Japan Wrestling Federation News ― November 2023 (Kusaka/Makhmudov Visit/Deaflympics/Japan-Korea H.S. Exchanges)


World bronze medalist Kusaka trains in Germany

Nao KUSAKA, bronze medalist at Greco-Roman 77kg at the World Championships last September, returned to Japan after spending over a month in Germany on a solo trip aimed at raising his level and gaining international experience ahead of the Paris Olympics.

Nao KUSAKA attempts a lift during a German Bundesliga match.

Kusaka went over in mid-October and trained with the Werdau team of the Bundesliga, and participated in league matches every weekend. He also traveled to Hungary, where he was able to practice with Tokyo Olympic champion Tamas LOERINCZ (HUN) and 2022 world silver medalist Zoltan LEVAI (HUN).

The wrestling Bundesliga, which shares the same name as the world-famous soccer league, operates similarly with head-to-head matches between teams and has drawn attention for its high level of competition. In recent years, Indian star Bajrang PUNIA and top Cuban wrestlers have taken part. While the venues are modest in size, fans of the sport pack the stands to watch a high-energy sports event.

Unlike the All-Japan Championships or World Championships, Kusaka had originally regarded the matches as a part of training where he could try out techniques, and would not be too concerned about winning or losing. But it didn’t work out that way.

“I really felt the pressure,” he said, recalling how the full house would go wild each time he was introduced as “world bronze medalist Nao Kusaka.” The attention from the fans and his support team got his adrenaline going. He became determined not to let them down with a poor showing.

During his 1½ months in Germany, Nao KUSAKA, right, developed a close bond with his teammates.

Kusaka’s decision to go to Germany for training did not come because he had qualified for the Paris Olympics. He had an interest in going well before that. “Even if I had not secured an Olympic quota, I think I still would have gone,” he said, showing how much he anticipated the trip.

Kusaka first heard about the Bundesliga from a Hungarian coach who visiting Nippon Sports Science University, his alma mater where he continues to train. One of the most popular wrestlers in the league is Idris IBAEV(GER), a naturalized German born in the Russian wrestling hotbed of Chechen. Ibaev won the 2021 world U23 title, but Kusaka defeated him in the 2022 tournament in Spain, where he placed third. “I heard that [the Bundesliga] had exciting matches in full arenas and it made me feel that as an athlete, I want to give it a try,” Kusaka said.

Kusaka returned to Japan on Nov. 27, one day before his 23rd birthday. He has a renewed determination as he prepares for upcoming battles with foreign opponents. “Through trial and error [of what works], I am making efforts that in the end will get me the gold medal in Paris,” he said.

World champ Makhmudov holds clinics in Ehime Prefecture

Ehime Prefecture in southern Japan was honored with a special guest in November, when reigning world champion Akzhol MAKHMUDOV (KGZ) paid a visit to practice with and instruct young Japanese wrestlers at three days of clinics.

Makhudov, the Tokyo Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion at Greco 77kg, was accompanied on the Nov. 10-12 trip by Meirambek AKHMETOV (KGZ), a former Kyrgyzstan national team coach who served as a referee at the Tokyo Olympics, and the trip to Japan was arranged through his connection with Japan referee Kuninori KOIKE.

World champion Akzhol MAKHMUDOV, center left, and Kyrgyzstan coach Meirambek AKHMETOV, center right, pose for a group photo with participants at a clinic in Ehime Prefecture.

The venue was Imabari Technical High School in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. In addition to junior and high schoolers from the prefecture, several distinguished alumni of Imabari high schools took part, including Kyotaro SOGABE, this year’s Japan world team member at Greco 67kg, and Rin MIYAJI, the 2021 world silver medalist at women’s 68kg. They served as instructors, while also taking to the mat for sparring themselves.

Makhmudov became kindred spirits with Sogabe, and the two worked on takedown drills and did some sparring together.

On the second day, Ehime-native Shingo MATSUMOTO, the current head coach at Nippon Sport Science University who appeared at Greco 84kg at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, joined up with the group. The veteran showed he could still hold his own in spirited sparring with Makhmudov.

On left, Kyotaro SOGABE, left, and Akzhol MAKHMUDOV practice together; on right, Makhmudov takes a photo with Nippon Sports Science University head coach Shingo MATSUMOTO.

Akhmetov, who is also involved in youth performance enhancement, noticeably explained techniques in an easy-to-understand way, going over combinations many times. “Japanese wrestlers are physically fit, but are lacking in technique,” he said.

Akhmetov stressed that techniques in Greco must be ingrained and mastered from the junior level. He was very surprised to learn that it is not until they are in college that most Greco wrestlers in Japan fully commit themselves to the style.

The two guests also instructed elementary school-aged kids who had little previous exposure to wrestling, and did their best to win them over to the sport.

When he wasn’t practicing over the three days, Makhmudov focused on his conditioning, while also making sure to maintain nutrition and get sufficient rest. “He’s the consummate pro,” said an Ehime wrestling official. “He fully conveyed the strength of his determination in regard to next year’s Paris Olympics.”

On left, the world champion takes a commemorative photo wearing traditional armor and helmet at Matsuyama Castle; on right, he draws mikan (Japanese tangerine) juice, a specialty of Ehime Prefecture, from a faucet.

Federation offers total support for wrestling in Deaflympics

The suburban Metropolitan Tokyo city of Fuchu, about 25 kilometers from the city center, has been selected as the location for the wrestling competition for the 2025 Deaflympics. The quadrennial multisports event for the hearing impaired will be held Nov. 15-26 at various sites in the Japanese capital.

Both men’s styles in wrestling are planned to be on the program. The dates and times are still to be determined.

According to the Japan Federation of the Deaf, details regarding the Japanese team including wrestlers, coaches, staff and other matters have not been decided at this point. But it is working to enter at least two wrestlers while inquiring to find others who may want to participate.

Japan does not have an official organization overseeing hearing impaired wrestlers, and had never dispatched wrestlers to previous Deaflympics. A wrestler with a hearing impairment competed at the 2016 All-Japan Non-Student Championships, but the Japan Federation of the Deaf has no statistics on the actual number of such wrestlers. There has been no means for discovering potential athletes nor a program to develop them.

The Japan Wrestling Federation recently declared its full support with a pledge to initiate programs that will expand deaf wrestling and ensure future participation in all Deaflympics to come. On the final day of the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in June, the federation showed its stance by staging a performance by a dance troupe that included hearing impaired members and was accompanied by sign language interpreters on the side of the mat. 

A hearing impaired dance troupe that uses sign language performs at the Meiji Cup in June.

Japan-Korea goodwill high school matches return after 4 years

Goodwill wrestling matches between Japanese and Korean high schoolers, halted during the coronavirus pandemic, were resumed for the first time in four years earlier this year. Japan served as the host for a Korean team that arrived on Nov. 22.

The competition was held Nov. 23 in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Japan’s schoolboys won all 10 of the freestyle matches, and six of the 10 matches in Greco-Roman. From the next day, the wrestlers from both countries had three days of joint practices at Kanagawa University.

In September, a Japan team traveled to Korea and went 7-3 in freestyle while splitting the 10 Greco matches.

Wrestlers in the Japan-Korea goodwill high school matches, which were held for the first time in four years, pose for a group photo.

“In terms of ability, Japan is well above at this point, but in the past when Korea was a power, it provided a spark for Japan and we raised our level,” said Yuji CHIBA, head of wrestling in the All-Japan High School Athletic Federation. “As we motivate each other, we both get better. International exchanges provide experiences that help us grow in life, not only in wrestling.”

Myung-Woo HAN, vice-president of the Korean Wrestling Federation and a gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, knows the value of such exchanges from his numerous trips to Japan for training at Kokushikan University during his career.

“I hope that Korean wrestlers will try harder to step up,” Han said. “It’s no longer an era of Spartan training [like in my days]. I find it irritating, but we keep fighting. If Korea does not become strong, Asia cannot be strong.”

The goodwill exchanges date back to the early 1990s and had continued uninterrupted until the pandemic. Korea hosts the Japan team in early September, and Japan reciprocates in November.


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