By Ken Marantz
TOKYO — Earlier this year, Ken MATSUI became Japan’s youngest-ever world champion in Greco-Roman. Five months before that, in the same Greco 55kg weight classs, Yu SHIOTANI became Japan’s youngest-ever male Asian champion.
In a showdown between the two history-makers, the continental champion won out. And in surprisingly dominant fashion.
Shiotani slammed Matsui to the mat with a consecutive pair of 5-point throws to finish off a quick 11-0 in the 55kg final at the Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships, held Dec. 16-19 at Tokyo ‘s Komazawa Gym.
“It’s not that I particularly like [that move], but it’s nice to win that way,” said Takushoku University’s Shiotani, on the move in which he used a cross-body lock and lifted Matsui perpendicular into the air, then fell forward to dump him onto the mat. He then repeated the process, ending the match at 1:42 for his first national title.
Nippon Sport Science University’s Matsui, coming off a world title performance in Oslo in September, was aiming for his first national title, but instead was left at a loss for what went wrong against an opponent he had previously beaten twice before.
“It was pathetic, I couldn’t do anything,” Matsui said. “I was on a high after winning at the World Championships, so I took it too lightly and went into the match thinking, ‘I’ve got this won.'”
For Shiotani, Matsui’s historic run in Oslo left him bitter and motivated. After a second straight second-place finish at last year’s Emperor Cup, Shiotani skipped the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in May due to injury, opening the door for Matsui to gain the ticket to Oslo. The Emperor’s Cup and Meiji Cup serve as Japan’s qualifiers for the World Championships.
“I was always finishing second,” Shiotani said. “Matsui went to the World Championships and won the title. But I was able to face him here and I thought, this time I’ll beat him. If wonder how I would have done [at the World Championships]. It’s my own fault that I didn’t go, but the fact that Matsui won, that was really hard to take. “
Matsui was 20 years 8 months when he won in Oslo, making him Japan’s youngest-ever world Greco champion. The previous April, Shiotani won the Asian title at age 19 years 5 months, making him the nation’s youngest-ever continental champion.
Matsui will get a chance for revenge at next year’s Meiji Cup in June, where a victory would set up a playoff for the spot on the team to the Belgrade worlds. As this Emperor’s Cup also served as a qualifier for the Asian Games in China in September, Shiotani has clinched a place at that tournament, as well as a chance to defend his title at the Asian Championships in April.
Shiotani credited gaining confidence in his ground wrestling to practicing with Takushoku teammate Kensuke SHIMIZU, who won the Greco 63kg title for the second straight year the day before.
Shimizu, Japan’s only other Greco medalist in Oslo after winning a bronze, continues to live up to the family name made famous by his uncle by posting a 6-3 victory in the 63kg final over national collegiate champion Ryuto IKEDA of NSSU.
“It was in a completely different position from last year and it was a strange kind of nervousness, so that I couldn’t move like I usually do,” Shimizu said of coming in as defending champion.
“I couldn’t sleep for a week before the tournament because of nerves. I don’t know if it’s a refreshing feeling, but it was a good experience. I learned the difficulty of winning consecutive titles.”
Shimizu took full advantage of his chance in the par terre position in the second period, launching an explosive 5-point throw. A late takedown by Ikeda only served to narrow the margin of victory.
“I was able to defend when he got the first point, so I felt the momentum was going my way,” Shimizu said. “At the World Championships, my defense was weak and that led to my defeat. I still haven’t fully fixed that yet, but I feel it’s coming along.”
Shimizu said the Asian Championships would likely serve as his final tournament at 63kg as he plans to move up to 67kg in a bid to make the Paris Olympics. It might also give him a chance for some revenge.
“The next Asian Championships could very likely be my last tournament at 63kg,” Shimizu said. “I think the Iran wrestler who won the world title [Meysam DALKHANI (IRI)] might enter, so I will aim to beat him.”
A trip to the Olympics would give Shimizu the opportunity to match the exploits of his famous uncle, Hiroyasu SHIMIZU, who won the gold medal and set the world record in the men’s 500 meters in speed skating at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.
In other Greco action, veteran Tomohiro INOUE won his sixth national title and first in three years with a 5-1 victory in the 72kg final over defending champion Shogo TAKAHASHI — who Inoue coached years ago at Ikuei High School in Hyogo Prefecture.
The 34-year-old Inoue, a member of the Japan team to Oslo, showed the master still had some life left in him by scoring a gut wrench from par terre in the second period, then adding a takedown when Takahashi lost his footing and fell backward.
The two previously met in the 66kg final in 2015, with Inoue winning by technical fall. Takahashi, 27, has wrestled almost exclusively at 67kg in recent years, the weight in which he won three national titles and a 2019 Asian bronze medal, but came up short in two shots at qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
There was a changing of the guard at 97kg, as Takahiro TSURUDA, making a rare move up two weight classes, blanked Yuri NAKAZATO 6-0 in the final for his first national title.
Tsuruda, who lost in the first round at 87kg at the Oslo worlds, said he decided to jump up to the next Olympic weight class because his Self-Defense Forces Physical Training School team is shy of members in that division.
“I wanted to get bigger, and the SDF members at that weight are gone,” said the Okinawa Prefecture native. “Instead of battling it out at 87kg where the SDF has many wrestlers, I thought I could give SDF one more title and raise the prestige of SDF wrestling. So I chose this weight class.”
The two finalists each knocked off one of the two wrestlers who had reigned over the weight class for the past five years. In the semifinals, Nakazato notched a 3-1 win over Yuta NARA, who held the title from 2016 to 2019, and Tsuruda followed with a 4-0 win over defending champion Masayuki AMANO.
The 87kg title did, in fact, come down to a clash between SDF teammates, with Masato SUMI turning the tables on So SAKABE by notching a 5-1 victory in the final that avenged a loss in last year’s final.
Put in the par terre first, Sumi powered Sakabe over with a pair of gut wrenches. In the bottom position in the second period, Sumi wriggled free of danger to secure the victory.
The title provides some consolation for Sumi, a 2018 Asian silver medalist who failed in two shots to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
“This year was the Tokyo Olympics, and I was sent as the Japan entry to the Olympic qualfiers, but unfortunately I was unable to secure a place, which was a shameful result,” Sumi said.
“After that, I came back to Japan and it was very frustrating to watch the Tokyo Olympics. I set a goal to be ready in December for this tournament and it’s good that I could win it.”
Sakabe had advanced to the final with a 4-1 victory over Satoki MUKAI, last year’s 82kg champion who won a bronze medal at this year’s Asian Championships.
At 130kg, Arata SONADA stormed to his eighth straight gold with an 8-0 technical fall in the final over Sota OKUMURA, a freshman at his alma mater of Takushoku University.
Sonoda last lost to a Japanese opponent at the 2013 All-Japan Championships, not including an injury default at the 2017 National Games. Unfortunately, he has not been able to transfer his domestic dominance overseas.
Sonoda has never won a match in six trips to the World Championships nor qualified for an Olympics, and his best continental showing was a bronze medal at the 2016 Asian Games. Looking to buck that trend and qualify for the Paris Olympics “when I will be at my peak,” he said he has changed his training routine, including added a rowing machine.
“This is a world in which you are disregarded if you can’t win overseas,” Sonoda said. “I want to win, and I’m working hard to win.”
Sonoda said the emergence of new young rival is Okumura will benefit both of them. “We have had good matches in practice recently. This helps raise my level, and makes him stronger as well.”
At 60kg, world team member Ayata SUZUKI scored two gut wrenches in the par terre position to opponent Kaito INABA’s one, and that was the difference in a 5-3 victory between an alumnus and current student at NSSU.
Although nearly a repeat of Suzuki’s 3-1 win over Inaba in the final of the Meiji Cup last May, it still left Suzuki with a bad taste in his mouth after posting technical falls in his first two matches.
“It was a ‘salty’ match,” Suzuki said. “My first match and the semifinal went well, but a 5-3 score in the final is disappointing. I lost at the World Championships and intended to be more aggressive, but in the final against an opponent I train with, I held back and that was the result.”
At 67kg, Katsuaki ENDO avenged a loss in the Meiji Cup semifinals to Kyotaro SOGABE, scoring all of his points in the first period of a 6-1 victory to add to his lone national title previously won in 2018 at 63kg.
“I lost a half-year ago at the All-Japan Invitational, and I’ve been carrying the feeling of that disappointment with me since, so I’m happy I won,” said Endo, the 2018 world U23 champion at 63kg.
Kodai SAKURABA, who finished eighth at the Oslo World Championships at 77kg, picked up his first national title with a 10-4 victory over collegiate champion Nao KUSAKA.
Kusaka was looking to add to the 72kg gold he won in 2019, which had made him the youngest national Greco champ in history.
Sakuraba’s victory came in the absence of Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist Shohei YABIKU, who, like all of Japan’s Olympic medalists and all but one of the Olympic team members, did not enter the tournament.
“I watched it on TV and it really lit a fire in me,” Sakuraba said of Yabiku’s Tokyo performance. “I felt the wall was high [at the Emperor’s Cup], but I can’t lose as I look ahead to the Paris Olympics. I think I will be the one who beats him.”
At 82kg, Yuya OKAJIMA filled the gap left by Mukai and regained the title he won in 2018 by scoring a pair of takedown-gut wrench combinations in an 8-0 technical fall over Masao TANAKA.
55kg (11 entries)
Final – Yu SHIOTANI (Takushoku Univ.) df. Ken MATSUI (NSSU) by TF, 11-0, 1:42
3rd Place – Taiga ONISHI (Tosu Technical H.S.) df. Kagetora OKAMOTO (Senshu Univ.) by Def.
Semifinal – Matsui df. Okamoto by Fall, 2:00 (9-0)
Semifinal – Shiotani df. Onishi by TF, 10-0, 2:15
(Shiotani won 1st title)
60kg (10 entries)
Final – Ayata SUZUKI (Restar Holdings) df. Kaito INABA (NSSU), 5-3
3rd Place – Maito KAWANA (Senshu Univ.) df. Kosei TAKESHITA (Takushoku Univ.), 4-1
Semifinal – Suzuki df. Kawana by TF, 9-0, 2:36
Semifinal – Inaba df. Takeshita, 3-2
(Suzuki won 2nd title, 1st in 2 years)
63kg (12 entries)
Final – Kensuke SHIMIZU (Takushoku Univ.) df. Ryuto IKEDA (NSSU), 6-3
3rd Place – Kazuki YABE (Tochigi Sports Assn) df. Yoshiki YAMADA (Kanazawa Maimon Sushi), 3-2
Semifinal – Shimizu df. Yabe, 3-1
Semifinal – Ikeda df. Yamada, 3-3
(Shimizu won 2nd straight title)
67kg (11 entries)
Final – Katsuaki ENDO (Towa Engineering) df. Kyotaro SOGABE (NSSU), 6-1
3rd Place – Shintaro YOSHINAGA (Senshu Univ.) df. Yuji UEGAKI (JSDF PTS), 7-1
Semifinal – Sogabe df. Uegaki, 5-3
Semifinal – Endo df. Yoshinaga by TF, 10-0, 1:57
(Endo won 2nd title, including one at 63kg)
72kg (12 entries)
Final – Tomohiro INOUE (Fujioh) df. Shogo TAKAHASHI (San-E Maritime), 5-1
3rd Place – Seiya TERADA (Meidai Club) df. Daigo KOBAYASHI (Takushoku Univ.) by Inj. Def., 0:44
Semifinal – Takahashi df. Terada, 5-1
Semifinal – Inoue df. Kobayashi by TF, 9-0, 4:23
(Inoue won 6th title, 1st in 3 years, including 3 at 74kg, 71kg, 66kg)
77kg (11 entries)
Final – Kodai SAKURABA (JSDF PTS) df. Nao KUSAKA (NSSU), 10-4
3rd Place – Minto MAEDA (NSSU) df. Shunsuke MIZUGUCHI (Takushoku Univ.) by TF, 9-0, 2:18
Semifinal – Sakuraba df. Mizuguchi by TF, 10-1, 2:50
Semifinal – Kusaka df. Maeda, 4-1
(Sakuraba won 1st title)
82kg (12 entries)
Final – Yuya OKAJIMA (Tokyo Met. Police) df. Masao TANAKA (Tenri Kyoko Gakuin H.S. Coach) by TF, 8-0, 3:36
3rd Place – Yoji KAWAMURA (JSDF PTS) df. Tatsuya FUJII (Goto Kaisoten), 3-1
Semifinal – Tanaka df. Kawamura, 5-3
Semifinal – Okajima df. Fujii, 2-2
(Okajima won 2nd title, 1st in 3 years)
87kg (11 entries)
Final – Masato SUMI (JSDF PTS) df. So SAKABE (JSDF PTS), 5-1
3rd Place – Satoki MUKAI (JSDF PTS) df. Ryota NASUKAWA (Kanagawa Univ.), 5-3
Semifinal – Sumi df. Nasukawa, 8-1
Semifinal – Sakabe df. Mukai, 4-1
(Sumi won 5th title, 1st in 2 years, including one at 80kg)
97kg (11 entries)
Final – Takahiro TSURUDA (JSDF PTS) df. Yuri NAKAZATO (NSSU), 6-0
3rd Place – Masayuki AMANO (Chuo Univ. Staff) df. Yuta NARA (Tokyo Met. Police) by TF, 10-1, 2:13
Semifinal – Nakazato df. Nara, 3-1
Semifinal – Tsuruda df. Amano, 4-0
(Tsuruda won 1st title)
130kg (12 entries)
Final – Arata SONODA (ALSOK) df. Sota OKUMURA (Takushoku Univ.) by TF, 8-0, 4:29
3rd Place – Ryuta KONO (Azuma Foods) df. Satoshi KAIZUKA (Kasumigaura H.S. Staff), 3-1
Semifinal – Sonoda df. Kono by Fall, 1:49 (6-0)
Semifinal – Okumura df. Kaizuka, 7-1
(Sonoda won 8th straight title)