The 2020 US Women's Freestyle Olympic Team (Photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
We're on the eve of the (delayed) Olympics and man, it feels good to have wrestling back. The Cadet World Championships were the first "Worlds" of any kind in wrestling since the Senior competition in Nur-Sultan.
But I have a warning. Just like I have a warning before every Senior Worlds or Olympics…
Hope for the best, but brace yourself for some measure of disappointment.
We spend almost all of our wrestling-watching on our own Americans. We've seen David Taylor be a prodigy since youth. We've watched Kyle Dake win 4 NCAA titles and Tamyra Mensah-Stock go from up-and-coming talent to World Champ.
In that way, our familiarity, and allegiances, and bias all converge to the greatest of expectations. But, I promise you, someone's gonna break your heart.
Wrestling is a world sport. The United States is good. Not dominant, but good. And this is the oddest of circumstances. With so many delays and cancellations, there's really much less data than ever. We don't know how good Nurislam Sanayev is wrestling right now. We don't know where Haji Aliev, or Artur Aleksanyan or Risako Kawai are in their training.
It all leads to so much uncertainty.
No one wants the USA to crush the competition more than I do. But I'm also experienced enough and realistic enough to know that some in the field will overperform and some will underperform. There will be matches decided late, or on one sequence, or on one video review. And some of those athletes affected will be representing the stars and stripes.
Root like hell. But understand this is the toughest tournament in the world, under the craziest conditions, with little data, and random draws. Expect the unexpected.
Side Note: UWW Media - led by my predecessor of this column, TR Foley - has done a tremendous job with coverage, previews, and resources. The most comprehensive 2020Olympic Guide I've ever seen.
Watch Live: Another great and easy resource is NBC's schedule and live links Bookmark it:
Every one of your questions involved the Olympics, so let me just give you my thoughts on what I'm looking forward to the most…
David Taylor, USA, 86kg MFS
I think it's a two-horse race with him and Yazdani (IRI). And frankly, I'm worried about it. Generally speaking, I think the American fan base is 'over' that 'rivalry.' David beat him in both bouts they wrestled. But they were both fights. And they were both long ago. David had a long layoff. Does he still have the horsepower and stamina to go along with his 1st class skills?
Perhaps he does. Heck, perhaps it's Yazdani that should worry if he still 'got it.' But I'm nervous. I'm more nervous for that match-up than any other. Bring it home, Magic Man!
Mijain Lopez, CUB, 130kg GR
Quite simply one of the most prolific and dominant wrestlers the world has ever seen. He's lost just 4 times since 2004. 2004!
He's reached 11 World/OLY finals and won 8 of them. And yet it was Riza Kayaalp (TUR), who is the top seed in this field, who dealt Mijain 2 of his 3 finals losses. Mijain has beaten Kayaalp three times as well, including the last two Olympics.
By far the most established rivalry of these Games, the next, and perhaps the last chapter will be written next week. I'm not sure who to root for. I kinda lean with Mijain 1) because I love to root for the tiny, under-funded nation and 2) because this might be the last time he laces him up.
Tamyra Mensah-Stock, USA, 68kg WFS
You know how much I like to be right, right? So much so that I almost get on my own nerves.
But it was years ago - long before Tamyra was winning tournaments left and right - when I first saw her compete and thought, 'she's going to be the next great one.'
Well, here we are. Mensah-Stock is the reigning World Champion and the only woman in US history to win Yarygin - twice. She's the #1 seed and roundly accepted as the favorite.
But as good as she is, I still worry. In 2016 she won the Olympic Trials but failed to qualify the weight for Rio. And she's lost four times in the last three years and all four of those women are in the bracket.
There are times (like at the Olympic Trials this year) where, in my opinion, she gets nervous, not allowing her to open up. Like David Taylor, I could be worrying about nothing. Maybe it's a defense mechanism whereby I'm trying to curb my excitement. Let's go, Tamyra!
Jacarra Winchester, USA, 53kg, WFS
The World Champion at 55kg in 2019, I'm so curious to see how Jacarra does down a weight. She's lost in both appearances at 53 so far - in the finals of the Pan Am qualifier to Cuba, and at DeGlane in January. Those results explain why she's not getting as much chatter as a title contender. But I really think she is. And she's one of my favorite athletes to watch with a great combo of athleticism and grit. She will be pivotal in…
The Women's Team Race
Alright, alright. I know. I led the column with 'chill out, you overzealous American fans.' And yet here I am positioning a Women's Team title to be won in the home country of the most one of the most dominant programs in any sport.
Look, there are just six weights. We have favorites in two of them: Adeline and Tamyra. We have a reigning World Champ in Jacarra and 2018 Silver Sarah Hildebrandt. Kayla Miracle is young but very internationally experienced. And oh, yeah, Helen beat the GOAT. I'm not saying they are gonna win the team title. I'm saying there's a chance. And it's one of the things I'm dialed in on the most.
How Good is Gable, and Then What?
We all know that Gable is good. We all know that he has more big-time offers - perhaps bigger and more apparent than any wrestler ever - waiting for him after wrestling.
What we don't know is how he truly stacks up with the International field. The eyeball test says he's going to be very, very competitive. But you can't be the man, until you beat the man. And Geno Petriashivili (GEO) and Taha Akgul (TUR) are definitely 'the man.' It's been six years since anyone other than those two have won Worlds or Olympics.
And then after we see how Gable measures up - then what? Does he win gold and say 'I've accomplished everything"? Does he take bronze and say he has one more cycle in him? Does it matter how he does? Maybe there's just too much money on the table.
Questions linger on both his ability and his future and it's captivating. Must watch.
65kg - The Entire Bracket
There's a chance this bracket is a complete trainwreck. And, with no American in the field, I'm totally here for it. 65kg is annually one of the most hotly contested, high octane, and unpredictable weights.
In 2016, and in his last meaningful competition, Togrul Asgarov (AZE), the 2012 Olympic Champ, proved he still had it by reaching the Rio finals. Can Haji Aliev, also of Azerbaijan, capture that old man spirit in Tokyo? Does Bajrang (IND) finally get his title? Or will it be Otoguro (JPN), the 2018 World Champ who beat Bajrang in the finals there and in this year's Asian Championship?
And we didn't even get to the favorite yet. Rashidov (RUS) has made SR World finals for three years running. He lost to Otoguro in the '18 finals and beat Daulet Niyazbekov (KAZ) in the finals in '19 after Niyazbekov beat Bajrang.
It all makes for a wonderful field and my favorite to watch in MFS.