Kaori Icho is a four-time Olympic champion (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The greatest wrestler in Olympic history returned to the mats today at the 2019 Senior Asian Championships in Xi'an.
Kaori Icho, the four-time Olympic champion from Japan, had not competed outside of Japan since winning gold at Rio 2016. But Friday morning the 34-year-old stepped on the mat in the start of what she hopes will be a comeback that concludes in 2020 with a fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. Icho reached the semifinals of the Asian Championships on Friday before falling to Jong Myong Suk of North Korea, 7-4.
There is plenty to write about Icho and her accomplishments. She overcame an abusive Japanese system and coaching structure to win four Olympic gold medals and suffered the loss of her mother just before the 2016 Olympic Games. She keeps to herself, avoids media as she can, and generally loves wrestling.
Entertain for a moment what her addition will mean for the sport of women's wrestling. Not only would she be the single biggest Olympic story for wrestling in 2020, she will likely be the biggest story for the entire country, and among the top five for the entire Olympic Games. But that might pale in comparison to what her entry in the Olympic Games would mean to the competitiveness of the 57-kilogram weight category.
First, let's assume (hope, pray, beg) that Helen Maroulis is back at 57 kilograms and wrestling at top form in 2020. We know Helen can beat a legend, we know she competes her best on the big stage, we know she is well-tracked in the media.
Then, add in Indian superstar Pooja Dhanda, who would become the second-ever Olympic medalist for India in women's wrestling.
Not enough? What about NingNing Rong, who is the reigning world champion from China. The most-watched wrestling match from the 2016 Olympic Games was the bronze medal match at 72 kilograms featuring a women's wrestler from China. More than 9 million viewers tuned in inside China alone.
Want more? Grace Bullen -- inarguably the most powerful of the bunch -- will represent Norway, a nation looking for its first-ever medal in women's wrestling. Bullen is also a refugee from South Sudan, whose media appeal is already well-known and speaks to a lot of larger stories about displaced people and their opportunity to make their adoptive countries proud.
Done? Nah. Chimdee Sukhee of Mongolia is a world champion with a megawatt smile and the chance to medal in nearby Tokyo.
And yet there is more! World silver medalist Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria could become the first wrestler from sub-Sahara Africa to win a medal at the Olympic Games. Marwa Amri of Tunisia accomplished the feat for all of Africa in 2016 and will likely be in the lineup come Tokyo 2020.
While we watch Icho compete, it's worth keeping in mind that this is only an appetizer to what will be one of the most competitive and entertaining weight categories at Tokyo 2020. Follow along for the next 15 months and you won't be disappointed!
To your questions …
Q: Big fan of your work. I have a long-winded, two-part question for your mailbag.
I've been watching the back-and-forth discussion between Jordan Burroughs and Chael Sonnen, and I don't know what to make of the situation.
As you probably know, Chael is a former wrestler and has been a long-time proponent of the sport. I actually am (was?) a big fan of his because of his wrestling background. As I understand things, Chael has successfully utilized trash talking and controversy to propel himself into the spotlight throughout his MMA career. I've always thought of him as business-savvy, and also very thoughtful when he's not in "marketing mode." My questions on this situation are:
1. Do you believe that Chael's comments throughout this situation have been genuine? Or was he just talking trash to draw attention to himself and promote his brand/persona?
2. Do you think he crossed a line in this situation? I understand that JB's appearance on Ariel Helwani's show, coupled with his response to Chael's tweet, may have instigated some of this, but it rubbed me the wrong way to see Chael insult the sport of wrestling on ESPN. I guess I assumed that former wrestlers are always looking out for the sport of wrestling, but maybe nothing is out-of-bounds for Chael when he's in front of the camera?
Very eager to hear your take on the situation.
-- John G.
Foley: There is one thing that you should never, never forget: Chael Sonnen is a hack. He has no inside information, he doesn't study situations, he rarely enjoys an original perspective worth valuing (this in contrast to Ben Askren who might have a take to disagree with, but is often original and well thought out).
Sonnen is just a court jester looking to grab laughs with bad takes and in this circumstance he's helped drive the conversation. But again -- and I can't overstate this -- please, please never take a word Sonnen says to be true or connected to some insider's knowledge. He nothing more than an antique pinwheel spinning color for the changing winds.
Here is a good fact for you. The average fighter pay for a first-time UFC fighter is roughly $10K. There are win bonuses as well. However, the fighters have to pay taxes, have limited sponsorship capabilities and are responsible for paying a number of people in their orbit (coaches, agents, trainers, dietitians). That will reduce their profit significantly. Run that back a few times a year (if you're lucky) and a fighter is making minimum wage to get kicked in the liver by a yoked-up Brazilian.
The average entry level pay for a second assistant wrestling coach at a Division I school is between $35K-$55K depending on location, strength of program, and support. That's a wide average, but it's not uncommon for the second assistant (and "volunteer" assistant) to make multiples of that low-end number. In the 15 years since I stopped competing I've met plenty of second assistants making well more than $100K. They all have insurance, make additional money from camps, and none are being punched in the jaw.
Then you have the top-level athletes like Jordan Burroughs, David Taylor, and Kyle Snyder. I don't see their tax returns, but they are making WELL more than $150K per year to wrestle, with some higher-end estimates to be as much as $400K depending on their individual situations.
The college coaching landscape and international appeal of wrestling was much different back when Chael was paying off legal debts for money laundering and failing doping tests. Maybe MMA was the best and only path forward for most wrestlers looking to earn big money in 2011, but that is simply no longer the case.
Kamal Bey is dreamy.
So Kamal Bey knows how to end a match in style! Yikes! pic.twitter.com/cVMesCMvWw�" TheOpenMat (@theopenmat) April 25, 2019
Pretty telling that Icho is old hat at both winning late, but also commanding the medal ceremony situation.
Q: Thoughts on college wrestling power Augsburg adding women's wrestling?
-- Mike C.
Foley: The press release was very clear about the addition and its initial motivations
"Adding women's wrestling will add to Augsburg's seven-decade reputation as one of the elite small-college wrestling programs in the nation. Augsburg has won 13 NCAA Division III national championships in men's wrestling, including the most recent title in March. Augsburg has earned 56 individual national champions (52 NCAA, 4 NAIA) and 251 All-Americans (213 NCAA, 38 NAIA) in its intercollegiate men's wrestling history."
That's a lot of titles and for a program of Ausburg's stature to add a women's program is welcome ammunition in the fight to get the sport approved at the Division I level. However, I'm somewhat cautious in lauding the move as altruistic, as this fits into the larger model utilized by smaller enrollment regional schools to boost attendance through offering a specific niche activity, a la women's and men's wrestling.
As most readers know college students are guaranteed the ability to attend any college that they like, as they are automatically approved for federal student loans to meet those needs. So Augsburg (like all colleges) doesn't have to worry about the students not paying tuition so much as they have to worry about not enough students attending in order to fund the school. The only risk -- that they won't fill the roster with enough athletes -- is pretty quickly hedged in that they don't take on that long-term risk of payment, and they have the name ID to all but ensure a full women's team in short order.
As for the women's programs, Colorado this week passed legislation that will allow for a women's state season starting in 2020!
Q: Would love to hear your champion predictions for the U.S. Open in freestyle.
-- Mike C.
Foley: Blargh. Don't like making predictions!
57: Daton Fix
61: Nico Megaludis
65: Yianni Diakomihalis
70: James Green
74: Isaiah Martinez
79: Alex Dieringer
86: Myles Martin
92: Bo Nickal
97: Ty Walz
125: Adam Coon
Q: Personally, I think Alex Clemsen is a terrific hire for Maryland. Curious to hear your thoughts on Maryland's decision to hire Clemsen.
-- Mike C.
Foley: Clemsen has been grinding as a coach for almost 15 years! He's been successful everywhere he's been and is a great example of an assistant with the experience and composure to be the head of a program. I think that he's learned a lot from his coaching influences: Tim Flynn, Steve Garland, and Brian Smith -- and with that educational background as a coach I believe his wrestlers will have good habits and that he'll attract top athletes.
There is nothing to be but excited for Maryland and Clemsen. But hey, in two years if the Terps aren't winning fans can start digging in on him, but for now it's just great to see someone as well-respected as Clemsen get the career opportunity of a lifetime.
Q: Who are the best Greco-Roman prospects from this year's NCAA class? Corollary: Why is the U.S. so comparatively poor at Greco?
Foley: Chandler Rogers has some fans excited, but overall there has been a pretty big divide between the Greco program and the NCAA schools. Most recognize there is a pretty big gap between the two in terms of style and training needs.
For underclassmen there is Tate Orndorff, Mason Manville and a few others. But overall, I think that the majority are separated -- and I think that's pretty OK moving forward.
Q: Currently, 106 pounds is the lightest weight class for high school wrestlers. There has been some discussion of raising that weight to reduce forfeits. In your opinion, what should the lightest weight class be at the high school level?
Foley: There is likely extensive math on this problem, but I feel like there aren't a lot of 106-pound high school kids anymore. When I was in school (my single least favorite qualifier, but hey …) there were three guys in four years who could make 103 pounds and that was a pretty deep cut for one of the guys. I started at 103 pounds, quickly migrated up to 112 pounds as a freshman and then jumped 20 pounds.
My sense is that 106 pounds is more populated by pre-pubescent high school freshmen than it is undersized seniors.
My unscientific take? I'd make the lowest weight class 120 pounds, limit it to 10 weight classes, and work on strengthening the number of teams. I'd also recommend having schools with two or thee teams if that's what they can fill in a 10-wrestler lineup. Forfeits are a terrible look.
Q: How am I supposed to handle my non-wrestling fan girlfriend's birthday falling on Final X weekend every year now?
Foley: Ha. You were planning to travel to the event? Depends on where you live, but I'd recommend that if she is simply restricting your watching online, I'd book a trip to some such place and then schedule your downtime from a day of activities to coincide with the finals.
In-person would be tricky-tricky. Maybe see if there is something to visit in Lincoln that matches up to your girlfriend's interests? Rutgers is a little easier as you can promise her a night in Atlantic City or New York City on the other night of the weekend.
Alternatively, you show your girlfriend photos of some uber-jacked wrestler and she might find it more compelling. Little short term hit to the ego to ensure that you can sit matside for Final X seems like a good trade off to me.