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! March 19, 2019

By Eric Olanowski

Discussing Russia winning the Freestyle World Cup on home soil and looking at theThor Masters results. Also looking at the upcoming U23 Asian Championships, "Hollywood wrestles Bollywood" and the European Championships. 

1. Russia Wins Freestyle World Cup on Home Soil  
The Russian Federation closed out the Freestyle World Cup with an impressive 9-1 win over Iran to claim their first team title since the 2011 Makhachkala World Cup. This was their seventh Freestyle World Cup title, but first in eight years. 

Overall, Russia went 4-0 on the weekend and compiled a combined individual record of 36-4 over their 40 matches. In addition to their finals win over Iran, they also picked up wins over Cuba (10-0), Japan (8-2), and Turkey (9-1). 

Meanwhile, in the third-place bout, the defending champion the United States edged Japan, 6-4. 

The pair traded blows and were tied three-all after the first six matches. Sohsuke TAKATANI (JPN) broke that tie after his 14-3 routing of Samuel Joseph BROOKS (USA), but three consecutive American wins from Hayden ZILLMER, Kyven Ross GADSON, and Anthony NELSON gave the Stars and Stripes the 6-4 advantage, and ultimately the third-place finish. 

Cuba finished fifth place after they defeated Mongolia, 6-4, and Georgia claimed seventh place after beating Turkey, 8-2.

GOLD - Russia df. Iran, 9-1
BRONZE - United States df. Japan, 6-4 
Fifth - Cuba df. Mongolia, 6-4
Seventh - Georgia df. Turkey, 8-2

2. U23 Asian Championships Starts Thursday 
The U23 Continental Championships train continues to roll this weekend and will make its stop in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for the 2019 U23 Asian Championships

The four-day tournament begins on Thursday and will go through Sunday.


Thursday (March 21) 
9:30 - Medical examination and Weigh-in GR - 60,67,72,77,82,97,130kg
11:30 - Qualification rounds and repechage GR - 60,67,72,77,82,97,130kg
14:45 - Draw - GR - 55,63,87kg / WW - 55,59,72kg / FS – 61,92kg
17:30 - Opening Ceremony
18:00 - Finals GR – 60,67,72,77,82,97,130kg

Friday (March 22) 
9:30 - Medical examination and Weigh-in (GR - 55,63,87kg / WW - 55,59,72kg / FS – 61,92kg)
11:30 - Qualification rounds and repechages - GR - 55,63,87kg / WW - 55,59,72kg / FS – 61,92kg 

14:45 - Draw WW – 50,57,65,68kg / FS – 57,65,74,125kg
18: 00 - Finals GR - 55,63,87kg / WW - 55,59,72kg / FS – 61,92kg

Saturday (March 23) 
19:30 - Medical examination and Weigh-in - WW – 50,57,65,68kg / FS – 57,65,74,125kg
11:30 - Qualification rounds and repechages - WW – 50,57,65,68kg / FS – 57,65,74,125kg
14:45 - Draw WW – 53,62,76kg / FS – 70,79,86,97kg
18: 00 - Finals WW – 50,57,65,68kg / FS – 57,65,74,125kg

Sunday (March 24) 
9:30 - Medical examination and Weigh-in - WW – 53,62,76kg / FS – 70,79,86,97kg
11:30 - Qualifications rounds and repechage WW – 53,62,76kg / FS – 70,79,86,97kg 

18:00 - Finals WW – 53,62,76kg / FS – 70,79,86,97kg

Roland SCHWARZ was one of three German wretlers who won a gold medal at the 2019 Thor Masters last weekend. (Photo: Max Rose-Fyne)

3. Germany win Three Thor Masters Golds 
The Thor Masters, an all-Greco-Roman tournament, wrapped up last weekend in Nykobing Falster, Denmark, and Germany was the frontrunner, winning three of the ten gold medals. Denmark and Ukraine had a pair of gold medalists, while Finland, Norway, and Sweden each had a solo gold medalist. 



SILVER - Christoph KRAEMER (GER)     

BRONZE - Nasrullakh NASIBO (UKR)

SILVER - Ruslan  KUDRYNETS (UKR)      



GOLD - Raibek BISULTANOV (DEN)        
SILVER - Hannes WAGNER (GER)          


GOLD - Zakarias BERG (SWE)   
SILVER - Denis KUDLA (GER)    

GOLD - Matti KUOSMANEN (FIN)        

GOLD - Nikolai  KUCHMIY (UKR)          
SILVER - Eduard POPP (GER)   

4. "Hollywood wrestles Bollywood" Begins March 31 
Women's Wrestling stars from the United States and India will face off against each other on Sunday, March 31 in the 'Hollywood Wrestles Bollywood' at Los Angles' historic Wiltern Theater.

According to, "The dual will be apart of Beat the Streets Los Angeles’ 5th Annual Benefit and International Competition, which is a yearly fundraising and awareness event for the LA-based wrestling non-profit."

There will be eleven top-15 ranked wrestlers in action, with six of those being ranked in the top-5 of the latest world rankings. (The latest rankings can be found on 's homepage) 

Of the ten star-studded bouts, the most intriguing matchup comes at 53kg, where returning world runner-up and top-ranked Sarah HILDEBRANDT (USA) will take on No. 11 Vinesh VINESH (IND). 

This will be a rematch of last months Dan Kolov semifinals, where Vinesh stuck Hildebrant to put herself in the Ranking Series tournament finals. She ultimately fell to China's PANG Qianyu in the finals. 

The dual starts at 15:00 on March 31. 

United States vs. India 
50kg: No. 15 Whitney CONDER vs. Sheetal TOMAR 
53kg: No. 1 Sarah HILDEBRANDT vs. No. 11 Vinesh VINESH
55kg: No. 6 Jacarra WINCHESTER vs. Pinki PINKI
57kg: Jenna BURKERT vs. No. 6 Pooja DHANDA
59kg: Alli RAGAN vs. No. 4 Sarita SARITA
62kg: No. 5 Mallory VELTE vs. Sakshi MALIK  
65kg: No. 2 Forrest MOLINARI vs. Navjot KAUR 
68kg: No. 2 Tamyra MENSAH vs. Divya KAKRAN 
72kg: Rachel WATTERS vs. No. 12 (at 76kg) Kiran KIRAN 
76kg: No. 1 Adeline GRAY vs. Sudesh SUDESH 

Abdulrashid SADUALEV (RUS) is expected to compete for Russia at the 2019 European Championships. (Photo: Max Rose-Fyne) 

5. European Championships Less Than Three Weeks Away 
In less than three weeks, 20 days to be exact, Bucharest, Romania, will be the host site for the 2019 European Championships. Europe proves year in and year out to be the deepest wrestling continent in the world when it comes to placing wrestlers on the podium at the World Championships. 

In total, eighteen of last year’s thirty world champions hailed from Europe. Ten Greco-Roman, five freestyle and three women’s wrestling world champions came from Europe.

The tournament begins on April 8 and will go until April 14 and can be watched on 


Weekly FIVE! In Social Media 
1. Big Move Monday -- Nugzari TSURTSUMIA (GEO) -- 2019 U-23 Europe
2. Big Move from Day 2 at the Freestyle World Cup • Yakutsk 2019
3. Big Move from Day 1 at the Freestyle World Cup • Yakutsk 2019
4. MARGHZARI (IRI) comes back from near loss with a throw straight into a pin!! 🇮🇷 💪 #unitedworldwrestling #wrestling#wrestleyakutsk
5. Big Throw in round 3 from GHIASI CHEKA (IRI) 💪🇮🇷#wrestleyakutsk #uww #wrestling