Last weekend’s Golden Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan might not have been the scoring fest it usually is, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some eye-popping moments. A couple of surprising pins stole the show in the finals and the earlier rounds offered some dramatic maneuvers, as well. With the World Wrestling Clubs Cup and the World Championships right around the corner, we figured it was a good idea to set up the coming week of competition with some highlights to set the tone.
2016 Golden Grand Prix Highlights
59 kg final – Kenichiro Fumita (JPN, world no. 11) vs Firuz Tukhtaev (UZB)
You almost feel for Tukhtaev. The 24-year old hasn’t had a ton of chances to show what he could do at the Senior level considering who’s locked down his weight class back at home (2016 Olympic bronze medalist Elmurat Tasmuradov). Tukhtaev performed very well at the Asian Qualifier in March, sort of hanging in there with 2016 Olympic silver medalist Shinobu Ota (JPN) for a moment and coming away with an impressive bronze medal win over Kim Seungak (KOR). With fellow countryman Tasmuradov not yet in peak condition and up a weight at the Grand Prix, it was Tuhktaev who had the more noteworthy tournament which was punctuated by a crisp, technical battle with Mingiyan Semenov (RUS) in one of the few high-scoring bouts of the day.
Fumita looked pretty sharp himself to make the final, beating up Taleh Mammadov (AZE) before staying one step ahead of Kanybek Zohlchubekov (KGZ) in the semis. The final between Fumita and Tukhtaev, two “depth guys” with talent, began to unfold like the chess match everyone expected it would be. Tight pummeling and desperate fights for inside control ruled the first period with Fumita holding onto a one-point lead due to passivity. The second period is when this thing broke apart.
Tukhtaev, who just a few years ago was a decent-sized 50 kilo competitor, has morphed into a rock solid 59’er and when he moves in on something, he moves in hard. Therein lies the rub. Because when he propelled himself to reach into Fumita’s body, it was he who wound up getting launched.
It wasn’t aerial enough for a “five”; Fumita collected a justifiable four instead. But that wouldn’t matter. Fumita didn’t let Tukhtaev escape, despite the Uzebki’s best efforts. The fall came at 4:01, giving Fumita the gold and the biggest win of his career.
66 kg final – Artem Surkov (RUS, world no. 9) vs Shmagi Bolkvadze (GEO, world no. 4)
Another “should have been” classic final that didn’t have a chance to go deep enough to live up to its billing. And by no means was this an upset. Bolkvadze, who took a bronze in Rio, certainly wanted a crack at 2015 World bronze medalist Surkov to further establish himself as more than just a young prospect enjoying a meteoric rise as a Senior. It’s just another show of depth by Russia though, isn’t it? Islambek Alibev (world no. 8) might own a resume that speaks for itself and that’s great. The only problem with that is fans still sleep on Surkov, even after he grabbed that bronze last September in Vegas.
Both athletes were challenged en-route to the final. Bolkvadze had to fight for his life against Nurtay Nurgaliyev (KAZ) in the quarters and Surkov was pushed by Kamran Mammadov (AZE). And those weren’t the two most gripping matches you’ll ever see, either. But that was all the more reason to look forward to the finals once Bolkvadze and Surkov made it there. It felt like something had to give. What wound up giving, however, was Bolkvadze’s shot at a Grand Prix gold.
Look at the score and look at the time. These guys hadn’t even gone full “berzerker mode” yet. Bolkvadze opened up a little too loosely and his feet weren’t set. Surkov instantly answered back with an underhook and collar, really just effortlessly carrying his hips with the motion. Bolkvadze was headed to his back before he even understood exactly what was happening to him. So it’s not necessarily surprising as to who won this bout, but definitely how it happened left an impression. As they say, till next time if there is a next time.
75 kg quarterfinal – Elvin Mursaliyev (AZE, world no. 8) vs Jalgasbay Berdimuratov (UZB)
Mursaliyev wound up running up a tech fall in this match with about a minute left (and of course, later lost to rival Viktor Nemes [SRB, world no. 7] in the 75 kg final). Berdimuratov is young and unproven as a Senior still, so in essence he was pretty much supposed to get hammered here. But to his credit, he didn’t lack in aggression during this tournament, he simply was without the polish necessary to take advantage of his eagerness. Naturally, that is the kind of thing that comes back to bite you.
In the first period, Mursaliyev was awarded a passive point and mostly doing his best to work to the body. Berdimuratov didn’t come to the bout as a mere bystander, though. He was pecking and pecking, and also showed a few decent snap attempts. On more than one occasion, Berdimuratov was solid in moving Mursaliyev off kilt. In fact, the sequence displayed below is the result of a darting duck-under-dump attempt in which he left himself just a little too vulnerable.
It really is a sweet front headlock. Maybe there wasn’t a ton of elevation on it, but if there is anything you hope to see more of with the rule change, front headlocks off a counter scramble has to be up there on the list. In fact, outside of the takedown Mursaliyev scored to end this match, this was the only legitimate offensive maneuver involved. At least it was a good one.
71 kg quarterfinal – Jahid Naijafov (AZE) vs Nurgazy Asangulov (KGZ)
There are two ways to look at this one. Either there is nothing much to say about it, or there is way too much to say about it. Neither Naijafov or Asangulov were seen as legitimate contenders in this event, but it’s the Golden Grand Prix highlights, and this move was definitely too swift to ignore. The gist is simple: Naijafov jumped out to a 6-0 lead via a takedown and a straddle gut. It was very clear right away he was going to march through Asangulov, you just wondered what the method of destruction would look like.
A dynamic five-point throw of any variety is always welcomed, particularly to end a bout, but there are plenty of exceptions to that rule and what Naijafov broke out here is one of them. Naijafov knew he was in control. He knew it was just a matter of time. That he chose to unleash a beautiful slide-pry not only earned him style points, it also got him on this list.
Overhook + cross-pry + level change = four points. It doesn’t matter if this comes at the beginning or end of a match. It actually doesn’t even matter if a wrestler is down big and the yield from this move ends up as mere bookkeeping. Greco Roman wrestling fans like a little sweetness with their brutality, and that is exactly what Naijafov offered up here.
85 kg quarterfinal – Tadeusz Michalik (POL, world no. 13) vs Sultan Beybala Ismayilov (AZE)
Michalik flies under the radar for the most part and that’s a shame. Riding under the shadow of 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and Polish living legend Damian Janikowski is serious business it would seem. The line of demarcation between the two (aside from perhaps perceived technical deficiencies) is that Michalik almost always brings the heat. He’s a brawling thrower when he gets going. If Michalik senses the slightest chance to “run to daylight”, he’s sprinting for the finish. The only time Michalik isn’t enjoyable to watch is when he is being lulled to sleep by boring opponents.
Maybe for US Greco Roman fans, this match delivered a dose of revenge. In the first round of the Golden Grand Prix, Ismayilov defeated popular American Cheney Haight similarly to how Michalik tore down Ismayilov — with a couple of over-under tosses. Against Haight, Ismayilov basically repeated the same move twice and against Michalik, he was the one who got tossed twice. But there was an enhanced measure of elegant violence in how Michalik went about his work.
This is the second of the two throws. Michalik didn’t even have an overhook, it was more that the fluidity and motion of his underhook, hips, and feet were enough to lead the way. Undoubtedly, Michalik coerced some pressure with his right hand, but it wasn’t as if he buried his elbow in. He set the trap, got the position, and immediately went with it. Michalik would eventually reach the final where he would lose to rising Azerbaijani star and 2015 World Junior silver medalist Islam Abbasov (world no. 12), but that doesn’t take any shine away from this performance. Look at the image again. See? Even he was happy with it.