Stepan Maryanyan: From reluctant wrestler to champion
Stepan Maryanyan has been one of the most dominant wrestlers in the world across all styles since 2018.
Following his gold medal at the 2018 World Wrestling Championships, the Greco-Roman grappler was victorious in the 2019 European Championships, European Games and the prestigious Dan Kolov event.
But it wasn't always so straight forward for the mercurial Russian.
Before 2018, his career was marked by two dominant traits: Creative flair, and inconsistency.
His explosive flips and vice-like clamp on opponents were often undone by basic errors, undoubtedly caused by matters in his personal life.
"Fighting is a way of life. We live the struggle."
Maryanyan was born in the village of Dinskaya, in Russia's mountainous Krasnodar Territory.
The son of Armenian parents, he reluctantly started wrestling at 10-years-old.
"At first, I didn’t want to and I ran away from training," he told Championat.
"It was more fun to walk outside. But every time my father brought me back and forced me to continue training." - Stepan Maryanyan to Championat.
"Now I am very grateful to him. If it weren’t for my father I don’t know what would have come of me.
"I almost immediately began to win tournaments for my age, then I fell in love with this sport. Fighting is a way of life. We live the struggle."
An unexpected opportunity for glory
The Russian quickly progressed, winning the Greco-Roman wrestling junior world title in 2010.
But soon after his father died, who was the main driving force of his athletic career.
Maryanyan continued to show flashes of brilliance on the mat, but lacked the consistency to land another international title.
Just when he was starting to look like a talent unfulfilled, Maryanyan was given a shot at redemption, five years after his father’s death.
After losing the 2015 Russian Championship final to Ibrahim Labazanov, Maryanyan was not initially selected for Russia’s 2015 European Games squad.
But an untimely knee injury to his rival meant that Maryanyan was selected in his place for the Baku event.
And what a substitute he proved to be.
The Russian announced his arrival on the senior wrestling stage in style, with a shock victory at 59 kg.
Unsurprisingly, it was an emotional victory for the young fighter, who was now competing to honour his mentor’s memory.
“I still can’t believe it has been six years and that Dad is not near me,” he told Championat.
“It is for him that I continue to wrestle, as he wanted this. I’ll go to his grave and lay out the medals, as I want to believe that he sees all this from above." - Stepan Maryanyan to Championat.
“The Russian team has such competition that many serious wrestlers never wait for their chance. I've waited.”
Fulfilling his wrestling destiny
With inner peace came a new, steely focus.
He controversially missed out on Olympic selection in Rio 2016, but rebounded with a bronze medal at the 2017 World Wrestling Championships.
The Russian dominated all before him to become the 2018 Greco-Roman World Champion at 63 kg, with only four points being scored against him in Budapest.
“I walked for a long time to this medal. I had a very difficult career,” he told RVS in Budapest.
“There were victories and defeats. On my third attempt at a world championships, the confidence was that I would win. I really wanted this.
They say winning is a habit, and that certainly proved the case in 2019 for Maryanyan.
He went on a gold-medal rampage at the European Games, European Championships and the prestigious United World Wrestling Dan Kolov event.
At the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan, Maryanyan lost in the final to Japan's Shinobu Ota.
Fighting is a way of life in Krasnodar
After his father, Maryanyan’s home territory became another important source of motivation for his wrestling.
The Krasnodar Territory contributed two gold medals at the 2018 World Championships, with 130 kg giant Sergey Semenov also taking home a title.
“Fighting in Krasnodar Territory is a fundamental part of education,” - Krasnodar Deputy Minister for Physical Culture and Sports Sergey Myasischev to Kuban24.
“This was a breakthrough for us, because for a long time in Greco-Roman wrestling, we did not see our athletes on the podium, especially at the highest level.
After winning the world title, Maryanyan was asked to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Tokyo 2020: The chance to secure a wrestling Grand Slam
The only title Maryanyan hasn’t won is the Olympics, and Tokyo 2020 will present his first chance to complete his set of wrestling triumphs.
But as with many other wrestlers around the world, the 27-year-old could face a potential banana skin with the Olympic weight categories.
The Olympic wrestling competition features 6 categories, compared to 10 categories at the World Championships, and subsequently some fighters have to gain or lose weight in order to compete in a different division.
That said, the Russian seems to have adjusted to the Olympic 60 kg category with no ill effects, securing gold at the 2019 European Games in Minsk.
Barring a serious injury, things certainly look good for the Russian for Japan next year.
“Our goal is to win the Olympic Games,” Maryanyan told RT Sport.
“We will prepare in such a way that we can approach the Olympic Games in perfect shape. But there are always mistakes, we will work on so that they were not there. "
“We don’t look at the level of the opponent, and we never underestimate them. Any champion can be beaten. We go to each fight as the last.”
With tongue in cheek, Maryanyan said he believes this is a sign for him to win gold at Tokyo 2020.
With his current rate of form, and the stars seemingly aligning, it would take a brave individual to bet against him.