Upsets all around as Greco-Roman wrestling begins

Aug. 12, 2008, 2:11 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) A quirky draw and a succession of upsets created Russia vs. Azerbaijan matchups in the 55- and 60-kilogram finals Tuesday as several top names exited early in Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling.

Among the losers on the first day were three-time defending world champion Hamid Soryan, an Iranian who was heavily favored at 55 kg; two-time Olympic champion Armen Nazarian of Bulgaria, world 60 kg champion David Bedinadze of Georgia and 2004 Olympic champion Jung Ji-hyun of South Korea.

Vitaliy Rahimov of Azerbaijan wrestled his way through what may turn out to be the most difficult bracket in any weight class - one that included Nazarian, Bedinadze and Jung - and will meet Russia's Islam-Beka Albiev for the 60 kg gold.

"I didn't expect to win this match as he is an Olympic champion," Rahimov said, with more than a touch of candor, after defeating Nazarian in the quarterfinals.

At 55 kg, Russia's Nazyr Mankiev, a world bronze medalist, meets 2006 world silver medalist Rovshan Bayramov of Azerbaijan for the gold.

Azerbaijan has a population of less than 9 million and isn't much of a player in most Olympic sports, but it is a heavyweight in wrestling, with a gold medal in both Sydney and Athens.

Wrestlers are not seeded and brackets are determined by a blind draw, which created a Nazarian vs. Bedinadze in a qualification bout - a match that likely wouldn't have occurred until the finals if a seeding format was used.

Nazarian used a 3-point throw to gain the edge in the second period and also won the third period in the best-of-three format to eliminate Bedinadze, who had been favored to win Georgia's first Olympic wrestling gold medal.

The 34-year-old Nazarian failed to win a third gold medal in Athens and looked to be well past his prime until finishing a surprising second in the European championships five months ago.

Nazarian was promptly eliminated in his next match, taking the first period from Rahimov but losing the next two by a combined score of 10-0. Nazarian still has a chance for a fourth Olympic medal because the wrestlers who lose to the two finalists enter a repechage round that determines the two bronze medalists.

Soryan's loss to Mankiev was the stunner of the day.

Soryan was dominating in the last three world championships, holding a 131-31 scoring edge and winning 32 of 33 periods. And the 23-year-old Mankiev was only seventh in the European championships.

Mankiev didn't outscore Soryan in any of their three periods - each finished tied, but Soryan won every tiebreaker.

Soryan has been bothered recently by a knee injury, and he said following an opening-round win over Bulgaria's Venelin Venkov that "the match was harder because my knee was injured."

"Soryan is one of the best wrestlers in the world, but Mankiev is stronger," Russian coach Michail Aleksandrovich Gamzin said. "We want the gold medal, which is the only reason we came here."

Russia is traditionally strong in freestyle, winning six of the seven weights in last year's world championships, and now has a chance to win the first two Greco golds in Beijing.