After a grueling series against Yianni Diakomihalis, Zain Retherford is going to Kazakhstan with the hope of winning his first world medal. Retherford was a cadet world champion in 2012, but went 1-1 in his first senior world championships in 2017. He will compete on Thursday, September 19. If he advances to the medal matches, he would wrestle again the following day. The event will be live on Track Wrestling in the United States, but keep in mind that Nur-Sultan is ten hours ahead of the eastern US.
Retherford will not only be seeking his first world medal, but he will also be looking to qualify for the American Olympic Team at 65 kg for Tokyo in 2020. In order to do this, he needs to place in the top six. Since the World Championships have two bronze medal matches, Retherford will need to advance to a bronze medal match to qualify for the games. To wrestle for a medal, he is going to have to navigate arguably the toughest weight in the tournament from an unseeded position.
Since 65 kg is an Olympic weight, every country is throwing their best competitor in an attempt to qualify them for the Tokyo games. It's always difficult to win a world medal, but to do so against a field stocked with as many talented wrestlers as there are this is going to be really tough. To make matters worse, UWW has no idea how to balance a bracket, and with 46 wrestlers registered for the 65 kg bracket, they are going to put 16 wrestlers on the top side of the bracket with the one-seed and 30 wrestlers on the bottom side of the bracket with the two-seed. I would be remiss to not say how unbelievably stupid it is that UWW can't just do pigtails to get the bracket down to 32 and keep it even on both sides.
Instead of ranting anymore though, here are the top four seeds:
- Bajrang Punia (India) - 2018 World silver medalist
- Takuto Otoguro (Japan) - 2018 World gold medalist
- Selahattin Kilicsallayan (Turkey) - 2019 Euro bronze medalist
- Sayatbek Okassov (Kazakhstan) - 2019 Asian silver medalist
The top-four seeds at this weight are a bit misleading as Kilicsallayan and Okassov are not considered contenders, but they've racked up the ranking points that UWW has put in place for seeding. These guys could make it to a bronze medal match, but that's probably it.
Bajrang Punia and Takuto Otoguro are the returning finalists, and are very difficult to beat. Punia is probably one of the very few wrestlers in this field who can match Zain's pace and gas tank. He does not have the most stout leg defense, but he's an incredible wrestler. Although, he was defeated by Yianni Diakomihalis at Beat The Streets, but Punia is an incredible offensive wrestler.
Otoguro has dealt with a knee injury this year, and suffered a big 15-5 technical fall loss to 2016 Olympic silver medalist Rei Higuchi. However, in my mind, he's still the favorite to repeat as World Champion as long as he is healthy. He's 20 years old and already arguably the best wrestler on the planet at this weight class. He's so quick on his feet and can score at will. He put up an absurd 67 points at last year's championships, 20 points more than David Taylor.
There's also a number of other tremendous wrestlers in this field. Vlademir Khinchegashvili (Georgia) is an Olympic champion, and three-time World Champion. Haji Aliyev (Azerbaijan) is a three-time World Champion and an Olympic bronze medalist. Gadzhimurad Rashidov (Russia) is a two-time world medalist, including a silver medal last year at 61 kg. Rashidov is so good that he's keeping Akhmed Chakaev, a 2018 world bronze medalist and 2019 European Games bronze medalist at 65 kg out of the Russian team. There's also two-time world medalist Alejandro Valdes Tobier (Cuba) who always seems to have close matches no matter who he wrestles.
There are other dark horses out there like No. 7 Tulgur Tulma Ochir (Mongolia), who finished seventh at the 2018 World Championships. Another name to watch is Hor Ogannesian (Ukraine) who lost to Aliyev 4-4 at the European Games semifinals before winning a bronze medal. Izmail Musukaev (Hungary) is coming off a bronze medal at the Yasar Dogu, with his lone loss to Yianni by disqualification. Musukaev was up 9-0 at one point but Yianni's gas tank won out and he was cautioned out. There's a lot of really good wrestlers who are not going to medal, and there will also be some that will need to qualify their countries for the Olympics another way.
Of the favorites in the field, Retherford has wrestled Rashidov, who he lost to 4-3 at the 2019 Yarygin Grand Prix in the opening round. Retherford had a 3-1 lead after the first period, but Rashidov was able to come back for the victory. Retherford has not wrestled Punia, Otoguro, Khinchegashvili, Aliyev or Tobier.
Also entered in this tournament is former Michigan wrestler Malik Amine (San Marino). Many will remember when Amine got very aggressive and physical against Retherford in a match at Michigan in the 2017-18 season. Retherford came away with the pin on that day. There's also David Habat (Slovenia), who Retherford beat 10-0 at the 2017 World Championships.
Retherford will not enter this tournament as a gold medal favorite, but with his gas tank, defense, re-attacks and top game, he can be a very dangerous opponent. Depending on Zain's draw, he's going to have a chance to get a medal in Nur-Sultan. Ideally, he will end up getting drawn top side where there's less of a chance he can end up with a tougher road. It also gets him closer to Punia, a better match-up for him than Otoguro.
Getting a medal would be huge for Retherford, obviously, as it would not only be Team USA's first at this weight since 2006, but it would also mean he receives a bye to the f finals of the Olympic Team Trials. Missing out on such a grueling tournament that is likely going to include Yianni Diakomihalis, Jordan Oliver, and 2016 Olympian Frank Molinaro could greatly increase Zain's chances of making it to Tokyo next year.