With the 2016 Rio Games just days away, here are five stories to keep an eye on when wrestling competition gets underway.
U.S. Greco-Roman team hopes for first medal since 2008
Days 9-11 (Aug. 14-16)
Although the United States leads the all-time medal count in wrestling, it has traditionally not been as strong in Greco-Roman, a wrestling style that prohibits lower-body attacks. The U.S. Greco-Roman team was shut out of the medal podium in 2012 and has not won gold since Rulon Gardner upset Aleksandr Karelin in 2000.
Leading the charge this year is 75kg entrant Andy Bisek, who has won back-to-back bronze medals at the world championships. Robby Smith is also expected to be competitive in the 130kg division after reaching the semifinals of the world championships last year. The U.S. team also includes Jesse Thielke at 59kg and 2012 Olympian Ben Provisor at 85kg.
Yoshida, Icho eye record fourth gold medals
Days 12-13 (Aug. 17-18)
Women’s freestyle 58kg (128 lbs), 53kg (117 lbs)
No wrestler has ever won more than three Olympic gold medals. In Rio, Two Japanese women can eclipse that mark. Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho have won three straight Olympic titles and are both favored to get No. 4, but this year’s Games could prove to be their toughest challenges yet.
Yoshida, who is competing at 53kg, has been a buzzsaw for a long time. She holds 13 world titles in addition to her three Olympic titles and is the most decorated athlete in women’s wrestling. But U.S. wrestler Helen Maroulis, the reigning 55kg world champion who will compete in Yoshida’s 53kg division in Rio, has looked just as dominant lately. If the two meet in Rio, as is expected, it will likely determine who emerges with a gold medal.
Icho, Japan’s 58kg entrant, won 189 consecutive matches from 2003-2016 until her winning streak finally ended in January at the hands of Mongolia’s Orkhon Purevdorj. With Icho no longer invincible, the rest of the field will hope that the 10-time world champion is vulnerable to defeat in Rio.
Team USA seeks first Olympic title in women’s wrestling
Days 12-13 (Aug. 17-18)
Since women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, the U.S. has yet to win a gold medal. That appears set to change in 2016, as Team USA has two world champions competing in Rio: Adeline Gray and Helen Maroulis.
Gray, a three-time world champion, has not lost a match since July 2014. She is the odds-on favorite at 75kg.
Maroulis claimed her first world title last year in the non-Olympic weight class of 55kg. She will drop down to 53kg for the Olympics but is still expected to land on the podium. Her biggest challenge for gold is likely to come from three-time reigning Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan, with a clash between the two highly anticipated by wrestling fans.
The women’s team also includes Haley Augello at 48kg and 2012 Olympian Elena Pirozhkova at 63kg.
Jordan Burroughs goes for back-to-back gold medals
Day 14 (Friday, Aug. 19)
Men’s freestyle 74kg (163 lbs)
Popular American star Jordan Burroughs can win his second straight 74kg Olympic title in Rio. He boasts a 129-2 career record in international competition, is the No. 1 ranked wrestler in his weight class and is considered by some to be the world’s best pound-for-pound wrestler.
While the New Jersey native is entrenched as the gold medal favorite, the opposition will be hungry to knock him off. Potential challengers include Russia’s Aniuar Geduev, Iran’s Hassan Yazdani and Mongolia’s Purevjav Unurbat – all of whom earned medals at last year’s world championships.
J’den Cox makes Olympic debut
Day 15 (Saturday, Aug. 20)
Men’s freestyle 86kg (189.5 lbs)
The rise of J’den Cox has been sudden, and it has been swift. But his fortunes for Rio are clouded in mystery.
The University of Missouri junior won his second NCAA championship in March. That qualified him to compete at U.S. Olympic Trials, which he entered as the No. 9 seed and emerged as the champion at 86kg.
All this success came with Cox having zero international experience. His first international competition came at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Mongolia where he won gold. Then at the Freestyle World Cup in June, Cox notched wins over the No. 3 and No. 5 ranked wrestlers in the world at the time. He has already climbed to No. 9 in the world rankings, and expectations heading into Rio are no longer so tempered for the 21-year-old.