By Ken Marantz
TOKYO — After winning a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics last summer — a disappointing result for him — Kenichiro FUMITA took three months to get completely away from wrestling, using the time to take a road trip with a friend to western Japan and clear his mind.
Fumita returned to competition for the first time in 10 months at the Meiji Cup All-Japan Championships, and it hardly looked like he had been away at all as he captured the Greco-Roman 60kg title, then won a playoff to earn a shot at a third career world gold medal.
Fumita had a few minor blips but otherwise looked sharp in first defeating emerging rival Ayata SUZUKI 6-3 in the final, then beating him again in the world team playoff 4-2 on the final day of the four-day tournament held June 16-19 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym.
“Honestly speaking, I moved a lot better than I thought I would,” Fumita said.
Shohei YABIKU, Japan’s other Greco medalist at the Tokyo Games, was a bit off his game in his return to action, but managed to win the 77kg title, which by itself was enough to earn him a ticket to the World Championships in September in Belgrade, Serbia.
The Meiji Cup was serving as the second domestic qualifier for the World Championships in combination with last December’s Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships. Those completing the “All-Japan” double automatically clinched places on the team to Belgrade; when the winners were different, a playoff was held.
In cases such as Yabiku’s, in which the Emperor’s Cup champion did not enter the Meij Cup due to injury, moving to another weight class or other reason, the Meiji Cup winner earned the world team spot outright.
In the past, Fumita’s path to the World Championships — where he won golds in 2017 and 2019 — had to go through 2016 Rio Olympic silver medalist Shinobu OTA, his teammate and rival at Nippon Sports Science University. The two had some of the most memorable battles in Japan Greco history.
Ota has since retired, but Suzuki, also a member of the family of current and past NSSU wrestlers who practice together at the Yokohama campus, had stepped in to fill the void. Suzuki came into the Meiji Cup on the heels of winning a second straight bronze medal at the Asian Championships in April in Mongolia.
So after both advanced to the final with a pair of technical falls, it came down to whether Emperor’s Cup champion Suzuki had progressed enough to take down the master. The two had met previously in the final of the 2020 Emperor’s Cup, with Fumita coming out with a 2-1 win.
Suzuki showed in the final that he knew some of Fumita’s tricks. As Fumita was trying to throw him from the par terre position, Suzuki timed it perfectly to stop the move and caused Fumita to plop onto his back for 2. Fumita, however, quickly responded and scored a reversal, then hit a 4-point throw to take a 5-2 lead.
In the second period, Fumita scored with a stepout, then held his ground when put in the bottom of par terre to finish up the 6-3 victory.
Fumita trailed in the playoff as well, when Suzuki fought off a headlock throw for a takedown and a 2-1 lead in the second period. Fumita tied the score with a stepout that still left him trailing on criteria, but gained the decisive takedown in the final minute by twisting Suzuki down from a body lock.
“I was losing in the last minute, but I was confident I could turn it around,” said Fumita, adding that he was glad he could wrestle up to his own standards following the long layoff.
“At first my weight was up and my strength was down,” he said. “I went back into training in November, and I wasn’t sure I would be ready by June. But I did what I’m capable of and came out with the victory.”
Yabiku was among one of Japan’s most pleasant surprises at the Tokyo Olympics, where he stunned world bronze medalist Mohammadali GERAEI (IRI) with spectacular throws in the bronze-medal match, making him the nation’s first-ever Olympic wrestling medalist from Okinawa Prefecture.
At Komazawa Gym, Yabiku showed some effects of back surgery that he underwent in December. He took his lumps on the mat, mostly from a head-butt suffered in his opening match, and also gave up a 4-point throw in the semfinals, although he won both matches by technical falls.
Because Emperor’s Cup champion Kodai SAKURABA sat out the tournament due to injury, Yabiku needed only to defeat Minto MAEDA in the final to earn a ticket to a third World Championships, where he has never placed higher than 13th.
But Yabiku had his hands full with Maeda, a former collegiate champion who defeated Nao KUSAKA 3-1 to advance to the final and avenge semifinal losses to Kusaka at both the Emperor’s Cup and Meiji Cup last year.
The match hinged on a bizarre flurry that took a extraordinarily long time to sort out on challenge.
In the second period, Yabiku escaped from the bottom of par terre, but was trailing 1-1 on criteria. He latched onto a front headlock and arched backwards for a throw, but Maeda stopped the throw midway, making Yabiku have to desperately fight off his back. Yabiku bridged out of the predicament and scrambled for a reversal, then back-suplexed Maeda out of the ring.
When the dust cleared, the judges awarded Maeda 2 for the block, Yabiku 1 for the reversal and 4 for the big throw, giving the latter a 6-3 lead that he made stand through the end.
“Coming back from surgery, I’m at about 80%,” Yabiku said. “I still don’t have the feeling for actual competition. There’s a big difference between practice and being at 100% in matches, so I still have a way to go to work it out.”
Last year in Oslo, NSSU’s Ken MATSUI became Japan’s youngest ever Greco world champion when he won the 55kg title. But his hopes for a golden repeat were dashed by Asian champion Yu SHIOTANI, who rebounded from losing the Meiji Cup final to win the world team playoff between the two.
Japan’s other Greco medalist from last year’s World Championships also won’t be heading to Belgrade, as Keisuke SHIMIZU came up short in an attempt to move up to 67kg from 63kg, the weight in which he won a bronze in Oslo.
Matsui had been looking for revenge against Takushoku University’s Shiotani after being dealt a humilating 11-0 technical fall defeat in the Emperor’s Cup, in which Shiotani tossed him about with two 5-point throws.
“My opponent came up with a strategy to not fall for the same move,” Shiotani said. “I didn’t think it would go like last time.”
Matsui got his revenge in their first meeting, scoring a 2-point reversal to the back from par terre and adding an exposure to score a 6-1 victory and win his second straight Meiji Cup title.
But in the playoff, it was Shiotani who prevailed 6-3, helped by a 2-point penalty assessed against Matsui for grabbing below the waist in the first period.
Leading 3-0 going into the second period, Shiotani scored a reversal from the bottom of par terre to make it 4-1. Matsui closed the gap with a takedown, but Shiotani held off his attacks and added a late takedown off a desperation move by Matsui.
“I really feel like the playoff saved me,” Shiotani said. “I should have won in the first place, but I lost. Still I was in the situation where I still had the playoff, and to post a solid victory in that was really good.”
Shimizu had won the Emperor’s Cup at 63kg and could have earned a trip back to the World Championships with a victory in that weight class. Instead, he decided to get an early jump on making the move up to the Olympic weight of 67kg, and while it didn’t work out, he saw it as a good experience.
Shimizu’s title hopes came to an end in the semifinals, where he lost by a late fall to NSSU’s Kyotaro SOGABE, who had built up a 7-1 lead.
“It’s my first time in the higher weight class, and of course my aim was to win the championship,” said Shimizu, who came away with the bronze medal. “Beyond that, I want this to lead into my next competition. I particularly felt in the semifinal with Sogabe that there is still a real difference in power. I am determined to get stronger before December.”
In the final, Asian bronze medalist Katsuaki ENDO filled the world team spot by defeating Sogabe 6-1, a repeat of the Emperor’s Cup final, right down to the score. It gave Endo his first Meiji Cup title since winning at 63kg in 2018.
Shimizu, whose uncle Hiroyasu SHIMIZU was a gold medalist in speed skating at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, joined the Self-Defense Forces’ Physical Training School team upon graduating from Takushoku University, giving him an ideal environment to bulk up.
“My weight training regimen and diet have gotten far better and I can put together a plan for tailoring my body to the heavier weight class,” Shimizu said. “In regular practice, I can work out with wrestlers in higher weight classes, and train with more powerful ones.”
As for his decision to move up to 67kg now, he replied, “Looking ahead, I thought instead of losing weight now, it was better to properly make the move up in weight class and get started on reforming my body and getting used to the new weight. I thought it was more important to start competing at this weight class.”
In Shimizu’s absence, recent NSSU graduate and Emperor’s Cup runnerup Ryuto IKEDA filled the void at 63kg by winning his first Meiji Cup title, beating NSSU’s Chiezo MARUYAMA 5-1 in the final with a 4-point throw in the first period.
Ikeda, who will be competing overseas for the first time when he takes the mat in Belgrade, had beaten Maruyama 3-1 in the semifinals last November at the national intercollegiate championships, which he went on to win for the first and last time.
“I also faced and beat Maruyama at last year’s intercollegiates,” Ikeda said. “He is energetic and a wrestler who comes at strong opponents, so I thought I have to keep him from getting the momentum. I had a strong desire to get to the World Championships.”
In the upper weights, Arata SONODA maintained his dominance in the heaviest Greco division, while Yuta NARA saw his title streak at 97kg come crashing to a end.
Sonoda became the third wrestler in history to win an eighth straight Meiji Cup title when he rolled to an 8-0 technical fall in 2:11 of the 130kg final over Kokushikan University’s Marin NISHIMURA.
Sonoda tied the record for most titles shared by Shingo MATSUMOTO, who won his eight crowns consecutively at Greco 84/85kg from 2000 to 2007, and Hiroe MINAGAWA (nee SUZUKI), an eight-time women’s champion at 72/74/76kg from 2012 to 2019.
Sonoda might have already established a new record had the 2020 tournament not been canceled due to the pandemic.
Sonoda has not been able to translate his domestic success overseas, as he had not won a match in six appearances at the World Championships. He made the semifinals at the recent Asian Championships, but had to default the bronze-medal match due to a knee injury.
“I expect the level at this year’s World Championships will be higher [than last year],” Sonoda said. “I have yet to win one match at a World Championships. I will set my goal and do what I can to close the gap with the world.”
At 97kg, Nara hopes of a sixth straight crown ended at the hands of Yuri NAKAZATO, who scored a fall in the final seconds of their semifinal clash after going ahead 8-1. Nakazato also beat Nara in the semifinals at the Emperor’s Cup.
In the final, Nakazato went on to avenge his loss in the Emperor’s Cup final to Takahiro TSURUDA, winning a 3-3 thriller by scoring the winning points with a late reversal to the back.
But Tsuruda, the Meiji Cup champion last year at 87kg, walked off with the ticket to the World Championships after gaining revenge in the playoff by beating Nakazato 3-1.
“My wife and baby [born in March] were in the stands, and they saw an awful performance in the final,” Tsuruda said as spectators and family members were allowed into the arena for the first time since the start of the pandemic. “I was determined to do whatever it took to get to the World Championships.”
At 72kg, veteran Tomohiro INOUE won a second straight title and fourth overall dating back to 2015, earning him a place on the world team that he’s not sure he wants.
Inoue scored a gut wrench from the par terre position in the second period and that was enough to defeat Taishi HORIE 3-1 in the final. He had advanced with victories over a pair of collegians.
Inoue, who will turn 35 in July, revealed that just before the tournament, Shogo TAKAHASHI — a now-rival he had coached years ago at Ikuei High School in Hyogo Prefecture –told him that he would not be participating. The two had met in the Emperor’s Cup final, with Inoue winning 5-1, and Inoue said he was looking forward to another clash.
Given his age and the fact that with his work commitments, he can only participate in live sparring once a week, Inoue said he is not sure he is up to the task of representing Japan at the World Championships.
In fact, he had already been mentally preparing for a different competition. “I’ve been aiming at the World Masters Championships for those 35 and over,” he said, then seemed to chastise the current younger generation. “For the younger ones to lose to an old man who can only practice once a week…If they’re going to take part, they should fight harder.”
Masato SUMI came out on top of what has become an intramural weight class among SDF Physical Training School teammates, beating comrade So SAKABE 5-1 in the 87kg final — the same result and score from the Emperor’s Cup.
Sakabe advanced to the final with a 7-1 victory over a third teammate, defending champion Satoki MUKAI, who ended up losing in the bronze-medal match
At 82kg, Yuya OKAJIMA scored all of his points in the first period and held on for a 6-4 victory over Masao TANAKA to notch his second career title and earn a second trip to the World Championships.
Okajima had beaten Tanaka by technical fall in the Emperor’s Cup final.
55kg (10 entries)
Final – Ken MATSUI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Yu SHIOTANI (Takushoku Univ.), 6-1
3rd Place – Yasutaka SHIOZAKI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Taiga ONISHI (Waseda Univ.) by TF, 9-1, 5:06
Semifinal – Shiotani df. Shiozaki by TF 9-0, 3:23
Semifinal – Matsui df. Mizuki ARAKI (Kyushu Kyoritsu Univ.) by TF, 8-0, 5:08
World team playoff – Yu SHIOTANI (Takushoku Univ.) df. Ken MATSUI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 6-3
60kg (11 entries)
Final – Kenichiro FUMITA (Miki House) df Ayata SUZUKI (Restar Holdings), 6-3
3rd Place – Kaito INABA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Maito KAWANA (SDF PTS) by Fall, 4:33 (6-2)
Semifinal – Fumita df. Kawana by TF, 9-0, 1:44
Semifinal – Suzuki df. Inaba bt TF, 11-3, 5:11
World team playoff – Kenichiro FUMITA (Miki House) df. Ayata SUZUKI (Restar Holdings), 4-2
63kg (12 entries)
Final – Ryuto IKEDA (Nittai Club) df. Chiezo MARUYAMA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 5-1
3rd Place – Ryota KOSHIBA (Central Saga A&F Office) df. Yuki YOSHINAGA (Kinki Univ.), 10-5
Semifinal – Ikeda df. Jun MITSUI (Meiji Univ.) by TF, 11-0, 3:53
Semifinal – Maruyama df. Yoshinaga, 4-2
67kg (11 entries)
Final – Katsuaki ENDO (Towa Engineering) df. Kyotaro SOGABE (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 6-1
3rd Place – Kensuke SHIMIZU (SDF PTS) df. Yoshinobu ITO (Senshu Univ.) by Inj. Def.
Semifinal – Endo df. Takayuki INOGUCHI (SDF PTS), 5-2
Semifinal – Sogabe df. Shimizu by Fall, 5:31 (7-1)
72kg (10 entries)
Final – Tomohiro INOUE (Fujioh) df. Taishi HORIE (SDF PTS), 3-1
3rd Place – Daigo KOBAYASHI (Takushoku Univ.) df. Haruto YABE (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 2-1
Semifinal – Inoue df. Kobayashi, 3-1
Semifinal – Horie df. Yuga KASUGAI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) by TF, 9-0, 2:19
77kg (10 entries)
Final – Shohei YABIKU (ALSOK) df. Minto MAEDA (Restar Holdings), 6-3
3rd Place – Nao KUSAKA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Shinsuke MIZUGUCHI (Takushoku Univ.), 11-8
Semifinal – Yabiku df. Yudai KOBORI (Toyo Univ.) by TF, 14-4, 2:29
Semifinal – Maeda df. Kusaka, 3-1
82kg (11 entries)
Final – Yuya OKAJIMA (Metropolitan Police Dept.) df. Masao TANAKA (Tenri Gakuin H.S. coach), 6-4
3rd Place – Tatsuya FUJII (Goto Kaisoten) df. Renta YAMAGUCHI (Kanagawa Univ.), 8-1
Semifinal – Okajima df. Fujii, 5-1
Semifinal – Tanaka df. Hayato TAMAOKA (Waseda Univ.) by TF, 8-0, 2:16
87kg (9 entries)
Final – Masato SUMI (SDF PTS) df. So SAKABE (SDF PTS), 5-1
3rd Place – Kanta SHIOKAWA (Nagano Pref. W.F.) df. Satoki MUKAI (SDF PTS) by Fall, 2:18 (2-3)
Semifinal – Sumi df. Shiokawa by TF, 10-0, 2:12
Semifinal – Sakabe df. Mukai, 7-1
97kg (10 entries)
Final – Yuri NAKAZATO (Saga Pref. Sports Assn.) df. Takahiro TSURUDA (SDF PTS), 3-3
3rd Place – Yuta NARA (Metropolitan Police Dept.) df. Masayuki AMANO (Chuo Univ.) by TF, 8-0, 4:17
Semifinal – Tsuruda df. Ayana MARUYAMA (Shizuoka W.F.), 6-0
Semifinal – Nakazato df. Nara by Fall, 5:56 (8-1)
World team playoff – Takahiro TSURUDA (SDF PTS) df. Yuri NAKAZATO (Saga Pref. Sports Assn.), 3-1
130kg (7 entries)
Final – Arata SONODA (ALSOK) df. Marin NISHIMURA (Kokushikan Univ.) by TF, 8-0, 2:11
3rd Place – Shion OBATA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Yuma MIYAUCHI (Kanagawa Univ.) by TF, 8-0, :38
Semifinal – Sonada df. Obata, 4-0
Semifinal – Nishimura df. Yuei YAMADA (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) 4-3