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Wrestling World Cup: Team USA tops Iran in epic men's freestyle final; USA women finish fourth

CORALVILLE — The U.S. men's freestyle wrestling team came to Xtream Arena, saw their world-class competition, and conquered them all en route to another World Cup title.

Team USA smoked the field here at United World Wrestling's World Cup competition, blowing through both Mongolia, 7-3, and Georgia, 10-0, during group play on Saturday, then toppling mighty Iran, 6-4, in Sunday night's championship final before a few thousand diehard wrestling fans, mostly clad in red, white and blue.

This is USA Wrestling's 15th men's freestyle World Cup title, tying them with the Soviet Union for the most all-time. The U.S. has now won two of the last three contested World Cups. They won in 2018; the event was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before this recent stretch, they last won in 2003.

The U.S. women's freestyle team, meanwhile, stumbled to a 1-2 record and fourth-place finish behind eventual champion Ukraine, runner-up China, and third-place Mongolia. The USA women's squad went 1-1 on Saturday to advance to Sunday's third-place dual, but Mongolia beat the Americans, 7-3, on Sunday morning.

Some big-picture takeaways from both teams' performances:

U.S. men's freestyle program has some insane depth

The United States qualified for the UWW men's freestyle World Cup after winning the team title at the 2022 world championships in September. The U.S. scored 198 team points behind eight medalists that week, earning them the 1-seed this week. (Iran finished second to earn the 2-seed, followed by third-place Japan.)

But just five wrestlers from the loaded 10-man lineup that dominated at the world championships three months ago opted into competing this weekend, allowing for USA Wrestling's men's freestyle program to flash some depth — and that depth is pretty insane at the moment.

In all, the U.S. went 23-7 in individual matches this weekend, and the five wrestlers who stepped in for the world-teamers who didn't opt in to compete combined to go 13-2 overall. They recorded five wins by technical fall and registered six shutout victories, too.

Both Zahid Valencia (86kg) and Nate Jackson (92kg) went 3-0. Valencia stepped in for Olympic gold medalist David Taylor and recorded two sub-60-second technical falls and outscored his three opponents 26-3, including a 5-3 win over a world silver medalist. Jackson went instead of two-time world champ J'den Cox and thumped both a world bronze medalist and a U23 world champ.

Zane Richards (57kg) and Alec Pantaleo (70kg) both went 2-0 in lieu of Thomas Gilman and Zain Retherford, respectively. In the very first match of the weekend, Richards won 10-0 over a world bronze medalist. In USA's 6-4 win over Iran, Pantaleo won 4-3 over a world silver medalist. And both Nick Suriano (57kg) and Tyler Berger (70kg) pitched in with wins to ensure the U.S. went unbeaten at those weights.

Pretty good!

World Cup offers stiff tests, even for USA's best wrestlers

Of course, a sterling record from the guys normally in reserve roles means the normal A-Team took a few lumps. The five world-teamers who opted to compete this week — Seth Gross (61kg), Yianni Diakomihalis (65kg), Jordan Burroughs (79kg), Kyle Snyder (97kg) and Hayden Zillmer (125kg) — went 10-5.

Add in the fact that both Gross and Snyder went 3-0 (or, really, 2-0, as each also accepted a forfeit), and that means Diakomihalis, Burroughs, and Zillmer went a combined 4-5. Looks rough, but it's also a reminder that the World Cup, like the world championships and other high-level international events, is never easy.

It's not like these guys lost to scrubs, is the point.

Diakomihalis went 1-2 with losses to Mongolia's Tulga Tumur Ochir, a world bronze medalist, and Iran's Rahman Amouzad, the 2022 world champ. Burroughs went 2-1, ending with a 6-6 criteria defeat to Iran's Ali Savadkouhi, a U23 world bronze medalist. Zillmer ran into Mongolia's Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur, a world silver medalist, and Iran's Amirreza Masoumi Vala, a world champ at every age level except Seniors.

Sandwiched between all of that was a bunch of high-level victories, too. Diakomihalis thumped Georgia's Beka Lomtadze, a 2019 world champ and 2016 world silver, via an 11-0 technical fall in just 78 seconds. Burroughs rallied from down 3-0 to win 5-3 over Georgia's Vladimeri Gamkrelidze, a U23 world champ. Zillmer rallied from down 5-0 to win 8-7 over Georgia's Solomon Manashvili, a U23 world silver medalist.

Rahman Amouzadhalili of Iran, right, wrestles Yianni Diakomihalis of the United States at 65 kg during championship finals of the United World Wrestling men's freestyle World Cup on Sunday.
Rahman Amouzadhalili of Iran, right, wrestles Yianni Diakomihalis of the United States at 65 kg during championship finals of the United World Wrestling men's freestyle World Cup on Sunday.

USA wins a World Cup finals thriller over Iran

Sunday's championship dual, between USA and Iran, was as thrilling as it gets when it comes to high-level men's freestyle wrestling.

Seven of the 10 matches were decided by four points or less. Four were decided by one point or criteria. Two Senior world champs, another U23 world champ, plus three more world finalists all lost. The U.S. outscored Iran in total match points, 50-31, thanks largely to Seth Gross's 10-0 win at 61kg and Kyle Snyder's 5-0 win at 97kg, but Iran actually went 3-1 in those four matches decided by one point or criteria.

Each of those wins came in the first six weights, turning a 3-1 USA lead — highlighted by Pantaleo's 4-3 win over Amirmohammad Yazdani, the world silver medalist — into a 3-3 tie with four weights left. Then Valencia beat 2019 world silver medalist Alireza Karimi, 5-3, and Jackson followed by scoring a big 4-pointer in the first period and ultimately prevailed 8-4 over Amirhossein Firouzpour, who won both the U20 and U23 world titles this year.

Then, with a 5-3 team lead, Snyder clinched the dual with a 5-0 win over Kamran Ghasempour, a two-time world champ at 92kg who bumped up with the dual on the line because he wanted to wrestle Snyder, himself a three-time world champ and two-time Olympic finalist. Snyder built a 3-0 lead on a trio of step-outs, then iced the match, and the dual, with a second-period takedown.

"My number one option is 10-zip, USA," said Snyder, who also clinched the title when the U.S. beat Azerbaijan to win the 2018 World Cup at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. "But then my number two option, let me be the closer. I want to be the closer. Sandman. Enter in, put them to sleep."

Members of the United States and Iran wrestling teams pose for a photo together during championship finals of the United World Wrestling men's freestyle World Cup on Sunday.
Members of the United States and Iran wrestling teams pose for a photo together during championship finals of the United World Wrestling men's freestyle World Cup on Sunday.

Tough weekend all-around for U.S. women's freestyle team

USA Wrestling did not send the full women's freestyle A-Team to the World Cup, either, which inspired two similar immediate thoughts.

First, it was a bummer that the full team that won seven medals and took second in the team race at the Senior world championships last September didn't come together for this weekend's two-day event. Given the field that ultimately showed up, they would've been the heavy favorites.

Second, the U.S. women's staff got the opportunity to evaluate their program's current depth — and the results were, uh, up-and-down.

The U.S. women ultimately finished 1-2 and took fourth. They were beat soundly by eventual finalist China, 8-2, in their opener, then rebounded with a strong 6-4 win over the All-World Team, which featured a lineup with four world champs. But on Sunday, USA dropped its bronze-medal dual, 7-3, to a tough Mongolia squad.

"I really liked our fight," said Terry Steiner, USA Wrestling's women's freestyle head coach. "We asked for energy. We asked that they go out there and make people wrestle us. I think we saw a lot of that … their effort was great. Their energy was there. The fight was there."

United States head coach Terry Steiner reacts during the United World Wrestling women's freestyle World Cup on Saturday.
United States head coach Terry Steiner reacts during the United World Wrestling women's freestyle World Cup on Saturday.

Even USA's star women's wrestlers struggled

Only four of the 10-woman lineup that competed in September's world championship competed this weekend:

  • Kayla Miracle, a finalist at 62kg

  • Mallory Velte, bronze medalist at 65 kg

  • Amit Elor, the world champ at 72 kg

  • Dymond Guilford, who went 0-1 at 76 kg

Those four combined for five of the United States' 11 individual wins over the weekend. Add in Jenna Burkert, a 2021 world bronze medalist who went 1-2, and that's six wins.

Even the stars struggled this weekend, which speaks to the overall difficulty of this event. Miracle went 1-2, beating a two-time world champ but losing to another. Velte also finished 1-2, with an emphatic win to help seal USA's victory over the All-World team but a loss to a couple of world silver medalists. Elor wrestled just once, a 5-0 win over China's Qiandegenchagan. Burkert went 1-2, beating one world medalist but losing to two others.

Kayla Miracle of the United States, right, talks with coaches while wrestling at 62 kg during the United World Wrestling women's freestyle World Cup on Saturday.
Kayla Miracle of the United States, right, talks with coaches while wrestling at 62 kg during the United World Wrestling women's freestyle World Cup on Saturday.

USA's women's freestyle depth tested

Here's the good: Instead of Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis at 57 kilos, Alex Hedrick, a U23 world bronze medalist, filled in and won twice, once by forfeit, then in a thrilling come-from-behind 6-4 win. Instead of Tamyra Mensah-Stock, another Olympic gold medalist, Solin Piearcy went 1-1 at 68kg, toughing out a 2-0 win on Sunday and wrestling admirably in a 4-2 loss to Irina Ringaci, a world champion from Moldova.

Here's the not-so-good: Instead of three-time world medalist Sarah Hildebrandt at 50kg, the opportunity went to Erin Golston and Emily Shilson, who went a combined 1-2. Instead of world champ Dom Parrish at 53kg, Iowa's own Felicity Taylor went, but finished 0-2. Instead of Abby Nette at 59kg, Michaela Beck and Lexie Basham combined to go 0-3.

Finally, here are some not-so-good numbers: USA produced an 11-19 individual record overall, and was shut out eight times. The U.S. won just twice by technical fall but lost nine times by technical fall. Even worse, the U.S. women went 3-7 in matches decided by four points or less.

Again, the World Cup, like the world championships and other high-level international events, is literally designed to not be easy. But Steiner was encouraged by, one, what he saw, and two, what he believes his program can learn from this weekend's performance.

"We saw a lot of spirit, but we lost the close matches," said Steiner, a two-time NCAA champ for the Hawkeyes. "We have to win the close ones. That's part of winning consistently at this level. We didn't do that."

Solin Piearcy of the United States, left, celebrates after scoring a decision against Purevsuren Ulziisaikhan of Mongolia at 68 kg during the United World Wrestling women's freestyle World Cup on Sunday.
Solin Piearcy of the United States, left, celebrates after scoring a decision against Purevsuren Ulziisaikhan of Mongolia at 68 kg during the United World Wrestling women's freestyle World Cup on Sunday.

Dymond Guilford, Yelena Makoyed are two budding stars

Perhaps the lone consistent bright spot for the U.S. women's team came at 76 kilos, where Guilford and Yelena Makoyed combined for a 3-0 record. It was the only weight all weekend for the U.S. that finished without a loss.

Guilford, a Senior world-teamer and a U23 world silver medalist, went 2-0, winning 10-0 over Mongolia's Burmaa Ochirbat, who's 40 years old but still a three-time world medalist, and 7-2 over China's Juan Wang, a two-time Senior world-teamer. Makoyed, a two-time national champ for North Central College and champ at a couple of UWW Rankings Series events already this year, pinned Turkey's Yasemin Adar, a two-time world champ.

Guilford beat Makoyed to make this year's Senior World Team at a weight normally held down by Adeline Gray, a six-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist. Gray, 31, recently gave birth to twins and didn't compete this year, but it's clear Guilford, 23, and Makoyed, 21, are going to provide stiff competition when she returns.

"This was a learning opportunity for all of us," Guilford said, "and I'm really excited for that."

Dymond Guilford of the United States signs autographs for fans after scoring a technical fall at 76 kg during the United World Wrestling women's freestyle World Cup.
Dymond Guilford of the United States signs autographs for fans after scoring a technical fall at 76 kg during the United World Wrestling women's freestyle World Cup.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Wrestling World Cup: USA men's freestyle tops Iran in epic final dual