To Our Friends in Wrestling Around the world


By William May
(Japan Amateur Wrestling Federation, Public Information Committee
Kyodo World Services, senior sports


  CRETEIL, France (October 1-5) - The greco-roman wrestling world championships in Creteil this year may be remembered as one of the most competitive wrestling tournaments ever seen. A total of 281 wrestlers from 62 countries put on an impressive display of wrestling techniques. And since this year's meet also served as the first round of qualifying for next year's Olympic Games in Athens, the competition in the preliminary pools was heated with more than a few upsets.

  Wrestlers from 15 different countries shared in the 21 medals at stake with no country winning more than two medals altogether. And, wrestlers from 33 different countries booked their tickets to Athens by finishing in the top 10 of their respective weight categories.

  A total of 22 Olympic and world champions were entered in this year's championships along with eight wrestlers who had won junior world titles over the last six years. Of the world and Olympic champions, reigning and former, only Armen Nazarian of Bulgaria at 60 kg was able to manage a repeat title.

  Perennial team champion Russia won two individual titles, but finished outside of the top 10 in four weight categories and had to settle for second place. Georgia, the surprise team champion at the freestyle world champions in September, added the greco-roman team trophy with an individual title from Manuchari Kvirkvelia at 66 kg and four wrestlers in the top 10. Ukraine topped all nations by winning Olympic berths in five of the seven weight categories and finished third in the team standings with a lone silver medal.

  Within this competitive environment, Olympic silver medalist Katsuhiko Nagata (2000, 69 kg) was Japan's only place-winner, finishing 10th at 74 kg. Japan's entries at the other six weights now turn their attention to the Olympic qualifying tournaments in February and March for a chance to wrestle in Athens. Nagata was not one of Japan’s leading hopes in Creteil to win a berth in the Olympics. Despite winning the silver medal in Sydney, his highest finish ever in five previous trips to the world championships was a 13th in 2001.

  But Nagata came out in a fiesty mood and defeated Michal Jaworski of Poland, who finished sixth in the world meet a year ago. He, then, hit Lithuania's young Artur Stankevic with a pair of headlocks to win his pool and advance to the championship bracket. In the first round of the championship bracket, Nagata lost to 1997 world champion Marko Yli-Hannuksela of Finland, but his eight points in an 8-12 loss was enough to earn him 10th place and a ticket to Athens.

  One of the trends that stood out in this year's meet was the "point inflation" that appeared to plague the first round of the championship brackets. With the top 10 place-winners at each weight assured a berth in Athens, wrestlers were scrambling hard to score as many points as possible in the round before the quarterfinals -- even in a losing effort, since the first tie-breaker for wrestlers eliminated in that round was the number of technical points scored.

  A number of cynics in the crowd sensed that some arrangements between the competitors may have been made prior to the bouts to allow a losing wrestler to score more points than normal. FILA officials, apparently suspecting the same, cautioned a handful of wrestlers during their bouts, but Nagata and Yli-Hannuksela were not among those warned.

  In the end, Yli-Hannuksela lost to Asian Games champion and eventual bronze medalist Kim Jin-Soo of Korea to finish seventh. The gold medal went to Alexei Glushkov of Russia, who had lost to Nagata at the Sydney Olympics in the semifinals. Surprisingly, still waiting to secure a ticket to Athens in two-time Olympic champion Filiberto Azcuy of Cuba, who finished 17th after losing to Ukraine's Vladimir Shatskikh in a preliminary pool match.

  Japan’s wrestler of the year in 2002, Shingo Matsumoto showed a strong par terre defense after spending two months in Europe this past summer training with some of the top teams. But, for a second year in a row, Matsumoto kicked off the tournament ay 84 kg against two-time Olympic champion Hamza Yerlikaya of Turkey. A year ago in Moscow, Matsumoto was undone by Yerlikaya’s reverse waistlock and lift in a 0-3 loss. This year, Matsumoto stopped Yerlikaya’s lift, but was exposed in a scramble that led to a 4-1 win for the European champ, leaving Matsumoto in 20th for a second straight year.

  Yerlikaya went on to defeat 1999 world champion Luis Mendez of Cuba, but fell to defending world champion Ara Abrahamian of Sweden on criteria after struggling to a 2-2 draw. Abrahamian eventually lost in the championship final in another nine-minute match to Gotcha Tsitsiashvili 2-0, giving Israel its first-ever world champion in wrestling.

  Still waiting to book their reservations in Athens at 84 kg are Mendez (14th), European champion Alexei Mishin of Russia (26th) and last year’s world bronze medalist Mohamed Abdel Fattah of Egypt (19th). At 55 kg, Japan’s Masatoshi Toyota came into his first world meet carrying the burden of high expectations after winning the Pytlasinski tournament in Poland in August.

  Toyota appeared tentative in his first match and gave up the lead to unheralded Tero Katajisto of Finland (31st) with a rolling change-up to the reverse waistlock. He eventually came back for the win in the second period. In his second match against Korea’s Im Dae-Won, Toyota won the first chance to score in the par terre position but instead gave up an escape point to the Asia No. 3.

  When Im got his first chance to score from par terre, he converted with a chest-high gut wrench, like the one used togreat effect by two-time Olympic champion Sim Kwon-Ho. Im scored three points for exposure and a near-fall bonus point to put the match out of reach. In the championship bracket, Im stormed into the final with wins over Aleksander Vakulenko of Ukraine and Marian Sandu of Romania -- bronze and gold medal winners at this year’s European championships -- and 1999 world champion Lazaro Rivas of Cuba.Riding a tidal wave of momentum, Im looked ready to win his first world title when he caught Dariusz Jablonski of Poland with the trap-arm version of his high gut wrench for five points. But as the Korean corner celebrated, Jablonski started chipping away at the deficit.

  Midway through the second period, Jablonski narrowed the score to 5-4 with a takedown and then took the lead for good with a gut wrench in the final minute. At 30 years of age, Jablonski grabbed his first world title with a 6-5 victory. Along with Toyota, looking ahead to this winter’s Olympic qualifiers are 1997 world champion Ercan Yildiz of Turkey (16th), 2001 world runner-up Brandon Paulson of the U.S. (21st), two-time Asia champion Asset Imanbayev of Kazakhstan (27th) and Europe No. 2 Roman Amoyan of Armenia (25th).

  Joining Toyota as one of Japan’s leading hopes for an Olympic berth and a medal this year was Makoto Sasamoto at 60 kg. Sasamoto, who was eighth in Sydney and who has finished seventh and 10th in the world championships, got off to an encouraging start with a technical fall over Alois Fassler of Switzerland. In his second match, Sasamoto faced Nurlan Kasheiganov of Kazakhstan, who he had defeated for the bronze medal at the 2002 Asian Games. Nearing the end of an evenly fought first period, Kasheiganov converted on a passivity call with a lift and back-arching throw for four points.

  Sasamoto spent the second period pushing Kasheiganov all over the mat, but
did not receive a passivity call until 2:11. Sasamoto made the most of his last chance attempting a lift and forcing Kasheiganov into a two-point leg penalty to prevent the throw. With his final chance, Sasamoto locked up for a reverse waistlock, but received only one point for the resulting throw as time expired on a 3-4 loss.

  Sasamoto had to settle for 17th while Kasheiganov lost to world university champion Emik Buenyamin of Turkey and fell short of qualifying for the Olympics with a 12th place finish. In the final at 60 kg, two-time Olympic champion Nazarian scored with a reverse waistlock and a gut wrench to post a 6-2 win over Cuba’s Roberto Monzon. It was only the second world championship crown for Nazarian, who was the tournament’s only repeat champion.

  Still looking to qualify for Athens along with Sasamoto are 2001 world champion Dilshod Aripov of Uzbekistan (16th), 2001 world runner-up Karen Mnatsakanhan of Armenia (22nd), Asian Games champion Kang Kyung-Il of Korea (13th) and Asia No. 2 Ali Ashkani of Iran (21st).

  The big news at 66 kg for Japan was Masaki Imuro nailed down his first win in three trips to the world championships with a fall over Ionut Panait of Romania. It appeared Imuro was headed for his sixth straight loss on the world mats after Panait took a 5-0 lead on three separate gut wrenches, but Imuro came back with a single-arm throw in the second period to secure a fall.

  In his first match, Imuro gave up a back-arching throw to 37-year-old veteran Jannis Zamanduridis of Germany and could not make up the difference to finish in 19th. Zamanduridis went on to finish seventh. In the final at 66 kg, Manuchari Kvirkvelia, No. 3 a year ago, scored with a headlock in overtime against 2000 junior world champion Armen Vardanyan of Ukraine for a 4-2 win and Georgia’s lone individual title. Three former world champions -- Jimmy Samuelsson (Sweden, 2002), Vaghinar Galustyan (Armenia, 2001) and Kim In-Sub (Korea, 1999 at 58 kg) -- all finished in the top 10 to book their places in the Athens’ wrestling competition.

  Still on the waiting list are 1996 Olympic gold medalist Ryszard Wolny of Poland (12th) and 1999 world champion Makhidar Manukyan of Kazakhstan (24th).

  At 120 kg, the spectators may have witnessed the birth of a new heavyweight star. Two-time junior world champion Khassan Baroev upended American Rulon Gardner and brought the heavyweight world title back to Russia. The United States had owned the heavyweight crown for three years after Gardner defeated Alexander Karelin at the Sydney Olympic Games, ending the Russian’s 12-year reign atop the wrestlingworld. Baroev also defeated Asia champion Georgiy Tsurtsumia of Kazakhstan 4-2 in the semifinals and then stopped Hungarian silver collector Mihaly Deak-Bardos 3-1 for the title.

  Deak-Bardos, who gave up two points on a pair of clinches with Baroev, lost in his fourth straight trip to the world championship finals -- each time against a different opponent. Japan’s Katsuaki Suzuki, meanwhile, could not stop the gut wrench and lost to Kostiantyn Stryzhak of Ukraine (19th) 2-6 and to Mindaugas Mizgaitis of Lithuania (4th) by a 0-3 margin to finish 24th overall. Looking ahead to the second round of qualifiers to book their tickets to Athens are 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medalist at 100 kg Andrzej Wronski of Poland (12th), Pan American champion Mijian Lopez of Cuba (16th) and Nos. 2 and 3 in Asia Park Woo of Korea (31st) and Iran’s Ali Reza Gharibi (14th).

  This year’s tournament finale was the gold medal match at 96 kg which developed into a classic match-up of substance versus style. In the red corner, Egypt’s Karam Gaber has become a fan-favorite over the last couple of years with his flashy throws and lifts. His presence on the mat is also more like that of a rock star while his shaved head makes him look like he just stepped off the movie set “The Mummy.”

  Excitement for Gaber grew as he stormed through the competition and then demolished European champion Ramaz Nozadze of Georgia in only 43 seconds. In the blue corner, “blue-collar” Martin Lidberg of Sweden is a compact, muscular type of wrestler who labors hard in each bout and goes largely unnoticed until he shows up in the finals.

  In his six bouts in Creteil, Lidberg did not score a single fall or technical fall and four of his wins were either by 3-0 or 3-1 margins. In the final, Lidberg not only stymied Gaber’s first par-terre chance, he managed to score an escape point. He then took advantage of his only chance on top in par terre to crank Gaber over with a high gut wrench for a 3-0 lead at the intermission.

  Lidberg frustrated Gaber further in the second period with his solid positioning and tight defense as he held on for his first world title. Gaber, meanwhile, had to settle for runner-up honors a second year in a row. Even though Gaber lost, many journalists and coaches believe that his popularity and style may be good for the promotion of wrestling. One incident, however, indicates that it could also be a hindrance since Gaber’s fan appeal appears to have influenced a scoring decision in his favor in the quarterfinals.

  With the scored tied at 2-2 in the first period, Gaber hoisted 2001 world champion Alexander Bezruchkin of Russia (6th) off the mat and appeared to score with a back-arching throw. The chairman of the officiating crew, however, waved off the points, indicating that Gaber’s grip had slipped below the waist. This call was met with the loud booing of the fans and forced FILA officials to review the video of the action.

  As the crowd chanted for Gaber, the video appeared to show that while the grip may have been legal when the throw began, one of Gaber’s feet appeared to be out-of-bounds. Nevertheless, FILA officials, perhaps swayed by the crowd, overturned the decision of the chairman and awarded Gaber three points. The match saw now more scoring as Gaber held on for a 5-2 win.

  The incident raises a handful of questions about the wisdom of second-guessing the officiating crews and undermining their authority by overturning selected decisions. And, in retrospect, while the fans may have been pleased with having the points awarded to Gaber, the decision short-circuited a bout that had the potential of being a tense and ultimately more exciting match than the one it ended up being.

  Japan’s entry Kenzo Kato at 96 kg had the toughest draw of the team, facing not only Gaber but also last year’s bronze medal winner Ali Mollov of Bulgaria in the preliminaries. Kato gave up two gut wrenches to Mollov in an 0-3 loss, but scored five points against Gaber with a takedown and gut wrench before eventually losing by technical fall 5-17.

  Joining Kato in the quest for an Olympic berth via the qualifiers will be Mollov (29th), last year’s world champion Mehmet Ozal of Turkey (14th), 2001 runner-up Ernesto Pena of Cuba (22nd) and Asia champion Han Tae-Young of Korea (25th).