In one week, my favourite sports event of the year hits Las Vegas. It's the United World Wrestling (UWW) World championship! All the international styles (men's greco, women's freestyle and men's freestyle) will compete.
In martial arts the term World Champion can mean many different things. In international wrestling, in a non Olympic year, the World's are the be-all and end all. There are no competing organizations, no paper belts, no unearned title shots. Just 30 odd men or women with massive necks, sunken cheeks and mangled ears, each the best in their country, fighting for ultimate supremacy at their weight. The winner deserves the right to be called, on that day at least, the best wrestler in their weight on Earth. No one is getting Connor McGregor money but for many, a gold medal promises a life out of poverty for their family. I would argue that, given the depth of the competition, winning the title here or at the Olympics is the toughest one in combat sports.
Wrestlers compete in a single elimination unseeded bracket. It is quite plausible for the best two wrestlers to meet first round, or for one wrestler coming off a war to meet another who just had a 30 second pin. Those who lose to the finalist get to wrestles again and there are two bronze medals. Brackets are wrestled in half a day, with short breaks between matches. This format is not particular popular among North American audiences, but UWW has been resistant to changing it. It is likely they think the deliberate unfairness will lead to more countries medalling, which they consider important to growing the sport.
Scoring: for decades the wrestling rules have been in constant flux. Perhaps in a futile attempt to find the perfect rule set, the wrestling federation has instead sown frustration and confusion by constantly mixing things up. They said, the current incarnation of the rules seems to be one of the better ones, and can be summarized as follows:
A match is six minutes long (30 second break in the middle), highest score at the end wins. You get one point for driving your opponent out of bounds from the standing position. A takedown is worth 2, as is exposing your opponent's back 45 degrees to the mat from the ground position. (If you see the refs looking confused and the coaches yelling, chances see they are trying to decide whose back was exposed and how often). Feet to back moves and throws are 4 points, and especially massive throws are 5 (greco only). Athletes are expected to stay aggressive and are penalized for stalling (1 pt). Men and women's freestyle has the same rules, while greco allows only upper body attacks; no touching legs. This results in long periods of violent but uneventful fighting for position punctuated by monstrous throws. Pin your opponent's shoulders to the mat and you win immediately regardless of score. A ten point differential (10-0, 15-5, etc) is a technical fall, or tech, and also wins the match. Some canny wrestlers specialize in putting opponents away early with ground moves like the ankle lace or gut wrench that can be repeated quickly to earn the needed 10 pts. In the case of a tied match, it goes to tiebreak criteria; it is usually (but not always) the last wrestler to score who wins.
In freestyle, the best wrestlers come from the Caucus areas of Russia, conflict ridden mountain regions whose citizens are Russian by force rather than ethnicity. If they don't make the Russian team these athletes will often wrestle for other countries, particularly Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Other top countries include Iran, the US, Georgia, and Cuba. Generally speaking the European wrestlers are more slick and diverse in their technique while the Americans and Iranians are powerful grinders. In Greco the talent pool is more diverse with Iran being the defending champions, while Japan rules women's wrestling. The Russians are generally considered the overall best wrestlers on Earth.
Who to watch: while each weight has studs worth watching the following fan favourites stand out as the most exciting to me. If you are looking to get into wrestling, start here.
Cuban Yowlys Bonne at 57 kg, who wrestles like Yoel Romero on speed, made quite a an impression on American fans this year. In tossing the US representative like a ragdoll 3 tournaments in a row the hyper athletic Cuban has become a must watch. Throwing cradles, reverse lifts and headlock counters off one leg, he does things you should not be able to do to world class wrestlers. His path to gold is obstructed by several former champions and the fact that Cuban freestylers have an abysmal record in world final matches. Will Bonne break the streak?
Bonne vs USA team member Tony Ramos
American Jordan Burroughs (74 kg) is arguably the best freestyle wrestler on Earth. A 3x champion with one of the best win-loss records in history he hurt his knee in last year's World's and finished 3rd. He's since been back with a vengeance, combining lighting speed, impeccable setups and a stubborn refusal to lose. Everyone knows what!'s coming with Burroughs- a blast double or, failing that, an ankle pick, both often followed by a leg lace. Everyone knows it and no one can stop it. He will be a heavy favourite with the home crowd cheering him on.
Burroughs vs 4x NCAA champion Kyle Dake
The other contender for pound for pound best is defending champion, the young Abdurashid Sadulaev from Russia. He burst onto the senior scene last year as a wrecking ball, finishing most of his opponents by tech fall. On his feet he is relentlessly aggressive, he finishes many of his shots with back exposure, and on top his crushing gut wrench puts opponents away in seconds. He's has given up only a handful of points. Rumors are consistent that he trains with the champions in higher weight classes and wins more often then not. Many bright young stars flame out early in wrestling, but so far he has looked like a man destined to be among the all time greats.
Sadullaev vs Reneris Salas Perez in the world finals
In women's wrestling the all time beat are still competing. Japanese killers Kario Ichio and a Sario Yoshida have an astonishing 27 world level titles between them and they are still going strong; expect both to compete for a 4th Olympic title next year. Ichio is more of a slick opportunist while Yoshida pressures her opponents with hard leg attacks. Both are legends in their own time,
Yoshida recaps her Olympic final vs Canada's Tonya Verbeek. See if you can spot the difference in rules.
Ichio vs UFC contender Sara McMann. Yet another set of rules!
In Greco, keep an eye on Azeri Rasul Chunayev (71 kg). The man loves to throw, both from his feet and from the top position. This human highlights reel has teched 2 Olympic champs in the first period. He is no gold medal guarantee- his style is risky to say the least- but he is a must watch. He is known to break into dance after wins. After losing in the semis last year he gave a sarcastic salute, explaining that his military duties prevented him from training enough.
Chunayev vs Olympic champ Islamabek Albiev
Finally, at 130 kg future UFC fighter (signed with a 0-0 record) and 3x freestyle world champion Bilyal Makhov is looking to make history by winning a greco gold. He's already medalled in both styles, which hasn't been done for 30 odd years. This man mountain is opposed by a pretty terrifying group of opponents headed by 7x World/Olympic champion Mijian Lopez of Cuba. Last year, Lopez beat Makhov 1-0. Their matches may not be high scoring but they will be historic. Oh, and Makhov may just wrestle in freestyle too.
clash of the titans- Lopez vs Makhov.
Want to watch the Worlds? UWW generally provides a stream of every match for these events. The USA Wrestling website has excellent coverage including a link to the video streams, schedule, full previews, recaps and uploads of match video a few days later. The link is here: http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Wrestling/Features/2015/August/26/2015-World-Championships-Special-Section. The following websites will also have a lot of converage: flowrestling.org, 49Northwrestling.ca and the UWW website itself https://unitedworldwrestling.org/event/world-championship-senior-1. All the above mentioned sites have a big social media presence. Finally, I'm hoping that Bloody Elbow will have some coverage and discussion of this incredible combat sports event.