WW preview: Japan faces new challenges in Belgrade

By Vinay Siwach

BELGRADE, Serbia (August 29) -- A year after the Olympics, 13 medalists from Tokyo will descend upon Belgrade. The 13 include Olympic champion Yui SUSAKI (JPN), Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN) and Taymra MENSAH STOCK (USA) as they begin as favorites to win the titles in the Serbian capital.

The 216 wrestlers in women's wrestling for the World Championships will try to win a medal for their countries but as far as the favorites go, Japan, the USA, China and Ukraine are bringing strong teams for the mega event.

However, more than the Tokyo Olympics, Belgrade will serve as the introduction to the Paris Olympics which is less than 24 months away and the qualification cycle begins in less than one year.

Susaki leads a strong Japanese team that includes defending world champion Akari FUJINAMI (JPN) at 53kg, Mukaida, who moved up to 55kg for Belgrade, world champion Tsugumi SAKURAI (JPN) who moved from 55kg to 57kg, returning silver medalist at 65kg Miwa MORIKAWA (JPN) and 72kg world champion Masako FURUICHI (JPN).

A trio of recently crowned U20 world champions finishes the lineup with returning bronze medalist Nonoka OZAKI (JPN) at 62kg, Sakura MOTOKI (JPN) at 59kg and Ami ISHII (JPN) at 68kg. Asian Championships silver medalist Yuka KAGAMI (JPN) will wrestle at 76kg.

OsloHelen MAROULIS (USA), right, and Akari FUJINAMI (JPN) are the defending champions at 57kg and 53kg respectively. (Photo: UWW / Tony Rotundo)

In a similar star-studded lineup, the USA has Sarah HILDEBRANDT (USA) at 50kg, defending champion Helen MAROULIS (USA) at 57kg, returning silver at 62kg Kayla MIRACLE (USA), Olympic champion Mensah, U20 world champion Amit ELOR (USA) at 72kg and Dymond GUILFORD (USA) at 76kg. Former world champion Jacarra WINCHESTER (USA) will be returning to 55kg.

Maroulis will be eyeing a fourth world title while Hildebrandt and Mensah will like to rise to the top of the podium after missing the chance in Oslo.

At 53kg, the USA has Dominique PARRISH (USA) who won the Pan-Am Championships in May. Abigail NETTE (USA) at 59kg and Mallory VELTE (USA) at 65kg complete the 10-member team.

Alina HRUSHYNA (UKR)European champion Alina HRUSHYNA (UKR) will be wrestling at her first World Championships. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

Ukraine won only one medal in Oslo but a number of stars will be returning to the mat after a long break.

European champion at 57kg Alina HRUSHYNA (UKR) will be leading the pack along with other European champions Ilona PROKOPEVNIUK (UKR) at 62kg and Tetiana RIZHKO (UKR) at 65kg. Tokyo Olympian Oksana LIVACH (UKR) will wrestle at 50kg.

Returning bronze medalist at 55kg Oleksandra KHOMENETS (UKR) will try to change her medal color, Liliia MALANCHUK (UKR) will be at 53kg, Solomiia VYNNYK (UKR) at 59kg. Alla BELINSKA (UKR), U23 world champion Anastasiya ALPYEYEVA (UKR) and Anastasiia SHUSTOVA (UKR) complete the squad.

Feng ZHOU (CHN)China will return to the World Championships after three years. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

China will be returning to the competition after three years as it was forced to miss last year's edition due to the pandemic.

Two Tokyo Olympians will be in action in Belgrade for China with Jia LONG (CHN) wrestling at 65kg and multiple world medalist Feng ZHOU (CHN) at 68kg. Former U23 world silver medalist Ziqi FENG (CHN) is back at 50kg as is '17 world U23 silver Qi ZHANG (CHN) at 59kg.

Asian champion at 55kg in 2019 Mengyu XIE (CHN) will return in a long time. 31-year-old Xiaojuan LUO (CHN) will be taking a third trip to the World Championships in her long career.

At 76kg, Juan WANG (CHN) may prove to be the dark horse as she wrestles with an experience of international events. At the 2019 World Cup, she defeated Kagami convincingly.

Completing the squad are Yuhong ZHONG (CHN) at 53kg, Yongxin FENG (CHN) at 57kg and QIANDEGENCHAGAN (CHN) at 72kg.

Aiperi MEDET KYZY (KGZ)Aiperi MEDET KYZY (KGZ) is one of the favorites to win the 76kg title. (Photo: UWW / Bayrem Ben Mrad)

Apart from the powerhouses, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova also have multiple medal hopes wrestling in Belgrade.

Defending champion Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ) is running for her third world title at 62kg. She finished with a silver in Tokyo but defeated Ozaki at the Oslo World Championships in the opening round before securing the gold over Miracle.

Another world champion for Kyrgyzstan is Meerim ZHUMANAZAROVA (KGZ) as she battles it out at 68kg. She will be in a minefield but will surely be a big threat for the gold medal.

Asian champion and returning bronze Aiperi MEDET KYZY (KGZ) has the potential to rise to the top of the podium but she has a star-studded bracket to deal with a 76kg.

Irina RINGACI (MDA)Irina RINGACI (MDA) pinned Olympic silver medalist Blessing OBORUDUDU (NGR) in Rome in June. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

For Moldova, the eyes will be on 65kg world champion Irina RINGACI (MDA) who is moving up to 68kg as it is an Olympic weight class. She will try to be on the podium in what can be considered the deepest weight class in women's wrestling.

Anastasia NICHITA (MDA) at 59kg, Iulia LEORDA (MDA) at 53kg and Mariana DRAGUTAN (MDA) at 55kg are all medal hopes for the nation.

Mongolia won four bronze medals in Oslo and it will hope that the women can outdo their last performance. Three medalists from Oslo -- Otgonjargal DOLGORJAV (MGL) at 50kg, Davaachimeg ERKHEMBAYAR (MGL) at 57kg and Shoovdor BAATARJAV (MGL) at 59kg -- are returning while Tserenchimed SUKHEE (MGL) is at 62kg.

For India, which set the competition on fire at U17 and U20 World Championships, 53kg Tokyo Olympian Vinesh PHOGAT (IND) leads a young group of wrestlers. 59kg top seed and bronze medalist Sarita MOR (IND) is dropping down to 57kg while U23 Asian champion Mansi AHLAWAT (IND) is at 59kg.

ANKUSH (IND) will wrestle at 50kg, Sushma SHOKEEN (IND) at 55kg, U20 world silver medalist Sonam MALIK (IND) at 62kg, SHEFALI (IND) at 65kg, U23 world bronze Nisha DAHIYA (IND) at 68kg, U20 world silver REETIKA (IND) at 72kg and PRIYANKA (IND) at 76kg.

Mariya STADNIK (AZE)Mariya STADNIK (AZE) is going for her third world title. (Photo: United World Wrestling)

A few other stars to look out for will grace the mats. At 50kg, four-time Olympic medalist Mariya STADNIK (AZE) is going for her third world title. Former European champion Miglena SELISHKA (BUL), world finalist Emilia VUC (ROU) and European champion Evin DEMIRHAN (TUR) are also entered.

At 53kg, U23 world champion Lucia YEPEZ GUZMAN (ECU), European champion Jonna MALMGREN (SWE), Euro silver Maria PREVOLARAKI (GRE), returning bronze Katarzyna KRAWCZYK (POL) and former U20 world silver Aktenge KEUNIMJAEVA (UZB) are entered.

55kg will see Pan-Am champion Karla GODINEZ (CAN), returning silver Nina HEMMER (GER), and Andreea ANA (ROU) trying to make it to the podium.

Olympic medalist Evelina NIKOLOVA (BUL) will be at 57kg along with U23 world champion Anhelina LYSAK (POL)

The 62kg weight class has some of the big names including Lais DE OLIVEIRA (BRA) who defeated Tynybekova earlier this year. 59kg world champion Bilyana DUDOVA (BUL) is also moving up and Canada will have U23 world champion Ana GODINEZ (CAN).

Koumba LARROQUE (FRA)U23 world champion Koumba LARROQUE (FRA) will be wrestling at 65kg in Belgrade. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

Former world finalist Koumba LARROQUE (FRA) will return to Serbia after winning the gold at U23 Worlds last year. European silver medalist Kriszta INCZE (ROU) and Asli DEMIR (TUR) are also entered.

Apart from the aforementioned stars at 68kg, Olympic silver Blessing OBORUDUDU (NGR) will be a favorite to win the gold. Former world champion at 59kg Linda MORAIS (CAN) will be in the same category as will be Asian champion Madina BAKBERGENOVA (KAZ).

Returning silver Zhamila BAKBERGENOVA (KAZ), bronze medalist Buse TOSUN (TUR), U23 world champion Anastasiya ALPYEYEVA (UKR) and silver medalist Kendra DACHER (FRA) hype up the 72kg weight class.

The 76kg remains a tough weight category as returning silver medalist Epp MAE (EST), Martina KUENZ (AUT), former world champion Justina DI STASIO (CAN), U23 world champion Tatiana RENTERIA (COL), Youth Olympic champion Milaimys POTRILLE (CUB), returning bronze medalist Samar HAMZA (EGY), former world champion and Olympic bronze  Yasemin ADAR (TUR) and Anastasiia SHUSTOVA (UKR) are entered.

Women's wrestling begins September 12 and runs till September 15 at the Stark Arena. All the action will be live on uww.org.


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