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Dreams die painfully in Tashkent.

Mike Stobe

The United States entered this year's FILA World Championships with high spirits and hopes of adding lots of shiny new medals to its collection.  As Iowa fans, we were particularly interested -- and invested in -- the success of two ex-Iowa wrestlers (Brent Metcalf and Tony Ramos) who had qualified for the U.S. team competing at the World Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan this week.  Things seemed to be setting up well for them to bring some hardware home to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club: Ramos and Metcalf have been wrestling a very high level this year and the recent changes to the freestyle rules have seemed to benefit aggressive, well-conditioned wrestlers like Ramos and Metcalf.  American wrestlers have had a challenging relationship with freestyle wrestling in recent years (except for Jordan Burroughs, of course, who's been killing it on the international scene), but this year was going to be the year things changed for the better.


Unfortunately, as you can tell by the title of this post, that didn't happen.  Ramos and Metcalf went a combined 1-2 in Tashkent this week, heading home burdened by disappointment and broken dreams rather than the happy weight of a medal around their necks.  Ramos was the first to compete, taking on Mongolia's Bekhbayar Erdenebat in the first round at 57 kg; unfortunately, he was also the first to lose.  Ramos fell to Erdenebat, 7-4, after giving up a big 4-point move partway through the match.  Erdenebat struck first with a takedown, but Ramos was able to square the match at 2-2 (and there was some controversy about whether or not he should have gotten more points).  Unfortunately, when he went to roll Erdenebat and try and expose his back for more points, Erdenebat was able to reverse the move and score exposure points of his own, turning a 2-2 match into a 6-2 lead for himself.  Ramos was in deep trouble at that point and was stuck in catch-up mode for the remainder of the match.

He didn't catch up and that was that for Ramos' World Championships experience.  Unlike college wrestling tournaments, which are all double-elimination and involve complex consolation brackets, international tournaments involve a concept called "repechage."  In "repechage," if the guy who beats you goes on to wrestle in the finals at that weight, then you get another chance to keep wrestling and ultimately compete for a bronze medal.  Erdenebat did not make it to the finals at 57 kg (although he did make it to the bronze medal matches), so Ramos did not get a chance to wrestle again after his loss.  It's a cruel and unforgiving system, but sometimes that's just how things shake out.

While we harbored hopes of a Ramos medal, the reality was that he was a bit of a long shot to medal at this event.  He hasn't even been immersed in freestyle competition for six months at this point, he's unfamiliar with the vast majority of foreign opponents, and this tournament came at the end of a long, grueling campaign for Ramos (his senior season at Iowa began last October and he didn't have much of a break between the NCAA Tournament and the beginning of his freestyle career).  So we weren't necessarily expecting Ramos to bring home a medal this time.  But his ex-Iowa teammate Brent Metcalf?  Yeah, we felt really good about his medal possibilities.  And so did he.  Metcalf has been through the wars in freestyle -- he's seen a lot of different international foes at this point and, frankly, he's beaten a lot of them, too.  He beat the current world #1 (Russia's Magomed Kubanaliev) at the Beat the Streets event this year and the beat another highly-regard Russian (Soslan Ramanov) at the Rumble at the Rails event a year ago; those were both exhibitions events, but still -- wrestling is wrestling.  Metcalf has been, without question, one of the best 65 kg wrestlers in the world this year.  Unfortunately, he wasn't able to put it together today in Tashkent to get the wins that would give him the medal that would provide definitive validation for that statement.

Metcalf's tournament began well, with an 11-0 technical fall win over South Korea's Seongun Park.  Metcalf used a beautiful double leg takedown to take Park to the mat, then used an equally-nice leg lace to roll Park repeatedly for exposure points.  That was an impressive, dominant win and seemed to be a good omen for Metcalf.  Things went awry in his next match against Turkey's Mustafa Kaya, though.  Metcalf scored the first takedown of the match on a go-behind, but Kaya was able to counter his next few shots into points of his own with headlock takedowns.  Metaclf opened the second period with a beautiful, explosive takedown off a high-crotch and seemed poised to take control of the match, but a lot of hand-fighting went nowhere.  With about a minute to go, Metcalf got in deep on a single-leg, but wasn't able to finish.  Moments later, Kaya exploded with a double-leg takedown out of nowhere that took Metcalf down and gave Kaya the lead with under a minute to go.  Metcalf got achingly close to a takedown as time expired (and, in my admittedly biased view, got it), but didn't get credit for it, ultimately losing 7-4.  Like Erdenebat, Kaya wasn't able to make the finals at 65 kg, so Metcalf's tournament was ended by this loss.

Metcalf and Ramos weren't the only Americans going home disappointed from the World Championships -- of the eight freestyle competitors that competed yesterday and today, just two (Tervel Dlagnev at 125 kg and Jordan Burroughs at 74 kg) brought home medals, a pair of bronzes.  (A bronze was a disappointment for Burroughs, considering he's claimed gold in every other international tournament he's competed in; his loss today was just his second-ever loss in freestyle competition.)  The Americans came to Tashkent with hopes of bringing home some medals, but they're mostly going home empty-handed -- just as they have in most international tournaments in recent years.  I'm not sure what they need to change to reverse this trend, frankly.  The rules are what they are (and, if anything, the recent changes have probably tended to benefit the Americans a bit) and I don't think there's an enormous technique gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world.  The only thing I can think of is that the U.S. wrestlers need more exposure to international opponents -- the more experience they get wrestling opponents from Russia, Mongolia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and beyond, the more comfortable they should be when it comes to wrestling those guys at the World Championships.  Of course, most of the opportunities to wrestle those opponents occur at overseas tournaments, and competing there isn't cheap.

Whatever the case, let's hope the U.S. is able to solve the problem and produce some better results at next year's World Championships because the event is in Las Vegas and it would be really depressing to lay a proverbial egg on home soil.  Kudos to Ramos and Metcalf for having strong years and qualifying for the World Championships; it's a damn shame things didn't go better at the tournament itself.