By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - Russia's supremacy on the wrestling mat survived an onslaught from Japan and Iran at the London Olympics and could face an even stronger challenge in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The Russians narrowly held on to their traditional place at the top of the medal table, taking four of the 18 golds as well as two silvers and five bronzes.
But they were pushed all the way by a Japanese team that won four golds, their most since 1968, and two bronzes. Iran ruled the Greco-Roman discipline, winning three of the seven golds.
"We came here to this great city in this great country...to wrestle and to win," said Russian coach Vladimir Uruimagov. "I expected this - we are eager to win."
While Russia's team topped the table, athletes from around the world provided some of the most dramatic moments.
Uzbek Artur Taymazov won his third consecutive gold to become the most successful Olympic freestyle wrestler. His silver in Sydney in 2000 was enough to put him top of the all-time medal table.
Jordan Burroughs won the first wrestling gold for the United States at London, earning a $250,000 bonus from U.S. officials and living up to his Twitter name, "All I See Is Gold".
His coach Zeke Jones said he hoped the 74kg freestyle win would raise the sport's profile.
"We need stars and Jordan is a star," Jones said. "It will never be like basketball or football, but he can certainly elevate the exposure and profile of the sport."
Japan's women were unstoppable in the freestyle, taking three of the four gold medals. Saori Yoshida (55kg) and Kaori Icho (63kg) both won their third consecutive gold.
Yoshida took her total of Olympic and world championship titles to 12, equaling Russia's Aleksandr Karelin.
Both wrestlers said it was too soon to say if they would defend their titles in Rio. If they do go to Brazil, more women may be competing with them on the mat.
Wrestling's governing body said it would push for a rule change to raise the number of women's weight classes from four to seven, the same as the men.
Some of those women might come from Islamic countries that do well in the men's competition, but have not put women forward for religious reasons.
Raphael Martinetti, president of the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, said it would consider changes to allow Muslim women to wear a different wrestling garment or a head covering to comply with Islamic law.
Iran enjoyed their best performance since they first competed in the Games in 1948, thrilling a nation that is passionate about the sport.
Ghasem Rezaei, who won the 96kg Greco-Roman gold, said they took strength from their imams, or spiritual leaders.
"When we athletes go to the mat, we ask Imam Ali for help before the match," he said.
"For Iranians the name of Imam Ali is like psychological doping that gives us power. No other people have this."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)