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Freestyle World Cup Preview

Although Los Angeles has hosted the Freestyle World Cup since 2014, this weekend there is a different attitude about the event. For the past two years the World Cup has taken place earlier (April in 2015 and March in 2014) and with wrestling for the Olympics occurring in August (a month earlier than the World Championships in non-Olympic years) this year's World Cup is most certainly a late tune-up for Rio -- a chance to gauge performances, test out techniques and get a feel for opponents before the final phase of making adjustments in pursuit of Olympic glory.

The eight teams participating fall into two camps about how to approach the event. Iran, Georgia, Mongolia and the USA are sending what looks to be their strongest lineups. Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan are leaving many of their top athletes at home.

Traditionally, Russia never sends their strongest team to the World Cup, and given the success that they continuously demonstrate at the World Championships and Olympics, it's hard to argue with that strategy. Russia knows how to peak and they also know how to plan for individual opponents -- opponents that they clearly get good intel on at events like the World Cup.

For Russia, the event may be the deciding factor on determining two of their athletes for the Olympic team. Because of controversy in the officiating at the Russian Nationals, Victor Lebedev (57 kilos) announced he will not be competing in Rio. A good World Cup by 57-kilo Gadzhimurad Rashidov would allow him to make his case to be the Olympian for Russia. Similarly, 2014 world champ Abdusalam Gadisov (97 kilos) did not compete at Russian Nationals. The weight was won by Anzor Boltukaev, who was very impressive. Gadisov will be at the World Cup while Boltukaev will not. A strong run by Gadisov this weekend could return him to the Olympic stage or at least set up a wrestle-off with Boltukaev.

While Iran has always taken the World Cup seriously, it being in Los Angeles, which has such a high population of Iranian-Americans, seems to elevate the status of the event even more. During the final World Cup match for the past two years, the inside of the Forum could easily be mistaken for a stadium in Tehran. Aside from the injured Reza Yazdani at 97 kilos, Iran will once again bring their strongest team and a full roster of backups, which will make them the favorite to win their fifth World Cup in a row.

Georgia shocked everyone by winning the European Championships over Russia earlier this year. 57-kilo world champ Vladimir Khinchegashvili bumped up to 61 kilos and defeated fellow 2015 world champ Haji Aliev of Azerbaijan decisively. And at heavyweight Geno Petriashvili came from behind to defeat 2014 and 2105 world champ Taha Akgül of Turkey, who looked unbeatable at Worlds in Las Vegas.

Georgia has Russia right off the bat in the first session and, surprisingly should be considered a favorite over them.

Although Team USA boasts two standing world champions and two more world medalists, the squad is mostly unseasoned and many questions will get answered this weekend. In general, America has gotten better at transitioning college wrestlers from folkstyle to freestyle, but it is still a transition -- and it can only be made through match experience.

At 57 kilos, Daniel Dennis has looked great since dropping down from 61 kilos. He won the U.S. Open, Olympic Trials and indeed seems like a complete freestyle wrestler. How complete will become apparent in the first session when he faces 2013 world silver medalist Amit Kumar of India. In Session III, he will get and even bigger test from four-time world medalist Hassan Rahimi of Iran.

At 61 kilos, it's unclear if USA will send out Nahshon Garrett or two-time World Team member Tony Ramos. Most likely, it will be a combination of the two. They will get stiff competition from India, Azerbaijan and Iran in the first three rounds. It was recently announced that a World Championship will be held for non-Olympic weights in December. So for the World Cup, athletes at 61 kilos and 70 kilos are not just wrestling to help out their teams and their countries, but to gear up for the quest to become a world champion.

Frank Molinaro came out on top at an absolutely loaded 65-kilo weight class at the Olympic Team Trials -- ahead of many athletes who were picked to finish higher. He defeated Kellen Russell, Brent Metcalf, logan steiber and aaron pico to become champion. He then competed in both remaining Olympic qualifying tournaments and punched his ticket to Rio when two previous qualifiers tested positive on drug tests. Every match Molinaro gets will help him prepare for the Olympics. His biggest test will come against Seyed Mohammadi of Iran in the third session.

2015 world bronze medalist James Green will return to 70 kilos after lackluster results dropping to 65 kilos to try to make the 2016 Olympic Team. Green was probably just too big for the lighter weight class and with the opportunity to be a world champ later this year will probably fully commit to the higher weight class.

Jordan Burroughs celebrates after picking up a woiin against Iran at the World Cup (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
If America is to win the World Cup this weekend, it will in no doubt be in part to the energy provided by USA Wrestling's golden child Jordan Burroughs. The four-time gold medalist stands 124-2 in freestyle competition and remains at the peak of his wrestling game. Burroughs is definitely team-oriented and uses his talents to elevate those around him.

At 86 kilos, J'den Cox has been enjoyable to follow. Still with a year of NCAA eligibility left, Cox appears to be a much more experienced senior level freestyler than he actually is. He constantly demonstrates intelligent wrestling, creates action when he needs to, scrambles out of dangerous positions and never loses his cool. Cox seems to be developing at a rapid pace and the ceiling of his potential is unknown. It should become much clearer in the third round when he faces Alireza Karimi of Iran, the 2015 bronze medalist and the 2014 junior world champion.

Yes, Kyle Snyder may be the world champ at 97 kilos, but he's still got two years of college eligibility left and is far from being done improving. Moreover, although Snyder won the World Championships he can hardly rest on his laurels as he had two international losses this winter in Russia. A rematch with Gadisov this weekend would be huge for both athletes.

The big question with two-time world bronze medalist Tervel Dlagnev (125 kilos) is how his back will hold up through the Olympics. He made the 2015 World tTeam, but then withdrew prior to the event due to injury. After returning from injury he won the Pan Am Games and the Olympic Trials. Will he wrestle in all four matches this weekend? It's impossible to predict, but most certainly backup Zack Rey will step in to keep Dlagnev as healthy as possible for Rio. Said Gamidov of Azerbaijan could be a good test for him in the second round.

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