Ever since United World Wrestling introduced the non-Olympic weights, they have been relegated to the second tier. Despite being contested at two previous World Championships, everyone knew once the Olympic year came it was going to be time to scramble, a situation made all the more precarious for those athletes who actually found that the “forgotten” weight classes fit them better. And of course with the Olympics going down in Rio, these same athletes who either failed to qualify or didn’t have the opportunity to were thought to be left out in the cold. What a difference a day makes.
For it was back in May when UWW changed the script and thankfully, gave Greco Roman wrestling something it badly needed — a platform for some of the planet’s best talent to still enjoy the chance to compete for a World championship. New life was breathed back into the lungs and hearts of wrestlers who had felt like they were on the outside looking in. Wrestlers need top competition. It’s what drives them. Olympic year or not, the sport deserves to see who the very best is at these two weight classes. Now that the event is upon us much like the effervescent glow of shimmering moonlight resting above the sky, fans can rest assured that the questions they seek will finally come with answers.
2016 Non-Olympic Weight World Championships – US Previews
71 kg — US representative: Chris Gonzalez (Army/WCAP)
Every Greco wrestler worth his salt is forced at one time or another to travail a course replete with obstacles. In the US, we get to see this on a much larger scale simply due to development. Once an athlete starts to be “good enough”, the query morphs into, But will he make a team? In a country where dominance by one wrestler over an extended period of time has become rare, this all has a habit of working itself out eventually. The best competitors, regardless of where they started in the pecking order, almost always find a way to declare who they are when the lights are at their brightest. Provided they stick it out, even when the clouds roll in on occasion.
Chris Gonzalez has seen the clouds and come away undaunted. Gonzalez cut his teeth nationally while at Northern Michigan and while indeed a tough competitor, that isn’t what stood out the most. Instead, it was his smarts. Gonzalez may have lost matches in the past due to either rawness or because points just have a way of piling up sometimes, but he never was one to slip on a banana peel. If you were going to get past him, you were going to earn it. That counts for something, especially when the learning curve on the Senior level is often insurmountable for so many others.
The 2016 Olympic Trials didn’t go too well for Gonzalez. He went 0-2, losing first to Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) and then Brian Graham (Minnesota Storm). But before long, the clouds lifted. This tournament was announced and Gonzalez, who looks much more the part of a 71 kilo guy than he did at 66, had something else to shoot for. He made the most out of it and then some at the World Team Trials, getting revenge on Smith in the semifinals before downing former teammate Alex Sancho (NYAC-OTS) in their gripping best-of-three series.
But here’s the plot twist: internationally, Gonzalez is a relative neophyte. With only one previous international event under his belt heading into these World Championships, it is reasonable to expect he will be one of the least experienced competitors in terms of the scale of the event. That actually isn’t a bad thing. There is no history here, there are no prior opponents who have a book on him, and most importantly, Gonzalez is a physical specimen who is willing to do the dirty work necessary to disrupt. You want clashing? You want someone who is eager to knock a head or two to find a tie-up? Gonzalez is your man.
No, he’s not supposed to win. He’s not even supposed to medal. The bar fans and observers are holding up for Gonzalez’s appearance here is predictably low. It’s a safe bet he is aware of this. However, sooner or later, you have to stop following narratives and start expecting results. Which is precisely why it is not perfectly okay to believe that a thoroughbred athlete who had his mettle tested by domestic opponents with more seasoning and passed with flying colors is capable of leaving a mark on a stage this big.
Aleksandar Maksimovic (SRB, world no. 5) After being knocked out last year’s World Championships by another man on this list, Iran’s Afshin Byabangard, Maksimovic enjoyed a stout 2016 campaign which saw a bronze at the Grand Prix of Zagreb, an impressive run at the European Championships that netted a silver, and a bronze last month at the Grand Prix. In-match, he’s not the busiest bee in the hive but Maksimovic does two things: he changes levels, often driving forward with his hips out before bringing them in. And he also uses his his 5’7 frame for all its worth to cut angles. Throw in Maksimovic’s excellent balance and it’s easy to see why he is so dangerous.
Balint Korpasi (HUN, world no. 1) So far in 2016, Korpasi has been in the finals in four out of five events with the lone dissenter being a bronze at the European Championships. Of course, American fans probably have Harry Lester tossing him around stuck in their heads and that’s natural. But Korpasi is a very real problem otherwise. He’ll stay committed to ties he likes and has no qualms about engaging in vicious hand-fights to get where he needs to go. Korpasi also employs underhooks as a precursor to bodylocks in a conventional manner or he will simply use them to pivot his opponents’ feet for clearer looks. Not to mention, if he finds himself on top look out, because he won’t be wasting what have become precious opportunities for big points.
Afshin Byabangard (IRI, world no. 2) Bybangard was a roughhouser at 66 and his penchant for the dynamic followed him up to 71. He earned a bronze at the 2014 World Championships (defeating Korpasi in the process) and has collected a few scalps at the Asian Championships, including a win there in 2012. As you might expect, there aren’t a ton of weak areas with this wrestler. Byabangard is equal parts aggressive and patient. He doesn’t rush and his pace won’t be an issue for someone like Gonzalez. But once Byabangard smells a scoring chance, he is all over it and then some. It’s up in the air as to how the rule change will affect his game and if opponents will have more chances to test his limits on the feet.
Hasan Aliyev (AZE, world no. 17 at 66 kg) It feels as though Aliyev has always been around despite the fact he’s only 27. That’s presumably what happens when you notice the same guy picking up a sizable amount of hardware in recent years. Aliyev won the 2010 Worlds at 60 kilos before growing into 66 a few years later. He has three bronze medals from the European Championships along with a silver in 2014. Most recently, he grabbed gold on home soil at the Golden Grand Prix, where he got past Korpasi in the finals in an overall anticlimactic 2-1 victory. That notwithstanding, Aliyev is usually a crowd-pleasing kind of athlete. Even when the throws aren’t there, he is always willing to fight hard for each position and it’s that determination why he could be one of the favorites this weekend.
Abuiazid Mantsigov (RUS, world no. 14) Mantsigov might not own an oversized trophy case as of yet, but few at this weight are more threatening. The 2013 Junior World Champion wrestles a fairly classical style that always has him primed and ready to attack. Mantisgov can pull a cross arm-drag for a mean bodylock or hop onto an arm and toss it over for a quick four. The only issue with him is that he can be put on his heels if the pressure gets hot, but even then he’s capable of setting traps that lead to substantial scoring chances. A lot of folks might overlook this guy. It’s not a good idea. Mantsigov remains disciplined and reliant on technique if all else fails so if he finds a rhythm, he is certainly capable of taking it all the way.
80 kg — US representative: Patrick Martinez (NYAC, world no. 15)
Forgive the notion that World-level Greco Roman wrestling skill can be attained via a series of “cram sessions”, because that’s not exactly how it works. But if you have kept with Patrick Martinez’s career in the style, which has spanned only about three years, you might get the impression it’s a viable way of doing things. The fact that it usually isn’t only serves to highlight how remarkable Martinez’s ascension really is. He did bring with him a successful folkstyle pedigree having won a state title in high school (California) as well as a fifth and a third at the DII nationals. He even All-American’ed at Fargo. But come on. Three years and three World teams? That is some heady stuff.
Martinez rose through the ranks for two reasons. Firstly, he hurled himself into Greco like a child diving into the ball pit at an amusement park and given his age at the time (23), it was probably a good approach. Maybe the only approach. He didn’t make the podium at his first National tournament. But at his first World Team Trials what he did do was make an immediate impact by performing extraordinarily well against more experienced opposition. That got attention.
Eventually, Martinez became a resident athlete at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, won a National title, and then made his first World Team. This wasn’t even two years into his now full-time Greco Roman career. These moments in the sun were at 80 kilos, though a bronze at the Grand Prix of Zagreb came at 85. Competing at 85 kg in the Olympic Trials, Martinez lost to eventual champ Ben Provisor (NYAC) and then was startled by collegian Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm) in the consolation finals. He recovered two months later by winning the University Nationals to make his second US World Team, but it was what happened after that which sets Martinez apart.
A solo trip to Poland and the notoriously difficult Wladyslaw Pytlasinski Cup resulted in an impressive bronze medal performance. Another such expedition, this time to the Grand Prix of Spain a few weeks later, netted Martinez a second consecutive bronze. That is two bronze medals at back-to-back overseas tournaments. Throw in the Zagreb, the University Trials and the Non-Olympic World Team Trials last month, and it has been an extremely potent year for the American.
Part of this has to do with the second reason for his climb up the Greco ladder — his physical makeup. Martinez’s legs and hips provide him with a very solid base for him to work off of. Because of this, it is an arduous task for opponents to move him off center. It isn’t a “strength on strength” methodology. If anything, Martinez’s leg-hip cohesion allows him to “be water” at times and flow into positions. It is from there where his considerable physical strength and overall mental acuity play a more vital role in opening up opportunities.
Martinez is not beneath anyone in his weight at the Non-Olympic Weight World Championships from a competitive standpoint. If he is lacking in anything, it is the technical nuances foreign opponents boast in abundance. The good news here is that with the removal of ordered par terre, Martinez is free to fight it out as much as he pleases with little to no fear. However, in order to win a medal, he will need to get to the body in this tournament. Actual offensive points, however they are earned, are not necessary for survival; but they are necessary to make the podium at the Worlds.
Viktar Sasunouski (BLR, world no. 6)
Last year’s World silver medalist, Sasunouski eeked past Martinez in Vegas via a narrow 4-2 score in the qualification round thanks to an early headlock. It’s not something the American has forgotten about and a vastly improved Martinez undoubtedly would love another crack at it here. Sasunouski is more technical than he is physical and he’s long enough to be disruptive. He has a couple of throws and will loosen up sporadically, but if he can play it tight, he will. Sasunouski is not going to be drawn into a gunfight very easily because he has enough confidence in his ability to slow things down until the coast is clear. But when he does attack, it can be lethal.
Lasha Gobadze (GEO, world no. 2) Gobadze had a big year in 2015. He won the U23 Euros, took bronze at the Worlds, and won the Golden Grand Prix. He won the 2016 Euros and earned a bronze at the Spanish Grand Prix to keep the ball rolling. He’s been inactive since July, but that is likely to mean little. Gobadze is a Georgian and wrestles like one. With a fluid, opportunistic game, he can turn it up on a moment’s notice. Though with forced par terre out of the picture, some of his strengths are nullified a bit. Opponents who wind up on the mat will have to play it smart, lest they wind up victimized by an aerial assault.
Pascal Eisele (GER) Eisele didn’t make it out of the first round at last month’s Golden Grand Prix so there isn’t much to take away from his performance there. However, he looked great at the European Championships in March where he won gold, taking out Edgar Babayan (POL) in the finals. Eisele can be a fun watch. He brings grit into each match and shows off some explosiveness. One thing you may enjoy watching Eisele is that he isn’t lazy. There is not a lot of head-hanging or palms-on-chest moments stifling what would otherwise be an action-packed pace. This dude likes contact. Not a head-turning monster necessarily, but definitely capable of wreaking havoc for others in Budapest.
Aslan Atem (TUR, world no. 12) Atem is a young, solid, all-around competitor who is almost hitting his stride. The 25-year old took second in October’s University World Championships and won the same tournament back in 2014. He has a mixture of wins and placings at other various events, most notably a bronze in this year’s Euros (see a pattern here?) and a silver at the 2016 Golden Grand Prix. The man below is who beat him out for gold. Atem can battle from the pocket as spritely as most in this weight class, but may lack some just a little pop darting in close-range attempts.
Rafik Huseynov (AZE, world no. 4) A fierce competitor. Some like to joke that Huseynov is like the “King of the Grand Prix” since he seems to win his home tournament every year (he’s actually won it three times). But even in jest, it diminishes what this guy can do. Huseynov plays to his strengths, of which there are several. He has excellent footwork; works inside from a variety of angles; and can chain score with the best of them. The one question some might have is if Husyenov is willing to scratch and claw in a drag-out brawl, since those elements of combat are largely missing from his game. Or maybe they haven’t been brought out of him yet, even at this stage in his career. It’s likely immaterial. There is little reason to expect Huseynov not to be ready for whatever goes down on Saturday and assuming he is, he’ll likely be in the running.