A Thorough Olympic Freestyle Wrestling Preview: Men's 120 Kilograms

April 22, 2012; Iowa City, IA, USA; Tervel Dlagnev (blue) celebrates his victory over Les Sigman (red) during the 120kg finals freestyle match at Carver Hawkeye Arena. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-US PRESSWIRE

Ah, 120 kilograms. The heavyweights of freestyle wrestling in the 2012 London Olympic Games.

This weight may bear witness to a Rocky IV style story. There is a giant Russian on the loose, destroying everyone he faces. And then there is the American underdog: a late comer to the sport who spent his college years in a town nobody ever heard of.

Can this American stop this Russian juggernaut, and bathe himself in red, white, and blue glory? Find the answer to this question in more, in this, the final freestyle wrestling preview.

Olympic Wrestling Previews

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

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

Men's Freestyle 96kg

Keep reading after the jump for a discussion of the 120 kilogram weight class in freestyle wrestling 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 differ here than in other 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 Aleksei Shemarov, Belarus

2 Bilyal Makhov, Russia

3 Jamaladdin Magomedov, Azerbaijan

4 Davit Modzmanashvili, Georgia

5 Tervel Dlagnev, USA

6 Chuluunbat Jargalsaikhan, Mongolia

7 Daniel Ligeti, Hungary

8 Taha Agkul, Turkey

9 Artur Taimazov, Uzbekistan

10 Daulet Shabanbay, Kazakhstan

11 Arjan Bhullar, Canada

12 Jesse Ruiz, Mexico

13 Eldesoky Shaban, Egypt

14 Malal Ndiaye, Senegal

15 Bashir Babajanzadeh, Iran

16 Nick Matuhin, Germany

17 Lei Liang, China

18 Oleksandr Khotsianivsky, Ukraine

19 Rares Chintoan, Romania

2011 World Championships

1. Alexsey Shemarov, Belarus

2. Bilyal Makhov, Russian

3. David Modzmanashvili, Georgia; Magomedov Jamaladdin, Azerbaijan

2010 World Championshsips

1. Bilyal Makhov, Russia

2. Artur Taimazov, Uzbekistan

3. Ioannis Arzoumanidis Greece, Levan Berianidze

2009 World Championship

1. Bilyal Makhov, Russia

2.Fardin Masoumi, Iran

3. Tervel Dlagnev, United States of America. Ioannis Arzoumanidis,Greece

2008 Olympics

1. Artur Taimazov Uzbekistan

2. Bakhtiar Akhmedov, Russia

3. David Musulbes,Slovakia; Marid Mutalimov, Kazakhstan

Random Thoughts on This Weight:

In every combat sport. people like to ridicule heavyweights, nowhere is this more true than in wrestling. Sometimes heavyweights deserve the ribbing that they receive - but this is certainly not the case at the Olympics.

The heavyweights in this field, or at least the fifty percent or so of the field that are actually world class, are true wrestlers - often with surprisingly well rounded skill sets. Heavyweight matches at the past Olympics featured a great deal of excitement, much of which was comparable with any other weight class. This year's field isn't quite as strong or entertaining, and does contain some wrestlers who engage in what I would deem to be negative wrestling. Still, the favorites at this weight will bring an aggressive, crowd pleasing style, and 120 kilograms still is very much worth watching.

  • Aleksei Shemarov is the defending world champion at this weight, but I list him as tied for the third best chances of winning this weight, along with David Modzmanashvili of Georgia, and Jamaladdin Magomedov of Azerbaijan. All three of these heavies are solid and capable, just not particularly head-turning in their approach, and may, at times, be a bit more measured and tactical than I prefer. Modzmanashvili, a bronze medalist at worlds last year, particularly borders on what I would call boring, though he is a tank of a human being.
  • We can't forget about Artur Taimazov of Uzbekistan (via North Ossetia), after all, he is the greatest heavyweight of his generation. He may be long in the tooth, and he failed to medal at last year's world championship, but he is only two years removed from a world silver medal performance. He is the only wrestler in the field with a shot at winning his third consecutive Olympic gold medalist and earning his fourth Olympic medal. Were he to win gold, he would be the greatest freestyle heavyweight of all time, if he isn't already.
  • It is good to see a representative of a great wrestling nation like Mongolia finally appear on the radar. Chuluunbat Jargalsaikhan bears the hopes of a wrestling crazed populace on his broad shoulders. Expect absolute madness in Ulan Bator if he can walk away with gold. (For more on Mongolian folkstyle wrestling go here).
  • Speaking of wrestling's folkstyles, we have at this weight a representative of Senegalese folk wrestling, Malal Ndiaye. Wrestling is the most popular sport in Senegal, drawing enormous crowds, and paying impressive sums of money. It also seems to involve punches. I very much look forward to Malal wrestle in these games.

Who Should Win this Weight?

Bilyal Makhov is big, really big. The heavyweight limit is approximately 263 pounds, and I have heard that Makhov was cutting from above 300. Standing at least six feet ad four inches tall, Makhov has always been physically impossing, but he was never immaculately conditioned, always carrying a spare tire. I had heard that his weight was going to force him to retire. Instead it appears he headed in a radcially different direction.

I think his loss in last year's world finals to Shemarov, who, let's face it, is an inferior wrestler, lit a proverbial fire under Makhov's ass. Makhov showed up at Russian Nationals sans about thirty pounds of fat. The belly was gone; he looked great, and he absolutely terrorized his domestic competition en route to an Olympic birth.

I was tempted to pick Tervel Dlagnev as the favorite at this weight, and would have, but for Makhov's rampage through his bracket at Russian Nationals. It was truly scary watching someone that big move so fast. If you really want to be intimidated, an inside source of mine sneaked some footage of Bilyal in the middle of his signature warm-up routine. It gives me chills as well.

At Russian Nationals, Makhov was responsible for one of the single greatest acts of badassery that I've ever seen on a wrestling mat. In his finals match, he got in on a shot and was rolled through by his opponent, taken from standing to his back, scoring three points against him. In big move situations such as this, it is customary for the coaches of the scored upon wrestler to challenge the call.

[Author's note: Challenges are issued by a coach throwing a big foam cube onto the mat, the cube is either red or blue depending on the designated color of his wrestler. Nobody actually says what element of officiating is being challenged, and it wouldn't matter since everyone at this point speaks a different language. Video footage of the last bit of an in match action is then reviewed by a body of officials known as "the jury", who determine the correct score. Challenges can't be challenged, and a failed challenge results in a point penalty. This doesn't even take into account the fact that reviewed footage may uncover all kinds of unnoticed points that had gone unregistered by the referee and mat officials. Challenges are totally wacky and unpredictable,and they can backfire spectacularly.]

Makhov's coaches threw the challenge cube into the circle, it landed at Bilyal's feet, and he stared at it like a befouled diaper that had just fallen from the sky and almost landed on him. Makhov, then, and with palpable disgust, kicks the cube back at his coaches as if to say, "Makhov no challenge, Mahkov smash". I suppose this effectively cancelled the challenge, and the points were confirmed for Makhov's opponent, thus sealing his fate.

Superman's cape had officially been tugged on. What happens next is a bloodbath. Bilyal scores four times in a matter of seconds to defeat his competitor, and culminate his Russian championship, punching his ticket to London. I predict he'll have a gold medal around his neck on the way back.

How The American Will Do / Who Will Win If Makhov Doesn't

In the last year, Tervel Dlagnev, the Bulgarian Texan, has beaten, or placed in front of, every top heavyweight in the world, not named Makhov. He beat Taimazov at the World championships last year, and placed first in May's World Cup, earning gold in an excellent field which included last year's world champion and both bronze medalists. Only insanely bad luck robbed Tervel of a medal at last year's world championships. Tervel had every scoreless period ending ball grab go against him (I linked to the FILA rule book entry on ball grabs in my seventy-four kilos preview). The odds of this are roughly fifty-six gazillion to one. Tervel was good enough to be a world champion last year, and according to USA Wrestling freestyle head coach Zeke Jones, he has improved more than any other American since then.

Part of this improvement has been an increased sense of urgency. At recent tournaments, Tervel has shown a determination to not let periods go scoreless and go to the ball grab.Tervel shoots early and often, probably far more than his heavyweight peers. This has led to greater success, but also to a crowd pleasing style which will play well if it makes an Olympic broadcast.

Tervel was raised in Texas, and did not start wrestling until after his freshman year of high school. It is exceedingly rare for someone to start wrestling so late in life and make it to the level in the sport that he has. It is also rare for an Olympian to have attended an NCAA Division Two school, but Tervel did that as well, attending the University of Nebraska, Kearney. While at UNK, Tervel made three national finals and won two national titles. In his senior year, Tervel was the unquestioned best heavyweight in college wrestling, regardless of division.

Since he burst on to the scene in college, Tervel has demonstrated a continual, and exponential rate of improvement as a wrestler. Four years ago, before he won his world bronze medal in Denmark in 2009, I predicted that based on the speed of Tervel's rise, that he would end his career as one of this country's all-time great wrestlers - it is still possible for this prediction to prove true.

If you were to stand next to Tervel in person without knowing who he was, you would probably think he was a run of the mill, bigger than average guy; his appearance does not scream, "world class athlete". This changes when he steps on a wrestling mat. There it becomes clear that Dlagnev is one of the most athletic 260 pound men on the globe. He is incredibly strong, and moves with a fluidity that belies his appearance, and which can only be accurately described as graceful. As athletic as Tervel is, he matches it with his studiousness; he has an eye for the finest wrestling detail, and I have heard a top coach describe him as the most technical wrestler on the American Olympic team.

He is a true gold medal threat in London.

Dark Horse from a Strange Land:

A couple years before the Beijing Olympics, I heard that China was desperate to improve its status in Olympics sports and that wrestling was one of the sports it targeted for future success. Recently, while Chinese wrestling hasn't set the world on fire, it has become vastly more visible over the last decade.

China's best freestyle wrestling hope at this Olympics is Lei Liang, who is a physical specimen. The photo I am providing does him no justice. He probably weighs in at the 120 kilo limit, is extremely tall, and has next to no body fat. If he ever learns to wrestle, he will be a serious medal threat. I have seen very little of him since the Beijing Olympics, but he showed up to qualify for these games, and we get to watch him wrestle once more.

I doubt that Ling medals here, but I guarantee that I wouldn't want to wrestle him. His physical attributes make him awkward for anyone to wrestle.

Finals prediction:

Makhov over Dlagnev by the thinnest of marigins, though Tervel is as live an underdog as they come.

I'd like to add that the casual observer would probably see my predictions for the U.S. team's results as fairly modest, but I have predicted three medals in freestyle, one bronze, one silver, and one gold. If this were to come to pass, it would almost assuredly be one of the three best national performances in freestyle for any country and would have to be considered a rousing success for USA Wrestling and Coach Jones.

I'm a big proponent of Zeke Jones, and I think he will have a lot to be proud of when the dust settles in London.

Next up: Greco.

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

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