For this year’s edition of the Golden Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, the US is coming in with a shortened roster due to an injury (Ryan Mango, 59 kg, Army/WCAP) and Visa issues with a couple of the athletes. The few wrestlers who are competing comprise an overall strong squad with solid international experience. Experience they will need in order to advance through three brackets filled with quality opposition.
The Golden Grand Prix is traditionally stocked with some of the world’s most talented Greco Roman wrestlers and stands as an important event on the calendar. Intense, exciting match-up’s are expected to present themselves throughout each weight class and with each US wrestler coming in with something to prove, things could get very interesting quickly.
2016 Golden Grand Prix – US Greco Roman Preview
71 kg — Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) One of the favorites heading into the non-Olympic World Team Trials a couple of weeks ago, Smith was upset in the semifinals by eventual champ Chris Gonzalez (Army/WCAP). He has the opportunity here to shake that off in a hurry. There are very few humans on Earth capable of outworking Smith in-match, so if he can use the new rules to his advantage and wear opponents out, it could wind up being quite a day for him. But Smith does have his work cut out for him in the first round (and presumably after that).
Smith’s opponent in the opening round is Ridong Zhang (CHN, world no. 8). Zhang is an explosive charger with piston-like legs and he’s generally a problem in all phases of the game. The thing about Zhang is that he can be wrankled a little bit; he’s prone to letting his emotions play a role but since he is fairly aggressive, it doesn’t work against him very often. Zhang likes his drags and slide-by’s to create angles for him, and he is also a big thrower. Overall, Zhang enjoyed a pretty strong 2016 campaign, including a bronze at February’s Asian Championships.
80 kg — Patrick Martinez (NYAC, world no. 15) Two-time World Team member Martinez for sure has his eyes locked on the Worlds next month but the 2016 Golden Grand Prix is his first, so he’s going to want to make a show out of it. The Martinez rise has been something to behold. There has been a lot of knowledge and growth in an impressively short period of time. However, playing catch-up with the rest of the beasts from overseas is still a priority for him just like it is for every other American, making this an important event for him to build on before Budapest.
Martinez will be tested right away. Greeting him in his first match is 2016 Junior World bronze medalist Sid Bashir Azara (ALG). Bashir is somewhat long and limber. He didn’t pick up a whole lot of big points at the Worlds, but he’s tough and portrays a fairly high work-rate with some quickness mixed in. If you put these two athletes next to each other, Bashir looks like someone Martinez should simply muscle around. Plus, the Algerian showed in a couple of his World matches quite the penchant for overreaching. If Martinez does Martinez, he should advance.
85 kg — Cheney Haight (NYAC) Once an athlete gets to be over 30, you start wondering if there are any discernible signs of slowing down. It’s just how it is, especially in a sport as brutal as Greco Roman wrestling can be. But with Haight, there is nothing about him to suggest he has lost a step. If anything, he appears rejuvenated. Haight wrestled an energetic and intense tournament in New York two weeks ago and although he didn’t win, there were positives to take from his performance. Up a weight here, Haight can take opponents into deep water so long as he stays aggressive.
In one of the most stacked weights of the tournament, Haight actually has a decent first draw. Sultan Beybala Ismayilov (AZE) is a guy who holds down the depth at this weight for Azerbaijan, but hasn’t really done anything of note on the Senior level. He is bottom-heavy yet a little rangy. Ismayilov can also be coaxed to bend down a bit, which could provide a window for one of those Haight arm-throws. Either way, it might be a shark tank of weight class, but Haight is in a good position to potentially get on a run.
We will have live updates of the 2016 Golden Grand Prix beginning at 12:00am (EST) along with continued coverage and post-round summaries.