Top Five Wrestling Stories of 2016

By Tim Foley

From the Olympic Games in Rio to the world championships in Budapest, wrestling enjoyed one of the most dramatic and action-packed years in the sport’s history.

While wrestlers from around the world entered a variety of national and international tournaments in 2016, the year's top stories all revolved around the Olympics. The year's Olympic journey started with the European, Asian, Pan American and African/Oceania qualifiers. The action was broadcast LIVE and free to fans across the world, with instant updates, scores, analysis and photographs delivered to fans via the United World Wrestling homepage. Never before had the wrestling community enjoyed online and TV access to so much important Olympic-year wrestling.

After the World Qualifiers in Mongolia and Turkey rounded out the qualification tournaments, it was on to the Olympic Games. As expected, wrestling produced some of the most incredible moments of the entire Olympic Games and with wire-to-wire coverage fans of the sport didn’t miss a match.

Here’s a look at the top five moments from the 2016 season.

No. 5: Amri and Malik Score Olympic Firsts for Africa and India

Tunisia’s Marwa AMRI and India’s Sakshi MALIK pushed the cause of women’s wrestling forward in their home countries this summer with their bronze medal performances at the Olympic Games.

Amri, who wrestles 58kg, became the first woman from Africa to medal in wrestling at the Olympic Games. The veteran wrestler, who also competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, earned Tunisia's first-ever wrestling medalist with her bronze medal performance.

Malik’s third-place finish at 58kg secured her position as India’s first-ever female medalist in wrestling at the Olympic Games. She also became the fourth-ever female Olympic medalist from India. The feat led to major stardom in a country with an increasing attachment to the sport of wrestling.

No. 4 “Tank” Sadulaev Remains Unbeaten Since 2013, Wins Olympic Gold

Perhaps no wrestler was more dominate in the four-year cycle leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games than 86kg freestyle wrestler Abdulrashid SADUALEV. The Russian’s last lost came in November 2013 while wrestling at the Golden Grand Prix as a 17-year-old. Since then he’s been undefeated -- and mostly unchallenged.

At the 2016 Olympics Sadualev dominated as he had in every previous tournament, winning gold with a combined score of 28-1 against four opponents.

The story of Sadulaev’s dominance was captured by S. L. Price of Sport’s Illustrated HERE ..

Though already, at 20 years old and 190 lbs. (86 kg.), considered the best pound-for-pound wrestler alive, Sadulaev isn’t called (Tank) just because he hasn’t lost in three years. His gait is a relentless roll. A bowl-cut hairstyle lends his low-browed head the aspect of a gun-turret. Even in his home province of Dagestan, they call him Ruski Tenk."

No. 3 Helen Maroulis Upends Legend Yoshida in Olympic Finals

The first-time Helen MAROULIS (USA) faced Saori YOSHIDA (JPN) the American was pinned in a blistering 1:09. The result wasn’t surprising since Yoshida is a 13-time world champion and three-time Olympic champion. Despite it's predictability that loss and the pair's matchup in the finals of the 2016 Olympic Games would become part of the backstory for one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Olympic Games.

Headed into Rio Yoshida was expected to dominate Maroulis as easily as she had on their first outing. Fans, media, athletes and coaches were all preparing for Yoshida's coronation and end the Games with her record-smashing fourth Olympic gold medal in hand. Rio was to be a capstone to the greatest wrestling career in history.

Maroulis had a different idea for a storybook ending.

The American had won the 2015 world championship (at 55kg), dominated her qualification round matches and pinned her semifinal opponent Sofia MATTSSON (SWE). She was steaming into her finals match against Yoshida focused on gold, not being a footnote to Yoshida's career.

Once the finals started the action on the mat was all Maroulis. The young American put together an impressive offensive output against the Olympic legend, dominating the flustered and outmatched Yoshida from whistle-to-whistle. When time expired Maroulis had prevailed, 4-1.

Maroulis’ win wasn’t just a personal feat or massive upset, it was the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in women’s wrestling, and videos of her victory become one of the most-watched social media clips of the Olympic Games.

No. 2 Mijain Lopez Throws Kayaalp to Win Historic Third Olympic Gold

With two Olympic gold medals and five world championships, Greco-Roman super heavyweight Mijain LOPEZ (CUB) was no stranger to winning heading into the 2016 Games. However, a loss in the 2015 world finals to juggernaut Turkish opponent Reza KAYAALP cast doubt as to whether the Cuban superstar could grapple to a third Olympic gold.

As expected, the duo cruised through their respective qualification round matches as they prepared for what would inevitably become an epic toe-to-toe battle of legends.

Much to the surprise of fans the match wasn’t a slow-developing shoving match, but instead featured arguably one of the biggest throws in Olympic history when Lopez forced Kayaalp’s head downward, locked up a chest wrap and lifted the 130kg opponent for a four-point throw.

Lopez never slowed his pace and won his third Olympic gold medal, 6-0. The Cuban wrestler’s third Olympic gold matches that of legendary Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Aleksander Karelin.

No.1 Kaori Icho Becomes Wrestling’s First Four-Time Olympic Gold Medalist

In most cases a wrestler who has won 10 world titles and three Olympic gold medals would be a shoe-in to win a fourth title, but for Kaori ICHO there were significant doubts she could wrestler her way into the record books in Rio.

Much of that doubt came from Icho’s surprise loss at the 2016 Ivan Yariguin tournament, where she was dealt a 10-0 technical fall loss to upstart PUREVDORJ Orkhon (MGL). That loss -- her first in 13 years -- coupled with rumors of injury, left many wondering if four Olympic gold medals was too many for the Japanese woman.

The early rounds of the Olympics seemed to show Icho flat-footed and in-danger, only skirting her Turkish opponent 3-1 in the second round. Her semifinal match ended in a technical fall, but the performance was streaky and further suggested the star was suffering from injuries.

After trudging her way through the morning’s competition, Icho faced former world runner-up Valeriia KOBLOVA ZHOLOBOVA (RUS) in the Olympic finals. The two battled with intensity for the first period with Zholobova taking a definitive 2-1 lead into the break. The match stayed tied through most of the second period with Zholobova frustrating Icho with head snaps and 2-on-1 tie-ups.  

With less than 30 seconds remaining Icho launched a desperate attack that sent her and the Russian scrambling for position. Zholobova actually found Icho’s leg and looked to hold on for the final few seconds, but with just five seconds on the clock Icho stretched her leg, broke loose and spun behind to find the winning takedown with five seconds remaining.

Icho’s achievement become the most-covered wrestling moment of the 2016 Olympic Games, with press from across the world converging on the arena to share the story.