2023 IWF World Weightlifting Championships Highlights & Best Moments

The final World Championships before the 2024 Olympic Games was one to remember.

When the final barbell hit the floor on Sep. 17 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France were 313 days away. The heat is officially on for weightlifters aiming at the Olympic podium. The 2023 International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) World Weightlifting Championships (WWC) was the first of two mandatory competitions required for Paris qualification.

As such, the lifting in Riyadh was nothing less than extraordinary. From first-time World attendees making big splashes on the platform to new world records set, and reset, in a matter of minutes, Riyadh hosted some of the best strength performances of the entire year.

Liu Huanhua at the 2023 World Weightlifting Championships
Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

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Here are just a few of the many, many spectacular moments at the 2023 WWC that made the two-week affair worth the wait.

Women’s 49-Kilogram

The Women’s 49-kilogram Group A contained the first world records of the 2023 WWC and, arguably, its most competitive session, at least on the women’s side. It was a two-athlete race to the podium between China’s powerhouse athletes: 2020 Olympic Champion Hou Zhihui and 2022 World Champion Jiang Huihua.

Constrained by the 2024 Olympics qualification rules, China may only select one of the two athletes to send to Paris. With only a handful of prominent competitions remaining before the Games kick off in late July 2024, both Zhihui and Huihua had a lot to prove in Riyadh. They tied each other in the snatch, with Zhihui bagging the gold medal there because she lifted the weight first.

Jiang Huihua celebrates after setting a new world record in the clean & jerk.
Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

But the clean & jerks were a different story. Zhihui put up a valiant effort, walking away with a silver medal, but couldn’t keep up with Huihua’s tremendous strength. Huihua jerked 120 kilograms, a new world record and a weight she had unsuccessfully attempted at Worlds last year. She also set a 215-kilogram Total world record, putting Zhihui firmly on the back foot.

China walked away with golds across the board in the 49s. Notably, Team USA athlete Jourdan Delacruz found herself on the podium for the first time at her fourth WWC. Delacruz snuck bronze in both the clean & jerk and Total. Her 200-kilogram Total also rocketed Delacruz up to third place in the world in the 49s, tying with two athletes from Thailand. A very strong start for the States. 

Hampton Morris (61KG)

In every weightlifting competition, someone has to finish first and someone has to finish last. Rarely, if ever, are both of those positions occupied by the same athlete. At the 2023 WWC, American weightlifter Hampton Morris both faltered and flew. 61-kilogram Morris bombed out in the snatch portion of the competition, missing all three of his attempts at 123 kilograms, finishing dead last.

But in the clean & jerks, 19-year-old Morris spun a different tale altogether. As the competition wound down, the final two attempts belonged to Morris and 2020 Olympic Champion Li Fabin of China. Fabin put 167 above his head. Morris tried 168, but missed it. With one attempt left, he returned to the stage to successfully jerk 168 kilograms, a Junior world record.

Hampton Morris celebrates his clean & jerk gold medal at 2023 World Weightlifting Championships.
Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

Fabin took the final lift of the 61-kilogram Group A, but couldn’t secure 168 kilograms. Morris walked away with a senior World gold medal, the first American to do so in nearly four decades, despite not registering a Total. 

Men’s 73-Kilogram

The Men’s 73-kilogram category may have been the most unique division at this year’s World Championships. The 73s have long been considered a hotbed of competitive spirit, sheltering some of the most dominant athletes in the sport.

But in Riyadh, the 73-kilogram podium was anything but predictable. For the first time in the sport’s modern history, the overall medal went to an athlete from the C Group; Thailand’s Wichuma Weeraphon stunned the crowd with an out-of-nowhere performance. He totaled 349 kilograms and set a 195-kilogram Junior world record in the clean & jerk.

But Weeraphon was far from the only surprise. The A and B Groups were rife with underwhelming moments across the board. Commentators highlighted that more than half of all the athletes in those Groups failed to register a Total. It was, as they appropriately described it, a bloodbath. 

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2020 Olympic Champion Shi Zhiyong opted to compete at 81 kilograms rather than cut down. This gave space on the podium for newcomers like Muhammed Ozbek, who set foot on his first World podium. Ozbek won bronze overall, a strong uptick from last year’s WWC where he finished a modest eighth. 

It’s suspected that the unusual results in the 73s is due in part to the upcoming Asian Games, a prestigious international event that will take place in early October in Hangzhou, China. The Men’s 73-kilogram division is largely dominated by Asian athletes, many of whom may be biding their time to go big at the Games instead. 

Rahmat Erwin Abdullah (81KG)

The specter of Indonesian weightlifter Rahmat Erwin Abdullah loomed large over the Men’s 81-kilogram Group A session on Sep. 11. Hours prior, Abdullah had set the tone — and a new clean & jerk world record — by totaling 354 kilograms in Group B. Commentators noted that Abdullah, the 2022 World Champion from the 73-kilogram class, had come to Riyadh to snipe the 81-kilo world record clean & jerk away from Bulgarian Karlos Nasar

It was speculated that Abdullah had potentially left the top of the overall 81-kilogram podium open as a gesture of good will, snatching below his capabilities with a 145-kilo result. Several of the Group A 81s snatched well above 160, but come the clean & jerks, the tables began to turn.

Abdullah controls his barbell at the 2023 World Weightlifting Championships.
Credit: Sofia Martinez / International Weightlifting Federation

Midway through the second half of the session, the best snatchers in the 81s had failed to make a clean & jerk above 190 kilograms. As the window closed, multiple athletes were put into a do-or-die position by Abdullah: Make their third clean & jerks for a gold medal in the Total, or bomb out.

Italy’s Oscar Reyes Martinez ultimately broke through. He clean & jerked 193 kilograms to win the division overall. Abdullah won a silver medal in the 81s, despite taking it easy in the snatches and weighing in at only 76 kilograms, well below the division’s weight cap. Commentators noted that, during the 81-kilogram Group A, Abdullah could be seen perched in the stands, a “wry smile” drawn across his face.

Mir Mostafa Javadi (89KG)

The Men’s 89-kilogram Group A session, held on the 11th of September, was expected to be one of the best showings of the entire WWC. Many of the most famous male weightlifters in the world, including fan favorites like Karlos NasarAntonino PizzolatoTian Tao, Li Dayin, Keydomar Vallenilla-Sanchez, and Arley Mendez were on a collision course in the 89s. A six-way brawl for the gold medal.

But when the session had wrapped, none of those athletes stood atop the podium. Nasar was too injured to compete; Pizzolato bombed out in the snatch; Tao in the clean & jerk; Dayin tore his hand open; Mendez was nowhere to be found (literally).

Men's 89-Kilogram Podium 2023 World Weightlifting Championships
Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

The narrowest of openings gave Iran’s Mir Mostafa Javadi a one-in-a-million shot — and he took it. On his final attempt, Javadi successfully clean & jerked 215 kilograms, 10 above anything he’d made on an IWF stage in the past.

It was a true max-effort lift and, more importantly, just enough to secure Javadi the overall gold medal by a single kilogram ahead of silver medalist Dayin. As the Iranian flag was raised in the stadium during the medal ceremony, commentators called it an “upset for the ages.” 

Liu Huanhua (102KG)

In the back room of the Men’s 102-kilogram Group A session, the Chinese team coach was reportedly overheard telling Liu Huanhua, “You need to kill these [redacted],” uttering profanity that the commentators neglected to repeat on air.

The 2023 WWC was Huanhua’s first appearance in the 102s after spending the last year of his career moving up: First from the 89s (he won bronze there at Worlds last year), then to the 96s (bagged gold at the 2023 Asian Championships), before making his debut in the 102s, a Paris-recognized category.

Liu Huanhua prepares to clean & jerk 224 kilograms
Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

As he’s bulked up, Huanhua’s strength has risen in stride. Among fans of weightlifting, he’s been endearingly nicknamed “the Gigachad” for his muscular physique and confident disposition on the platform. Both were on full display as Huanhua took his coach’s orders to heart.

After snatching a new personal record in the snatch of 180 kilograms, Huanhua missed his first clean & jerk at 215 kilos before taking a gutsy, and successful, jump to 221 to secure the gold medal. With victory in the bag, the Gigachad returned again to take the final attempt of the 102s at 224 kilograms. He made it, confidently, confirming China’s dominance over yet another division of weightlifting. 

Solfrid Koanda (87KG)

Hours before the Women’s 87-kilogram Group A would begin on Sep. 15, no one in attendance at the World Weightlifting Championships would’ve bet against Norway’s Solfrid Koanda. Koanda, the 2022 87-kilogram World Champion, has run wild in the category for the past year, winning multiple international events at 87 (and 81) by staggering margins — at the 2022 WWC, she was victorious by 11 kilograms in the Total.

But halfway through the Women’s 87s, the tables had turned altogether. Koanda had missed her 115-kilogram snatch opener, losing it in front. She tried again, dumping it behind, and then missed it for a third time, disqualifying her from registering a Total.

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By any estimation, she was the safest prediction on the women’s side, save for perhaps Team China’s Li Wenwen (+87 kilograms), who would end up withdrawing from competition after suffering an elbow injury one day after Koanda competed. 

After the snatches had wrapped, Koanda came out for clean & jerks. She ultimately registered a 156-kilogram third attempt, 18 kilos ahead of the runner-up. Had she made even a single snatch, Koanda would’ve won Worlds by one of the widest margins of the entire competition. 

Dadas Dadashbayli (109KG)

The stage at the World Weightlifting Championships often bears more than the physical weight of the barbells loaded and lifted there. Despite its solitary nature, weightlifting is a sport like any other, and emotions bubble and erupt during the throes of competition. 

They certainly bubbled over for Azerbaijani weightlifter Dadash Dadashbayli as he won his first World Championships medals during the Men’s 109-kilogram Group A on Sep. 16.

Dadash Dadashbayli at the 2023 WWC
Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

After a long hiatus from the World stage (he served a doping-related ban as a Junior lifter from 2015 to 2019), Dadashbayli returned with gusto. He went five-for-six, missing only his third snatch attempt at 184 kilograms.

When he dropped his final clean & jerk to the floor, securing his position on the podium, Dadashbayli collapsed. He howled, cheered, and curled himself over the plates on his barbell, kissing them and crying.

Performing on the biggest stage in the sport — outside of the Olympic Games — means different things to different athletes. Most weightlifters aren’t beset by emotion on the platform when they win bronze.

Dadash Dadashbayli at the 2023 WWC celebration
Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

But for Dadashbayli, it may have meant redemption; a chance to make things right after past mistakes and years of exile from something he holds very dear. Dadashbayli was the only Azerbaijani athlete to make it to the podium at the 2023 WWC. 

Women’s +87-Kilogram

Halfway through the Women’s +87-kilogram Group A, commentators had stated in no uncertain terms that it was the most surprising session of the 2023 WWC overall. When the snatches had finished, three of the top four women in the world — including multi-world-record holder and Olympic Champion Li Wenwen — had bombed out or withdrawn.

This left the Women’s +87-kilogram podium wide open for the first time in several years. Korea’s Hyejeong Park won gold with a 289-kilogram Total. She placed 8th one year prior and was the first woman other than Wenwen to stand on top of the super-heavyweight podium since 2018.

Women's +87-kilogram podium
Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

With so many of the expected high-performers out, the silver medal went to Team USA’s Mary Theisen-Lappen, a phenomenal result for her World Championships debut. The bronze medal went to Colombia’s Lisseth Ayovi Cabezas, also a first-timer on the World overall podium. 

What’s Next For Weightlifting?

Unlike years past, the 2023 WWC isn’t the last big meet on the calendar. In fact, several prominent competitions remain before the page turns to 2024. The 19th Asian Games will take place in China at the end of September, followed by the Pan American Games in October.

The 2023 Junior WWC begins on Nov. 15 in Guadalajara, Mexico. And in December, Doha, Qatar will host the second IWF Grand Prix of the year, which starts on Dec. 4.

The last time you’ll see all your favorite weightlifters gathered together will be in April 2024 at the IWF World Cup, hosted in Phuket, Thailand. The Cup is the second of two mandatory events for Paris qualification, so expect a tremendous turnout there. After that, it’s on to Paris!

Featured Image: William Johnson / @barbellstories