For Samat Nadyrbek Uulu and Lukman Mamatov, America is home now. The world class wrestlers were born in Kyrgyzstan, but moved to the United States in 2016 in pursuit of more wrestling opportunities, improved training conditions, and Olympic Gold.
Samat was born in 1991 just five months before KGZ gained its independence from the Soviet Union, and started wrestling when he was 10 years old. Although he made the move official in 2016, Samat visited the US in 2013 for the Bill Farrell Memorial Tournament held at the New York Athletic Club, and again in 2015 for the World Championships in Las Vegas. It was at these events Samat was exposed to the training facilities American wrestlers have access to.
“I have visited many countries, but they don’t have [training] conditions like here. Therefore, I came back to USA. Now I’m training at Pitt and I’m happy for this because I like Pittsburgh and the country. Also, there are more opportunities here.”
Samat got by in Kyrgyzstan similarly to how he is now, stipends and prize money from wrestling. “Wrestlers in Kyrgyzstan don’t get paid a lot of money. But money what they pay is enough… and I had sponsors that pay me.” Kyrgyzstan’s economy is not strong at all, and the prospects of making a living off a sport are dim.
Since starting his career on the senior level in 2013, Nadyrbek Uulu has wrestled at 55/57kg at every tournament except one. His best finishes are 1st at Bill Farrell in 2013 and 2018, 1st at Dave Schultz in 2018, 3rd at Yasar Dogu in 2016, 2nd at the Asian Championships in 2015 and 3rd in 2014, 2nd at Alexander Medved in 2015, 2nd at the World University Games in 2013, and 7th at the Junior World Championships in 2011. These are not insignificant accomplishments.
When Samat came to the US in 2016 with Lukman, neither of them spoke a word of English. Now, they are able to speak enough to effectively communicate with the coaches and other athletes, as well as go about everyday life. This makes them trilingual: Kyrgyz, Russian, English.
57kg is equivalent to 125.4 pounds, which makes him an ideal training partner for Pitt’s collegiate athletes at 125 and 133. As mentioned in PSN’s article detailing the regional training center, Samat is a resident athlete at the Pittsburgh RTC. This means he is paid to train there. The benefits of this to the Pitt wrestling program are immense as they are obvious. Who wouldn’t want someone that good in their room?
Just ask Pitt head coach Keith Gavin: “Samat is world class with a ton of experience… He’s committed to mastering his craft and has a deep passion for this sport. We are grateful to have him here as an example for our athletes.”
As mentioned, one of the biggest reasons these two friends journeyed 6400 miles to a foreign land was drastically improved training conditions. Pitt recently renovated its wrestling room, and while no pictures of any rooms in Kyrgyzstan could be found, some photos from Armenia have floated around the internet and they are not pretty. With his eyes set on Tokyo in 2020, he had to make a move.
Lukman Mamatov’s story is rather similar. “After Olympic games in 2016, I wanted to change my training program. I couldn’t choose for this a country better than USA.”
On the senior circuit, Lukman has wrestled 65/66kg. Translated to pounds, this comes to about 144, making him a perfect practice partner for 141 or 149 pounders in college.
Like Samat, Lukman has an impressive list of achievements: 4th at Bill Farrell in 2016, 12th at the Asian Championships in 2016, 18th at the World Championships in 2016, 7th at the World University Games in 2013, 3rd at the Asian Championships in 2013, and 7th at Junior Worlds in 2012.
Training with Gavin as his coach and Pitt’s wrestlers as partners, Lukman says “this is a big change for me and a new experience. I’m feeling like I get better.” Moreover, “next world championships will be qualification for Olympic Games 2020 in Tokyo. And I will wrestle there. And I’m going to win.” It just so happens the 2019 world championships are in Astana, Kazakhstan. Not too far from their native land.
Recent Pitt grad and 141 pounder Nick Zanetta got to wrestle with both of them on almost a daily basis: “In the room it was refreshing to get different looks, and having a completely different perspective on styles. We not only benefited from wrestling live with them, but also from picking their brains in certain positions. Outside the room, we developed friendships with them and got to understand another culture. With such a different background, it was very interesting to see how much we actually had in common.”
Wrestling is the top sport in Kyrgyzstan. But with its limited economic growth and GDP per capita of only $3700, Samat and Lukman were never going to have the same opportunities in their home country as they do in America. When interviewed about the RTC, Pitt volunteer assistant Conor Youtsey raved about their gratitude for this chance of a lifetime.
The average high school wrestler probably never thinks he’ll be able to train with someone from half way around the world in college. Now it’s an everyday occurrence at their training base, the Pittsburgh RTC. Wrestling is unique that way. In a world of division, it brings people together. Even the most unlikely.