#WrestleBelgrade

Akobiia Powers Ukraine to Historic Team Title at #WrestleBelgrade

By Vinay Siwach

BELGRADE, Serbia (November 5) – Alina AKOBIIA (UKR) has made four trips to the U23 World Championships but never returned with a gold medal.

She won a bronze in 2017, failed to medal in 2018 and reached the final in 2019 but Sae NANJO (JPN) proved too strong as Akobiia finished with a silver medal.

But the wait for gold finally ended Friday as the U23 European champion won the 57kg weight class at the U23 Worlds in Belgrade, Serbia. Not only it was a personal achievement but her gold added to Ukraine's stunning campaign which saw them win the team title for the first time at any World Championships.

“I finally won the gold medal,” Akobiia said. “It’s the first world title in my sporting career. I am very happy and thankful.”

Born in a small village in Poltava, Ukraine, Akobiia made evident the gulf of class between her and others in Belgrade, reaching the final after pinning every opponent.

A day later, the script had a slight change as she failed to pin Kristina MIKHNEVA (RUS) but the end result was the same. Akobiia was held scoreless in the first period, but a pair of takedowns with less than 40 seconds left in the bout pushed her past the Russian for a 5-1 win.

Heading into the final session, Ukraine sat in third place and trailed Russia by 14 points. Akobiia’s gold-medal win helped Ukraine leap the United States for second place and by the time the last final -- 72kg -- ended, they stole the title from Russia, 161 points to 140. The USA finished third with 102 points, two more than India. Turkey took fifth place in the race.

Anastasiia LAVRENCHUK (UKR) and Anastasiya ALPYEYEVA (UKR) won the two other gold medals for Ukraine at 65kg and 72kg respectively while Ana GODINEZ GONZALEZ (CAN) stopped them from winning a fourth as she denied Kateryna ZELENYKH (UKR) with a 10-7 win in the 62kg final, giving Canada its first gold medal of the tournament.

Lucia YepezLucia YEPEZ GUZMAN (ECU) became her country's first-ever female world champion. (Photo: Kadir Caliskan)

Lucia YEPEZ GUZMAN (ECU) created history when she won the 53kg gold medal, becoming the first-ever female world champion from her country.

The Tokyo Olympian faced U23 European champion Ekaterina VERBINA (RUS) in the final but unfazed by her opponent, she only used 70 seconds of the six minutes in the finals to pick up the fall. She became the fourth women’s wrestler of the #WrestleBelgrade competition to win their country's first-ever U23 world title.

A teary-eyed Yepez Guzman was filled with emotions as she talked to her family over the phone after the gold medal bout.

“It's a historic medal for Ecuador,” Yepez Guzman said. “I have been training for this for 10 years and I had studied the Russian wrestler. I am happy to win this.”

Alina AKOBIA Alina AKOBIIA (UKR) won a U23 World gold medal in her fourth attempt. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

Akobiia's medal got Ukraine going for the night as the team title hung in balance between Russia and Ukraine in the absence of women's wrestling powerhouses Japan and China.

The former junior world silver has had an exceptional year winning a bronze medal at the European Championships, qualifying Ukraine for the Tokyo Olympics and winning the U23 gold at the continental level.

“The Euros gold was also very important to me,” she said. “It’s a great feeling when you run around with the Ukrainian flag. I’ve been a European champion four times, but I have never been the world champion before, that’s why I am so happy.”

But two weeks before the Olympics she injured her elbow, forcing her to miss the Games but the gold Friday eased some of the pain she felt in August.

“The injury didn’t let me compete at the Olympics,” she said. “At the beginning when I was just injured, I didn’t realize what happened, I was shocked. Now when the Olympics have finished, I realized that I lost my opportunity. But I didn’t give up, a few months later, I came here and became a world champion.”

The 22-year-old is now ready to win a medal at the senior World Championships and is already focused on the 2024 Olympics.

“I haven’t competed at the senior worlds yet, but I hope I will win a medal as soon as I go there,” she said. “It’s the new Olympic cycle, it’s time to get ready.”

LavrenchukAnastasiia LAVRENCHUK (UKR) won the 65kg gold medal for Ukraine. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

At 65kg, Lavrenchuk secured a fall over Dinara KUDAEVA SALIKHOVA (RUS) and jumped around to celebrate her world title. She only needed 88 seconds for the pin.

“I’ve been trying to win the gold for so long,” Lavrenchuk said. “I had many injuries but I was ready to do anything to win.”

Lavrenchuk was in Oslo as well but at 68kg and lost 0-8 against Tamyra MENSAH STOCK (USA) after winning her opening round via fall. That experience helped her prepare for Belgrade.

“After the senior worlds in Oslo, I believed in myself to make it. The competition is tough in my category in Ukraine,” she said.

Talking about the team title win, she said that Ukraine deserves it because they have been training hard even during COVID-19.

“Even in the two years of coronavirus we kept training,” she said. “Our coaches are the best as they organize the training camps, prepare the schedule of the competitions.”

Anastasiya ALPYEYEVAAnastasiya ALPYEYEVA (UKR) won the 72kg world title. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

Part of that team and another gold medalist was Alpyeyeva who overcame a tough challenge in Kendra DACHER (FRA) in the 72kg final. She trailed 0-1 going into the second period but scored a takedown to lead 2-1.

She held Dacher in danger position which the mat chairman called neutral but Ukraine challenged it and won, giving her two more points. Dacher, who was looking to win a second world gold for France, failed to add any more points.

“I can’t believe I won it,” she said adding that it was even more important to prove that their team is the best in the world.

“Our team is very friendly and our coaches raise the team spirit in us,” she said. “We proved long ago that our team is the best at the European level and it was important to prove the same thing on the world level.

Ana GODINEZAna GODINEZ GONZALEZ (CAN) won the gold medal at 62kg in Belgrade. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

Ukraine could have won another gold but Godinez Gonzalez had other ideas. As the 62kg final began, Zelenykh caught Godinez Gonzalez on her heels with a double leg and put the first two points on the board. She added a step out from a single-leg attempt and led 3-0. The Ukrainian tacked on a second takedown and extended her lead to 5-0 after the opening three minutes.

Zenykh scored the third takedown after her Canadian opponent snapped her right into a double leg. But the match quickly turned in favor of the Canadian.

Zenykh dove in on a shot and surrendered a spin behind, cutting her lead to, 7-2. The Canadian scored four additional takedowns in the second period to steal the U23 world title.

“I feel like crying,” Godinez said. “I have been working very hard and to come back after losing a month ago at the senior Worlds in Oslo [lost to Ilona PROKOPEVNIUK (UKR) in the quarterfinals].”

But Godinez has spent the last one year traveling around Europe to get more experience as she aims to be successful at the senior level.

“The European style is different from North America,” she said. “I am trying to get more and more international experience and come to camps in Europe and I want to win senior worlds.”

The camps in Tallin, Estonia and Spala, Poland helped improve her wrestling. With an added advantage of superior conditioning, the Langely, British Colombia wrestler found it easier to wrestle six minutes than her opponent.

“After a couple of minutes I noticed that she was slowing down,” she said. “I worked really hard on my conditioning and I could see on her face that she was broken. I wrestled well and followed my game plan. It did not go accordingly in the final but a win is a win.”

UkraineUkraine won the women's team title at the U23 World Championships in Belgrade. (Photo: UWW / Belgrade)

RESULTS

53kg
GOLD: Lucia YEPEZ GUZMAN (ECU) df Ekaterina VERBINA (RUS), via fall

BRONZE: Mariia VYNNYK (UKR) df Mariana DRAGUTAN (MDA), 9-6
BRONZE: Zeynep YETGIL (TUR) df Munkhgerel MUNKHBAT (MGL), 8-3

57kg
GOLD: Alina AKOBIIA (UKR) df Kristina MIKHNEVA (RUS), 5-1

BRONZE: Esther KOLAWOLE (NGR) df Patrycja GIL (POL), 9-8
BRONZE: Hannah TAYLOR (CAN) df Othelie HOEIE (NOR), 12-8

62kg
GOLD: Ana GODINEZ GONZALEZ (CAN) df Kateryna ZELENYKH (UKR), 10-7

BRONZE: RADHIKA (IND) df Aurora CAMPAGNA (ITA), 6-4
BRONZE: Anastasiia PAROKHINA (RUS) df Anna FABIAN (SRB), 8-1

65kg
GOLD: Anastasiia LAVRENCHUK (UKR) df Dinara KUDAEVA SALIKHOVA (RUS), via fall

BRONZE: Nisha DAHIYA (IND) df Elma ZEIDLERE (LAT), 10-0
BRONZE: Asli DEMIR (TUR) df Elena ESPOSITO (ITA), 3-2

72kg
GOLD: Anastasiya ALPYEYEVA (UKR) df Kendra DACHER (FRA), 4-1

BRONZE: Eleni PJOLLAJ (ITA) df Anastasiya ZIMIANKOVA (BLR), via fall
BRONZE: Divya KAKRAN (IND) df Kayla MARANO (USA), via fall

#WrestleBelgrade

Burroughs, with eyes on 7th title, makes USA team for Worlds

By Vinay Siwach

NEW YORK, USA (June 9) -- Soon after he earned his spot to represent the USA at the World Championships, Jordan BURROUGHS (USA) was asked about his decade-old international career.

Burroughs pulled out one of the many classic responses from his book. "It's difficult, but that's what we do, we do hard things," Burroughs said. "We are presented with a challenge, we prep for the challenge, with wrestling we overcome the challenge."

It's true for Burroughs.

Over the years, the London Olympic champion has been in many challenging situations both on and off the mat. But Burroughs has managed to win most, if not all. Whether it's returning from an injury to win the world title again or recovering from the loss at Rio Olympics, he has beaten domestic stars and upcoming wrestlers alike in the USA and made the world team.

Wednesday was Burroughs' attempt to make his 11th world/Olympic team and the 33-year-old did so by beating Chance MARSTELLER (USA) at 79kg in a best-of-three final in New York, USA.

“No one can beat me in match three,” Burroughs said. "[I have] a ton of respect for Marsteller. But it comes down to a lot of faith in our training, coaching staff and partners. I was prepared for a third match. But I also know that if someone beats me, especially in a series, it's mentally overwhelming for them. They have to re-prepare to do it twice in a row."

After winning the Pan-Am Championships in May, Burroughs had said that he is aware that it would be extremely tough for him to win against any wrestler.

"I am not sure who I am going to compete against," he said in Acapulco. "But I do know that whoever it is, it's going to be extremely tough. I am ready to take on any challenge, new challenge, or familiar challenge. One thing is clear -- it's not going to be easy."

Marsteller had the chance to pull off an upset of his life after forcing a decider as he won the second bout 2-2. But Burroughs used his experience to win the third 5-0 against the younger opponent to make the USA team for the Belgrade World Championships.

Jordan BURROUGHS (USA)Jordan BURROUGHS (USA) defeated Chance MARSTELLER (USA) to make the USA team at 79kg. (Photo: Levi Ventura)

On the cusp of his seventh world title, Burroughs is entering a territory no American wrestler has before. John SMITH (USA) and Adeline GRAY (USA) are tied at six titles each and Belgrade will be a perfect opportunity for Burroughs to go past them.

The 33-year-old knows it as well. It has been his dream since winning the London Olympics. So he wants to stay focused on that goal.

"[I want to] stay focused as much as possible entering this realm of seven-time world champion," he said. "I always talk about being the greatest American wrestler of all time. But now I start to put myself in the class of all-time greats across all styles across the world. I think that's a cool thing to me that I am kind of entering this era where I have to be recognized worldwide as one of the best wrestlers. That's exciting for me. I just want to make a name for myself. Growing up I was not even the best wrestler in my street. It's hard managing to be the best wrestler in the world many times over."

Burroughs has done it six times in 10 years. He was an outsider when he won his first World Championships in 2011. A year later as a 23-year-old, he was at the London Olympics, winning the gold to be regarded as the future of the sport in the USA.

"I didn't know what to expect in Istanbul 11 years ago, wow," Burroughs had said in February. "The blessing was that I was young and naive and knew what I had. Denis TSARGUSH (RWF) was a reigning world champion in the weight class, and I had not wrestled him before. I had him in the second round."

He lost the first period to Tsargush. But in what was the beginning of a career full of comebacks, he won the second and third periods and the quarterfinal. In the final, Sadegh GOUDARZI (IRI), cheered by the loud Iranian fans, was the favorite. But Burroughs stunned him in straight periods. He also trademarked double-leg during that competition.  

"I was a little nervous, to be honest," Burroughs said. "Going to that tournament gave me a lot of confidence going forward because after winning that with very little freestyle experience, I thought about what I can do if I really train full time. The body of work has been something I have been grateful for."

And if anyone thought that the World title in 2011 was a fluke, he went on to beat the same wrestlers, in the semifinals and finals, in London.

Jordan BURROUGHS (USA)Jordan BURROUGHS (USA) after winning the Final X in New York. (Photo: Levi Ventura)

But a lot has changed since then. He is older and has commitments off the mat. He is also the father of four kids and has to devote time to his family. Going by the Twitter of his wife Lauren, he has done that successfully.

Another change Burroughs has noticed is the amount of time his opponents spend studying him as there is a lot of content available.

"The biggest difference now is that I have many obligations outside of wrestling than 2011," he said. "Now I am very familiar, there are a lot of videos on me, guys watching me wrestle. But now they want to knock me off. So I understand the position I am in."

Yet, he has managed to knock off half of the world that tried to take him down.

Burroughs, who was often termed as cocky early in his career, has grown into a wrestler who is intelligent, sharp and someone who takes fitness very seriously. His double-leg still seems to be top-class. It's not easy to remain at the top level for a time Burroughs has been.

"Faith," he said. "Consistency, surrounding yourself with great people. It's a blessing to prevent injuries but also you know just work ethic, nutrition, recovery and a lot of focus. I take care of my body. I do the right things to make sure that I stay and maintain a certain level of fitness. But also I have just been able to avoid injuries and a lot of that is luck."

While a few talk about it, the challenges he faces in the wrestling training room with age has made Burroughs make better choices regarding fitness.

"I am a much better wrestler now," he said. "I am sharper, more intelligent, more savy. Just all-around a better athlete. But again, I am older. I am 10-12 years in. It's different. You start to feel the aches and pain of longevity. I have got a lot of miles in my body in this sport."

He also acknowledged to have not sustained any career-threatening injury.

"I've been blessed to not sustain anything crazy," he said. "I had a broken ankle, torn calf. But other than that I kind of dodged a lot of bullets in the crazy positions I have been in."

While it seems that Burroughs has had much success, he has had his fair set of challenges and heartbreaks on the way.

Like the one in Rio or losing to Zaurbek SIDAKOV (RWF) at back-to-back World Championships in 2018 and 2019. Or when he failed to make the USA team for the Tokyo Olympics.

But every time he has his back against the wall, Burroughs finds a way to bounce back stronger.

Remember the 2017 World final against the then Russia-represent Hetik TSABALOV (SRB)? Burroughs answered his critics with that epic performance which also helped the USA win the team title in 2017. He managed to win back-to-back bronze medals in Budapest and Nur-sultan.

Internationally, he has lost to only two wrestlers since Rio Olympics. Frank CHAMIZO (ITA) and Sidakov have defeated Burroughs twice each in the last six years.

But since moving up to 79kg, he is yet to drop a bout. Last year in Oslo, he managed to capture his fifth world title and first in a new weight class at 79kg. While it is not at the Olympics, the category gave Burroughs a chance to enjoy the process again.

"People don't take it [79kg] seriously because it's not an Olympic weight," he said. "It's given me some rejuvenation late in my career. I'm 33-years-old and will be 34 in four months [now one]. I don't have to cut [too much weight]. I get to eat the things I want and training is more fun for me."

After winning the title in Oslo, Burroughs began 2022 with a gold medal at the Yasar Dogu in Istanbul. It was after winning the title that he confirmed that he is going for another shot at the Olympics. 

"I want another shot at Dake, and then another shot at Sidakov,” Burroughs said. "I am going to be moving down. I cannot promise that I will make the [USA] team, but you know that I am going to give my best."

As he has never backed down from challenges in the past, Burroughs is getting ready to overcome this one as well.

"It's effort, attitude and a warrior-like spirit," he said. "I am going to do my best to make the team. It's going to be a tough cut for me, but I'm committed."