Takuto OTOGURO made a triumphant return in his first competition since winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, while Rei HIGUCHI took a step closer toward an elusive Olympic gold after settling a score with a old nemesis at the Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships.
Otoguro, the last of Japan’s Olympic medalists to return to the mat, looked as sharp as always in defeating Ryoma ANRAKU 4-0 in the 65kg final in the tournament held Dec. 22-25 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym that also serves as the first domestic qualifier for next year’s World Championships in Belgrade.
“Today and yesterday, I had three matches in my first tournament in a while,” Otoguro said. “As it went on, the tension gradually disappeared, I got excited and it became fun. Even in the final, I was able to beat a strong opponent. I think that is worth something.”
The Emperor’s Cup marks the first step on the path to qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics. A repeat victory at the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in June next year earns a ticket to the World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. If a different winner emerges, the two will face each other in a playoff.
It is at the Belgrade worlds that the first qualifying spots for the Paris Olympics will be up for grabs, and the Japan federation has decreed that a medal in an Olympic weight class will earn an automatic place on the team to Paris. So there is a marked urgency to get to Belgrade.
While defending his Olympic title is definitely on Otoguro’s mind, he says he is not yet looking that far ahead.
“To tell the truth, I don’t yet feel like [qualifying] for the Paris Olympics has started yet,” said Otoguro, the 2018 world champion who placed fifth in 2019. “This was an important tournament, and I went with the flow of winning each match one by one. I just feel like I’ve won one tournament.”
With the Olympic weight classes being run over two days, using the same format applied at the worlds and Olympics, Otoguro scored a pair of 10-0 technical falls on Saturday to advance to the final on Sunday, the closing day of the competition.
In the final against Anraku, a world U23 bronze medalist this year, Otoguro gained an activity point before scoring a hard-fought takedown off a single-leg attack to take a 3-0 lead in the first period.
Attacks were few and far between in the second period, with Otoguro only scoring on a stepout at the buzzer to finish up the victory and earn his third career title and first in three years, having skipped the tournament the last two years.
Otoguro said that he resumed full-fledged training about two months ago, and regarded his 16 months away from competition as a positive. “There were no real drawbacks,” he said. “Instead, I was able to focus on this tournament. There were only good aspects.”
Higuchi, the 2016 Rio Olympic silver medalist at 57kg, returned triumphantly to that weight class after a successful foray at 61kg this year that included winning his first world title.
In the 57kg final, Higuchi held Asian bronze medalist and fellow Nippon Sports Science University alumnus Rikuto ARAI on his back for nearly half of the duration of the match before settling for an 8-4 victory. It was his first national title since 2019 and fourth overall.
Early in the match, Higuchi caught Arai in a cradle to his back, then switched it to a Turk ride with a crossface. For more than two minutes, Arai managed to keep a shoulder off the mat until he was saved by the buzzer ending the period.
Higuchi added a takedown off a counter to go up 6-0. But Arai, who knocked off 2021 world 61kg bronze medalist Toshihiro HASEGAWA in the quarterfinals, came back to life with a counter-lift and gut wrench to cut the lead to two.
Higuchi then put the match away with a single-leg attack to exposure, from which he again went to the Turk ride and crossface and held Arai on his back for the final 1:10 of the match.
“This is the first of the tournaments that I have to win out at” Higuchi said. “I went in with the feeling of being the challenger and stayed relaxed and stayed aggressive. In the final, after I gave up points I immediately came back and scored myself. I give myself a passing grade for the effort.”
Prior to the final, Higuchi took care of one order of business by defeating former world champion Yuki TAKAHASHI with a one-sided 10-0 technical fall in the semifinals. That avenged a heartbreaking loss to Takahashi in a playoff for the spot at the Tokyo Olympics.
Asked about beating the Yamanashi Gakuin University coach, Higuchi replied, “It’s not just Takahashi. This is a weight class with many strong wrestlers. There was a junior world champion. In the final, I faced my junior teammate, who had done well internationally by placing third in Asia. I feel good that I could show my best self.”
Higuchi, who also won the Asian title at 61kg, said that his victory at this year’s worlds at that weight class boosted his confidence for success at the Olympic weight of 57kg, where one his toughest opponents is the scale as he battles to make weight.
“It was tough to lose weight, but I was able to win the world title at 61kg, which showed I have power and technique to be No. 1 in the world,” Higuchi said. “I think that experience fits perfectly at 57kg.”
Veteran Sohsuke TAKATANI extended his winning streak of national titles to 12, tied for the second-longest ever, while combining with younger brother Daichi TAKATANI on one of two sibling doubles in freestyle.
The 33-year-old Sohsuke faced stiff resistance from Nihon University freshman Arashi YOSHIDA in the 92kg final, but held on for a 12-8 victory on the opening day of the tournament.
“The 12 straight titles is the second most,” said Takatani, who tied Kyoko HAMAGUCHI and now only trails the 14 in a row won by Yasutoshi MORIYAMA at Greco 82kg-90kg from 1982 to 1995. “By fighting hard every year, this is the result. I’ve kept it going well for 12 years. Many young wrestlers have put up a challenge and it’s my mission to keep from losing.”
Takatani, the 2014 world silver medalist at 74kg who plans to move down to 86kg at the Meiji Cup in a bid to make his fourth Olympics, jumped out to an 8-0 lead with a driving takedown and three rolls off a lace lock. But Yoshida, whose Iranian father runs the kids’ wrestling club in nearby Chiba Prefecture where he got his start, came back with a takedown to cut it to 8-2 at the break.
In the second period, Yoshida scored three more takedowns to offset a takedown and two stepouts by Takatani, but it wasn’t enough to dethrone the champion, whose run of titles has come over four different weights.
“As coach at Takushoku University, I have seen many collegiate matches, and I have seen him fight before my eyes and thought, ‘This guy is strong,'” Takatani said. “I wanted to finish it fast with a technical fall. His strong point is his stamina.”
The 12 crowns overall also puts Takatani, who became a father for the first time in September, in fifth place on Japan’s all-time list of total titles, one behind legends Kaori ICHO and Saori YOSHIDA. Yamaguchi holds the record with 15.
The following day, brother Daichi successfully defended his 74kg crown with a 5-2 victory in the final over 2020 champion Kirin KINOSHITA.
After gaining an activity clock point, Takatani fell behind when Kinoshita scored a takedown. But in the final seconds of the first period, Takatani went ahead 3-2 with a front headlock roll. In the second period, he added a takedown to clinch his third career title.
Regarding the last-second roll that changed the momentum of the match, Takatani said, “About a week ago I had a chance to practice with my brother, and in the exact same situation I hit the exact same move.
“The front headlock roll is not a move you can do when the opponent is active. Kinoshita had stopped moving his feet and he let down his guard at the edge of the mat, so I thought, ‘Ah, I can do it here,’ and hit the roll. It went just as I expected.”
Takatani moved up to 74kg after an unsuccessful attempt to dethrone Otoguro for a spot at the Tokyo Olympics at 65kg, and has gradually made the adjustment to the heavier weight. This year, he won his third career Asian medal with a bronze in Ulaanbaatar, and finished 10th at the World Championships.
The other pair of brothers who made it to the top of podium together were Hayato and Takashi ISHIGURO, who both defeated NSSU wrestlers in an Olympic weight class final.
Hayato, a 2019 world U23 bronze medalist, won a 4-2 thriller in the 86kg final over Yudai TAKAHASHI in a battle between Japan’s past two team members at the senior World Championships.
Ishiguro received an activity point in both periods, following the second with a counter lift for 2 points and a 4-0 lead. Takahashi went out the back door to finish up the takedown in that sequence to cut the gap to two, but Ishiguro held on to add to the title he won in 2020.
Takashi, the older of the two brothers, avenged a loss in the Meiji Cup to Hibiki ITO by breaking open a tight match in the second and storming to a 13-1 technical fall to defend his 97kg title.
After each wrestler scored a stepout to make it 1-1 going in the second period, 2021 Asian bronze medalist Ishiguro scored a combination takedown and gut wrench for a 5-1 lead. Ito appeared a bit woozy after the two bumped heads, and Ishiguro charged to a pair of 4-point takedowns to finish off the match at 5:51.
“This month I caught the coronavirus for the first time, so it was tough preparing, but with the support of many people I was able to come out with the victory,” said Ishiguro, whose title was the third of his career.
In other action, Daiki YAMAMOTO showed that even at less-than-top condition, he is still the dominant force in the heaviest weight when he won the 125kg title for the third straight year and fifth time overall.
Yamamoto, an Asian bronze medalist in 2017 who has won just one match in four trips to the senior World Championships, had little trouble beating Nihon University’s Ryusei FUJITA by 12-0 technical fall in 1:31, finishing up the rout with a 4-point tackle.
Yamamoto won his opening match by 10-0 technical fall in 37 seconds and received a victory by injury default to advance to the final.
“To be able to be injured and still win the title is a relief,” the 27-year-old Yamamoto said. “This would not normally be within a time frame that I could come back, but I forced myself. I thought that this time I would just do what I could do.”
At 61kg, Kodai OGAWA regained the title he won two years ago with a 7-0 victory in the final over Waseda University’s Hayato FUJITA. Ogawa did all of his scoring in the first period, chalking up a takedown and a pair of gut wrenches, then adding a late activity point.
There were two first-time champions crowned, with world U20 bronze medalist Yoshinosuke AOYAGI taking the title at 70kg and 2018 world university silver medalist Yajuro YAMASAKI triumphing at 79kg.
Aoyagi defeated Yamanashi Gakuin University teammate Daiju SUZUKI 8-1 to win the 70kg title in the absence of injured defending champion and world gold medalist Taishi NARIKUNI.
In the final, Aoyagi led 2-1 — with all points being scored on the activity clock — when he scored a takedown with :15 left in the match, then added a pair of high-thigh rolls.
Narikuni withdrew from the tournament due to a broken rib suffered in practice, thus aborting a quest to become the first wrestler in 49 years to win titles in both styles after also entering at Greco 67kg.
Yamasaki, who finished third the past two years at 86kg, scored a pair of takedowns in the second period to notch a 6-0 victory over Kosuke YAMAKURA, a student at his alma mater of Waseda University, to fill the hole left by 2021 champion Yudai Takahashi’s move up to 79kg.
57kg (11 entries)
Gold – Rei HIGUCHI (Miki House) df. Rikuto ARAI (SDF PTS), 8-4
Bronze – Ryuto SAKAKI (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) df. Toshihiro HASEGAWA (San-E Maritime), 4-1
Bronze – Yuto NISHIUCHI (Kochi Minami H.S.) df. Yuki TAKAHASHI (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. staff) by Def.
Semifinal – Rikuto ARAI df. Ryuto SAKAKI, 5-4
Semifinal – Rei HIGUCHI df. Yuki TAKAHASHI by TF, 10-0, 3:43
(Higuchi won 4th title, incl. one at 61kg, 1st in 3 years)
61kg (14 entries)
Gold – Kodai OGAWA (SDF PTS) df. Hayato FUJITA (Waseda Univ.), 7-0
Bronze – Kaito MORITA (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) df. Kazuya KOYANAGI (SDF PTS) by TF, 11-0, 2:21
Bronze – Taichi YAMAGUCHI (Waseda Univ.) df. Kosei KANEKO (Wrestle Win), 10-8
Semifinal – Kodai OGAWA df. Kazuya KOYANAGI, 10-4
Semifinal – Hayato FUJITA df. Kosei KANEKO by TF, 14-4, 4:25
(Ogawa won 2nd title, 1st in 2 years)
65kg (14 entries)
Gold – Takuto OTOGURO (SDF PTS) df. Ryoma ANRAKU (Nobitel), 4-0
Bronze – Kaiji OGINO (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) df. Kenho UTO (Kinki Univ.) by TF, 11-0, 4:55
Bronze – Kotaro KIYOOKA (NSSU) df. Yujiro UENO (Tochigi Pref. Sports Assn.), 10-6
Semifinal – Takuto OTOGURO df. Kaiji OGINO by TF, 10-0, 1:29
Semifinal – Ryoma ANRAKU df. Yujiro UENO, 8-1
(Otoguro won 3rd title, 1st in 3 years)
70kg (14 entries)
Gold – Yoshinosuke AOYAGI (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) df. Daiju SUZUKI (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.), 8-1
Bronze – Toki OGAWA (Toyo Univ.) df. Keitaro ONO (NSSU), 10-4
Bronze – Taishin YAMAJI (Chuo Univ.) df. Ryota UCHIYAMA (Kokushikan Univ.) by Fall, 1:55 (5-0)
Semifinal – Yoshinosuke AOYAGI df. Toki OGAWA, 3-0
Semifinal – Daiju SUZUKI df. Ryota UCHIYAMA, 5-3
(Aoyagi won 1st title)
74kg (14 entries)
Gold – Daichi TAKATANI (SDF PTS) df. Kirin KINOSHITA (Cleanup), 5-2
Bronze – Kojiro SHIGA (MPD Fussa Police Station) df. Jintaro MOTOYAMA (Ikai) by TF, 10-0, 1:28
Bronze -Kota TAKAHASHI (NSSU) df. Ryutaro TOGIYA (Nihon Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 1:53
Semifinal – Daichi TAKATANI df. Jintaro MOTOYAMA by TF, 10-0, 3:oo
Semifinal – Kirin KINOSHITA df. Kota TAKAHASHI, 4-4
(Takatani won 3rd title, incl. one at 65kg, 2nd in row)
79kg (14 entries)
Gold – Yajuro YAMASAKI (Saisan) df. Kosuke YAMAKURA (Waseda Univ.), 6-0
Bronze – Takahiro MURAYAMA (SDF PTS) df. Kohei KITAMURA (Kyoto Yawata H.S.) by TF, 10-0, :51
Bronze – Kota ABE (Akita Prison) df. Kenshin YAMAJI (Waseda Univ.) by Def.
Semifinal – Yajuro YAMAZAKI df. Takahiro MURAYAMA, 4-0
Semifinal – Kosuke YAMAKURA df. Kenshin YAMAJI by TF, 12-0, 1:19
(Yamazaki won 1st title)
86kg (14 entries)
Gold – Hayato ISHIGURO (SDF PTS) df. Yudai TAKAHASHI (NSSU), 4-2
Bronze – Taisei MATSUYUKI (Restar Holdings) df. Shota SHIRAI (Qwintet) by Def.
Bronze – Fumiya IGARASHI (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) df. Ryuki YOSHIDA (SDF PTS) by Def.
Semifinal – Hayato ISHIGURO df. Taisei MATSUYUKI, 4-3
Semifinal – Yudai TAKAHASHI df. Fumiya IGARASHI, 5-1
(Ishiguro won 2nd title, 1st in 2 years)
92kg (14 entries)
Gold – Sohsuke TAKATANI (ALSOK) df. Arashi YOSHIDA (Nihon Univ.), 12-8
Bronze – Takeshi YAMAGUCHI (Waseda Club) df. Akinobu TAKEUCHI (ALSOK) by Fall, :20 (2-0)
Bronze – Ryoichi YAMANAKA (Nagoya Technical H.S. staff) df. Hikaru ABE (Chuo Univ.) by Fall, 4:51 (4-2)
Semifinal – Sohsuke TAKATANI df. Takeshi YAMAGUCHI by TF, 11-0, 3:21
Semifinal – Arashi YOSHIDA df. Hikaru ABE by TF, 11-0, 3:44
(Takatani won 12th title, incl. nine at 74kg, 79kg and 86kg, 12th in row)
97kg (10 entries)
Gold – Takashi ISHIGURO (New Japan Pro Wrestling) df. Hibiki ITO (NSSU) by TF, 13-1, 5:51
Bronze – Shohei YAMAZAKI (Waseda Univ.) df. Toyoki HAMADA (Chuo Univ.), 3-1
Bronze – Hiroto NINOMIYA (Fujiseiki) df. Keiwan YOSHIDA (San-E Maritime) by Def.
Semifinal – Takashi ISHIGURO df. Toyoki HAMADA by TF, 11-0, 3:45
Semifinal – Hibiki ITO df. Hiroto NINOMIYA, 4-2
(Ishiguro won 3rd title, incl. one at 92kg, 2nd in row)
125kg (10 entries)
Gold – Daiki YAMAMOTO (SDF PTS) df. Ryusei FUJITA (Nihon Univ.) by TF, 12-0, 1:31
Bronze – Nozomi OISHI (Tenri Univ.) df. Takuya HIGUCHI (Higashi Osaka City Hall) by Def.
Bronze – Yuji FUKUI (Tenri Univ. coach) df. Kai SHUTTO (Chuo Univ.), 3-0
Semifinal – Daiki YAMAMOTO df. Takuya HIGUCHI by Def.
Semifinal – Ryusei FUJITA df. Yuji FUKUI, 7-3
(Yamamoto won 5th title, 3rd in row)
Japan competed for the third straight time in the freestyle World Cup which was held Dec. 10-11 in Coralville, Iowa, an American hotbed for wrestling in the United States.
But with its proximity to the Emperor’s Cup, few of Japan’s top freestyle wrestlers opted to make the trip. As such, Japan dispatched a young team that was overmatched in the competition that included the host U.S., Iran, Mongolia, Georgia and an All-World select team.
In the group stage, Japan lost 9-1 to both Iran and the All-World team and failed to advance to the medal matches.
Takushoku University’s Kaito MORIKAWA notched both of Japan’s wins, both by technical fall. The 2021 national collegiate champion defeated Ebrahim ELAHICHOURAN (IRI) 13-2 and Bulgarian Georgi VANGELOV (UWW) 10-0.
The other members of the Japan team were: Taichi YAMAGUCHI (57kg), Ryoma ANRAKU (65kg), Keitaro ONO (70kg), Kirin KINOSHITA (74kg), Yajuro YAMASAKI (79kg), Tatsuya SHIRAI (86kg), Satoshi MIURA (92kg), Yohei SHINADA (97kg) and Hiroto NINOMIYA (125kg).
In the final, the host United States defeated Iran 6-4.