The big men will be taking the mat tomorrow, which is certain to keep the crowd on its feet throughout the day. In years past, the heavyweights would be reasonably easy to call. That is no longer the case. There is a decent-sized group of athletes lumbering around at 130 kg featuring athletes who could be medal contenders, and the US’s Robby Smith is one of them.
Most fingers will be pointing at Mijain Lopez (CUB, world no. 2). The five-time World Champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist has enjoyed a Hall of Fame career (despite the occasional nefarious activity). Lopez, at 33 years of age, is entering the twilight of his wrestling days, but is as much of an irresistible force now as a he ever was. For the most part. In his younger days, maybe the energy level was a touch higher, but that’s if you are really looking for something to nitpick. It’s heavyweight, after all. Matches are either blowouts or 1-0 snooze-fests. Lopez has engaged in plenty of both. But what he offers along with his sporadic physicality is a deep acuity of what needs to be done in a given moment. If he knows it’s time to assert dominance, he comes forward. If he has to get a turn, his body moves as if it’s much lighter than his considerably large frame. That ability to choose an approach and translate it on the mat has been why he’s been at or towards the top for so many years.
Of course, where there is a Lopez, there is also a Riza Kayaalp (TUR, world no. 1). Kayaalp has been embroiled in controversy both on the mat with Lopez and off the mat politically, but we’re not going there (on either account). So we’ll just stick to what has happened inside of the padded circle, which has been quite a lot. Kayaalp has the hardware: Six world medals including two golds; an Olympic bronze; and five Euro titles. It’s a full resume. The kicker is, this monster is only 26 years old. 26! And just as you’d expect, he has the physical tools a 26-year old world class athlete would have — tremendous strength, nice foot-speed, and a pretty decent gas tank for a big guy. He’s also been the one wrestler who knows how to solve the Lopez puzzle and has shown it’s not (at least entirely) a fluke.
Kayaalp, like Lopez, doesn’t force bad positions. They both go gut, because they are heavyweights. Lopez had been more of a lifter, but not so much in recent action. Kayaalp is content to get his hands underneath, force a clearing, and then shoot his lock over and roll. Both guys are adept at par terre defense, though Kayaalp has a higher tendency to arch up to complete his station. Neither is a ball of dynamite on their feet usually; there are plenty of times where it’s the whole “par terre waiting game.” But as mentioned above, if scoring from the feet is a necessity, both have the skillset to do so. Look for these two to make it to the medal rounds, for sure.
Sergey Semenov (RUS, world no. 6) is not going to be an easy out for anybody here. That’s because he displays a willingness to get in those heated exchanges that other heavies tend to shy away from. Semenov will burrow his head in, prod open your arms, and then force his way into a lock with potential. He’s got a little bit of plodder in him at times, fine. He’ll lean in, twiddle-twaddle his feet to keep the action going here and there. But that’s normal for this weight class. Semenov is usually in control of what he wants to do, and that is lock up tight around the head to create counter-pressure for throws and takedowns.
Semenov will actually try and lift from par terre. Most of the time he’ll straddle up to begin his run. He can be turned by the right guys, but mostly he gobbles up par terre time to get the re-start. Will he tire? Yes, he is prone to becoming a little sluggish. But as a two-time Junior World champ and someone who has given some of the other top guys fits, he deserves your attention.
You should also probably expect Aleksander Chernetski (UZB, world no. 3) to move your eyeballs. Despite being 32 and really only making a legitimate splash internationally over the last few years, Chernetski is an athlete who is sort of the rise a little bit, especially after last year’s World Championships, where he got tech’ed by Kayaalp but rebounded with a nice bronze. Chernetski is a hulking fellow; he also wrestles like you’d figure someone who looks like him would. At times, he’s a brawler. Others, he is smooth and technically-sound. Offensively, Chernetski can get dynamic with his attacks and won’t hesitate to back-step. He’ll also grab a front-head and hold onto it to slow the action down, but who could blame him for that? The bottom line, is Chernetski a medalist in Rio? It’s not a certainty, but he definitely has it in him to ruin someone else’s day.
2012 Olympic bronze medalist Johan Magnus Euren (SWE, world no. 5) can do this. He can compete with the major names, he can flow with whatever he’s up against, and he’s as strong as an ox. He hung tight against Kayaalp at the Euros in an impressive performance most recently. Kayaalp got the points, but Euren was right with him and didn’t appear to be hitting the proverbial wall late in the match. Euren has some charger in him. The only thing, he can knocked onto his back foot a little more than you like to see out of an elite heavyweight. Part of that is probably due to lumbering forward against opponents who concentrate pressure on his chest. Euren likes that position though because he can get to his snaps and short drags that way.
Iakobi Kajaia (GEO, world no. 11) is not expected to medal. He’s too young, too green and outside of the U23’s in the spring, hasn’t been on the podium at a meaningful event in a while. But there is something about Kajaia that seems to suggest he could be surprising some people in Rio. It could be that he keeps a high-pace or that because he’s on the younger side isn’t afraid to open up and try to score. Whatever it is, Kajaia appears to have the right kind of thing going for him to be a sleeper here, so we’re including him as one to watch over a couple of the more-established stars in this bracket.
What Robby Smith Brings
Robby Smith has been fifth at the Worlds, owns a few titles, and has dominated this division domestically for most of the last quad. His story is well-known; Smith is a “true Greco guy.” Coming up out of California and the Community Youth Center in Concord, Smith has been around high-level Greco Roman since his childhood. This tournament has been all he’s ever dreamed about. And that’s not melodramatic. Sure, a lot of these athletes dream of being in the Olympics, but Smith actually began rehearsing for this when he was still practically a tot. This was his outlet, his primary activity. It’s hard to dismiss that as not being a factor.
Smith has two primary attack holds on his feet — a blistering, vice-grip front headlock and a snazzy arm spin. Will he plod? Hmmm, a bit. That’s because he is shorter than just about everyone he goes up against, so it forces his head low inside, which makes Smith have to move his feet forward while carrying the weight of his opponent. It’s body-mechanics. One item of note about this guy is that he sports excellent endurance for a 130’er. Smith doesn’t all-of-the-sudden halt his activity level or breathe like he’s on life support, as so many heavyweights do. He is actively engaged the entire time he’s on the mat, and that has served him well against both domestic and international competition.
From par terre, Smith is a gutter and front-headlock guy. If he doesn’t think it’s worth his time to lock around the waist, he’ll circle back to the head and try to score from there instead. That front-head, whether standing up or on the mat, is a terrible place for someone to be caught inside of. It’s white-knuckle tight, and when Smith rolls his wrists to drop an opponent’s chin down, the move is as brutal as it is effective.
Can Smith win?
He actually can. All he needs is the opportunity to knock one of the other top guys off early. If the standard is Lopez, and many still believe that he is, Smith can work Lopez into the second frame and wear him out. Remember — Smith is a former 96 kg guy who threw on all of this size just to compete at this weight. His body wants to move quickly. It’s not like he’s going to wrestle at a snail’s pace, waiting and hoping for par terre. That is just not how Smith gets after it. He wants contact. He wants to score. Smith thinks scoring is fun. So long as the Californian can find just a hint of momentum early on, his tournament could wind up being quite a story to watch.
The draws are going to be out after this goes to publish and obviously, that is going to play a role in Smith’s tournament. But it shouldn’t be a deciding factor in how he does. Smith has elevated his game over the last year to a level he is likely waiting to unleash on society at large. His heart, his ability, and his desire to always keep going make Smith a legitimate contender, and don’t think for a second he’s being overlooked by anyone he winds up matching up with.