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How Will Team USA’s Top Wrestlers Fare Against The World At World Championships In Vegas?

By John Blanchette | Sept. 07, 2015, 2:55 p.m. (ET)

Wrestling's world championships return to U.S. soil for the first time in 12 years this week, and Jake Herbert, for one, is ecstatic – and not only because of the spotlight it can put on his sport.

He has practical reasons, too.

"Last year it was in Uzbekistan, and you just can't count on the Whole Foods in Tashkent to have the stuff you need," joked Team USA's 86 kg. competitor. "I think the Whole Foods in Las Vegas will have my avocados."

From Sept. 7-12 at the Orleans Arena, Las Vegas will host one of the great shows in Olympic sports in a city already known for great shows. It is 24 one-day dramas in men's and women's freestyle, and Greco-Roman weight classes, featuring the best competitors United World Wrestling has to offer pushed to their physical limits – with no forgiveness for having an off day.

"It's an all-out war, it really is, and it's on our turf," said Herbert, a 2012 Olympian. "It's our mindset that these medals are staying here."

It's likely some will. No fewer than eight world championships medalists are on the Team USA roster, along with others who look ready to break through. That latter group includes Brent Metcalf, on his fourth U.S. team at 65 kg. and this year ranked second in the world, or even 19-year-old Ohio State sophomore Kyle Snyder at 97 kg.

But most eyes will be on the more established figures – foremost among them Jordan Burroughs at 74 kg. The 2012 Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champ was bumped to third at this event a year ago after sustaining a first-round leg injury, and looks to rebound in Las Vegas.

Adeline Gray is back to defend her 2014 women's title at 75 kg., while 2012 world champion Elena Pirozhkova is among a wealth of contenders in the newly created Olympic weight class of 69 kg. With a silver and a bronze on her resumé, Helen Maroulis – ranked No. 1 in the world this year – wants to take that last step up on the podium at 55 kg., where there's no defending champ competing.

And 2014 Greco-Roman surprise Andy Bisek returns at 75 kg., where he knocked off Olympic gold medalist Roman Vlasov en route to a bronze – ending a five-year medal drought for the U.S. in that discipline.

But maybe no one has a bigger challenge, or offers a better narrative, than Herbert, the 2009 world silver medalist.

The obstacles ahead of him? Try 19-year-old Abdulrashid Sadulaev of Russia, wrestling's new wunderkind who stormed through last year's worlds and “crushed everybody and didn't give up a point," Herbert noted. Then there's Cuba's Reineris Salas, the 2014 silver medalist who is 4-0 against Herbert.

"But I'm closing the gap," he said. "The first time he crushed me. Our last match was the Pan Am Games final it was 12-7, and I was right there."

Never mind that he wasn't supposed to be right there at all.

The former two-time NCAA champion from Northwestern had called it a career after the London Olympic Games, resigned to leaving competition at the age of 27, "burying my dream of being a world and Olympic champion." Which he did. For about 18 months.

Then the International Olympic Committee announced its intention to remove wrestling from the Olympic program, and Herbert went full-throttle in a personal campaign to save the sport simply because, "I don't want to live in a world that doesn't have wrestling in the Olympics," he said.

Still, he seemed content to do his work on the periphery. He did commentary for NBC at the U.S. Open, and even made a cameo in the movie "Foxcatcher" – summoning up "all my acting skills" to lose to actor Channing Tatum on screen.

In the meantime, after recovering from knee and shoulder surgeries, he began developing a training system for young wrestlers (called "BASE") with friend Andy Hrovat, and worked himself into such good shape that an epiphany followed.

"Life's way too short," Herbert said. "If you're not going after your dream, you're working for somebody else's dream."

So Herbert resurrected his in 2014, and within a year he'd returned to the top, winning the U.S. Open and later the trials for the world team with back-to-back decisions of 13-3 and 10-2 over Ed Ruth, a 2014 world team member.

"Winning the nationals showed me I was back better than ever," Herbert said. "I was 10 points better than the other guy who's 10 points better than every other guy we have."

And he's a showman the sport can certainly use, with a dynamic, aggressive approach on the mat – and, yes, a shoulder-length mullet. As much as he's thrown himself into his comeback, he's just as passionate about the BASE approach he hopes to take nationwide and develop "50,000 little ninjas" with a focus on physical literacy and fun, which he believes will keep kids in the sport longer.

He's certainly seen results on his level, having followed up his domestic success with a silver medal behind Salas at the Pan Am Games.

Now he just has to prove it in the most unforgiving crucible – five matches in a day to a gold medal – against one of the tournament's toughest brackets.

"You've got to be ready for anything, because you're exhausted and then you have to go against somebody even tougher 20 minutes later," he said. "You've got to make sure you're that much better so that you can maybe not have the best day and still come back with the medal."

John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.