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Match Breakdown: Kim (KOR) vs. Geraei (IRI) — Tbilisi ’18

The first thing warranting mention is that Kim Hyeon-Woo (77 kg, KOR) stands among the most respected Greco-Roman athletes of his generation. Revered as a “wrestler’s wrestler” whose dynamism and workrate pair quite nicely with a quiet man’s demeanor bereft of self-aggrandizing histrionics, both fans and fellow competitors alike see Kim as a representation of what’s right about this sport.

That does not mean he is the most decorated. He simply isn’t. Not that he’s far too far off. In  2011, Kim, now 31, enjoyed a three-year stretch that began with a World bronze before adding an Olympic gold and a World gold. Then came his Olympic bronze from Rio and a World bronze in ’18. Throw in five Asian Championships golds along the way, and his is a resume that certainly more than speaks for itself.

But the longer an accomplished star athlete’s career lasts, the more he is called upon to be tested by young fitful challengers. World-level Greco-Roman tends not to employ “gate-keepers”. Wrestlers at the top either continue to perform and find ways to hold down the youth movement for a little while longer — or they don’t, and are eventually supplanted via competitive natural selection or replaced by their country’s national program. This is how it works.

And that is why it is always intriguing to watch a wrestler like Kim clash with younger competitors on the rise. These matches can offer terrific theater. Plus if you’re lucky, they lead to developing sagas which provide ample reason to remain engaged with the material.

Such was the story when Kim became introduced to Iranian Mohamadali Geraei (IRI) in the finals of the ’18 Tbilisi Grand Prix. Geraei — who turns 26 on Thursday — was not exactly an unknown commodity at the time. He had placed third at the previous year’s World Championships (71 kg) and made enough appearances in big tournaments to garner some notice. But up at 77 kilograms and with Kim staring him down in the final of a marquee tournament automatically heightened the stakes.

Their styles differed just enough. Both are pace-pushers, both active in terms of offensive attempts. But their approaches to negotiating scores seemed to presume additional conflict. Kim is and has been very much an athlete who will set up opponents in order to disrupt position or force unwanted steps, resulting in arm throws, off-balances, and go-behinds. Geraei is more forceful. Choppy, brawling. He wants the pressure he creates to pay dividends immediately.

Though it does bear mentioning he has smoothed out some of these rough edges. Thanks to increasing competitive maturity (in addition to finally settling in at 77), Geraei is now a two-time World bronze (’19) and one of Iran’s best shots at an Olympic gold in Tokyo.

Kim vs. Geraei — 2018 Tbilsi Grand Prix Final

It didn’t take too long for Geraei to get a taste of Kim’s unique penchant for scoring. Geraei had pummeled his way to a right-side underhook, giving Kim the opposite-side overhook. Always a dangerous proposition given the Korean’s love for arm throws. But instead of torquing over the arm, Kim chose to pop it for a duck-under and wound up finishing what was essentially a leg-less fireman’s carry. Except — Kim did make brief contact with Geraei’s leg. However, the score was not overturned (and probably shouldn’t have been).

Kim went on to turn Geraei once for two points, taking a 4-0 lead before a minute had elapsed.

kim, geraei

There is no doubt that Kim (blue) made contact with Geraei’s left leg en-route to finishing the technique, but it was deemed incidental/inconsequential and Iran was more concerned about the points at the boundary. This nifty sequence provided Kim with temporary 4-0 lead and delivered just one more piece in a long line of evidence regarding his ability to innovate. (Image: UWW)

But Geraei quickly narrowed the gap. On the back-end of the par terre, he reversed and exposed Kim at the edge.

kim vs geraei

Geraei (red) was gifted two for stepping over Kim as the second gutwrench attempt concluded off the edge. (Image: UWW)

Kim, ever composed, calmly prodded at Geraei’s hands when the two returned standing but soon had to switch gears. Geraei demanded engagement. Think of Mark Madsen’s battles with Kim through the years, with the difference being Geraei is not (as) underhook or pummel obsessed. He is out for hard contact, and will settle for grabbing the elbows and winching outside of conventional tie-ups; because if the two-on-one isn’t there, at least then he can break open lanes for body attacks. Against Kim in Tbilisi, that type of strategy was not going to sustain given Kim’s aptitude for improvisation. He’ll just adjust and lower his level, which is what happened midway through the first.

After an exchange that saw the Iranian pour inside with pressure, Kim attempted a high dive. Geraei snapped, lassoed a front headlock, and came around back for a beautiful takedown — and the lead on criteria 4-4.

This is when it became very obvious that Kim had found himself a new international threat with which to contend.

geraei takedown

Geraei’s (red) gameplan in most matches is to force-feed pressure as a way to crack open scores. With Kim as the opponent, force-feeding wasn’t necessary. After Kim dipped down for a high-dive, Geraei quickly snapped a front headlock and used the hold to swim around back for what was at the time a critical pair of points. (Image: UWW)

Period 1 Stats

Geraei 
Points — 4
Attempts — 2
Attempt Conversions — 1
Counter Scores — 1
Par Terre Points — 0
Multi-Point Scores — 2

Kim
Points — 4
Attempts — 2
Attempt Conversions — 1
Counter Scores — 0
Par Terre Points — 2
Multi-Point Scores — 2

The early part of the second period saw Kim grow increasingly demonstrative with his attacks. Not an uncommon occurrence, particularly if a bout is close or he is trailing. There was a look at a front headlock from a snap, but Geraei had bounded back up before any damage could be inflicted. And on the very next exchange, it was Geraei who again managed to snap Kim, though this time the Korean shut the door on a potential follow-through out the back.

Passivity was soon called on Geraei, allowing Kim to lock a lift that would yield correct throw points. Interesting to note, because Kim opted for a side lift from the right side. Although a reliable weapon of his, he has found more success going to his left the past few years, and locking a high gut that he can at times elevate into a four-point score. He stuck with the side lift in this sequence, and Geraei turned his body inside the lock immediately. Nevertheless, Kim executed and the hold provided a three-point advantage.

kim, greco-roman, korean, throw

Kim (blue) went to the right side for a side lift, allowing Geraei to turn into the hold and perhaps avoid a four-point score — though it was a close call. (Image: UWW)

Just over a minute and a half hung on the clock after Kim’s correct hold. Down by three, Geraei wasn’t worried about revamping his workflow. He was behind on points and the outcome didn’t look promising — not with Kim’s huge edge in experience closing out matches. But there had been unmistakable positives. Geraie’s effort never waned (it never has, his output is remarkably consistent) and he had already proven capable of taking Kim off of his feet. The problem, if there was one, was that pace and pressure were not enough any longer.

Kim could just play back inside, angle, angle, maybe offer an attempt or feign an attempt, and before long the bout would reach its conclusion.

No, Geraei was going to have to make something out of nothing just to have chance. And the manner in which he did so resulted in one of the more surprising takedowns Kim has ever surrendered.

geraei, takedown

Maybe Geraei (red) remembered the 2011 Junior World Championships, when American Ellis Coleman brought the “Flying Squirrel” into the wrestling lexicon and wanted to try it out for himself. In this case, Greco’s equivalent to the “Hail Mary” did not yield anything other than takedown points, causing Iran to challenge the sequence (and lose), giving Kim his eighth point of the match. (Image: UWW)

They had been jousting, with Geraei feverishly attacking ahead of an arm throw try that was a slip as soon as it materialized. On the proceeding reset, Geraei lept over Kim whilst locking around the waist. It was the “Flying Squirrel”, and one that actually landed. But — it was scored for two, not four, since Kim (as seen in the GIF above) clearly touched his left leg to the tarp before his back, or really, anything else. Still, Iran challenged, the call was upheld, and Kim’s lead was 8-6 with :30 to go.

Geraei brawled his heart out through the remainder. The cap had effectively been sealed once the last-ditch attempt failed to bring a heftier point total. Kim did not make the mistake of relaxing his posture for even an eye-blink. Instead, he expertly deflected any and all of Geraei’s advances until the buzzer sounded.

Period 2 Stats

Geraei
Points — 2

Offensive Points — 2
Counter Scores — 0
Attempts — 3
Attempt Conversions — 1
Par Terre Points — 0
Multi-Point Scores – 1

Kim
Points – 4
Offensive Points — 2
Counter Scores — 0
Attempts – 1
Attempt Conversions — 0
Par Terre Points — 2
Multi-Point Scores — 1

Kim def. Geraei 8-6

What makes Tbilisi such a fun event is that the quality of competition dictates watchable action, and it is especially more inviting when two top athletes (from nations outside of Georgia) meet in the finals. In this case, it was a first-time affair, as Kim and Geraei had not clashed prior. But they would again in fairly short order.

Kim dusted Geraei in the semifinal round of the ’19 Asian Championships, some eight months after their initial meeting in Tbilisi. He grabbed six points in the first, that arm throw of his responsible for the haul. The second period brought to light an exceedingly frustrated Geraei, who took his angst out on Kim in the form of a few headbutts and was cautioned out of the contest.

That came to pass when Geraei found his revenge. The two squared off in the round-of-32 at the ’19 Worlds and Kim was never in the running. Geraei raced out in front 4-0 on the heels of a Kim arm attempt that turned into a scramble. Geraei then got behind and wailed Kim backwards for four. Another scramble in the first period, this one decidedly unusual, deposited two more points in the Iranian’s account, and he later sewed up the upset thanks to a takedown with more than a minute remaining in the opening frame. Geraei was ousted in the quarterfinal by eventual runner-up Alex Kessidis (SWE) but stormed back for third to polish off his second bronze in three seasons.

With Geraei having qualified 77 kilograms on behalf of Iran for the Olympics, and Kim in need of getting the job done at the Asian Qualifier next spring, there is no telling when these two might renew what has turned into a fascinating series all of the sudden. If both participate in the ’21 Asian Championships, well, there’s your answer. The schedule for next year has not been confirmed as of yet, and neither Korean or Iran has declared what their plans will entail with regards to preparation for these events. Everyone is kind of stuck in neutral at the moment.

The only thing we know is that Kim, one of Greco’s absolute best competitors, always seems to shine brightest when greeted by competitors who are willing to press the action — and more importantly, threaten with daring technique. The antagonist most befitting of that description currently is Geraei, an athlete for whom everyone should be grateful is just beginning his ascension to the highest reaches of our sport.

Because, the sport needs guys like him.

Guys like both of them.

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