After the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo were delayed, United World Wrestling scrambled to organize a world-level tournament for the year. Impressively, they were able to secure a venue in Belgrade, Serbia and produce what could have been an official World Championship. Unfortunately, major international players like the United States and Japan declined to send their teams to Serbia.
Without full buy-in from key members of the wrestling world, UWW downgraded the event from the World Championship to the “Individual World Cup,” more or less the exact same format as worlds, without the title. Even participating nations like Iran and India held back pound-for-pound talents such as Hassan Yazdanicharati and Bajrang Punia, but the Olympic weights were stacked nonetheless.
A major storyline early on was the bracketing of 65 kg. Just like in 2019, World champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov and three-time World champion and Olympic bronze medalist Haji Aliyev were matched up in the very beginning of the tournament. The match ended early due to injury. Rashidov’s rubber-knee defense against an Aliyev shot led to a horrific looking tear.
Reigning world champion G.RASHIDOV (RUS) injury defaulted out of his opening-round match against three-time world champion H. ALIYEV (AZE) with a right leg injury. He was carried off the mat then taken out of the arena in a wheelchair.— United World Wrestling (@wrestling) December 17, 2020
We wish Rashidov a speedy recovery. pic.twitter.com/oSxijTi6Xc
What happened next was even more shocking. Explosive Russian transfer Ismail Musukaev, representing Hungary, defeated Aliyev in the semifinals. You may remember Musukaev from his insane, action-packed battle with Yianni Diakomihalis. To cap it all off, Musukaev lost in the finals after a last-minute scoring flurry from the young, unheralded contender Vazgen Tevanyan from Armenia.
After all the drama at 65 kg, it was nice to see 74 kg shaping up as intended.
Two-time World champion and Olympic bronze medalist Frank Chamizo made his way to the finals, taking out the always dangerous Russian transfer Azamat Nurikov in the semifinals. On the other side of the bracket, Russian phenom Razambek Zhamalov followed up on his stunning Russian Nationals performance by controlling his opponents en route to the finals, his biggest win coming over U23 World champion and 2019 World bronze medalist Taimuraz Salkazanov.
Chamizo vs. Russia is a familiar narrative - two-time reigning World gold medalist Zaurbek Sidakov has met Chamizo in each of his championship performances. However, Sidakov was upset by his old rival Khetik Tsabolov in the quarterfinals, and Tsabolov was defeated by Razambek Zhamalov in the finals, making him Russia’s #1 for the time being.
Dagestan’s Zhamalov was a known entity, as the 2019 U23 World champion, but his 2019 Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix finals lost to his countryman Gazimagomedov led some to believe he was not yet ready to challenge for a starting role on Russia’s men’s freestyle squad.
In his Individual World Cup finals match with Cuban transfer Frank Chamizo, he proved not only that he belongs in that conversation, he may be the best wrestler in the world at 74 kg.
Razambek ZHAMALOV (RUS) vs. Frank CHAMIZO MARQUEZ (ITA)
Chamizo came out hot, pressuring hard and level faking at a high pace. Chamizo has faced criticism in the past for taking his time in matches and letting the action come to him, but he was the aggressor the entire tournament.
Putting Zhamalov on the back-foot was a brilliant idea, the Dagestani is incredibly powerful and when allowed to get to his underhook positions, his offense is tough to deny. To counter Chamizo’s pressure, he continuously looked to pass the wrists of Chamizo and attempt to establish the two-on-one grip, torqueing the shoulder and looking to get an outside angle on the Cuban’s back.
Chamizo is absurdly comfortable with opponents getting to the seatbelt grip, his confidence is never higher than when he has a whizzer. He was able to square back up without incident every time.
When Zhamalov did get to his underhook, Chamizo kept his hips back and created body separation by controlling the free hand of Zhamalov, pushing it as far back as possible. Chamizo seemed prepared to neutralize Zhamalov’s offense, using the uchi mata off the whizzer to counter any deeper underhook offense.
No offensive points were scored in the first period, but Zhamalov was awarded one point after Chamizo was put on the shot clock for passivity.
When the two elite competitors finally did engage, the result was one of the best scrambles of the year.
Each man had been trading hard level fakes throughout the match, but it was when Chamizo doubled up on his that he was able to find an opening. Zhamalov kicked back and sprawled reactively, and Chamizo moved in to cover front headlock. Intercepting the taller man walking in, Zhamalov shot an extended single, quickly sliding up to his knees to build up.
Chamizo was active and furious in his pursuit of the go-behind, snapping down and passing arms to attempt to step and cut outside for an angle on the leg or back. As Zhamalov attempted to stand up out of front headlock, Chamizo dropped down to his left, working a head-inside single.
Zhamalov applied a hard whizzer and turned his knee in to attempt to kick out, the same rubber-knee defense that injured his teammate Rashidov earlier in the tournament. Chamizo was not deterred, he built up to his feet and raised the leg high, testing the flexibility of Zhamalov, who posted and stood up, balancing on one leg.
The chain wrestling never stopped. As soon as Zhamalov was up, Chamizo put his head inside the thigh and used it as a lever to crack Zhamalov down on his butt, a modification to the “run the pipe” finish. Chamizo covered to the seatbelt, a grip across the back, as soon as Zhamalov hit the mat. This positioning was a key gain for Chamizo in the scramble.
It took another clean reattack for Chamizo to cement the scramble, but eventually Zhamalov ran out of steam and Chamizo was able to finish and cover for two, giving him the lead.
The clock continued to run down, and with 30 seconds left, Chamizo prepared to hold off the Dagestani’s ending sprint. This is one of the most terrifying and stressful scenarios in wrestling, the ability to sprint and finish matches is what separates the “very good” and the elite in men’s freestyle. A one point step-out would still give Chamizo criteria, so Zhamalov needed multiple scores or one takedown.
A duck-under attempt was stifled by Chamizo, but the attack allowed Zhamalov to stand up into his underhook. Previously in this situation, Chamizo was quick to control the free wrist of Zhamalov, but this time he simply posted on the shoulder, looking to create separation. That was just the opening Zhamalov needed. He punched his underhook laterally to keep Chamizo tall and moving toward his free hand, stepped in and connected his hands on a double-under bodylock.
Chamizo whizzered hard and stayed side-on, ensuring that Zhamalov could not use the bodylock to push him straight back or hit any big throws. The struggle between whizzer and underhook took them to the edge of the mat, where Chamizo sold out again on his uchi mata. Zhamalov was forced to let go of the bodylock to post, in order to avoid being thrown. However, he switched his free hand to the leg of Chamizo, now in the underhook throw-by single position.
We had seen this exact scenario play out in Chamizo’s match with Zaurbek Sidakov in 2017. Just like Sidakov did, Zhamalov got height and limp-armed out of the whizzer to cover in the standing seatbelt.
Chamizo stayed tough in the quad-pod position. There were only 6 seconds left in the match, and if he could avoid giving up a takedown and only a step-out, he would maintain a criteria lead and win the match.
It took something special for Zhamalov to score on such a fantastic athlete with balance like Chamizo has. Instead of trying to bump Chamizo forward to get his knees to the mat, Zhamalov gave him the feel for bumping forward, and then swung underneath his base to pull him backward.
Zhamalov slide his far knee behind the near leg of Chamizo, effectively blocking it. With his legs there as a barrier to trip Chamizo over, Zhamalov continued that swinging momentum and pulled hard with his over-under grip, taking Chamizo over backward and exposing his back for two points.
The exposure was called with one second left on the clock. If that’s not clutch, I don’t know what is.
It may not have been an official world title, but Razambek Zhamalov’s performance rightfully earned him the claim to #1 in the world at 74 kg. Will we see Zhamalov again at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, or will Zaurbek Sidakov bounce back and start a new winning streak? How will Jordan Burroughs, or even Kyle Dake fare against this new force in the division? I cannot wait to find out.