Andy’s Angles: Winner looked like a loser; loser looked like a winner

Updated: September 9, 2015

By Andy Hamilton

Follow national wrestling journalist Andy Hamilton at the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas

Follow national wrestling journalist Andy Hamilton at the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Robby Smith won the battle of wills. He won the popularity contest. He won the clash of conditioning, too.

So when time expired on Tuesday night’s Greco-Roman heavyweight bronze-medal match, the undersized American glanced at the downtrodden Russian and began to pump his fists.

And then the chants erupted: “Rob-by! Rob-by! Rob-by!”

I’ve seen a lot of bizarre scenes during 16 years covering wrestling. Never anything quite like Tuesday night’s Greco-Roman bronze-medal match at the World Championships, though.

The guy who actually won the match reacted like he lost. The guy who lost paraded around like he won.

A new American crowd favorite was born Tuesday. And Robby Smith didn’t even leave Orleans Arena with a medal. The bronze went to hulking Russian Bilyal Makhov, a three-time World champion with a UFC contract and a physique that looks cut from granite.

Makhov scored the first seven points, pushed Smith within inches of a technical fall and then fought off a spirited comeback to win a 10-8 decision against the 28-year-old California native with a giant beard and a bigger heart.

“When I saw him on the ground, I wasn’t going to sulk,” Smith said. “You just won and now you can’t celebrate your bronze medal because of me … because I won. That was my mentality. I got to celebrate. I got to thank my crowd, thank my country and he got to sulk because he was so (darn) tired.”

And for good reason.

Smith was harder to get rid of than a bad tattoo.


Makhov shoved him to the edge of the mat, needing only a push-out to end the match. Smith tossed him for two points at the end of the first period. Then he put the Russian in danger in the second.

“I put him straight to his back in bounds and I didn’t get a fall,” Smith said. “He was flat on his back and fleeing the mat.”

Smith didn’t get the call. He didn’t get the call later when he challenged that Makhov grabbed his leg to loosen the American’s grip on a front headlock.

Still, Smith cut the deficit to 9-8 with a little more than a minute remaining. But the Russian blocked and squeezed and killed the clock.

Last May, Smith posted a victory over a Russian at the World Cup in Iran. During the bout, he bobbed his head to the beat as Iranian fans banged drums and played horns. The Iranian fans got behind the American heavyweight, prompting Smith’s father, Rob, to purchase a drum to lead his cheering sections.

Rob Smith hammered the drum so much during Robby’s opening-round match that he had to tape up a blister on his hand. He kept pounding away as Robby mowed through the first three rounds, securing a heavyweight Olympic berth for the U.S. before he ran into seven-time World and Olympic champion Mijain Lopez of Cuba.

When time ran out on Robby’s comeback bid in the bout for bronze, Rob beat the drum as his son’s name echoed throughout the arena.

What runs through the mind of a wrestler when he receives a standing ovation in defeat?

“Pride,” Smith said as he fought back tears. “Proud to be an American. Very proud. Felt loved. That’s probably the biggest thing that hurts. I wanted to win for the USA, for Greco-Roman wrestling to put us back on the mat.

“But I know my parents still love me. I know my girlfriend still loves me. I know my family still loves me. And my friends. They’re all proud of me. I know it. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters, right? People love me.”


Highs and Lows …

Most anticlimactic ending: 71-kg repechage — Adam Kurak (Russia) dec. Justin Lester (United States) 10-9.

Kurak and Lester traded haymakers during a wildly entertaining first period, putting 19 points on the board. Lester bolted out to an early lead, nearly pinning Kurak before the Russian scored four straight points to take the lead at the midway break.

Then the high-paced action — and scoring — came to a complete halt as no more points were put on the scoreboard

“I think we both came out and didn’t have as much energy,” Lester said. “Our reserves definitely kicked on.”


Most painful moment: 59-kg repechage — Won Chol Yun (North Korea) dec. Hamid Soryan (Iran) 6-5.

Perhaps the scariest moment of the day came when Yun and Soryan collided — literally — with a ticket to the bronze-medal match at 59 kg on the line. The wrestlers knocked heads and both momentarily fell to their back, causing a stoppage in action. Bloodied and bandaged, Yun appeared to absorb more punishment, but the North Korean prevailed against the seven-time World and Olympic champion.