Though Russian Nationals boasts incredible depth the starting Russian side wasn't as end-to-end impressive as we saw in 2015 or 2016. In fact, it's reminiscent of their 2017 squad which lost the team title to the United States by only a few points. Either the Russians or regressing or Team USA's growth is raising the bar higher than some Russians can reach.
I wrote last week about how much David Taylor has improved over the past year. He's stronger, more creative and just better all-around than anyone he's met all season. It should reassure American wrestling fans that when contrasting Taylor style, pace and ability with that of his Russian counterpart Dauren Kurugliev there is simply no positive comparison to draw for the Dagestani.
Overall, Kurugliev lacks any indicators that he could even reach a world final against Taylor, much less be competitive or hold any advantage. Maybe I drank some Taylor family juice mixes, but after watching Kurugliev struggle mightily to get past his finals opponent I fail to see how anyone could reasonably conclude that the Russians are sending a viable threat to Budapest. Maybe Hassan Yazdanicharati is Taylor's only real competition, but even there I'd back Taylor as the heavy favorite.
The Russian Nationals also gave us a peek at the 2018 version of a 97-kilogram Abdulrashid Sadualev. I discuss more below, but the two-time world champion and Olympic champion was a lesser version of the Russian Tank that rolled through Las Vegas and Rio.
There is still a lot of talent in the Russian lineup, the soft spots were glaring. At 74 kilograms an undersized, out-of-shape Zaurbek Sidakov limped onto the world team after a controversial call gave him the edge over longtime rival Khetik Tsabolov. Sidakov is a bronze medalist at best, but he's not matching the firepower of Jordan Burroughs -- and unless he draws him in the first two rounds, I'm doubtful the duo will match up because Burroughs is the best 74-kilogram wrestler in the world. No question.
There are other holes, too. Batyrbek Tsakulov has a win over Kyle Snyder's nemesis Aslanbek Alborov, but is slow and unimaginative on the mat. Heavyweight Anzor Hizriev once again won the starting spot for Russia but is incredibly average by Russian standards. Zaur Uguev is a better than average 57k-kilogram wrestler but failed to place in 2017 and there is no reason to think he'll cruise through the brackets in Budapest. He's a bronze medalist at best.
No question this is a softer-than-normal Russian lineup, but there are still five potential world champions, including Sadualev. Whoever comes out at 61 kilograms and 65 kilograms will be the automatic favorite to win Worlds and 79-kilogram starter Akhmed Gadzhimagamedov might be the most impressive wrestler in the world not named Taylor. At 70 kilograms it's impossible to conceive of Magomedrasul Gazimagamedov not making the finals.
Here is the full Russian lineup for the 2018 World Championships in Budapest:
57: Zaur Uguev
70: Magomedrasul Gazimagamedov
74: Zaurbek Sidakov
79: Akhmed Gadzhimagamedov
86: Dauren Kurugliev
92: Batyrbek Tsakulov
97: Abdulrashid Sadulaev
125: Anzor Hizriev
To your questions …
Abdulrashid Sadulaev at the 2017 World Championships (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Q: How did you think Abdulrashid Sadulaev looked at Russian Nationals? Last year he looked like he hadn't grown into 97 kilograms yet. Does he look bigger this year?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Sadualev cruised in the finals, beating Batciev with little issue. However, he looked tired and slow on the first day of competition. Why is unclear, but he might just be getting used to the weight, or his opponents felt that much worse on the second day than they did on the first day.
The growing pains we are seeing from Sadualev right now are the same we saw from David Taylor in 2016 and 2017. All the techniques are there, the conditioning seems to be in place, but there is a lack of sustained strength. Like with Taylor, his performance isn't a reflection of work ethic or talent as it is a body struggling to oxygenate and optimize new muscle tissue.
From my vantage point the biggest difference in Sadualev's growth pattern is that he doesn't seem to have the frame to be a fully actualized 97-kilogram wrestler. Whereas Taylor could hang muscles on his then-lanky frame, Sadulaev looks to be growing wider through the chest. That growth is fine, but he's not the same barrel-chested monster that you see with Kyle Snyder, and that might mean he's getting close to topping out on his size and strength.
We'll see how he looks in three months, but I think there is a chance he could be in deep water early in the tournament. Everyone wants to see the rematch, but there are hurdles.
Also, it's not too soon to remind fans that because Sadualev has not yet competed internationally at 97 kilograms in 2018 and he won't be seeded in the bracket. Like last year both he and Snyder are going to be added through the random draw. That won't happen in 2019, but with each missing the majority of ranking series events their placement will be left to chance.
Q: How do you think Pittsburgh will do as a host for the 2019 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships? I've never been to Pittsburgh, but plan on going to NCAAs next March.
-- Mike C.
Foley: My guess is that the 2019 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships will be the most enjoyable and well-run since the 2016 NCAA Championships in New York City. This is one of America's most passionate wrestling cities and with proximity to so many East Coast fans we are bound to see a passionate, sold-out arena.
Also, Pittsburgh is a very fun city for fans to enjoy. The restaurants and bars are welcoming, well-priced and there is a variety of cuisines to try. I'm not sure I'll make the trip, but given the distance (and my already packed schedule) there is a higher likelihood of me making the trek to Pittsburgh than to somewhere in the Midwest. I imagine a lot of East Coast wrestling fans are equally excited about the shorter commute.
Sadulaev v. Batciev
Kyle Snyder discusses pressure …
Artistic recap of the 2018 European Junior Championships
Q: It's been a while since you have had anything nice to write about Henry Cejudo. I am thinking Saturday's performance will inspire you give the champ his props.
-- Jacob R.
Foley: Henry Cejudo is incredibly talented, but he's always needed to work hard in order to have his talents shine. Missing weight as often as he did and backing out of fights (along with rumors of not working hard in practice) led to valid criticism.
Today Cejudo is focused and fighting with purpose. I suspect he'll vacate this belt and move up a weight class, but I think that will largely be determined by what the UFC decided to pay him for a bantamweight defense against Demetrious Johnson. It will be much more difficult for him to break into the featherweight ranks with a budding social media rivalry breaking out between Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw -- a fight that most fans want to see.
Cejudo can't rest on any of these his achievements. Fighters who lose the hunger to train and stay disciplined often end up canvassed. The challenge for Cejudo will be to create a new goal that he'll work every day to attain. At most Cejudo has a five-year window with which he can earn top dollar as an MMA fighter, and likely even less. That's not a lot of time, but if he shows up in future fights like he did last weekend he'll ensure himself of larger checks and even more cultural influence.
Q: Did Kyle Crutchmer and Logan Storley have amateur MMA fights before going pro? If not, what is your opinion on them jumping straight into the pros? In your opinion, who is the better MMA fighter: Storley or Crutchmer?
-- Gregg Y.
Foley: Logan Storley did not need time in the amateur ranks and based on his recent performance neither did Kyle Crutchmer.
I think that for non-athletes -- especially those who have never competed in combat sports -- a tour through the amateur ranks can help the adjustment period. For these guys they are accustomed to the hard work and are only developing new skills, not adopting to new training techniques or lifestyle as someone coming off the street.
Also, it's incredibly difficult to find fights for former collegiate wrestlers. Crutchmer has had this difficulty at the pro level, and even his latest opponent came in a whopping 15 pounds over, arguably to help negate the advantage of Crutchmer's wrestling. Finding fights at the amateur level, especially anything challenging, is near impossible for these wrestling elite graduating to MMA.