By Ken Marantz
NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan—Risako KAWAI’s bold decision to challenge four-time Olympic champion Kaori ICHO at 57kg paid off when she captured her third straight world title and with it, a confirmed berth at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Kawai won a battle of 2018 world champions by defeating RONG Ningning (CHN) 9-6 in the final at the World Championships in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan, one of the few shining moments in what otherwise was a wakeup call for the powerful Japanese women’s team.
Kawai, the Rio 2016 Olympics gold medalist at 63kg who won the 59kg world title a year ago in Budapest, took a 5-0 lead in the first period that she expanded to 9-0 in the second, then survived a 4-point headlock throw before holding on to defeat Rong, the 2018 champ at 57kg.
“I gained a sense of security [regarding the Olympics], but aspects I need to reflect on came out immediately,” Kawai said. “I scored nine points, but then gave up six to the Chinese opponent’s power. Part of me was thinking I would lose it at the very end, and that it was a good thing this was not the Tokyo Olympics.
“Good things and bad things came out in the final. I will have to firmly use the one year left to the Tokyo Olympics to get stronger.”
That would prove be the lone gold for the Japanese women in Nur-Sultan, which somewhat tempered the fact that the team clinched Tokyo 2020 places in five of the six women’s Olympic weight classes.
The top six finishers in each of the Olympic weight classes secured berths for their country at Tokyo 2020. For the Japanese wrestlers, those who also won medals automatically filled the spot without further domestic qualifying, as decided by the Japan federation.
Fellow Rio Olympic champion Sara DOSHO secured a place for Japan at 68kg, but her fifth-place finish will certainly be of concern with the Tokyo Games less than a year away.
The biggest shock, however, came at 50kg, where Yuki IRIE came up on the short end of a heartbreaking 13-12 decision in the quarterfinals against SUN Yanan (CHN). When Sun lost her semifinal match to eventual champion Mariya STADNIK (AZE), it eliminated Irie from medal contention—the first time Japan did not make the final in the lightest women’s weight class since 2009.
Irie, who defeated Sun twice over the past two years, had knocked off two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI in a playoff to earn a ticket to Nur-Sultan, but her loss reopens the door to the Olympics to Susaki, Rio 2016 champion Eri TOSAKA and any other challenger. Japan’s first chance to gain that Olympic spot will come at the Asian qualifying tournament in March.
In addition to Kawai, three other members of the squad in Nur-Sultan clinched their spots at Tokyo 2020 by winning medals, but in at least one case, that was below expectations.
Mayu MUKAIDA, the 2018 world champion at 55kg, had dropped down to the Olympic weight of 53kg and earned her ticket to Nur-Sultan by beating that weight class’ world champ Haruna OKUNO.
Mukaida made it to the final, where she faced PAK Jong Mi (PRK). That was a rematch of the final of the Asian Championships in April in Xi’an, China, in which Pak stunned the Japanese with a takedown in the final seconds for a 4-3 win.
In Kazakhstan, it was not that close. In the second period, Pak scored two takedowns and, after the second, ripped off four rolls for a 12-1 technical fall in 4:31.
“Her defense was strong, much better than my attack,” Mukaida said. “I feel she really became stronger than she was at the Asian Championships. I did not think that I would lose so bad, but it is a result that I can’t change. I have to accept it and use a motivation.”
Yukako KAWAI assured she would join older sister Rikako at Tokyo 2020, but only after coming back the second day and winning a bronze medal at 62kg after losing by fall in the quarterfinals to Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ)—also a replay of an Asian Championships final.
While Tynybekova would go on to become the first world champion in Kyrgyzstan history, Kawai made it through the repechage rounds to the bronze-medal match, where she handily defeated RIM Jong Sim (PRK) by 12-1 technical fall.
“I just didn’t want to have any regrets and went out there determined to give everything I had no matter how tough things got,” Kawai said. “Risako told me, ‘If you just do as you’ve always done, you’ll be OK.’ From the time I was in high school, I had talked about my goal [of making it to the Olympics]. To achieve it now, I am so happy.”
One surprise on the positive side for Japan came at 76kg, where Hiroe MINAGAWA, after winning bronze medals the previous two years, moved up one place on the victory podium by taking home a silver and an Olympic berth.
Minagawa avenged a loss to ZHOU Qian (CHN) from the 2018 Asia Championships final with a 3-1 win in the quarterfinals before thrashing Epp MAE (EST) 7-0 in the semifinals. That put her into the final against four-time world champion Adeline GRAY (USA), where she held her own but fell 4-2.
“I was told to be aggressive [in the final] but didn’t have the courage,” the 32-year-old Minagawa said. “There’s a big difference between first and second, but overall, there were matches where I showed that I have made progress, so that was good.”
In the non-Olympic weights, Japan got medals from two former junior world champions—Nanami IRIE, Yuki’s younger sister who won a silver at 55kg, and Masako FURUICHI, a bronze medalist at 72kg.
Irie came close to making hers a gold. In the final, Jacarra WINCHESTER (USA) scored a takedown with 1:24 left to go ahead 4-3, then survived a final flurry that could have gone either way and won 5-3.
Irie, who failed to make the team at 53kg, moved up to 55kg and defeated Okuno in a playoff to earn the ticket to Nur-Sultan.
Furuichi lost to two-time Olympic medalist and eventual champion Natalia VOROBEVA (RUS) 6-4 in the qualification round, then worked her way into the bronze-medal match, where she edged Zhamila BAKBERGENOVA (KAZ) 2-0.
At 59kg, reigning Asian senior and world junior champion Yuzuka INAGAKI was dealt a heartbreaking 11-8 loss in the quarterfinals by Pooja DHANDA (IND), while Naomi RUIKE lost her opening match at 65kg to WANG Xiaoqian (CHN) 6-4. Neither wrestler became eligible for the repechage rounds.
The less-than-expected results were still enough to give the women the team title with 137 points, 29 head of Russia in second place. The United States was another three points back in third.
In recent years, Kenichiro FUMITA and Shinobu OTA have added spice to the domestic Greco-Roman competition by being training partners as well as fierce rivals for the 60kg spot. In Nur-Sultan, they both emerged as gold medalists.
Fumita, having beaten Ota for the 60kg berth this time, made the most of the opportunity by regaining the world title he won in 2017 and securing a spot at Tokyo 2020 in the Olympic weight.
Fumita had a virtually flawless run to the gold, which he topped off a 10-5 come-from-behind victory over defending world champion Sergey EMELIN (RUS) in the final.
Fumita fell into a 5-0 hole early on after Emelin rolled him twice from the par terre position.
“I thought, ‘I’m glad it was only 5 points,’” Fumita said. “I thought he might have ended it there. But I figured I would get a chance and then I was able to work my lifts for points. The way the match went was close to what I had planned.”
Unfazed, Fumita scored four points with a headlock roll, then added a roll and another 4-point throw for a 10-5 lead in the first period. In the second period, he put up a wall of defense that the Russian could not penetrate and that’s how it ended.
En route to the final, Fumita knocked off a pair of world silver medalists from the previous year. He beat Elmurat TASMURADOV (UZB), who had moved down from 63kg, 9-1 in the third round, then followed that with a hard-fought 12-5 victory over Victor CIOBANU (MDA) in the quarterfinals.
“The race to the Olympics has a year to go,” Fumita said. “The road ahead will be tough, but I think I took a good first step.”
The previous day, Ota, who had moved up to the non-Olympic 63kg division, picked up his first global title by also defeating a defending champion, and by a similar score.
Ota, the Rio 2016 Olympic silver medalist, avenged a loss at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov tournament in February to Stepan MARYANYAN (RUS). Using his trademark front headlock roll, he rallied from a 4-1 deficit for a 10-4 victory.
“I trained with the goal of becoming a world champion, and I think this was the result of that training,” Ota said. “I was prepared. Compared to the harsh training, this match might have been easier.”
Ota still clings to his dream of competing at Tokyo 2020, and at the moment, the only path would be to move up to 67kg.
The entry in that division, Shogo TAKAHASHI, failed to secure an Olympic spot when he lost 13-5 by Fredrik BJERREHUUS (DEN) in the third round, so Ota would have to first earn the right to represent Japan at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in March, then clinch a berth there.
Japan also got a well-earned medal from collegian Shota OGAWA, who won a bronze at non-Olympic 55kg with an 11-2 technical fall over CAO Liguo (CHN) in the third-place playoff. Cao had beaten Shota TANOKURA at last year’s worlds in Budapest.
Ogawa, who attends the same Nippon Sport Science University that produced Ota and Fumita, pulled an upset in the quarterfinals when he knocked off Asian champion Ilkhom BAKHROMOV (UZB) 4-2. He then lost by 8-0 technical fall in the semifinals to eventual gold medalist Nugzari TSURTSUMIA (GEO).
The remainder of the Greco team chalked up only one win between them, a victory by fall by Yuta NARA over Adem BOUDJEMLINE (ALG) in the first round at 92kg.
With the three medals, Japan finished sixth in the team standings with 65 points to earn a place at the next World Cup. Russia won the title with 132 points.
The freestyle team was completely shut out of the medals—including defending world champion Takuto OTOGURO—for the first time since 2015, but at least was able to secure two spots at the Olympics.
Otoguro, trying to negotiate the mine field that made up his half of the draw, suffered two losses and had to settle for fifth place at 65kg. That holds the place for Japan, which he can fill himself with a victory at the All-Japan Championships in December.
Otoguro’s loss of the title he won in 2018—which at 19 years 10 months made him the youngest-ever Japanese male world champion—became official when the Yamanashi Gakuin University student was dealt a decisive 8-1 loss in the second round by Gadzhimurad RASHIDOV (RUS), a two-time silver medalist at 61kg who moved up to the Olympic weight.
When Rashidov advanced to the final, where he won the gold, it kept Otoguro’s chances alive. In the repechage, he survived a high-energy match with three-time former world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Haji ALIYEV (AZE), holding on for an 11-9 win, then topped Haji ALI (BRN) 6-1 to make the bronze medal match.
But in a testy match in which he could have secured his Olympic ticket, Otoguro came up on the short end of a 5-3 score against Iszmail MUSZKAJEV (HUN).
Otoguro was forced to play catchup late in the match, then made a fatal error when he was hit with a caution for head-slapping. That was crucial, as it meant he lost the advantage of last-point criteria when he tied the match with :24 left. He desperately tried for a winning takedown, only to see Muszkajev add to his tally at the end.
“It’s a result that I’m disappointed with, and also find hard to accept,” Otoguro said. “After losing yesterday, I was determined to bounce back. A fifth-place finish is an embarrassment. I feel I’ve failed as a national team member. I will fight hard in the next tournament to live up to everyone’s expectations.”
Unheralded Mao OKUI put on an inspired performance in his world senior level debut, finishing fifth at 74kg to clinch a berth for Japan at Tokyo 2020.
Okui, a member of the JSDF Physical Training School, won twice to make it to the quarterfinals, where he lost to defending champion and eventual gold medalist Zaubek SIDAKOV (RUS). A 6-2 victory in the repechage over Kamil RYBICKI (POL) put him into the bronze-medal match, where he lost 10-0 to four-time world champion Jordan BURROUGHS (USA).
Okui, who was second at the World University Championships in 2018, defeated former world bronze medalist Yuhi FUJINAMI in a playoff for the place on the squad to Nur-Sultan.
For 2017 world champion and 2018 bronze medalist Yuki TAKAHASHI, it’s back to the drawing board after he was handed a 6-1 loss in the 57kg quarterfinals by 2018 world U23 silver medalist Kumar RAVI (IND). When Ravi lost in the semifinals, it ended Takahashi’s hopes of a top-six finish.
Likewise for 2014 world silver medalist Sosuke TAKATANI, whose tournament ended with a close 5-2 second-round loss to Myles AMINE (SMR), an American-born and raised competitor who went on to become the first-ever wrestler to clinch an Olympic berth for the European enclave of San Marino.
In the non-Olympic 70kg category, Asian silver medalist Kojiro SHIGA recorded wins over Luis BARRIOS (HON) and Abdullrahman IBRAHIM (QAT) before losing in the quarterfinals to Yones EMAMICHOGHAEI (IRI) to finish in seventh place.
The Asian Olympic qualifying tournament is scheduled for March 27-29 in Xi’an, China, with two places per weight class available. The final world qualifier will be April 30 to May 3 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
(Olympic weight classes are underlined)
55kg: Shota OGAWA, bronze medal
60kg; Kenichiro FUMITA, gold medal (qualified for Olympics*)
63kg: Shinobu OTA, gold medal
67kg; Shogo TAKAHASHI, 19th place
72kg: Tomohiro INOUE, 22nd place
77kg: Shohei YABIKU, 26th place
82kg: Yuya OKAJIMA, 19th place
87kg: Masato SUMI, 27th place
97kg: Yuta NARA, 12th place
130kg: Arata SONODA, 25th place
50kg: Yuki IRIE, 8th place
53kg: Mayu MUKAIDA, silver medal (qualified for Olympics*)
55kg: Nanami IRIE, silver medal
57kg: Risako KAWAI, gold medal (qualified for Olympics*)
59kg: Yuzuka INAGAKI, 8th place
62kg: Yukako KAWAI, bronze medal (qualified for Olympics*)
65kg: Naomi RUIKE, 12th place
68kg: Sara DOSHO, 5th place (qualified for Olympics)
72kg: Masako FURUICHI, bronze medal
76kg: Hiroe MINAGAWA, silver medal (qualified for Olympics*)
57kg: Yuki TAKAHASHI, 10th place
61kg: Kaiki YAMAGUCHI, 17th place
65kg: Takuto OTOGURO, 5th place (qualified for Olympics)
70kg: Kojiro SHIGA, 7th place
74kg: Mao OKUI, 5th place (qualified for Olympics)
79kg: Yudai TAKAHASHI, 22nd place
86kg: Sosuke TAKATANI, 11th place
92kg: Takuma OTSU, 10th place
97kg: Naoya AKAGUMA, 21st place
125kg: Nobuyoshi ARAKIDA, 27th place
*—By winning medal, automatically fills Olympic berth without further domestic qualifying