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Russians rule on London Olympic wrestling mat

By LUKE MEREDITH,

AP Sports Writer

Updated August 13, 2012

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

LONDON (AP) It wasn't surprising that the Russians dominated the podium at the Olympic wrestling tournament in London.

But the results show that two of the country's biggest rivals, Iran and Azerbaijan, are ready to challenge over the next several years. And the Americans proved they don't plan on going anywhere, either.

The U.S. scooped up two men's freestyle golds after Jake Varner at 96 kilograms joined Jordan Burroughs, the 74-kilogram champion, with a stirring win on Sunday.

"It is so hard to win," U.S. national team coach Zeke Jones said. "The world is more competitive than ever and more organized."

The Americans won two gold and two bronze, and got an unforgettable performance by Burroughs, who emerged from London as the brightest star in the sport.

Burroughs survived an extraordinarily tense three-period battle with talented Russian opponent Denis Tsargush before dominating Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi of Iran in the final. Burroughs beat Goudarzi with his "double leg" attack, then showed off the quick wit that's helped make him the new face of the sport in the U.S.

"If the Queen of England stepped out onto the mat I'd probably double-leg her," Burroughs said.

The Iranians won their first three Greco-Roman Olympic gold medals, following through after a strong showing at the 2011 world championships. On Saturday, Azerbaijan won as many Olympic golds, two, as it had ever won before in wrestling.

"After our success in the world championships last year, people in Iran were ... still didn't believe in us. They thought we would get maybe a silver or a bronze," Iran national team coach Mohammad Bana said this week. "I believe everyone is celebrating."

Bana credited Iran's rise in the Greco-Roman discipline to a decade spent developing Olympic champions like Hamid Soryan, who was fifth at the 2008 Beijing Games, and Omid Noroozi.

Azerbaijan's historic night came partly at the expense of the Russians as 19-year-old star Toghrul Asgarov upset four-time world champion Besik Kudukhov in the final.

No one expects any of those nations to overtake the powerful Russians, winners of 11 total wrestling medals but only four golds, by the time the Rio de Janeiro Games roll around in four years. But there now appears to be more parity within the sport on an international level.

Iran had three golds and six total medals, while Azerbaijan had two golds among its seven medals.

Also, Artur Taymazov of Uzbekistan shrugged off critics who said he couldn't win another gold at the age of 33, matching Russian legend Alexander Karelin's Olympic haul with his third straight gold at 120-kilogram freestyle.

Japan owned the women's freestyle as expected by winning three of the four gold medals. Kaori Icho and Saori Yoshida each won a record-setting third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

But Japan's dominance could prove troublesome for the sport's governing body as it attempts to convince the International Olympic Committee that women's wrestling now deserves seven weight classes, the same number as the men. It's tough to argue the sport needs to expand its Olympic tournament when one nation can so easily dominate everyone else.

The Americans medaled in women's wrestling for the second straight Olympics, as Clarissa Chun joined men's freestyler Coleman Scott as bronze medalists.

But the Greco-Roman team, which won the world team title just five years ago, bombed out in a performance so bad that an overhaul of the entire program seems likely.

Freestyle heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev came agonizingly close to winning a bronze, losing with less than 10 seconds left in his final match. Jake Herbert lost to eventual gold medalist Sharif Sharifov in the quarterfinals on a curious and confusing scoring decision that the fuming Americans won't soon forget.

But the Americans doubled its medal count and its gold count in just four years.

The U.S. might never get back to the point where it'd be expected to medal in every weight class. But after a shaky start by the Greco-Roman team had the American contingent deeply concerned, Burroughs and Varner came through.

"It means a lot to the program," Jones said. "One, it means we're making progress. Two, it seems that the plan is working."

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