“Before reading I just want to say I cannot write well enough to give justice to how intense and crazy the day I wrestled was. Take what I wrote about the riots and multiply it by 100, the last one was a face to face showdown that lasted more than an hour with riot police holding AK-47s. You can get an idea how it was if you watch the match at the Russian Nationals from 2008 when Ketoev beat Sajidov.
This past weekend I wrestled in a tournament about a mile away from where I am living. I have been doing two a days to get ready for this tournament and I passed up going to Armenia because the coach told me the competition would be better in Vladikavkaz. I was really excited to wrestle in the city I have been training in and to finally wrestle well. The day I weighed in I woke up light and had a good breakfast. I went to watch the weights that competed that day and check out the venue, I had previously wrestled here for the World Cup in 2008. As I was leaving, I asked the doctor who is at our practices everyday and who speaks great English when and where the weigh ins will be. She told me 3pm on the other side of the arena. This was a bit of a problem for me, it was 1:45pm and the coach told me to sauna at 2pm then weigh in at 5pm. He was confused because the day before weigh ins where at 5pm. I had to really hustle to get back to the dorm, lose 4 pounds, call a cab, and get back to the arena. I ended up being 15 mins late to weigh ins, but that did not matter since there were 44 guys in my weight and there was still a line waiting to get to the scale. I was a little nervous since I had not checked my weight but I was about a half pound under. The rest of the day I relaxed, had some good food, and watched the finals of the first day.
The morning of the tournament I was excited and ready to go. I haven’t felt this good at 84kg in almost two years. I warmed up with a wrestler I have been training with, he was on the other side of the bracket from me. We drilled for about 5 minutes then just started wrestling live. We were not going 100% but it was hard enough to get our bodies ready and our lungs burning, we did this for almost 20 minutes. Afterwards I stretched and took off my wrestling shoes since I was the 18th match on the mat that 84kg was assigned to. There was no bout number on the scoreboard so I was a little worried as to when I should put my shoes back on to start getting ready. The coach was sitting at the head table so he made sure I was told when to warm up again.
The first match is always my worst match. I was a little hesitant but as it went on I knew I was in for a good day. The guy I wrestled is from Vladikavkaz but wrestles for Uzbekistan now. He under hooked me at about the one minute mark and tried to push me out of bounds, I whizzer kicked him right to his back. It was a really nice throw and the crowd liked it. When we got back to the center he was losing 3-0 so he shot a double which I countered with getting my legs back then I front body locked him to his back and pinned him. I was happy to get this one out of the way.
In my second match I had to wrestle a guy from Dagestan. I wasn’t worried because I felt great and I knew I could really push the pace if I needed to. The first period was pretty boring and I ended up hitting a really nice double leg for 3 points. After I scored he didn’t do much to try and win the period so I just counted one or two shots and went to my corner. The second period he was running from me the whole time. I was getting frustrated because every time I was about to set up my double he took 3 steps back. We ended up going to the clinch and I lost the ball pull. He wasn’t in the best position to start so I took advantage of it and kick out then just defended the rest of the period for the win.
At this point the matches were starting to come up faster so I had something small to eat and some tea. The Russian love drinking tea during practice and tournaments, they think drinking water is very bad for you while working out. I had about half an hour before I was going to wrestle my next match, but it ended up being almost an hour since a fight broke out between two heavyweight wrestlers. The wrestler who won the match on a last minute take was 2008 Olympic Silver medalist Bakhtiyar Akhmedov, and he is from Dagestan. The wrestler who lost trains at the CSKA club in Moscow but is originally from Ossetia, and his name is Soslan Gogloev. The match was really close and the winner of the heavyweights received a car since the tournament is named after Olympic Champion Soslan Andiev who was a heavyweight. This was like a bench clearing brawl in baseball except Ossetia had way more people than Dagestan. If I had to guess, I would say about half the crowd was involved in the fight. I wish I had a camera on me but I was on deck getting ready to wrestle. All the matches stopped for almost a half hour before the security got it under control.
So going into my quarterfinal match I had a little extra rest and I had no idea who I was about to wrestle. After the match the coach told me he was the #3 Russian from last year and he was from Chechnya. I had in my corner all day the Junior World Champ at 84kg coaching me as he was injured and was not wrestling. The first period of my match I gave up a takedown and ended up losing 1-0. I went to the corner and I was instructed to pick it up. So I came out hard and scored an early takedown for 1 point. We exchanged takedown attempts until I countered one of his and scored 2 more points on a body lock. Then in the last few seconds I scored on a go behind of another one of his shots. I ended up winning 4-0. So I was feeling the momentum and was ready for the third period. Right away the guy shot in on me and I shot my legs back and ended up in another front body lock, I know it is surprising that I would end up in my best position. This was the tightest body lock I have had in a long time. I threw him to his back, he bellied out and I still had the lock so I put him to his back again. I assumed I was winning 4-0 when the ref blew the whistle to stand us up so I didn’t look at the scoreboard. I didn’t want to do anything stupid at this point so I was really defensive and was protecting my legs. My opponent was getting frustrated so he started hitting me in the head with haymakers. The ref blew the whistle and warned him. He did it again and this time open fist punched me in my ear. I stood up after this and he drove me out of bounds. My ear was ringing and I couldn’t hear for a few seconds. They did not warn him this time and the ref on the mat called for a point. So I looked at the scoreboard and I saw it was 4-2. I have no clue how they gave him 2 points. We had a new start in the middle and again he hit me in the face and shot a high crotch. I tried to scramble out of it but I exposed for 2 points, now since I don’t know where his points came from I think I am losing 4-4. I am guessing they gave him 2 on one of the body locks I hit even though he didn’t even have his hands around my legs. At this point there is only about 15 seconds left in the match when they restarted us. I forced a shot and just as I am about to penetrate he took a shot and we get into a scramble. I kicked him over to his back just enough for 2 points and he bellies out still holding on to my legs as the ref ends the match. This is where everything gets crazy. The ref signals for no points which forces my coach to throw the challenge and the action gets reviewed. Again the mat ref shows 0 points and the judge who is from Chechnya also says 0 points, he also happened to be staying at my dorm. At this point the head official is called to the table by the head coach of Ossetia. The head official finally gives me one point and said when I kicked him over with my legs he exposed his back by going over hand to hand. During all of this my corner coach said something to my competitors coach and walked away.
After they raised my hand the crowd started really cheering and then chanting my name with their Russian accents. The Chechen coach, who was really just another wrestler, became mad and ran towards my corner coach in an attempt to start a fight. This sparked the second bleacher clearing brawl of the day. This one lasted longer than the first which resulted in more security being called in, this time with riot gear on. They had to put the Dagestani and Chechen wrestlers still in the tournament behind the head table so nobody would attack them. This is a rivalry that we Americans cannot comprehend - the different ethnic groups of the area have been fighting for 1000s of years. This makes the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry look like a junior high contest. I was just happy I wasn’t screwed out of winning since the score should never have been what it was.
I did not have much time to rest before the semi finals, after the riots ended they began wrestling again and I was the 3rd match up. I wrestled a guy from Vladikavkaz who was a past Junior European champion and placed 3rd in Yarigin the previous year. He was wrestling good all day scoring a lot of points and being aggressive. When we wrestled he ran from me and won in the clinch the first period. In the second he scored on a nice counter shot to win the match. He ended up losing in the finals to a guy from Dagestan because he was too aggressive and threw himself to his back. I was a lot stronger than he was and I don’t blame him for wrestling me the way he did. He did what it took to win and that is what counts.
My third place match was again against a guy from Dagestan. He frustrated me because he was really short. I also think he was the Russian Energizer Bunny, he just took shot after shot after shot. The first period I won 2-0 off a body lock off of one of his many shots. The second period I scored on an early double leg, but then gave up a takedown to lose 1-1. In the third at about the 1 minute mark I threw him for 3 off his shot but they scored it 3-2 so the rest of the match he took about 10 more shots. I knew I couldn’t get called for fleeing since I was standing in the center of the mat. He just kept shooting before I had anytime to think, which I liked since I was very exhausted from a long day of competing. I tried to get a hold of him with a front headlock, but we were sweaty and I couldn’t keep hold of him. The crowd loved it when I placed 3rd and they again chanted my name. I had many people come up to me to shake my hand and take pictures with them as I walked through the crowd.
I waited to watch the heavyweight finals match. The Olympic silver medalist that sparked the first fight was now going to wrestle another good local heavyweight. The Dagestani won easy. He was showing off a bit and the fans went crazy again for a third riot. This one was not bad since the riot police were already there. When it all ended I took a taxi back to the dorm to eat and shower.
I was happy to finally do well in a good international tournament. I didn’t wrestle the best I could and I am still getting used to the speed at 84kg. When I am finally adjusted my shots will be better and I will not have to rely on scoring off their shots. I am taking a few days off and will begin training again Thursday. I will talk with my coach to see if I will wrestle in December in Krasnodar. At some point I have to leave the country for just one day because of the way their visas work. I am planning to visit Denmark to spend time with my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Copenhagen. When I return it will then be all business getting ready for Yarigin and then the US Open.”
I wish I was able to give a better description of the events that happened on this day. If you don’t know, Russia has won around 44 of the last 50 world championships as a team. Since Russia is the largest country in the world, most American wrestling fans think that wrestling is popular all throughout the country. This is far from true as 99.99% of all the best Russian wrestlers are from the Caucasus Mountain Region in Southern Russia. The whole region is only about the size of Indiana and consists of a handful of republics. The republics that produce the best wrestlers are Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. If you look at a map of Russia there is one highway that you can drive that will take you to the four best wrestling cities in the world. It starts in Vladikavkaz goes through Grozny (Chechnya), Khasavyurt (Dagestan), then ends at the Caspian Sea in Makhachkala (Dagestan).
It is my goal to create an area like this in the USA. I believe with the knowledge gained living there and seeing how they produce world class wrestlers every year that I can accomplish this, it is just going to take some time. Since my retirement in 2011 I have been working with the Senior level athletes and have been training them using all that I learned. I have been fortunate enough to have coached two US Open Champions and if all goes well this time next week I will have my first athlete make the USA World Team. It will not take long before the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club starts producing world and Olympic medals. Now that I have the system up and running at the senior level, I am going to take on two more pieces of the puzzle next year. I wish I could let the information out of the bag, but I will wait for the official press releases to come out. Since I have no ambition to coach at the college level I can give you a hint - the news that we will be coming out soon involves a new youth team and a high school athlete.
Until next week,Andy