IOWA CITY — USA Wrestling was a heavy favorite to remain perched atop world freestyle ranks, even before a couple perennial powers declined to compete in United World Wrestling’s World Cup.
Without Russia and Iran, which wasn’t even among the original eight qualifying countries but invited to replace Turkey, the prospects for Team USA to claim its second World-level title in less than a year seem strong.
“We’re ready,” five-time World champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs said. “We’ll be ready Saturday and Sunday. I think we’re going to put on a great show for the fans.
Team USA will attempt to add a World Cup crown to its 2017 World Championship team title, welcoming seven of the top men’s freestyle teams this weekend for a two-day dual-meet competition at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Action begins at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
USA will wrestle against Japan, Georgia and India in Pool A. India will be the host’s first opponent Saturday. Pool B consists Azerbaijan, Cuba, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
“It will be a great tournament, a great event,” USA Wrestling National Freestyle Coach Bill Zadick said. “We’re super excited to be here in Iowa. We’ll be ready because we know the rest of the world will be ready to come at us.”
America garners a lot of attention and is also in the sights of international competitors. The theme is to expect the absolute best from foes, regardless who it is, and push to wrestle at the highest level.
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“It means a lot,” 2017 World bronze medalist Nick Gwiazdowski said about representing the country. “We have good history in this. It would be nice to win another championship (and) on American soil, too.”
The expansion to 10 weight classes allows the depth of talent for the United States to shine. Instead of fighting each other for spots, they are able to spread out among the divisions. Zadick said it is exciting for fans to anticipate a talented lineup, merging World medalists Thomas Gilman (125.5), James Green (154), J’Den Cox (202.5) and Gwiazdowski (275), World champion Logan Stieber (143), World and Olympic champions Kyle Snyder and Burroughs with the likes of four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake and two-time national champion David Taylor. NCAA champion Kendric Maple (134) rounds out the starters.
The 20-man roster consists of three Olympic medals, 12 senior-level World medals and 30 NCAA Division I titles.
“It’s worked out to where it looks like we’ll have that opportunity,” Zadick said. “We get to have those guys representing here with Burroughs, Dake and Taylor, who at one point were vying for the same spots and are now all on the team. Add that to the rest of the seven great guys that are starters.
“I’m happy with the team. I’m happy with what they’ve been doing. I think they’re going to put on a great show and display of excellent skills.”
Potential doesn’t mean much if the results don’t match it.
“We can talk about talent all day,” Gilman said. “It’s nice to have that talent but we’ve got to go out there and perform, so I think we have a good team to go out there and win it, but we have to go out there and perform.”
The product has been steadily growing for USA Wrestling. In 2017, Team USA had unprecedented success among all age groups and genders at the respective World Championships. USA Wrestling won its first team title since 1995 and just its third overall.
“Team USA is really, really good right now,” Stieber said. “We’re set up to be really good for a while. Obviously, we have to go out and do it. We have to perform but I believe the future is very bright.”
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Burroughs, who is tied for second in U.S. history with five World/Olympic titles and trails John Smith by one for most all-time, was at the forefront of the resurgence. He said all of the format changes, creation of regional training centers, program funding and youth implementation has paid dividends.
“We could make a run of it,” Burroughs said. “I think we’re on the brink of being a dynasty. We’ve got young talent that proves that.”
So, who are the contenders to challenge the United States?
Azerbaijan was fifth at the 2017 Senior World Championships. It has a deep and accomplished roster highlighted by three-time World champ and Olympic bronze medalist Haji Aliyev at 143. Sharif Sharifov will step in at 202.5. Sharifov was a 2012 Olympic champ and Olympic bronze medalist in 2016. He also won the 2011 World Championships. Jamaladdin Magomedov (275) is a two-time world medalist and 2016 Olympian.
Azerbaijan is in the opposite pool and could face Team USA in Sunday’s gold-medal dual.
Georgia placed third in the 2017 World Championships and is the highest finisher behind Team USA in the field. Georgia doesn’t have all of its senior-level competitors from the fall, including 143-pound World champ Zurabi Iakobishvili and 213-pounder Elizbar Odikadze. Levan Kelekhsashvili (154) has the most Senior-level experience, placing fifth at the 2013 Worlds. The lineup includes young talent that is accomplished at younger age groups, including junior medalists Tarzan Maisuradze, Tariel Gaphrindashvili and 2017 silver medalist Givi Matcharashvili at 213.
Cuba could be interesting to keep an eye on in the competition. It has talented wrestlers who helped the country get seventh at the Worlds. Two-time World bronze medalist Bonne Rodriguez helps lead the way at 134. Alejandro Valdes Tobier (143) matched Rodriguez with bronze last fall. Add in the experience of three-time World medalist and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Livan Lopez Azcuy at 163 and two-time World silver medalist Salas Perez and Cuba could cause teams some fits.
Japan was sixth at the 2017 World Championships. It will have its work cut out to get through Team USA in pool competition. Reigning World champion Yuki Takahashi leads a group with four World medals at various age groups. Yuhi Fujinami earned bronze at 154 at the 2017 Worlds. Takuto Otoguro (143) won a 2015 Cadet World title and Rinya Nakamura claimed a 2017 U23 World crown at 134. Sohsuke Takatani (163) is a two-time Olympian and 2014 World silver medalist, giving Japan a strong nucleus.
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