2017: The year of 20 individual World Champions for USA Wrestling

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Dec. 21, 2017, 8:08 p.m. (ET)
Jordan Burroughs of the United States has his arm raised in victory in the 74 kg gold-medal match at the World Championships in Paris, France. Burroughs was among 20 U.S. wrestlers to win World gold medals in 2017. Photo by Tony Rotundo, Wrestlers Are Warriors.

There are many ways to measure a year in terms of performance for a national program. Team honors is one measuring stick, and USA Wrestling had a successful year in that respect. There were two World Team titles for Team USA, when the Senior men’s freestyle team won the World Team trophy in Paris, France and the Junior men’s freestyle team won the World Team Trophy in Finland. Add in a pair of World second place trophies by the Senior women’s freestyle team in Paris and the Cadet men’s freestyle team in Greece.

Another way to look at success is by the number of individual World champions that the USA crowned in a year, which indicates how many athletes became the absolute best in the world at their level of competition. In that respect, the 20 World Champions for USA Wrestling during 2017 stands as an amazing feat of excellence across many different disciplines and age levels.

We take a quick look at each of the 20 USA Wrestling athletes who stood on top of their World Championships podium during the 2017 year.

SENIOR

Jordan Burroughs, Senior World champion in men’s freestyle at 74 kg

Already one of the greatest wrestlers in history, Burroughs powered back after a disappointing 2016 Olympic performance to rise to the top of the world for the fifth time in his career, by winning his fourth World gold medal to go along with his 2012 Olympic gold medal. In the U.S. record books, his five combined golds stands behind John Smith with six, and tied with Bruce Baumgartner with five. In terms of Senior World golds, he is tied at the top with four alongside Smith and Tricia Saunders. His path to the podium in Paris was difficult, but his skill and grit were on display every step of the way. He survived a war with tough Ali Shabanau of Belarus in his opener. In the semifinals, he avenged an Olympic loss to Bekzod Abdurakhmanov of Uzbekistan. In the finals, he outlasted 2014 World champion Khetik Tsabalov of Russia, 9-6. The longer Jordan Burroughs competes, the more impressive he becomes.

Helen Maroulis, Senior World champion in women’s freestyle at 58 kg

How can you follow up on making history? When Helen Maroulis won the 2016 Olympic gold medal, she became an instant American sports legend as the first U.S. women’s wrestler to win an Olympic title. If it is possible to build on that, Helen Maroulis for sure made it happen. Her gold-medal performance at the 2017 Worlds in Paris was the most dominant effort by any wrestler in the world, regardless of gender or discipline. Maroulis outscored her opponents 52-0 in her five bouts in Paris, each one a technical fall. In the finals, she quickly scored four points on a footsweep against Olympic bronze medalist Marwa Amri of Tunisia, and finished off the match in short order by an 11-0 margin. Her excellent technique was even sharper this year than in the past. It was her third straight World or Olympic gold medal, all at different weight classes. The wrestling community can’t wait for what comes next from this talented and inspiring star.

Kyle Snyder, Senior World champion in men’s freestyle at 97 kg

Kyle Snyder’s Twitter page says “Don’t protect anything.” This has been his approach since winning the 2015 World gold medal in Las Vegas at 19 years old, and has kept him at the top of the world ever since. After winning his Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016, another new challenge came his way. Olympic and World champion superstar Abdulrashid Sadulaev of Russia made the decision to move up from 86 kg to 97 kg, for a potential showdown with Snyder at the 2017 Worlds in Paris. When Snyder and Sadulaev reached the gold-medal finals, UWW called it “The Match of the Century.” For once, a hyped-up bout met and exceeded expectations. Snyder’s go-behind takedown in the final 30 seconds gave him a 6-5 win, and also made the USA the World Team champions. He has now won three straight gold medals, but as always, Snyder will not be protecting anything.

U23

Richie Lewis, U23 World champion in men’s freestyle at 70 kg

In his first international competition at any level, Rutgers senior Richie Lewis became the first American to win a World title at the new U23 World Championships, featuring athletes who are 18-23 years old. Coming off a year in which he missed the NCAA season due to injury, Lewis looked very sharp in winning the U23 World Team Trials this fall. At the U23 Worlds in Poland, Lewis continued to show a strong offense on his feet, winning five straight matches on the way to the gold. His closest match was in the finals, a 3-1 win over Kumar Vindo of India. It was a tremendous coming-out party for Lewis in freestyle, who can now aim even higher in future years.

JUNIOR

Mark Hall, Junior World champion in men’s freestyle at 74 kg

Winning a Junior World title is an amazing feat. Doing it two years in a row is something special. Mark Hall capped a tremendous 2017 year by winning the 74 kg Junior World title for the second straight year. Hall was coming off a strong college debut, winning the 174-pound NCAA title as a freshman for Penn State. At the Junior Worlds, Hall was dominant, including a pin in the finals over Isa Shapiev of Uzbekistan in 43 seconds. He became one of only five Americans to win a pair of Junior World golds. Add in his 2014 Cadet World gold, and his three career age-group World titles is also among the best ever.

Gable Steveson, Junior World champion in men’s freestyle at 120 kg

For some athletes, moving up in age-group can be a difficult task at the World level. For Gable Steveson, the jump from Cadet World champion to Junior World champion was no hurdle at all. A two-time Cadet World champion, Steveson made the Junior World Team on his first year eligible at age 17. He opened the tournament with wins over a pair of past age-group World silver medalists. He won five matches on the way to gold, including a 5-1 win over Naeiim Hasenzadeh of Iran in the finals. With a third straight age-group World title, and many more years of eligibility, Steveson is putting together a career for the record books. And he is still in high school this year.

Kamal Bey, Junior World champion in Greco-Roman at 74 kg

The UWW Junior age level is a very tough test for the United States in Greco-Roman, as a majority of our 17-20 year old wrestlers are focusing on American folkstyle wrestling most of the year. Explosive Kamal Bey, who has chosen to focus on Greco-Roman, showed how this approach can make a big difference. In one of the most impressive offensive displays in memory, Bey powered to the Junior World title, the first for Team USA in Greco-Roman since 1999, when Garrett Lowney won the title. His finals bout will be long remembered as a wild shootout, where Bey emerged with a 16-11 victory over Akzhol Makhmudov of Kyrgyzstan.

Maya Nelson, Junior World champion in women’s freestyle at 63 kg

Step by step, Maya Nelson is climbing the ladder in international women’s freestyle wrestling. In 2016, Nelson won a bronze medal at the Junior World Championships. This year, became a full-time U.S. Olympic Training Center resident athlete, and made another big step in her development. Nelson was No. 3 on the U.S. Senior Women’s National Team, and earned a repeat trip to Junior Worlds. After three wins to reach the finals, Nelson was in control in the Junior World finals, shutting out Yuliana Yaneva of Bulgaria 6-0 for the gold medal. It was the first Junior gold for a USA woman since 2010.

Daton Fix, Junior World champion in men’s freestyle at 55 kg

Regarded as the best high school wrestler graduating in 2017, Daton Fix has always had his vision set at winning gold at the World level. Winner of bronze medals at the 2015 Cadet Worlds and 2016 Junior Worlds, and a silver medal at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, he had been very close to gold in the past. In 2017 at the Junior Worlds, he left no doubt that he was the best on the planet. Fix won five straight bouts by technical fall. The only point he allowed was in the finals, when he hammered Ismail Gadziev of Russia, 12-1. He is a true freestyle wizard.

CADET

Kurt McHenry, Cadet World champion in men’s freestyle at 46 kg

What does a returning Cadet World champion do for an encore? For Kurt McHenry, who was the 2016 Cadet World champion at 42 kg, a move up in weight to 46 kg gave him a different challenge. Showing great skill from his feet and some amazing mat sense, McHenry worked his way through the bracket with five straight wins for his second Cadet World title in Athens, Greece. His toughest bout was in the semifinals, where he emerged with a 5-4 win over Russia’s Magomed Abdurakhmanov. His finals win was 12-4 over Giorgi Gegelashvili of Georgia. He was a leader on a talented USA freestyle team, as three other teammates also claimed golds.

Cohlton Schultz, Cadet World champion in Greco-Roman at 100 kg

Growing up in Colorado, Cohlton Schultz had access to high-level Greco-Roman training opportunities, often coming down from his home in Parker to the U.S. Olympic Training Center to work out with the Senior resident athletes there. He had his first taste of World competition in 2016, when he made the U.S. Cadet World Team. In 2017, Schultz made both the U.S. World Teams on the Cadet and Junior levels in Greco. He cashed it all in at the Cadet Worlds in Greece, powering to the gold medal, the first U.S. Cadet World Greco champion since 1997, a 20-year stretch. He showed great poise in the finals, coming from behind with a takedown with 15 seconds left to beat Balint Vatzi of Hungary, 3-1.

Aaron Brooks, Cadet World champion in men’s freestyle at 76 kg

Given a new opportunity, Aaron Brooks made the absolute most of it. Brooks placed second in the UWW Cadet World Team Trials in June, falling to 2016 Cadet World medalist Travis Wittlake in the finals. When an injury kept Wittlake out of the Cadet Worlds, Brooks stepped in and never looked back. Going through all of the training, Brooks was ready to go in Athens. He was dominant in four straight wins to reach the finals, then earned the gold with a 12-7 win over Arsamag Khostikoev of Russia. Brooks believed he would win, and was able to make it happen when it counted.

Will Lewan, Cadet World champion in men’s freestyle at 69 kg

Will Lewan made a big step in his wrestling career in 2017, showing how hard work and effort can pay off big time. Lewan had a great spring and summer, winning both styles at the UWW Cadet World Team Trials in Akron, then going on to take a 2017 Junior National freestyle title in freestyle. At his first World Championships, Lewan won his first four matches by a combined 28-6. In the finals, he faced Daud Ibragimov of Azerbaijan, and Lewan scored a takedown in the final five seconds to win 3-1 and bring the gold medal back to Illinois.

Daniel Kirkvliet, Cadet World champion in men’s freestyle at 100 kg

Continuing a tradition of tough big men coming out of Minnesota, Daniel Kirkvliet made his first major international event a big success by taking the 100 kg title at the Cadet Worlds. Wrestling aggressively and with constant pressure on opponents, Kirkvliet won his half-bracket with three straight technical falls, outscoring his rivals 22-2. It tightened up in the finals, where he battled Ismail Nirov of Russia. His attacking style made a difference in the second period of a 1-1 tie, where Nirov was penalized to give Kirkvliet a 2-1 win and the World gold medal.

SENIOR GRAPPLING

Breanna Stikkelman, Senior Gi Grappling World champion at 64 kg

In her first year in USA Wrestling’s Grappling program, Breanna Stikkelman stepped up and became a star. A former high school wrestler who had embraced jiu-jitsu and Grappling, Stikkelman won both styles at her weight class at the Grappling World Team Trials in Azerbaijan. At the Worlds in Azerbaijan, she also doubled up, starting with a silver-medal performance in the No-Gi competition at 58 kg. In the Gi division, Stikkelman moved up to 64 kg and won three straight matches, including two by submission. She beat No-Gi World champion Tetnyan Hrynko of Ukraine by submission with a loop choke in the finals.

VETERANS

George Porter, Veterans freestyle World champion in Div. C at 130 kg

George Porter was on a mission at the 2017 Veterans World Championships in Bulgaria. A 2016 Veterans World champion in freestyle, Porter entered both styles at the 2017 Worlds. He opened with a 1-1 record to claim a bronze medal in Greco-Roman. Porter had a strong run in freestyle, winning three straight matches by a combined score of 32-4 to capture the Veterans World freestyle title for the second straight year.

Hedj Nelson, Veterans Greco-Roman World champion in Div. E at 62 kg

Hedj Nelson became one of only a handful of Veterans wrestlers from the United States to win a World title in Greco-Roman, with a strong effort at the 2017 Veterans Worlds in Bulgaria. He won three straight matches to claim the gold medal, including a pin over Aisabek Polatbekov of Kyrgyzstan in the finals. Nelson also added a silver medal in freestyle at the Veterans Worlds, his third career Veterans freestyle medal.

Aaron Johnson, Veterans No-Gi Grappling World champion in 40-44 years division at 66 kg

A member of the U.S. Senior Grappling World Team for the last two years, Aaron Johnson decided to also compete in the Veterans division at this year’s World Championships in Azerbaijan. Johnson won both of his matches in the Veterans tournament, beating opponents from Azerbaijan and Russia on the way to his first World gold medal as part of USA Wrestling’s Grappling program.

Gabe Beauperthuy, Veterans Grappling Gi and No-Gi World champion in 45-49 years at Unlimited
Jeff Anderson, Veterans Grappling Gi and No-Gi World champion in 50-54 years at 92 kg


Gabe Beauperthuy, a multi-sport athlete in the USA Wrestling Associated Styles program, was a member of the Senior Grappling World Team in Gi Grappling this year. For the second straight year at the Grappling Worlds, he also entered the Veterans division in both styles. Jeff Anderson, who competes on the Veterans circuit in freestyle and Greco-Roman, went directly from the Veterans Worlds in Bulgaria to Azerbaijan, where he entered the Veterans division at the Grappling Worlds. Both Beauperthuy and Anderson claimed gold medals in both styles at their Veterans weight classes uncontested, and had opponents forfeit to them. For Beauperthuy, he now boasts four Veterans Grappling World gold medals, after also sweeping the golds last year.