NEW YORK – Mega-screen digital billboards? Got ‘em. Music to rumble by? Yup, it’s blaring. Raucous crowd? They’re here.
It must be “United in the Square,” the seventh annual Beat the Streets gala wrestling competition, held on Thursday in New York City’s Times Square.
Five wrestlers who will represent Team USA at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games squared off in exhibition matches against top-notch opponents from Canada, Iran and South Korea, sharpening their skills, trying out new moves and helping to raise money for Beat the Streets, a nonprofit that aims to improve the lives and potential of New York City student-athletes through participation in amateur wrestling.
Jordan Burroughs kept his Beat the Streets winning streak intact, handily defeating 2015 Asian Games champion Peyman Yarahmadi of Iran 11-2, including an exciting feet-to-back takedown worth four points. The 2012 Olympic champion, undefeated in his six consecutive galas, welcomed the chance to test himself against the up-and-coming young Iranian.
“Right now is a tough period of time, because you start to deal with that complacency,” Burroughs, who wrestles at 74 kg./163 lbs., said. “You think, ‘Man, I’m training, I’m grinding myself down, but I haven’t seen the fruits of my labor because I haven’t competed in a while.’ You just want to get your hands on someone else, besides the training partners you’re wrestling.”
Yarahmadi proved a tough opponent for much of the match, scoring a two-point takedown on Burroughs in the second period before the three-time world champion shifted into high gear.
“I looked at (Yarahmadi’s) résumé and he’s had some tough, good matches,” Burroughs said. “He’s a tough guy. A lot of people say, ‘Man, this is an exhibition.’ But I say, this is a legacy builder. It’s important to me to put on a great show.”
The Olympic-level matches were the highlights of an evening that also included area youth and high school wrestlers, as well as four junior-level matches. Mike Novogratz, Beat the Streets’ founder and chairman of the board, welcomed the large international crowd, including many Iranian Americans.
“The whole idea of the event, ‘United in the Square,’ is that these athletes can bash each other on the mat and then shake hands and break bread with each other,” Novogratz, an NCAA wrestler in his college days, said. “How great would it be if our world leaders could do that?”
Bashing their opponents is exactly what Adeline Gray and Helen Maroulis did, with both women dominating their Canadian challengers.
Gray, a three-time world champion at 75 kg./165 lbs., gained an 11-0 technical superiority victory over Justina Di Stasio. Her repertoire included several ankle lace takedowns and a high cross.
“I’ve been trying out some new set-ups and new ties,” Gray said. “I’ve been working on the high cross for two weeks straight, and I’m so stoked I did it.”
Gray added that virtually every hour of her time from now until the Rio Games in August is carefully scheduled with training, media events and practice.
“Each day is mapped out and everything is calculated,” she said. “It all points to that time when I step onto the mat in Rio.”
Maroulis overpowered Samantha Stewart, winning 12-0 by a pin. Like Burroughs, the 53 kg./116.5 lbs. wrestler was grateful for the chance to compete.
“I had two tough back-to-back tournaments, then two weeks off, and one week back in training, so this was great for me,” Maroulis said. “I’m known as an offensive wrestler, but the beauty of the sport is it’s smart, disciplined and strategic. I wanted this match to help jumpstart my summer training, to practice mat awareness.”
In Greco-Roman action, two-time world bronze medalist Andy Bisek lost a tough 3-0 match to South Korea’s Olympic and world champion Kim Hyeon-Woo in the 75 kg./165 lbs. division. J’den Cox, though, won an exciting 86 kg./189 lbs. encounter over Iran’s Meisam Mostafa Jokar, defeating the 2014 Asian Games champion by 10-5 after two two-point takedowns in the match’s final seconds.
The two-time NCAA champion from Missouri qualified for Rio with a win at the world Olympic qualifier last month in Mongolia. It was his first major international event for Team USA.
“Overall it was a good match,” Cox said. “Holy cow, wrestling in Times Square was fun. I’ll take this match, learn a lot from it and get better.”
Cox has a simple plan for the lead-in to Rio: get better.
“That’s how it’s going to be,” Cox said. “Learning to think like a freestyler and wrestle new positions. We’re going to work on everything; nothing is going to be left alone. Everything has room to improve.”
The world team newcomer looks to his teammate Burroughs for guidance.
“There’s no way in the world I’m going to wrestle like Jordan Burroughs, but there is a different way I can prove myself and put a little piece of what he has within me,” he said. “Jordan is really good at articulating how he thinks, how he wrestles and how he looks at things. Not only is he a great wrestler, he’s a great leader.”