Going back decades, the lighter weight classes have always been the most stacked internationally. It’s just how it is, especially in Greco. This year’s Olympics doesn’t figure to buck that trend, as 59 kilograms showcases a lot of the world’s top talent all nestled together in one bracket (that’s what happens when you eliminate weight classes, but besides the point).
The crazy thing is, there were multiple former World and Olympic medalists in the running prior to the qualifying season who didn’t make the cut (Ivo Angelov [BUL], Roman Amoyan [ARM], Revaz Lashki [GEO], and Peter Modos [HUN] come to mind). Probably for American fans, Lashki and Modos are notable because one Jesse David Thielke (USA, world no. 19) beat them both in Turkey to qualify in his own right.
Rio Olympics Preview – 59 kg
Even if he’s not exactly what he used to be (and he might not be), all conversations regarding the 59 kg weight class at the 2016 Olympic Games start and end with Hamid Soryan (IRI, world no. 14). There’s just too much hardware, too many titles, too many jaw-dropping performances to ignore. Soryan, the six-time World Champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist, had appeared to be losing his steam somewhat. He flaked out of the Worlds in 2015, but that was all the way back in last September. Then he was ousted at the Asian Qualifier in March by Shinobu Ota (JPN, world no. 12) in a match where Ota simply stayed aggressive and kept pushing the pace. There’s no other way to say it — Soryan was exhausted.
Fast-forward about a month and change to the 1st World Qualifier. Soryan won his first match before getting run over by Angelov. Once again, this wasn’t a technical thing. Angelov had it going on, for sure. But Soryan gassed out badly. We’re talking he just laid on the mat at the end, his stomach contracting as if he hadn’t practiced in a few months. Who knows? Maybe he hadn’t.
And that’s because at the 2nd World Qualifier, Soryan appeared resurrected. Each win, dominant. Each scoring opportunity, cut-throat. He looked like he was “back” and since that’s the last memory we have of him going into Rio, it’s hard not to peg him as a favorite to find the podium.
Reigning World Champions are supposed to be given their due and leading up to the 2016 Olympics, Ismael Borrero Molina (CUB, world no. 1) really hasn’t been. Part of that is because he hasn’t stepped on a mat competitively since 2015, and part of that is because Soryan stole the show all over again. Regardless, this is one guy who presents a laundry list of issues to deal with. Molina is fluid and fast. He darts through exchanges and uses a pair of quick-feet to find angles. He can be slowed down in the ties a bit, but he pops windows open when he needs to.
Like many Cubans, Molina likes his straight lift from par terre because he can flop back down into a gut attempt if it fails. It’s fundamentals and it is one area he doesn’t mess around with. Defensively, he’s pretty tough. Not “out of this world, can’t turn ‘em” kind of tough, but Molina bottoms out fairly well and slinks just enough to get re-starts.
2011 World Champion Rovshan Bayramov (AZE, world no. 2) has had his fill of silver. He was the runner-up at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics (55 kg) and took second to Molina at the 2015 Worlds. The 29-year old Bayramov was a monster in 2012. In London, he got past Mingiyan Semenov (RUS, world no. 5), Li Shujin (CHN), Choi Gyu-Jin (KOR), and US hero Spenser Mango before losing to Soryan in the finals. He took the next two and half years off of competing and then got himself back in prime condition for the Worlds last September. He hasn’t exactly been a ball of activity ever since. Azerbaijan elected instead to use Taleh Mammadov and Sakit Guliyev in the World Cup, keeping Bayramov on the sidelines.
This is a stage Bayramov is familiar with, so he won’t be intimidated by his surroundings with it being his third Olympiad. From a tactical standpoint, Bayramov looks like someone who can be dealt with. He’s not all that physical, can be bullied a little and at times, over-extends on lift attempts. But he’s also a calculated stalker, rarely putting himself out of position on his feet scanning for openings. And from par terre offense, Bayramov can seemingly gain a lock in the blink of an eye. Some athletes like the lights on them in big events and Bayramov is one of them, which makes him quite dangerous in Rio.
Who doesn’t love watching Yun Won-Chol (PRK, world no. 6) get in a dust-up? The 2013 World Champion at 59 kg, Yun imparts a smooth, technical game while also mixing in a taste for hard contact. He’s a guy who knows how to wrestle mean. Yun likes coming forward and hunts for front-headlocks a good brunt of the time, which is why knowing opponents will usually maintain good posture and hip placement to avoid his snaps. Secondary go-to’s include an inside drag or a conventional slide-by, and he goes after both with level 10-type speed.
You could apply the same attributes to Yun’s PT game. Whatever he is trying for, it’s with malice. Yun will go straight-lift, straddle gut, and the like, but if he gets bogged down he’ll rush over to the head and try a trap-arm turn of some sort. The bottom line is, he is always working.
Yun has previous Olympic experience from 2012, which is notable because in London, he lost to Choi Gyu-Jin (KOR) in his first bout. A little over a year later Yun got revenge in the World finals 4-3 in a match he controlled until Choi came on late. He also took a bronze in Las Vegas last year, although hasn’t been around in a major way since that point.
One wrestler most will be leery of finding standing across them is Elmurat Tasmuradov (UZB, world no. 4). Tasmuradov, like practically everyone else it seems at 59, was an Olympian in London and has two World bronze medals to his name. But that isn’t where the story ends. Tasmuradov is a momentum-driven competitor, which is a problem for opponents in a momentum-driven sport. If Tasmuradov knows he can score, he does. No breaks, no striding around the mat “pretend-fighting” when he has a lead. No, he tries to end things. And at only 24 years of age, Tasmuradov’s body of work is downright striking. Four Asian Championship golds to go along with his World medals and an Olympic appearance make him one athlete to certainly keep an eye on in Brazil.
And of course, there’s Russia, the land of great depth and controversy. Going into the Olympic year, it was expected that 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Mingiyan Semenov would wind up being the country’s representative in Rio. But you never have any idea with Russia, especially in cases where they have multiple ranked guys in the same weight, as they do at 59 kg (among others). Ibrahim Labazanov performed well at the Russian Nationals and he was apparently penciled in at one point. Then we had the doping chaos and supposed “insufficient tests”, so…yeah. Convoluted much?
At any rate, it appears the lucky winner to go will be 2015 European Games champ Stepan Maryanyan. Maryanyan is an Armenian-born athlete who has some tools. For one thing, he is slightly gawky. At 5’6, he wrestles a little unorthodox at times, switching levels and using his long arms to pry inside. He is also quick. One of his better weapons is a little bodylock dump-off he finds off of a short series of setups. He’ll twist arms, fake throw-by’s, and then clamber in around the waist. In fact, it’s not entirely unlike Thielke’s style.
Given his reach, Maryanayan likes going elbow-to-elbow on his gut attempts. Since he’s got some height, he pulls up to take his gutwrenches over a lot of the time but he will also arch and roll if his opponent is short enough to not cause a problem. Defensively he’s pretty sound, as most Russians are.
What Thielke brings
That brings us to Jesse Thielke. If you are from the US, chances are you have an idea of what his game is like. Maybe you know. That is because while the Wisconsin native certainly does have a specialized arsenal he likes to go to, he’s also quite unpredictable. At times in the ties, it can appear as though he’s trying to lull his opponents to sleep. And then… lightning crashes. There is no one — read this carefully — no one at 59 kg who is faster than Thielke is. There just isn’t. He can zip inside from a distance off of one of his many ducks, or he can counter an attempt and have you turned around before you can comprehend what exactly just happened. When Thielke counters, he does so like he takes it personally that you’re trying to score on him. Plus, his exceptional physical strength is tough to deal with, as well.
On par terre offense, Thielke is a gutter, to the extreme. He can lift, but his style is so kinetically-charged that a conventional gut works for him because he gains such strong momentum off his rolls. And since he has pretty long arms, so long as the waist he’s locking around is narrow enough, Thielke can go elbow-deep. If he can find that kind of lock and not get flummoxed in the process, he will get his turns.
As for defensively, he’s solid. Is Thielke impossible to turn? He hasn’t been. Good money says that he has spent some time since Turkey trying to shore that area up. However – Thielke also isn’t resigned to just staying heavy and dropping his hips to the mat. If the opportunity to escape presents itself, he’ll take it and aggressively so. He can also turn such an occasion into stunning points. Just ask Farunze Harutyunyan (SWE).
Thielke doesn’t have a ton of history with anyone who will be in Rio. He lost to Tasmuradov at the Golden Grand Prix last year and Soryan beat him pretty quickly in the finals of the 2nd OG Qualifier. Then again, it was that same tournament when Thielke announced his presence as a legitimate medal contender in this thing. He might have been an American wrestler the others had sort of known about before, but now he is undoubtedly on everybody’s radar.
Can Thielke win?
It isn’t jingoistic or biased to say that Thielke can win. Absolutely 110% of course he can. The only thing that hurts his chances is the same thing that may help. His performance in Turkey was practically legendary. Those matches are also live online for the entire world to see. Other countries scout just like we do, and certainly all of their eyes were opened to what Thielke brought to the party back in early-May. No one, not even Soryan, who tech’ed him in the finals, wants any piece of Thielke if they can help it. You can bank on that. The only snag, just like it is for any well-known wrestler, is that he also won’t be surprising many people.
Although, any of the top contenders, be it Molina, Bayramov, Soryan, or Tasmuradov, will be dealing with a different Thielke than the one who has exploded over the last year. After all, it’s not like he hasn’t been improving even more since qualifying. The question, from our vantage point, shouldn’t be can Thielke medal? It should instead be, can Thielke capture gold? His best beats their best, so the answer to both is “certainly.”