ABBOTT COLUMN: Top 10 Wrestling Stories of the Year for 2013

By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling | Dec. 27, 2013, 11:15 a.m. (ET)
Photo depicts CPOW leader and actor Billy Baldwin, USA Wrestling President Jim Ravannack, FILA press officer Bob Condron, Russian Federation President Mikhail Mamiashvili and others celebrating as the IOC announces that wrestling was elected for the program at the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This was an amazing and memorable year for the sport of wrestling, one full of huge stories, big drama and tremendous pressure. It is hard to compare 2013 with any other year in modern times. In one respect, wrestling was fighting for its life as a relevant sport in modern times. In another respect, wrestling was making big steps forward led by outstanding performances from unbelievable athletes and key decisions by wrestling leaders.

Every year, I publish my top 10 wrestling stories of the year. This year, the top few choices were easy for me. There were numerous historic events, and a slew of other great stories. I know I will miss a few, and others may disagree with what I suggest. That is what makes it fun, getting everybody’s opinion on this. And as we have in other years, I will ask people for their thoughts on this.

1. Wrestling retains its place on the Olympic program – This was easily the biggest wrestling story of the year. It could be argued that it was the biggest wrestling story of all time. There are aspects of the Keep Olympic Wrestling effort, a seven-month battle for wrestling’s Olympic survival, which could take up all 10 of the top 10 stories for 2013. That is not the purpose of this column, but a few of the key moments of this battle may pop into the Top 10 as separate items.

It started on February 12, when the IOC Executive Board announced that it had recommended that wrestling be removed as a core Olympic sport starting at the 2020 Games. Before the week was over, FILA President Raphael Martinetti stepped down, and was replaced by interim President Nenad Lalovic of Serbia. USA Wrestling quickly formed the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling (CPOW), chaired by Bill Scherr, which led the U.S. effort to reverse this decision.

There are some key dates that stand out on the road to wrestling’s salvation.

May was declared World Wrestling Month, and it may have been a turning point for the sport. On May 18, the FILA Extraordinary Congress was held and major changes were made. Lalovic was elected as FILA President, the rules of wrestling were improved, and governance reforms included more representation for athletes and women. Two important events held in the United States provided tremendous public support for wrestling, the Rumble on the Rails in New York on May 15 and United4Wrestling in Los Angeles on May 19.

On May 29 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the IOC Executive Board voted for a short list of candidate sports for inclusion in the 2020 and 2024 Games. Out of eight sports considered, three were selected: wrestling, baseball/softball and squash.

The final date that will be remembered in wrestling history was September 8, in Buenos Aires, when wrestling was selected from the three finalist sports for the 2020 and 2024 Games on the first ballot. The amazing seven-month journey put wrestling back on the Olympic program, the combined effort of millions of wrestlers who stood up in support of a sport which goes back to the ancient Olympic Games. If you were involved in wrestling this year, you knew about this story. Actually, most of the world knew about this story, because when it first started, it just did not make any sense. It is an amazing story, which I encourage everybody to learn more about. A good first read is the book Saving Wrestling by Jamie Moffatt and Craig Sesker. The internet is also loaded with information, including which covered this story daily.

Take pride as a wrestler. The traits which are taught in this great sport, including work ethic, dedication, discipline, focus, determination, competitiveness, pride and respect were key factors in keeping wrestling in the Olympic Games. Our diversity as a sport was a big factor in our success. We were challenged, stood up, were heard and ultimately prevailed.

2. Jordan Burroughs wins third straight gold, taking Worlds a month after breaking ankle – The story stands by itself. Jordan Burroughs won the World gold medal at 74 kg at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. In the finals, he stopped a talented young Iranian, Ezzatollah Akbarizarinkolai, 4-0. It was his third World or Olympic gold in a row, with a 2011 World gold, a 2012 Olympic gold and a 2013 World gold. His winning streak ran up to 67 matches in a row. He joined John Smith at the only American to string three in a row (Smith has set the bar with six straight). Truly amazing. But after he came off the mat with his gold medal, Burroughs gave the world the back-story of his amazing achievement. Less than a month before the World Championships, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Jordan Burroughs broke his ankle. He had immediate surgery, with a plate and five screws inserted in that ankle. He was unable to get on the mat for weeks, working out on a bike and keeping his strength and conditioning levels up. He didn’t wrestle live until a week before he was scheduled to wrestle. The U.S. coaching staff did not decide until a live workout just days before competition in Budapest to allow him to wrestle. And when it was show time, in spite of the injury, Burroughs beat all comers handily. It is fair to say that the best current wrestler in the world is an American, and his display of courage and toughness is something we can all be very proud of.

3. Kyle Dake becomes first to win four NCAA Div. I titles in four different weight classes – I’m pretty sure college wrestling fans might put this at No. 2, but I’ll go with Burroughs after attending both events and seeing them in person. Dake’s achievements competing for Cornell rank among the most important in college wrestling history. Coming into the season, Dake had won three NCAA titles at three different weight classes. Right from the start, he let the world know his goal was to win four national championships in four different weights, something that had never been achieved. In order to do that, he had to bump up to 165 pounds, a weight class which featured the reigning national champion and Hodge Trophy winner David Taylor of Penn State. In his own confident and aggressive style, Dake stepped up to the challenge. They wrestled at the NWCA All-Star Challenge to start the season and set the stage for an amazing showdown at the nationals in Des Moines. The NCAA decided to make the 165-pound finals the last match during the finals, in anticipation of a Dake-Taylor main event. Both held up their end of the bargain by reaching the finals again. The atmosphere was electric when they stepped out on the mat, and the action was high quality. Taylor scored the first takedown, but a Dake escape and a takedown gave him a 3-2 lead after the first period. Ultimately, it was Dake’s ability from the top which made the difference, as a riding time point gave him a 5-4 win and his place in wrestling history. His achievement received tremendous media coverage. Besides the major wrestling awards including the Hodge Trophy, Dake received an ESPY award nomination, and was named Sports Illustrated Male College Athlete of the Year. Kyle Dake proved his amazing ability to win under pressure, and now turns his attention toward Olympic goals.

4. Women’s Team USA captures three bronze medals to take third at World Championships – Of the three Olympic styles of our sport, it was the U.S. women’s freestyle team which had the best performance at the 2013 World Championships in Budapest, placing third in the team standings with three bronze medalists. Coach Terry Steiner’s program has put itself into position that it has the ability to challenge for team titles and top-three trophies every year. With competition over three different days, Team USA had a medalist all three days, all who were previous medalists. On day one was 48 kg star Alyssa Lampe, who dropped a second-round match to Eri Tosaka of Japan then powered back through the repechage including a 46 second pin over Melanie LeSaffre of France for her second career World bronze. Day Two featured Elena Pirozhkova, a previous World champion and silver medalist at 63 kg. Pirozhkova also dropped a tough second round bout to past World champion Battsetseg Sornzobold of Mongolia, but won three times in repechage, including a 2-0 win over Russia’s Junior World champion Anastasia Bratchikova. The final day featured Adeline Gray at 72 kg, who had won medals at the previous two Worlds but was at a new weight class. She also lost in her second match to China’s Fengliu Zhang, but was strong in the repechage. One of her wins was over Olympic bronze medalist Guzel Manyurova of Kazakhstan. The good news is our women can compete with anybody in the world. There is clearly room for improvement, and Coach Steiner won’t be satisfied until the USA stands on top of the podium with the World Team Title.

5. Penn State wins third straight NCAA Div. I team title – Coming into the 2012-13 season, two-time NCAA champion Penn State was the early favorite for a three-peat. After a strong dual meet season and a Big Ten title, the Nittany Lions arrived at the NCAAs in Des Moines with all 10 wrestlers. This year, it was their top stars who made the difference, as Cael Sanderson’s team placed five wrestlers in the championship finals. Oklahoma State made a strong rally in the wrestlebacks to draw within three points going into the finals. At one point, Oklahoma State took the lead when Chris Perry beat Penn State’s Matt Brown in their only head-to-head final at 174. However, back-to-back titles in the upper weights by Ed Ruth at 184 and Quentin Wright at 197 gave the Nittany Lions enough points to finish up with a four-point win and the NCAA trophy headed back to State College for the third straight year. Is there a four-peat out there? Through December, the Lions hold the No. 1 ranking and are looking to extend the newest dynasty in college athletics.

6. Burroughs – Dake showdown at World Team Trials caps loaded 74 kg weight – U.S. wrestling fans were fired up for the 2013 World Team Trials in Stillwater, Okla. when the field at 74 kg was publicized. World and Olympic champion and Hodge Trophy winner Jordan Burroughs came in as the favorite, and waited for the winner of a loaded Challenge Tournament. People were intrigued about the prospects for four-time NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner Kyle Dake, who was seeded No. 5 in this field. 2012 Hodge Trophy winner David Taylor was in the mix, along with Olympic Trials runner-up Andrew Howe, past World Team member Trent Paulson and veteran star Nick Marable. It was going to be a war, just to earn the right to challenge Burroughs.

Dake had a challenge tournament run to be remembered. He opened with an 8-1 win over Paulson in the quarterfinals. Dake scored the last three points to stop Taylor in the semifinals, 7-4. In the Challenge Tournament finals, Dake battled Howe in an overtime marathon match, which was allowed by special rules set for the Trials. The slugfest went 11 minutes 44 seconds before Dake scored exposure on a scramble for a 4-2 win.

The finals series lived up to its billing. The first match was all Burroughs, a 7-0 technical fall which showed why many considered him the best in the world. Bout two was completely different, and an instant classic. Dake came out strong early. Burroughs trailed 6-4 in see saw match, but scored a late takedown to tie it up at 6-6 in regulation. It was Burroughs who drove Dake to his back in a scramble to pull out a dramatic 9-6 overtime win, and remain No. 1 in what has clearly become America’s most interesting weight class.

7. FILA’s All-Star Presentation Team knocks it out of the park with the IOC – Wrestling needed to put its best foot forward for two major presentations before the International Olympic Committee this year, and both times FILA selected the same five people to stand up for the sport. We turned to the jovial new FILA President Nenad Lalovic of Serbia, respected Olympic executive Jim Scherr of the United States, Olympic champion and federation leader Daniel Igali of Nigeria and Canada, Olympic champion Carol Huynh of Canada, Olympian and federation leader Lise LeGrand of France. All of these people had great personal stories. It was wrestling’s rainbow, a wonderful representation of the universal nature of the sport. Under tremendous pressure, first in St. Peterburg, Russia, then in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this group dazzled the international sports community. It took a lot of hard work, assisted by skilled consultants and long hours of practice. And when it was game time, the wrestling team was at its best. Lalovic, Scherr, Huyhn, Igali and LeGrand were two-for-two, beating out all opponents handily. Our sport owes each of them a tremendous thank you and a place in wrestling history.

8. Age-group World champions Snyder and Pico dazzle the wrestling world – Everybody in the United States knew that high school stars Kyle Snyder of Maryland and Aaron Pico of California were fantastic wrestlers with tremendous talent and potential. Now the entire world knows about these young stars. Both qualified to compete at the World level this past summer in freestyle, Snyder on the FILA Junior World Team and Pico on the FILA Cadet World Team. First on the mats was 17-year-old Snyder at the Junior World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, which featured 17-20 year olds. Snyder knocked off tough opponents from Moldova, Russia and Germany to reach the finals against Viktor Kazashvili of Armenia. The Armenian went upperbody, threw Snyder and almost pinned him for a 4-1 lead. Snyder powered back with a high-powered offense and scored an 11-4 technical fall. The next week was the Cadet Worlds in Zrenjanin, Serbia, and it was Pico’s turn to shine. In successive order, Pico knocked off athletes from Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Moldova and India, showing strong offense, great defense and the ability to come from behind. In the finals, he got into a shootout with Japan’s Yuhi Fujinami, scoring two big takedowns in the second period for an 8-6 win. These were the kind of athletes that the Keep Olympic Wrestling movement was all about, and U.S. fans are excited about the future for both of these great talents.

9. Rumble On the Rails in New York and United4Wrestling in LA showcase international wrestling – It was an amazing week for the promotion of international wrestling, when the United States hosted a pair of international competitions with the world watching. The annual Beat the Streets Gala competition in 2013 was billed “The Rumble on the Rails,” and was held in historic Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The top three freestyle world powers, the United States, Iran and Russia, came together for a pair of dual meets. With the fate of wrestling in the Olympics still very much in doubt, the world saw how wrestling brought together nations which have political and social differences. The pre-event press conference was held at the United Nations, and almost 200 media attended the event. NBC aired both duals live on their networks, with the USA vs. Iran bout on NBC Sports Channel and the USA vs. Russia match on Universal Sports. Iran beat the United States in a freestyle dual meet, 6-1. The United States stopped Russia 8-1 in a dual with all three styles. American fans were thrilled by Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Dake, David Taylor, Logan Stieber and others. A few days later, United4Wrestling was originally billed as a USA vs. Iran event in Los Angeles, but after the event in New York, the Iranian team went home. U.S. leaders quickly worked to revive the event, and athletes from Russia and Canada quickly stepped in to fill the void. An impressive crowd came to watch the challenge matches at the LA Forum, which featured the new rules of international wrestling just a day after they were announced. American Jordan Oliver won two tough matches, Olympic champ Jordan Burroughs thrilled the crowd, women’s wrestling was showcased in some great pairings and the sport once again put its best foot forward. With the media attention given to wrestling and the success of the new rules, the Keep Olympic Wrestling movement received a tremendous boost.

10. Adam Coon wins his second Junior Triple Crown in Fargo – The big star in Fargo this year was Michigan’s Adam Coon, a talented heavyweight who was seeking history on the Junior level. After his junior year in high school, Coon was a Junior Triple Crown winner, winning national titles in all three styles. Returning this year as a senior, Coon had the opportunity to become the first two-time Junior Triple Crown winner. Coon won the first leg at the Folkstyle Nationals in Iowa in April. In Fargo, he won the second leg with the Greco-Roman title, beating Minnesota’s Sam Stoll by tech fall in the finals. Just weeks before, Stoll had beaten Coon in the FILA Junior World Team Trials in Greco. In his final Junior event, Coon ran through the field in freestyle, scoring a tech fall in the finals over Nathan Butler of Kansas and going right into the record books. There were some other stars in Fargo to celebrate this year, including three-time Junior Nationals freestyle champion Nathan Tomasello of Ohio, Cadet and Junior women’s champion Teshya Alo of Hawaii, Cadet Triple Crown winners Mark Hall of Colorado, Daton Fix of Oklahoma, Nick Reenan of Texas and Jacob Marnin of Iowa and Junior women’s OW Becka Leathers of Oklahoma, among others. But it will be Coon who will be remembered as the king of Fargo this year.

Here are some other stories that were important in my opinion, but did not rise to the top ten this year.

New Rules of International Wrestling take wrestling in right directionIn a year when wrestling had to prove that it belonged in the Olympic Games of the future, it was a dramatic change in the rules of the sport which made a big difference in the Keep Olympic Wrestling effort. With the support of the new FILA President Nenad Lalovic, FILA Vice President Stan Dziedzic spearheaded the transformation of the competition rules. The goal was to make the changes prior to the May 29 vote of IOC Executive Board on the short list of sports for the Olympic program. Dziedzic presented rule changes at the Extraordinary Congress in Moscow on May 18, which were passed and put immediately into action. Included was a return to a cumulative score for matches, the elimination of the dreaded clinch, a change to two three-minute periods, a two-point takedown and many other big changes. Fans had a chance to see the concepts in action at the United4Wrestling event in Los Angeles just a day later, and the improvement was immediately apparent. The rules continue to evolve, but we can confidently say that international wrestling has a much better product than it did a year ago.

Coach Jim Miller retires at Wartburg after winning 10th Div. III team titleOne of the best college wrestling coaches in the nation retired on top, when Jim Miller of Wartburg led his team to the Div. III national title at his final national championships, which were held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was his 10th career team title, tying Augsburg’s Jeff Swenson for the most Div. III crowns by a coach. Kenny Anderson won the 133-pound title for Miller, and a balanced lineup featured a runner-up, two third places, a fourth, a fifth and a seventh. The Wartburg team and its fans celebrated the title, as well as Miller’s amazing career at the helm. It isn’t often, but sometimes coaches have fairy tale finishes when they retire, and it was fitting that Miller went out as a champion.

Wrestling returns to Ancient Olympic grounds for Olympia 2013 event It may not have had the strongest field of the international wrestling events held during the summer, but the Olympia 2013 event in Olympia, Greece had the biggest impact on the quest to retain wrestling in the Olympics. Wrestling needed a showcase prior to the final IOC vote in September, and a return to the ancient Olympic grounds proved to be perfect. The Greek government and Olympic Committee agreed to open the hallowed Olympic grounds to a wrestling tournament, something which is just not available to other sports. The United States and Russia agreed to send teams. An exhibition was held at the Palestra, the ancient wrestling grounds. The event finals were held outdoors at the International Olympic Academy. For the first time ever, women were permitted to wrestle on the ancient Olympic grounds. Major media attended, and photos and video of wrestling in ancient Olympia went global. The legacy of wrestling as an ancient Olympic sport was showcased in modern times, a compelling example of why wrestling belongs in the Olympics of the future.

Stars step up for wrestling, led by actor and leader Billy Baldwin With wrestling’s fate at the Olympic Games still very much up in the air, former wrestlers and fans worldwide stepped up to fight for their sport. One very important group to do so in a vocal way were celebrities, led by CPOW member and wrestling leader, and of course Hollywood actor, Billy Baldwin. Baldwin called on his friends to take a stance and they made a difference in the public debate. Joining Baldwin by making statements, working the social media, doing PSAs, showing up at wrestling events and generally stirring the pot were Mark Ruffalo, Tom Arnold, Jay Mohr, Jay Leno, Mario Lopez, Steve Buscemi, Mike Golic and many more. Baldwin also solicited auction items from many of these wrestling celebrities to help raise money for the cause. Another group who helped out were athletes and coaches from other sports who were willing to appear on PSA messages, include Mark Spitz, Janet Evans, Tommy Lasorda and others. These people helped keep the wrestling issue in the public eye, and built momentum for the effort to retain Olympic status.

Attendance records and new ways to promote wrestlingThis fall, Penn State coach Cael Sanderson agreed to host a dual meet in the Bryce Jordan Center, the largest arena on campus, rather than their normal home dual location at the famous Rec Hall. The Lions have been selling out all of their home matches for years, but had not tested the waters to see how many they could draw in the larger arena. The result was a sell-out in Bryce Jordan against Pitt, which set the new NCAA dual meet attendance record. The Lions used a raised stage, lighting and music to enhance the experience for the fans. Wrestling fans have been coming out in bigger numbers this year at many events, with sellouts at matches such as Iowa at Edinboro, Penn State at Boston and others. Many other event organizers have raised the bar with better promotion prior to events, and more creative production values at events. The Olympic challenge faced by wrestling has pushed the wrestling community at all levels, and the sport is answering the call, trying to be more fan friendly and aggressive in its promotion. Let’s hope that this becomes the new normal.

Iran takes over freestyle, beating the mighty Russians at World Cup and World Championships Russia has been the dominant nation in international freestyle for a long time, but in 2013, it was Iran that stepped up to secure that honor. In the World Cup, which was hosted on Iran’s home mats in Tehran, Iran beat the United States in pool competition, then stopped the Russians in the finals. At the World Championships in Budapest, after three days, the team race went down to Russia and Iran once again.The Iranian victory was clinched on the final day at 74 kg, when young Ezzatollah Akbarizarinkolai won his semifinal match over Rashid Kurbanov of Uzbekistan, scoring enough points to pass Russia and bringing the Iranian fans and journalists to their feet in joy. Iran finished with 46 points, with Russia at 44 points. Included were two champions, Hassan Rahimi (55 kg) and Reza Yazdani (96 kg), a silver medalist and two bronze medalists. Amazingly, the top Iranian star coming in, two-time World champion Mehdi Taghavi at 66 kg, did not even place in the top 10. Heading into 2014, it is Iran which will be the target for all of the other freestyle teams in the world.

Stieber wins second NCAA title and remains on track for four Ohio State’s Logan Stieber won an NCAA title as a freshman, opening up the possibility of becoming a four-timer down the road. You can ask the three superstars who have reached this amazing feat – Pat Smith, Cael Sanderson and Kyle Dake – and they will all tell you that you have to take care of it just one year at a time. Stieber made it two-for-two with his victory as a sophomore at 133 pounds at the NCAAs in Des Moines, beating Iowa’s Tony Ramos in a spirited match in the finals. This year, Stieber has jumped a weight to 141, and suffered an early season loss to Penn State freshman Zain Retherford. Please don’t ask Logan about the four NCAA titles yet. He has already learned that you need to focus on the next match against the opponent who is standing in front of you. That is why this achievement is truly possible for this talented star.

Simon Fraser snaps Oklahoma City’s streak as Women’s College National ChampionsOklahoma City University had been the dominant team in women’s college wrestling, with four straight national titles. It took an amazing finals performance by a determined Simon Fraser team to halt that streak. Mike Jones’ Clan placed six athletes in the finals, and won every one of those gold medal matches to edge the OCU Stars for the title. It was determined at heavyweight, a three-period match that went to SFU’s Jenna McLatchy. Although Simon Fraser is located in Canada, their two top stars are Americans, three-time WCWA champions Helen Maroulis and Victoria Anthony, giving the new WCWA champions a multi-national effort on the way to the top.

Here are a few bullet points of other key things that stand out in my mind as 2013 winds down
• Battle at the Falls in Niagara Falls, Canada showcases international women’s wrestling as the final important event of World Wrestling month in May
• International Greco-Roman event named Jack Pinto Cup in honor of youth wrestler killed in Connecticut elementary school shooting
• Grand View repeats as NAIA champion with win in last match of the finals
• Penn State’s Ed Ruth dominates on the way to his second NCAA crown, arguably the best pound-for-pound college wrestler
• College wrestling continues growth among smaller schools and women’s teams as colleges are adding wrestling opportunities

I am sure we are missing some things, and there are some stories which I totally spaced out on and did not get into this column. Once again, I am asking you for your thoughts. This is the kind of quiz in which there are no wrong answers. If the story is important to you, it belongs on our list. I encourage you to go to USA Wrestling’s Message Boards and give you top stories for all of us to enjoy. Enjoy the rest of your holiday season, and may you all have a blessed and meaningful 2014 year ahead.