IOWA CITY, Iowa – This year’s freestyle World Cup could have been one of the most intriguing wrestling tournaments outside of the Olympics in years.
The powerhouse Russian and Iranian teams were looking to topple the Americans – last year’s team winner at the world championships – in Iowa’s fabled Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Unfortunately for fans, the Russians and Iranians failed to show up and the U.S., fresh off its first world team championship in 22 years, appears to be in position for a crown that likely would ring a bit hollow.
The U.S. beat India 10-0 and Japan 7-3 in Saturday’s opening rounds.
“Our team was poised to do well (even if) Russia and Iran (were here), so that’s a little bit disappointing,” USA Wrestling executive dirrector Rich Bender said.
Iran, the six-time defending World Cup champions, withdrew in March without citing a reason. But according to Bender, the Iranian federation is dealing with “significant issues” after president Rasoul Khadem’s recent departure.
Khadem left his post a few weeks after United World Wrestling ruled that an Iranian wrestler threw a match at the U-23 world championships in November to avoid having to face an Israeli opponent, disciplining both the athlete and his coach.
Russia dropped out a week ago, saying it didn’t have enough time for the visa interviews needed to get the team cleared for the trip to Iowa City.
But officials held out hope that the Russians would get those issues resolved, including them as a ninth team in the official program for the eight-team event.
“Certainly in light of the current political situation and the relations between our governments and the drama around what’s going on in our state departments, with their embassy and ours, this was not the year to wait until the last minute to apply,” Bender said of the Russians.
The absence of Russia and Iran was a blow to a sport that prides itself on getting oft-disparate nations to come together, though Bender said he doubts it’ll do much to damage to the relations of the three federations in the future.
But UWW released a somewhat cryptic statement later Saturday that, while not mentioning Russia or Iran by name, appeared to address their absences.
“Like many federations we face problems with countries allowing their politics to interfere in competition,” said UWW president Nenad Lalovic of Serbia. “For wrestling, this problem has been visible among our stakeholders. No longer can we allow political problems to enter the field of play. We must fight against any opponent of our sport community with all the means we have.”
In their place, UWW invited Mongolia and India to the annual meet that’s considered the second-biggest international event outside of the world championships, which will be held in Budapest in October.
Mongolia looked impressive in knocking off Kazakhstan 6-4 in its opening match.
But the Indians were clearly outside of their comfort zone against the Americans, who were second in 2017 but haven’t won a World Cup since 2003. The U.S swept all tens of its matches with India and outscored it 87-7 in bonus points.
Worse yet, the Americans closed the match with 48 consecutive points.
Japan put up a much tougher fight. But four-time world champion and London 2012 gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who qualified for the last two Olympics by winning the team trials in Iowa City, thumped Yuhi Fujinami 7-1 to help the U.S. take control after some early stumbles.
“I love it here,” Burroughs said. “The atmosphere is amazing. It’s a mecca of wrestling.”
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