Kyle Snyder, the starter for Team USA at 97 kilograms, meets with the media after clinching the UWW Freestyle World Cup for the United States.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — A hero is asked for his gear, but before he gives them away, he asks the kids to wait. Kyle Snyder is only a few minutes removed from clinching the World Cup title for the U.S. men’s freestyle wrestling team, and already, the fans want a piece of history.
“I’ll give you my singlet,” he tells a young kid nearby in the tunnel underneath Carver-Hawkeye Arena, “but let me do this interview first.”
Another kid shouts from the stands up above.
“Can I have your shoes?”
“I need these, man,” he says. “Soon, I’ll give you a pair.”
It's hard to blame them. Moments earlier, Snyder’s 14-3 technical fall victory over Azerbaijan’s Roman Bakirov at 97 kilograms (roughly 213 pounds) clinched the United States’ first UWW Freestyle World Cup title since 2003.
This comes just nine months after his win over Russia’s Abdusalim Sadulaev in the 2017 world championship finals secured Team USA’s first world team title since 1995.
“I feel good,” Snyder said. “He’s pretty good, so it was nice to get tech fall him. It was another opportunity to help seal it up for the United States. I would always pick myself to go out there and wrestle when it comes down to the team.
“We have a lot of good guys, but I feel real confident in my ability to wrestle under those circumstances. It feels good. I believe we were the best team. It’s no surprise to me.”
It was hardly a surprise at all. The United States entered this year’s World Cup as prohibitive favorites, and the odds grew further in their favor as two world powers who were originally slated to come ultimately didn’t show.
Russia and Iran were expected to be the top foreign draws at this year’s competition. Russia finished as the runner-ups to the United States at the 2017 world championships, and Iran, whose fans tend to travel well, had won six straight World Cup titles entering this year. The U.S. had finished behind one or both of them at 10 of the previous 12 World Cups.
But weeks before the event, Iran — who joined the field after Turkey, last year’s fourth-place finisher at the world championships, declined their invitation — pulled out. Rasoul Khadem, President of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, resigned on March 1, and the governing body feuded with its international superiors over host dates for the Greco-Roman World Cups.
Then, two weeks before the start of the competition, Russia ran into visa issues that weren’t resolved in time for their athletes to attend. The United States had hoped Russia would show up so much that their information was still included in the World Cup programs handed out to media and patrons this weekend.
“Our team was poised to do well (even if) Russia and Iran (were here), so that’s a little bit disappointing,” USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender told the Associated Press this week.
“Certainly, in light of the current political situation and the relations between our governments and the drama around what’s going on in our state departments — with their embassy and ours — this was not the year to wait until the last minute to apply.”
The United States put forth perhaps its best team ever, a squad that featured all six medalists from last year’s world championship in addition to a past world champion (Logan Stieber, at 65 kilograms), a 2017 U.S. Open Champion (Kendric Maple, at 61kg) and two of the world’s best young freestyle wrestlers in Kyle Dake (79kg) and David Taylor (86kg).
“That’s one of the things that, yeah, it’s a bummer,” said Jordan Burroughs, a five-time World and Olympic champion for the United States at 74 kilograms, “but I wouldn’t want to come 12 hours to compete against this team of guys that we have anyways.”
As such, the United States mostly steamrolled the competition, winning 31 of 40 matches and outscoring its opponents a combined 300-78. As a team, the U.S. compiled 19 technical falls — more than the next two closest teams (Japan 10, Georgia 7) combined.
“We’re the best team in the world,” said Dake, who went 4-0 and defeated Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov, an Olympic bronze medalist, in the final. “This is the best team that planet Earth has. We’re just going out to put on a show, and we have the firepower.”
After a 3-0 showing in pool competition, Team USA advanced to the Gold Medal match, where they met Azerbaijan, perhaps the only team in the field that had the right combination of talent and depth — three Olympians and six world medalists — to hang with the Americans.
The score was 2-2 after the first four weights. Then came the meat of the United States lineup — Burroughs, then Dake, then Taylor: three guys who used to compete against one another for the same spot until United World Wrestling added two more weights (79kg and 92kg) to increase the lineups on non-Olympic years from eight to 10.
All three wrestlers went 4-0 on the weekend, and against Azerbaijan, they put the United States ahead for good. Burroughs opened with a pin. Dake followed by knocking off Hasanov. Taylor capped the three-match firestorm with a 12-2 technical fall over Aleksander Gostiev, wherein he scored a takedown and a turn at the buzzer to secure the 10-point superiority.
“There’s nothing like a dual meet,” said Taylor, who was a four-time NCAA finalist and two-time champion at Penn State. “Brings me back to my days at Penn State, where every single bonus point makes a difference.”
Azerbaijan took two of the final three weights, but not before Snyder rolled up Bakirov to clinch another international team title for the United States — after which, all manner of confidence spilled in every direction.
“People are, like, ‘Well, this isn’t a real World Cup because Russia and Iran aren’t there,’ ” Burroughs said. “But Azerbaijan is a freaking good team, and they believe they can win and they want to beat us.
“For me, I look at it like this: We’re the best team in the world. People are, like, ‘Without Iran and Russia, they’re the best team.’ No, we’re the best team. We’re the reigning world champions. We’re the team champs.
“If they wanted to win a World Cup, they should’ve prepared and come here to wrestle us, right? We flew all the way out to Iran to get there last year — a 15-hour flight. They should’ve been here this year. We’re the reigning world champs, and we’re looking to do it again in October.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2018 UWW Freestyle World Cup
Gold Medal Match: U.S.A. 6, Azerbaijan 4
- 57kg: Giorgi Edisherashbili (AZE) over Thomas Gilman (USA), 8-7
- 61kg: Kendric Maple (USA) over Afghan Khashalov (AZE), 6-2
- 65kg: Logan Stieber (USA) over Haji Aliyev (AZE), 6-3
- 70kg: Joshgun Azimov (AZE) over James Green (USA), 4-4
- 74kg: Jordan Burroughs (USA) pinned Gasjimurad Omarov (AZE), 3:15
- 79kg: Kyle Dake (USA) over Jabrayil Hasanov (AZE), 5-3
- 86kg: David Taylor (USA) tech fall Aleksander Gostiev (AZE), 12-2
- 92kg: Aslanbek Alborov (AZE) over J'den Cox (USA), 4-4
- 97kg: Kyle Snyder (USA) tech fall Roman Bakirov (AZE), 14-3
- 125kg: Jamaladdin Magomedov (AZE) over Nick Gwiazdowski (USA), 4-3
Third Place Match: Japan 6, Cuba 4
Fifth Place Match: Georgia 6, Mongolia 4
Seventh Place Match: Kazakhstan 10, India 0