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Russians favored in wrestling at London Summer Olympics

Russia has long been dominant in wrestling at past Olympic Games and is expected to do so again this summer in London. But the US and other nations will be medal contenders, as well.

By Luke MeredithAssociated Press / June 22, 2012

Tervel Dlagnev, top, competes with Eduard Bazrov, of Russia, during a freestyle wrestling event in Times Square, June 7, in New York.

Frank Franklin II/AP

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The often overlooked sport of wrestling did its best to grab the spotlight when the United States and Russia staged a highly publicized exhibition in New York's Times Square in June.

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The Americans held serve on their home soil, beating their longtime rivals 4-3, but expect a different theme when the action moves to London this summer.

Russia takes wrestling as seriously as any nation in the world and often dominates in the Olympics. The country won three freestyle gold medals in Athens, three more in Beijing and could match that haul again at the London Games.

"For Russian standards, this is probably a lower team than they've had. But make no mistake. They're very, very good," U.S. national freestyle coach Zeke Jones said.

Russia's main competition likely will come from Iran, which boasts a promising crop of young wrestlers, along with Azerbaijan and the U.S.

Iran's medal contenders include 2011 world champions Mehdi Taghavi Kermani at 66 kilograms and Reza Yazdani at 96 kg. Hassan Rahimi also could push for gold at 55 kg, especially now that Viktor Lebedev is uncertain for London after he was upset in the recent Russian Nationals.

Azerbaijan has a pair of freestyle gold contenders in Yabrail Hasanov and Sharif Sharifov, along with reigning Greco-Roman champion Ravshan Bayramov at 55 kg.

No country in the world qualified more wrestlers than the United States, which will compete for 17 of the 18 gold medals up for grabs at the ExCel Centre from Aug. 5-12.

But the Americans have just one favorite, Jordan Burroughs, and there's a possibility the U.S. could bring home only one wrestling gold medal for the third straight games.

Burroughs, who won two NCAA titles at Nebraska, made a smooth transition to freestyle wrestling last year and won the world championship in Istanbul. The New Jersey native is the popular pick to win at 74 kg, which could see a world-championship rematch between Burroughs and Iran's Sadegh Goudarzi.

Former Iowa State star Jake Varner, heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev and Pennsylvania native Jake Herbert also are medal contenders, but none of them are expected to bring home the gold.

Jones said one of the strengths of the American team is it's much more experienced than it has been in recent years.

"I just think the expectations of the program are always high," he said. "We want to do well. Each guy is capable of winning a gold medal. We've really been able to do everything we need to to be ready."

Former Michigan State star Franklin Gomez, now wrestling for Puerto Rico, is hoping to get another crack at Russian favorite Besik Kudukhov after losing their gold-medal match in Istanbul.

Perhaps the most stunning result of the recent world championships was Cuban Mijain Lopez losing to Turkey's Riza Kayaalp in the Greco-Roman heavyweight final.

Lopez won gold in Beijing and is about as big of a favorite as there will be in London. If he happens to run into Kayaalp again, it should be among the most compelling matches in London.

On the women's side, Japan figures to dominate much like it did in Athens and Beijing.

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