Former UNLV strength coach training Olympic wrestlers in Azerbaijan

It was a recent Tuesday morning, and Mark Philippi, the former UNLV strength and conditioning coach — the seventh Strongest Man in the World in 1997 — said he literally had come to a crossroads.

If he went one way, he soon would be back in civilization. If he went the other way, he soon would be in Georgia.

Not the Georgia north of Florida. The Georgia north of Azerbaijan, the crossroads of southwest Asia and southeastern Europe, part of the former Soviet Union.

Mark Philippi was a long way from home.

Starting Aug. 5, he’ll be at the Summer Olympic games in Brazil.

It almost seemed like one of those “Hangover” movies in reverse. A friend of a friend called, or something like that, and next thing you know he’s in Azerbaijan — not hanging out with Mike Tyson or Zach Galifianakis, but providing strength and conditioning to the Azerbaijan Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestlers.

Philippi is based in Goygol, a small city with a population of about 37,000. He said there are no Buffalo Wild Wings in Goygol, but they are putting in a Starbucks.

Goygol is about 10 kilometers (six miles) south of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city. Ganja has a population of more than 800,000. It was called Elizabethpol during the Russian Empire. (No, Snoop Dogg is not training in Ganja, which means “treasure” in Persian.)

Goygol has a secluded lake in the mountains.

Secluded lakes in mountains far removed from the nearest Starbucks are a good place to train Olympic wrestlers.

Mark Philippi has his own gym in Las Vegas, the Philippi Sports Institute on South Tenaya Way. Troy Tulowitzki used to train there during the offseason when he was with the Colorado Rockies. The Azerbaijan wrestlers, it can be assumed, have never heard of Troy Tulowitzki, or the Colorado Rockies.

But sometimes, at the end of the day, when the Azerbaijan wrestlers feel they’ve worked up a good lather and have had a good workout, they will stand and cheer for Mark Philippi. He said you usually don’t get that with Troy Tulowitzki or the other American athletes he trains.

After training, everybody sits down to eat chicken and lamb.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” said the 53-year-old strongman, who was born in Wisconsin and played football at Montana Tech. “It has gotten me back into doing what I like to do, which is coaching and having an influence on the outcome of athletic performance. It’s probably been hardest on my wife Tracey, the way I’m juggling things. But I’ve enjoyed it, it’s been good.

“Hopefully the results will be good, too.”

Ah, the results. Azerbaijan shares a southern border with Iran, where amateur wrestling is akin to the NFL. Many Azerbaijan wrestlers have Iranian ancestry, Philippi said. They live and breathe amateur wrestling. They eat lots of chicken and lamb.

Results are expected.

“There’s pressure,” Philippi said with a nervous chuckle.

The vice president of the Azerbaijan wrestling federation recently spoke with the wrestling team about expectations in Rio, he said. The translator (sort of) made it clear what was expected.

“One top guy,” Philippi said. “I don’t need silver. I don’t need bronze. The expectation is to win gold.”

There is precedent for winning gold.

Haji Aliyev, 57 kilograms (125 lb.) class, won the 61 kg gold medal at the 2015 world championships in Las Vegas. Toghrul Asgarov and Sharif Sharifov, wrestling in the 66 kg and 86 kg divisions in London, took Olympic gold back to the mountainous regions. Khetag Gazyumov, 97 kg, is a multi-time world champion and was an Olympic bronze medalist in 2008 and 2012.

These are Azerbaijan’s best wrestlers, Philippi said. The head coach is Saypula Absaidov, a former Russian Olympic champion. Amateur wrestling is pretty big in Russia, too.

Four years ago in London, the Azerbaijan wrestling team won seven medals and made a Febreze commercial. The only nations that won more wrestling medals were Russia, Japan and Iran. The United States was fifth on the medal chart, right behind Azerbaijan.

In addition to chicken and lamb on the training table, and a Formula One race that was held in the capital city of Baku in June — and that Febreze commercial notwithstanding — Mark Philippi said Azerbaijan still is best known for two things: petroleum and amateur wrestling.

Results are expected, he said.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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