Armenia in line for strong World C'ships with young stars
Saturday, September 2, 2023 - 11:59 By Vinay Siwach
BELGRADE, Serbia (September 1) – Soon after finishing with a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics, talks of Artur ALEKSANYAN (ARM) moving away from the sport were ripe.
His last world title came in 2017 and his battles with injuries, along with the rise of Musa EVLOEV, denied him standing on top of the podium in two World Championships and the Olympic Games.
Fast forward one year to the World Championships in Belgrade, and Aleksanyan's return to the mat surprised quite a few in the wrestling world. After a 13-month hiatus from competition and a year of relentless rehabilitation, he emerged victorious, reclaiming his throne with a gold medal in the 97kg category.
"That’s my fourth world gold," Aleksanyan said in Belgrade. “For two years I couldn’t make it because of injuries. After the Olympic Games, I took a year break and treated them all."
In two weeks' time, the 31-year-old will be in Belgrade again, hoping to defend his world title as he now prepares to reclaim his Olympic title in Paris next year.
But Aleksanyan isn't the only one hoping to raise the Armenian flag in Belgrade. A trio of Armenian wrestlers, each carrying their own dreams and determination, seek a world crown and Olympic qualification.
Malkhas AMOYAN (ARM) is a returning bronze medalist from 77kg. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)
European champion Malkhas AMOYAN (ARM) is among the favorites to win the gold at 77kg while in Freestyle, Arsen HARUTYUNYAN (ARM) at 57kg and Vazgen TEVANYAN (ARM) at 65kg are aiming to give Armenia its first Freestyle world champion in a decade.
Amoyan won the world title in 2021 in Oslo but moved to the Olympic weight class 77kg next year, earning a bronze medal. Harutyunyan and Tevanyan both were at the Tokyo Olympics but returned empty-handed.
While Tevanyan rose to prominence before Tokyo by beating the likes of Haji ALIYEV (AZE) and Iszamail MUSZUKAJAEV (HUN), Harutyunyan transformed himself after Toyko. He won his first world medal in Oslo and added another last year.
At the U23 level, he won back-to-back gold medals at the World Championships and earlier this year, he became the European champion at 61kg after beating 57kg world champion Zelimkhan ABAKAROV (ALB).
Tevanyan, too, has won the European Championships and the U23 World Championships but is still searching for his first World Championships medal after finishing seventh last year.
Amoyan made a dream debut at 77kg, winning the European title in 2022 and defending it this year. He lost to Zoltan LEVAI (HUN) at the 2022 World Championships but won a bronze medal through repechage.
The three do not have the credentials Aleksanyan had at the age of 25 years but are among the best in their weight classes. Aleksanyan was an Olympic champion by then, only the second in Armenia's history, a two-time world champion, and already a superstar.
A lot of that has to do with where Aleksanyan was born -- Gyumri.
“Gyumri is not a big city but we have five Olympic champions who grew up here,” Aleksanyan says. “We have many worthy athletes in different sports.”
A historical city in north-west Armenia's Shirak province, Gyumri has given the country many sporting heroes, artists and scholars. It has been a center of the country since old times and is known by different names.
UWW's Athlete Commission's President Arsen JULFALAKYAN (ARM), who won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and a Gyumri native, explains the importance of the city for Armenia and its sports.
“It became a developing city in times of the Russian empire when Armenia was a part of it,” Julfalakyan said. “The city became host to large numbers of Armenian refugees fleeing the Armenian Genocide, in particular hosting 22,000 orphaned children in around 170 orphanage buildings. It was renamed Leninakan during the Soviet period and became a major industrial and textile center in Soviet Armenia.
“Exactly in that period began the popularization of sport in all of Armenia, and especially in Gyumri. That was the philosophy/policy of the country during that period. Not only sports, but also education, science, and culture became very important. Wrestling, weightlifting, boxing, and judo were the first sports most popular among the youth. And in wrestling, Greco-Roman style. That’s the reason nowadays in Gyumri most of the elite wrestlers are Greco Roman”
That popularity can be explained as the city was also the center of Armenia's traditional wrestling Kokh. The style is divided into two styles, Lori Kokh and Shirak Kokh. Shirak is the province in which Gyumri falls while Lori is the neighboring province bordering Georgia. Ironically, Shirak Kokh allowed wrestlers to grab the legs of the opponent. In Lori Kokh, a wrestler can only throw grabbing the costume of the opponent.
In 1988, Gyumri lost one-third of its population after a devastating earthquake. Yet, the city keeps producing sports champions apart from the various artists and scholars it has given.
“In Seoul Olympics 1988, Gyumri gave Armenia one gold in Greco-Roman (Levon JULFALAKYAN) and one silver in weightlifting,” he says. “Unfortunately, the devastating earthquake in 1988 ruined almost 80% of the city.”
Wrestlers like Aleksanyan, current Greco-Roman head coach and Armenia's first Olympic gold medalist Levon JULFALAKYAN (ARM), Arsen JULFALAKYAN (ARM), Armen NAZARYAN (ARM), Aghasi MANUKYAN (ARM) among others grew up in those times with little to no facilities to train. Yet, they made it a wrestling powerhouse.
“Times were really vulnerable. Participating in sports and coaching was considered heroic. No salary, no heating and no hot water in sports halls. Sometimes even no light. But we resisted. How? Hard to say. I think it’s just in the nature of the nation with its ancient history.
“In the 2000s, many sports halls were built or reconstructed. But then the process was stopped and for sure it wasn’t enough. Right now, what we have in Gyumri and in Armenia is not enough and not close to the international level.”
Given Gyumri's history, Aleksanyan was bound to be a champion. In one of the many YouTube videos available about his wrestling career, Aleksanyan talks about the dilapidated training school he began his wrestling career. Photos of the training school and its dire condition went viral soon after Aleksanyan won the gold in Rio. Broken walls, missing equipment from the gym, and dirty toilets were making the news.
“Some people don't believe me when I say that I train there when I am in Gyumri,” Aleksanyan had told VNews four years ago. “It's sad but true. Training there makes me stronger as I grew up here.”
For 18 years, Aleksanyan sweated it out in that workaround training hall before moving to Yerevan. His family still stays in Gyumri.
Arsen HARUTYUNYAN (ARM) defeated world champion Zelimkhan ABAKAROV (ALB) to win the European Championships at 61kg. (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)
Harutyunyan and Tevanyan were not born in Gyumri. They were raised in Ararat, a province in southeast Armenia, diagonally opposite Gyumri and the Freestyle center of Armenia's wrestling.
“From the beginning of developing sports in Gyumri, the main focus was on Greco-Roman. The coaches mostly were of that style,” Julfalakyan said. “And vice versa, in city Vanadzor (Kirovakan) or the cities of the Ararat valley mostly are concentrated in Freestyle. Another reason might be the plains in Ararat and the highlands in Gyumri. By the way, last few years freestyle wrestling in Armenia has grown very fast.”
The province has given Armenia some of the finest Freestyle wrestlers including Armenia's only Freestyle Olympic medalist Armen MKRTCHYAN (ARM), three-time world champion Arayik GEVORGYAN (ARM), Aram MARGARYAN (ARM) and Martin BERBERYAN (ARM).
Both Harutyunyan and Tevenyan will look to continue that tradition in Belgrade.
At 57kg, Harutyunyan will have to navigate a strong field that includes defending world champion Abakarov, 61kg world champion Rei HIGUCHI (JPN), Asian champion AMAN (IND), the United States's Zane RICHARDS (USA), European champion Aliabbas RZAZADE (AZE), Wanhao ZOU (CHN), Suleyman ATLI (TUR) and Gulomjon ABDULLAEV (UZB) among the top names.
Higuchi defeated Harutyunyan at 61kg last year but Higuchi's struggles at 57kg have been well documented. Harutyunyan possesses the attacks to beat the best and can go into a shell to defend his lead as he did to beat Abakarov in Zagreb. But Aman, Abdullaev and Zou can be the surprise he does not want.
“I am the type of person who likes difficulties, I like to do what people think is impossible,” Harutyunyan said. “All wrestlers are strong and equal. On that day, whoever is well prepared, really wants to win, will win.”
Tevanyan also has a stacked field with defending world champion Rahman AMOUZAD (IRI), Olympic champion Takuto OTOGURO (JPN), Tulga TUMUR-OCHIR (MGL), Aliyev, Muszukajaev, Umidjon JALALOV (UZB), Nicholas LEE (USA), Erik ARUSHANIAN (UKR), Alejandro VALDES (CUB) being some of the names entered.
Tevanyan blew hot and cold last year but won the Ibrahim Mustafa Ranking Series and the European title this year. With wins over most of the names at 65kg, Tevanyan will fancy his chances. His sturdy build along with the strength he brings should be enough to go past many in the field.
If Amoyan wants to join Aleksanyan on the podium, he will have to dig deep as the 77kg weight is arguably the best. World champion Akzhol MAKHMUDOV (KGZ) leads the field along with Zoltan LEVAI (HUN), Yunus EMRE (TUR), Aik MNATSAKANIAN (BUL), Viktor NEMES (SRB), Alexandrin GUTU (MDA), Mohammadali GERAEI (IRI), Hyeonwoo KIM (KOR) and Kamal BEY (USA).
Though he has suffered losses to both Makhmudov and Levai, Amoyan will back himself as Levai's form has dropped significantly and Makhmudov has lost twice since becoming the world champion. His incredible run for the 72kg gold in Oslo saw Amoyan dominate his opponents and a year since his bronze in Belgrade, Amoyan should have the strength as well to wrestle heavier wrestlers.
Apart from the three youngsters, Aleksanyan will be the favorite to bring home the gold medal. The returning world champion is going for his fourth Olympic cycle which only adds pressure.
In Belgrade, Aleksanyan will have to face a strong 97kg field which includes former world champion Mohammadhadi SARAVI (IRI), Artur SARGASIAN (AIN), Kiril MILOV (BUL), Arif NIFTULLAYEV (AZE) and even veteran Rustam ASSAKALOV (UZB).
Aleksanyan will start as the favorite even in such a tough field. No doubt it will be a challenge for his body to wrestle three consecutive barn-burners, especially when the White Bear is a month away from his 32nd birthday.
“My motivation is hearing the Armenian national anthem and raising the Armenian flag one more time during the Olympic Games,” he said. “This cycle is different from my first Olympic experience which took place in London in a way that I have three Olympic medals and am more experienced.”
With experience, youth and will on their side, the Armenian stars, unless things go completely haywire in Belgrade, would dream of podium finishes and book their spots for the Paris Olympics where Armenia is looking to end a 28-year wait for a Freestyle medal.
And the first seeds of that dream would be sowed in Belgrade through Harutyunuan and Tevanyan.
“Our boys prepare very well,” Harutyunyan says. “Malkhas is a very knowledgeable and hardworking athlete. I believe that he can become the world champion this year. Artur is the pride of our nation and we all take an example. He has proved very tirelessly that he is the best and I am sure that he will prove himself the champion.”