#WrestleZagreb

Zagreb Open: five women’s wrestling storylines

By Taylor GREGORIO

ZAGREB, Croatia (January 25) — The 2023 season is officially here as next week Zagreb, Croatia, will play host to the first Ranking Series event — Zagreb Open set for February 1-5.

With close to 600 wrestlers registered for the event, it throws a number of storylines, especially in women’s wrestling.

Akari FUJINAMI (JPN)

1. Japan returns to Ranking Series events after 5 year hiatus
The women’s team of Japan will be returning to a Ranking Series event after an absence of five years; the last competition being the 2018 Klippan Lady Open in Sweden. But this is the first time that all of Japan’s three styles will be competing at a Ranking Series event.

Headlining the Japanese squad is three-time world champion and Tokyo Olympic champion Yui SUSAKI (JPN), registered at 50kg. At just 23 years old, Susaki also has three U17 World titles, two U20 golds and a 2022 U23 World championship. She is joined by 2021 World champion Akari FUJINAMI (JPN) at 53kg and world bronze medalists Sae NANJO (JPN) at 57kg and Sakura MOTOKI (JPN) at 62kg.

Four of the other six Japanese women expected to compete own age-group World titles, including Moe KIYOOKA (JPN) at 55kg, Yui SAKANO (JPN) at 59kg, Mahiro YOSHITAKE (JPN) at 65kg and Ayano MORO (JPN) at 76kg.

2. World champs Parrish, Fujinami in loaded 53kg bracket
A highly anticipated clash of world champions can occur at this weight as reigning gold medalist Dominique PARRISH (USA) and 2021 champ Akari FUJINAMI (JPN) are registered to compete. Parrish rolled to a world title in her senior world debut last September.

Fujinami was noticeably missing from the bracket as she pulled out due to an injury just days before the World Championships.

There are seven other past world medalists scattered throughout the field, including 2022 bronze winner Karla GODINEZ (CAN). She won her medal at 55kg in Belgrade, but moving down to 53kg in preparation for the Olympic year. Tokyo Olympic silver medalist and two-time world bronze medalist Qianyu PANG (CHN).

In addition to Fujinami, the other three medal winners from 2021 are registered for this weekend — silver medalist Iulia LEORDA (MDA) and bronze medalists Samantha STEWART (CAN) and Katarzyna KRAWCZYK (POL). 

A third Canadian world medalist in the mix at this weight is 2018 bronze winner Diana WEICKER (CAN). Poland is also bringing 2017 bronze medalist Roksana ZASINA (POL).

Helen MAROULIS (USA)

3. Six world champs registered at 57kg
There are three past senior world champions and three past U23 world champions set to compete in Zagreb at 57kg. Leading the group is 2016 Olympic champion and three-time world champion MAROULIS (USA). Also a Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist, Maroulis is the USA’s first women’s wrestling Olympic champion as well as its first two-time Olympic medalist in the women’s division. She earned silver in the 2022 World Championships, falling to Tsugumi SAKURAI (JPN) in the finals.

The reigning world champ at 59 kg, Anastasia NICHITA (MDA), is moving down a weight class to 57kg. The two-time European champion is sure to bring some power to the bracket.

Also competing is Ningning RONG (CHN), who won the senior world title in 2018. That same year, she captured silver at the U23 World Championships. Her last major international event was the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

U23 world champions Sae NANJO (JPN), Anhelina LYSAK (POL) and Alexandria TOWN (CAN) will be in Zagreb.

Nanjo is a two-time U23 World champ and two-time U20 World champ, and Lysak owns a 2015 U17 world gold. Both are senior world medalists with Nanjo winning bronze in 2021 and Lysak winning bronze in 2022.

Anastasia NICHITA (MDA)

4. Notable weight class changes
As noted earlier, 2022 world champion at 59kg Anastasia NICHITA (MDA) is moving down to 57kg for this tournament. 

Also changing weight classes is last year’s World runner-up at 59kg Grace BULLEN (NOR), who is bumping up to 62kg. Bullen, who lost a heartbreaker in the 2022 World finals, claimed gold at the 2018 U23 World Championships at 59kg.

Koumba LARROQUE (FRA), who has bounced between 65kg and 68 kg over the last couple of years is registered at 68kg. She has been successful at both weight classes. Most recently at 65kg, Larroque took third at the 2022 senior world championships. At 68kg, she was a 2018 world silver medalist and 2021 U23 world champion.

5. Women’s field full of returning world medalists
There will be no shortage of superstars in the women’s brackets at the Zagreb Open. There are 16 returning senior world medalists across the field, including four 2022 world champions — Yui SUSAKI (JPN), Dominique PARRISH (USA), Anastasia NICHITA (MDA) and Amit ELOR (USA). 

After producing one of the most impressive performances of the 2022 season, 20-year-old Elor, who won U20, U23 and Senior World titles in a span of eight weeks, returns to the international stage at 72 kg. 

Silver medalists expected to compete are Helen MAROULIS (USA), Kayla MIRACLE (USA) and Samar HAMZA (EGY).

Rounding out the returning medalists are ten bronze winners, counting Anna LUKASIAK (POL), Vinesh VINESH (IND), Mengyu XIE (CHN), Anhelina LYSAK (POL), Jowita Maria WRZESIEN (POL), Xiaojuan LUO (CHN), Sakura MOTOKI (JPN), Mallory VELTE (USA), Irina RINGACI (MDA) and Koumba LARROQUE (FRA). 

Fans can watch all the action live on uww.org or on UWW's app and follow along on Twitter @wrestling and Instagram @unitedworldwrestling.

#WrestleZagreb

Curtain-raiser Zagreb Open offers strong competition

By Vinay Siwach

ZAGREB, Croatia (January 26) -- If you are wondering what wrestling will offer this year, Zagreb Open is a perfect curtain-raiser in a year that will see the Olympic quota offering World Championships in September.

Close to 550 wrestlers are entered for the season-opening Ranking Series event with Olympic, world and continental medalists gearing up for the all-important event in September.

Freestyle will see multiple stars take the mat and Haji ALIYEV (AZE), Iszmail MUSZUKAJEV (HUN), Tajmuraz SALKAZANOV (SVK), Ali SAVADKOUHI (IRI), Hassan YAZDANI (IRI), Jden COX (USA), Kyle SNYDER (USA) and Amir Hossein ZARE (IRI) are there to name a few.

The biggest match-up of the tournament can be world champion Kyle SNYDER (USA) facing J'den COX (USA) at 97kg. Cox is a two-time world champion at 92kg and is jumping up a weight class as he prepares to represent the USA at 97kg, a weight class long taken by Snyder.

In other weight classes, a rematch between Aliyev and Muszukajev is on the cards at 65kg. The bout can end up becoming a thriller as Aliyev hopes to avenge his European Championships final's loss. Sebastian RIVERIA (PUR), SUJEET (IND) and Joseph MC KENNA (USA) are also entered.

The Olympic weight classes are packed with strong wrestlers as is the case in 74kg. Yones EMAMI (IRI) will be hoping to get a bout against two-time World Championships silver medalist Tajmuraz SALKAZANOV (SVK). Dzhabrail GADZHIEV (AZE), Avtandil KENTCHADZE (GEO) and Jason NOLF (USA) will be challenging them at the weight classes and hoping to pull off an upset or two.

Ali SAVADKOUHI (IRI), who became the first Iranian to beat Jordan BURROUGHS (USA) last month at the World Cup, will wrestle at 79kg. A rematch with Burroughs would have been a treat for the fans but he will have to contend with Chandler MARSTELLER (USA) for now.

One of the biggest names in freestyle wrestling -- Hassan YAZDANI (IRI) -- is entered at 86kg and will be the main attraction. While the favorite to win the gold, he will have Abubakr ABAKAROV (AZE), Myles AMINE (SMR), Boris MAKOEV (SVK), Zahid VALENCIA (USA) and Mark HALL (USA) challenging him throughout the bracket.

A big match at 92kg is between world bronze medalists Osman NURMAGOMEDOV (AZE) and Miriani MAISURADZE (GEO) with Kollin MOORE (USA) also in the fray to secure the top medal.

Zare will look to forget the heartbreaking loss at the World Championships semifinals and start the season on a bang in Zagreb. He will have little challenge but Robert BARAN (POL) and Hayden ZILLMER (USA) can be the dark horses.

Yui SUSAKI (JPN)Yui SUSAKI (JPN) celebrates her first ever win over Mariya STADNIK (AZE) back in 2018. (Photo: UWW / Max Rose Fyne)

Women’s Wrestling

Now that Japan is returning to Ranking Series events, most teams will get a taste of what to expect at the World Championships. The team last competed at the 2018 Klippan Lady Open where Yui SUSAKI (JPN) first defeated Mariya STADNIK (AZE).

Susaki will now be returning for her second-ever event and she will see Stadnik. Both are entered at 50kg and are expected to meet in the final if not earlier.

Susaki has, since the Tokyo Olympics, won her third world title and added a U23 world gold as well while Standik will be returning to the mat for the first time after the Tokyo Games apart from one appearance at the Islamic Solidarity Games.

China is sending a big squad with three wrestlers in most weight classes and it is a team that can spring any surprise on a given day. 

Even at 53kg, the field has three athletes from China and Canada while former European champion from Ukraine Stalvira ORSHUSH (HUN) will now be wrestling for Hungary. But it's the return of 2021 world champion Akari FUJINAMI (JPN) will be the biggest positive for Japan. She missed the international season after the Asian Championships in Mongolia but will be back for the Ranking Series event.

World champion in 2022 Dominique PARRISH (USA) is also entered in the field and a bout against Fujinami will be a big test for the USA wrestler.

Helen MAROULIS (USA) will be the favorite to win the 57kg weight class but with Ningning RONG (CHN), Sae NANJO (JPN), Anastasia NICHITA (MDA) and Anhelina LYSAK (POL) also entered, it won't be a cakewalk.

Maroulis suffered a loss in the World Championships final to Tsugumi SAKURAI (JPN) but she lost to Nanjo at the Emperor's Cup to lose her first spot in the Japan team. Maroulis has a win over Nanjo at the 2021 World Championships.

Nichita, the world champion at 59kg, will be moving down to 57kg as she begins her preparation to qualify for a second straight Olympic Games later this year. She failed to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

A few wrestlers have moved to 62kg as well. Grace BULLEN (NOR), who was second to Nichita at 59kg, will debut at 62kg. Also changing the weight class are Elis MANOLOVA (AZE), Jia LONG (CHN) and Viktoria VESSO (EST).

In a packed weight class, Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ), Kayla MIRACLE (USA), Taybe YUSEIN (BUL) and Bilyana DUDOVA (BUL) are all contenders for the gold medal.

But one name that can surprise all is Sakura MOTOKI (JPN). The bronze medalist at 59kg moved up to 62kg at the Emperor's Cup and defeated world champion Nonoka OZAKI (JPN) to secure her spot on the team.

Koumba LARROQUE (FRA), Fend ZHOU (CHN) and Irina RINGACI (MDA) are the big names at 68kg with both European wrestlers still trying to adjust to the weight class while Zhou is a veteran of the weight.

Samar HAMZA (EGY), Aiperi MEDET KYZY (KGZ), Yelena MAKOYED (USA) and Dymond GUILFORD (USA) make the 76kg weight class a must-watch. Throw in Ayano MORO (JPN) and the weight becomes more interesting.

Hasrat JAFAROV (AZE)Hasrat JAFAROV (AZE) defeated Seyed SOHRABI (IRI) at the Greco-Roman World Cup. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

Greco-Roman

The Olympic weight classes saw a number of entries but the non-Olympic weight classes are no less in Greco-Roman.

A much-awaited rematch between Eldaniz AZIZLI (AZE) and Poya DAD MARZ (IRI) can come at 55kg. Both Iran and Azerbaijan are bringing strong squads for the tournament.

At 60kg, Murad MAMMADOV (AZE) and Nihat MAMMADLI (AZE) will represent the country while Iran has Mehdi MOHSEN NEJAD (IRI) and Amirreza DEHBOZORGI (IRI). It may well be that the four end up winning the four medals.

Hasrat JAFAROV (AZE) will have a chance to make his head-to-head record against Seyed SOHRABI (IRI) two each after winning their last bout at the World Cup in Baku. That loss must be hurting Shorabi as he had defeated Jafarov on two previous occasions.

Apart from the two youngsters, another young star Abror ATABAEV (UZB) is hoping to make a mark in Zagreb. Also entered at 67kg is Olympic champion Luis ORTA (CUB) who has jumped from 60kg to 67kg in one year. 

A lot of action can be expected at 77kg as Sanan SULEYMANOV (AZE), Aik MNATSAKANIAN (BUL), Zoltan LEVAI (HUN), Alexandrin GUTU (MDA) and Yunus BASAR (TUR) give a glimpse of the European Championships.

Iran is sending Mohammadali GERAEI (IRI) in a bid to test his ability as the aging warrior tries to regain his lost glory.

Both Burhan AKBUDAK (TUR) and Jalgasbay BERDIMURATOV (UZB) wrestled in an epic World Championships final at 82kg but both are moving up to 87kg and will make their debuts in Zagreb. Islam ABBASOV (AZE) will be returning after a long injury lay-off which kept him out of the World Championships as well. World silver medalist Turpal BISULTANOV (DEN), Istvan TAKACS (HUN), Tamas LEVAI (HUN) and Marcel STERKENBURG (NED) are also entered.

Arif NIFTULLAYEV (AZE), Kiril MILOV (BUL), Alex SZOKE (HUN), Tadeusz MICHALIK (POL) and Rustam ASSAKALOV (UZB) make the 97kg weight class another interesting watch.

At 130kg, Oscar PINO HINDS (CUB) will be appearing for Cuba and moving closer to the World Championships in which he will try to qualify for the Paris Olympics. If four-time Olympic champion Mijain LOPEZ (CUB) does return for the Paris Games, Pino will have the option of qualifying in freestyle.

In Zagreb, he will be tested by Beka KANDELAKI (AZE), former world champion Aliakbar YOUSOFI (IRI) and world bronze medalist Mantas KNYSTAUTAS (LTU).