Posted: Saturday June 23, 2012 10:02 AM

Russians remain wrestling favorites in London

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For use any time. With AP Photos.

The often overlooked sport of wrestling did its best to grab the spotlight when the United States and Russia staged a highly publicized exhibition in New York's Times Square in June.

The Americans held serve on their home soil, beating their longtime rivals 4-3, but expect a different theme when the action moves to London this summer.

Russia takes wrestling as seriously as any nation in the world and often dominates in the Olympics. The country won three freestyle gold medals in Athens, three more in Beijing and could match that haul again at the London Games.

"For Russian standards, this is probably a lower team than they've had. But make no mistake. They're very, very good,'' U.S. national freestyle coach Zeke Jones said.

Russia's main competition likely will come from Iran, which boasts a promising crop of young wrestlers, along with Azerbaijan and the U.S.

Iran's medal contenders include 2011 world champions Mehdi Taghavi Kermani at 66 kilograms and Reza Yazdani at 96 kg. Hassan Rahimi also could push for gold at 55 kg, especially now that Viktor Lebedev is uncertain for London after he was upset in the recent Russian Nationals.

Azerbaijan has a pair of freestyle gold contenders in Yabrail Hasanov and Sharif Sharifov, along with reigning Greco-Roman champion Ravshan Bayramov at 55 kg.

No country in the world qualified more wrestlers than the United States, which will compete for 17 of the 18 gold medals up for grabs at the ExCel Centre from Aug. 5-12.

But the Americans have just one favorite, Jordan Burroughs, and there's a possibility the U.S. could bring home only one wrestling gold medal for the third straight games.

Burroughs, who won two NCAA titles at Nebraska, made a smooth transition to freestyle wrestling last year and won the world championship in Istanbul. The New Jersey native is the popular pick to win at 74 kg, which could see a world-championship rematch between Burroughs and Iran's Sadegh Goudarzi.

Former Iowa State star Jake Varner, heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev and Pennsylvania native Jake Herbert also are medal contenders, but none of them are expected to bring home the gold.

Jones said one of the strengths of the American team is it's much more experienced than it has been in recent years.

"I just think the expectations of the program are always high,'' he said. "We want to do well. Each guy is capable of winning a gold medal. We've really been able to do everything we need to to be ready.''

Former Michigan State star Franklin Gomez, now wrestling for Puerto Rico, is hoping to get another crack at Russian favorite Besik Kudukhov after losing their gold-medal match in Istanbul.

Perhaps the most stunning result of the recent world championships was Cuban Mijain Lopez losing to Turkey's Riza Kayaalp in the Greco-Roman heavyweight final.

Lopez won gold in Beijing and is about as big of a favorite as there will be in London. If he happens to run into Kayaalp again, it should be among the most compelling matches in London.

On the women's side, Japan figures to dominate much like it did in Athens and Beijing.

Two-time defending gold medalists Saori Yoshida (55kg) and Kaori Icho (63kg) are heavy favorites in their respective weight classes. Yoshida would equal Russian great Aleksandr Karelin's 12 international titles if she wins in London, while Icho is hoping for a third gold to go along with a staggering seven world championships.

Canadian Tonya Verbeek, who's spent much of her career in Yoshida's shadow, will again try to overtake the world's best at 55 kg. Icho's main competition could be Hungary's Marianna Sastin, though the Americans are high on Russian-born Elena Pirozhkova, who grew up in Greenfield, Mass.

Japan might also take gold at 48 kg, with six-time world champion Hitomi Obara Sakamoto competing in her first Olympics.

None of the Russian female wrestlers are favored to win. But Russia is still expected to fly back from London with more wrestling medals than anyone else.

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Medal projections:

Men

Freestyle

55kg

Gold: Hassan Rahimi, Iran

Silver: Radoslav Vellikov Marinov, Bulgaria

Bronze: Daulet Niyazbekow, Kazakhstan; Mihan Jaburyan, Armenia

60kg

Gold: Besik Kudukhov, Russia

Silver: Franklin Gomez, Puerto Rico

Bronze: Dauren Zhumgaziev, Kazakhstan; Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez, Cuba

66kg

Gold: Mehdi Taghavi, Iran

Silver: Yabrail Hasanov, Azerbaijan

Bronze: Ali Shabanov, Belarus; Sushil Kumar, India

74kg

Gold: Jordan Burroughs, United States

Silver: Davit Khutsishvili, Georgia

Bronze: Ashraf Aliev, Azerbaijan; Sadegh Goudarzi, Iran

84kg

Gold: Sharif Sharifov, Azerbaijan

Silver: Ehsan Lashgari, Iran

Bronze: Ibragim Aldatov, Ukraine; Dato Marsagishvili, Georgia

96kg

Gold: Reza Yazdani, Iran

Silver: Serhat Balci, Turkey

Bronze: Khetag Gazumov, Azerbaijan; Jake Varner, United States

120kg

Gold: Beylal Makhov, Russia

Silver: Aleksey Shemarov, Belarus

Bronze: Tervel Dlagnev, United States; Chuluunbat Jargalsaikhan, Mongolia

Greco-Roman

55kg

Gold: Ravshan Bayramov, Azerbaijan

Silver: Hamid Soryan, Iran

Bronze: Gyu-Jin Choi, Korea; Elbek Tazhyiev, Belarus

60kg

Gold: Omid Noroozi, Iran

Silver: Almat Kebispayev, Kazakhstan

Bronze: Zaur Kuramagomedov, Russia; Ivo Angelov, Bulgaria

66kg

Gold: Manuchar Tskhadia, Georgia

Silver: Saeid Mourad Abdvali, Iran

Bronze: Justin Lester, United States; Steeve Guenot, France

74kg

Gold: Roman Vlasov, Russia

Silver: Selcuk Cebi, Turkey

Bronze: Arsen Julfalakyan, Armenia; Neven Zugaj, Croatia

84kg

Gold: Damian Janikowski, Poland

Silver: Almin Selimov, Belarus

Bronze: Alan Khugaev, Russia; Rami Hietaniemi, Finland

96kg

Gold: Amir Aliakbari, Iran

Silver: Cenk Ildem, Turkey

Bronze: Jimmy Lidberg, Sweden; Mohamad Abd El Fatah, Egypt

120kg

Gold: Mijain Lopez, Cuba

Silver: Nurmakhan Tinaliev, Kazakhstan

Bronze: Riza Kayaalp, Turkey; Dremiel Byers, United States

Women

Freestyle

48kg

Gold: Carol Huynh, Canada

Silver: Hitomi Obara Sakamoto, Japan

Bronze: Clarissa Chun, United States, Maria Stadnyk, Azerbaijan

55kg

Gold: Saori Yoshida, Japan

Silver: Ida-Theres Nerell, Sweden

Bronze: Tonya Verbeek, Canada, Kum-Ok Han, North Korea

63kg

Gold: Kaori Icho, Japan

Silver: Henna Johansson, Sweden

Bronze: Elena Pirozhkova, United States, Marianna Sastin, Hungary

72kg

Gold: Stanka Zlateva Hristova, Bulgaria

Silver: Ekaterina Bukina, Russia

Bronze: Vasilisa Marzaliuk, Belarus; Jiao Wang, China

 
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