“So I finished wrestling in my second tournament in 2 weeks. I am not sure if it is because I am 30 now or because of the crazy travel I had last week but I did not feel right when I was wrestling this weekend. I was very slow and very weak. I wrestled a tough wrestler who won the tournament but I lost 6-0 3-0 and I am not that bad of a wrestler.”
Looking back, it was probably not the best idea to travel to Yakutsk the week before one of the toughest tournaments in the world. The wrestler I alluded to above was Abdusalam Gadisov, whom I am told by many in Russia has the best technique in the country. It makes me wonder if he will ever break through at the world level. He is a great man off the mat and I always hope he does well, just not when he wrestlers an American. The tournament in Chechnya is one of the top tournaments in the world, drawing competitors from all the nearby republics. The republics in Southern Russia known as the Caucasus Region is the hotbed of the Russian Freestyle program. I believe this area produces more world class talent than any other area in the world, regardless of which talent we’re talking about. All the best athletes from Chechnya, Dagestan and North Ossetia are enticed to participate in this tournament by the large amount of cash one can receive on the award stand. The winner of this event, which to this day USA Wrestling has yet to have a champion, is paid $20,000 and receives a gold medal with more gold in it than an Olympic medal. The year previous to this tournament, I placed 5th at 96kg. Being the only American to make the voyage, Ramzan Kadyrov the president of Chechnya presented me with one of the gold medals as a gift for competing in his event. He thanked me for making the trip and for being brave enough to make it alone with no coaches or fellow athletes. I lost to his favorite Chechen wrestler in the bronze medal match Anzor Boltukaev in a very closely contested bout. Anzor was Russia’s representative at the World Championships this year where he placed 3rd. We wrestled each other a few times, the first was at the Yarigin Tournament in 2007 where he beat me first round then lost to Georgi Ketoev in the finals, I ended up 3rd beating Anzor Urishiv. Coincidentally, the blog I wrote last week about my limo ride in Nalchik occurred the week after I beat Urishiv at the Yarigin and in the dual I beat him for the second time. To this day I think I am the only American to figure him out and I did it in his home town.
“I knew what I was getting myself into beforehand and that it was going to be a tough challenge, so I went at it with all that I had. In the past years when I did my best I wrestled a lot of matches early in the season like I am trying to do right now.”
For me it was very important to test myself early in the year to see where I was at compared to my competition. I would use the time between the New York Athletic Club tournament in November and the start of the winter tour season at the end of January to rest, recover and work on the areas I was struggling in. Testing yourself is a great measure to gauge where you are, but the most important time is immediately following big competitions to work on areas in your wrestling that others are exposing as weaknesses. My best asset as a competitor was my ability to be honest with myself, I knew my weakness in greater depth than anyone else on the plant and I was able to mask them and turn them into advantages for me. Wrestling is physical chess and at the highest level everyone is strong, athletic, fast, and knows all the highest percentage moves inside and out. At this point it becomes a mental game and a battle of will.
“In 2007 the year before I made the Olympic team, I came home for a week after being in Azerbaijan at the world championships where I was a training partner. When the week was over, I went back to Europe and wrestled in a tournament in Belarus and placed 2nd (the guy who beat me in the finals beat me this weekend in my second match). After Belarus, I was supposed to connect in NYC for two nights, but there was a mistake in my travel and I went to Ann Arbor for about 6 hours. I then flew to NYC for less than 24 hours to attend a banquet at the NYAC for being in the Pan Am Games and placing 2nd. After the quick stay in NYC I flew to Arizona to wrestle in the Sunkist Kids tournament and lost to Herbert in the semi finals, I eventually finished 3rd. I stayed with my brother for another 2 days since he was living in Phoenix which allowed me to stay on the West coast before flying to Vancouver to wrestle in the Clansman. I was so busy up to this point that I didn’t know which day I wrestled on at the Clansman. I thought I was getting there the day before weigh-ins but I arrived there the day of weigh-ins so I had to wrestle up at 96kg placing 3rd. At this point I was getting frustrated by placing at all these events but not winning them, a trend that dated back to the World Team trials where I lost to Joe Williams in three matches. From Vancouver, I flew back to Ann Arbor for a few days before heading to NYC to wrestle in a dual meet against a Russian team. I wrestled the dual and won, but I tweaked my knee and did not wrestle the tournament, the guy I beat in the dual ended up winning”
I knew I was doing everything right and I was proving that I was one of the top athletes in the world by consistently placing at high level international events. Between 2006-2009 there were only a couple of tournaments that I entered and did not place or wrestle for a medal. Looking back, I was never able to find the success at the World Championships or Olympics. My take on this would be my lack of focus on the process of preparation. I was a competitor and always put it on the line, but at some point you have to grow and mature as a wrestler. Constant competition inherently forces you to stay in your comfort zone since there is never enough time to work on the necessary intricacies it takes to win at the highest level. The difference between winning the gold medal and losing in the last second during a first round bout can be such a small fraction that it is almost impossible to notice with the naked eye. Focusing on the process and making sure you have covered all the most important areas that you will see in a match is the only way to get better. More competition is not the answer as it is only a test in which you use the results to go back and make personal improvements.
“I then stayed in NYC for a few days with Ryan Churella, Damion Hahn, and Clint Wattenberg the four of us were able to go to the original Benihana‘s for a free meal and meet the owner Rocky Aoki, a Japanese wrestler who was a member of the NYAC. We flew to Nice, France and finally after all the travel I won a tournament. In the semi finals I beat Clint and in the finals I beat Soslan Ktsoev the Russian 84kg wrestler who was 3rd in the world this year, I beat him in the finals 6-1 6-0. In his semi final match he beat Temryzov of Azerbaijan the same guy he beat in the quarterfinals of the worlds so it was a pretty big win for me.”
Soslan Ktsoev is a good friend of mine and I have been able to compete against him in a tournament setting and in practice. Due to style match ups I was always able to come away on the positive side of our engagements every time. I was really looking forward to training with him full time at our club Spartak, but after his success at the World Championships in 2010 he was recruited to move to Moscow. He ended leaving Vladikavkaz and moved to Moscow, I believed he was picked up by CSKA a top team in the capital city of Russia. Just like many places in the USA funding is limited and even though North Ossetia and specifically Vladikavkaz was probably the best place for him to train in order to keep improving and make more Russian teams, sometimes we as athletes have to chase the money when we can in order to set ourselves and families up for the long term.
“I am confident that what I am doing is right, but for now I am excited to train and not worry about wrestling in a tournament next week. I want to get better and then in November I will be wrestling at a tournament here in Vladikavkaz. This will be a very tough tournament and I know I can win the whole thing. I will have already been training for 2 months at my new weight and I know I will feel better than I did this past weekend.
I wish American wrestling fans can get a better understanding for how hard freestyle wrestling is and how big of a deal it is over here. This past weekend was probably just as tough as the world championships at my weight class if not tougher. I mean the world champion from this year lost 9-0 4-0 in the first round, then his guy lost the second round and he was out of the tournament. The President of Chechnya was there and I am pretty sure that half the people in the stands watching were part of his private security because everyone had a pistol sticking out of their jeans. Just to show again how good the tournament was the 60kg world silver medalist from Ukraine this year took second at this tournament and I am not sure the guy he lost to is even in the top 3 in Russia. Since I am not getting to wrestle right away I will be able to bring you more stuff about the way we practice here and I again will try and upload some pictures of where I am staying and the gym I am wrestling at since I will have some more time.”
Words still can’t describe how popular and important wrestling is to the Caucasus region of Russia. They have a long history of producing the best wrestlers on the planet due to their “system” they train under. I was told that the Russian training system was created in the 1940s and by the early 1950s they had their first world champion. They have continued to use the same system since this time no matter how the rules changed. At the time I didn’t understand why the system worked, I just accepted that they had the best way to train for wrestling based on proven results. Since this time I have been able to study all the different phases of training and methods used during the to understand how each moving part works together to get athletes in the best physical shape while still allowing for a culture of learning and individuality in technique and tactics. I will get into this more in the weeks to come as I begin to focus on the process instead of competing.