Russians remain wrestling favorites in London
The often overlooked sport of wrestling did its best to grab the spotlight when the United States and Russia staged a highly publicized exhibition in New York's Times Square in June.
The Americans held serve on their home soil, beating their longtime rivals 4-3, but expect a different theme when the action moves to London this summer.
Russia takes wrestling as seriously as any nation in the world and often dominates in the Olympics. The country won three freestyle gold medals in Athens, three more in Beijing and could match that haul again at the London Games.
''For Russian standards, this is probably a lower team than they've had. But make no mistake. They're very, very good,'' U.S. national freestyle coach Zeke Jones said.
Russia's main competition likely will come from Iran, which boasts a promising crop of young wrestlers, along with Azerbaijan and the U.S.
Iran's medal contenders include 2011 world champions Mehdi Taghavi Kermani at 66 kilograms and Reza Yazdani at 96 kg. Hassan Rahimi also could push for gold at 55 kg, especially now that Viktor Lebedev is uncertain for London after he was upset in the recent Russian Nationals.
Azerbaijan has a pair of freestyle gold contenders in Yabrail Hasanov and Sharif Sharifov, along with reigning Greco-Roman champion Ravshan Bayramov at 55 kg.
No country in the world qualified more wrestlers than the United States, which will compete for 17 of the 18 gold medals up for grabs at the ExCel Centre from Aug. 5-12.
But the Americans have just one favorite, Jordan Burroughs, and there's a possibility the U.S. could bring home only one wrestling gold medal for the third straight games.
Burroughs, who won two NCAA titles at Nebraska, made a smooth transition to freestyle wrestling last year and won the world championship in Istanbul. The New Jersey native is the popular pick to win at 74 kg, which could see a world-championship rematch between Burroughs and Iran's Sadegh Goudarzi.
Former Iowa State star Jake Varner, heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev and Pennsylvania native Jake Herbert also are medal contenders, but none of them are expected to bring home the gold.
Jones said one of the strengths of the American team is it's much more experienced than it has been in recent years.
''I just think the expectations of the program are always high,'' he said. ''We want to do well. Each guy is capable of winning a gold medal. We've really been able to do everything we need to to be ready.''
Former Michigan State star Franklin Gomez, now wrestling for Puerto Rico, is hoping to get another crack at Russian favorite Besik Kudukhov after losing their gold-medal match in Istanbul.
Perhaps the most stunning result of the recent world championships was Cuban Mijain Lopez losing to Turkey's Riza Kayaalp in the Greco-Roman heavyweight final.
Lopez won gold in Beijing and is about as big of a favorite as there will be in London. If he happens to run into Kayaalp again, it should be among the most compelling matches in London.
On the women's side, Japan figures to dominate much like it did in Athens and Beijing.
Two-time defending gold medalists Saori Yoshida (55kg) and Kaori Icho (63kg) are heavy favorites in their respective weight classes. Yoshida would equal Russian great Aleksandr Karelin's 12 international titles if she wins in London, while Icho is hoping for a third gold to go along with a staggering seven world championships.
Canadian Tonya Verbeek, who's spent much of her career in Yoshida's shadow, will again try to overtake the world's best at 55 kg. Icho's main competition could be Hungary's Marianna Sastin, though the Americans are high on Russian-born Elena Pirozhkova, who grew up in Greenfield, Mass.
Japan might also take gold at 48 kg, with six-time world champion Hitomi Obara Sakamoto competing in her first Olympics.
None of the Russian female wrestlers are favored to win. But Russia is still expected to fly back from London with more wrestling medals than anyone else.
Gold: Hassan Rahimi, Iran
Silver: Radoslav Vellikov Marinov, Bulgaria
Bronze: Daulet Niyazbekow, Kazakhstan; Mihan Jaburyan, Armenia
Gold: Besik Kudukhov, Russia
Silver: Franklin Gomez, Puerto Rico
Bronze: Dauren Zhumgaziev, Kazakhstan; Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez, Cuba
Gold: Mehdi Taghavi, Iran
Silver: Yabrail Hasanov, Azerbaijan
Bronze: Ali Shabanov, Belarus; Sushil Kumar, India
Gold: Jordan Burroughs, United States
Silver: Davit Khutsishvili, Georgia
Bronze: Ashraf Aliev, Azerbaijan; Sadegh Goudarzi, Iran
Gold: Sharif Sharifov, Azerbaijan
Silver: Ehsan Lashgari, Iran
Bronze: Ibragim Aldatov, Ukraine; Dato Marsagishvili, Georgia
Gold: Reza Yazdani, Iran
Silver: Serhat Balci, Turkey
Bronze: Khetag Gazumov, Azerbaijan; Jake Varner, United States
Gold: Beylal Makhov, Russia
Silver: Aleksey Shemarov, Belarus
Bronze: Tervel Dlagnev, United States; Chuluunbat Jargalsaikhan, Mongolia
Gold: Ravshan Bayramov, Azerbaijan
Silver: Hamid Soryan, Iran
Bronze: Gyu-Jin Choi, Korea; Elbek Tazhyiev, Belarus
Gold: Omid Noroozi, Iran
Silver: Almat Kebispayev, Kazakhstan
Bronze: Zaur Kuramagomedov, Russia; Ivo Angelov, Bulgaria
Gold: Manuchar Tskhadia, Georgia
Silver: Saeid Mourad Abdvali, Iran
Bronze: Justin Lester, United States; Steeve Guenot, France
Gold: Roman Vlasov, Russia
Silver: Selcuk Cebi, Turkey
Bronze: Arsen Julfalakyan, Armenia; Neven Zugaj, Croatia
Gold: Damian Janikowski, Poland
Silver: Almin Selimov, Belarus
Bronze: Alan Khugaev, Russia; Rami Hietaniemi, Finland
Gold: Amir Aliakbari, Iran
Silver: Cenk Ildem, Turkey
Bronze: Jimmy Lidberg, Sweden; Mohamad Abd El Fatah, Egypt
Gold: Mijain Lopez, Cuba
Silver: Nurmakhan Tinaliev, Kazakhstan
Bronze: Riza Kayaalp, Turkey; Dremiel Byers, United States
Gold: Carol Huynh, Canada
Silver: Hitomi Obara Sakamoto, Japan
Bronze: Clarissa Chun, United States, Maria Stadnyk, Azerbaijan
Gold: Saori Yoshida, Japan
Silver: Ida-Theres Nerell, Sweden
Bronze: Tonya Verbeek, Canada, Kum-Ok Han, North Korea
Gold: Kaori Icho, Japan
Silver: Henna Johansson, Sweden
Bronze: Elena Pirozhkova, United States, Marianna Sastin, Hungary
Gold: Stanka Zlateva Hristova, Bulgaria
Silver: Ekaterina Bukina, Russia
Bronze: Vasilisa Marzaliuk, Belarus; Jiao Wang, China