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Tokyo Olympic Games - Men’s Freestyle bracket analysis (65 & 97 KG)

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Ed Gallo breaks down the makeup of the men’s freestyle field at 65 & 97 KG at the Tokyo Olympic Games

Minsk 2019 European Games: wrestling
Abdulrashid Sadulaev is set to build upon his already legendary resume.
Photo by Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images

Men’s freestyle sessions at the Tokyo Olympic Games have been nothing short of incredible. Otherwordly skills, drama, and feel good stories have made for some of the most meaningful wrestling moments in history. Now it is time for 65 KG and 97 KG to kick off. Check out the bracket analysis for 57 KG and 86 KG, 74 KG and 125 KG, and the updated results from United World Wrestling. Each day, two weight classes will compete through the semifinals, with the finals taking place the following morning. You can also follow USA Wrestling’s updates for schedules with American time zones.

Make sure to reference my breakdown of the top contenders for gold in Tokyo before we dive into the brackets. Updated world men’s freestyle rankings are via Seth Petarra\Intermat.

65 KG - Top-heavy bracket assures early fireworks

Tokyo Olympic Games men’s freestyle 65 kg brackets
Very similar talent distribution to 74 KG, the top half will be chaos.
United World Wrestling

This weight genuinely has a handful of title contenders, and they are not distributed particularly evenly. While not as egregious as 74 KG, this is another bracket appears to favor the #2 seed, Bajrang Punia.

The #12 ranked wrestler at 65 KG, and a three-time World medalist, Bajrang dropped in the rankings after taking a loss to Zain Retherford in December. Bajrang’s most recent matches against the elite in this field were losses to Takuto Otoguro - otherwise you have to look back a couple of years to find the production that elevated his status in the first place.

Bajrang’s draw is actually deceptively difficult. His very first match will be against the #7 ranked Ernazar Akhmataliev of Kyrgyzstan. Akhmataliev was under the radar up until the Asian Olympic Qualifier in April, where he pinned the previously top 10 Ilyas Bekbulatov in a massive upset, winning the tournament. Akhmataliev was previously seen at the Individual World Cup - the placeholder world championship in 2020. There he was unable to medal, but had a great showing in a 6-4 loss to #6 Haji Aliyev. This apparent jump in levels could spell trouble early for Bajrang Punia, there is no good draw at 65 KG.

Three hammers will be battling for a semifinal spot opposite of Punia. The top contender for that opportunity is #6 Haji Aliyev, a three-time World champion and Olympic bronze medalist. Aliyev recently competed up at 70 KG, performing surprisingly well with wins over World champion Iakobishvili, and an upset loss to the powerful American Alec Pantaleo. However, at the European Olympic Qualifier in March, Aliyev took a disturbingly lopsided 9-0 loss to #2 Vazgen Tevanyan, the 2020 Individual World Cup champion. At the Individual World Cup, Aliyev had also taken a loss to #4 Ismail Musukaev. Luckily for Aliyev, the wrestlers who have troubled him are on the top side of the bracket. He still has a great chance to take out Bajrang Punia, or the other two wrestlers he could meet in the quarterfinal.

That quarterfinal will contain the winner of #14 Daulet Niyazbekov, a two-time World medalist, and a fellow two-time World medalist, Alejandro Valdes Tobier of Cuba. American fans may remember Tobier as the man who defeated Zain Retherford in the first round of the 2019 World Championships, knocking him out of the tournament. Niyazbekov’s silver medal was off the strength of an egregious robbery vs. Bajrang Punia in the semifinals, his stock has dropped a bit since then with losses to Alec Pantaleo and Takuto Otoguro, without picking up any significant victories. Tobier, however, has been quite inactive since 2019, there’s no real way to know what kind of form he’s in.

The top side of the bracket is, frankly, bonkers.

Right off the bat, you have #1 vs. #2. Top-ranked 2019 World champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov will take on the #2 ranked 2020 Individual World Cup champion, Vazgen Tevanyan. At the Individual World Cup, Rashidov withdrew do to injury during his match with Haji Aliyev, and Aliyev was subsequently upset by Musukaev, who was upset by Tevanyan in the finals. Tevanyan was lights-out at the European Olympic qualifier, taking out Haji Aliyev, Olympic champion Vladimer Khinchegashvili, as well as #18 Magomedmurad Gadzhiev. It’s been an incredible turnaround for Tevanyan, who did not medal at the 2019 Junior, U23, or Senior World Championships.

Rashidov has not been tested against the elite of this field since his injury at the Individual World Cup, but he did get through a stacked 2021 Russian National Championship, taking out #3 Zagir Shakhiev in the finals. Rashidov is still riding the momentum of his 2019 World title, where he defeated Haji Aliyev, Takuto Otoguro, Ismail Musukaev and Daulet Niyazbekov on his way to gold. He is absurdly good. Tevanyan is a finals-caliber opponent, but I have to pick Rashidov to move on.

He’ll then face the winner of #18 two-time World medalist Magomedmurad Gadzhiev and Giorgios Pilidis, a Russian transfer to Greece who came through the Last Chance Olympic Qualifier. American fans will remember Gadzhiev as the man who kept Jordan Oliver out of the Olympics, and the man who eliminated James Green from 2019 Worlds. Gadzhiev is excellent at keeping matches low scoring, but Rashidov is not stranger to that dynamic and should be fine.

In the semifinals, he will meet either #5 Takuto Otoguro, the 2018 World champion, or #4 Ismail Musukaev, a 2019 World bronze medalist and 2020 Individual World Cup silver medalist. At 2019 Worlds, Otoguro was defeated by Rashidov in the championship bracket, took out Haji Aliyev on the backside, and then was upset by Musukaev in the bronze medal match. Since then, Otoguro has been undefeated, taking out Niyazbekov and Bajrang Punia along the way, Musukaev has been much shakier - losing to Ali Rahimzade and Niurgun Skriabin in Feburary 2020, and then losing to Tevanyan after taking out Aliyev at the Individual World Cup. Musukaev did pick up a good win over Yianni Diakomihalis at the 2021 Ziolkowski in June, but his conditioning continues to be comically unreliable. I’m picking Otoguro to get through to the semifinal.

The most likely scenario is a Rashidov-Otoguro semifinal on top, and an Aliyev-Punia semifinal on the bottom. Tentatively, I’m picking Rashidov and Aliyev to get through and put on another incredible match, they are each the perfect challenge for the other. I believe Rashidov will get it done and become an Olympic champion.

97 KG - Sadulaev must walk through fire for second Olympic title

Tokyo Olympic Games 97 kg men’s freestyle brackets
Kyle Snyder’s position is as favorable as it gets at this weight.
United World Wrestling

#1 ranked Abdulrashid Sadulaev, “The Avar Tank”, has won four World championships and a 2016 Olympic championship in his career. He is only 25 years old. If he can sustain this level of success for the remainder of his physical prime, he will likely go down as the greatest freestyle wrestler of all time. Since his rise to the top, only one man has stopped him - the American, #3 Kyle Frederick Snyder. The two met in the 2017 World finals in Sadulaev’s first competition up at 97 KG, and Snyder prevailed at the end of a back-and-forth war of attrition.

Of course, in the 2018 World finals, Sadulaev pinned Snyder in the first period. Snyder himself has two World championships and a 2016 Olympic title to his name, it would be unwise to entirely count him out in their eventual third meeting. First, Abdulrashid Sadulaev will have to clear a number of top contenders at the weight to reach the finals.

Right away he will have to go through World and Olympic champion #12 Sharif Sharifov, a rematch of the 2019 World finals. After upsetting Kyle Snyder in the semifinals, Sharifov was shut out 4-0 by Sadulaev. Since then, Sharifov has been inactive against top-shelf competition, and has taken several losses to opponents outside the top ten. We saw Sharifov in good form against Sadulaev in 2019, and he was unable to score. Something tells me this version will not get the job done.

Next up will be the most intriguing matchup of the entire weight class - a likely showdown with Iran’s #2 ranked Mohammad Mohammadian. Mohammadian will have to get through #7 Elizbar Odikadze, but if he is wrestling anything like the man who pinned Kyle Snyder in 2020, he will survive to see Sadulaev. In addition to the Snyder pin, Mohammadian shut out #10 Hushtyn 9-0, and teched #11 Conyedo Ruano. In 2021, Mohammadian teched #14 Kollin Moore, and essentially earned his spot as Iran’s rep with a 2-2 criteria win over #9 Alireza Karimimachiani and a 1-1 criteria victory over #8 Ali Khalil Shahbanibengar.

In other words, Mohammadian has absolutely plowed through the international field, and has separated himself from his elite domestic peers. If he was on the other side of the bracket, I would feel very confident that Sadulaev vs. Mohammadian would be the gold medal final. In terms of the stylistic matchup between the two, I feel that Mohammadian’s matches against fellow Iranians are telling. Karimimachiani and Shahbanibengar limited his offense with solid positioning and pummeling, he wasn’t able to horse them around from upper body positions to set up his attacks. In Sadulaev’s only loss, it was consistent pace off short offense and leg attacks that eventually broke him down, not brute force or “big moment” out-positioning. On that note, I am picking Sadulaev - but this is by far his most dangerous match of the tournament.

With no disrespect intended, that is the only challenge for Sadulaev until the finals.

On the bottom half of the bracket, Kyle Snyder will likely be pushed on his road to gold. His first test will be the winner of World bronze medalist #11 Abraham de Jesus Conyedo Ruano and Olympic bronze medalist #15 Albert Saritov. Saritov defeated Conyedo Ruano in February 2020, 6-4, but Conyedo Ruano has that 2-2 win over Sharif Sharifov from this June. When Snyder and Conyedo Ruano met last year it was a 12-1 technical fall for Snyder, so Saritov would probably be the more challenging matchup between the two. He’s tough, but not someone I would pick to upset Snyder.

In the semifinals, Snyder will most likely meet the Individual World Cup bronze medalist, #6 Suleyman Karadeniz. After failing to place at the 2019 World Championship, Karadeniz had an excellent 2020 - winning the European Championship over a number of previously ranked veterans, and then notched a win over #16 Andriitsev before falling to Sadulaev at the Individual World Cup. Karadeniz’s performance has been impressive, considering that he is actually a 92 KG wrestler, but that lack of size will come back to bite him against a powerhouse like Snyder.

That should set up Sadulaev vs. Snyder, part three. Since 2018, Sadulaev has not lost, and Snyder has. However, Snyder has had more time to change his body and style since migrating to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club under the tutelage of Cael Sanderson and Casey Cunningham. They’ve focused on mobility and diversity of attacks, which will be key to turn the tables on the future all-time great. I believe Snyder can find success, but I will never pick against the Avar Tank, he will be a two-time Olympic champion.

That concludes my preview coverage of the 2020 Olympic Games! I’ll be back next week to discuss the results.