Tashkent played host to a prestigious international Kurash tournament in September attracting athletes from across the globe to compete for $100 000 of prize money. Great Britain were represented by Neil Schofield and Paul Sawyer at this event which paid homage to the nation’s first President, the late Islam Karimov, whilst also celebrated the 20th anniversary of the International Kurash Association. It was under the direction of the fledgling nation’s first President that Kurash developed from an unstructured, localised activity confined within the borders of Uzbekistan and Central Asia to the modern international sport status it enjoys today.

A brief history

The Uzbek national sport of Kurash enjoys a history stretching back several millennia. The earliest records of this style of wrestling can be found on 3500 year-old cave paintings. However, it was only when Uzbekistan established independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 that, with the blessing of President Islam Karimov, former judo and sambo star Komil Yusupov took the first steps to restructure Kurash into an international sport.

Within a very short time Kurash transcended the boundaries of Central Asia. On September 6th 1998 Tashkent hosted the first international tournament coinciding with the formation of the International Kurash Association. This event, for the Prize of President Islam Karimov, was attended by some of the world’s top judo, sambo and wrestling athletes including Georgia’s former Olympic judo champion, David Khakaleishvili and the UK’s Tim Thomas, an accomplished Olympic-style Wrestling, Judo and Sambo practitioner.

Since then, Kurash continued to grow and now boasts federations on every continent with over 120 individual member countries, including the UK.

30 countries challenge top Uzbek stars

To mark the occasion of the IKAs 20th anniversary and in recognition of the late President Karimov’s immense influence on the current global position Kurash now enjoys, the Uzbekistan Kurash Federation hosted a memorial international tournament in his honour. The tournament was further endorsed being also for the Prize of the new President, Shavkat Mirzizoyev. On September 6th, thirty countries’ athletes arrived in Tashkent to challenge eight top ranked Uzbeks. The tournament format was a straight knockout “Wimbledon style” elimination with no weight limit restrictions on the competitors meaning most wrestlers weighed in excess of 100 kilos.

Great Britain were represented by Neil Schofield, a current member of the British national Judo squad and 2016 British Judo champion in the +100 kilos category. Neil had previously represented Great Britain in the 2017 World and European Kurash Championships and UK hopes were high that Neil would present a significant challenge in Tashkent.

Accompanying Neil in an official capacity was Paul Sawyer, a former Kurash, Judo and Sambo international and a founder member of the British Kurash Association in 1999 with Tim Thomas.

Capacity crowd and TV coverage

This televised tournament, held in the Uzbekistan National Sport Complex attracted a large, vociferous crowd united in their desire to see the local heroes repel the international threat. They were not disappointed!

With no seeding of athletes, there was something of an FA Cup feel to the tournament with some favourites drawn together in the early rounds which also meant some lesser-favoured competitors avoided the big guns early on.

Japan thwart British challenge

A 38-strong field ensured most drew a bye in the first round including Great Britain’s Neil Schofield. Neil’s second round opponent was Japan’s Kento Taira who had impressively defeated his Georgian opponent in round one in under two minutes. The pair looked evenly matched in the early stages with the shorter, squat Japanese wrestler proving extremely difficult to unbalance. The first positive score came in the second minute from a well-timed foot throw from the tank-like Japanese which landed Neil on his side. Although not a contest-ending throw (to win outright the opponent must be thrown onto their back), it edged Taira in front thereby forcing Neil to take a few risks to get back on terms. As a result, he was caught for a second minor score but came agonisingly close to a winning throw himself in the last minute, the surprisingly agile Japanese barely managing to extricate himself from landing on his back from Neil’s leg attack. The Japanese ran out a narrow winner at the end of the 4 minute bout.

The Japanese destroyed his next opponent from Kazakhstan in under one minute before losing to the very highly rated Russian, Aslan Kambiev, in the quarter-final. Kambiev himself was beaten in the semi-final by Oltiboev of Uzbekistan.

Tense Final

The final between the two Uzbeks, Sherali Juraev, who had booked his final place by defeating Tajikistan’s Temur Rakhimov, and Bekmurod Oltiboev, was a desperately close, tactical affair. These were two adversaries who clearly knew each other very well. With so much at stake both approached the opening minute with some caution. A passivity penalty to Oltiboev followed almost immediately by a minor score to Juraev when he threw Oltiboev onto his front, ensured Juraev held a slight advantage at the half-way point. With one minute to go Juraev was also penalised for passivity as Oltiboev applied intense pressure. However, Juraev rode the storm, just managing to cling on to victory and the $50 000 first prize much to the delight of his supporters.

Neil Schofield – onwards and upwards

No medal for Neil Schofield on this occasion but certainly valuable experience for the future. “This was my first time in Uzbekistan and I was amazed at the huge level of interest and enthusiasm for Kurash”, Neil said. “I was very disappointed to lose and it would have been nice to have had some more contests but that’s just the way it goes sometimes. All in all though it’s been a fantastic few days and I’ve learnt a great deal from watching the other competitors, in particular the Uzbeks. Their contest strategies, jacket gripping engagement and sheer throwing skills set them apart from the other countries and I am taking some great inspiration back home with me. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to many places through Judo but the hospitality and friendliness I’ve met in Uzbekistan is second to none. I’m really looking forward to returning as soon as possible!”

IKA Gold Medal of Honour for Great Britain

At the post tournament banquet, Paul Sawyer was presented with the IKA’s Gold Medal of Honour in recognition of nearly 20 years involvement with Kurash as an athlete, coach, BKA official and also organiser of the World Junior Championships in Bournemouth in 2012. “This was an unexpected surprise”, he said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my involvement with Kurash over the years. It’s very satisfying to see athletes of the calibre of Neil Schofield representing Great Britain with honour at these big international tournaments. I am sure that it’s only a matter of time before Neil is on the rostrum at a major event.”

Paul added, “I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Komil Yusupov and the IKA, the Uzbekistan Embassy in London and the people of Uzbekistan as a whole for their enthusiasm and support for British Kurash over the last 20 years. We look forward to it continuing and developing further in the future!”

by Paul Sawyer