Ivan, an anonymous Russian countryman on Twitter, and invaluable informant on international wrestling, recently tweeted that Nenad Lalovich, President of United World Wrestling (UWW), named Dagestan the best wrestling territory in the world. Mark Bader, the premium content producer at Flowrestling asked him who was second. Ivan responded with the top five: 2. Ossetia 3. Mazandaran 4. Pennsylvania 5. Oklahoma.
Dagestan and Ossetia are both territories in southern Russia in what’s known as the Caucasus region. This area of the world is ripe with political turmoil, civil wars, and secession movements. Dagestan borders both Azerbaijan and Georgia. Ossetia* borders only Georgia, however, southern Ossetia is actually within Georgian borders. This puts the Ossetians in a difficult spot: many of them reside in Georgia, but live under the jurisdiction of the Kremlin backed “de-facto government of the Republic of South Ossetia”.
Dagestan is not much better. A quick search on Wikipedia reveals why. With a population just under 3 million, Dagestan is Russia’s most “heterogenous” region with none of its many ethnicities forming a majority. In fact, native Russians only comprise 3.6% of its population. Since the 1990s, “Dagestan has been a scene of Islamic insurgency, occasional outbreaks of separatism, and ethnic tension”. Continuing, “much of the tension is rooted in an internal Islamic conflict between traditional Sufi groups advocating secular government and more recently introduced Salafist teachers preaching the implementation of Sharia”.
Not unlike the WPIAL, athletes from this region of the world often transfer between countries for athletic intent. Russians, Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, Ukrainians, etc often find themselves competing in a singlet with different colors on the back. There was a stat from the World Championships this year detailing how many native Russians were competing for other nations. My internet research machine is failing me, but it was around 30. That’s incredible considering there are only eight weight classes. It is truly a testament to the dedication and character of athletes from this area of the world, that they are not distracted by the clashing of ideologies and uprising of militancy around them, and are able to focus on their training. Not just to be decent at wrestling, but to be the very best.
Mazandaran, on the other hand, is one of Iran’s most booming and bustling areas. It is loaded with oil and natural gas (hey, so is No. 4 on the list), has strong agri- and aquaculture industries, and is becoming a hot spot for biotech. It has mountains, plains, and forests and borders the Caspian Sea. Wow, that sounds a lot like western Pennsylvania. Besides producing energy, food products, healthcare and technological advances, with a diverse landscape and geography, Mazandaran and Pennsylvania have one other thing in common: they export fantastic wrestlers.
When the president of the international governing body names the five best “territories” of wrestling, obviously they are going to have a history of producing great wrestlers. But it goes a little deeper than that. In the last three years, only two Pennsylvania natives have made the US National team, Jake Herbert (North Allegheny) in 2015 and Zain Retherford (Benton) this year. On the 2017 team, which won the team title for the first time in over twenty years, there were two New Jersey natives in James Green and Jordan Burroughs. So, Lalovich didn’t just name PA because a majority of Team USA’s roster spots are occupied by Pennsylvanians. No, he has greater understanding for how much talent comes from this state.
Consider some of the wrestlers that have come from Pennsylvania over the last fifteen years: Jordan Oliver, Coleman Scott, Ed Ruth, Quentin Wright, Keith Gavin, Mike Hull (who is playing in an NFL game while I’m writing this), Darian Cruz, Nico Megaludis, Jason Nolf, Spencer Lee, Vincenzo Joseph. And that is a VERY selective list. I could fill three pages with multiple time All-Americans and other college studs. I limited this list to just NCAA champions as best as I could, with Lee being just a freshman, but also a 3x World Champion.
Dagestan has produced the likes of Abdulrashid Sadulaev, Abdusalam Gadisov, Ali Aliyev, Buvaisa Saitiev, Magomed Kurbanaliev, and the list goes on and on. Mazandaran has given us Hassan Yazdani, Mehdi Taghavi, Masoud Esmailpour, Adbollah Movahed, and too many others to list. One of the most famous wrestlers in history, Aleksandr Karelin hails from Ossetia. Check out this excerpt from a 1996 Sports Illustrated article:
The Russian freestyle roster, on the other hand, typically has been nearly half-filled with Ossetians. The number of champions from such a small republic (pop. 690,000) has been amazing… Martial law, in effect almost continuously since 1991, during the civil war to the south in Georgia, had been lifted only in the past year… “We are good wrestlers here because we are survivors,” explained Makharbek Khadartsev, who will be trying for his third gold medal at 198 1/2 pounds. “It is in the blood. We are descendants of the Alani, who were massacred by Genghis Khan. [According to local legend, he ordered that all men in the region taller than a wagon wheel be decapitated.] Our ancestors were the ones who fled into the mountains, who survived. The weak could not survive, only the strong. We Ossetians have always fought for our lives.”
Pennsylvania is in good company. Every top college program recruits heavily from the Keystone state, and for good reason. As the new Pitt coaching staff has said, they would like to get more of the top guys from PA. According to President Lalovich, they might just be getting some of the top guys in the world.
For comparison, here is the land area (in square miles) of these territories, and some of the other countries mentioned:
- Russia: 6.5 million
- USA: 3.7 million
- Georgia: 26,900
- Azerbaijan: 33,400
- Dagestan: 19,400
- Ossetia: 4,600 (North + South)
- Mazandaran: 9,202
- Pennsylvania: 46,055
- Oklahoma: 69,897
* Lalovich was referring to only Northern Ossetia, the part that fully resides in Russia
Note: All factual information quoted in the article, unless otherwise specified, was researched on Wikipedia