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Otoguro-Punia III set up for 65kg Asian gold; Iranians make 3 of 5 finals

By Ken Marantz

There won't be a crowd to go crazy, but the atmosphere will be electric when Takuto OTOGURO (JPN) and Bajrang PUNIA (IND) clash for the third time in their budding rivalry after both advanced to the 65kg final as the freestyle competition started Saturday at the Asian Championships in Almaty.

Otogoro will defend the title he won a year ago -- by beating Punia before his home crowd in New Dehli -- in the feature match of the five finals to be held in the night session at the empty Baluan Sholak Palace of Culture and Sports.

Ravi KUMAR (IND) will also put the title he won in 2020 on the line at 57kg when he takes on Alireza SARLAK (IRI), one of three Iranians who secured places in the gold-medal matches. Kazakhstan has two finalists, and Korea and Uzbekistan one each.

Few can forget the first Otoguro-Punia showdown, at the 2018 World Championships in Budapest for the gold medal. In a classic that was named that year's UWW Freestyle Match of the Year, Otoguro emerged from a non-stop whirlwind battle with a 16-9 victory.

Otoguro dominated the rematch in New Dehli, winning 10-2, and Punia will seek revenge as the two prep for the ultimate prize at the Tokyo Olympics. Both have already earned their spots in Tokyo, Punia after taking a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships in Nursultan and Otoguro by placing fifth.

On Saturday, neither encountered any trouble on the mat, although Otoguro could not hide his frustration with the constant grabbing of fingers by semifinal opponent Morteza GHIASI CHEKA (IRI).

Otoguro cruised to an 8-2 victory over the Iranian, with two of his points coming on penalties for finger-grabbing and the rest from takedowns off his trademark single-leg attack.

For Otoguro, just back into competition for the first time since last year's tournament is a pleasure in itself.

"It was fun, it's been one year," he said. "Of course, I have wrestled [Punia] several times, so I think it will be an exciting match."

Asked about his condition, he smiled and replied, "I didn't get the coronavirus, so I'm OK."

Punia, limited to just an activity-clock point in the first period, turned it on in the second against Bilguun SARMANDAKH (MGL), spinning behind for a takedown then using grapevine legs and a crossface to turn him over. In the end, he shifted around to the front and secured a fall in 4:42.

Punia arrived in Almaty coming off a victory at last month's Matteo Pellicone tournament in Rome. Now assured of a sixth Asian medal, he will be aiming to make it his third gold.

Kumar, also Tokyo-bound as a 2019 world bronze medalist, earned a chance for back-to-back titles when he recorded a late 10-0 technical fall over an outclassed but valiant Ali ABURUMAILA (PLE) in the semifinals.

"The championship is not at the highest level so I was just trying to be relaxed," Kumar said. "I am wrestling after four months so I was just keeping it simple. It'll all about managing your body.

"The final is against Iran, but I am just focusing on my wrestling, and my style is something I am very confident about."

Kumar built a 5-0 lead going into the second period, but Aburumaila bravely fought on, twice tackling the Indian to his backside but being unable to finish off the moves and gain the points.

Kumar ended the match with a takedown with :08 left on the clock.

Aburumaila, just the fourth Palestinian to ever compete at an Asian Championships, showed he has the moves when he made it to the semifinals with a 7-4 victory over Hyeonsik SONG (KOR).

"I am without any coach here and this is my first international tournament," said Aburumaila, who still has a chance to become Palestine's first-ever Asian medalist. "It is a dream for every wrestler to wrestle at such a stage.

"To reach the semifinal is itself a great thing for me. I hope the level in my country will increase. I need to get better in wrestling if I want to win something. Maybe a coach should also be here to help me."

Sarlak, a 2019 world U-23 bronze medalist, assured himself of a medal after a seven-place finish last year when he scored an early takedown and then three stepouts to defeat Yuto TAKESHITA (JPN) 5-1 in the other semfinal.

"You have to be very careful about wrestling Japan wrestlers in the lightweight categories," Sarlak said. "They have high speed and agility. Thank God I was able to beat him."

At 79kg, 2020 bronze medalist Ali SAVADKOUHI (IRI) advanced to the final with an 8-2 victory over Galymzhan USSERBAYEV (KAZ). He will face 2018 Asian Games bronze medalist Byungmin GONG (KOR), who got a stepout point with :37 left clinch a 5-5 victory on criteria over Narsingh YADAV (IND).

"I hope with the prayers of my people I can win gold here," said Savadkouhi, the 2019 Asian U-23 champion. "I had to wrestle hard against the Kazakhstan wrestler to reach the final. So now I  will try to do the same and continue wrestling hard from first minute in the final as well."

Savadkouhi made it to the semifinals with the most exciting match of the session, a barn-burning 14-10 victory over Saiakbai USUPOV (KGZ) in which he had trailed 8-5 going into the second period.

Another 2020 bronze medalist with a shot at gold is Alisher YERGALI (KAZ), who powered his way to a 6-2 victory at 97kg over Altangerel CHINBAT (MGL) that included five stepouts.

"My wrestling today was very good and I have been planning for this," said Yergali, who secured an Olympic spot by placing fifth at the Nursultan worlds. "Now in the final I want to wrestle till the end because everything is on line here. It's in my hands to win or lose, so I will give everything on the mat to win the gold."

Yergali will have his hands full with Ali SHABANIBENGAR (IRI), a 2018 world U-23 bronze medalist who dominated in his two matches. After a technical fall in the quarterfinals, Shabanibengar needed just 24 seconds to pulverize Satywart KADIAN (IND), getting a quick takedown and reeling off four gut wrenches for a 10-0 rout.

The 70kg final will pit Sirojiddin KHASANOV (UZB) against Syrbaz TALGAT (KAZ). Khasanov, who was fifth in 2019, scored six points in the final 50 seconds to defeat Perman HOMMADOV (TKM) 8-3, while Talgat had a pair of takedowns in a 6-2 win over Seungbong LEE (KOR).

Early in the session, two silver medalists from 2020 were knocked out of the running for gold with losses just minutes apart.

Hikmatullo VOHIDOV (TJK) was knocked out in the 57kg quarterfinals by Takeshita, who countered a throw attempt for 2 points in the second period and added an activity clock point in a 4-1 victory.

At 70kg, Amirhossein HOSSEINI (IRI) saw his bid to improve from silver to gold end in the first round when Karan MOR (IND) scored a takedown in the final 30 seconds to notch a 3-1 win.

Mor subsequently lost in the quarterfinals to Talgat, ending the Iranian's tournament.

Day 5 Results: Freestyle

57kg (12 entries)

Ravi KUMAR (IND) df. Ali ABURUMAILA (PLE) by TF,11-0, 5:23
Alireza SARLAK (IRI) df. Yuto TAKESHITA (JPN), 5-1

65kg (11 entries)
Bajrang PUNIA (IND) df. Bilguun SARMANDAKH (MGL) by Fall, 4:43 (7-0)
Takuto OTOGURO (JPN) df. Morteza GHIASI CHEKA (IRI), 8-2

70kg (10 entries)
Sirojiddin KHASANOV (UZB) df. Perman HOMMADOV (TKM), 8-3
Syrbaz TALGAT (KAZ) df. Seungbong LEE (KOR), 6-2

79kg (11 entries)
Byungmin GONG (KOR) df. Narsingh YADAV (IND), 5-5
Ali SAVADKOUHI (IRI) df. Galymzhan USSERBAYEV (KAZ), 8-2

97kg (11 entries)
Alisher YERGALI (KAZ) df. Altangerel CHINBAT (MGL), 6-2
Ali SHABANIBENGAR (IRI) df. Satywart KADIAN (IND) by TF, 10-0, :24


Yazdani Triumphs as Iran, Kazakhstan Score Double Golds at Asian C’Ships

By Ken Marantz

For superstar Hassan YAZDANI (IRI), the Asian Championships are just a stepping stone in preparing for his ultimate goal of winning a second straight Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. He rocked it anyway.

Hassan YAZDANI (IRI) proved once again he is in a class by himself, schooling Deepak PUNIA (IND) in their long-delayed first encounter to take the 86kg gold medal as the six-day tournament in Almaty concluded Sunday night with the last five finals in freestyle.

Yazdani, who won the gold in his only other Asian Championships appearance in 2018, was never in danger as he outclassed Punia with a 10-0 technical fall -- nearly two years after an inaugural meeting between them in the final at the 2019 World Championships in Nursultan was aborted when the Indian defaulted due to injury.

Prior to Almaty, Yazdani had not competed in an individual tournament since the 2019 worlds, and wanted to get in some mat time prior to the Tokyo Olympics, where he will defend the title he won at Rio 2016.

"After the pandemic started, it was hard to compete," Yazdani said. "I thought I would compete in the World Cup for preparation, but I did not," he said, referring to the Individual World Cup held in December last year in lieu of a World Championships.

"The Asian Championships was a good event and I wanted to see my preparations and now I will continue to prepare for the Olympics as a wrestler who will win the gold medal. Only the gold."

After Punia defaulted at the Nursultan Worlds due to an ankle injury suffered earlier in the tournament, many speculated on what might have been, given Punia's impressive run to the final just a year after winning a silver medal at the World Junior Championships.

But Yazdani is not called "The Greatest" for no reason, and it would take raising to another level to catch him off his game. For Punia, who looked sluggish at times en route to the final in Almaty, this was not the day.

Yazdani basically put on a takedown clinic, scoring four as Punia was able to resist all but one gut wrench, after the third takedown. That gave Yazdani an 8-0 lead, and he ended the match with a great second effort on a takedown attempt.

Punia had wiggled out of a single-leg attempt, but Yazdani pursued him to the edge and gained control to make it 10-0 at 2:53 for his third technical fall in three matches.

Yazdani said he plans to compete again before Tokyo, although he did not specify what events.

"I will participate in some more competitions until the Olympics so that I can keep working on myself and my flaws," Yazdani said. "This is my preparation for the Olympics and to win the gold medal in Tokyo. That is what matters in the end."

Looking at the competition in Tokyo, Yazdani said he is not focusing on any certain opponent.

"All of the competitors are important because all of them are good and everybody comes to win," Yazdani said. "All of them are doing their best to win because it's a dream for all."But my American and Russian competitors are much more difficult, but I take all my competitors serious. I have to make a good program together with my coach and team to beat them."

Not surprisingly, Iran added the team freestyle title to its victory in Greco-Roman earlier in the tournament at the spectator-less Baluan Sholak Palace of Culture and Sports, amassing 179 points after winning three golds and eight medals overall.

India edged Kazakhstan for second place by just two points, 151 to 149, despite having just one gold to the host nation's three. With two silvers each, the main difference came down to four bronzes won by India, against none for Kazakhstan.

In the lone final pitting Iranian and Kazakh wrestlers, Nurkozha KAIPANOV (KAZ) kept the 74kg title in Kazakh hands and earned a second career Asian gold for himself by rallying to a 6-2 victory over Mostafa HOSSEINKHANI (IRI).

"It was a hard final and that is why I am very happy," Kaipanov said. "I was ill during my training. But thanks to my coaches, I could have great preparation for the Asian Championships. Coaches do many things that we athletes do not see."

Kaipanov, the 2019 world silver medalist and Asian champion at 70kg before moving up to the Olympic weight, trailed 2-0 going into the second period, but gained a takedown and an ankle roll to go ahead. He then added a takedown to clinch the victory.

"I did not like how I wrestled today," he said. "Fortunately, I was able to win the gold medal."

Kaipanov's victory followed the gold-medal run at 74kg last year in New Delhi by compatriot Daniar KAISANOV (KAZ), who finished third at the 2019 Nursultan worlds to earn an Olympic spot.

"Kaisanov is my rival and I have never wrestled him before, but in the future we will," Kaipanov said.

Hosseinkhani had to settle for a second straight bronze medal and third in four years, as the the 2016 world bronze medalist still seeks to add to the Asian titles he won in 2014 and 2016.

Iran's other gold came at 92kg, where Kamran GHASEMPOUR (IRI) showed that while he might not be as well-known as Yazdani, he could be just as dominant by winning the gold with a third consecutive technical fall.

Ghasempour, the 2019 world U-23 and Asian champion at 86kg, stormed to a 10-0 victory in 2:09 over 2020 bronze medalist Tsogtgerel MUNKHBAATAR (MGL), whose bid to become Mongolia's first Asian gold medalist in freestyle since 2015 never got off the ground.

Ghasempour overwhelmed Munkhbaatar with four aggressive takedowns, including a driving tackle for 4 points and powerful lift-and-dump with a single leg that ended the match.

"I feel good to win the medal," Ghasempour said. "In the future, I think I will go down a weight category. The final was very good for me because it is a weight category above my original."

Ghasempour said that dropping down a division will not create a national team clash. "Yazdani goes to the Olympics and I go to world championships," he said.

Oleg BOLTIN (KAZ) capped the tournament by winning the final gold on tap for the host country with a dramatic 4-3 victory over Aiaal LAZAREV (KGZ) in the 125kg final.

With the clock ticking down and Boltin trailing 3-2, he missed a golden opportunity to score went he arm-dragged Lazarev by, but couldn't finish it off and get behind.

But with Lazarev still on his knees, Boltin pressed him down to the mat as the Kyrgyzstani reached out and grabbed a leg. From there, Boltin secured a cradle and twisted him over for 2 points with :15 left.

"The final was not easy because my opponent was good and experienced," Boltin said. "I needed to wrestle till the end to win. I wanted to make everyone happy with this medal."

As at 74kg, Boltin kept the 125kg title in Kazakhstan's possession, as it followed the victory last year in New Delhi by Yusup BATIRMURZAEV (KAZ), who clinched an Olympic spot by winning the Asian qualifier held last week in the same venue.

"The 125kg category at the Olympics is very competitive as the level of competitors is very high," Boltin said. "There are a lot of strong wrestlers.

"Yusup won [the Asian gold] last year and I won this year. He is a good wrestler."

Jahongirmirza TUROBOV (UZB) picked up the first gold of the night when he roared back from four points down to defeat Adlan ASKAROV (KAZ) 14-9 in the 61kg final.

"I had good preparation and I was ready to wrestle anyone," Turobov said. "I always believed that I would be the champion even before coming here. The opponent in the final was stronger than me, but I had really good preparation and I am actually the champion and go back as one."

Turobov, a 2017 Asian junior champion, erased a 6-2 deficit in the second period when he scored a takedown and a pair of 2-point tilts to take a lead that he never surrendered against Askarov, a world U-23 silver medalist and junior bronze medalist in 2019.

Even without a crowd in the stands, Turobov said he felt pressure facing a Kazakh wrestler in Almaty as he won what he called the biggest medal of his career. Now he is aiming higher.

"I want to be the world champion and go to the next Olympics and take a gold medal," he said.

Iraq ends three-decade medal drought

In the bronze-medal matches, Mustafa AL OBAIDI (IRQ) became the first Iraqi since 1987 to win an Asian medal and the fourth overall when he notched a stunning and creative victory by fall at 86kg over Hayato ISHIGURO (JPN).

Ishiguro, a 2018 world junior champion, opened the scoring with a stepout, and seemed to be in no danger when he stopped a tackle attempt by Al Obaidi. But the Iraqi locked onto Ishiguro's arms, twisted him over and, with his back to the Japanese's chest, pressed him down for a fall in 1:06.

Just as odd was what happened moments later as Al Obaidi celebrated his historic victory. After raising a fist, he suddenly went from ecstasy to agony and dropped to the mat, clutching his left hamstring in pain. He had to be carried off the mat, but was able to walk on his own for the medal ceremony.

Rio 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Ikhtiyor NAVRUZOV (UZB) earned his fifth career Asian medal dating back to 2010 with a workmanlike 5-0 victory over Atamyrat CHARLYYEV (TKM) at 74kg.

Navruzov, the Asian champion at 70kg in 2018, had lost a close 5-2 decision to Hosseinkhani in his opening match. He said he is aiming at getting back to the Olympics, after compatriot Bekzod ABDURAKHMONOV (UZB) secured a Tokyo spot for Uzbekistan at last week's Asian Olympic qualifier.

"I have been off the mat for some time because of COVID," Navruzov said. "But I have been training now and will wrestle at 74kg. I will also have a trial with Bekzod to decide who goes to the Olympics."

Sanjeet KUNDU (IND), who placed third at the 2019 world U-23 in Greco-Roman, earned his first senior freestyle medal by holding on for an 11-8 win over Rustam SHODIEV (UZB) at 92kg. Kundu had led 11-2 with just over two minutes left.

A silver medalist last year, Khuderbulga DORJKHAND (MGL) had to settle for bronze this time after rolling to a 10-0 technical fall over Amirjon NUTFULLAEV (UZB) at 125kg. It is the sixth career Asian medal for Dorjkhand, who won his lone title in 2014.

Korea won two bronze medals through Gwanuk KIM (KOR) at 86kg and Hyeokbeom GWON (KOR) at 92kg. The other bronzes were won by: Shoya SHIMAE (JPN) and Ikromzhon KHADZHIMURODOV (KGZ) at 61kg, Sumiyabazar ZANDANBUD (MGL) at 74kg, and Amin TAHERI (IRI) at 125kg.

Day 6 Results Freestyle


61kg (9 entries)
GOLD - Jahongirmirza TUROBOV (UZB) df. Adlan ASKAROV (KAZ), 14-9
BRONZE - Shoya SHIMAE (JPN) df. Sunggwon KIM (KOR), 5-1
BRONZE - Ikromzhon KHADZHIMURODOV (KGZ) df. Ravinder DAHIYA (IND) by TF, 14-4,

74kg (13 entries)
GOLD - Nurkozha KAIPANOV (KAZ) df. Mostafa HOSSEINKHANI (IRI), 6-2
BRONZE - Sumiyabazar ZANDANBUD (MGL) df. Mansur SYRGAK UULU (KGZ), 4-1
BRONZE - Ikhtiyor NAVRUZOV (UZB) df. Atamyrat CHARLYYEV (TKM), 5-0

86kg (11 entries)
GOLD - Hassan YAZDANI (IRI) df. Deepak PUNIA (IND) by TF, 10-0, 2:53
BRONZE - Mustafa AL OBAIDI (IRQ) df. Hayato ISHIGURO (JPN) by Fall, 1:07 (2-1)
BRONZE - Gwanuk KIM (KOR) df. Bakhodur KODIROV (TJK) by TF, 10-0, 2:09

92kg (9 entries)
GOLD - Kamran GHASEMPOUR (IRI) df. Tsogtgerel MUNKHBAATAR (MGL) by TF, 10-0,
BRONZE - Hyeokbeom GWON (KOR) df. Elkhan ASSADOV (KAZ), 1-1
BRONZE - Sanjeet KUNDU (IND) df. Rustam SHODIEV (UZB), 11-8

125kg (11 entries)
GOLD - Oleg BOLTIN (KAZ) df. Aiaal LAZAREV (KGZ), 4-3
BRONZE - Amin TAHERI (IRI) df. Donghwan KIM (KOR) by Fall, 2:28 (10-0)
BRONZE - Khuderbulga DORJKHAND (MGL) df. Amirjon NUTFULLAEV (UZB) by TF, 10-0,