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2006 World Championships preview at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. in menís Greco-Roman wrestling

One of the top Greco-Roman stars this decade has been Turkey's two-time Olympic champion Hamza Yerlikaya, who has seemed to have revived his career by moving up in weight. He made big news back in 1993, when he won his first World title at the age of 17, competing at 82 kg. Yerlikaya won another World title in 1995, then captured Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000.

After Yerlikaya finished fourth at the 2004 Olympic Games at 85 kg, he decided to move up to 96 kg and his performances have been outstanding. He won the World title in 2005 with a very strong performance, and has also won the last two European Championships as well as the 2006 World Cup. Although he has been on the international scene for almost 15 years, he is still just 30 years old, which is not far from an athlete's prime in the higher weight divisions.

Lajos Virag of Hungary won the World silver medal last season, his first World-level medal. His previous best efforts at major competitions were his ninth place finishes at the 2004 Olympic Games and 2003 World Championships. Virag competed with extra intensity last year with the World meet in his native Hungary. It will be interesting to see if Virag can stay in the medal hunt this year without the homecourt advantage.

Capturing the World bronze medals were Vasiliy Tepoulkhanov of Russia and Justin Ruiz of the United States. Tepoulkhanov won the title at the FILA Golden Grand Prix finals this year, a strong performance, but did not have a good effort at the European Championships (10th) or at the World Cup (6th). Ruiz was the only U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler to medal last year, and comes to China as one of the team leaders and most experienced competitors. Ruiz had a rivalry in the U.S. for years with 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Garrett Lowney, something that gave him an edge when he began making U.S. teams.

2004 Olympic champion Karam Gaber of Egypt has returned to competition this year, after spending time away on other interests, including mixed martial arts. Although Gaber has dropped a few matches on the international circuit this year, he is expected to be a gold-medal challenger. His spectacular style of throwing his opponents caught the world's attention at the Athens Olympics. He also boasts a pair of World silver medals, which he won in 2002 and 2003. Egypt could also enter past World medalist Mohommed Abd el Fattah who has been up at 96 kg during this season, but many expect to see Gaber on the mats in China.

Margulan Assembekov of Kazakhstan has won the Asian Championships for two straight years, and placed fifth in the World last year. He was a World University Games champion in 2005, and a World Cup silver medalist that season. Assembekov was fifth at the FILA Golden Grand Prix finals this year, as well.

Taking the 2006 European title silver medal was Mykhail Nikovayev of Ukraine, who was seventh in the World last year. He is among the top young stars in the world at this time, and only started competing on the Senior level last season.

The two European bronze medalists this year were Marek Svec of the Czech Republic and Jimmy Lidberg of Sweden. Svec was 10th in the World last year, but won a World silver medal back in 1998. Svec, 33, is one of the true veterans in the field, entering his first Senior World Championships back in 1994. Lidberg was a silver medalist at the 2005 European meet, but has yet to win a medal at the World level.

2004 Olympic silver medalist Ramaz Nozadze of Georgia is a challenger if he is the entry this year. Last year, 2001 World champion Mukran Vakrangadze wrestled up at 96 kg at the World meet, and competing for Georgia at the European Championships this year was Paat Dvalidze.

Mirko Englich of Germany placed fifth at the World Championships last year, his highest finish after competing in a number of previous World meets. Also placing in the top 10 at the World level last year were Shata Narmaniya of Belarus and Vladislav Metodiev of Bulgaria. Narmaniya was fifth at the European Championships this year, as was Theodoris Tounousidis of Greece.

Iran had the World University champion this year in Syavash Ghalvand, while the FILA Junior World champion this summer was Ivan Nemeth of Hungary.

This could be a very interesting weight class, especially if Olympic champions Yerlikaya and Gaber get matched up at any time during the tournament. All eyes will be on these great champions, but there are a number of other talented contenders who could work their way to the top this year.


2005 World Championships results
96 kg/211.5 lbs. -Gold - Hamza Yerlikaya (Turkey); Silver - Lajos Virag (Hungary); Bronze - Vasilliy Tepoulkhov (Russia); Bronze - Justin Ruiz (USA); 5th - Mirko Englich (Germany); 5th - Margulan Assembekov (Kazakhstan); 7th - Mikhaylo Nikolaev (Ukraine); 8th - Vladislav Metodiev (Bulgaria); 9th - Shata Narmaniya (Belarus); 10th - Marek Svec (Czech Republic)

2004 Olympic Games results
96 kg/211.5 lbs. - Gold - Karam Ibrahim Gaber (Egypt); Silver -Ramaz Nozadze (Georgia); Bronze -Mehmet Ozal (Turkey); 4th - Ernesto Pena (Cuba); 5th - Genadi Chhaidze (Kyrgyzstan); 6th - Gogi Koguachvili (Russia); 7th - Georgios Koutsioumpas (Greece); 8th - Kaloyan Dinchev (Bulgaria); 9h - Lajos Virag (Hungary); 10th - Marek Sitnik (Poland)

2003 World Championships results
96 kg/211.5 lbs. - Gold - Martin Lidberg (Sweden) dec. Karam Ibrahim Gaber (Egypt), 3-0; Bronze - Ramaz Nozadze (Georgia) dec. Davyd Saldadze (Ukraine), 6-0; 5th - Aleksey Cheglakov (Uzbekistan); 6th - Alexander Bezrutchkin (Russia); 7th - Gennadiy Chhaidze (Kyrgyzstan); 8th - Kostas Thanos (Greece); 9th - Lajos Virag (Hungary); 10th - Mirko English (Germany)

2002 World Championships results
96 kg/211.75 lbs. - Gold - Mekhmet Oezal (Turkey) dec. Karam Ibrahim Gaber (Egypt), 15-11; Bronze - Ali Mollov (Bulgaria) dec. Ernesto Pena (Cuba), 4-0; 5th -Roman Meduna (Slovakia); 6th -Aleksei Cheglakov (Uzbekistan); 7th - Marek Svec (Czech Republic); 8th - Mirko Englich (Germany); 9th - Sasa Dukai (Yugoslavia); 10th - Hao Liu (China)

2001 World Championships results
97 kg/213.75 lbs. - Gold - Alexandre Bezroutchkine (Russia) dec. Ernesto Pena (Cuba), 7-0; Bronze - Mehmet Ozal (Turkey) dec. Petru Sudureak (Romania), 7-5; 5th - Marek Svec (Czech Republic); 6th - Aleksey Cheglakov (Uzbekistan); 7th - Marek Sitnik (Poland); 8th - Ehssan Karimfar (Iran); 9th - Roman Meduna (Slovakia); 10th - Sergey Matviyenko (Kazakhstan)
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