How much time had elapsed? An hour? Two hours? Maybe, maybe an entire day?
Whatever the answer, it wasn’t very long after Ismael Borrero Molina (CUB, world #1) had finished wrapping up his second World title when the conversation regarding 67 kilograms shifted from the result in Nur-Sultan — to what might unfold six months later in Budapest, the site of the 2020 European Olympic Games Qualifier.
The 2019 World Championships last September did a fine job of producing the kind of storyline that should always take over during an Olympic Year. Four the six athletes who qualified 67 kilos on behalf of their respective nations for Tokyo were from the European continent: Artem Surkov (RUS, silver); Mate Nemes (SRB, bronze); Frank Staebler (GER, bronze), and Fredrik Bjerrehuus (DEN, 5th).
Staebler and Surkov snatching 2020 2020ne bracket spots delivered the furthest thing from a shock to the system. The Russian, a World Champion for the first time in ’18 along with boasting a pair of bronze, was supposed to wind up in the money. And though Staebler had only trimmed back down to 67 the month prior, few doubted the three-time World gold’s chances given his generational knack for coming up big in big moments.
Nemes and Bjerrehuus? Their advancements into bouts holding qualifying implications caused a few heads to turn, but that had more to do with the names left in their wake, and not Nemes’ and Bjerrehuus’ perceptions as two very tough, battle-hardened competitors.
What it all meant was that the 67 bracket at the (now-postponed) European Olympic Games Qualifier would offer a minefield of near-epic proportions. In total, seven wrestlers who had previously won or medaled at World/Olympic events failed to place in the top-6. Five of the seven were Europeans — with all five expected to show up in Budapest.
That’s how strong Europe is in this weight category. Three medalists in ’19. Four qualified. And, as recently as October, five prior medal-winners still on the outside looking in leading up to a tournament where only two spots are up for grabs (save for the World OG “Last Chance” Qualifier that will follow).
Of course, a highly-decorated athlete who decided to drop down to 67 in the aftermath of Nur-Sultan has now complicated the issue even further.
But First Comes “Dance Boy”
Like Staebler, ’15 World Champion/’16 Olympic bronze Rasul Chunayev (AZE) had competed exclusively at the non-Olympic 72 kilograms after the Rio Games. Referred to as “Dance Boy” due to his penchant for Lezginka, a dancing style originated in the Caucasus, Chunayev earned his second career bronze in ’18 (after falling to Staebler in the semis). That bronze — combined with the optics of his explosiveness as an athlete and reliable lift from par terre — kept him towards the top of most observers’ minds entering Nur-Sultan.
When Chunayev, after spending two years at 71 kilos, dropped to 66 for his Olympic run in ’16, his weight cut was not major a topic of conversation. But the circumstances were different. Weigh-ins were held the day before competition. In ’19, Chunayev walked into the World Championships without a refresher. As mentioned, Staebler used his home country’s Grand Prix in August to dip his toes back into the 67-kilo waters (granted, there was a 2-kilo allowance).
Unless it occurred in the confines of the practice room, Chunayev didn’t have a test cut before his return to the Olympic weight. Whether that affected him or not is obvious conjecture. Chunayev lost his second match of the tournament, a 2-1 decision, to two-time World champ Ryu Han-Soo (KOR), whom he had handily defeated en-route to the podium in Rio. Such a defeat is hardly evidence Chunayev was a less-than-viable version of himself in Nur-Sultan, especially considering that he found little difficulty in running over Mate Krasznai (HUN) to start the day.
Even if the weight reduction is or was an obstacle for Chunayev, another issue with which he may struggle is the European Qualifier’s postponement. Not because of age, or at least not necessarily. Many of the elite 67’s are older than 30, and Chunayev is somewhere right in the middle of that group (he himself turns 30 in January, making him two years younger than Staebler and three years younger than Ryu, for example). But the layoff is going to be significant. Accomplished star athletes typically do not require a lot of time to shake off rust. However, this forced break from competition is much longer than usual.
As of now, United World Wrestling has not laid out any plans for Senior events in the fall, which would mean that Chunayev — along with any other athletes who have not competed since Nur-Sultan ’19 — will have been dormant for well over a year. If Chunayev does not compete until the European Qualifier, that number climbs to 18 months. Between the fistful of fellow medalists and handful of young guys who are starting to emerge expected to be in the bracket, he might need to turn in one of his most impressive performances yet. Which would really be saying something.
Now These Guys
Balint Korpasi (HUN) has four World medals, including a gold from ’16, and is coming off of earning his second bronze back in September. All of Korpasi’s medals were earned at 71/72 kilos. The last time he wrestled at a weight lower than that? Eight years ago. Korpasi won the ’12 Golden Grand Prix at 66, and went up to 74 the next season. He dipped down to 71 upon the non-Olympic weight’s introduction in ’14 and has stayed in that range ever since.
In October, shortly after that fourth medal was collected, Korpasi decided he would attempt to qualify at 67 when the opportunity arrived this past March. Of course, that didn’t happen due to the pandemic. But Korpasi was serious. He had even begun dieting and accounting for calorie loss nearly immediately. “I really have nothing to lose, I have all kinds of medal colors, (but) the Olympic podium is still missing,” Korpasi said at the time. “Still a difficult question. Morning measurements have been introduced, my wrestling is largely based on strength and endurance, and would need to be resolved to get to 67 without the slightest loss of performance, because that is the only way I could have a chance.”
Korpasi is not the only wrestler firmly established at 72 to cut to 67 in advance of the European Qualifier. A superb wrestler from Croatia (with whom Korpasi is indeed familiar) is also set to have his say.
The only thing Dominik Etlinger (CRO) doesn’t have in common with Staebler, Chunayev, Rya, and Korpasi is hardware. At 28 years of age, Etlinger has appeared in five World events and has yet to reach a medal round. In fact, he actually hasn’t come all that close. But that shouldn’t sway one’s perception of his chances. Etlinger has earned wins over plenty of top athletes, including Staebler. He has also performed consistently well at various big-ticket tournaments. Standing 5’5, Etlinger is a compact brawler devoted to a smashmouth style on the feet and has proven quite effective from top par terre thanks to a no-room-to-even-squirm gutwrench. He is also susceptible to getting turned on occasion, as well, though that hardly differentiates him from most others in this weight category.
Etlinger declared his intentions this past winter. It had been just under four years since the last time he wrestled below 71 kilos when the ’20 Thor Masters rolled around in January (67 was really 69 in Denmark with the +2 kilos allowance). It was a stacked field, and not only did Etlinger stomp his way to gold, along his travels he utterly destroyed both of Poland’s recent medalists in and around 66/67 — Mateusz Bernatek and Gevorg Sahakyan. Neither bout was remotely competitive. Or, particularly surprising. Etlinger already had Bernatek’s number, though their prior matches were much closer on the scoreboard.
Two oddities surrounding Etlinger: 1) he chose to compete at 72 kilos a month later at the European Championships, where he took fifth. Why he didn’t stick around at 67 kilograms for that tournament is unknown, but he was in good company. Staebler, too, was back up to 72 in February. 2) Etlinger has struggled mightily against Korpasi. He has not had his doors blown off, but the Hungarian owns four victories against him dating back to ’16.
There is no way to definitively prove that momentum is a real thing. But if it is, Martin Thoresen (NOR) was thought to be riding quite the wave moving into the month of March.
Virtually out of nowhere, Thoresen ran the table at February’s European Championships, with each match teetering on the brink of defeat. Quite the sight. The train gathered steam following Thoresen’s quarterfinal breaking of ’18 Euro bronze Enes Basar (TUR). And that is what Thoresen does, he “breaks” opponents. His position is at times suspect, he is not a red-alert threat in par terre, and it isn’t clear what his overall on-the-feet strategies entail. Maybe none of that matters as much as we seem to pretend it does. Some wrestlers just refuse to lose.
Outside of a few placings at second-tier Senior events, Thoresen was not on anyone’s radar as a serious contender just yet. That has changed, naturally. But there is one reason why pumping the brakes is in order: 67 at the ’20 Euros unexpectedly lacked in talent. Nemes, who finished seventh, was the only ’19 medalist in the running. And while Nasir Abdullaev is certainly skilled, he is seen as a “depth guy” for Russia, who did not send Surkov to the tournament.
None of that is to take anything away from Thoresen’s remarkably hard-nosed career moment. It was thrilling. It was also a small sample size most of us hoped would translate into just as much excitement in March. He won’t sneak up on anyone next time, that much is for sure.
The Minefield of Medalists
Medals are not as important as how an athlete has been performing. Perceived trajectories, recent results, and career milestones all factor in when examining a weight class’ depth. That said, six medalists, potentially, in one bracket is emblematic of just how competitive 67 kilograms tends to be on the European continent, and 2021’s qualifier is no exception.
Rasul Chunayev (2015 World Champion, ’16 Rio Olympic bronze, two-time World bronze)
Consensus seems to be that a lengthy break from competition could be a good thing for Chunayev. One reason why that might be true is that his activity level has already declined in recent years while his performances have remained consistent. If healthy, still a notch above the field in every meaningful phase of the sport.
Shmagi Bolkvadze (2016 Olympic bronze, ’17 U23 World Champion)
Bolkvadze struggled with Amantur Ismailov (KGZ) in Nur-Sultan before running into the buzzsaw that is Mohamed Elsayed (EGY). However, his first tournament back down at 67 last season (’19 European Games) was three months prior and he looked great. Still only 26, Bolkvadze is just now shaking hands with his prime years but could probably use a tune-up before the Qualifier pops up on the calendar.
Balint Korpasi (2016 World Champion, ’18 World silver, two-time World bronze)
The elder statesman of the group, Korpasi might be entering his mid-30’s but there have been no signs of a slow-down — not anomalistic for Hungarians. The weight reduction will be interesting to watch if it is he whom Hungary selects for the tournament. He is such a solid pro that it is tough to imagine that getting in the way of his output.
Edgaras Venckaitis (2014 World bronze)
There is a legitimate chance that Lithuania goes with Kristupas Sleiva over Venckaitis. Sleiva is good. In some ways, a tick better. But Venckaitis brings it each and every time, and his degree of experience is probably too much for them to ignore. A circumstance where LTU is forced to have a wrestle-off is plausible since selection based on comparing side-by-side performances might not be an option.
Gevorg Sahakyan (2018 World bronze) or
Mateusz Bernatek (2017 World silver)
Armenian-born Sahakyan owns more skills. More of a classical stylist who operates station-to-station and then tries to create distance via par terre. Bernatek is a pusher. Not as technical. His pressure and intense, fiery attitude are what guide his approach. They’ve butted heads in tournaments a couple times, even once this past winter. Really watchable stuff. Bernatek and Sahakyan are just about even, with Sahakyan a little longer in the tooth. Either way, Poland is lucky. Whoever they send at 67 is going to be solid.
Atakan Yuksel (2017 World bronze)
Basar hasn’t taken over as Turkey’s true #1 but was the go-to for the ’20 Euros. Of TUR’s crew of 67’s, he has elevated himself the most recently. But 35-year-old Yuksel can still wreck people. A punisher on the feet who doesn’t fade too badly in the second period combined with a close-out gut. Thing is, Yuksel is at a stage of his career where he only gets the call for special occasions. You would think the Euro Qualifier fits that description, but who knows?
Is Time a Luxury?
The selection process for most European nations pertaining to tournaments of consequence is to send their top candidates (in undecided weight classes) to one or two lead-up events, and then mind the outcome. The order of placing does not necessarily determine who is chosen, but is rather observed along with relevant histories, head-to-head results, and so on. This process is, of course, separate from their respective National or Trials events which help render #1’s for Worlds or Olympic Games — but even then, those results are often not lockdown criteria.
It would appear that such measuring sticks may not be made available prior to the ’21 European OG Qualifier. There is no timetable for when competition will resume, if it even does, in the upcoming fall or early winter. If open international tournaments currently scheduled are actually pulled off without a hitch — and life in wrestling, and in general, is by then somewhat normal — it will carry extreme importance for both national federations and individual athletes alike. Countries will be able to zero in on their entrants for Budapest, and it will become much easier to gauge the talent pool as one of the most critical tournaments of their careers ceases to exist in a hypothetical realm.
On the bright side, the gift of time has been distributed to several young’ish athletes who could use it. Thoresen is one of them. Bolkvadze, too. Bernatek is also someone who might have needed a respite if only to get his head straight. As for the others, the lot 30 and over boasting glittering resumes? Those with nothing to prove yet everything to prove all over again?
For every imagined reason why the postponement could be construed as a negative are two reasons why it is of a potential benefit. Time away from competition, in and of itself, is rarely the problem. What is accomplished in that time away is all these athletes are concerned about. And rightfully so.
The only thing anyone can count on is this: 67 kilograms at the ’21 European Olympic Games Qualifier offers the widest spectrum of top-level competitors witnessed this generation in a continental event. A bracket so deep, that even by the time the ’24 qualifying season arrives people will still be talking about this one. It would have been nice if a pandemic didn’t shelve the entire Olympic season and push it back a year. But there is no other option other than to adapt. At the very least, this is one tournament that will be worth the wait.