Tokyo 2020

Icho Returns to Mat After 2-Year Absence with Eyes on 5th Olympic Gold

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (October 13) -- More than two years after making history by winning an unprecedented fourth Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016, Japanese legend Kaori ICHO has returned to the mat to begin a quest for a fifth. The road back has had its bumps along the way.

Icho, who has not competed since her triumph in Rio, is entered in the 57kg division at the All-Japan Women's Open to be held this weekend in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, about 100 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. 

The tournament is serving as a qualifier for the All-Japan Championships, also known as the Emperor's Cup, to be held at December. That, along with the All-Japan Invitational Championships, or Meiji Cup, in May, are used to select national teams to the world championships and Olympics.

Top wrestlers such as Icho would normally never enter the Women's Open, but her time away from the mat has kept her from earning an automatic berth in the Emperor's Cup. Also, it presents a sufficient challenge to check her progress ahead of the stiffer competition ahead.

It was the same path that Rio 2016 champion Eri TOSAKA took last year when she returned from injury. Tosaka won the tournament at 53kg, but eventually came up short in her bid to make Japan's team to the world championships at 50kg.

To get into the Emperor's Cup, Icho needs to finish in the top two among the field of seven entries. On paper, at least, this should pose little problem. Her main competition looks to come from Shigakkan University's Hanako SAWA, a two-time runner-up at the Japan collegiate championships, and Fusano MOCHIZUKI, a semifinalist in Mishima last year. The four others, all collegians, all lost in the first or second round at the collegiate tournament in August. 

Icho, who normally avoids the spotlight anyway, has been kept off limits from the media during her preparation for the tournament, which consists of competition in various age groups. She will be in the senior division, which will be held Sunday. 

When it was announced in the summer that Icho would make a comeback aimed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she said in a statement issued through her sponsor ALSOK: "I will give my full effort to help make wrestling a sport with even more appeal."

The sport was in need of a boost. At the beginning of the year, Icho revealed through third parties that she was a victim of power harassment, sparking a scandal that stunned the nation and rocked the sport to its core. The perpetrator was none other than Kazuhito SAKAE, the national team director of athlete development and head coach at powerful Shigakkan. 

Sakae is best known as the man who turned Japanese women's wrestling into the premier global force, mentoring Saori YOSHIDA, Icho, Tosaka and numerous others to international glory.

But the allegations against Sakae and a resulting investigation revealed a coach who wielded uncontested power, and resulted in his dismissal from all of his posts. The fact that he used it against such a national hero such as Icho---in one case leaving her off the Japan team to the Asian Games---was all the more shocking. It appears he was venting anger for her defying him and changing her training base from Shigakkan in central Japan to Tokyo, where she wanted to practice with a men's team.

Besides the banishing of Sakae, the incident led to reforms by the Japan Wrestling Federation, which issued an apology to Icho. Most noteworthy is that the federation changed the system for selecting the national women's team.

In the Japan system, if the same wrestler wins titles at both the Emperor's and Meiji Cups, they automatically earn a berth on the Japan team. If there are different winners, the two face each other in a playoff. This was always the case for the men, but was used for the first time this year for the women -- their places had previously been decided by the federation, with Sakae having the most influence.

With the sordid affair behind her, Icho was able to start focusing on the task ahead, having quelled rumors of her retirement by deciding to go for a fifth Olympic gold. 

"From April, she started training two times a day," said Masanori OHASHI, the manager at ALSOK, a home security company that sponsors a number of top wrestlers including Rio 2016 silver medalist Shinobu OTA and Paris 2017 world champion Yuki TAKAHASHI. "But she was not yet close to full strength, so she couldn't go all out. She gradually picked up the pace little by little."

There were also light times after Rio. After winning the gold to become the first woman in Olympic history to win golds at four consecutive Olympics, Icho was awarded the prestigious National People's Award from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an honor bestowed on only a handful of truly outstanding athletes, entertainers or others who inspire the nation with their exploits. 

In September last year, she traveled to Iran at the request of that nation's federation. There she conducted clinics for women's wrestling coaches, part of that country's drive to include women in the sport. 

The harassment scandal, investigation and conclusion took up the first four months of the year. In May, she headed to New York where, according to the NBC Sports website, she did a high school clinic in Brooklyn, worked out with fellow Olympic champion Helen MAROULIS (USA) and watched the Beat the Streets in Manhatten. 

While she may be out of the spotlight abroad, Icho won't be able to avoid it on Sunday. According to the Japan federation website, Japan two's major wire services, 17 general and sports newspapers, six TV networks and four magazines have applied for media credentials -- not all that different than for the national championships.

Icho has certainly earned her status as one of Japan's greatest athletes, male or female, of all time. In addition to her four Olympic golds (the first two at 63kg, the second two at 58kg), she won 10 world titles dating back to 2002, and never lost in a final in either competition.

Just how dominant has Icho been? Before a stunning loss to Orkhon PUREVDORJH (MGL) by technical fall in the final of the Yarygin Grand Prix in January 2016, Icho strung together 108 consecutive wins in domestic and international competition, according to records on the Japan federation website. 

And that takes into account a loss by default at the 2007 Asian Championships. Icho was injured at the time, but to be eligible for Beijing 2008, she had to enter the continental tournament. So she had little choice but to take the black mark, and give HOU Min-Wen (TPE) an unexpected victory.

Prior to that, she had strung together 81 wins. So taking into consideration only matches in which she actually stepped onto the mat, Icho had an incredible streak of 189 wins. 

That streak started following a loss at the Klippan Open in 2003 to Sara MCMANN (USA) -- a defeat that Icho would avenge six times over, including in two major finals, at the New York 2003 world championships and Athens 2004 Olympics.

For the record, Icho heads to Mishima with a 7-match winning streak. How many it eventually becomes is less important than making sure it doesn't stop at Tokyo 2020.

Weekly FIVE!

Weekly FIVE! November 13, 2018

By Eric Olanowski

Reviewing Tuesday's U23 Greco-Roman finals and Olympic champion Ramonov's recent back surgery. Also looking at the American Wrestling League's matchups and the final point-base rankings of the year. 

1. Cartaraga and Pataridze Return to U23 World Finals in #BuchaWrestU23
The first day of the 2018 U23 World Championships have come to a close, but not before two wrestlers earned their second-consecutive U23 World finals bids.

2017 U23 World champion at 71 kg Daniel CARTARAGA (MDA) made his second-straight U23 World finals, this time at 77 kg, pinning 2018 Junior World silver medalist and 2017 Junior World bronze medalist Sajan SAJAN (IND) in the first period.

In the finals, Cartaraga will meet 2018 U23 European champion Rajbek BISULTANOV (DEN), who knocked off reigning U23 World champion Fatih CENGIZ (TUR) with a 4-1 decision.

Also advancing to his second U23 World finals was Zviadi PATARIDZE (GEO), who is a five-time age-group World champion, winning three Junior World titles and two Cadet World titles.

To earn a spot in the finals, the Georgian finished off 2017 U23 World bronze medalist Konsta MAEENPAEAE (FIN) with an 8-0 technical fall in 56 seconds.

Pataridze looks to improve on his silver-medal finish from last year. To do so, he will have to go through 2016 Junior World silver medalist and two-time Junior World bronze medalist Osman YILDIRIM (TUR) in the 130 kg finals.

The Greco-Roman finals begin on Tuesday at 18:00 local time.

Click HERE to see all Greco-Roman finals matchups. 

Soslan RAMONOV (RUS) carries his regional flag along with the Russian flag after winning the 2016 Rio gold medal. (Photo by Gabor Martin) 

2. Olympic Champion Ramonov Undergoes Back Surgery 
Rio Olympic champion Soslan RAMONOV (RUS) is expected to miss three to six months after undergoing spinal surgery to correct a back issue that has long troubled him. Ramonov said, “It’s true that I had an operation on my back last week, but I’ve already got back to work and started physical therapy.”

The timing of the surgery could not have come at a worse time for the two-time world medalist, as it’ll sideline him for two of Russia’s most significant tournaments, the 2018 Alans and next January’s Ivan Yarygin. 

“I expect to return to the mat in January, and hopefully enter a tournament at 65kg closer to the fall.” 

This statement should raise eyebrows of wrestling fans because Ramonov was arguably the most dominant wrestler in the world during his run to the 65kg Rio Olympic gold medal. After that win, he bumped up to 70kg and failed to make it back on the Russian world team in back-to-back years after earning medals at three consecutive medals at the World Championships and Olympic Games. 

David Taylor carries the American flag around the mat after winning the 2018 world championship.(Photo by Gabor Martin) 

3. Starting Line-ups announced for November 30 American Wrestling League 
Reigning world champions Kyle DAKE (USA) and David TAYLOR (USA) drafted their teams two weeks for the inaugural “American Wrestling League I The Beginning,” and this weekend, the pair of gold-medal winners finalized their rosters for the event that will take place on for November 30 at U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

The premier bout of the ten match card comes at 65kg where Jordan OLIVER (USA) will meet Zain RETHERFORD (USA). Team Dake’s Oliver is coming back from a year-long suspension, while Team Taylor’s Retherford returns after sitting out the 2017 season. 

This will not be the last time these two meet, as they are expected to both compete for the 2019 world team spot at 65kg. 

Each of the starters from Team Dake and Team Taylor will pick up $2,500 to show, and $5,000 to win. Fans can follow all of the AWL action live on on November 30.

AWL I Matchups
Team Dake vs. Team Taylor 
57kg - Frank PERRELLI vs. Nico MEGALUDIS 
61kg - Tony RAMOS vs. Cory CLARK 
65kg - Jordan OLIVER vs. Zain RETHERFORD 
70kg - James GREEN vs. Brandon SORENSEN 
74kg - Richie LEWIS vs. Tommy GANTT 
79kg - Isaiah MARTINEZ vs. Alex DIERINGER 
86kg - Nick HEFLIN vs. Sam BROOKS 
92kg - Deron WINN vs. Mike MACCHIAVELLO 
97kg - Jacob KASPER vs. Kyven GADSON 
125kg - Dom BRADLEY vs. Adam COON 

RONG Ningning (CHN), this year's 57kg world champion is entered at 59kg. (Photo by Max Rose-Fyne) 

4. Women’s Wrestling at the U23 World Championships Begins Tomorrow 
Greco-Roman wrestling at the U23 World Championships is wrapping up and women’s wrestling is next in line to shine at the Polyvalent Hall in Bucharest, Romania. 

Highlighting the women’s wrestling field is Yukako KAWAI (JPN), RONG Ningning (CHN), and Khanum VELIEVA (RUS). 

Rong, who will be up 2kg from her world championship weight of 57kg, will try to cap off 2018 with another world title. Last month, Rong grabbed the senior-level gold medal, adding to her impressive twelve-month run where she reached the top of the podium at the Asian Championships, China Open, Ivan Yarygin, and Poland Open. 

Another 2018 world champion that’ll be competing this week is Russia’s junior world champion Khanum Valieva. Two months ago, Valieva captured her fourth age-level when she won her second straight junior world gold medal at the 2018 Junior World Championships in Trnava, Slovakia. 

Though she fell short in the 2018 senior-level gold-medal bout, Japan’s Kawai is fresh off a second-place finish at the senior-level World Championship two weeks ago in Budapest, Hungary. In the finals, Kawai lost to Bulgaria's Taybe YUSEIN (BUL), 6-2 in the 62kg gold-medal bout, improving on her 2017 eighth-place finish.

Click here for the full schedule.

 Bajrang BAJRANG (IND) fist-pumps after making it to the gold medal bout of the 2018 World Championships. (Photo by Max Rose-Fyne) 

5. Post World Championship Rankings Published 
The final point-base rankings of the 2018 calendar year are posted on 

In freestyle, eight different nations finished the year with a top-ranked wrestler, as Russia led the way with a trio of No. 1 ranked guys. Of the ten wrestlers who own a freestyle top ranking, Zavur UGUEV (RUS) is the only one who claimed a gold medal at the 2018 World Championships. 

In Greco-Roman, seven different nations have a wrestler ranked in the top position to end the season. Hungary is the front-runner, having three wrestlers in the first spot. The two Greco-Roman world champions that end the season as the top-ranked wrestler are Sergey EMELIN (RUS) and Artem SURKOV (RUS). 

Ukraine and Turkey lead the way in women's wrestling with a pair of wrestlers sitting atop of the final rankings. Of the ten world champions, only Alla CHERKASOVA (UKR), Petra OLLI (FIN) and Ningning RONG (CHN) end the year in the top spot of the final 2018 point-base rankings. 

57kg - Zavur UGUEV (RUS)
61kg - Gadzhimurad RASHIDOV (RUS)
65kg - Bajrang BAJRANG (IND)
70kg - Andriy KVYATKOVSKYY (UKR)
86kg - Fatih ERDIN (TUR) 
92kg - Alireza KARIMIMACHIANI (IRI) 
97kg - Elizbar ODIKADZE (GEO) 
125kg - Nicholas Edward GWIAZDOWSKI (USA)

55kg - Ekrem OZTURK (TUR)
60kg - Sergey EMELIN (RUS) 
63kg - Elmurat TASMURADOV (UZB) 
67kg - Artem SURKOV (RUS) 
72kg - Balint KORPASI (HUN) 
77kg - Tamas Lörincz (HUN) 
82kg - Viktar SASUNOUSKI (BLR) 
87kg - Islam ABBASOV (AZE) 
97kg - Balazs KISS (HUN) 
130kg - Oscar PINO HINDS (CUB) 

Women's Wrestling 
50kg -  Mariya STADNIK (AZE) 
53kg - Sarah HILDEBRANDT (USA) 
55kg - Zalina SIDAKOVA (BLR) 
57kg - Ningning RONG (CHN) 
59kg - Elif YESILIRMAK (TUR) 
62kg - Yuliia TKACH OSTAPCHUK (UKR) 
65kg - Petra OLLI (FIN) 
68kg - Alla CHERKASOVA (UKR) 
72kg - Nasanburmaa OCHIRBAT (MGL) 
76kg - Yasemin ADAR (TUR) 

Weekly FIVE! In Social Media 

1. Mihut (ROU) is an arm throw wizard 🤼‍♂️. #unitedworldwrestling #uww #wrestling
2. Who do you think wins the race? Comment👇1, 2, 3 or 4!
3. Highlights from the Greco-Roman qualification round at #buchawrest2018
4. You’re rubbing off on the kids, @aligaraii!
5. Kozliuk (UKR) makes his way to the next round 🇺🇦 🤼‍♂️ . #wrestling #uww #unitedworldwrestling

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Who do you think wins the race? Comment👇1, 2, 3 or 4!

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You’re rubbing off on the kids, @aligaraii!

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