2009 U.S. Freestyle World Team Breakdown

The World Championship of freestyle wrestling has changed over the years. It's tougher to win a World title now than ever before. Moreover, it's just as difficult to duplicate success from one year to the next. The World Championship is a tournament that's become almost impossible to handicap and even the most seasoned of wrestling historians, journalists, and enthusiasts have difficulty in forecasting who will medal and who will not.

The unpredictability of the event is due to a number of reasons, not the least of which are the changes in rules that have occurred over the last ten years. The two-out-of-three periods wins a match structure, the last-point-wins-a-period criteria, push outs and leg clinches all contribute to a rules system where victory can seem somewhat arbitrary. The wrestler who scores the most points in a match doesn't always win, conditioning has become less of a factor, and it's hard to say that a wrestler who lost a match because he gave up a point on leg clinch made a "mistake." When wrestlers lose now, it sometimes feels like the cards just went one way rather than that a significant error occurred.

The result is that "upsets" are now far easier to come by. Also, because the tournament has a blind draw and anyone can face anyone right off the bat, stars can be defeated in the early rounds, fail to be pulled into repechage, not place and earn no team points. Perhaps this was best exemplified in 2006, when six-time World champion and three-time Olympic champion Buvaisar Saitiev outscored Bulgaria's Michail Ganev 6-3, but lost the match two periods to one (0-3, 2-2, 1-1).

Buvaisar Saitiev of Russia won nine World-level titles, but will not be competing at the 2009 World Championships
The other major factor that has impacted the World Championships is that the former Soviet Republics keep getting stronger. Wrestlers go from one country to the next and many former Soviet republics feature lineups with wrestlers who used to wrestle for Russia. Perhaps these wrestlers are no longer in their absolute prime and have been replaced by younger Russian talent, but the experience they already have on the World stage makes the field even more brutal right from the opening round. At last year's Olympics, 18 of the 28 medals awarded in men's freestyle wrestling went to wrestlers from Russia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Slovakia. Moreover medal winners Taimuraz Tigiev, David Musulbes, Murad Gaidarov and Georgi Gogshelidze all had represented Russia in the past but have moved on to other countries.

The competition has become so stiff and the margin for error so small that the only characteristic about wrestlers successful at this event after the fact is that they were "on." It's not so much about experience as much as about bringing everything together on that one day and getting a bit of luck.

I think this is related to why Russia does so well at the Worlds. Russian wrestlers remain active in international styles of wrestling much longer than in the U.S. When new stars emerge in Russia, they do so by defeating decorated champions. The winners at the Russian Nationals -- veterans or rookies alike -- are wrestling very, very well. They have to be in order to win that tournament. A strong performance at the Russian Nationals tends to lead to a strong performance at the Worlds. If they are in any kind of a "slump," they won't be on the team.

When new faces appear on the U.S. team, it's too often because they are filling an empty slot. Wrestling stars tend to retire earlier in the U.S. After winning their medal(s), U.S. wrestlers are often enticed into college wrestling careers, MMA, or even professional wrestling. I believe USA Wrestling recognizes this and the Living the Dream Fund instituted this year is a huge step in getting the best U.S. wrestlers to remain committed to participating in man's oldest sport.

For the World Championships, the fund offers $50,000 for a gold medal, $25,000 for a silver, and $15,000 for a bronze.

For the London 2012 Games, the fund offers $250,000 for a gold medal, $50,000 for a silver, and $25,000 for a bronze.

This will definitely make a difference in having U.S. wrestlers stick around, but while experience helps and having a team of seasoned athletes is something to look forward to, plenty of wrestlers succeed at the World level on their first try. If team USA for men's freestyle is to do well in Denmark, this will have to be the case. It is believed this is the first time that team USA has assembled a world team where none of the members have ever competed in a world or Olympic tournament before. Literally every U.S. freestyle wrestler is making his debut.

As great as Russia is under the current rules, the format of the event and the fact that there are now only seven weight classes makes it possible for Russia to lose if just a few things didn't fall their way and another country gets on a roll. This includes Team USA. Mathematically, it's more feasible for Russia to get upset at the Worlds than it is at the Olympics since there are more matches and therefore more chances to lose. It can be done. Iran did it in 2002 and Georgia won in 2003.

For Team USA, each member will just have to be "on" when required. Wrestlers can train, study tape, and wrestle aggressively and smart, but if they don't have that extra spark at the exact moments it is required, they often have to wait for the next year and hope that the planets are aligned more in their favor. However, the styles and strengths of the seven members of Team USA 2009 are not identical and a medal run for one U.S. wrestler would not necessarily resemble another. Instead, a successful tournament for each athlete would be more comparable to other U.S. wrestlers of the past.

Danny Felix (Photo/
Danny Felix (55 kg): At 35, Felix made his first U.S. World Team. His determination to stick with the sport is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that he dropped down in weight to make 55 kg. He is experienced in freestyle and is at the point in his career where he is not still making adjustments to the discipline. A medal run by Felix would resemble that of Tolly Thompson, who made his first U.S. World Team in 2005 at the age of 32 and took home a bronze. Thompson lost in the opening round to eventual champ Polatci of Turkey, but battled back through repechage in an impressive, determined set of matches.

Shawn Bunch (60 kg): A very fast and explosive wrestler, Bunch's style is suited to scoring points quickly through takedowns and exposures. His success will depend on picking his spots and minimizing opportunities for opponents to score. An "on" run for Bunch would resemble Donny Pritzlaff, who faced similar issues when he made his first U.S. World Team in 2006. Pritzlaff, a very active wrestler who took a ton of shots, made great improvements in defense and shut down his opponents' opportunities to score. Bunch needs to do the same.

Trent Paulson (66 kg): Paulson was very strong at 157 pounds when he won his NCAA title while at Iowa State. At 145 pounds, he is simply a bull. A good tournament for Paulson would look like that of Mike Zadick's silver medal run in 2006. Zadick also made a significant weight cut and stormed his way to the finals past Olympic champion Mavlet Batirov in the semifinals. Paulson is strong enough to win periods by defending leg clinches and also bulldoze people out of bounds for pushout points.

Dustin Schlatter (74 kg): Schlatter was one of the most talented and talked about high school wrestlers in recent history. His rivalry with Brent Metcalf was legendary and he had an unbelievable (true) freshman season at the University of Minnesota, winning the NCAAs. He's had some setbacks since then, but took a redshirt year, let some injures heal up, and has moved up in weight. Schlatter is strong and gifted, but he is also a very intelligent wrestler. A medal run for him would resemble what Brandon Slay did in the 2000 Olympics. Slay was one of the best tacticians and students of videotape that the U.S. has ever produced. Schlatter's defensive style is suited to international wrestling, but in order to shock people the way Slay did, he will have to use his head.

Jake Herbert (Photo/
Jake Herbert (84 kg): Certainly one of the most athletic wrestlers in any weight class, Herbert's aggressive, freewheeling style could get him into trouble if he's not careful. A great tournament for him would resemble the gold medal performance of Les Gutches in 1997. Gutches made the U.S. Olympic Team in 1996, but made some mistakes and didn't medal. He was much more focused in 1997 and was unbeatable. If Herbert isn't lured out of his game plan and stays away from ill-advised funky moves, he could match Gutches' feat from 12 years ago.

Jake Varner (96 kg): Although coached by the great Cael Sanderson, a medal run for Varner would resemble that of one of Sanderson's top U.S. rivals, Brandon Eggum. Sanderson made the 2001 U.S. World Team, but couldn't compete when the tournament was postponed because of 9/11. Eggum went in his place and made the finals where he lost a close match. Varner has similar strength to Eggum and uses that strength to stop opponents from scoring. He went through the U.S. Nationals without surrendering a single point. Sanderson has been working closely with Varner for this event and Varner should be very prepared by the time his first match is called.

Tervel Dlagnev (120 kg): Dlagnev is probably the most "favored" to bring home a medal because of his performance at The Golden Grand Prix in July, where he won a gold medal. His technique is well suited for freestyle and he's been successful so far. What Dlagnev needs to do is arrive and take the world by storm. A strong debut for him would resemble that of Sammie Henson in 1998 or, in looking even further ahead, that of John Smith in 1987.


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