When you're an American going to Russia, the expectation is that you're going to lose. But 18 Americans battled through that perception to win the toughest tournament in the world: the Ivan Yariguin.
January 23-26 | 11:00 PM Eastern
The first American to win this event was Jim Scherr in 1990, setting off a four year run of champs for the United States. Capping off that run was Tom Brands title in 1993. Now the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes, Brands had this to say about his mindset heading into that tournament:
"When I went it was right after the Cold War, or the Cold War was in a serious thaw. It was ’93, January, the first time. So you were going somewhere that not a lot of people had been, from the West. But the thing is, I grew up with my twin brother knowing that the best wrestling in the world came out of Russia. So you’re going, not behind the Iron Curtain politically, you’re going behind the Iron Curtain to the best wrestler’s nest."
Even more incredibly, it was the event that kicked off Brands' senior level career.
Krasnoyarsk was the first senior level tournament that I had been to. I was in a culture that I admire because of the importance of wrestling.
After Brands, there was a five year drought in which no Americans won, ended by another Hawkeye in Lincoln McIlravy. There was again a six year drought, that was actually ended by two women: Tela O'Donnell and Irish Smith in 2004. That was the third time that USA has had multiple champs in a single style at Yariguin.
The next year was the first time Team USA had both a male and female champ in the same year. Joe Williams 74kg gold brought Iowa's Yariguin haul to four, the most Yariguin titles of any NCAA school. Our other male champ that year, Daniel Cormier, beat Tommy Rowlands for gold, the only time two Americans have ever met in the Yariguin finals.
Now a UFC champion, Cormier said he loved every time he went to the Yariguin. He called winning it one of his biggest accomplishments, after not placing and finishing fourth in his first two trips. The former Oklahoma State star went on to say:
I was so happy to be in the finals with Tommy Rowlands. Not many Americans had won that tournament and for the two of us to be in the finals was amazing. What a grind of a tournament!
Although we had no men's freestyle champs after 2005 until 2009, Sally Roberts became the first American to win two Yariguin titles, taking both of hers in the Olympic years of 2004 and 2008.
In 2009, Steve Mocco won the heavyweight title, and it would be eight years until another American would bring home gold. We asked Mocco what he felt going into that tournament. He said, "Going there is such a rich experience from the palace, to the weather, to the officiating, and the whole energy of the event," but ended it with a classic Mocco gem:
It felt like every match there I had to wrestle like I had a price on my head.
The past two years have been an excellent time for Team USA in Krasnoyarsk. Kyle Snyder and Tamyra Mensah-Stock simultaneously became the first two Americans to win back-to-back Yariguin titles. Both are in Russia this year, looking to become the first three-time winners of the event.
U.S. Champions at Ivan Yariguin Grand Prix
1990 – Jim Scherr (90kg)
1991 – Dave Schultz (74kg), Chris Campbell (90kg)
1992 – Kendall Cross (57kg)
1993 – Tom Brands (62kg), Kurt Angle (100kg)
1998 – Lincoln McIlravy (69kg)
2005 – Joe Williams (74kg), Daniel Cormier (96kg)
2009 – Steve Mocco (120kg)
2017 - Kyle Snyder (97kg)
2018 – David Taylor (86kg), Kyle Snyder (97kg)
2004 – Tela O’Donnell (55kg), Iris Smith (72kg)
2005 – Sally Roberts (59kg)
2006 – Marcie Van Dusen (59kg)
2008 – Sally Roberts (59kg)
2010 – Kelsey Campbell (59kg)
2017 – Tamyra Stock (69kg)
2018 – Tamyra Stock (68kg)