Japan Wrestle-Offs

Kawai Topples Icho in Playoff for World Team; Otoguro In, Susaki Out

By Ken Marantz

WAKO, Saitama (July 6)---Risako KAWAI all but dealt a death blow to Kaori ICHO's quest for an epoch-making fifth straight Olympic gold medal. It's now in Kawai's hands to finish the job in two months.

For the second time in three weeks, Kawai toppled her fellow Olympic champion, scoring a 3-3 victory on big-point criteria to earn the women's 57kg berth on Japan's team to the World Championships in Kazakhstan in September.

"I really don't remember much about it, but I'm glad I won," Kawai said at a post-match press conference. "Over this past year, things happened around me that I had never imagined would occur. I had changed the environment around me, and in December, I thought about quitting wrestling and talked it over with my family. I'm glad that I didn't."

The showdown was one of six on a special day of playoffs for tickets to the World Championships in Olympic weight classes, which also saw Takuto OTOGURO earn a shot at keeping the freestyle 65kg crown he won a year ago, while Yui SUSAKI was denied a chance for a third straight women's 50kg world title.

The playoffs in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, about 20 kilometers north of Tokyo, paired the winners of the two national competitions that serve as qualifiers for the World Championships. In the 12 other Olympic divisions, one wrestler won both tourneys to clinch an automatic berth.

Icho had beaten Kawai 3-2 with a dramatic takedown in the final 10 seconds at the All-Japan Championships (Emperor's Cup) in December, a loss that nearly led Kawai to abandon the sport. But she turned the tables in June at the All-Japan Invitational Championships (Meiji Cup), holding on for a 6-4 win to set up the playoff.

"It has been three weeks since the Meiji Cup," Kawai said. "I knew Kaori would approach it differently, and I carefully considered what I would do as I prepared. Strategically, it didn't really go as I had pictured. But in the end, what I had practiced as always came out naturally."

As for her strategy, Kawai said it was to "get in on tackles and firmly finish off the takedown. But it wasn't that easy."

In the nationally televised wrestle-off, Kawai was the aggressor and got in deep with a number of single-leg attempts, only to see Icho squirm free. With just over a minute left in the match, the score was still 1-1, with both points scored on the activity clock and Kawai ahead on last-point.

Just as she did in the Meiji Cup with time running out, the 35-year-old Icho dug deep with the determination that had earned her 10 world titles dating back to 2002 and went on the attack.

Icho got in deep on a single leg, but Kawai clamped down and, applying a reverse nelson, managed to gain a 2-point exposure with 50 seconds left. Icho worked her way out of the predicament and behind for a point to cut the lead to 3-2, but her frenetic efforts for a takedown in the final seconds could only result in a stepout that left her on the short end of a 3-3 score.

"It's disappointing, but I did what I needed to do to get here and prepared well, so I have no regrets," said Icho, who took a hiatus following the Rio 2016 Olympics and only returned to competition last September.

"I don't think that I was weak. Risako was strong. From the time I decided to come back, there was the difficulty of filling in a two-year blank combined with a desire that never left, and this is where I am now.

"As an experience, it was a fulfilling one year. Many friends, family and others came to this arena to give me support, and I went into this wanting to give them a chance to see me at the World Championships and Tokyo Olympics. As I won't be able to show them, that's what hurts."

Actually, the light at the end of the Tokyo 2020 tunnel has not completely gone out for Icho, although it's been reduced to a speck. The Japan federation has decreed that any Japanese wrestler winning a medal at the World Championships will automatically earn a place on the Tokyo 2020 team---which greatly enhanced the incentive to make it to the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan.

The door for Icho would reopen in the unlikely event that Kawai, the 63kg champion at Rio 2016 and 59kg gold medalist at last year's worlds in Budapest, fails to win a medal in Nur-Sultan. In that case, the qualifying process would go back to the beginning.

For Kawai, the victory keeps alive her dreams of appearing in the Olympics with younger sister Yukako, a world silver medalist who already secured her ticket at 62kg. Risako had taken a gamble by going down to 57kg and challenging Icho, and it paid off with the two victories that Yukako watched at matside.

The playoffs for the undecided places in the non-Olympic weights will be held July 21. Because so many top wrestlers funneled into the Olympic weights, the federation decided that, in order to send the strongest possible team to Kazakhstan, it will allow those who finished as runner-up in an Olympic weight at either the Emperor's Cup or Meiji Cup to enter the wrestle-offs at a non-Olympic weight.

That means that technically Icho could try to make the team at, say, 59kg in an attempt to win a first world title since 2015, although there have been no indications that she will do so.

Otoguro avenges loss; Irie finally gets best of Susaki

In other featured matches on a day of high drama, world champ Otoguro bounced back from his loss in the Meiji Cup final to Rei HIGUCHI by chalking up a solid 5-0 victory to fill the 65kg berth.

Otoguro, his preparations affected by knee problem that kept him out of the Freestyle World Cup and the Asian Championships, had been dealt a devastating 15-5 technical fall loss three weeks ago by Higuchi, the Rio 2016 silver medalist at 57kg.

That was Otoguro's first loss to a Japanese opponent since junior high school, but he showed he was ready this time around with his third victory over Higuchi  in 2 1/2 years.

Leading 2-0 in the second period from a pair of points off the activity clock, Otoguro sliced in on a low double for a takedown with 1:40 left. He then held off Higuchi's late attacks, adding a stepout in the waning seconds for the final margin of victory.

"I wasn't accustomed to losing, and it was so devastating, it was like I had no idea what to do," said Otoguro, who shed very different tears after this victory. "So many people helped me out, and I'm happy I could come out with a win through their support."

While the Kawai-Icho clash has garnished the most national attention, the budding rivalry at women's 50kg has been no less intense, and this time Asian champion Yuki IRIE came out on top.

Irie chalked up her third career victory over Susaki---the only losses of Susaki's career on any level dating back to junior high school---winning 6-1 to earn her first trip to a World Championships.

Irie has been a recent thorn in Susaki's side, but the reigning world champion always came up with the big win needed to get to the major events. It was almost exactly a year ago that Susaki knocked off Irie in a playoff en route to defending her world title in Budapest.

And after pulling out of the Emperor's Cup due to an elbow injury, Susaki faced a must-win situation at the Meiji Cup to keep alive her hopes of appearing at Tokyo 2020. She did it in dramatic fashion, scoring a 4-point move with two seconds left to beat Irie 6-2 in the quarterfinals, before whipping Rio 2016 champion Eri TOSAKA in the final to set up the playoff.

This time, there would be no mistakes by Irie, and no miracle finish for Susaki.

In the first period, just after losing a point on the activity clock, Irie scored a takedown to take a 2-1 lead into the second period. With 1:20 left, she scored another takedown, then topped that off with a roll to make it 6-1, which is how it ended, leaving the 20-year-old Susaki in tears.

"There were so many people supporting me, my only feeling is that I have to apologize to them," Susaki said between sobs.

The 26-year-old Irie, who capped her gold-medal run at the Asian Championships in April in China with a victory over Rio 2016 bronze medalist SUN Yanan (CHN), has tradition on her side in a bid to medal in Nur-Sultan and clinch a Tokyo 2020 spot---Japan has made the podium in the lightest women's weight class at every World Championships dating back to 2005 except one (2009).

"The Olympic [berth] has still not been secured, so I'm happy, but first I have to focus on the World Championships," Irie said. "It will be my first World Championships, so I will prepare so I can fight without being nervous."

In other playoffs, Mao OKUI scored a dramatic upset over former world bronze medalist Yuhi FUJINAMI in freestyle 74kg, winning 5-4 with a takedown at the buzzer to earn his first trip to the World Championships.

Okui trailed 3-0 early in the second period, then twice got behind a standing Fujinami, only to fail to break him down to the mat for a takedown. Both times he executed a roll at the edge, but each one was ruled to have been launched out of bounds; the first gave Fujinami a point for an unsuccessful challenge and the other one for himself for a stepout.

Down 4-3 with 10 seconds left, a flurry starting with Okui's single-leg attempt ended with Fujinami, a 2017 world bronze medalist at 70kg, on all fours. At the buzzer, Okui pulled off a roll---this time well in bounds---that was confirmed by video to be in time.

"I thought, 'If I don't get it now, everything I've done up to now will have no meaning,' and I just went for the tackle," Okui said.

At the Meiji Cup, Okui scored a victory by fall in the semifinals over a less-than-par Fujinami, who was still recovering from a knee injury suffered at the Asian Championships and a back injury suffered a week before the tournament.

At freestyle 125kg, Nobuyoshi ARAKIDA spun behind off a front headlock for a late takedown and a 4-1 win over Yasuhiro YAMAMOTO to earn his fifth trip to the World Championships and first in five years.

That reversed the outcome of a playoff last year between the two that Yamamoto won by the same score.

Shohei YABIKU, a former world junior bronze medalist, will look for his first hardware on the senior level in three tries after defeating Naotsugu SHOJI by 9-0 technical fall at Greco-Roman 77kg.

Japan Wrestle-Offs

2nd Irie Knocks Off World Champion to Make Japan's World Team; Ota Gains 63kg Spot

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (July 21) --- For the second time in two weeks, a reigning world champion was knocked off Japan's team to this year's World Championships. And for the second time, the conqueror was a wrestler named Irie.

Nanami IRIE earned a place alongside older sister Yuki on the plane to Kazakhstan when she defeated Haruna OKUNO 3-1 in a playoff for the women's 55kg berth on the Japanese squad.

Irie, a former world junior and cadet champion, scored a takedown off a counter early in the second period and held on to beat Okuno, the 2018 world champion at 53kg who missed out on the world team in that weight class.

Meanwhile, Rio 2016 silver medalist Shinobu OTA showed he could handle the extra weight at Greco 63kg when he crushed national champion Yoshiki YAMADA by 11-0 technical fall as he eyes winning his first senior world medal.

The final round of playoffs were held in Tokyo in the non-Olympic weight classes, in which wrestlers who placed second in the two national qualifying tournaments in Olympic divisions were also eligible to enter.

On July 6, the wrestle-offs were held in the Olympic weight classes, in which Asian champion Yuki IRIE upended two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI at 50kg. That match was somewhat overshadowed by Risako KAWAI's victory over four-time Olympic gold medalist Kaori ICHO at 57kg.

There was added incentive to make the world team in the Olympic weight classes this year because the Japan federation ruled that any wrestler winning a medal in one of those divisions at the Nur-Sultan worlds will automatically clinch a place on the team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Nanami Irie had attempted to make the team at 53kg, but lost in the final of the All-Japan Championships last December to Mayu MUKAIDA---the 55kg world champion who moved down to the Olympic division and subsequently secured the berth at that weight.

Irie said she never would have tried to make the team at 55kg had sister Yuki not won her showdown with Susaki.

"I thought, I have to fight hard, too," Irie said. "I wanted to win here and go to the world championships with my sister. That's all I thought about."

Both Irie and Okuno defeated the third entry, world junior and U-23 champion Saki IGARASHI, handily before their clash in the round-robin format of the wrestle-offs, which were held on one of the six mats of the spacious wrestling room at the National Training Center. Only teammates, coaches, federation officials and a smattering of press were in attendance.

Irie gained a point in the first period with Okuno on the activity clock, then countered a single-leg takedown and went behind to make it 3-0. Okuno cut the gap to 3-1 with a stepout with :15 left, but Irie was never in real danger as she avenged a loss from the semifinals of the All-Japan Invitational Championships in June.

"In the match the other day, I was too impatient and gave up a bunch of points early," Irie said. "She has a good feint, and I was prepared not to fall for it. I kept in mind keeping my stance and to keep moving. I had an image of her going for a single-leg takedown and how I would stop it."

Okuno, who had beaten Irie in both of their previous meetings, might not have been as mentally sharp as possible. The consolation prize of the 55kg berth was not much incentive for her, and she said she only decided the previous day to even take part in the playoff.

"I had no intention of entering, I didn't want to enter," Okuno said. "Thinking I might want to do it at the last minute, my coach said I should just go ahead and submit the entry form. It was only yesterday that I decided to take part. Once I decided, mentally I was able to turn the switch back on and prepare for the match."

Looking back on the loss, Okuno commented: "She is strong at countering moves. I think she came up with the right strategy against me."

The 24-year-old Irie now has to prepare for handling the extra weight against the best in the world.

"In Japan, there's not such a big difference in terms of body size," Irie said. "Overseas, I feel on the small side even at 53kg. At 55kg, I feel really small. From now, I have to come up with a way to deal with it."

Shinobu OTA showed he could handle the extra weight at Greco 63kg when he crushed national champion Yoshiki YAMADA, 11-0. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Ota puts on impressive display at heavier weight

Ota's path to the 60kg berth was blocked by 2017 world champion Kenichiro FUMITA, his longtime training partner and rival who defeated him in both of the national tournaments.

That leaves Ota's only hope of making it to Tokyo 2020 being that Fumita fails to make the podium in Nur-Sultan. As long as there is a chance, he is determined to stay ready, and moving up to 63kg for the time being is part of the process.

"I thought it over from many angles," Ota said. "Whatever happens, when it comes to the Olympics, all I can do is wait for a result that's favorable to me. But I can't just wait around. To aim for the world title at 63kg is just staying prepared for what happens in the process for the Tokyo Olympics. I believed this was the best approach."

In his match against Yamada, Ota went ahead with an early takedown. Then when Yamada was put in the par-terre position, Ota put on an awesome display of raw power and technique.

Using a front headlock, he ripped off two rolls to make it 7-0. Then, keeping the same hold, he added the coup de grace with a powerful 4-point throw to end it with a technical fall at 1:58.

"This isn't my weight class, but I was given the chance to compete at the world championships at 63kg," Ota said. "For that purpose, I prepared diligently. Anyway, this year I will aim to become the champion at 63kg."

Ota had some compassion for Yamada, a current star at Ota's alma mater, Nippon Sport Science University, and with whom he has sparred in practice.

"He's someone I've always had a soft spot for, so I felt sorry to put his through this. I have total respect for him, and I had to go all out. I suppose I owe him a dinner."

Ota has already been successful internationally at 63kg, winning the Hungarian Grand Prix and finishing second at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov tournament earlier this year. He will face a major test this week when he heads to Belarus for the Oleg Karavaev Memorial.

Yudai TAKAHASHI earned the 79kg spot with after a 5-4 win over Yuta ABE. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

In other action, two high schoolers earned trips to the senior worlds with close victories, as Yudai TAKAHASHI held on for a 5-4 victory over Yuta ABE at freestyle 79kg and Yuzuka INAGAKI edged Yumeka TANABE 4-4 for the women's 59kg spot.

"It hasn't really sunk in yet," said Takahashi, who avenged a loss by technical fall to Abe at the All-Japan. "But to be able to compete, I'm very grateful and I will work hard leading up to the world championships."

Takahashi will be keeping busy. He has the national high school championship next week, then the World Junior Championships in August.

While there will two pairs of sisters heading to Nur-Sultan (Yukako KAWAI will join sister Risako along with the two Iries), a brother combination was thwarted when Kojiro SHIGA proved too strong for Daichi TAKATANI at freestyle 70kg.

Asian Games silver medalist Takatani, who failed to unseat world champion Takuto OTOGURO at 65kg, moved up to 70kg in an attempt to join older brother Sosuke, Japan's entry at 86kg, on the world team.

But Shiga, the silver medalist at the Asian Championships in April, was able to shut down Takatani's low single attempts and counter rolls to rally from a 6-4 deficit to win 15-8.

"I could feel that he had changed weight class," Shiga said. "I was cutting 5 kgs myself, so I felt the difference in body size, that I was bigger.

"He preceded me at [Takushoku] University and we had practiced together. So we know each other. I knew he was good at tackles, and I kept alert for that."

In the women's 72kg class, former two-time world junior champion Masako FURUICHI won out in a three-women playoff that saw the late withdrawal of high school phenom Yuka KAGAMI.

Kagami, who will compete at 72kg at the world junior championships, said she preferred to begin making the transition to the Olympic weight of 76kg. Two-time world bronze medalist Hiroe MINAGAWA filled that spot on the Japan team, but a failure to medal at Nur-Sultan would open the competition back up.

Japan National Team

57kg - Yuki TAKAHASHI
61kg -Kaiki YAMAGUCHI
65kg- Takuto OTOGURO
70kg - Kojiro SHIGA
74kg- Mao OKUI
79kg- Yudai TAKAHASHI
86kg- Sosuke TAKATANI
92kg -Tkuma OTSU
97kg -Naoya AKAGUMA
125 kg - Nobuyoshi ARAKIDA

55kg - Shota OGAWA
60kg - Kenichiro FUMITA
63kg - Shinobu OTA
67kg -  Shogo TAKAHASHI
72kg - Tomohiro INOUE
77kg - Shohei YABIKU
82kg - Yuya OKAJIMA
87kg - Masato SUMI
97kg - Yuta NARA
130kg - Arata SONODA

Women's Wrestling
50kg - Yuki IRIE
53kg - Mayu MUKAIDA
55kg - Nanami IRIE
57kg - Risako KAWAI
59kg - Yuzuka INAGAKI
62kg - Yukako KAWAI
65kg - Naomi RUIKE
68kg - Sara DOSHO
72kg - Masako FURUICHI
76kg - Hiroe MINAGAWA