By Ken Marantz
TOKYO — Rei HIGUCHI‘s ultimate goal remains getting the Olympic gold that eluded him six years ago in Rio de Janeiro. For now, he will be content with trying to win the title in his first senior World Championships.
Higuchi defeated Kodai OGAWA 4-0 in the freestyle 61kg final at the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships to secure a place on Japan’s team to this year’s World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.
“In the final, I put the pressure on from the front and was able to break him down,” said Higuchi, the Rio Olympic silver medalist at 57kg. “I did not give up anything in terms of strength, and I feel I’ve grown from the physical aspect.”
Higuchi earned the place on Japan’s team to Belgrade in September outright because Ryuto SAKAKI, the champion at the Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships last December, had withdrawn from the tournament due to injury. Sakaki beat Higuchi in the final at the Emperor’s Cup.
Winners of both tournaments, which serve as qualifiers for the World Championships, automatically earn spots on the world team; in weight classes where the champions were different, a playoff was held following that day’s action at the Meiji Cup.
If the Emperor’s Cup champion did not participate for whatever reason (injury, changing weight class, etc.), the spot went to the winner of the Meiji Cup, held June 16-19 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym. Such turned out to be the case for Higuchi.
Higuchi had gone through a roller coaster ride of emotions when he tried but failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. He even at one point moved up to 65kg, where he won the gold at the 2018 World U23 Championships and defeated eventual Olympic champion Takuto OTOGURO to capture the 2019 Meiji Cup title.
But he ended up conceding the Olympic place at 65kg to Otoguro, then launched a last-ditch attempt to qualify at 57kg. That above all else meant the hardship of cutting an extraordinary amount of weight for someone standing just 1.64 meters.
In the end, that proved his undoing in the most heartbreaking of ways, as he failed to make weight at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament. After Yuki TAKAHASHI was dispatched to the final world Olympic qualifier and secured the Olympic 57kg spot for Japan, he filled it himself by defeating Higuchi in a playoff.
Now at a more appropriate weight, the 26-year-old Higuchi has looked sharp, and was coming off a gold-medal run at the Asian Championships in April in Mongolia. He stormed into the final with a fall and technical fall in his first two matches without conceding a point.
The final pitted Higuchi against fellow Nippon Sports Science University alumnus Ogawa, who knows him well. Employing a new strategy, Higuchi scored a 2-point counter to the back in the second period which, added to activity points in both periods, was enough to conquer the 2020 Emperor’s Cup champion.
“In the final, I reversed how I tie up,” Higuchi said. “I wanted to try shooting to the right after making him cautious of a single-leg tackle to the left. But as he’s a junior teammate, he knew well what hand I was playing, so I wasn’t able to do the move. Also, I was lacking a bit of confidence in trying it, so I’ll work to perfect it before the World Championships.”
After competing in Belgrade, Higuchi plans to drop back to the Olympic weight class for this year’s Emperor’s Cup, which marks the start of the qualifying process for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“If I don’t win at 57 in December, there will be no Olympics for me,” Higuchi said. “The younger generation is emerging. I want to head into December with the feeling that I am the main challenger.”
Among his main competition will be Toshihiro HASEGAWA, who went the opposite way weight class-wise after winning a bronze medal at 61kg at last year’s World Championships in Oslo.
Hasegawa dropped down to 57kg for the Emperor’s Cup and won the title, then earned a trip back to the World Championships by defeating Toshiya ABE 2-0 in the final on June 19 that was a clash of 2021 Meiji Cup champions.
Hasegawa scored with a single-leg takedown in the first period and made that hold up to defeat Abe, who advanced to the final with victories over a pair of Asian bronze medalists over the past two years, Rikuto ARAI and Yuto TAKESHITA.
Hasegawa added to the Meiji Cup title he won last year at 61kg, while denying Abe a second straight at 57kg.
“This time, I didn’t wrestle aggressively, but I will be able to attack more against foreign opponents,” said Hasegawa, whose resume includes a world U23 title and an Asian bronze medal at 57kg from 2018. “I will work on raising my level so I can win both at home and abroad.”
The last time Sohsuke TAKATANI competed at the same World Championships as his younger brother, he came home with the lone medal of his six career trips to the top global tournament.
Now, eight years later, could the presence of Daichi TAKATANI be a good-luck charm that propels his sibling back onto the podium?
Sohsuke continued to burnish his credentials as one of the most dominant middleweights in Japan history, storming to victory at 92kg for his seventh career Meiji Cup title over four weight classes and first since 2019.
He won all three of his matches by fall or technical fall, capped with a one-sided 10-0 rout of Chuo University’s Hikaru ABE in 2:36 of the final.
Daichi had a somewhat less easy time in taking the 74kg crown, as all three of his matches went the distance. He defeated Kirin KINOSHITA 5-2 in the final, clinching the victory with a double-leg takedown to the back late in the second period.
It was just Daichi’s second Meiji Cup title, adding to one he captured at 60kg in 2013, and earned him just a second trip to the senior World Championships. His only other appearance was in 2014, the year Sohsuke won the silver in what is now Daichi’s weight class.
Both Sohsuke and Daichi won their respective weight classes at the Emperor’s Cup, so their victories were all that was needed to punch their tickets to Belgrade.
At 33, Sohsuke could be considered on the downslope of his career, particularly since he has had to devote time to his new job as head coach at his alma mater Takushoku University. But the three-time Olympian will likely continue to remain active as long as he remains so far above the domestic competition.
“From April, I took over as wrestling head coach at Takushoku,” said Sohsuke, who is also pursuing a master’s degree. “My child was born in September, so now there is the hard job of juggling the roles of head coach, athlete, researcher, husband and father. I’m glad I was able to win the title here.”
During the tournament, he had been kept busy manning the corner of the Takushoku team members. “People around me were like, ‘Is that OK, don’t you have a match tomorrow?'” Sohsuke said. “But I’m really good at getting back into the mode.”
In the final against Abe, Sohsuke scored his first points with a pair of driving double-leg tackles that evoked images of American great Jordan BURROUGHS (USA), a wrestler he has faced several times in his career and with whom he remains friendly.
After the second takedown, Sohsuke added a gut wrench for 2, then scored with a tilt and another gut wrench to end the match for his first title at 92kg.
He had previously won at 74kg, 79kg and 86kg, the latter the weight class in which he made his third Olympic appearance at last summer’s Tokyo Games. He already plans to drop back to 86kg for the Emperor’s Cup in December in a bid to make a fourth Olympics.
Daichi Takatani and Kinoshita had met in the final of the past two Emperor’s Cups, with Kinoshita winning 7-2 in 2020 and Takatani prevailing 7-2 in 2021. So Daichi knew he was in for another tough tussle, which is exactly what he got.
“That’s was really some match,” Daichi said. “For me, I think I give myself a perfect score.”
Daichi, who won his third career Asian medal when he took a bronze in Mongolia, sacrificed much of his time in 2021 to help Sohsuke prepare for the Tokyo Olympics. Now, he says, it’s time to think of himself.
“This time, I didn’t get any advice from my brother,” he said. “Up to now, I’ve always been the supporting actor. But with the Tokyo Olympics over, I’ve turned my focus onto myself. This time, we each prepared for battle in our own ways.”
Two of the 10 world team places in freestyle were decided by playoffs and in both, the Emperor’s Cup champion suffered a loss that he avenged in the playoff.
Asian champion Taishi NARIKUNI reversed a semifinal loss to Kota TAKAHASHI at 70kg by beating the Nippon Sports Science University freshman by fall in the playoff to make his first senior world team.
After giving up a takedown to the 18-year-old Takahashi, Narikuni latched onto a front headlock and kept spinning to the side until he could secure a cradle. He powered Takahashi over and ended the match at 1:22.
“He’s so strong, I can’t believe he’s only 18,” Narikuni said. “In the semifinals, I got whupped. But I was able to put the loss behind me. [Takahashi] was superior. In the playoff, luck was on my side and I took advantage of the one chance I got.”
Earlier, Takahashi had knocked off Narikuni in the semifinals, scoring a 4-point body lock en route to a polished 7-1 victory. He then won his first title with a 3-1 victory in the final over Keitaro ONO, scoring a takedown and stepout in the second period.
While the next Olympics are swirling through most heads, Narikuni, who prefers weight training to sparring on the mat, is firmly focused on the World Championships.
It has been an obsession with him since he was a child and had to hear comparisons with his mother, who was a two-time world champion under her maiden name of Akiko IIJIMA. She runs Gold Kids, the Tokyo wrestling club where he and a number of top current stars got their start in the sport.
“I really hate being compared to my mother, I have a complex about it,” said Narikuni. “More than the Olympics, my aim is for the World Championships,” adding that should he win the gold come September, he will try to win his next one in Greco-Roman.
The other playoff came at 86kg, in which Shota SHIRAI turned the tables on Mao OKUI after losing to him in the final. Both matches finished with a 2-1 score, with all points coming on the activity clock.
Shirai’s only previous Meiji Cup title came in 2018, the year he made his lone appearance at the World Championships.
Okui had moved up two weight classes from 74kg, the division in which he had previously won two Meiji Cup titles. The most recent came in 2019, when he finished fifth at the World Championships to secure an Olympic spot for Japan at 74kg. However, hampered by a knee injury, Okui lost a playoff for the Olympic berth to Keisuke OTOGURO.
Takahashi’s loss at 70kg prevented Japan’s world team from having a second pair of brothers, as older sibling and NSSU teammate Yudai TAKAHASHI had clinched his ticket to Belgrade with a victory at 79kg two days before.
Yudai, who went to his first World Championships as a high schooler in 2019, scored the go-ahead takedown with 1:20 left in the final to defeat Yajuro YAMASAKI 3-1 and complete the All-Japan double.
In other finals, 2021 Asian bronze medalist Takashi ISHIGURO secured a second trip to the World Championships at 97kg with a 4-0 victory over NSSU’s Hibiki ITO in a repeat of last year’s final.
Ito is a rarity in Japanese wrestling in that he stands a towering 1.95 meters, which he combines with an athletic ability that reflects his Oympic pedigree. His father Hiromichi competed at Greco 74kg at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, while his mother Keiko was a member of the Japan women’s volleyball team that won a bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She stands 1.78 meters.
At 65kg, with Olympic champion Takuto Otoguro still on hiatus and skipping the tournament, defending champion and Asian bronze medalist Kaiki YAMAGUCHI secured the world team place with a 4-3 victory in the final over Ryoma ANRAKU.
Taiki YAMAMOTO maintained his firm grip on the 125kg crown, defeating Hiroto NINOMIYA 2-1 on activity points for his fourth straight title and fifth overall.
57kg (12 entries)
Final – Toshihiro HASEGAWA (San-E Maritime) df. Toshiya ABE (Kokushikan Univ.), 2-0
3rd Place – Yudai FUJITA (SDF PTS) df. Rikuto ARAI (SDF PTS), 4-0
Semifinal – Hasegawa df. Taichi YAMAGUCHI (Waseda Univ.) by TF, 11-0, 4:46
Semifinal – Abe df. Yuto TAKESHITA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 5-2
61kg (9 entries)
Final – Rei HIGUCHI (Miki House) df. Kodai OGAWA (SDF PTS) , 4-0
3rd Place – Kaito MORIKAWA (Takushoku Univ.) df. Hayato FUJITA (Waseda Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 3:35
Semifinal – Higuchi df. Yuji NAKAMURA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) by TF, 10-0, :56
Semifinal – Ogawa df. Morikawa, 8-3
65kg (8 entries)
Final – Kaiki YAMAGUCHI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Ryoma ANRAKU (Nobitel), 4-3
3rd Place – Kotaro KIYOOKA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Shinnosuke SUWAMA (Kokushikan Univ.) by TF, 17-6, 3:50
Semifinal – Yamaguchi df. Kiyooka, 8-1
Semifinal – Anraku df. Suwama, 3-0
70kg (10 entries)
Final – Kota TAKAHASHI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Keitaro ONO (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 3-1
3rd Place – Taishi NARIKUNI (MTX Goldkids) df. Hiroki AZEGAMI (Kinki Univ.) by TF, 12-2, 3:42
Semifinal – Takahashi df. Narikuni, 7-1
Semifinal – Ono df. Takumi SANAGA (Doshisha Univ.) 4-0
World team playoff – Taishi NARIKUNI (MTX Goldkids) df. Kota TAKAHASHI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) by Fall, 1:22 (4-2)
74kg (10 entries)
Final – Daichi TAKATANI (SDF PTS) df. Kirin KINOSHITA (Cleanup), 5-2
3rd Place – Yuto FUKADA (Waseda Univ.) df. Iori KOSHIBA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 6-1
Semifinal – Takatani df. Shoto KANEKO (Trust), 6-0
Semifinal – Kinoshita df. Kojiro SHIGA (Fussa Police Station), 10-1
79kg (12 entries)
Final – Yudai TAKAHASHI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Yajuro YAMASAKI (Saisan), 3-1
3rd Place – Takahiro MURAYAMA (SDF PTS) df. Takato UCHIDA (Senshu Univ.), 8-7
Semifinal – Takahashi df. Yuta ABE (Akita Prison staff) by TF, 10-0, 4:33
Semifinal – Yamazaki df. Shinkichi OKUI (Kokushikan Univ.), 5-1
86kg (7 entries)
Final – Mao OKUI (SDF PTS) df. Shota SHIRAI (Quintet), 2-1
3rd Place – Tatsuya SHIRAI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Taisei MATSUYUKI (Restar Holdings), 2-2
Semifinal – S. Shirai df. T. Shirai, 2-0
Semifinal – Okui df. Matsuyuki by Fall, 4:47 (6-0)
World team playoff – Shota SHIRAI (Quintet) df. Mao OKUI (SDF PTS), 2-1
92kg (8 entries)
Final – Sohsuke TAKATANI (ALSOK) df. Hikaru ABE (Chuo Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 2:36
3rd Place – Satoshi MIURA (Takushoku Univ.) df. Ryoichi YAMANAKA (Nagoya Technical H.S.), 7-1
Semifinal – Takatani df. Miura by TF, 12-1, 1:17
Semifinal – Abe df. Yamanaka, 2-2
97kg (6 entries)
Final – Takashi ISHIGURO (New Japan Pro-Wrestling) df. Hibiki ITO (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 4-0
3rd Place – Taira SONODA (SDF PTS) df. Keisuke ITO (Meiji Univ.) by TF, 10-0, :41
Semifinal – Ishiguro df. K. Ito by TF, 10-0, 1:22
Semifinal – H. Ito df. Yohei SHINADA (Hosei Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 4:41
125kg (7 entries)
Final – Taiki YAMAMOTO (SDF PTS) df. Hiroto NINOMIYA (Fujiseiki), 2-1
3rd Place – Yuji FUKUI (Tenri Univ. coach) df. Asahi TSUIHIJI (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 3:57
Semifinal – Yamamoto df. Tsuihiji by TF, 10-0, :27
Semifinal – Ninomiya df. Fukui, 3-1