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A Thorough Olympic Freestyle Wrestling Preview: Men's 55 Kilograms

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Heart rates quicken, adrenaline pumps, and the very air we breathe fills with electricity. Olympic wrestling draws near and with it the chance for a select few of the greatest wrestlers on the globe to stake their claim on immortal glory.

This may be a bit too dramatic, but as a wrestling writer it is hard to discuss Olympic wrestling in ways which are not overly hyperbolic and self-indulgent. This time only comes once every four years and I might as well live it up a little.

My indulgence should be easily forgiven when the product that accompanies it is of a high quality. In this case the product is a weight by weight preview of all fourteen men's wrestling weight classes posted over the next fortnight in advance of July's games. I honestly believe that this series of weight class prospectives will comprise the best and most comprehensive Olympic wrestling preview anywhere and it is all here on Bloody Elbow.

Keep reading after the jump for an in depth look at the fifty five kilogram weight class in wrestling for the London Olympic games.

First, a quick review of how my previews will work,

I will begin by listing the every participant in the Olympic field at this weight and their respective countries. Next I will provide the top four finishers from the last three world championships and last Olympics. I will then give my thoughts on the weight and six other items of analysis:

  1. Who will likely win gold .
  2. Who will win if the favorite doesn't.
  3. What we can expect from the USA representative.
  4. A dark horse candidate from a an untraditional wrestling nation who could win. Some of these actually have legitimate chances while others are extreme longshots.
  5. My prediction for the gold medal finals
  6. Estimated odds of winning gold for selected wrestlers
Before I go on I should explain a number of matters to Olympic wrestling nubies. In non-Olympic years FILA, the governing body of international wrestling, holds a world championships, which perform the same function as the Olympics, but with slightly less prestige. Second, if you scroll down you will notice that in the results section I list two wrestlers at third place. This is because in the current wrestling tournament format forced upon FILA by the IOC, there are two bronze medals awarded. Yes this is asinine, and yes, it is jarring to see two wrestlers standing squished together on the same step of the podium, but such is life.

My list of competitors is a combination of the listed qualifiers from the FILA database and my own knowledge of who is actually being sent. There is a small chance that in some cases a listed qualifier will not show up or, more likely, has been been beaten out by a countryman. In some very rare circumstances there are countries who have not yet determined an Olympic representative at a particular weight.

Finally, any odds listed here are not from any bookmaker, but are estimates made by me, Mike Riordan. I do not condone any illegal or vicious actions. I do not even know whether or not betting on Olympic wrestling is even possible and if it is (it probably is somewhere), then I do not intend my previews and predictions to be viewed as a form of handicapping.

The first weight, and topic of this entry, is 55 kg or roughly 121 pounds.

The field of competitors

Djamal Otarsultanov, Russia

Radislov Velikov, Bulgaria

Hassan Rahimi, Iran

Daulet Niyazbekov, Kazahkstan

Mihran Jahburyan, Armenia

Sam Hazewinkel, USA

Vladimir Khinchegashvili Georgia

Ahmet Peker Turkey

Ahmit Kumar, India

Yasuhiro Inaba, Japan

David Tremblay, Canada

Amador Escobar, Honduras

Ibrahim Mohamed, Egypt

Natele Shilimela, Namibia

Kyong Il Yang, People's Republic of Korea

Dilshod Mansurov, Uzbekistan

Jincheol Kim, Korea

Naranbaatar Bayaraa, Mongolia

Nikolay Noev, Tajikastan

2011 World Championships Results

1. Viktor Lebedev, Russia

2.Radoslav Velikov, Bulgaria

3. Daulet Niyazbekov, Kazahkstan; Hassan Rahimi, Iran

2010 World Championships

1.Viktor Lebedev, Russia

2.Togrul Asgarov, Azerbaijan

3. Yasuhiro Inaba, Japan; Frank Chamizo, Cuba

2009 World Championships

1. Kyong-Il Yang, PRK

2.Sezer Akguel, Turkey

3. Rizvan Gadzhiev, Belarus; Viktor Lebedev, Russia

2008 Olympics

1. Henry Cejudo, USA

2. Tomohiro Matsunaga, Japan

3. Radoslav Velikov, Bulgaria; Besik Kudukhov, Russia

Thoughts on this weight:

Seeing how tumultuous and uncertain this weight has been in the past four years, my heart breaks when I think about what Henry Cejudo could have accomplished at 55 kg had he stayed fully engaged in the sport. There is little doubt in my mind that he would have won at least one world title and have stood ready to capture his second Olympic crown in 2012. He had, and has, the talent to be the best American wrestler ever. This talent was on full display at the Olympic Trials, where his conditioning appeared to be outstanding and his technique looked crisp, even after a long layoff. Unfortunately, he choose to follow pursuits other than wrestling during the last Olympic cycle and prepared for his Olympic run by hopelessly inadequate means. This showed through when he wrestled a tactically inept match in the Olympic Trials semi-finals, losing his chance to go to London.

Also worthy of note is how consistently good Japan has been at this weight. Their wrestling program has been trending upward and this weight seems to possess the greatest overall depth. They produced an Olympic silver medalist at 55kg four years ago, are sending another world medalist to this year's Olympics and had a third wrestler good enough to qualify the weight. All of Japan's lighter weights are truly world class (as you will see in future weight class previews); this is great for Japan, but bad for Kid Yamamoto with hindsight now making his 2008 Olympic bid at 66 kg seem even more horrendously ill-conceived with each passing day.

Who will win this weight:

In the last three years a terror named Viktor Lebedev has stormed out of Siberia. During the previous two world championships, Viktor has been the clearcut best at this weight and one of the best pound for pound wrestlers in the world. He has all the talent to be one of the best wrestlers ever.

But Viktor won't be bringing his world bronze and double world gold to London because he was not good enough to make the Russian team. The world's second best wrestler over the past two years and the weight's most consistently excellent performer will be sitting at home. Viktor lost in the finals of Russian nationals to Djamar Otarsultanov and the scary part is that Otarsultanov's victory was no fluke - he is legitimately better than Lebedev.

Otarsultanov must have been regarded in Russian wrestling circles as the succesor to Lebedev's throne for some time and this year's Russian Nationals may have been Djamal's coronation. Otarsultanev has yet to wrestle in a world or Olympic championships at the senior level, but his collection of achievements is startlingly impressive. He can boast three European championships, two junior world championships, two Yarygin titles and a world cup gold. Even without world or Olympic appearances, his credentials are so outstanding that if I were a bookmaker listing Otarsultanov's chances of winning these Olympic games I would have him laying serious odds, perhaps more than anyone else in the freestyle tournament, as his resume is so strong. Let me also add that results at this level are incredibly erratic and to lay any odds at all is a compelling statement of supremacy. Otarsultanev's most formidable opponent will not be not another wrestler, but his inexperience in dealing with the pressure heaped upon him by the magnitude of this event.

Who else might win it:

Velikov from Bulgaria has been the second most consistent wrestler during the last Olympic cycle with a bronze and a silver and thus would have to be considered to have the second best odds at gold. He did not compete in last month's World Cup, but this does not worry me and I would bet on him competing in London. Even with the second best odds, someone wagering on him would still multiply his money if he did capture gold.

The USA representative:

I deeply admire Sam Hazewinkel, the United States representative at this weight. If character and values were the sole determining factors in wrestling greatness, Sam would already be a world champ several times over. If I had a daughter, and if she dug really short dudes, I would be proud to have her take Sam as a husband.

It was fantastic for me to watch Sam become an Olympian. His entire wrestling career after high school has been a tale of an athlete perpetually peering over the precipice of greatness but never making that one glorious leap. He is the greatest college wrestler to never win an NCAA title. He's got three third place finishes and a runner up performance to his name. A few years ago, Sam almost ascended to the top of his weight in Greco-Roman wrestling, but once again was stymied. Last year he was within striking distance of a world team berth in freestyle, but couldn't quite achieve his goal. Sam's victory at the Olympic trials was one of those scarce, but satisfying moments where the arc of the universe actually arrives at a just destination.

To win this spot, Sam, never having been a world team member himself, had to beat a field that included two other world team members and an Olympic champ. Against steep odds Sam prevailed, something I predicted on this very site. Now Sam, the only second generation Olympian wrestler in US history, stands poised to make his run at his own Olympic glory.

It pains me to say he probably won't win a medal, but he has not shown the consistent success against top international competition. Recently, he experienced an alarming failure to place to place at the Ziolowski International tournament in Poland where two other Americans at his weight met in the finals. He is not a total lost cause, however, he did earn a bronze medal at last month's World Cup, beating a world bronze medalist in the process. Sam has shown that he is at least capable of beating the world's best; what he has not done is show the ability to do so several times in a row required to stand on an Olympic podium. .

Dark horse from an unexpected country:

I hate to call this wrestler a dark horse as he is probably the wrestler with the third best chance on paper to win and is the only participant in this weight who has had world gold hung from his neck, but North Korea is an unusual place to produce such a quality wrestler. Kyong-il Yang, or Yang Kyong-il depending on the publication, (far left) surged to a surprising world championship in 2009 on the heels of a runner-up finish at the Asian Games. Since then he has earned additional gold and silver medals at the Asian Games, though he has lacked a second big performance on the world stage: not competing in 2010 and placing seventeenth in 2011. Recently Yang's stock spiked and he confirmed his contendership for Olympic gold after his first place finish at the Chinese Olympic Qualification Tournament a performance which included a win over former Uzbeki world champ Dilshod Mansurov.

Apparently it is rough being an international level athlete in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un heaps ridiculously high expectations on his sporting subjects. When those expectations go unsatisfied, there is hell to pay. Kyong-il Yang is already one of his country's best athletes ever; I do not know how many world champion athletes have come out of North Korea, but I would have to think you could count them on one hand. In most sane circumstances, Yang's past success would insulate him from some criticism were he to fail at the Olympics, but Yang's circumstances are far from sane. I fear that his past success has only raised expectations to an unachievable level and I am scared of what may happen to him when he losses in London, which he probably will.

Both North Korea and China have experienced an uptick in the quality of their freestyle wrestling in the past decade and both qualified multiple freestyle wrestlers for London. Success such as this is almost certainly not achieved without foreign coaching expertise. While information about these countries' wrestling programs is not readily available, I would be interested in discovering who is actually coaching these Asian upstarts and it wouldn't shock me in the slightest if their names ended in an "ov".

Finals Prediction:

Otarsultanov of Russia defeats Rahimi of Iran.

Estimated Odds:

Otarsultanov -200

Niyazbekov + 700

Rahimi + 500

Yang + 350

Velikov + 300

Hazewinkel + 1200

Mike Riordan contributes to Bloody Elbow on matters of Olympic and collegiate wrestling,