71 kilograms at the 2017 Greco-Roman World Championships is similar to how it has always been since the weight class’ inception a few years ago. You’re getting wrestlers who are or have been at 66 kilos for portions of their careers and because that’s the weight class typically lauded for its dependable stock of terrific athletes, 71 is right up there, as well. There is a multitude of talent here with the hardware to back it up. Several World champs and Olympic medalists are scattered among the group this year, and that could lead to some electrifying match-ups both early in the day and of course, with the new seeding procedures, hopefully later on in the medal rounds.
The primary goal for our World Championships previews is identifying who the favorites either are or deemed to be by the populous. There are certainly a few here. 2017’s running of the event offers a decidedly more stacked bracket than the one that was on display at November’s non-Olympic Worlds. Some wrestlers weren’t available for that event due to having been Rio Olympians and a couple just weren’t ready to hit the mats yet. Thankfully, the 71 kilogram bracket in Paris does not have these issues. It’s loaded.
2017 Greco-Roman World Championships — 71 kg
Rasul Chunayev — AZE, world no. 1 (2016 Olympic bronze medalist, 2015 World Champion, 2015 European Games gold medalist, two-time Junior World bronze medalist)
Chunayev has earned himself a reputation as one of the most exciting Greco-Roman wrestlers on the planet. He’s always moving around, aggressively seeks out big moves, and usually appears to be enjoying himself out there. People latch onto a guy like that. Excitement is nice but it doesn’t mean much without efficiency, and that is where Chunayev truly shines. Since his bronze medal at the 2014 Worlds in Tashkent, “Dance Boy” has dropped a few matches overall with one of those losses coming in the Olympic semifinals at the hands of eventual runner-up Migran Arutyunyan (ARM, world no. 12). That’s how it has been for him at World-level events: bronze in 2014, gold in 2015, and a bronze in ’16. Chunayev hasn’t been the same dominant force he was with forced par terre, but not many foreign stars have, either. He’s barely in his athletic prime, so that deserves to be acknowledged. Unless Chunayev slips on a banana peel, expect him to be fighting for a podium spot.
Frank Staebler — GER, world no. 7 (2015 World Champion, 2013 World bronze medalist, two-time Olympian, 2009 Junior World bronze medalist)
Following his fifth-place finish at the Olympics, Staebler took a little breather and then joined SV Germania Weigarten in Bundesliga, helping that squad capture the team championship. But he didn’t jump back into international competition right away. Word was his body needed rest and there were some knee issues. No matter, Staebler returned to action early last month at the Wladyslaw Pytlasinski Cup in Poland and delivered a more-than-impressive performance. On his march to his second straight gold at that event, he took out Rio bronze Shmagi Bolkvadze (see below) and reigning World Champion Balint Korpasi (also listed below) in the finals. Whether or not you put a lot of stock into the Pytlasinski results, it is still an eye-opening way to reintroduce yourself to elite international competition ahead of a World Championships. 71 fits Staebler better at this stage and surely everyone knows that.
Shmagi Bolkvadze — GEO, world no. 6 (2016 Olympic bronze medalist, 2014 Junior World Champion, 2013 Junior World silver medalist, 2016 European Championships bronze medalist)
Coveted as one of Georgia’s brightest prospects going back to his age-group days (which really weren’t that long ago), Bolkvadze did what he was supposed to do. As soon as he entered full-time Senior competition he made an impact, putting forth a respectable showing at the Senior Worlds (7th, though he got iced by Arutyunyan in Vegas) and then followed that up the next year with an Olympic bronze. Current 66 kilo favorite Artem Surkov (RUS, world no. 1) outworked Bolkvadze in the finals of the Golden Grand Prix in a match the Georgian had trouble pulling the trigger. That has been his main tactical issue. Opportunism is part of the sport, but Bolkvadze waits around a little too much when it appears he should be showing more urgency. When he gets to positions he likes, there might not be a more devastating wrestler at this weight. You’d just like to see him fight more for those positions. However, still should be considered a very real candidate for gold.
Balint Korpasi — HUN, world no. 2 (2016 World Champion, 2010 University World silver medalist, 2015 FILA Grand Prix gold medalist, 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix gold medalist, 2017 European Championships gold medalist)
2017 marked Korpasi’s tenth year as a Senior athlete, but it has really only been a few years where he’s been considered among the elite. Before he earned his World Gold at the first-ever non-Olympic Weight World Championships in November (at home, mind you), Korpasi’s biggest Senior win might have been the 2015 FILA Grand Prix which culminated with a decent scrap against Ilie Cocojari (also on this list). 2016 provided the now-30 year-old’s with his best campaign yet. Following back-to-back golds at the Hungarian Grand Prix and Thor Masters, respectively, Korpasi found the medal stand every time out leading up to his run to World glory. He endured some grinders on his way to gold at the Euros in May, including a sketchy-ish win over Russia’s Abuiazid Mantsigov (world no. 4) in the semis. That is largely how Korpasi operates. He is not a Surkov-type who is going to try and blitz everyone. Instead, he puts his hard hat on and gets to work. Difficult not to respect that.
Adam Kurak — RUS (2015 World bronze medalist, 2016 World Military Championships silver medalist, 2014 European Championships gold medalist, 2013 European Championships silver medalist, 2017 Russian National gold medalist)
If anything, Adam Kurak is both evidence and a victim of Russia’s unrivaled depth. He is a World bronze medalist and could be a medalist, if not champion, this year, and it’s highly debatable if he is even one of the three best wrestlers at this weight in his own country. Chunayev FIVE’ed Kurak hardcore at the Worlds in 2015, which is how the Russian wound up shooting for bronze later on in Vegas. At the non-Olympic Worlds, Daniel Cataraga (listed below) out-hustled him with two takedowns, one of the four-point variety, to end Kurak’s bid for a championship before Hasan Aliyev (AZE) turned him back in the bronze medal match. Even with all that, Kurak is not a tough sell in terms of how he’ll do in Paris. He is a hand-fighting machine and weaves his way into position by forcing opponents to second-guess their own offensive plans. Now at 32 years of age, this might be his last shot at a World title. He likely knows that and wants to have his say before it’s all over.
Daniel Cataraga — MDA, world no. 14 (2016 World silver medalist, 2015 U23 European Championships gold medalist)
Compared to most of the top contenders at 71 kilograms, Cataraga’s resume is a little short, this despite his silver to Korpasi at last year’s World Championships. Although — he did grab some headlines by winning the inaugural U23 European Championships in 2015. No matter, one doesn’t need to see a bunch of credentials next to Cataraga’s name if they simply watch how he conducts his business. Fans who are new to Greco will love his energetic style of attacking, while Greco lifers appreciate Cataraga’s old school fight-it-out-to-throw approach. In order at the 2016 Worlds, Cataraga defeated then-reigning Euro champ Varsham Boranyan (ARM), Kurak, and Aliyev before Korpasi squeaked past him on the dodgiest of dodgy passivity calls late in the second period. Cataraga wants to be a ball of fire in a sport where ice is, unfortunately, often more effective. His draw should be decent and if it is, he could have a special day.
Mohomaddali Abdolhamid Geraei — IRI, world no. 16 (2015 World Military Games gold medalist, 2015 Asian Championships silver medalist, 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games gold medalist)
Like Kurak, Geraei is a casualty of coming from a country with a ton of depth. Although he’s been a pretty active competitor the last few years (and having jumped around weight classes quite a bit), this will be his first World Championships appearance. Geraei is a lanky athlete who often finds himself forced to contort and twist just so he can wrangle meaningful tie-ups. Because of this, he has to sometimes bite the bullet and take some punishment to gain entry inside. But with his length comes reach and he has demonstrated that he’s quite capable of reeling in arm drags from a distance or shooing hands away to get around the back of his opponents. Geraei doesn’t hunt down dynamic moves the same way someone like Chunayev does, but is a capable transition scorer who can convert a takedown into immediate follow-up points, and that could serve him well if such opportunities present themselves next week.
TEAM USA: Patrick Smith (2014 University World silver medalist, three-time Pan Am Championships gold medalist, 2017 Thor Masters Invitational bronze medalist)
A runner-up no more, Patrick Smith’s rise to the top of the domestic ladder speaks to both his attitude and willingness to always be ready for a brawl. If you’re from the US, you should already know the story. Smith went to college at the University of Minnesota where during the breaks between seasons, turned himself into one of the most formidable Greco-Roman competitors in the country. A University World silver medal in 2014 served as an early high point, but it is also around this time when the Chaska, Minnesota native began making noise as a Senior. He finished second to legendary two-time World bronze medalist Harry Lester at the Open and World Team Trials in consecutive years, which began the “bridesmaid” talk, which is ridiculous if only because a) it’s as if making it to the finals of the premier domestic tournaments doesn’t say enough and b), dropping matches to one of the best American wrestlers of his generation is certainly nothing to hang one’s head about.
Smith picked up the first of his three Pan Am Championship wins in 2015 (at 71 kg) and later on that year took second to fellow World Team member Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) in the 66 kilogram class at the 2015 US Nationals/Olympic Trials Qualifier. After earning his second Pan Ams gold in Frisco, Texas, Smith was positioned to do some damage at the Olympic Trials. A first round decision over Chris Gonzalez (NYAC) gave way to a thrilling victory against Michael Hooker (Army/WCAP) in the semifinals. In the 66 kilo best-of-three finals, Smith battled RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC), taking the first match on a pair of step-out points before dropping the next two, the last of which in heartbreaking fashion. He returned to competition in time for November’s non-Olympic Trials in New York City where Gonzalez caught and pinned him. That’s life in the big city.
A big-time rebound came in the way of a 3-2 performance at the World Wrestling Clubs Cup in Budapest, Hungary a few weeks later. After that, there was kind of a different vibe emanating around Smith. It started at the US Open in Las Vegas. Smith trounced through the field, pressuring and peppering his way to his first Senior National title. In his three bouts on the day, he outscored his opponents 23-0 with two technical falls. Just after New Year’s, Smith flew over to Sweden for an extended stay. It was a dual-purpose trip. He was finishing up credits towards his master’s degree and a foreign exchange program provided him with a unique opportunity to do so. However, given Sweden’s presence internationally in Greco-Roman along with the program’s good working relationship with the US, Smith used his time in Scandinavia as an extended training camp. There, he had the benefit of working with rising stars such as Alex Kessidis (80 kg, world no. 6) and Zakarias Berg (85 kg, world no. 8), so finding high-level training partners certainly wasn’t an issue.
A one-and-done showing at the Paris International in January came just as after Smith arrived overseas. He’d improve on that next time out. At March’s Thor Masters Invitational in Denmark, Smith lost his first match but won his next three to earn bronze, the conclusive victory coming against US teammate Alex Sancho (NYAC-OTS). The medal was nice, but what was more encouraging is how he wrestled. Smith is lauded for his ability to create and sustain pressure. That has been his primary approach — always come forward, remain physical, and then wear opponents out. Thor Masters saw Smith beginning to translate that pressure into relevant scoring chances, which he took advantage of. That doesn’t mean there were a variety of flowery techniques — the guy is still a brawler at heart. But putting opponents on their back foot was no longer good enough for him. He was now hunting more for follow-up points.
The World Team Trials gave Smith the chance to get some things off his chest, if not a monkey off his back. An exciting first-round tussle with up-and-comer Colin Schubert (NYAC-OTS) delivered a semifinal showdown with Perkins. Smith was confident and aggressive throughout this meeting as he shut down the gifted Perkins 6-0. The best-of-three finals left him not only on the precipice of achieving a lifelong goal, but also, another shot at redemption. In what was anticipated to be a closely-contested three-round war of attrition, Smith cruised past Gonzalez in two straight, 4-1 and 6-0. In locking down his World Team spot, Smith defeated the two other best guys at the weight by a combined total of 16-1 in three matches. He took that momentum and ran with it the very next week in Brazil, where he sewed up his third Pan Ams title.
Smith’s last time on a competitive mat came in early June at the Tbilisi Grand Prix. A 2-0 first-round loss to Tigran Torosyan (ARM) put him in the repechage where he faced off with reigning World champ Korpasi, who prevailed 2-0, as well, with both of the Hungarian’s points coming on two questionable passivity calls. A loss is a loss, but this one showed something. Smith made adjustments in between periods and was the more aggressive wrestler, deflecting Korpasi’s firepower to reciprocate with some of his own. He might not have gotten the calls, but he did make a statement.
Smith is not a medal contender simply because he’s here and he’s a US guy. It’s important to take into account Smith’s results over the past year, but it is even more important to observe how he has competed. He’s just not the same guy he was as recently as 2015 or ’16. He’s not. And that guy was very good. Smith has discovered how to make his hard-charging, tireless, fire-breathing intensity work for him much more effectively than it ever has before. That’s a fact. This is a sport that rewards action and penalizes meekness. There’s nothing meek about Smith’s skill-set. He’s working with something special right now. Call it self-discovery, call it gusto, confidence, maturity…what have you. The bottom line is that Patrick Smith has looked the part of a potential World medalist lately and there’s every reason to believe he will perform like one in Paris.
ALSO IN THE RUNNING:
Ilie Cocojari — ROU, world no. 10 (2016 World bronze medalist, 2015 FILA Grand Prix silver medalist)
US fans might remember Cocojari stealing a win from Gonzalez in the quarters of the World Championships back in November. He hasn’t been quite as studly since he snagged his bronze in Budapest, but he’s a forward-type who could benefit from some hesitant playback.
Pavel Liakh — LTU, world no. 9 (2016 University World Champion, 2017 European Championships silver medalist)
Another guy American Greco-Roman fans may recall, as Perkins defeated Liakh at one of the OG Qualifiers last spring. Liakh is a tough, tough wrestler who is difficult to get in on unless he is motivated enough to open up. Really opened up eyes with at the Euros with a big win over Aleksandar Maksimovic (SRB, world no. 3) on his way to silver.
2017 Greco-Roman World Championships
AccorHotels Arena, Paris, France
Monday, August 21st — 71 kg, 75 kg, 85 kg, 98 kg
Tuesday, August 22nd — 59 kg, 66 kg, 80 kg, 130 kg
Live streaming available in the United States on Trackwrestling.com