In late August of 2017, a legion of gladiatorial men and women from the world’s backwaters descended on Paris to determine who, in a series of weight classes, were the best wrestlers on the planet. Not pro wrestling—turnbuckles, thrown chairs and all that—but the real deal: spandex, cauliflower ear, weight cutting, the heady whiff of groin reek and Hellenism. The occasion was the World Wrestling Championships, which took place at the AccorHotels Arena, a kind of postmodern colosseum on the Seine—directly across the river, in fact, from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and a few blocks from the Opéra de la Bastille. No one involved appeared to find this funny or dissonant.
For the sport’s fanatical devotees, there was immense and almost intolerable hype surrounding the event. This was because a handsome 21-year-old prodigy with a bowl cut named Abdulrashid Sadulaev, from the mountains of Dagestan, had made it known some months before that he would be bumping up from the 86-kilogram weight class, which he’d owned for years, to the 97-kilogram one. Sadulaev is nicknamed “The Russian Tank,” to his own mild annoyance, because of his impassive and generally pitiless way of steamrolling opponents. His most recent loss came in 2013, when he was seventeen.
Now, the reason this news was considered a seismic disclosure is that the 97-kilogram weight class was presided over by another 21-year-old wunderkind, an American named Kyle Snyder from Woodbine, Maryland—a Christ-loving, Alan-Jackson-listening phenom, mighty as a Clydesdale and, like Sadulaev, an Olympic gold medalist at Rio de Janeiro. Snyder is preposterously confident: he likes quoting Corinthians, and comports himself with the ironclad self-assurance of one lit up from afar by some celestial wattage. When Sadulaev declared his intention to move up a weight class, Snyder tweeted: “It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and Sadulaev is coming up to 97 kg.”
Twitter fairly trembled. An unknown Wisconsin man aptly named Jordan Crass blurted, “Kick his Russki @$$!” To which another user replied, “No Russki!!! Dagestan!” Crass shot back, “Fuck Dagestan.”
I studied it all, entranced, from my apartment. A former wrestler, I’d quit the sport cold turkey in college, banishing it from my thoughts for over a decade. Now, for reasons I struggled to explain, I returned, this time purely as a spectator. Was it connected to the politics-induced anxiety attacks that had started afflicting me of late, for the first time in my life? The Russians had meddled with our election. But what did that even mean? Certitude itself had evaporated in a haze of partisan finger-pointing, facts had been rechristened as spin. Meanwhile the American West was on fire. In July, a trillion-ton iceberg the size of Delaware, having threatened for years to split from Antarctica, at last broke free. Across the globe, a new species of dick-swinging autocrat grabbed power with shocking agility and ease, riding—shirts off, man-boobs glinting in the sun—into the presidencies and prime ministries of the world.
I began to lose my shit. I woke routinely at 4 a.m.—no interval between first and second sleep but a clammy, hallucinatory vigil. A lurid phantasmagoria played itself out in the dark before me: I saw nuclear winter and hellish summer, swelling seas and masses of migrants; I saw a dirty bomb detonate in Times Square, the resulting smoke giving way to a vision of Trump playing tennis, swiveling into a groundstroke, his bulbous ass strangled by sheer shorts. I cried out like a frightened child, reaching for my phone and searching frantically for wrestling videos.
I could breathe again. Here, on YouTube, were all the classics: Mark Ironside rallying from behind to shock Cary Kolat in Iowa City in ’96; an upstart Darrion Caldwell spladling Brent Metcalf in ’07—the same season Metcalf went on to win Most Dominant at NCAAs. There were grainy videos from the Soviet bloc going back decades, and I squinted at these, too, combing through acres of user comments in Cyrillic and diligently pasting them into Google Translate. More recently, there were the canonical Jordan Burroughs matches—proud, pious Burroughs who by rights belonged on a Wheaties box, whose blast double flashed forth like the Holy Ghost on speed. He’d be competing in Paris too.
And of course there was Snyder, his serene and bulletproof aplomb the opposite of my little-kid fear. I went back to his Twitter. He had retweeted a line from one of the Narnia books: “‘You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,’ said the Lion.” Who was this confident freak who benched three plates and quoted C. S. Lewis? Moved by a junkie’s fixation—and a hope that this through-the-looking-glass world might offer a fresh vantage point onto the historical moment we were entering—I booked a return ticket to Paris. I did so through WOW Air, a cheap Icelandic airline with purple planes, getting my affairs in order in case the plane should crash in the Arctic Circle, as I half expected it would.
Mercifully, I got there intact, making my way on a hot Wednesday afternoon toward Montmartre—a seedy warren of pee-laden streets built into a hillside overlooking the city. Here were sex shops and pâtisseries, buskers and bric-a-brac stands. At the top of the hill the Sacré-Cœur reared up, its trippy Byzantine cupolas white against the sky, a mute rebuke to the naughtiness below. I got to my Airbnb, a little hole in the lap of the basilica, unloaded my things and collapsed. The next morning I wended my way down the hillside, past Moulin Rouge, through the Place de la République, shuffling southward till I’d reached the Seine and the 12th Arrondissement, where the arena was. Passing through three security checkpoints, I hastened inside, found my seat and sat down to watch.
Wrestling is both the oldest and most elemental of sports. It requires virtually no equipment: if you are an American high school or college wrestler, you will likely be required to wear a headgear to prevent cauliflower ear, as well as a special pair of thin-soled indoor shoes that are sort of like slippers. Most wrestlers wear a singlet, a tight-fitting, sleeveless uniform that extends from shoulders to thighs. There is no racquet, no set of clubs, no ball; the body is the lone instrument wrestlers wield. The Greeks took this minimalism to an extreme: they wrestled naked.
All cultures everywhere have wrestled. For as long as there are humans there will exist the impulse to throw someone or haul them to the ground, matching limb with limb in a bid to determine who’s dominant. Go to the Scottish Highlands and watch belt wrestling, where two competitors take hold of each other’s belt and use this to gain leverage and hurl each other. Venture to Mongolia and see vast outdoor festivals where dozens of wrestling matches play out simultaneously in a field—men built like sycamores and dressed in powder-blue briefs, boots and traditional mini-coats, striving to drag each other to the earth to the delight of thousands. Or travel to Turkey and see their national sport, grease wrestling. There you’ll find competitors, slicked up and wearing just pants, grappling each other and, without hesitation, reaching down each other’s pants—from front and back—for some queasy tactical advantage, while old men in flat caps look on approvingly.
To a degree scarcely fathomable to most Americans, wrestling is interwoven in the daily lives and customs of many of the world’s peoples. In the Bosnian countryside one finds wedding receptions where amateur wrestlers are hired to compete, for the guests’ entertainment, on mats near the dance floor. So revered are the best wrestlers in Iran, they get called into the homes of ordinary people to resolve domestic disputes. The public gives them adoring nicknames (one guy is known as “The Leopard of Juybar”), and when they walk into restaurants the clientele rise to their feet and applaud.
Away from the adoring crowds, though, wrestling is an ascetic discipline that makes extreme demands of body and mind. At the heart of this asceticism is the mysterious practice of weight cutting. Since wrestlers compete in discrete weight classes to ensure they face opponents their own size, they’re required before every competition to “make weight”—that is, step on a scale and prove they’re at or below the limit for their weight class. This gives rise to a macabre ritual whereby wrestlers starve, parch and otherwise deprive themselves in an effort to drop to a lower weight class where, in theory, they can “wrestle bigger”—that is, compete against smaller opponents and enjoy a size advantage. To get there they’ll do most anything: spit half a pint; fry in a sauna; run miles in down jackets; even stand on their heads prior to stepping on the scale, since (the logic goes) this will cause their center of gravity to shift slightly away from the earth. A friend of mine tells of a wrestler who attended the NCAA tournament in the Eighties and discovered, to his horror, that he was a smidgen overweight on arrival. He tried all the techniques, only to find on ascending the scale at the deadline that he was still 0.1 pounds over. Calmly, as if resigned to some fate, he reached up and cracked his own septum, bleeding out the remaining weight.
Mostly, it’s a discipline that occurs in wrestling rooms, those spare spaces—contiguous mats, climbing rope—where wrestlers spend the bulk of their time. Here extreme exertion takes place as sadistic coaches turn up the heat to 80-plus degrees. The heat incubates visions, fosters highfalutin thoughts. Who wouldn’t see stuff? It’s been this way since the Greeks. Plato was an outstanding wrestler (Plato was a nickname conferred on him by his wrestling coach; it means “broad-shouldered”), and at least three of the Socratic dialogues—Theaetetus, Charmides, Lysis—take place in wrestling rooms (palaestrae). At the outset of the Theaetetus, the title character, a brilliant young man who serves as Socrates’s interlocutor, gets naked and lubes himself up with olive oil before entering a wrestling room to meet Socrates. Try to process this in all its strangeness, this broey culture in which geniuses got oiled up and rolled around with one another, then discoursed on truth, on friendship, on the composition and destiny of the soul.
The point is that for the Greeks the transcendent was bound to the quotidian, the spiritual to the sweaty, by a million durable spindles. The logic persists among wrestlers today. Most of the greatest international wrestlers are men and women of extraordinary faith who see themselves as part of a divine drama unfolding on the mat. In Senegal, wrestlers have personal shamans who accompany them to the ringside and cast enchantments during their matches (one such shaman is depicted below). When Jordan Burroughs, among the two or three best American wrestlers of all time, suffered a stunning quarterfinal loss at the 2016 Olympics, he tearfully explained to the media afterward that, leading up to Rio, he’d felt he was “capable of being the greatest wrestler ever.” Then he added, with the devastating brevity of a George Herbert couplet: “God said prove it. And I couldn’t.”
Though people of all backgrounds wrestle, the sport flourishes in the flyover regions of the earth—the American Midwest and Rust Belt, their counterparts abroad—and has since the Greeks been a favorite among common, working people. In this respect it’s the rural counterpart to boxing. Some of the earliest wrestling, in ancient Persia, took place on horseback, a fact that speaks to the sport’s close connection to the land, to animals, to people who make a living with their hands. When Snyder told me in an interview, “I’ve wrestled with some farmers,” singling out their exceptional hand strength and work ethic, he was trying to get me to see that the motions of wrestling mimic those of manual labor, its lifting and carrying and throwing. In some deep-seated sense—one that goes beyond any of the condescending explanations that might immediately come to mind—wrestling’s working-class roots and strange religiosity turn out to be linked, though it would take the Paris journey to get me to see how.
The interior of the AccorsHotel Arena was decked out entirely in blue. At the center were four large cobalt mats arranged in a row, and alongside each mat was a scoreboard and two cubbies in which the coaches were to sit. All around the four mats was some additional floor space meant to serve as a buffer between the athletes and the crowd; beyond this lay the stands themselves, awash in a marine light and capable of seating around twenty thousand.
Two announcers had been assigned to the tournament—one a Frenchman who generally spoke first when something significant had happened, the other a smarmy American guy who appeared to know nothing about wrestling and may as well have been Joe Buck. The two occasionally teamed up in flaccid attempts to pump up the crowd, as when, before a highly anticipated match, the American guy growled, “Arrrre you rrready for this?!” and when the fans ignored him, the Frenchman followed up with a mock-taunting (but really just desperate) “Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?”
To be fair, this might have been because many of the fans didn’t speak English or French. The flags these people were hoisting aloft suggested as much, and the conversations I’d have with them over the four days of the tournament confirmed this. I was surrounded by multitudes from a series of republics Lonely Planet forgot: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan—men, mostly, who represented a whole swath of Central Asia and all had the same chic beard. These were fans from countries—most of them Asian and a few Eastern European—off the radar of the educated Westernized liberal seeking cultural immersion and some sexy Instagram photos. (No one takes a gap year in Kyrgyzstan.)
Behind me were Mongolians, and away to my right a cluster of Slovakians and another of Moldovans; to my left, in the distance, I saw a contingent of North Korean fans. In front of me and two sections to the right was a crew of Iranian fans, beyond boisterous, who had smuggled in a bunch of oversized kazoos that resembled vuvuzelas but were somehow more obnoxious.
To the extent the fans came from larger and more touristic nations, I discovered they belonged to regions of those countries that were often ignored or disavowed by the nations’ more glamorous and moneyed demographics. Russia is historically the most dominant country in the world at wrestling, but most of the wrestlers who represent it on the world stage are not blue-eyed Slavs from Moscow and St. Petersburg; they’re darker-complexioned people from the North Caucasus, the mountainous southwestern corner of Russia, poor and volatile, where Russia approaches the Middle East. Most of these people are Muslims. Think of this as the other Russia, Russia’s Wild West, a constellation of republics with names so marvelously alien they may as well be drawn from Westeros. Everyone recognizes Chechnya; if you’re good, you might know Dagestan, its neighbor to the east, alongside the Caspian Sea. (This, remember, is where Sadulaev is from.) But Ingushetia? Kabardino-Balkaria? North Ossetia-Alania? Think craggy Technicolor vistas; think sheep; think forlorn watchtowers and landscapes so staggering a Google image search can leave you (okay, me) whimpering snatches of Wordsworth.
The people who come from these places are the face of Russian wrestling, though I’d learn that the majority of Russians, particularly Muscovites, feel contempt for them. It resembles the disdain that some people in the U.S. feel for the kind of Americans I saw scattered among these same fans—the pair of guys in camo hoodies who’d brought an American flag and who, once the action started, would shout after an American victory, “Awwww yeeeeaahhh, he got it done!!!” Or the fan in the row before mine who turned out to be from Pennsylvania. Or, a bit farther off, the guy in an Iowa University basket cap, fiftyish and sunburnt, sitting among the Slovakians.
I was reminded of a scene from Foxcatcher, the 2014 film that stars Steve Carell as John du Pont, the unhinged scion of a family of aristocratic equestrians. Du Pont grows infatuated with wrestling, creating a high-end training facility for the American world team on the family’s estate. At one point his dowager mother rebukes and humiliates him for his newfound passion: “I don’t like the sport of wrestling … It’s a low sport. And I don’t like to see you being low.” Though they would never admit it, this is the tacit reason the International Olympic Committee sought to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 games, in favor of sports like BMX racing that the committee claimed are “more youthful, more urban, and will include more women.” The young alone can be exceptional at wrestling (the window of greatness shuts after one’s twenties), and women’s wrestling is now a global phenomenon. That leaves the “urban” part, which is the giveaway: it betrays an anxiousness to repudiate a sport linked to the rural working class.
But this wasn’t the Olympics. The World Championships were, if anything, the anti-Olympics, the American wrestlers a kind of anti-Dream Team whose members—two or three of them among the 25 best athletes in the world—wouldn’t be recognized in downtown Manhattan. The American media juggernaut was absent: as far as I could tell, aside from a very small handful of reporters representing wrestling websites, I was the lone journalist present from the Western world. Here were the globe’s unglamorous denizens, gathered for an interval in its most glittery metropolis, its epicenter of chic. Here were the populations of the world that never meet, ushered together in this blue-lit shell on the Seine to gape and roar at a low sport. I drew a breath and waited.
The first action I watched was women’s wrestling. My initial reaction was astonishment at the explosion of women’s wrestling worldwide, the sheer number of nations now doing it. Because the mainstream media has decided you’re not interested in knowing about this, you likely haven’t heard of Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria, or Pürevdorjiin Orkhon of Mongolia, or Elmira Syzdykova of Kazakhstan. Nor do you know of Neetu Sarkar, the Indian woman sold off by her parents as a child bride at thirteen to a man of 43, of her discovery of wrestling and subsequent escape, her ensuing stardom and financial autonomy. You haven’t heard about the incipient women’s wrestling program in Iran, which is so controversial that the Iranian women are required to wrestle in body-and-hair-covering uniforms, in venues where no men are present.
If you’ve heard of anyone it’s probably Helen Maroulis, the 26-year-old who became, at the 2016 Olympics, the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. You might have watched her gold-medal match on NBC, and/or seen Michelle Obama’s homage-tweet about her afterward. Like Snyder and Burroughs, Maroulis is intensely Christian: prior to her final match in Rio she repeated the mantra “Christ in me, I am enough,” and it will come out that here in Paris, she wrestled some portion of the tournament—the finals, at least—with a broken thumb, but hardly noticed the pain because she’d attained a flow state through intensive prayer. A quick way to conjure Maroulis might be to say that she combines the wholesome piety of a bible camper with the grotesque dominance of the Bo Jackson character from the old Tecmo Bowl games for Nintendo. This is a heady combination, and makes her a heartthrob for many a lonely wrestler across the globe, a cut-from-marble ideal who could’ve stepped from their sleep. A popular t-shirt reads: “Single ☐ Taken ☐ Mentally Dating Helen Maroulis ✔.”
Before I show you Maroulis in action, I need to take a moment and explain how wrestling works. In freestyle wrestling—the most popular form of the sport worldwide, and the kind I watched in Paris—two wrestlers compete on a mat bearing a painted circle with a diameter of nine meters. Matches begin with the two wrestlers on their feet, facing each other in a much smaller circle at the center of the mat. Their object now is to take each other down. A takedown happens when one wrestler forces the other down to the mat, gaining control of her and causing at least three points of contact with the mat—say, two knees and a hand. It’s worth two points. The most common way for a wrestler to achieve a takedown is to take a shot—to lunge toward his opponent’s legs, grabbing hold of one or both and using these to compel him off his feet and onto the mat. Another, rarer way is for one wrestler to throw the other. This happens when a wrestler takes hold of his opponent’s upper body and hurls him to his back, as one might heave a bag of salt pellets. It’s worth four points. One last way to score is to force your opponent outside the larger circle, sumo-style; this is a push-out and counts for one point. Matches last for six minutes and consist of two three-minute periods. The object is to outscore your opponent—or else achieve a ten-point lead over her (called a technical fall1 or force her shoulder blades to the mat for a second or two (a pin), either of which ends a match straightaway.
Here’s what it looks like in practice. The majority of a match finds the two wrestlers on their feet in a tense ballet, circling and stalking each other then coming together in a tie-up—a gruff embrace where they clasp the napes of each other’s necks with one hand and, with the free one, fight for control of each other’s wrist or fingers. Through it all—the hand fighting, the head clubbing, the overhooks and underhooks—wrestlers labor, with the mirthless absorption of welders, to create vanishing windows of vulnerability: milliseconds, at the top level, when a leg or an ankle or hips are unprotected. It’s a drama of timing and angles: watch the wrestlers shunt each other from side to side by the scruff, or feign shots to set each other off balance; watch one wrestler snap the other’s head down, making her reflexively rise up, forgetting for half an instant that she’s left her body exposed. It’s about surprise and the exquisite timing surprise calls for: a momentary lull in the other wrestler’s attention, and with it a chance to shuck her aside, head and arm, and scoot behind her for two—or blast headlong into her on a shot.
Because Helen Maroulis is essentially an obscene Nintendo character, her own matches hardly seem this laborious. In Paris I watched her breeze to the finals without surrendering a point.
In the gold-medal match she faced a Tunisian woman named Marwa Amri. The two circled each other on their feet for about fifteen seconds, then came together in a tie-up. Maroulis grabbed the nape of Amri’s neck with her right hand, and with her left took hold of Amri’s left wrist. Then she maneuvered so that she faced Amri from an angle, used that left wrist to jerk Amri forward and, with her right foot, swept Amri’s feet out from under her, toppling her to her back. A second later Maroulis was on top of Amri, who writhed on the mat miserably like a pinned insect, striving to return to her belly. Maroulis jammed her arm across the underside of Amri’s neck like a crowbar, leveraging this to try and force her shoulder blades to the mat. At last Amri escaped, returning not just to her belly but her feet.
The crowd lost it. Just in front of me and to the right, the young man from Pennsylvania shot to his feet, cupping his hands round his mouth. “Yeah, wifey!” he bellowed. “We got this!”
When the action had subsided a moment I leaned toward him. “That’s your wife?” I said.
“Yup,” he said without looking at me. Then, after a pause: “Well, not really.”
By now Maroulis was ahead 4-0. By the 2:30 mark in the first period she had extended her lead to 7-0 and the wrestlers were back on their feet. Amri, now desperate, lunged towards Maroulis’s legs—but Maroulis, matador-like, shot her hips backward and dodged Amri, spinning behind and gaining control of her for the takedown. Amri, now on her belly and down 9-0, raised her hand in exasperation to her coach. (I should mention that, after completing a takedown, a wrestler has about ten seconds to turn her opponent—to rotate her body so that her back breaks the 90-degree angle relative to the mat. It’s worth two points.) Maroulis now locked her hands beneath Amri’s belly, rolling her all the way over and back to her stomach again (this is called a gut wrench), and thereby won the match 11-0 by technical fall—then coolly clasped her hands heavenward.
I never managed to catch up to Maroulis, but I did talk to Adeline Gray, the other preeminent American woman wrestler, a three-time world champion who sat out the Paris tournament due to injury. Gray sees the surge of interest in women’s wrestling as crucial to a global redefinition of femininity. “I would tell young women that combat sports and individual sports are too often overlooked when women decide on a sport for themselves,” she told me. “Women are often pushed into team sports, to an almost detrimental degree. We don’t see them standing on their own two feet, which is the whole basis of wrestling.” If for many viewers it causes a category error to see grown women making lives in individual combat sports—an instinct to nudge them back into the domestic sphere—Gray thinks they’ll acclimate to it with time: “It’s a tough thing because it’s a culture shift, so you can’t just expect people to show up one day and have their perspective changed.”
The tournament transitioned to men’s freestyle wrestling, with the final round scheduled to take place that night. In addition to the interest of individual rivalries, there was considerable suspense surrounding the team competition, which Russia typically wins. (The team scoring is too complicated to explain here; suffice it to say that when wrestlers win, they contribute to their team’s score, generating greater numbers of team points for more lopsided victories.) The wrestlers from each weight class came out and competed, starting with 57 kilograms and proceeding upward from there. When it came time for the 97-kilogram bracket, I descended from the stands to an area very close to matside that was reserved for photographers, a long corridor separated from the action by a half wall and about twenty feet. (I’d finagled a photographer’s pass.) Here I could watch from point-blank.
There had been much giddy speculation about whether Snyder and Sadulaev would wind up on the same side of their bracket. Because Sadulaev had never wrestled at 97 kilograms, he was unseeded, so this was a distinct possibility. But in the end, an allegedly random system generated a bracket that placed the two men on opposite sides. This meant, of course, that they could meet in the final.
After a time, from out of the shadows of the hallway leading to the athletes’ zone, Snyder loomed. I had never seen him in person. He strode past me en route to the mat with the supremely relaxed gait of an adult bison, exuding the same terrifying latent power. He had a close-cropped, reddish-blond mohawk, along with a beard and blue eyes. I saw that he wasn’t tall—five foot eleven—and that, though his torso was plenty big, the defining feature of his frame was an elongated and Zeus-like ass (he squats nearly half a ton), which it was instantly clear was both the storehouse of his strength and the reason he was murderous to take down. Try to fathom this immense force governed by boundless Christian goodwill—by someone who might celebrate a championship not with a night of Jäger shots but by retiring to his hotel room with a prayer journal, trail mix and Galatians—and you’ve got Snyder.
His opponent was an unseeded 25-year-old Kazakhstani named Mamed Ibragimov—scrappy and stoutly built but woefully underequipped, physically, to challenge Snyder. He appeared to know this: prior to the match, Ibragimov and his coach exchanged a few words, and he solemnly shook his coach’s hand, like some pre-sacrificial formality. Then he turned and met Snyder at the center of the mat. Snyder immediately bulldozed Ibragimov beyond the outer circle for a push-out, scoring one point. After they returned to the center, he darted in on a low shot, snagging Ibragimov’s ankle and forcing him back onto his haunches. Ibragimov, now seated on the mat, hadn’t yet surrendered the takedown. He locked his arms around Snyder’s midriff, desperately struggling to lift his own hips up off the mat and away from Snyder—which he then did, heroically, forcing Snyder into an overextended and almost prostrate position. Ibragimov spun behind Snyder for a takedown and nearly had it, but at the last instant Snyder somehow stood up, facing Ibragimov and slinking in an underhook, which he used to hurl him headlong toward the mat and blanket him for the two points.
None of this was normal. Having wrestled, I can tell you that virtually anyone in that vulnerable position would have surrendered the two points. But because Snyder is an aberration, a hiccup in the order of nature, he not only evaded the takedown but converted the scramble into a takedown of his own. I was conscious, watching this sequence, of having entered that serenely mesmerized state into which I’d fled during my night terrors. It was a sense of being lifted above the turbulence of my customary thoughts—all the fretting and fear—and breathing a purer, stiller air. Snyder is, by all appearances, untroubled by global climate change, nuclear proliferation, the vanishing of the world’s insects. Calling him “confident” doesn’t begin to capture it; it’s something deeper and more durable, a connectedness to a divine power grid that impels his minutest movements. Snyder seems shorn of irony, hypocrisy and deceit: Couldn’t one place one’s own faith in such a figure?
By the 1:57 mark he had already won the match by technical fall. As he walked off, he passed Sadulaev and the Russian coach, who were approaching the same mat in preparation for Sadulaev’s match. They didn’t look at each other. I saw from up close that Sadulaev was smaller than Snyder; it was clear he’d made an audacious move in bumping up to 97 kilograms, that he was likely closer to 92. He had a great hawkish nose and, besides the black bowl cut, a chinstrap beard that framed his features. And he was pretty, boyishly so. He was built like a mountaineer, with scary, country strength concentrated in his neck and quads—the sort of prowess that seemed to lend itself to bounding up slopes, breaking recalcitrant horses and climbing shit.
A farmer’s son, Sadulaev comes from a place called Tsurib, a remote mountain village in a valley carved out by a river, which one online atlas simply classifies as “a populated place in Dagestan.” Dagestan turns out to be a freakishly fecund incubator of world-class wrestlers, much as Brazil is of soccer players, and Sadulaev is its crown jewel. Ethnically, he’s Avar, the most populous of more than a dozen groups in Dagestan alone. Like Snyder, then, his origins are rural; also like Snyder, he’s extremely devout, a Sunni Muslim who likes to begin his Instagram posts by acclaiming the Almighty. And he shares Snyder’s marvelous directness: after winning the 2014 World Championships he informed reporters, “Now I just need a wife.” Then he got one. A video of his enchanting wedding exists on YouTube, complete with traditional Avar dancers who swirl about Sadulaev—this swole, virginal guy who’s devoted his entire waking life to throwing men around, and stands about awkwardly in a suit, choking on a tie he’s worn perhaps twice.
Just now his opponent was a Georgian named Elizbar Odikadze, a hirsute and treelike man who looked like he could have served at the Battle of Thermopylae. They circled each other for about thirty seconds then met in a tie-up. Odikadze bounded towards Sadulaev’s leg, but Sadulaev instantly dodged him, grasping the nape of Odikadze’s neck with his left hand and, with his right, gripping him behind his right knee—then sort of bull-rushed him. Even as Odikadze hit the mat, Sadulaev was already braiding his arm over one of Odikadze’s shins and under the other, forcibly criss-crossing the Georgian’s legs and locking his own hands. He leveraged this lock to logroll Odikadze for two more. (This is called a leg lace.) It was all a single movement—evasion then takedown then turn—as fluid and lissome as a signature, and executed as quickly.
Sadulaev cruised to victory on the strength of two more takedowns and a gut wrench. He showed no emotion. It’s hard to know just what he feels, now or any other time he wins. It’s fairly certain he doesn’t feel pride at having glorified Russia. Sadulaev’s Dagestan is an unruly frontier space within Russia—largely rural, beleaguered by poverty, and the site of a shaky form of neo-colonial management by Putin. Putin values Dagestan as a buffer against Azerbaijan and a source of seaports, but hasn’t found a way to integrate it—or the rest of the North Caucasus—into Russia, instead seeking to control these places by installing proxy strongmen and ordering violent crackdowns. Most Muscovites “hate Caucasians or fear them,” one Russian fan told me; owing to their generally darker complexion, they often deride them as “blacks” or “black bottoms.”
There is, for these same young men, the perpetual lure of “taking to the forest,” a euphemism for being radicalized by ISIS and other extremist groups. Or they can take to wrestling, itself an extreme practice—and if they prove great, discover in it money and fame and a way out. Sadulaev is the paragon of such success. What did he think, this physical genius from the highlands, about representing a nation that scorned his people as second class? We can only conjecture. In a much-liked comment below a YouTube video depicting Sadulaev winning the 2016 Olympics, a viewer jeered, “He is Russian only in the sense of what he leaves behind after consuming a copious amount of peas. In every other sense he is an Avar.”
Snyder and Sadulaev advanced to the semifinals with ease, and the mood in the arena shifted. It wasn’t merely that the two were on a collision course for the finals; it was that the U.S. and Russian teams had pulled well ahead of the pack and were now neck-and-neck in the team standings. There was a dawning, nervous awareness that their final, whatever its intrinsic fascination, would also have repercussions for the team race. In a touch of dramatic choreography, the 97-kilogram final was scheduled to be the last match of the event.
I began to walk around, initially keeping close to the four mats. The wrestling was such a carnival of amusing oddities, it was hard to look away. There was the pasty Australian named Connor Evans in a singlet with a kangaroo on it, who got summarily ravaged by a top-ranked foe from North Ossetia. There was the flamboyant showman from the Tuva Republic, which borders Mongolia, who’d emigrated to Turkey, which he now represented—and in recognition of his hybrid identity had changed his name to Cengizhan (Genghis Khan) Erdogan. There was an aura of freedom about it all, a poignant sense that these superb athletes from provincial parts of the globe were coming together and partaking, exuberantly, in a pastime they loved, untethered from the political posturing and machinations of their ambassadors on the world stage.2
“Wrestling, to me, is sports diplomacy at its finest,” Hooman Tavakolian, the official liaison between the American and Iranian wrestling federations, told me, after I had made my way back to the part of the stands where most of the fans sat. “Wrestling is a people’s sport. It’s not like polo, where the uber-rich get on a horse. These are your average people who just want to work out and get together. They don’t care about policies that were written by somebody that was paid by a pharmaceutical company.” Tavakolian’s descriptions of international wrestling events as politics verge on the utopian, but they reflected a widespread conviction among the fans I talked to that wrestling represented a kind of blue-collar diplomacy that was far more effective than anything political elites seemed capable of mustering.
Again and again, people rhapsodized about an episode that occurred in February 2017: this was the Wrestling World Cup, which took place in Kermanshah, Iran. Trump had just issued the travel ban, which took effect on January 27th. Two days later, Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile; Trump responded by putting Iran “on notice.” Iran retaliated by instating a travel ban on Americans, which meant the U.S. wrestling team couldn’t go to Kermanshah and compete. A crisis ensued: would the American wrestlers, having trained months for the event, stay home? At last, on February 3rd a judge blocked Trump’s ban, and Iranian government officials decided to freeze their own ban in response—a breakthrough that Tavakolian, working behind the scenes, helped broker. The U.S. wrestlers were cleared to travel to Iran after all.
It was a nerve-racking moment: how would they be received? Did they dare go at all? Jordan Burroughs, at age 28 the de facto team captain, decided to arrange a conference call so the U.S. wrestlers could deliberate together. He broke the ice: “Donald Trump has banned these guys here. The last thing they want to see is a team of 25 Americans coming in there laughing and smiling to their airport in Tehran. That’s not going to be a safe judgment call for us, to go over there in the midst of all this political unrest.” Nevertheless, they resolved to have a team vote and the yeses won out. They prepared to depart.
The stage was set for a Twilight Zone-caliber drama—these God-fearing physical specimens from the American heartland, knotted with anxiety, flying to the Fertile Crescent for what they suspected would be a tepid welcome at best. They arrived in Tehran, then caught a connecting flight to Kermanshah, where they disembarked—only to be mobbed in the terminal by droves of adoring Iranian fans, cameramen and news crews, who awaited them with traditional gifts and flowers. It was a jolting epiphany: virtually unknown at home, the best American wrestlers were celebrities in Iran, their fame undiminished by the vicissitudes of politics.
“It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve been a part of so far in my wrestling career,” Snyder told me. “We had people waiting outside of our hotel for hours just to shake our hands, to look at or touch us.” Snyder shared with me his fascination at the fact that the top three cities from which his Instagram followers hail are Columbus, Ohio (where he lives), Tehran and Krasnoyarsk, a city in Siberia. “Definitely people know me more in those areas than they do in America.”
It was clear that people prized wrestling as a cross-cultural conduit that bound Kansas to Kermanshah, the struggling communities of the Rust Belt and Midwest to the poverty-plagued expanses of the North Caucasus. What was it about the sport that made it immune to the suspicion that many people across the Islamic world otherwise harbor toward American culture? Or the mistrust that we often think of people in states like Iowa and Missouri harboring toward the Middle East?
As I contemplated these questions, I became aware that the tension in the arena had crested suddenly: in a key semifinal match, an American wrestler named Thomas Gilman, from Iowa, was competing against a North Korean named Jong Hak-jin. Jong was ahead 3-2 with under two minutes left. The two men were circling each other on their feet, and as they did so the American fan contingent began chanting “USA! USA!” while the North Korean fans started up a vigorous counter-chant. The Americans, becoming aware of their adversaries a few rows down, amped up their own cries.
It was almost too much. Gilman shot in on Jong as if angling for a leg, then slid up his body and switched holds to a bear hug, ragdolling Jong to the mat for two points. The Americans roared with glee. I had a sinister thought: What if, far from a mode of rapprochement, this was a picture of what we were actually doing politically, stripped to its barest kernel? Just weeks before, Kim Jong-un had declared that North Korea had conducted another successful test of an ICBM, prompting Trump to remark, ominously, “We will handle North Korea.” Was I watching some grotesque parody of international relations in 2017—the gruff testicularity, the dispensing of diplomacy in favor of a brute handling of one power by another? That summer the G20 Summit took place in nearby Hamburg. Perhaps this was some dark reflection of that event, bereft of its phony, self-flattering ideals like “inclusive development,” certain of its attendees exposed for what they were really up to—Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping rolling around with one another, their doughy, senescent bodies colliding in a bid for global dominance.
Gilman held on for a 5-4 victory and the moment was over. I stood up, light-headed and troubled. It seemed to come down to this: Was wrestling a way around strongman politics, or its very epitome? Snyder was undeniably Trumpian in certain respects: his extreme self-assurance, his magnetic appeal for the same godly Midwesterners who supposedly won the election for Trump. But he also wasn’t Trump: Snyder was the opposite of doughy, he didn’t come from wealth, and his faith was real, his character water-pure. He was an actual wrestler whereas Trump, ever-drawn to buffoonish theater, had a long-standing affiliation with the WWE. Didn’t the differences make a difference?
As it happened, Snyder and Sadulaev were on deck to wrestle their semifinal matches. I remembered I’d snagged a VIP pass from a photographer earlier that day, and in hopes of landing an interview with one or more of the tournament higher-ups, began making my way toward the opposite side of the arena where they sat. En route, I found myself in the mixed zone, that part of arena where the athletes can mingle with the media, and saw Jordan Burroughs surrounded by a small cluster of reporters. He was coming off his own semifinal match, which he’d won.
Someone was asking him about the transformation of the American team under his leadership—how it had gone from a humdrum group to one with several luminaries like him and Snyder. “America needed a hero,” Burroughs said. “The timing was perfect. And now we’ve got multiple heroes.”
The line would haunt me. Burroughs, who is an African American in a sport traditionally dominated by the white working class in this country, would later tell me he sees his own success as a harbinger of the sport’s broadening appeal. Like many others, he emphasizes wrestling’s connection to labor—he makes much of the fact that he comes from a working-class family in New Jersey—but believes it has the potential to catch on among urban youths, not just rural ones: “I’ve seen what the climate is like in the inner city, and I’ve seen how athletic a lot of these individuals are.”
One of the tournament organizers declared the time for the interview was up. As he started to walk off, I blurted out, “Jordan, you said after your loss at Rio, ‘God said prove it—and I couldn’t.’ Do you see this too as a divine test, and do you feel you have a shot at some measure of redemption?” He stopped and looked at me. “Absolutely. Immediately after Rio I said to God, ‘If you really loved me, why would you allow for me to be humiliated like this, in the public spotlight?’ He described a dark night of the soul following the Olympics, a sense of anguished abandonment by God, from which he’d emerged at last with his self-confidence and piety intact. “I’m thankful now to have been put back in a position to be successful, because I kept my faith.”
I was beginning to grasp just how large the arc of redemption loomed for these athletes—that Christlike plotline that started with betrayal and disgrace but moved, by degrees, toward a second flourishing, life after death. How it took on the heft of socioeconomic meaning and urgency, giving shape to a drama that had its origins in the world without—in communities brought low by scarcity and want—but reached its gripping conclusion on the mat. I hardly had time to think this through, though, because the next moment I was being hustled out of the mixed zone by a tournament official and Burroughs was gone.
I hurried through a series of dark corridors leading to the VIP section, and as I did I heard the crowd crescendo above me, hailing the emergence of Snyder and Sadulaev. When I re-entered the arena proper, the two were already wrestling on adjacent mats—Snyder against an Azerbaijani named Aslanbek Alborov, Sadulaev an Armenian named Georgy Ketoev. Snyder was mostly having his way with Alborov; Sadulaev actually seemed a little challenged by Ketoev, a bowling ball of a wrestler, more wool than man. Snyder ultimately won 9-2, and Sadulaev, though never seriously in danger, only won 2-0.
Snyder walked off, and after a minute Sadulaev followed him. The semifinal round was soon over, and teams USA and Russia were tied for first. That never happens in wrestling tournaments. The American announcer gave voice to what we already knew: that the two men would wrestle in the finals; that it was “the match of the century.” Then he added, “This is Rocky IV stuff, folks.” Except Snyder was far too country to be Rocky, and Sadulaev, in appearance at least, was the furthest thing from Ivan Drago. But still. The final round was to start in three hours. I resolved to take a walk outside.
Paris was a vast emptiness. Because it was August, Parisians were on holiday and an eerie quiet hung about the place—a stillness I felt striding through the Jardin des Tuileries, which I had largely to myself mornings, and that pervaded the boulevards, cafés and cemeteries: the overarching impression was tense, anticipatory, as of a city holding its breath. Heading west along the Seine, now in the direction of Notre-Dame, I passed French soldiers in fatigues, assault rifles hanging about their necks—a sight I would glimpse four or five times on the trip and a reminder that, in addition to the November 2015 attacks, there had so far been four terrorist incidents in Paris in 2017 alone.
Feeling the old anxiety returning I started walking faster, hanging a right at the Boulevard de Sébastopol and, without any concrete purpose, heading back toward Montmartre, which I reached after a time. It was hot—punishingly so. The heat and desertedness of the streets, the strenuous climb uphill and miasma of piss: all of it combined to produce an effect of unreality. I felt faint. Seeking shade, I made my way toward a bar, sitting down at a table beneath the awning and ordering a drink. Across the street a busker was playing “Black Hole Sun.” Feeling a shudder of nostalgia, I shut my eyes.
All at once I was practicing in my high school wrestling room seventeen years before, the heat cranked up to some Dantean degree, the same crawling, grungy song emanating from a boom box. This was January of 2000, in a small city in upstate New York, south of Rochester. Senior year. For reasons I’m still not clear on, I was voted homecoming king of the senior class and, for about two giddy months, dated the homecoming queen. Certainly these things had nothing to do with my being good at wrestling, which garnered one no social currency whatsoever at my school. Mentioning the wrestling team tended to evoke snickers and jokes about naked ping pong, a thing the wrestlers had allegedly been caught playing in the locker room once.
I was drilling with our heavyweight wrestler, a lumbering and laconic kid of obscure origins who’d been adopted by the team’s strength coach. We were practicing takedowns. “Your crotch stinks,” he said matter-of-factly, not pausing the drill. I was speechless.
Our coach blew his whistle and called to us to gather around him. His name was Rich Romeo (pronounced like the Shakespeare character) and he was a fast-talking Long Islander and ex-Marine, breathtakingly hyper and, to our chagrin, an architect of weirdly creative forms of discipline and retribution. (When we went on the road for tournaments, if you roomed with Romeo at any of the cheap motels we stayed at, it was understood that you had to sleep on the floor if you’d been eliminated.) “Listen,” he was saying. “Saturday night we’re heading to Fulton. This is the biggest meet of the season. They’ve got a kid at 171 who’s ranked in the top ten nationally. This fucking kid…” He trailed off, his mind’s eye seemingly transfixed by a montage of chilling scouting tapes. This didn’t affect me: my weight class was 189, the next one up from 171.
“Kay!” Romeo snapped. “Come back from your spaceship.” (This was a joke he’d dreamed up to make fun of my absent-mindedness. He was delighted with it.) The other guys chortled. “If the team scores are close enough by that point in the meet, it’s just possible they could send this kid up to 189 at the last second to wrestle you.” (In a wrestling meet, a team can have a wrestler compete at a weight class above his own but not, of course, one below it.) “We’d need you to take him, then.” Lovely.
The bus ride to the meet was, like many such rides, a tour of rural upstate New York: concord grape vineyards, drumlins and desolate plains, towns cursed with august names like Homer and Ovid. Passing through them, it seemed to me that many of these places were living out posthumous lives on state life support, the industries that sustained them having long since left or shut down. Invariably one finds in them the main drag with the historic hotel, the IGA supermarket, and the carapaces of factories, closed who knows when. Trump, seizing on its desperation, would call upstate New York a “death zone” in 2016, talking passionately about NAFTA and the perfidy of the region’s departed industries, the disappearance of its jobs. He vowed to “play New York very heavy” in the general election, and people listened: more than a dozen counties in upstate New York that had voted Obama in ’08 and ’12 went to Trump in ’16.
One of those counties was Oswego, on Lake Ontario, where Fulton is. If upstate New York is a microcosm of Middle America in decay, Fulton is its paradigmatic case study. Once a thriving small city, it’s now a scene of shrunken grandeur, promise boarded up—the main plaza a deserted lot, the hospital shut down, the many mills that had once lined the river running through town mostly closed. (In 2003, three years after I first visited it, the Nestlé factory that served as the town’s lifeblood would be shut down, leaving hundreds of employees out of work.) I took all this in from an outsider’s vantage point: my family was well-to-do, with a big house I felt embarrassed to bring my friends back to. Wrestling was one way I encountered people much less lucky than I was—and these encounters weren’t detached, nor mediated by any of the things that divided us. They were tactile.
An hour after pulling into town we were in their packed gym and the meet was underway. It began with the lightest weight class (in those days 103 pounds) and proceeded upwards. (My weight class, 189, would be the penultimate match.) Our team jumped out to a substantial lead in the first few matches, but by the middle weights Fulton started to surge. When it came time for the 171-pound match, it was with a kind of mournful surmise that I looked up and saw Fulton send out their second stringer, who—fueled by the massive and mob-like home crowd—went on to beat our starter. They were now within striking distance of us in the team score. The next minute the announcer was rattling off highlights from my opponent’s exhaustive CV, the fans were whooping, and I was peeling off my warm-up.
Romeo was shaking my shoulders and barking a cascade of advice I hardly heard; I was busy looking past him toward the center of the mat, where the kid stood calmly waiting for me. He was tall and spindly and a burn victim, the upper right part of his face disfigured, patches of his hair singed away and one arm branded with scars. My teammates formed a tunnel through which I trotted out to the mat, taking my place opposite him at the inner circle. We shook hands and the ref blew the whistle.
It was immediately clear that he had a quickness I’d never experienced firsthand—and that this was only marginally to do with his being lighter. He pranced and feinted. We came together in a tie-up, that terrifying blend of intimacy and animosity unique to wrestling, from which I could feel his heartbeat—the scarred coarseness of his skin—even as we struggled to cut down and abase each other before hundreds of people. The next moment he whirled his trunk around, shooting one arm behind my neck and, with the other, taking hold of my triceps for a headlock—a clean whiplash that launched me to my back.
I remember an asphyxiated ringing, and beyond it, like the faint roar of a coastline heard from inland, the exultant wail of the fans. He was laboring to pin me, and I was trying to get off my back while the ref, on his belly beside us, slid his hands beneath my shoulder blades to see if they were touching the mat. They weren’t. After a minute I writhed my way out, and soon we were back on our feet.
The minutes ticked away. With about 1:30 left, in an agony of exhaustion, I managed—drawing on some obscure inner resource I didn’t know I had, and certainly don’t anymore—to take him down twice in rapid succession. With forty seconds to go we were on our feet and it was 7-5. I needed one more takedown to tie the match and send it to overtime. The crowd stood. I heard Romeo’s unhinged voice crying: “Again! He’s gassed!” and in my periphery saw him jumping up and down at matside like some psychotic gorilla. He was right: the kid looked vulnerable and a little stunned. I advanced toward him, deciding I would go back to the well on the same move that had gotten me the two takedowns. I lunged at him again—only this time he thrust back his hips and ripped a forearm across my face, leaving me in an outstretched position from which I couldn’t recover. We stayed there as the clock expired and he beat me.
Our match decided the meet, which Fulton won by a few points. As we stood up and shook hands I got a last look at the kid: he was an incarnation of the town itself, a rawboned gauntness. Would I find him there if I went back today? Oswego County, now in the grips of the opioid epidemic, sued pharmaceutical companies and doctors for their vampiric marketing of painkillers in early 2018.
Burroughs’s anguished apostrophe to God echoed in my head now: “If you really loved me, why would you allow for me to be humiliated like that?” For a second I saw it, the penumbra of poverty that shadowed those words. Here was the kernel of it: wrestling was a vehicle for converting deprivation into transcendence. All the asceticism—the weight cutting, the starving and self-denial—belonged to a spiritual practice that made a virtue out of scarcity. The chiseling of the body through extreme exertion and dieting was, viewed from this angle, a slicing-away of superfluity toward essence: a monastic discipline through which wrestlers aspired after gemlike purity and pith. What emerged from that ordeal were muscular, messianic figures who felt themselves impelled by God, who spoke and moved with a grandeur that can seem a throwback to a heroic age, though it looks awkward in our own. For the thousand Fultons across the country, reeling from what their residents see as a sequence of betrayals, such figures can seem bastions of authenticity, worthy objects of veneration and trust.
By the time I returned it was 8:30. Back in the photographers’ section, I watched the action from behind the half wall. The finals played out match by match, and as they did the American men found mixed success: Burroughs won a thrilling match 9-6; Gilman and another American, James Green, both got dismantled. The upshot was that, by the time the final bout arrived, the U.S. team trailed the Russian team by a couple of points—still a small enough margin where Snyder-Sadulaev would determine the team victor.
They shut off the lights in the arena. In the total darkness that ensued, I found myself hopping in place and wondering at the significance of what was about to go down. It seemed a study in degrees of scrutiny: at a distance it looked like the USA vs. Russia, the brute resolution to an impossibly cloudy scandal that hung over the new world we lived in. Here at least was an oasis of total visibility: they had messed with us; what were we going to do about it? An answer would surface, and soon.
Up close, of course, it was hardly that simple. Sadulaev was a Dagestani kid reared far from the Kremlin’s onion domes, who’d trained in gyms where one routinely hears distant gunshots through the windows. And Snyder was, well, Snyder. Later, a video would appear on the internet of the two of them in these final moments before their match, standing side by side in a small antechamber leading to the main arena space. Whose idea it was to have them together, God only knows. They don’t acknowledge each other. Snyder bounces, twitchy, compulsively scrubbing his mohawk and arms as if flea-bitten; at one point he gazes at the ceiling and yells. Sadulaev pretends not to notice. The Russian coach slaps him in the face. Finally they stride, single file, through a darkened corridor and into the main space, where they wait to be introduced.
When they are introduced, they walk through the darkness toward the mat, spotlights now swirling throughout the arena. I watched them come out, first Snyder then Sadulaev, aware more than ever of the terrible solitary burden we place on athletes in individual sports, the immense and forlorn weight they shoulder. The two appeared stoical, as wrestlers nearly always do, and when both had reached the mat the lights came on. An official joined them and blew the whistle.
They circled each other. Ten seconds in, Snyder—his size advantage now fully apparent—cuffed Sadulaev by the neck and bulled his way into him, driving him toward the mat’s edge in apparent hopes of a push-out. But at the last possible moment Sadulaev ducked, causing Snyder to sail forward, then grabbed one of his legs and snaked behind him for two.
It’s hard to convey what a fucked-up and exhilarating thing it was to behold Snyder taken down so confidently, the anarchic pleasure it brought. A majority of the spectators erupted: most of the fans from the East, and a good deal from the West, were audibly behind him. I was surprised and unnerved to discover I was rooting with them. You see, Sadulaev had upended Snyder from his customary role as people’s hero, playing David to Snyder’s Goliath. How could you not pull for him, this brash Avar kid with the wide arc of Asia at his back?
The two traded push-outs, making it 3-1, and by the two-minute mark a groundswell of pro-Sadulaev zeal started gathering force in different parts of the stands, issuing in chants of “RASHID!” The effect was stereophonic. Sadulaev appeared to feed off it, breaking away from a tie-up and dancing a moment, prize-fighter-like, while Snyder looked on. When they met again, Sadulaev lunged at one of Snyder’s legs, but Snyder dodged him, barreling toward him on a counterattack that led to a skirmish at the mat’s edge. Snyder contrived to get his right arm across Sadulaev’s body and under his armpit, which he used to snap Sadulaev to his knees, then spun behind him to tie the match.
A minute-long intermission ensued. The two men retired to their corners; an American coach briskly massaged Snyder’s arms, while a Russian trainer fanned Sadulaev with a towel so vigorously it looked hostile. They reconvened. The second period brought scrambles such as I’d hardly seen: Snyder kept using his sledgehammer hands to beat on Sadulaev’s head and neck, at one point shucking him to the mat then whirling behind him—but before he made it all the way around, Sadulaev reached back and grabbed Snyder’s right arm, whipped it over his own head and stopped him in his tracks, then stood up, free. He was out-Snydering Snyder. It was squirrelly, backyard shit, all instinct and anti-technique, the sort of thing that separates physical savants from the rest of us.
With around two minutes left, Sadulaev plucked Snyder’s left ankle and drove clockwise into him, using the torsion of this move to secure his second takedown. It was 5-3. They returned to their feet, and danced and tied up and danced some more, and an entire minute elapsed this way. But the cumulative toll of Snyder’s sledgehammers was making itself felt; as was the size difference, probably. Just before the five-minute mark Sadulaev stood apart a moment with his hands on his knees, dog-tired. Snyder, known as a late-match surger, still had it.
At 5:15 Snyder shot in on Sadulaev—a glorified football tackle—driving him backward and out of bounds for another push-out, making it 5-4. Even as he tried to beat back Snyder’s attack, Sadulaev was gazing up at the clock, and when he’d surrendered the point he lingered on the mat a moment, lungs heaving. He had to withstand the assault another forty seconds. When they resumed, Snyder stalked Sadulaev across the mat, battering his head still more; Sadulaev fled him, tarrying, then finally took a desperate, preemptive shot—for which Snyder punished him, slashing an arm across his neck, taking hold of his hips and subduing him. It was 6-5.
They went back to the mat’s center, Sadulaev with a grim and doleful look—and with ten seconds left Sadulaev made a last, Hail Mary attempt to whip Snyder’s head and arm aside and scoot behind him. No avail. He stopped fighting and the closing seconds bled away. When it was over, Sadulaev dropped to his back, covered his face with his hands and stayed like that, unmoving. Snyder vaunted about the mat with his chest puffed out, stomping and screaming, an insane rooster.
Behind me, a cluster of American fans went berserk. “That’s how we do!” one whinnied. Across the arena, American spectators began a coordinated chant: “USA! USA!” I gazed back at the mat, where Sadulaev still lay, stricken; Snyder had turned toward the main American fan contingent, arms uplifted, nodding. It was an eerily religious tableau, some sacrificial scene that had broken through the postmodern trappings of the place and reared its head like a compound fracture, lurid and bone-stark. I felt slightly sick.
At last Sadulaev got up and walked off. They played the U.S. national anthem while Snyder trotted a slow lap around the mat, waving an American flag. Ten minutes later, in observance of the U.S. team victory, they played the American anthem yet again. As it blared a second time, Snyder, Sadulaev and the other 97-kilogram place-winners ascended the awards podium. When Sadulaev turned to face the crowd his expression was terrible to behold: it was a look not so much of dismay as apostasy.
Minutes later, Sadulaev disappeared down a hallway and I never saw him again. The crowd too began to leave. When I looked again toward the three mats, I saw Snyder consorting with some of the other American wrestlers, all of whom he towered over with that Herculean amplitude that seemed anachronistic even among his peers. Days later, he would post a picture to Twitter of that ritualistic scene just after the match, paired with the caption “Undisputed.” There’s an engorged hubris to this and other Snyder tweets that breaks the bounds of his religious humility and can feel—for one toggling back and forth between social media and the news—ominously familiar. Indeed, when I look at that post-match photo now, I’m reminded of why I found myself pulling for Sadulaev: Snyder appears transplanted from classical myth all right—lambent, larger than life—but in hindsight the figure he calls to mind for me isn’t Hercules. It’s Icarus.
In fact, it’s always Sadulaev who ends up holding my gaze in this picture: the still and supine devastation, how he screens his face from a crowd he’d largely won over by then—North Koreans, Iranians and all the rest, so many of whom had clamored for him, only to depart from the arena quiet and somehow chastened. Snyder (and with him the USA) had asserted dominance, however narrowly. But if it was true that humiliation was the harbinger of power and resurgent life, it was hard not to wonder what would come of this defeat—what future rising, determined and implacable, lay in wait.
Photo credits: Justin Hoch