WASHINGTON -- Spenser Mango had battled against Ildar Hafizov’s strength before. Eleven years ago at the Dave Schultz Memorial International event in Colorado Springs, Mango took on Hafizov, then representing Uzbekistan and learned first hand of the Uzbek’s relentless tenacity.
“I realized, wow, this guy's really tough,” said Mango, now a staff sergeant and Hafizov’s wrestling coach with the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
Mango found himself in another difficult position during April’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials as Hafizov faced Mango’s younger brother, Ryan, in an Olympic qualifying match in the Greco-Roman 60 kg weight class at Fort Worth, Texas.
The winner would realize an Olympic dream. For Hafizov, a sergeant in WCAP, it would be a return to the Games but as a member of the U.S. national team and WCAP after competing for Uzbekistan in the 2008 Games. For Ryan, it would be a chance to follow in the footsteps of Spenser, a two-time Olympian.
However, Ryan entered the match while still recovering from an injury and Hafizov overwhelmed him. After winning the first match 7-0 and just seconds into the second bout, Hafizov quickly executed a takedown of Ryan, also a sergeant with WCAP, and followed up with a throw to secure the 8-0 victory by technical fall.
Although the triumph marked a significant milestone for Hafizov, who would return to the Olympics after 13 years, the win held even greater significance for him after emigrating to the U.S. more than seven years ago.
“It's a moment of joy -- pride and joy,” Hafizov said earlier this month. “So now I can give back to the U.S. They have given me opportunities to wrestle and represent the Army and represent the United States. I am happy to give back.”
Hafizov and Spc. Alejandro Sancho will represent the U.S. and WCAP at the Olympics in Tokyo in late July. Sancho qualified after defeating fellow WCAP member Sgt. Ellis Coleman at 67 kg.
Hafizov’s venture into the sport began at age 6 when a friend of Hafizov’s father spotted him playing outside his family's home in Tashkent and took him to a youth wrestling practice. Born in the former Soviet Union, a hard work ethic had been bred into Hafizov at an early age. His father, Hafizov Shavkat, had competed for the USSR in wrestling at the junior levels.
The younger Hafizov, now 33, eventually became one of the central Asian nation’s top competitors at featherweight. After qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Games, he earned a silver medal at the 2011 Asian Wrestling Championships.
However, Hafizov had suffered a worsening injury to his left ACL and eventually had to undergo surgery, sidelining him from competing at the 2012 Games in London.
With a wife and young daughter, Hafizov wanted a better life for his family. Wages in Uzbekistan remain low, causing many to flee the country or become migrant workers to seek additional income. At the time, Hafizov had been working as a youth wrestling coach.
So Hafizov and his wife, Dina, entered their names in the immigration lottery several times to find better opportunities in the U.S. before finally securing immigration in 2014. And that meant he had to put his wrestling career on hold.
Hafizov reignited his desire to compete in 2015 when he learned of the Army’s WCAP program, a chance to continue wrestling at the highest levels full time while earning a sustainable income for his family.
In his second year with the WCAP program, Hafizov quickly rose through ranks, becoming the top-ranked competitor in the 59 kg weight class in 2016. Although standing only 5 feet, 2 inches tall, Hafizov possesses a wide repertoire of skills, able to manufacture a hold or a throw even when the odds have stacked against him, Mango said.
“He's just a technician,” Mango said. “He's good from every position, very knowledgeable with the sport. You can name any move, and Ildar can hit it.”
Hafizov fell short of reaching the Olympics in 2016 when he lost to eventual qualifier Jesse Thielke in straight matches in the finals of the Olympic trials. Hafizov went on to earn a bronze medal at the 2019 Pan-American Games and also won a silver medal at the U.S. National Championships while qualifying for World Teams in 2017 and 2019.
At an Olympic regional qualifying tournament in Ottawa, Canada, in March 2020, Hafizov took the first step in his return to the Olympic stage by mounting a come-from-behind victory over the two-time Pan Am Games champion and 2016 Olympian Andres Montano-Arroyo of Ecuador, earning Hafizov an automatic bye to the final round of April’s Olympic trials.
Hafizov had to wait a year to fully qualify for the Olympics due to the pandemic. Now the father of two hopes to not only give back to his adoptive country, but accomplish what he could not in 2008: medal at the Olympics.
Finally a top dog
After an emotional battle with one of his WCAP squad mates, Alejandro Sancho looked upward and clenched his fists. He let out an exuberant scream as he turned to his family and friends in attendance at Fort Worth’s Dickies Arena in April.
Since joining the USA Wrestling program as a student at Northern Michigan University, Sancho had been ranked as high as No. 2 or No. 3 nationally at the 67 kg Greco-Roman weight class but failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
He also spent four months recovering from an injured pectoral tendon before his triumph in Texas.
“It's every kid's dream to make the Olympic team,” said Sancho, 27. “I've always had that ambition since I was a child. It just made it so much more sweet. And having my family there was so emotional. They knew … how much work I put into making this team.”
In April, Sancho had faced 2016 Olympic qualifier Coleman, to whom Sancho had previously lost to at the World Team trials and other tournaments. This time, Sancho came out the aggressor, winning the best-of-three series, 2-0 and 3-1. Coleman had qualified for the previous four world teams and entered the match as the favorite, although Sancho came in as the No. 2 ranked competitor.
Coleman, a veteran who won the U.S. Open five times, typically controls matches from the standing position, but during the Olympic trials final, Sancho took charge.
“He put the perfect match together and perfect series … and he did everything exactly how he was supposed to,” Mango said. “I think some people were a little surprised.”
It had been an unlikely journey for Sancho, who entered the sport at an older age. Born to Cuban immigrants, he grew up in a southern Miami neighborhood. Sancho initially followed in the footsteps of his stepfather, Fernando Hernandez, who practiced judo in the Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana. Sancho practiced the combative sport until he reached high school. And then he had hopes of one day making his high school’s varsity basketball squad while playing hoops as an undersized freshman.
“Then I realized I wasn’t going to make the NBA,” he said.
Fortunately for Sancho he had years of judo training as a youth under his belt and a coach convinced him to try out for the school’s wrestling team. Because he had strong hips and had learned basic fundamentals from martial arts, Sancho adapted to wrestling quickly. After falling short of qualifying for the state tournament as a freshman, Sancho became one of Florida’s top wrestlers, placing 4th in his weight class at state as a senior.
“I wasn't the most athletic. I wasn't the best wrestler out there,” Sancho said. “But I always had that work ethic, that dedication to the sport.”
He showcased enough potential to earn a scholarship to Northern Michigan University, which hosted the country’s only resident Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling program.
Competing against the nation’s best grapplers, combined with a more disciplined training regimen elevated Sancho’s skills to new levels, Mango said.
But with the success came bitter disappointment. Despite consistently being recognized as one of the elite wrestler at his weight class, Sancho fell short of his ultimate goal: the Olympic Games. He finished third at 66 kg in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials as a member of the New York Athletic Club.
After graduating from Northern Michigan, Sancho considered leaving the sport to pursue a career in law enforcement. Then Sancho joined the Army and WCAP in 2018 and his skill level reached a new plateau. He worked harder on his wrestling technique and paid closer attention to his diet and training.
“When I first saw him, I immediately recognized how gifted he was,” Mango said. “He works hard at it. And he's definitely a student of the game.”
Sancho has consistently finished as No. 2 or No. 3 at the U.S. World Team Trials and U.S. Open in the 66 kg class. He finished as the runner up at the 2017 World Trials. His victory in April marked nearly 10 years of effort at the national levels to finally breakthrough on the Olympic stage.
With his recent triumph, Sancho has his sights set on doing more than simply qualifying for Tokyo.
“I'm representing the two best teams in the world: Team USA and team Army. So it's a great honor and I'll take that responsibility,” he said. “I definitely want to win the Olympics.”