanging from his neck, here is why:
- I think Jake has simply been slumping and that he is due to break out and have a run of success.
- I believe that Jake's downturn in results are due to his over reliance on his head inside single and low lift finish, and that the rest of the world have heavily scouted him and made accommodations for his tendencies. My theory is that he and coach Sean Bormet have been in the lab working on a new dimension to his offense to finally unleash on unsuspecting opponents on the world's biggest stage.
- Jake convincingly lost in last year's world team trials to a wrestler who "only" got fifth in the world, and dropped a match to a bumped up Trent Paulson in the Olympictrials finals, but come his time to shine in London, these things won't matter. In every Olympics the U.S. seems to have a wrestler overachieve, exceed expectations, and make an insane run when many did not even believe him to even be the best American at his weight. Henry Cejudo had a terrible 2007 world championships, and looked to be a lesser wrestler than Olympic Team Trials finals opponent Stephen Abas, until Abas re-aggravated his knee injury. Jamil Kelly bested an Olympic trials field filled with better pedigreed wrestlers, including former Iowa great Lincoln McIlravy, and won a silver in Athens, after making no noise in the 2003 world championships, . Brandon Slay came out of nowhere in the Olympic trials of 2000, placing ahead of favorite Joe Williams in the Olympic trials, and then making a miraculous gold medal run in Sydney which included a win over the greatest wrestler of all time, Bouvaisar Saitiev.
I believe that Jake is the next American to go from written-off to greatness.