The World Trembles as Dominik Etlinger Prepares for a Breakthrough

dominik etlinger interview
Dominik Etlinger -- Photo: Marion Stein

Just before he left for a European tour last year, RaVaughn Perkins (77 kg, NYAC) said, “he’s always tough and I don’t see why he doesn’t have a medal yet at Seniors.” And then this past fall, Nick Tarpley (67 kg, NYAC) specifically cited the athlete as a premier name with whom he trained during his extended stay overseas.

That “premier name” in question is Dominik Etlinger (67 kg, CRO), who after earning a pair of Junior medals near a decade ago quickly established himself as a major force throughout a Senior career that is now entering its eighth year. But it is a career, as Perkins pointed out in the winter of ’19, that is still without a Senior medal.

Could it be that the upcoming Olympiad is where Etlinger finally reaches the podium?

He sure seems to think so. So do plenty of others.

Etlinger is widely acknowledged as a top international athlete. Standing 5’5, his squat, powerful frame is just right for delivering nonstop punishment that causes opponents to start second-guessing their chosen vocation. He was like this at Juniors even before he developed into a full-fledged human assault weapon. When the whistle blows, the objective becomes clear: a breaking. But if even that does not come to fruition, Etlinger is more than happy to assume par terre top. It can be quite the sight to see. The word would be “sinister”. Etlinger’s shortened wingspan is never more advantageous than when he is applying an absurd amount of pressure around the ribcage, resulting in groans loud enough to be heard on video.

The physical tools at his disposal, in conjunction with the years spent completely committed to competition, have delivered Etlinger a cavalcade of what are defined as “signature wins”, including a pair at the expense of three-time World champ Frank Staebler (GER), whom he refers to as a “mental monster”. They are also responsible for affixing a very large target on his back leading into every major tournament, Worlds or no Worlds.

Respect comes with a price. Etlinger, 28, has been more than willing to pay his dues. And almost all of the capital plunked down over the past quad (and prior) occurred at 71/72 kilograms. A non-Olympic weight crammed with wrestlers who could compete at 77 but are just a touch small; or could drop to 67, but are maybe a touch too big. What do you get with that? What you get is a whole lot of hardened maniacs trying to fit in and bide their time until the Olympic Year hits, which is exactly the position in which Etlinger currently finds himself. As you might have guessed, he is in good company.

So in January, Etlinger returned to the 67-kilogram category for Denmark’s Thor Masters — automatic news around these parts since he hadn’t wrestled below 71 since ’16. Given this season’s implications, Etlinger jumping down into an Olympic weight was not to have been met with much surprise. However, the manner in which he won the tournament raised some eyebrows.


Because he wrecked the joint.

In a performance that put the entire weight class on notice, Etlinger racked up six wins and four tech falls — with two of those superiors coming against ’17 World silver Mateusz Bernatek (POL) and ’18 World bronze Gevorg Sahakyan (POL), respectively — en-route to gold. The timing of the triumph mattered just as much as the notable names who were vanquished. With eight weeks to go until the European Olympic Games Qualifier, Etlinger’s showing in Denmark was a huge first step. He hadn’t depleted all the way; Thor Masters offered a two-kilo allowance. But considering that he hadn’t competed that light in four years — and the fact he basically ran over the field — his confidence naturally boomed.

A month later, Etlinger placed fifth at the European Championships. He went 72 in Rome instead of 67. It was a strategic call. Etlinger and his coaches felt it was a good idea to save valuable energy for the impending weight cut in March. Of course, everyone knows what happened next. The pandemic swallowed up the remainder of the season, the Olympics are on ice for over a year, and Seniors everywhere are trying like mad to figure out how they can orchestrate periodization plans to best optimize the postponement.

That’s the island Etlinger is now occupying. He paces in expectation. The field at the Euro qualifier will be stacked beyond reasonable belief, and time is both standing still and passing at warped speed. The whole situation has offered its fair share of stress. Yet he couldn’t be more excited. Etlinger knows he’s one of the best. He just can’t wait for the chance to make sure that you know it, too.

5PM Interview with Dominik Etlinger

5PM: How’s it going over there? Are you still nervous about the virus?

Dominik Etlinger: Yeah, but not just because of the virus. I’m not afraid of the virus. I’m still nervous because they canceled the Olympics. My problem is weight-cutting. I’m like 81 (kilograms), sometimes 82. I don’t know how much I weigh (laughs). I was cutting my weight, and then one week before the qualifier, they told us the tournament was canceled.

At that moment, I was maybe 71 or 72 kilograms — which is pretty hard for me. I had already cut ten kilograms. That’s the thing that makes me nervous, because I have to start everything over again. I’m telling you, now I am maybe 80, 81 kilograms. It’s very hard to cut weight, and then after two or three hours, have three or four matches. It is very hard. That pissed me off. But I can’t do anything about it. I have to wait for the situation to start to be normal, wait until next year for the qualifier, and then start over again. Start to cut to 79, 78, all the way until I cut to 67. It’s a very big process, it is very hard, but it is my decision and I want to do it. I believe that if I cut the weight — and not just cut the weight, but stay healthy — I can not only make the Olympics, but win a medal. I believe that.

5PM: Let’s start with Thor (Masters) since that was your return to the Olympic weight. It was the first time you competed in the 60’s in four years and you just about destroyed everyone. You had beaten Bernatek before, but you ran him over at Thor Masters pretty quickly. You also beat Sahakyan very quickly. 

DE: Yeah.

5PM: It was the most dominant performance you have had in a while, and you had cut good weight to do it. It wasn’t like you had just wrestled pretty well, you crushed everyone except Turkey in the final. How was that first weight cut and how did you deal with that weigh-in?

DE: I found out that I had to cut weight for Thor Masters maybe two months before. My coach from Belarus told me I must cut weight if I want to see the Olympics. Because at 77, the guy is Bozo Starcevic, but that’s not the problem. My opinion is that I don’t have as good of a chance at 77 as I do at 67.

That process was very hard for me, but I believe that we don’t know how powerful our brains are. So I started to cut weight two months before, and I started slowly. I started at, what, I don’t know, 80. So first, I cut to 78. I was 78 for four or five days so my body could get used to that weight. That was the process. No one in my federation or on my team believed I could cut the weight.

But after three or four matches (at Thor Masters), it was as if I didn’t cut weight. Like you said, I destroyed everybody. I didn’t cut weight and win one match but then lose the second one. I destroyed everybody. How? I don’t know. I was just myself, I was just Dominik Etlinger. I cut ten, 12 kilos, it doesn’t matter. I believe in myself that I’m the best. I am the strongest in that weight class, and I am the best in that weight class. I don’t care if I cut 12 kilograms. I don’t care if there is Bernatek or Sahakyan. I’m better than them.

The Turkish guy was young but very, very good. I didn’t know that guy. It was the first time I had seen that guy, and he’s so f***ing good (laughs). But I destroyed Bernatek, I destroyed Sahakyan, and I won five matches in two days. I didn’t think the final wouldn’t be easy, but it was harder than I thought it would be. He surprised me, he got up 5-0. But the power of will took me to that victory at Thor Masters.

etlinger, thor masters

After stringing together five wins in a day and a half of competition, Etlinger (blue) found himself down 5-0 to Kadir Kamal (TUR) in the 67-kg final at the 2020 Thor Masters in January. The Croatian stormed back in the second period to eventually pull out the win along with his first gold from the tournament. (Photo: Marion Stein)

5PM: Even though in Budapest (European Qualifier) you would have had to make 67 on the dot, how confident were you after Thor Masters as far as making the weight and also knowing how deep the weight class was going to be? Did you walk away from Thor feeling really good about your chances?

DE: Yeah, I was very confident because I proved to myself that I could do it. I’m happy because of the medal, I am happy because I beat Sahakyan, because I beat Bernatek for a third time, and I won gold. But — the most important thing about Thor Masters to me was that I proved to myself that I can cut weight to 67 and I can have five or six fights without a special problem. My coach was very happy because of that, too. He then advised me to go to the European Championships at 72. Because, that way it would save me for the cut to 67 for Budapest. And now, I’m angry and pissed off because of this thing, this coronavirus. But I proved to myself I could do it and that I am a wrestler for 67 kilograms.

I believe in myself. There are a lot of wrestlers who still need to qualify, especially from Europe. There is (Rasul) Chunyaev, there is (Balint) Korpasi, and throughout the world there are many. There is Ryu (Han-Soo) from Korea… I don’t know, I don’t want to think about it (laughs). But I believe I will do it. I believe I will take a license.

5PM: I wanted to you ask you about the European Championships. I mean, Staebler was back up at 72 also, but I figured that you would go 67. I imagine cutting back down again wasn’t exactly something you would have been happy to do, but did you think about using 67 at the Euros as a test cut for the qualifier?

Dominik Etlinger: I thought a lot about it after Thor Masters. But I talked to my coach, and the first thing he said to me was that he wanted to give a chance to (Danijel) Janecic. Janecic is a very good wrestler, he was fifth at the 2018 World Championships. He wanted to give Danijel Janecic a chance at the European Championships to prove to himself and to the coach that he could qualify. But he lost his first match and I don’t think he counts on Janecic anymore. He will give both qualification tournaments to me. Those were the words from my coach.

I said it was okay. I mean, I’m also good at 72 (laughs). I’m good at 67, but that was the coach’s decision. I told him that if necessary, I would be ready to cut to 67 for the European Championships. I think if you ask me, I would have rather done it one more time because Thor Masters was 69. It is two kilograms, but two kilograms is a very big job for me. It is a two-week process for me to cut those two kilograms and stay healthy, to stay fit. To have good power, strength, and stamina. So it was my coach’s decision to give Janecic the chance at the European Championships. My coach’s opinion was to try to save me from having to cut so many times in one year.

5PM: Okay, you touched on it, but what was your first reaction when you found out the qualifier and the Olympics were going to be postponed for a year?

DE: At first I was very angry and pissed off. Then I was sad. But now, I agree. I can’t do anything. It’s not all about me, it’s the whole world. And for all of the world’s wrestlers and all of the world’s athletes, it is the same situation. I had to accept that. I have accepted it, and I have to look forward. That’s all I can do, and I can’t do anything else anymore.

But I was really sad. Like I said, first of all, 67 kilograms. It’s a very big sacrifice for me, and it is a very big job for me. I didn’t eat the last couple of months before Thor Masters, and then after Thor Masters I ate maybe 1,000 calories a day. And I train twice a day, sometimes three times a day. You can imagine what was in my head at that moment (laughs).

5PM: You are considered one of the best in your weight range in the world. But you have struggled a bit at the World Championships. What is it about the Worlds? What has been stopping you from being able to get on the medal stand at the World Championships?

DE: That is a pretty good and pretty hard question. I really don’t know what has happened to me. Is it some mental block in my head? Is it a bad draw? Something else? I really don’t know. I can say that in every World Championships in which I participated that I was 100% ready. So I can’t say that I was injured or something else. I was 100% ready. But what happened to me in that moment, I don’t know. 2017 and 2018 I didn’t participate at the World Championships — but the rest of them, I don’t know. I can’t lie. I must say that at each Worlds, I had very hard matches. I didn’t have any easy matches.

Last year, I lost against Azerbaijan (Sanan Suleimanov), who just won the European Championships. Before that in ’16, I lost to Azerbaijian again, Hasan Aliyev, who was a World Champion. In 2015, I won three matches and then I lost to (Artem) Surkov and then I lost against Ryu. That was the best I had wrestled at a World Championships. In 2015, I was eighth place. Before that, in 2014 I lost to (Edgaras) Venckaitis, who was third in that World Championships.

That’s it. That’s all my Worlds. I had faced all very strong competitors, but I think that maybe I had some mental block. Is that pressure from me, myself? Or is that pressure from my coach? But I’m a man who doesn’t look in the past. I only look forward and I believe in myself. I am 28-years-old now, and I believe that I am now stronger and better than ever. And I believe these are maybe the best years for wrestlers. I missed a lot of my chances for Worlds, but I will fix that I hope at the next World Championships.

5PM: When it comes to pressure, and we’ll call it pressure for a World-class athlete, how do you deal with it leading to a big event? How do you ignore it? Or harness it to your advantage? 

Dominik Etlinger: When I was younger, it was a very big problem for me because I always have big expectations for myself. Which is normal. But now since I’m older, I can say that I ignore it. Not ignore it and not think about the World Championships or any other championships; just that I give 100% to get fit enough to win a medal at the Worlds, the European Championships, or anything else. I give everything I can, and that’s the most important thing. That is in my head now before big competitions. When I was younger, I created a lot of pressure for myself, which isn’t necessary. Now, I can say that I ignore it because it’s not good — but I tell myself to do everything right. To be fit, to cut weight healthy, to stay healthy, and to earn a medal.

etlinger, 2015 european games

Five years later, they’re all still here: All four of the medalwinners at 66 kg from the ’15 European Games could be big players at the ’21 Tokyo Olympics. (FROM LEFT: Balint Korpasi, silver; Rasul Chunayev, gold; Frank Staebler, bronze; and Dominik Etlinger, bronze. (Photo: Richard Heathcote)

5PM: This is a fun question: do you think there is a problem with refereeing in Greco-Roman?

DE: Yeah. I’m honest, I’m always honest, and I think that is the biggest problem in our sport. Referees, politics, and everything else. And I’m afraid. They already tried to kick us out of the Olympics in 2013. And I’m afraid that if things with the refs and the judges continue, they will kick us from the Olympics. It is normal in every sport that has referees and judges but in wrestling it is a special story. I think it is a very big problem in our sport.

5PM: You have been around a lot of American athletes. Some you know pretty well, like Nick Tarpley. You also know that here, everyone grows up wrestling a different style, folkstyle. It’s in our schools, colleges. 

DE: I tried that folkstyle. In 2006, I was in the US and went to a John Smith wrestling camp. So I know very well that folkstyle.

5PM: Since you actually have up-close experience with folkstyle, and you have wrestled Americans in matches, do you see how it could be a disadvantage for US athletes?

DE: Hmmm, I really don’t know but I would say yes. I believe that, yes. Why? I don’t know, it’s my opinion. I tried folkstyle and I really don’t like it. I mean, it is wrestling, but the rules are definitely not for Olympic wrestling.

dominik etlinger and nick tarpley

Nick Tarpley (right) moved to Croatia just prior to the beginning of the 2016-season and stayed put for almost two years. While overseas, Tarpley often trained alongside Etlinger, whom he refers to as “Kolossal”. (Photo:

5PM: Not counting something like the European Championships, what would you say are the toughest international tournaments each year? You can count the Golden Grand Prix if you want even though it doesn’t happen anymore. 

Domink Etlinger: I mean, the quality is not the same at tournaments every year. But, the Hungarian Grand Prix is one of my favorites and I believe it is one of the hardest each year. And then the Golden Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan. I don’t know why it doesn’t exist. Is it because of money? But I have a medal from that tournament and there were tough wrestlers in Baku. Not anymore, I don’t know why. But the Hungarian Grand Prix, the Golden Grand Prix, and…I don’t know. There is Thor Masters every year and it’s very strong with top wrestlers coming. I don’t know, maybe you have a tournament I forgot (laughs).

5PM: Your own Grand Prix (Zagreb) has gotten really good over the past three years, too. It was always pretty good, but now, especially when it was a “Ranking Series” tournament, it was pretty stacked. But even before that the competition level started to increase. 

DEr: Yeah, especially last year with it being a “Ranking Series” tournament and there were many big names. Like the Korean Kim (Hyeon-Woo), Ryu Han-Soo, and the first and second Turkish teams were there. Bulgarians, and either Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan were there, too. Uzbekistan was there, Aram Vardanyan. So many big names. I believe they put that tournament this year in October, if everything is okay with the coronavirus situation. It might not be as hard as last year because this year it won’t be a ranking tournament, but I believe it will still be very hard and very good.

5PM: You’ve been at this a while, you have Junior medals. When did you start Greco, what attracted you to it, and when did you start competing?

DE: I started when I was ten-years-old. Before that I was a football player, a goalkeeper. The coach for my football team was a wrestler and he noticed that I was very naturally strong, especially my arms. He just gave me advice, Dominik, maybe you want to try wrestling? So I joined wrestling and went with him. He told me, One or two practices and you’ll see if it’s for you or not. That was my beginning. I went to the first practice and I’ve stayed until this day (laughs). When I went to my first practice, the day before was also my last football practice (laughs).

5PM: How does it exactly work for Croatian youth wrestlers? Do they just have tournaments? Are there team versus team dual meets?

DE: For kids they have everything. They have national tournaments, city tournaments, and club tournaments. The kids have the most wrestling tournaments. Maybe 15 every year, Which, I don’t know. Is that smart? That’s a little bit too much. I don’t know why we have those kinds of politics in Croatia, but it’s maybe for kids’ experience. I don’t know.

5PM: They have that problem in America right now, kids getting 80, sometimes 100 matches every year. Then by the time they’re older, they are burnt out and we wonder why. 

DE: It’s too much, you know? We are Croatia, not Russia. We have maybe 1,500 kids wrestling and Russia has one million. And then from our, say, 1,00 kids, maybe 50 kids will stay. And Russia will keep maybe a half million. I think we don’t have very good politics for the kids’ programs in Croatia. But I am here to train and wrestle, not give any advice about that.

5PM: Have you coached at all? 

DE: No, no, I haven’t coached. But right now I am studying coaching in college. One day, when my career is over — which I hope isn’t 31 or 31, I hope to wrestle until I’m 40 — but one day? Yeah, I want to be a wrestling coach. Not for kids, but maybe for Cadet National Team. Then Juniors, and maybe one day the Senior National Team.

5PM: You’ve had some huge wins, we call them “signature wins”. You have beaten Staebler…

DE: Yeah, Staebler, I would say that is a signature win. I’ve beaten Staebler twice.

5PM: I don’t know if you want to count Staebler in this group, but who would you say are some of your favorite athletes to go up against? 

Dominik Etlinger: Against him (laughs). I really respect Staebler, he’s my weight. And he is a f***ing mental monster. He has five golds — three World golds and two European golds. He is really a mental monster. He is really mentally strong. But when I fight against him, he is so f***ing good, but I don’t really understand how that guy has won the Worlds three times. I am sure he doesn’t like to wrestle me, also, because I am very strong and have very good stamina. But I’m telling you, he is such a simple wrestler. He is not like Chunayev, who throws 1,000 throws in one competition. He has one, two, at maximum three things for almost ten years. I’ve known him since we were Juniors. Now he is, I don’t know, 31, and he does the same thing as ten years before.

5PM: Yeah, arm drag, get to the side, hustle you down, and then side lift. 

DE: Yes. Three things. And some coaches think it is very simple to have a tactic for Staebler but obviously it’s not (laughs). I really respect him. I like to wrestle him. I like to wrestle with everyone; but if you were to ask me if I would rather wrestle Staebler, or I don’t know, Chunayev, I would pick Staebler. Because, I don’t like wrestling guys like Chunayev, or the Egyptian (Mohamed) Elsayed. They are technical wrestlers. They are fast, have very good technique. But I like wrestlers such as Staebler who wrestle with power and stamina. Stuff like that.

5PM: Right, so let’s talk about your own style then. Part of it is that you’re so compact. You are 5’5. You’re not 5’8 or 5’9 with long arms and long legs. You have a brawling style and the game seems to be to wear on opponents and then turn them, since that’s a big part of your success. That’s the calling card, what you are known for. Is that the focus? Is it important for you to keep that style against everyone, no matter who it is?

DE: Yeah, because I don’t have any other weapons. I can’t do an arm drag. I mean, I know how to do an arm drag, but it’s not my specialty. In every match, my goal is to use my power and my endurance. Then to get my opponent in par terre, because there I am the strongest in the world. I know you agree with me, because 90% of my wins come from par terre.

5PM: And that is something I wanted to bring up, because sometimes people see shorter wrestlers as though their height is a disadvantage. But for par terre top, no way, except for when short guys go for lifts and then have trouble clearing the legs when they step. For gutwrenches, short, powerful guys I feel like have the advantage because when they lock around the waist, there is almost no room. As soon as they’re locked practically, the other guy can’t breathe. Do you emphasize this during training?

DE: I do that, I don’t know, for maybe the last 15 years. I noticed that can be my specialty, and it is. When I get someone to par terre, I don’t care who it is, I am 100% sure I will turn him a minimum of two times with my gutwrench. So I mean, not every practice. Top is not everything in par terre. Because if you want to get someone in par terre, you have to get a passivity point, a throw, an arm drag, or something like that. But after training, I practice with my teammates and I attack them. No one on my team likes to go to par terre with me (laughs). I don’t know why. But that is my weapon and it always will be.

(Examples of Etlinger’s gut can be seen in the clip below)

5PM: What about par terre defense, bottom? Par terre bottom might be even more important right now in the sport. Do you do anything special for when you practice par terre defense?

DE: Well, nothing special, but I have good teammates who are also good at attacking from par terre. Especially Bozo Starcevic, he has the same gutwrench as I do and we’ve been practicing since we started to train wrestling. I don’t do anything special for my defense. I do believe I can be better at defense, especially against wrestlers who try to lift. But I don’t do anything special for defense after practice. I have a good coach who is always watching me, and I have good training partners. Bozo has a very good attack. I have two or three guys who will try to lift, and that’s what I do.

5PM: As of now, what is your plan for when competition does resume? When do you expect to start ramping up your training during the summer?

DE: My plan is to be ready in case they have a Worlds in the fall. My plan for the last 15, 20 years has been the same. Today, I woke up, ate breakfast, trained, then lunch, and train again. Mentally, I prepare as if there is a competition next week. I am always thinking that way. I prepare as if tomorrow they will tell me that the Hungarian Grand Prix is two weeks from now. This is how I think.

5PM: I know this situation has been very difficult for you with the weight cut, the postponement, etc. But has there been anything good about having this time off, or do you just really miss being able to compete?

Dominik Etlinger: In situations like this I always try to find something good. In this case, maybe I gave my body and my mind a little bit of a break, a little rest. I am the type of athlete who doesn’t like to rest too much. I can’t remember the last time I took two days off in a row. The only positive thing in this situation is that I’ve given my body and my mind a little bit of a break. Nothing else.

Follow Dominik Etlinger on Instagram to keep up with his career and competitive schedule. 

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