Wrestling, at least the sort that gets contested in the Olympics, now sits on the precipice of annihilation. Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee's lame duck president, and the IOC executive board have moved to exclude wrestling from the program of Olympic core sports. But just as the sport stands ready to be rendered utterly irrelevant, a strange twist of fate pulled wrestling into the world's spotlight.
This past week, on the eve of important Iranian nuclear talks, FILA (international wrestling's sanctioning body) held the World Cup of Wrestling in Tehran. This world cup featured competitions in both Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling, both won resoundingly by the host country, The Islamic Republic of Iran. The freestyle side of the competition featured the United States and its three Olympic medalists on a collisions course with the Iranian team. This sporting event, normally ignored, featured competition between the United States and Iran, and was held in a country which is currently a focal point of worldwide diplomatic attention. This strange set of circumstances attracted the eye of major news agencies.
Mainstream, big network, Western news outlets arrived in Tehran to witness a curious event where thousands of passionate fans were eagerly cheering for freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. They watched Iranians chant the name of an American-Olympic gold medalist and world champion Jordan Burroughs. Their cameras captured the Iranians holding signs bearing messages of unity among the world's wrestling community. When the competition was over and the United States team was standing atop the third place podium, these news agencies were there to record Iran's President Ahmadinejad shake the hand of American freestyle coach Zeke Jones.
In short, major media showed up in Iran last wee to observe the power of wrestling to transcend the world's deepest of political divisions, if only for a short time.
News coverage of this event hopefully provided a much needed windfall of attention to an important event that dearly needed it. FILA did not do itself any favors in publicizing its World Cup, its results pages are indecipherable to all but the biggest wrestling nerds, the only way to watch on video was through streamed footage of Iranian state television, and that was only the Iranian matches; there was not a single tweeted result from the closest thing FILA has to an official twitter feed.
[Note: I'm aware that there might be certain problems with FILA broadcasting a online video stream out of Tehran, but the situation was no better in the previous World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan]
FILA, just as it becomes news worthy for talk of wrestling's elimination from the Olympics, has the fortune of sponsoring an event intriguing and relevant enough to be covered by mainstream international media, and it did absolutely nothing to exploit this opportunity, save stage a single protest involving hand holding and sign waving, and post the video on their underwhelming webpage.
This is extremely disheartening if we are hoping that Olympic wrestling is able to become relevant and survive after 2016.
Iran defeats the United States in Round 4 of the Freestyle Wrestling World Cup, 6 Matches to 1
Despite FILA's meager, or non-existent coverage accommodations, there were ways to view this event live for those who wanted. Viewers who did manage to find a stream of this event, and watch Iran wrestle the USA, witnessed a pretty tough American team receive a comprehensive and emphatic ass beating administered by Iranians, much to the pleasure of a raucous capacity crowd. It was pretty awful to watch if you happen to be an American wrestling fan.
Often times, when Americans lose in international wrestling they complain, sometimes justifiably so, of chicanery, slanted officiating, passivity and overly tactical wrestling from opponents. Americans generally want freestyle wrestling matches to more closely resemble scholastic wrestling matches. We want toe to toe, forehead to forehead, honest aggression featuring plentiful attacks and clear cut winners.
As it happened, Iran certainly gave us what we wanted, and they beat the pants off us wrestling in the way Americans would hope to wrestle. They didn't back down, they didn't sit back and wait to counter, and they left no doubt as to who had the better wrestlers. Most notably, they showed a remarkable ability, time and time again, to penetrate incredibly deep on leg attacks and finish with ease.
The preferred, and essentially exclusive, Iranian method of penetrating was with an inside step. This means that when they shot to the legs their penetration step aimed between their opponent's feet.
The inside step naturally leaves the attacker's head outside the hip opposite of the stepping foot. For example, if I shot with an inside step with my right foot, my head will end up on my opponent's hip to my left.
When attacking the legs, an inside step can result in a classic double leg, or a single leg. When a single leg is secured on the same side as the attacker's head, then it is called a "high crotch", despite the fact that rarely do attackers still reach high into the crotch.
In their dual meet with the U.S., the Iranians exhibited beautiful technique getting in on high crotches and doubles off of inside steps in almost every match
55 Kilos (above)- In one elegant, and fast, motion, Iran's Hassan Rahimi, 2011 world bronze medalist penetrates in on a high crotch and turns the corner to convert a take down. Notice that Rahimi instantly brings his left foot around as a means of providing the drive to finish the shot. Also, and this is a repeating theme, the USA's Zach Sanders's right elbow raises up slightly before the shot so that it is pointing parallel with the mat, not perpendicular, this is all the space Rahimi needs to drop through.
60 Kilos: No inside steps here, just Coleman Scott. American 2012 Olympic bronze medalist. getting horsed around by his opponent's under hook in a two period loss.
66 Kilos (above)- Iran's two time world champion, Mehdi Taghavi lifts Brent Metcalf with a beautiful double leg, the very first take down most wrestlers learn, and here it is working fabulously at the highest possible level. Notice the subtle set up. To attack a wrestler's legs, one must first get underneath or past his hands and elbows. At elite levels of wrestling, sometimes all it takes is a barely perceptible displacement of the defending appendage, Here Taghavi pulls down on Metcalf's left wrist, when he releases the wrist, Metcalf's arm, which was resisting the downward pressure, naturally pops up ever so slightly. This slight upward motion is all Taghavi needs to blast in on a double, lift Metcalf off the mat, and deposit him on his back to win the period.
74 Kilos- Jordan Burroughs, world and Olympic champion, registers the U.S.A.'s only win with a workmanlike effort against Iran's second stringer.
84 Kilos (above)- Ehsan Lashgari doesn't need a penetration step to snatch a head-outside single on Max Askren. He then ignites the crowd by taking Max for a ride. This was all made possible, once again, by the American's right elbow pointing at an angle parallel with the mat. The Iranians are well schooled and ready to take advantage of any of these openings.
96 Kilos (two above)- In the first image, Iran's Hamed Tatari penetrates with an inside step under yet another American's upraised elbow, this time J.D. Bergman. He repeats this a second time in the lower image with a second period double leg. In both cases there is little Bergman can do; Tatari has bypassed Bergman's hands/elbows defense, and he is in as deep as possible on Bergman's hips; the finish is a simple matter of turning the corner.
120kg (above)- Yet another gorgeous high crotch taken by an Iranian, this time at super heavyweight. Komeil Ghasemi clears Tervel Dlagnev's right hand with a dramatic super duck motion, secures the single, lifts it high and trips for the take down.
The Potential Perils of an Inside Step Shot
The Iranians make this look so simple, but many things can go horribly wrong when taking an inside step against an elite wrestler, particularly a high crotch. Freestyle wrestling requires perfect technique in attack, and failing perfect technique, the defender will score and possibly score big.
Just as with any shot, an inside stepper risks getting sprawled out and extended if he fails to penetrate, this is compounded by the fact that his head is exposed and open to cross faces and all sorts of nastiness. No wrestler wants to get extended when shooting, the resulting situation is painful and tiring and often results in the defender going behind for his own take down.
In a high crotch, even if penetration occurs, the danger is not averted. Savvy defenders will often force the action into a crackdown position. Observe below.
Here we have the USA's Brent Metcalf once more, this time in his loss to Canada's Haislan Garcia at last year's Pan American Olympic qualifier. Metcalf gets in on a high crotch, but Garcia immediately blocks Brent from driving across the hips, and then fights to position himself perpendicular to Metcalf's hips, eventually dropping to his own butt in a crackdown position. The higher the level of wrestling, the more the crackdown favors the defending wrestler, elite wrestlers can amaze with their ability to defend and score off their back sides. The crackdown offers a 50/50 scenario where either wrestler, or both, stand chances of scoring.
In this match, Garcia is able to out scramble Metcalf from crackdown, eventually rolling Metcalf through for back exposure and the match winning points.
Why the Iranians Were Able To Score so Easily
Ideally, high crotches are finished by "turning the corner"-immediately pivoting hard into an opponent's body, and driving force across the hips, often after grabbing both legs or "doubling off". In order to properly finish in this way, the shooter needs to leave himself in proper position once penetration is achieved. See the first still picture below, Brent Metcalf has captured Garcia's leg, but notice the angle of Brent's back, he is leaning forward a bit, and his shoulders are out in front of his hips. Also in this frame, all of Garcia's weight is on his own feet; Brent is not in deep enough to achieve any lift. Finally, Brent's trail foot, his right foot, has not stepped up to initiate any drive across Garcia's body. I should also note that this is just one example of less than ideal position off of a high crotch; I do not mean to imply that Brent Metcalf, an excellent wrestler, has broader technical problems.
Noticeable differences exist between Metcalf's positioning and the perfect positioning of the Iranians when in on an inside step shots. Example still images of Rahimi's and Taghavi's are above and below, respectively. Taghavi's shot is a straight double and not a high crotch, but the principle remains the same.
In both cases the Iranians have positioned themselves to finish easily upon penetration. The angle of their backs are vertical, and their hips are directly below their shoulders. Both have penetrated so deeply that they have achieved lift, and now bear their opponent's weight balanced on their shoulders.
Finally, each has immediately stepped up with their trail legs, allowing Rahimi to turn the corner for the score, and Taghavi to lift Metcalf high into the air.
I can't help but wonder if there is something fundamentally different about how Iranians approach these leg attacks which allows them to execute with such pristine technique. Perhaps they are taught differently than Americans, and receive this teaching from a young age. If this is the case, perhaps some degree of emulation is in order on the part of American coaches.
Maybe there is no such pedagogical magic bullet. Maybe the Iranians are learning the most basic shots in exactly the same way as us and are just better as a matter of brute fact. This possibility frightens me.
It appears that the Iranians are coming to wrestle the U.S. in another dual meet in May, this time in New York City's Time's Square. This will no doubt garner media attention at a level of intensity that is somewhat rare for international wrestling. Our American wrestlers better start working overtime getting ready if they don't want to be embarrassed with the eyes of the nation upon them.
Mike Riordan is an unsuccessful college wrestler, a coach, and Bloody Elbow's staff writer on wrestling related matters. He writes a weekly column about college wrestling for Intermat (www.intermatwrestle.com).