Mijain Lopez: Too Big to Fail

By Tim Foley

CHIBA, Japan (August 1) -- Barrel-chested and arms the width of a subway tunnel, one might gaze up Riza KAYAALP (TUR) and wonder if any wrestler (nay, human) could come in a more menacing and powerful package.

For those eying the Turkish mammoth as he stomped onto the semifinal mat Sunday at the Makhuari Messe it would seem as though he was a man above comparison.

And in the brief moments between Kayaalp taking the center mat and the entrance of his opponent, he was -- the Turk oversaw his domain with a glinty-eyed confidence.

Enter Mijain LOPEZ (CUB). The 6'5" 300 lbs. of Cuban muscle is arranged in a Addonis-adjacent melange of utility, grace, and fearsome size, with proportions that are simply Frankensteinian.

A man should not be that large. He should not move like that.

And yet there he comes, a slight jog up the stairs and arrives on the evening's competition platform. The legend from Cuba. The most feared human to compete in a sport dating back to 5000 BC in a graceful pre-battle canter.

The Cuban grappler falls momentarily still in front of his longtime Turkish rival as the referee takes his position. He's motionless and from below he seems to be blocking the house lights of the Makuhari Messe and casting the now-diminutive Kayaalp in a shade of gray.

Mijain LOPEZ Riza KAYAALPMijain LOPEZ (CUB) defeated Riza KAYAALP (TUR) in the 130kg semifinal at Tokyo Olympics. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

At stake in this match is a trip to the Olympic finals, but for Lopez a win will also mean the opportunity to grasp an achievement beyond belief - a fourth Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Aleksander KARELIN (RUS) was the last man to attempt to win a fourth gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, stepping onto the finals mat with Rulon GARDNER (USA) in the 125kg finals in Sydney. Equally skilled and as well-proportioned a wrestler that had yet existed, Karelin was tragically fell by the then-unknown American and denied his opportunity at a perfect career and a triumphant fourth gold.

To Lopez, Kayaalp is known and he is well-respected. They've been battling each other for more than a decade.

But as the whistle blew and the two men charged toward each other, it was obvious that this would be the 38-year-old Lopez's evening. A never-waning display of positioning, exertion and conditioning driven from legs with more horsepower than your uncle's Toyota.

Mijain LOPEZ Riza KAYAALPRiza KAYAALP (TUR) during his semifinal against Mijain LOPEZ (CUB) at Tokyo Olympics. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

And when it was over six minutes later, Lopez was the one with his hand raised -- a signal for him to progress to the finals, and history. After a quick gesture to the sky, the Cuban grabbed Kayaalp in an embrace, placed his hands on the Turks cheeks and kissed him on the crown of his head.

Monday Lopez will face a new opponent in the finals, an upstart Georgian who has already outperformed even the best pre-tournament prognostications. And though no win is guaranteed -- and the history of fourth efforts is rotten with failure -- the reign of Mijain Lopez seems destined for a historic finale.


Snyder Takes Olympic Loss to Sadulaev in Stride

By Ken Marantz

CHIBA, Japan (August 7)---The competitor in Kyle SNYDER (USA) hated the defeat. The wrestler in him loved the battle.

Snyder took his loss to rival Abdurashid SADULAEV (ROC) in the final of the freestyle 97kg class on Saturday night at the Tokyo Olympics in stride, already looking forward to the next chance for the two titans to clash.

"It is still exciting," Snyder said. "I love competition, I love wrestling, and I'm thankful to be able to compete." About facing Sadulaev again, he said, "I'd love it."

In the third meeting between the two since they both won gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics in different weight classes, Sadulaev beat the American for the second time with a 6-3 victory at Makuhari Messe Hall A to add a second Olympic gold to his four world titles.

Sadulaev, who had an activity point and a stepout in the first period, built up a 6-0 lead with a pair of tilts in countering Snyder's single-leg takedown attempts. On the first one, the wrestler known as The Russian Tank at one point lifted a prone Snyder completely off the mat, but not enough for a throw and instead settled for angling him over.

"There are definitely some positions that I have got to get better in," Snyder said. "That is what I'm thinking about. I have got to finish those attacks, so that is what I'm going to do. We had an idea of what it would be like."

Snyder, a two-time world champion, never gave up the fight, and came back to score a takedown and stepout in the final minute before Sadulaev ran out the clock.

"I'm a competitor so I hate to lose," Snyder said. "It's the spirit of Jesus that is strong in me. I'm not that strong as a guy, but Jesus is really strong and his spirit keeps me moving forward."

In the series dubbed "Snyderlaev" that drew worldwide attention, Snyder came out on top in their first clash in the final at the 2017 World Championships in Paris, Sadulaev's first after moving up to 97kg. Sadulaev had won the gold in Rio at 86kg, while Snyder had triumphed at 97kg.

Sadulaev gained his revenge at "Snyderlaev II" at the World Championships the next year in Budapest. He has not tasted defeat on the mat since that loss in Paris.

While it is uncertain what Sadulaev's plans are at the moment, Snyder would welcome a "Snyderlaev IV" at this year's World Championships in Oslo in October. Anyway, he intends to be there.

"Lord willing, I will be at the world championships," he said.

Like all American wrestlers, Snyder needs to constantly earn his spot on the national team to major tournaments. Having set the record as the youngest-ever US champion at both the worlds and Olympics, he knows there are always new faces coming along ready to knock him off.

"Guys are getting better and better," he said of prospects for U.S. wrestling. "Everybody is doing the right stuff. We have great coaches, support staff and training environments.

"I'm really happy for all my teammates who did a great job here, and all the coaches because they work so hard. I think we're going to dominate and keep getting better."

With Snyder's silver, the United States finished the Olympic wrestling tournament with nine medals overall, the most of any nation, including three golds.