A Thorough Olympic Freestyle Wrestling Preview: Men's Ninety-Six Kilograms

NEW YORK - MAY 05: Jake Varner of USA looks on in USA vs Russia freestyle wrestling during the 2011 "Beat The Street" Gala on May 5, 2011 in Times Square, New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Ninety-Six kilograms in Olympic freestyle wrestling can be a terrifying thing to behold. It is like a ballet of violence between two athletes of the quality, size and power of NFL linebackers (before weight cut). Here, great force, applied with artistic precision, collides in a spectacle that is the greatest in all the Olympic games.

This is the main event: the deepest and meanest weight class of all. Three former world champions, and even more former world level medalists, inhabit this weight, and all will compete for gold. It is likely, however, that none of them will stand atop of the medal stand. Rather, this weight will serve as the coming out party for wrestling's newest superstar, and will be his most significant step on his way to becoming an all time great.

If you were going to watch one weight in wrestling at these Olympics, let it be this one. Watch it to be thrilled by the speed and strength, watch it to see the best go toe to toe, above all, watch it to see wrestling's next legend begin his journey to immortality.

Olympic Wrestling Previews

Men's Freestyle 55kg | Men's Freestyle 60kg | Men's Freestyle 66kg|

Men's Freestyle 74kg|Men's Freestyle 84kg

Keep reading after the jump for a discussion of the ninety-six kilogram weight class at the 2012 London games.

As a primer I advise reading the introduction to my very first weight class preview to understand how I am structuring each of these previews.

I'd also like to add that though there 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.

Finally, due to translation issues, the spellings of certain wrestlers' names may different here than in different publications.

As always, I begin with a list of competitors and results from world-level championships from the past Olympic cycle:

Field of Competitiors

1 Reza Yazdani, Iran
2 Serhat Balci, Turkey
3 Jake Varner, USA
4 Ruslan Sheikau, Belarus
5 Taimuraz Tigiev, Kazakhstan
6 Sinivie Boltic, Nigeria
7 Abdusalam Gadisov, Russia
8 Georgi Gogshelidze, Georgia
9 Kurban Kurbanov, Uzbekistan
10 Rustam Iskamdari, Tajikistan
11 Javier Cortina, Cuba
12 Khetag Pliev, Canada
13 Saleh Emara, Egypt
14 Nathaniel Tuamaheloa, American Samoa
15 Khetag Gazyumov, Azerbaijan
16 Magomed Musaev, Kyrgystan
17 Valerii Andriitsev, Ukraine
18 Nicolai Ceban, Moldova
19Takao Isokawa, Japan

2011 World Championships

1. Reza Yazdani, Iran

2. Serhat Balci, Turkey

3. Rouslan Sheikau, Belarus; Jake Varner, USA

2010 World Championships

1. Khetag Gazyumov, Azerbaijan

2. Khadsimourad Gatsalov, Russia

3. Rouslan Sheikau, Belarus; Georgi Gogshelidze, Georgia

2009 World Championships

1.Khadsimourad Gatsalov, Russia

2. Khetag Gazyumov, Azerbaijan

3. Serhat Balci, Turkey; Georgi Gogshelidze, Georgia

2008 Olympics

1. Shirvani Muradov, Russia

2. Taimuraz Tigiev, Kazakhstan

3. Khetag Gazyumov, Azerbaijan; Georgi Gogshelidze, Georgia

My RandomThoughts on this Weight

  • This is the best weight at the Olympics. It is filled with stars at the top end of the weight, along with a ton of worthy second tier challengers. I love watching this weight, the wrestlers are fantastically strong, but suffer almost no drop off in speed and technique compared to their smaller peers.
  • I haven't mentioned Canada yet, which is unfair. They lack the superstars of the past like Gia Sissaouri or Daniel Igali, but have a very respectable team, even if some of their best wrestlers aren't really from Canada. Khetag Pliev, at this weight, is a tough, world class wrestler, though I highly doubt that he medals here. Medals or not, those boys from north of the border deserve some recognition.
  • Serhat Balci of Turkey consistently places near the top of the world, and has finished as high as second, but I can't help being fairly unimpressed by him. He manages to repeatedly beat American number one, Jake Varner (more on him later), but has lost to two wrestlers behind Varner on the U.S. depth chart, Dustin Kilgore and J.D. Bergman. I can't figure Balci out. I guess he's a gamer and wins matches when they count the most.
  • Taimuraz Tigiev of Kazakhstan has a brother named Soslan Tigiev who wrestles for Uzbekistan at seventy-four kilos. Neither are from Central Asia, in fact, both come from Vladikavkaz, the capital city of the Republic of North Ossetia, which is part of Russia. Weird, huh?
  • George Godshelidze also is originally Russian and a world champion in 2001 while competing for Russia. He has placed highly at world championships fairly recently, and he has to be considered a gold medal contender. That said, though my Russian source says otherwise (I assume he's Russian, I've never asked), I would not be surprised if Georgia sends Elizbar Odikadze who won an individual gold at the World Cup in May, beating Iran's Reza Yazdani in the process.
  • Finally, I need to mention the Belarussian, Ruslan Sheikau, somewhere in this post. Ruslan is very consistent, very accomplished, and very good. If I were to make odds, which you may have noticed I am not anymore, I would give him the fourth best odds of winning this weight.

Who is Supposed to Win this Weight?

This is much like fifty-five kilos in that the Russian representative is the wrestler I favor to win, even though he has never won a world championship or competed in an Olympics. Of course, just to earn his country's Olympic spot, Abdusalam Gadisov had to best a Russian nationals field which was arguably as tough or tougher than the Olympic field, which as I stated above, comprises the toughest weight at these games.(Marat Ibragimov, who only won one match at this weight at Russian Nationals, recently defeated American world bronze medalist Jake Varner).

Unlike Djamal Otarsultanov at fifty-five kilos, Gadisov is entering a weight class with the past two world champions still in contention. As a result of this, his being my choice as the favorite may seem somewhat objectionable, particularly to our Iranian readers. All I can say is that his credentials, outside of worlds and the Olympics, are spectacular, including a Yarygin and European championship, and that the buzz he has generated is intense.

In my interview with U.S. Olympian Andy Hrovat, who has deep ties to the Russian wrestling community, I was informed that many consider Gadisov to be the most technical wrestler in all of Russia, the country with the most well schooled and drilled wrestlers in the world. All this in addition to the fact that physically, he is a monster. Gadisov is the total package.

To win Russian nationals, Gadisov had to beat the best wrestler ever at this weight, Khadsimourad Gatsalov. Gatsalov is not the dominant wrestler he used to be, he did not place at last year's world championships and lost in the finals to Khetag Gayzumov of Azerbaijan the year before. He is still one of the world's very best, however, and he proved this by reaching the finals of Russian nationals this year, though he may have been the beneficiary of a somewhat favorable draw.

To digress a bit, Gatsalov is a worthy topic of discussion, particularly as the embers of his brilliant career look to finally go dark. He is a four time world champion and Olympic gold medalist, and is the only wrestler I know of to have beaten both Daniel Cormier and Cael Sanderson in international competition, though the Sanderson win was a bit questionable.

[Author's note: the win against Sanderson occurred at the 2003 World Cup in Boise, Idaho which was so poorly attended by international teams that they had to form a "World Select Team" of backups from various countries, and by various countries I mean only only Americans and like one German. In other words, there was a bandit team, the kind you see at high school JV Jamborees, at the freaking World Cup of freestyle wrestling. OMG. The cherry on top is that this bandit team placed fourth, beating Ukraine.]

Gatsalov emerged from the most absurd logjam ever seen at a weight class. In 2002, when FILA shrunk the number of weight classes from eight to seven, Russia possessed more than a mere embarrassment of riches at the eighty-four kilogram weight class; they had enough wealth to cause white-faced humiliation. Adam Saitiev, despite wrestling up a weight due to his luminary older brother, was coming off a spectacular pin of Yoel Romero in the 2000 Olympics final (the internet has been scrubbed of this footage apparently, so have many other subsequent matches I reference in this piece; I am ever so pissed), and two more consecutive world championships after that, but he would never represent Russia in a world championships or Olympics past 2002. In 2003, he was supplanted by Sazhid Sazhidov, who would go on to win two world championships and a bronze in the Athens Olympics. Eighty-four kilograms in Athens is where Cael Sanderson won his gold, and while I hate to say it, he was fortunate that Sazhid suffered a surprising upset in the semi-finals at the hands of South Korea's Moon Eui-Jae. Sazhid had beaten Sanderson in the finals of the world championships in New York in 2003.

In 2003, it appeared that Russia's past at eighty-four kilograms was Saitiev and that its future was Sazhidov. The odd man out appeared to be the supremely talented young prospect Gatsalov. Gatsalov chose to bump up a weight to ninety-six kilos, and the rest is history. He has now accomplished more than Sazhidov, and has a career on par with Adam Saitiev, who is, undisputedly, a legend.

Gadisov's match with Gatsalov in the finals of this year's Russian nationals was a tense affair without much scoring, but this is to be expected from two elite wrestlers who know each other so well. I have heard that the two are training partners; a closeness and respect can be felt in the embrace they share at the conclusion of their match. That embrace, I believe, was a torch passing of sorts, it was as if Gatsalov was saying to Gadisov, "Please, my friend, proudly wear my favorite pair of ass-kicking boots."

And kick ass is just what I suspect Gadisov will do, at these Olympics, and beyond.

Who will win this weight if Gadisov doesn't?

Iran always seems to have a stud at this weight, from Abas Jadidi, to Ali-Reza Heidari, and to a lesser degree Saed Abrahimi; now they have reigning world champ, Reza Yazdani. Yazdani is a compact wrecking machine in the prime of his career, and has only lost a handful of matches since his move up to this weight in 2010.

In May's world cup, Yazdani looked every bit as spectacular as he did in last year's world championship in Istanbul, save for one example. He destroyed US Olympian Jake Varner in a way that I didn't think was possible, and defeated Azerbaijani rival and 2010 world champion, Gayzumov, who would be my third pick to win gold at this weight. He did suffer an uncharacteristic loss, however, when he fell to Georgia's backup,Odikadze . This could be written off as simply par for the course; at this level top guys are inevitably going to drop a match here and there. But the Olympics demands perfection, and this loss was enough to drop him below Gadisov, in my mind, as the favorite at this weight.

Darkhorse from a Strange Land:

Africa does not produce many world-class freestyle wrestlers, nevertheless, here one is. Nigeria's Sinivie Boltic shockingly placed fifth at last year's world championship while the finalists in both previous world championships, Gatsalov and Gayzumov, failed to make the top ten.

What impresses me about Sinivie is that he appears have brute strength usually reserved for androids or other cybernetic organisms. He needs to rely on this strength as he's not particularly polished in terms of technique or game plan. His strategy appears incredibly basic: bang on the opponent's head and shoot a running double, or try and pancake the other guy when he shoots in. Sometimes basics are the best thing available, but his lack of refinement did cost him in his only two matches against top-level wrestlers in Istanbul. Sheikau, in particular, picked him apart surgically in their bronze medal match. Boltic has wrinkles to iron out, but if he smooths out his imperfections, the sky is the limit.

The best things going for Boltic, and perhaps what makes his story intriguing, is that his coach is Canadian Olympic gold medalist, Daniel Igali, who has returned to his native Nigeria to coach its wrestling team. A medal here from Boltic, under Igali's guidance, would be a hell of a story.

How will the American do at this Weight:

I chose the headline photo above because I found it apropos. Jake Varner is pulling up his straps amongst sky skyscrapers, only the skyscrapers here are a metaphor for his toweringly talented and intimidating competition at this weight. It's supposed to symbolize just how daunting a task lays before Jake on his path to an Olympic gold medal. Get it?

Jake won a bronze medal in last year's world championship, and looked to be on his way to developing into a legitimate gold medal contender in London. His performance at the world cup two months ago smashed this perception. Jake lost to Ibragamov, got crushed by Yazdani, and lost to Balci. He looked bad.

I know that Jake is still a beast and the very best America has to offer. It may turn out he just had a bad weekend in Baku in May (I mean, who hasn't? Baku is like A.C. on the Caspian), but I now have to rank him as the seventh best competitor at this weight. While this means that he is only a couple upsets away from a medal, I think that gold may be quite a bit of a long shot.

Finals prediction

Gadisov wins big over Balci, who manages somehow to sneak into the finals. Gadisov own this weight until he gets bored with it years into the future.

Mike Riordan is Bloody Elbow's writer on matters of collegiate and Olympic wrestling.

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