Clashes of Titans on Tap as Japanese Stars Stack Olympic Weights

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (Dec. 17)---Japanese wrestlers have never lacked for motivation when it comes to the quest to make the Olympics. But with Tokyo to host the next Games in 2020, drive and desire are at fever pitch as everyone wants to get in on the act. 

So while it seemed inevitable that the upcoming All-Japan Championships, by serving as the first stage for qualifying for Japan's team to Tokyo 2020, would produce a number high-level match-ups. But just how meteoric the competition will be is nothing short of mind-boggling. 

There will be competition in all 10 weight classes, but the scramble to fill the six Olympic weight classes has funneled the cream of the crop into those divisions, setting up possible pairings---particularly among the women---that can be seen as exceeding the caliber of the recent world championships.

55kg world champion Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN) after winning the gold medal in Budapest. (Photo: Martin Gabor)

Someone making a movie about the tournament, which runs Dec. 20-23 at Tokyo's Komazawa Gym, could title it, "When World Champions Collide." That could happen at the Olympic weight class of women's 53kg, where 55kg world gold medalist Mayu MUKAIDA has dropped down to challenge the Budapest 2019 champion at 53kg, Haruna OKUNO. 

"This tournament has links to the Olympics and is extremely important," Japan women's national team coach Hideo SASAYAMA said at a recent press conference to announce the final entries. "The Olympic weight classes have many entries, and we have medalists from the world championships against each other. It's going to be a very high-level tournament."

Under the JWF criteria, winners of both the All-Japan Championships, also called the Emperor's Cup, and the All-Japan Invitational Championships (the Meiji Cup, held in May or June) automatically qualify for the next world championships. If the winners are different, there will be a playoff for the spot. 

But the 2019 world championships in Astana have further ramifications---a wrestler who wins a medal there not only earns an Olympic spot for Japan, but automatically fills it themselves. That's why the competition is so fierce to get onto that team, even with Tokyo 2020 nearly two years away. 

Should Mukaida and Okuno meet in the 53kg final as expected, it would be just the 11th time in Japanese wrestling history that two current world champions faced each other in a domestic tournament, according to the Japan Wrestling Federation.  

Mukaida, two years older at 21, holds an overwhelming advantage over her Shigakkan University teammate Okuno, having won all eight of their previous encounters dating back to 2012. Most recently, Mukaida posted a 5-0 win in the 2017 Junior Queen's Cup. 

As enticing as that match-up might be, it might have to play second fiddle to a real Clash of the Titans---the potential battle at 57kg between reigning Rio 2016 Olympic champions Kaori ICHO and Risako KAWAI. 

Icho, whose gold in 2016 made her the first woman in history to win four consecutive Olympic titles in one event, went on hiatus after her triumph in Rio, returning to competition this past autumn in a bid for a historic five-peat.  

The 34-year-old Icho might not be a reigning world champion at the moment, but it would be hard to discount the 10 gold medals in her collection, the most recent coming at 58kg in 2015. Kawai followed up her gold medal performance at 63kg at Rio 2016 with back-to-back world titles, claiming the 59kg gold in Budapest.

Icho passed the first test of her return by winning the second-tier Japan Women’s Open in September. To prepare for the stiffer competition at the Emperor’s Cup, she was invited to the national team training camp in November, where she had a chance to work out with Kawai. 

Japan officials would not say who had the advantage in their sparring, but national team technical director Shigeki NISHIGUCHI said of Icho, “Her concentration is amazing. I saw her sparring with Kawai, and she just doesn't give up a takedown. It's really going to be a good match.”

Sasayama was equally impressed. “I thought that she might have lost more power than she had. But when I actually watched her, her defense, it seems she hasn't lost much. She might not have the stamina to keep up with the younger wrestlers who can go all out all of the time.”

Icho and Kawai, 24, have faced each other in the past, although it was before Kawai had emerged as a world-class wrestler. Battling once in 2013 and twice in 2014, Icho won all three matches without surrendering a point.

Three-time world and Olympic champion, Risako KAWAI (JPN) is likely to face Icho at the Emperor's Cup. She's moved down to the Olympic weight category to make room for her sister Yukako at 62kg. (Photo: Martin Gabor)

Kawai’s decision to drop down to 57kg was likely due to avoid having to clash with younger sister Yukako KAWAI, the Budapest 2018 silver medalist at 62kg. Yukako will compete at that Olympic weight class, where she will be challenged by 65kg bronze medalist Ayana GEMPEI. Both Kawai and Gempei recently won U23 world titles, and Kawai was named the UWW’s U23 female wrestler of the year.

Sparks are also sure to be flying in the women’s 50kg division, where the trio of world champion Yui SUSAKI, Rio 2016 gold medalist Eri TOSAKA and Asian silver medalist Yuki IRIE---who beat both of the other two last year---will battle it out.  

One new development that could be a factor is that Susaki, coming off a dominant performance in Budapest where she stormed to a second straight world gold, suffered an elbow injury at the national camp, according to Sasayama.

“Susuki fought wonderfully at the world championships and won her second straight title, and was at absolute strength,” Sasayama said. “At the recent national camp, she injured her left elbow. There are concerns whether she will be ready in time for the tournament.

“With that in mind, it will be a point of interest to see what Irie, Tosaka and [U23 world champion] Miho IGARASHI bring to the fight.” 

Reigning Olympic champion, Sara DOSHO (JPN). (Photo: Martin Gabor)

The women’s 68kg division will see the return of Rio 2018 champion Sara DOSHO, who underwent surgery after injuring her shoulder at the Women’s World Cup in March. Blocking her path to victory will likely be Rio WATARI and Chiaki SEKI.

It was her inability to beat Dosho that caused Watari to move up two weight classes to 75kg in a successful quest to make the Japan team to Rio 2016. The story took an even more dramatic twist when she developed life-threatening Hodgkin lymphoma, from which she battled back over the next two years to remarkably earn a spot on the squad to Budapest 2018.

With the top wrestlers packed into the Olympic weight classes, the non-Olympic weights have drawn just four or five entries. Most notable is Saki IGARASHI, the world junior and U23 champion who will aim for her first senior national title at 55kg.

“This is the first step of the selection process for the Olympics and the entries have been concentrated into the Olympic weight classes,” Nishiguchi said. “So it's a bit lonely in the non-Olympic weights with few entries, but that can't be helped.”


Takuto OTOGURO (JPN), reigning 65kg world champion. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka) 

Rivalries renewed in men’s competitions
While there are not as many world medalists among the men’s styles, there will be no lack of intense competition.

Takuto OTOGURO, who at 19 years 10 months became Japan’s youngest-ever male world champion when he captured the 65kg freestyle gold in Budapest, will be aiming for his first Emperor’s Cup title, but will find Rei HIGUCHI and Daichi TAKATANI more than ready to exact revenge for losses earlier this year to the Yamanashi Gakuin University star. 

Higuchi, the 57kg silver medalist at Rio 2016, has had some difficulty handling the taller opponents as he moves up in weight, but gained a boost of confidence with a victory at last month’s U23 world championships in Bucharest. His hopes of making it to Budapest two months earlier had ended with a loss to Ishiguro in the Meiji Cup final last June. 

That victory by Otoguro put him into a playoff with Emperor’s Cup winner Takatani, which Otoguro won handily. Takatani won the silver medal at the Asian Games this summer and can never be disregarded as a threat.


Yuki TAKAHASHI (JPN), 2017 world champion. (Photo: Tony Rotundo) 

The 57kg freestyle division could see a clash of reigning national champions. Former world champion Yuki TAKAHASHI, who had to settle for a bronze at Budapest 2018, will aim for his third straight national crown, but can expect competition from Kazuya KOYANAGI, who won the 61kg last year and finished seventh in Budapest. 

Also expected to be in the mix is U23 world champion Toshihiro HASEGAWA, while interest is high to see how high school triple-crown champion Kaito MORIKAWA will fare on the senior level. 

Sosuke TAKATANI, the older brother of Daichi, will get his first test at the Olympic weight of 86kg. The 2014 world silver medalist and a six-time national champion at 74kg, he competed at 79kg over the past year---winning another national title---as a stepping stone to 86kg.  

Defending champion Shota SHIRAI and runner-up Masao MATSUSAKA will be sure to provide a less-than-warm welcome to the weight class, which has also drawn world junior 79kg champion Hayato ISHIGURO.

Atsushi MATSUMOTO, a Budapest 2018 bronze medalist at 92kg, has opted to compete in the non-Olympic class and will aim for his first national freestyle title since 2014 and fourth overall (he won a gold in Greco in 2016 before switching back to freestyle). 

Kenichiro FUMITA, 2017 world champion. (Photo: Tony Rotundo) 

The Greco competition should see the latest installment of the 60kg battle between Rio 2016 silver medalist Shinobu OTA and Paris 2017 world champion Kenichiro FUMITA.

Ota has had the upper hand recently, winning their most recent encounter at last year’s Emperor’s Cup to tie their head-to-head series at 4-4 dating back to 2014. Ota took the gold at the Asian Games in Jakarta in August, but suffered a heartbreaking second-round loss at Budapest 2018. 

Fumita, who missed much of the season due to an injury, showed he is back in form by capturing the gold at the U23 world championships. 

Thursday, Dec. 20
9:30-18:00 - 1st Round through Semifinals; Repechage: FS 86, 92, 97, 125; GR 63, 72, 87, 97, 130; WW 55, 59, 62, 72
18:00-19:00 - Medal Matches: FS 92

Friday, Dec. 21
9:30 - 16:10 - 1st Round through Semifinals; Repechage: FS 57, 61, 74; GR 67, 77; WW 65, 76
16:10 - 20:40 - Medal Matches: FS 86, 97, 125; GR 63, 72, 87, 97, 130; WW 55, 59, 62, 72

Saturday, Dec. 22
9:30 - 15:00 - 1st Round through Semifinals, Repechage: FS 65, 70; GR 55, 60; WW 50, 53, 57, 68
15:00 - 19:30 - Medal Matches: FS 57, 61, 70, 74; GR 55, 67, 77; WW 65, 76

Sunday, Dec. 23
9:30 - 13:00 - 1st Round through Semifinals, Repechage: FS 79; GR 82
13:00 - 14:00 - Award ceremony for top individuals, clubs of year
14:00 - 14:15 - Return of Emperor's Cup trophy
14:15 - 17:00 - Medal Matches: FS 65, 79; GR 60, 82; WW 50, 53, 57, 68


Icho Pulls Off Dramatic Win over Kawai to Move Step Closer to Shot at Olympic 5-peat

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO---Adding another chapter to her bulging legend, Kaori ICHO pulled off a dramatic last-second victory over the new titan on the block, and moved a step closer to gaining a shot at winning a historic fifth Olympic gold medal in her home country. 

Icho scored a takedown with 10 seconds left to clinch a 3-2 victory over fellow Rio 2016 Olympic champion Risako KAWAI in a nationally televised women’s 57kg final that brought a close to the All-Japan Championships in Tokyo.

Icho’s stunning victory came a day after Kawai, this year’s world champion at 59kg, edged the four-time Olympic champion 2-1 in a preliminary round-robin group match, handing Icho her first loss to a Japanese opponent since 2001. 

“I knew it was going to be a tough match, but I’m happy I could pull it off,” said Icho, who let out a short scream of joy and clenched her fists after the victory. “It’s been awhile since I’ve felt this nervousness, so I thought to just try and stay relaxed.”

The 34-year-old Icho won her first national title since 2015 and 13th overall dating back to 2002, despite spending more than two years away from the mat after winning the gold in Rio, which made her the first woman in Olympic history to win four straight titles in a single event.

She returned to competition in September as a prelude for the All-Japan Championships, also referred to as the Emperor’s Cup and which was serving as the first stage in the qualifying process for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 

It is for that reason that Kawai and many other top wrestlers have shifted to Olympic weight classes, which put her and Icho on a well-hyped collision course. 

Icho had beaten Kawai in three previous encounters spanning 2013 and 2014, but she found a far more formidable and mature foe facing her across the mat at Komazawa Gym. 

Their first match on Saturday featured little action, and Kawai came out on top by being awarded two activity-clock points to Icho’s one. 

“Now I’m the challenger, and for two years, she’s been leading the pack in Japan and raised her level, which became clear to me when I faced her,” Icho said. “As the challenger, I thought all day how I could control the match.”

Sunday’s match was a slightly more open affair. Kawai took the lead, although a rule quirk left her with less points than she should have earned. With Icho on the activity clock and it about to expire, Kawai grabbed a single leg and had Icho perched on one foot, but could only managed to force Icho out for a point. 

Had she waited another three seconds for the activity clock to expire, she would have gotten a point each for the passivity and the step-out. 

She doubled the lead to 2-0 with an activity-clock point midway through the second period, before she was put on the clock and Icho gained a point with :26 remaining.

Four-time Olympic champion Kaori ICHO scored a takedown with 10 seconds left to clinch a 3-2 victory over fellow Rio 2016 Olympic champion Risako KAWAI. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

It was then Icho made her move and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. A quick snapdown and shuffle to the left left Kawai’s right leg open, and Icho latched onto it. When Kawai attempted a switch, Icho pressed ahead and stepped over to gain control and the crucial two points with just :10 left on the clock.  

“Actually, I wanted to go all out from the beginning, but Kawai’s defense was strong, I lacked the courage and I’m not completely back. So I couldn’t get an attack going. At the end, there was an emotional factor as well, and I was able to catch her leg.”

While Kawai was visibly shaken by the stunning loss, her dream of a second straight Olympic gold is not over. She will get another shot at Icho at the All-Japan Invitational Championships (Meiji Cup) in June, where a victory would force a playoff with Icho for the spot on Japan’s team to the 2019 world championships.

A medal at Astana 2019---a world gold for Icho would be her 11th and first since 2015--- would mean an automatic place on the Japan squad at the Tokyo Olympics, which is why this year’s Emperor’s Cup had taken on such importance.

Icho said she is considering her plans prior to Meiji Cup, which will likely mean an overseas trip for training and/or competition. She is also mulling the Asian Championships in Xian in April, she said. 

Rio Olympic champion Sara DOSHO returned from shoulder surgert and still won the 68kg gold medal. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Meanwhile, fellow Rio 2016 champion Sara DOSHO, returning from shoulder surgery necessitated from an injury at the Women’s World Cup in March, was less than her brutally dominating self, but still managed to capture the women’s 68kg gold for her eighth straight national title. 

With just five entries, the weight class had a round-robin format, and Dosho clinched the gold in her final match with a 2-1 victory over Rio WATARI, who had an inspirational return last year from life-threatening lymphoma. 

Dosho won all four of her matches by decisions, and in the finale against Watari, all points came with the opponent on the activity clock. Still, it’s a step in the right direction for Dosho, who won a world title in 2017. 

“I wasn’t concerned about the details of my match, I was thinking only to go for the win,” Dosho said. 

Reigning world champion Mayu MUKAIDA dropped down from 55kg and won the 53kg gold medal. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

In the women’s 53kg class, Mayu MUKAIDA, who dropped down from 55kg, didn’t have to contend with fellow Budapest 2018 world champion Haruna OKUNO, but she had to sweat out some anxious moments at the end of her 8-6 victory over Nanami IRIE.

Mukaida scored with a takedown and ankle roll for an 8-2 lead early in the second period, only to see Irie fight back with a pair of slick takedowns. Mukaida then spent the final 20 seconds clinging desperately onto a single leg to clinch her third straight national title. 

Mukaida has appeared to learn her lesson from the Paris 2017 final, where she suffered a devastating last-second loss to Vanesa KALADZINSKAYA (BEL) that cost her the 53kg gold.

  “I saw my senior teammates fighting to the end, so I was determined to never give up,” Mukaida said. “It was tough cutting weight, but I want to get to the Olympics and I’m happy I could win the title.”

The other women’s title at stake on the final day of the four-day tournament at Komazawa Gym went to Yuki IRIE, who successfully defended her title at 50kg with a solid 6-0 victory over Kika KAGATA.

Irie defeated Rio 2016 gold medalist Eri TOSAKA in the semifinals, while her other main competition, Budapest 2018 champion Yui SUSAKI, had withdrawn after not fully recovering from a dislocated elbow suffered last month. 

“I think I was able to put out [on the mat] what I acquired in practice,” said Irie, who expressed confidence of winning out among the trio at the Meiji Cup for the ticket to Astana.

Reigning world champion Takuto OTOGURO defeated Daichi TAKATANI, 10-0, in the finals at 65kg. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Japan’s newest star among its male contingent lived up his billing, but anyone who blinked while Takuto OTOGURO was on the mat might have missed his victory in the freestyle 65kg final over Daichi TAKATANI.

Otoguro, who became the youngest-ever male Japanese world champion when won the gold in Budapest at 19 years 10 months, needed just 33 seconds to finish off a 10-0 technical fall over Takatani, topping off a double-leg takedown with four rapid-fire ankle rolls in succession.

In addition to winning his first senior national title, Otoguro also walked off with the prestigious Emperor’s Cup as the outstanding wrestler of the year. He swept through the competition despite falling behind in his preparation due to an injury that kept him out of the national collegiate championships in November. 

“I didn’t have practice that I could be satisfied with,” Otoguro said. “From now, the most important thing is to not take anything lightly.”

There was another tale of redemption when Paris 2017 world champion Kenichiro FUMITA regained the Greco 60kg title that he lost last year to long-time rival and Rio 2016 silver medalist Shinobu OTA.

Fumita, ahead 2-1 (all passivity points) with a minute to go, countered an Ota spinning arm throw attempt, sending his opponent sprawling onto his back for a 4-point move. An unsuccessful challenge made the final score 7-1.

“In the last minute, I was leading and while avoiding risk, I wanted to stand firm and ensure the victory. Last December while I was winning, I went half-heartedly on my attack and he countered and I lost. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen this year.”

After Ota rallied to defeat Fumita in last year’s final, he earned the place on Japan’s team to Budapest when Fumita suffered a left knee injury in May and had to pull out of the Meiji Cup. 

Fumita, who considered quitting, returned to practice in mid-August, dead set on avenging the loss and making the Tokyo 2020 team.

“I lost in December, then just before the tournament that I had to win in June, I got injured. I was so depressed I was ready to throw it all away. But my dreams of a gold medal at Tokyo 2020 have never wavered.

“It was too soon to give up. And because of the injury, it gave me time to think about many things and look closely at my techniques, and I think that led to today’s result.”

Fumita now holds a 5-4 advantage over Ota in career meetings dating back to 2014. Ota might find some consolation in the fact that the two---they are both Nippon Sport Science University alumni and train together---have now alternated victories in seven straight matches.

Day 4 Results


65kg (27 entries)
Final: Takuto OTOGURO df. Daichi TAKATANI by TF, 10-0, :33
3rdPlace: Rinya NAKAMURA df. Rei HIGUCHI by DEF.
3rdPlace: Koki SHIMIZU df. Yosuke KAWANO, 9-4

79kg (11 entries)
Final: Yuto ABE df. Yuto IZUTSU, 12-5
3rdPlace: Komei KAWABATA df. Daichi KURIHARA, 5-2
3rdPlace: Yudai TAKAHASHI df. Kazuto KATO by TF, 11-0, 3:27

Izutsu df. Kurihara by TF, 10-0, 1:44
Abe df. Takahashi by TF, 10-0, 4:47


6o kg (13 entries)
Final: Kenichiro FUMITA df. Shinobu OTA, 7-1 
3rdPlace: Kazuki YABE df. Kensuke SHIMIZU by FALL, 1:40 (3-0)
3rdPlace: Kyotaro SOGABE df. Kiyoshi KAWAGUCHI by TF, 8-0, 2:26

82kg (13 entries)
Final: Yuya OKAJIMA df. Yoji KAWAMURA, 3-1
3rdPlace: Kohei KITAMURA df. Kosuke KOBAYASHI, 6-5
3rdPlace: Satoki MUKAI df. Tatsuya FUJII, 5-5

Okajima df. Kitamura by TF, 9-0, 1:45
Kawamura df. Mukai by Fall, 4:21 (1-5)

Women’s Wrestling

50kg (8 entries)
Final: Yuki IRIE df. Kika KAGATA, 6-0
3rdPlace: Eri TOSAKA df. Remina YOSHIMOTO, 7-3
3rdPlace: Miho IGARASHI df. Chihiro SAWADA by TF, 10-0, 1:27

53kg (8 entries)
Final: Mayu MUKAIDA df. Nanami IRIE, 8-6 
3rdPlace: Yuka YAGO df. Katsura KONISHI by TF, 10-0, 1:58 
3rdPlace: Umi IMAI df. Momoka KADOYA, 2-0

57kg (7 entries)
Final: Kaori ICHO df. Risako KAWAI, 3-2
3rdPlace: Akie HANAI df. Hanako SAWA, 4-1

68kg (5 entries)
Round-Robin (Final Standings)
1. Sara DOSHO (4-0, 12 pts)
2. Rio WATARI (3-1, 12)
3. Chiaki SEKI (2-2, 8)
Key Match: Dosho df. Watari, 2-1 in 5thround