Sakurai stuns Maroulis for 57kg title; U.S. wins 2 golds

By Ken Marantz

BELGRADE, Serbia (September 15) -- After winning a world title last year at 55kg, Tsugumi SAKURAI (JPN) moved up this year to 57kg to get an early start in her bid to achieve the difficult task of making Japan's team to the Paris Olympics.

Beating the reigning champion can certainly provide a welcome boost of confidence.

Sakurai scored a second-period takedown to win an intense struggle with former Olympic champion Helen MAROULIS (USA) 3-0 in the 57kg final as women's wrestling finished up on Thursday night with the last four weight classes at the World Championships in Belgrade.

"My opponent was an Olympic champion and is an athlete who always competes on the top level," Sakurai said. "I knew she was a strong wrestler. But I'm young, and I thought that I have to win. I had a strong desire to win, and I'm really happy to come out with the victory."

It was otherwise a good night for the U.S., as Olympic champion Tamyra MENSAH STOCK (USA) regained the 68kg world title with a victory by fall in another U.S.-Japan match-up, and teenager Amit ELOR (USA) belied her years with a dominant run to the 72kg gold.

The other gold up for grabs went to Anastasia NICHITA (MDA), who won the 59kg title to become Moldova's second female world champion in history, just one year after Irina RINGACI (MDA) became the first.

Tsugumi SAKURAI (JPN)Tsugumi SAKURAI (JPN) scored the all-important takedown over Helen MAROULIS (USA) during this sequence. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

In the 57kg final, Sakurai received an activity point in the first period, then scored the lone technical points of the match with a go-behind takedown off a 2-on-1 arm hold.

From there, she remained the aggressor, getting in several times on a single, and while those forays did not produce points, it kept her off the activity clock and burned precious time.

"Scoring points would not be easy, so when I got in on a tackle, I didn't panic, even though there were times I was stopped," the 21-year-old Sakurai said. "In the second period, I didn't hold back. I thought the opponent would come forward and I launched my moves."

Sakurai's gold was the fifth won by Japan, which easily won the team title with 190 points as all nine of its wrestlers who made the trip to Belgrade will return with a medal (Japan had no entry at 53kg after a late injury withdrawal). The United States, with three titles, was second with 157, followed by China with 84.

The match with Sakurai represented the latest chapter in the fierce rivalry that Maroulis, who also won world titles in 2015 and 2017, has developed with Japanese wrestlers that hit a pinnacle when she stunned the legendary Saori YOSHIDA (JPN) in the final at the 2016 Rio Olympics. That prevented Yoshida from becoming a four-time Olympic champion and made Maroulis a household name in Japan.

Fast forward five years to the Tokyo Olympics, and Risako KAWAI (JPN), also a gold medalist in Rio, moved down to 57kg and clashed with Maroulis in the semifinals. Kawai won that battle 2-1 and went on to win the gold, while Maroulis ended up with a bronze.

Sakurai, who won her first Asian senior title in April, currently holds the national team spot at 57kg in the absence of Kawai, who got married after her triumph at the Tokyo Games and recently gave birth to her first child. Kawai will be returning to the mat when the qualifying process for the 2024 Paris Olympics gets started in December, and the victory in Belgrade gives Sakurai a mental boost.

"To be able to beat the world to me is a link to going to the Paris Olympics," Sakurai said. "There are many strong wrestlers in our country. First, if I don't win at home, I can't be at [next year's] World Championships, the [Olympic] qualifier."

While Sakurai was relatively unknown when she triumphed at the World Championships a year ago in Oslo, she said that it became apparent in Belgrade that she had been scouted.

"I was a champion last year, and from the first match I felt like others had done their homework on me," Sakurai said. "But to be able to still win makes you a champion."

But scouting is a two-way street, and Sakurai said she had an idea of what Maroulis would throw at her.

"Basically, I stuck fully with my wrestling," Sakurai said. "But the opponent is one who constantly wins and has many techniques. I watched a number of matches and I took measures so she couldn't use the moves on me."

Sakurai said she had confidence that her training prepared her to go all out for the full six minutes.

"I put in a lot of time in practice," she said. "Compared with other countries, our wrestlers are not inferior in terms of stamina. So I thought I was better in that regard."

Taymra MENSAH STOCK (USA)Taymra MENSAH STOCK (USA) pinned U20 world champion Ami ISHII (JPN) for the 68kg gold medal. (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)

For Mensah Stock, her victory by fall over Ami ISHII (JPN) in the 68kg final provided some redemption for a stunning loss to another Japanese wrestler in Oslo, which came on the heels of a gratifying triumph at the Tokyo Olympics.

Asked if it was poetic justice, the spirited Mensah Stock replied, "Whether it is poetic or not, the fact is that I did it, I took an opportunity and I was not letting go of it and these are the fruits of what happened. I love it!"

Mensah Stock showed she was ready for business by opening the match with a driving tackle for 2. After the American got a second takedown, Ishii tried to stand up with her back to the American's chest. Mensah Stock alertly shifted back and pulled down on the chin, dropping the Japanese onto her back.

It took just moments to secure the fall in 2:11. She won all of her matches by fall or technical fall, outscoring her opponents 36-0.

It was far different from what occurred in Oslo, when in the semifinal, she was caught off guard and pinned by Rin MIYAJI (JPN). Mensah Stock came back to take the bronze and, after some months of soul-searching to decide if she wanted to continue in the sport, she resolved never to make the same mistake.

"I had a lot of anxiety, I was just kind of frightened if I did one slip-up like I did last year, that could be the end of a world title," she said. "But I had way more training this year than I did last year and I just had to trust the process."

For Mensah Stock, it is a vast support system that provides the motivation for her to continue putting in the time and effort.

"I have so many people in my corner believing in me, even when I don't believe in myself," she said. "I kid you not, I wanted to quit. This sport is hurting me. I'm going to be 30 in October. And these kids are getting younger and younger, and faster and faster. But I can hang with them.

"My coaches...just kept telling me, 'You got this. You got this.' And when I was done, they were like, 'Welcome back.' I'm back. It's great."

The 19-year-old Ishii, a teammate of Sakurai's at Ikuei University who won the world U20 title a month ago, had to defeat Miyaji along the way in making Japan's team to Belgrade. Mensah Stock said she expects to see more of her.

"Japan has so many opportunities for their young girls to just wrestle, and to just be in the room with so many incredible wrestlers," she said. "So without a doubt, she is going to learn from this, and she's going to get better, and I'm going to have to be looking back because I know I'm a target. But I'm a moving target."

Amit ELOR (USA)Amit ELOR (USA) became the youngest U.S. world champion. (Photo: UWW / Kostadin Andonov)

While Mensah Stock and Maroulis are established stars, few could have expected the sheer dominance with which Elor stormed to the gold in her senior world debut to relegate Zhamila BAKBERGENOVA (KAZ) to a second straight silver medal.

In the 72kg final, Elor scored a go-behind takedown, then, emulating a move the Japanese use so effectively, secured a lace lock and ripped off four straight rolls to end the proceedings at 1:13 and become the youngest world champion in U.S. history.

"I am in shock," Elor said. "I kept wrestling and this is where I am. This is unbelievable. This is unreal."

Elor showed she had the potential when she won both the world U17 and U20 titles in 2021, then repeated as champion of the latter last month in Sofia, Bulgaria.

On the biggest stage of all, she managed to keep her composure. She won her opening match by fall, then advanced to the final with a 3-2 win over defending champion Masako FURUICHI (JPN).

"There were a lot of nerves and every time I feel nervous, I reminded myself why I am wrestling and I love the sport so much," Elor said. "So go out there and enjoy it and if you don't enjoy it, it's not worth it."

For now, the sky seems to be the limit. "There is so much more [to challenge myself]. My number one dream is to be an Olympic champion. Each year is a new year and a chance to prove that you are number one."

Anastasia NICHITA (MDA)Anastasia NICHITA (MDA) held off a Grace BULLEN (NOR) attack in the final seconds to win the 59kg gold. (Photo: UWW / Martin Gabor)

At 59kg, Nichita survived a late scramble with the ever-dangerous Grace BULLEN (NOR) to preserve a 4-1 win and deny her opponent from becoming Norway's first female world champion since 1998.

"I was worrying a lot because during yesterday’s match I injured my knee and I had pain in my rib," Nichita said. "That’s why I didn’t want to attack a lot, I tried to defend more."

In the first period, Bullen received an activity point, after which Nichita countered a tackle attempt and spun behind for a takedown and a 2-1 lead. Nichita then added a stepout in the second period.

In the waning seconds of the match, Bullen appeared bound for a winning takedown when she got on top and stuck in her legs, but Nichita managed to grab one and hang on to keep Bullen from completing the move. An unsuccessful challenge added the final point.

"Honestly, I hoped that there were no points in the final challenge, but anything could have happened," Nichita said. "Our country is very small, they could have given the points to her. I am glad it went eventually like that."

Nichita said having another top-class wrestler in the country in Ringaci makes both of them better. "I think we motivate each other," she said. "I hope the next generation will take us as an example."

From now, Nichita said she will drop to the Olympic weight of 57kg, knowing it presents a stiff challenge.

"Of course, I am already getting ready for the 57kg weight class," she said. "There are different opponents. Some of them I’ve wrestled before, so I know what to do, but there are some American and Japanese wrestlers who are really good. I will work even harder to beat them."

Sakura MOTOKI (JPN)U20 world champion Sakura MOTOKI (JPN) won a bronze medal at the 59kg. (Photo: UWW / Martin Gabor)

Motoki, Furuichi add bronzes to Japanese till

In the bronze-medal matches, Sakura MOTOKI (JPN) and Furuichi came through with victories to ensure every Japanese team member will be returning with a medal.

Motoki, a month after winning the world U20 gold, picked up the senior bronze with a victory by fall over Qi ZHANG (CHN) at 59kg. Leading 3-1, Motoki secured a takedown and immediately applied a chicken wing, then levered the Chinese onto her back for the fall in 3:46.

The other 59kg bronze went to Jowita WRZESIEN (POL), who won one of two bronzes for Poland on the night with a dramatic last-second 4-2 victory over Erdenesuvd BAT ERDENE (MGL).

Seemingly out of luck when she was denied after getting in deep on a takedown, Wrzesien gave it another desperate shot and managed to spin behind with :01 on the clock.

Furuichi, the defending champion at 72kg dethroned in the semifinals by Elor, needed a little luck and a late penalty point to defeat Buse TOSUN (TUR) 3-2 for her third career senior world medal.

Tosun's second-period takedown put her ahead on criteria, but the Turk was flagged for grabbing the singlet with :20 to go to give Furuichi the win and deny Tosun a second consecutive world bronze.

Alexandra ANGHEL (ROU) won the other 72kg bronze by routing Svetlana OKNAZAROVA (UZB) by a 10-0 technical fall in 4:54.

Anhelina LYSAK (POL)Anhelina LYSAK (POL) won Poland's third medal at the World Championships. (Photo: UWW / Martin Gabor)

Poland's other winner was Ukrainian-born Anhelina LYSAK (POL), who used a double arm lock to gain a 4-point throw and a takedown in a 10-6 victory over Davaachimeg ERKHEMBAYAR (MGL) at 57kg.

Ironically perhaps, a Ukrainian took the other 57kg bronze, when Alina HRUSHYNA (UKR) scored five takedowns in defeating Zhala ALIYEVA (AZE) by a 10-0 technical fall in 3:45.

The two 68kg bronzes were decided by falls. Defending champion Ringaci came out on the top from one of those situations which can go either way as she back-dropped Feng ZHOU (CHN) to her back and secured a fall in :51.

In the second match, 2019 world champion Linda MORAIS (CAN) gave up a 4-point tackle to Nisha DAHIYA (IND) but came back with an arm throw to a lace lock. Dahiya appeared to injure her knee and that allowed Morais to record the fall at 2:45.

Jordan BURROUGHS (USA)Jordan BURROUGHS (USA) used his double-leg attacks to great effect to reach another Worlds final. (Photo: UWW / Kostandin Andonov)

Burroughs makes final; Yazdani, Taylor set up another golden clash

In the freestyle semifinals earlier in the night session, Jordan BURROUGHS (USA) earned a shot at an American record world or Olympic gold by making the final at 79kg, while superstars Hassan YAZDANI (IRI) and David TAYLOR (USA) set up yet another clash for the crown at 86kg.

Burroughs stayed aggressive throughout his 9-2 victory over Ali UMARPASHAEV (BUL), scoring three stepouts along with a pair of takedowns to stay on track for a sixth world title dating back to his first in 2011. He also has three world bronzes on his gleaming resume.

Standing in his way will be Mohammad NOKHODI (IRI), who advanced with a 5-4 victory over Vasyl MYKHAILOV (UKR) to set up a rematch of the final a year ago in Oslo which Burroughs won 5-1.

Nokhodi took the lead with an activity point and a takedown in the first period, before 2020 European bronze medalist Mykhailov came back with a takedown in the second. Later on, a scramble gave them both two points to put Nokhodi up 5-4, and that's how it ended.

Hassan YAZDANI (IRI)Hassan YAZDANI (IRI) and David TAYLOR (USA) set up a mouthwatering clash at 86kg. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

Yazdani and Taylor set up their fifth career match-up and third in a major final with their third technical fall victories of the day, all without conceding a point.

"I hope we both have a good performance to make wrestling fans happy," Yazdani said. "I will do my best and I ask Iranian people to pray for me."

Yazdani was a whirlwind of action in piling up points from the get-go against an overmatched Boris MAKOEV (SVK), ending the match with a takedown to win 10-0 in 1:54.

By making the final, Yazdani assured himself of a combined eight world and Olympic medals, the most-ever by an Iranian and breaking a tie with legends Gholamreza TAKHTI and Hamid SOURIAN.

"I don't think about such records," he said. "I just want to make fans happy with my performance."

Taylor took a little longer. He only had an activity point to show for his efforts in the first period against Asian champion Azamat DAULETBEKOV (KAZ), but turned on the burners in the second, when he reeled off four straight takedowns before finishing the job at 5:12 with an exposure. An unsuccessful challenge made the final score 11-0.

Taylor leads the head-to-head series with Yazdani 3-1, including a 4-3 win in the final at the Tokyo Olympics. Yazdani finally came out on top two months later at the World Championships in Oslo, where he won the gold with a 6-2 win.

At 125kg, a weight class that included five Olympic medalists in the field, Lkhagvagerel MUNKHTUR (MGL) scored the biggest victory of his career when he toppled one of the giants of the division, while two-time former world champion Taha AKGUL (TUR) pulled off a thrilling last-second victory to dethrone reigning champion Amir ZARE (IRI).

Both victories avenged losses from a year ago in Oslo.

Munkhtur showed no fear in facing three-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist Geno PETRIASHVILI (GEO), and he was the dominant force in forging out a 4-2 win. It was quite a change from the 11-1 pasting Petriavishili handed him in the second round in Oslo.

On Thursday, Munkhtur got a stepout in the first period, then added a takedown and a stepout in the second to pad the lead. Petriashvili finally got on the scoreboard with a takedown, but that would be all for the Olympic silver medalist.

In the other semifinal, Zare was on the brink of repeating his semifinal win in Oslo over Akgul when the wily Turk spun out of a single-leg takedown attempt and got behind with :01 on the clock for a 4-2 victory.

At 70kg, there is never a dull moment in a match involving the unorthodox Taishi NARIKUNI (JPN), who bulled his way to a takedown with :20 left for a wild 11-10 victory over Ernazar AKMATALIEV (KGZ) in a repeat of the final at this year's Asian Championships.

Both wrestlers had 4-point moves, including Narikuni's dazzling lateral drop with :05 left in the first period. The Japanese, whose mother was a two-time world champion in the 1990s, trailed 10-6 midway through the second period before launching a furious comeback.

In the final, Narikuni will take on Zain RETHERFORD (USA), who has looked impressive in ousting 2021 bronze medalist Zurabi IAKOBISHVILI (GEO) 7-0.

Retherford, a three-time NCAA champion at Penn State, had appeared at two previous World Championships at 65kg, but with little success, and seems to have found his niche at 70kg, going unscored upon in four matches.



Day 6 Results


70kg (28 entries)
Semifinal - Zain RETHERFORD (USA) df. Zurabi IAKOBISHVILI (GEO), 7-0
Semifinal - Taishi NARIKUNI (JPN) df. Ernazar AKMATALIEV (KGZ), 11-10

79kg (32 entries)
Semifinal - Jordan BURROUGHS (USA) df. Ali UMARPASHAEV (BUL), 9-2
Semifinal - Mohammad NOKHODI (IRI) df. Vasyl MYKHAILOV (UKR), 5-4

86kg (30 entries)
Semifinal - David TAYLOR (USA) df. Azamat DAULETBEKOV (KAZ) by TF, 12-0, 5:12
Semifinal - Hassan YAZDANI (IRI) df. Boris MAKOEV (SVK) by TF, 10-0. 1:34

125kg (24 entries)
Semifinal - Taha AKGUL (TUR) df. Amir ZARE (IRI), 4-2
Semifinal - Lkhagvagerel MUNKHTUR (MGL) df. Geno PETRIASHVILI (GEO), 4-2

Women's Wrestling

57kg (19 entries)
Gold - Tsugumi SAKURAI (JPN) df. Helen MAROULIS (USA), 3-0

Bronze - Anhelina LYSAK (POL) df. Davaachimeg ERKHEMBAYAR (MGL), 10-6
Bronze - Alina HRUSHYNA (UKR) df. Zhala ALIYEVA (AZE) by TF, 10-0, 3:45

59kg (14 entries)
Gold - Anastasia NICHITA (MDA) df. Grace BULLEN (NOR), 4-1

Bronze - Jowita WRZESIEN (POL) df. Erdenesuvd BAT ERDENE (MGL), 4-2
Bronze - Sakura MOTOKI (JPN) df. Qi ZHANG (CHN) by Fall, 3:46 (7-0)

68kg (23 entries)
Gold - Tamyra MENSAH STOCK (USA) df. Ami ISHII (JPN) by Fall, 2:11 (6-0)

Bronze - Linda MORAIS (CAN) df. Nisha DAHIYA (IND) by Fall, 2:45 (4-4)
Bronze - Irina RINGACI (MDA) df. Feng ZHOU (CHN) by Fall, :51 (4-0)

72kg (14 entries)
Gold - Amit ELOR (USA) df. Zhamila BAKBERGENOVA (KAZ) by TF, 10-0, 1:13

Bronze - Masako FURUICHI (JPN) df. Buse CAVUSOGLU TOSUN (TUR), 3-2
Bronze - Alexandra ANGHEL (ROU) df. Svetlana OKNAZAROVA (UZB) by TF, 10-0, 4:54


Higuchi claims 61kg title in first senior world foray

By Ken Marantz

BELGRADE, Serbia (Sept. 18) -- After quixotic attempts to make Japan's team to the Tokyo Olympics at both 57kg and 65kg ultimately failed, 2016 Rio Olympic silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI (JPN) settled in at 61kg for now.

He now has his first senior world title, although it had never really mattered to him before. Higuchi put on one final, dazzling performance in sweeping past Reza ATRI (IRI) by 10-0 technical fall to win the 61kg gold as the World Championships concluded with the final three freestyle finals on Sunday in Belgrade.

"I was finally able to show my actual strength, and I'm glad I could have a solid win in the final without any incident," Higuchi said.

In other finals, Asian champion Rahman AMOUZAD (IRI) signaled a possible changing of the guard at 65kg when the 20-year-old won the gold in a 21-point thriller, while Kyle SNYDER (USA) was hardly troubled in securing his third career world gold and first since 2017 at 97kg.

Higuchi, who won his first senior Asian title in April, had Atri on his heels from the get-go, working his slick tackles to perfection and transitioning well into exposure situations.

The 26-year-old Japanese opened with a double-leg takedown to a lace-lock roll. He then got 2 with a single-leg tackle, secured an inside-leg hook, and forced Atri over for two exposures to end the match at 2:42.

"Yesterday the Iranian looked very strong, so I closely watched all of the videos of him, like the Poland tournament before the Olympics and various others," Higuchi said. "I watched them all. I think analyzing him was a reason for my victory."

With Higuchi's victory, Japan finished a surprising third in the team standings with 70 points, two ahead of Mongolia and Georgia. The United States, which had clinched the team title after the morning session on Saturday, finished on top with 198 points, followed by Iran with 150.

The bulk of Japan's points came on gold-medal runs by Higuchi and Taishi NARIKUNI (JPN), the champion at 70kg on Friday. It marked the first time that Japan had two gold medalists at the same World Championships since 1979, when Yuji TAKADA (JPN) and Hideaki TOMIYAMA (JPN), the latter currently the president of the Japan federation, won in San Diego.

Such trivia doesn't really interest Higuchi. He was more excited about surpassing his coach Kenichi YUMOTO (JPN), who won Olympic silver in 2008 and world bronze in 2011.

"I don't really think about records," Higuchi said. "I have always aimed at being fundamentally sound like coach Yumoto, and I'm so happy to have been able to top him in one way. From when I was little, I studied videos of him and tried to imitate everything he did, the way he grabs arms, gets a high crotch, his single-leg tackles."

Higuchi's run to the world gold caps the roller coaster ride his career had been on since he took the silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics when he was dealt a close 3-3 loss in the final by Vladimir KHINCHEGASHILI (GEO) on a late activity point that still stings for Higuchi.

His obsession with making up for that loss and winning an Olympic gold has been the driving force over the past six years, and it was only until recently that he even regarded winning a world or Asian title as worthwhile.

"The Olympics had always been the only thing that concerned me, but eventually I changed my pessimistic thinking of not entering the World Championships or not entering the Asian Championships," he said. "I've always been thinking of how I can win an Olympic gold medal, so I'm not satisfied with this victory. There are still many issues of things I need to work on and fix."

Higuchi's attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics was marked by perseverance and, ultimately, disappointment.

First, he moved up to 65kg, a tough division for someone standing just 1.63 meters, where he would challenge world champion Takuto OTOGURO (JPN). He actually defeated Otoguro once and won the 2018 world U23 gold at that weight, but eventually lost out to the eventual Olympic gold medalist.

In 2019, he made the drastic decision to drop back down to 57kg, which he had not competed in since Rio. His weight had ballooned up to 68kg, and he had only a few months before the All-Japan Championships, which would determine who would go to the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in 2020.

Limited exclusively to a vegetable diet, he made the weight, then defeated 2017 world champion Yuki TAKAHASHI (JPN) to earn the spot. But then the Olympics and the qualifying tournaments were postponed for a year, meaning he had to maintain his weight at the height of the pandemic for another year.

When the Asian qualifier was finally held in April 2021 in Almaty, the unthinkable happened. Higuchi failed to make weight.

Takahashi was dispatched to the final World Olympic qualifier, earned Japan a spot at 57kg, then defeated Higuchi in a playoff to fill it himself. At a crossroads, Higuchi looked deep into himself to determine what path he would take.

He decided he would spend this year at 61kg, enter the major tournaments that he had previously shunned, and make preparations for a run at the 2024 Paris Olympics, which he said will be at 57kg.

For the Japanese wrestlers, the qualifying path for Paris begins with the All-Japan Championships this December, the first of two domestic qualifiers for next year's World Championships.

His sojourn at 61kg was a positive experience. "Not once did I feel I was inferior to the 61kg wrestlers in terms of attacking," Higuchi said. "I was able to get in on all of my attacks. In terms of defense, I gained a lot in regard to scrambles and keeping the opponent from scoring off attacks."

Higuchi said that he was motivated on Sunday by a visit from Narikuni, who brought his championship belt back to the room and playfully flaunted it in front of Higuchi.

"He won the gold on the first day [of freestyle] and brought the belt back to the room. I hadn't even had a match yet, and he purposely showed it to me...I thought, damn him. But it fired me up, and as there were times we had practiced together since we were little. Honestly, I was happy. I went into my matches thinking that I, too, will not lose. I'm glad I wasn't beaten by Narikuni."

At 65kg, Amouzad scored seven unanswered points to prevail 13-8 in a wild encounter with first-time finalist Yianni DIAKOMIHALIS (USA), in which an opening scramble produced 14 points that were determined once the dust cleared and the video analyzed.

"Thank god I was able to win the gold medal," Amouzad said. "My opponent was very tough. I hope this gold medal will put a smile on the faces of the people of Iran."

Diakomihalis shot for a double leg and, with Amouzad reaching over to counter, the two got tangled up and rolled this way and that as the mat referee tried to keep up. In the end, they both got credit for three exposures, although one of Diakomihalis' was judged to be a 4-pointer because he took Amouzad off his feet, giving the American an 8-6 lead.

Amouzad, the 2021 world U20 champion at 61kg, decided he was better off going on the attack, and got a single-leg takedown to tie it up at the end of the first period, although he remained behind on criteria.

In the second period, Amouzad remained the aggressor, getting a stepout and two takedowns off his single to win 13-8 and give Iran its second gold medal of the championships.

For now, his victory puts Amouzad at the head of a crowded race for gold in Paris.

"The 65kg is a weight class full of extremely tough opponents," he said. "But I am feeling great that I was able to beat my opponents through training in Iran, including with former European and world champions. My goal is to defend the title next year, but the ultimate goal is to win the gold in Paris."

Snyder, not having to contend with nemesis Abdulrashid SADULAEV (RWF) in the 97kg final, was simply too powerful for Russian-born Batyrbek TSAKULOV (SVK), scoring a takedown and three stepouts in notching a 6-0 victory.

"It was good, [I'm] thankful, good opponent," Snyder said. "I haven't won since 2017, and that's a long time for me. It hurts to lose, but I'm very thankful to get on top of the podium again."

Snyder came out with a high-crotch takedown and received an activity clock point for a 3-0 first-period lead against European bronze medalist Tsakulov, who never came close to piercing Snyder's defense the entire match.

In the second period, Snyder powered ahead for three stepouts to add the world title to the ones he won in 2015 and 2017, along with a 2016 Olympic gold. He also has silver medals from 2018 and 2021 and the Tokyo Olympics -- courtesy of Sadulaev -- and a bronze medal from 2019.

"The matches are always good, opponents are good, they wrestle me hard," he said. "I've got a good team, a good coaching staff. They know what I need to focus on."

Snyder's gold was the fourth of the tournament in freestyle for the U.S., tying the 1993 and 1995 teams for the country's most ever. The team in Belgrade medaled in eight of the 10 weight classes.

Snyder's encounters with Sadulaev have been epic, perhaps none more so than his victory at the 2017 worlds as it also clinched the team title for the United States in the last match of the tournament.

"The match in 2017 was super-exciting and the team title on the line and stuff, and that's a lot of fun," he said. "But it's just cool still being able to wrestle for as long as I've been able to. To be back on top, and thankful for all the coaches and all my training partners. So many people have helped me."

While his teammates in Belgrade saved the coaches from some anxious moments with the early clinching, Snyder said he wouldn't have minded if the team race had been closer.

"It's nice having the team title locked up before I go in the finals, but honestly, I'd like to be the one that decides it," he said. "That's the most fun when everything's on you. But it's all good."

Veteran Punia rallies to 65kg bronze

Olympic bronze medalist Bajrang PUNIA (IND) captured his fourth career world medal, putting on the latest comeback of his storied career to slip past Sebastian RIVERA (PUR) with a late takedown for an 11-9 victory at 65kg.

Punia found himself in a 6-point hole right off the bat, as Rivera scored a pair of takedowns, adding an ankle roll after the second one. An inside trip for 4 by Punia and a takedown tied the score and put him ahead on criteria, but Rivera scored with a low shot with :03 left in the first period for an 8-6 lead.

Rivera, who attended Rutgers University in the U.S. and was looking to become just the second world medalist in Puerto Rican history, returned to the ankle pick that he has used to great effect to score a stepout.

But Punia, who has made a career out of rallying to victory, came back with a takedown, then scored the match-winner by going out the back door and gaining control with :31 left for a 10-9 lead. An unsuccessful challenge added the final point as Punia kept India from a podium shutout in freestyle.

"I gave away six points at the start," Punia said. "And the leg defense that I thought would work, just didn’t come off. I need to sit and analyze why it’s not working. It didn’t work in the match I lost, and it didn’t work today when I won as well."

Punia said he has been having trouble defending against leg attacks since injuring his knee at the Tokyo Olympics.

"It doesn’t eat into my confidence, because otherwise I wouldn’t have recovered points," Punia said. "I always fight till the last second because we work hard as wrestlers. I’ll have to figure out if I need more hard work or smart work on the leg defense.”

In the other match at 65kg, Iszmail MUSZUKAJEV (HUN) repeated his victory in the final at this year's European Championships over Olympic silver medalist Haji ALIYEV (AZE), scoring a takedown in each period and hanging on for a 4-2 win for his second career world bronze.

The Russian-born Muszukajev, who began competing for Hungary in 2019, scored a takedown in the first period while on the activity clock, then used an arm drag for a second one to open the second period.

The 31-year-old Aliyev, whose last trip to the medal podium came when he won a third world title in 2017, went into overdrive trying to get back in the match, but all he could manage was a penalty point and a very late stepout.

At 61kg, European champion Arsen HARUTYUNYAN (ARM) cruised to his second straight world bronze with a 12-0 technical fall over Seth GROSS (USA), who had no answer for the barrage of attacks launched by the Armenian.

Harutyunyan piled up three takedowns and three stepouts, all off tackle attempts, before putting the match away at 3:57 with an exposure.

Narankhuu NARMANDAKH (MGL) was equally dominant in taking the other 61kg bronze with a 9-0 rout of European bronze medalist Georgi VANGELOV (BUL), finishing it off with an impressive 4-point body lock to the back.

Narmandakh, a world u23 bronze medalist last year, opened the match with a takedown straight to a lace lock roll for a 4-0 lead. In the second period, the Mongolian received an activity point before slamming down Vangelov to put an exclamation point on his victory.

At 97kg, Russian-born European champion Magomedkhan MAGOMEDOV (AZE) was trailing on criteria when he secured a fall off a counter to defeat Asian champion Mohammadhossein MOHAMMADIAN (IRI) for his first senior world medal.

Mohammadian, aiming for a second world bronze, scored a 2-point exposure off a tackle attempt, after which Magomedov got a reversal. The Iranian then limped-arm out of a whizzer for a takedown to go up 4-1 at the break.

Magomedov, a 2018 world U20 champion, secured a takedown, and a lost Iranian challenge made it 4-4, although Mohammadian led on criteria. But when Mohammadian got in on a tackle, Magomedov reached back and used a chin whip and stepover to put the Iranian onto his back, securing the fall at 4:27.

Givi MATCHARASHVILI (GEO) also became a first-time senior world medalist when he won the other 97kg bronze, riding a 4-point counter lift in the second period to a 5-3 victory over European silver medalist Vladislav BAITSAEV (HUN).

Day 9 Results

61kg (24 entries)
Gold - Rei HIGUCHI (JPN) df. Reza ATRI (IRI) by TF, 10-0, 2:42

Bronze - Arsen HARUTYUNYAN (ARM) df. Seth GROSS (USA) by TF, 12-0, 3:58
Bronze - Narankhuu NARMANDAKH (MGL) df. Georgi VANGELOV (BUL), 9-0

65kg (27 entries)
Gold - Rahman AMOUZAD (IRI) df. Yianni DIAKOMIHALIS (USA), 13-8

Bronze - Iszmail MUSZUKAJEV (HUN) df. Haji ALIYEV (AZE), 4-2
Bronze - Bajrang PUNIA (IND) df. Sebastian RIVERA (PUR), 11-9

97kg (23 entries)
Gold - Kyle SNYDER (USA) df. Batyrbek TSAKULOV (SVK), 6-0

Bronze - Magomedkhan MAGOMEDOV (AZE) df. Mohammadhossein MOHAMMADIAN (IRI) by Fall, 4:27 (6-4)
Bronze - Givi MATCHARASHVILI (GEO) df. Vladislav BAITSAEV (HUN), 5-3