Wrestling set to showcase the sport at world championships in Las Vegas
Iran's national free-style wrestling team trains in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. (AP / Ebrahim Noroozi)
The Associated Press
Published Sunday, September 6, 2015 11:30AM EDT
One of the first things the international wrestling federation did when it found out its Olympic spot was in peril was to schedule the final world championships of the 2016 Games cycle in Las Vegas.
If the International Olympic Committee was going to make Rio De Janeiro the last Olympic stop for wrestling, it wanted to literally go out in style.
Starting Monday, a sport long criticized for being boring is moving to one of the world's most exciting cities.
The rebranded and reorganized sport takes centre stage at the Orleans Arena, with 24 world titles and tons of trips to Rio on the line.
It's just as wrestling planned it -- well, sort of -- after working furiously to get back into the Olympic program.
The IOC recommended in 2013 that the centuries-old sport be dropped for refusing to adapt to modern thinking, but it was reinstated later that year.
"Everything happened so fast that I've had difficulty remembering what happened," United World Wrestling president Nenad Lalovic said. "We were all the time trying to find solutions to solve these problems. We did a lot ... these two and a half years, sometimes I'm asking myself which year we are in."
And if there is one person who deserves the most credit for guiding wrestling into the 21st century, it's Lalovic.
Just days after the IOC's recommendation, wrestling dropped the divisive Raphael Martinetti and inserted Lalovic, a native Serb with a reputation as a consensus builder, as president. Lalovic took charge as wrestling worked with the IOC to enact sweeping changes to better appeal to TV viewers while improving gender equity.
Lalovic was rewarded for his hard work last month when he became the first wrestling official elected to the IOC
"He cares deeply for the sport. He doesn't have an agenda," USA Wrestling president Rich Bender said. "What got our sport in trouble in the past was that certain personalities and people in leadership positions (thought) they were the smartest guys on the planet when it came to wrestling."
The Las Vegas setting could be a huge boost to the Americans seeking world championships.
American star Jordan Burroughs, considered by many to be the world's best pound-for-pound wrestler, is trying to reclaim the world title at 74 kilograms after losing it a year ago.
He will be joined by fellow London 2012 Olympians Reece Humphrey, Jake Herbert and heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev, along with rising Ohio State star Kyle Snyder and a pair of former Iowa Hawkeyes; Tony Ramos and Brent Metcalf.
Nineteen-year-old sensation Abdulrashid Sadulaev won a world title in 2014 and will headline a stacked Russian team poised to dominate the freestyle field.
The Greco-Roman competition could be wide open, with only three defending world champions entering this year's meet atop their weight classes. Cuban heavyweight Mijain Lopez will be favoured for a sixth world title.
Helen Maroulis and Adeline Gray look to be the U.S.'s best hope for a world title in women's freestyle, a category dominated by Japan. Twelve-time world champion Saori Yoishida and nine-time winner Kaori Icho remain the favourites in their weight classes.
The freestyle rules have been tweaked to encourage wrestlers to attack. The popular five-point throw and increased penalties for passivity have been instituted for the Greco-Roman discipline.
Those changes were just part of a massive overhaul for a sport set to showcase itself in Las Vegas.
"I'm very happy for everything that happened," Lalovic said. "Sometimes from the worst of situation you can have the best of things."