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Japan Wrestling

Ishiguro Brushes Aside Rivals to Earn 1st Ticket to Senior Worlds

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (May 28) ---  In 2018, Hayato ISHIGURO became the first Japanese male to capture a world junior title in over three decades. The next year, he added a world U-23 bronze medal. On Friday, he earned his first shot at the big kids.

Ishiguro secured a place on Japan's team to this year's World Championships by taking the freestyle 86kg title at the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships on Friday in Tokyo.

Ishiguro scored a takedown and a 4-point move in the second period in posting a 7-1 victory in the final over Taisei MATSUYUKI to follow up on his title run at the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships in December.

The Emperor's Cup and Meiji Cup serve as domestic qualifiers for the World Championships, to be held in October in Oslo. Weight classes in which the winners of the two tournaments are different are decided by playoffs, which turned out to be the case in three of the eight divisions on Friday.

None of the 12 Japanese wrestlers who will appear at the Tokyo Olympics entered the qualifying process for the Oslo worlds, opening the door for young prospects like Ishiguro to make the step up to the senior global stage.

Ishiguro, bouncing back from a disappointing fifth-place finish at the Asian Championships in April in Almaty, avoided the playoff route with a solid run at spectator-less Komazawa Gym. Starting with a 9-3 victory over 2020 Asian champion Shutaro YAMADA, he advanced to the final with a 10-0 technical fall of 2019 Asian junior champion Tatsuya SHIRAI.

It all came in a tournament Ishiguro considered skipping beforehand, as well as dropping out midway through, due to problems with weight control.

"After the Asian Championships, I didn't put much thought into maintaining my weight," Ishiguro said. "I had to drop 8 or 9 kilograms all in one week. It had me worried, but I was able to put out a full effort."

Upon returning to Japan from Almaty, Ishiguro had to follow protocols and self-quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. He intended to work out in the single room doing core exercises and push-ups, but ended up "watching Netflix."

"Before the semifinal, I thought of defaulting, because I was feeling the effects of the weight loss and my legs were cramping," Ishiguro admitted. "I talked to my coach and my father and they said to just give it a shot and see what happens."

In Almaty, the luck of the draw matched Ishiguro with world and Olympic champion Hassan YAZDANI (IRI) in the second round, and while the Japanese put up resistance, he went down by technical fall.

That was expected. It was in the bronze-medal match against Mustafa AL OBAIDI (IRQ) that things went awry. As Ishiguro sprawled from a takedown attempt, Al Obaidi locked his arms from below, then twisted the Japanese over and onto his back for a stunning fall in 1:07.

There is speculation that that loss might be behind a new "look" that Ishiguro sported on Friday at Komazawa Gym -- he took the mat with a completely shaven head. Some wondered if it might be some sort of ascetic atonement for his performance in Almaty.

"I thought it could improve my footwork," Ishiguro said tongue-in-cheek when asked about it at the postmatch press conference. "The opponents looked a little scared."

Ishiguro, a two-time national collegiate champion now in his senior year at Nihon University, isn't sure he will keep the shiny dome in Oslo.

"I like it," he said. "but I'll listen to what other people think and decide for the World Championships. Most people don't like it."

Ishiguro competed in Almaty alongside his older brother Takashi ISHIGURO, who won a bronze medal at 97kg. Takashi will aim to join Hayato in Oslo as well when he looks to add to his Emperor's Cup title on Sunday.

Yuta NARA defeated Emperor's Cup champion Masayuki AMANO, 3-1, in a 97kg playoff and earned his fourth berth to the World Championships. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation)

Nara grabs 5th title, world team spot in playoff
In other action, Yuta NARA bounced back from the disappointment of failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics at both the Asian and world qualifiers by taking his fifth straight title at Greco 97kg, then winning a playoff to earn a fourth career trip to the World Championships.

Nara scored all of his points in the second period in beating Yuri NAKAZATO 6-1 in the final. He then came back for the world playoff an hour or so later and defeated Emperor's Cup champion Masayuki AMANO 3-1.

"The time you have for a wrestling career is limited," Nara said when asked why he entered the tournament so soon after the Olympic qualifiers. "Also, I feel that I'm the one carrying this weight class for Japan."

Nara has dominated the weight class in recent years. He had not lost a domestic match in it since 2016 when he was dealt a stunning defeat in the semifinals at the 2020 Emperor's Cup to Masaaki SHIKIYA, who then lost to Amano in the final.

The other playoff winners were in freestyle, Jintaro MOTOYAMA at 70kg and Masaki SATO at 74kg.

For Motoyama, the 2019 world junior silver medalist and 2018 world U-23 bronze medalist, his playoff victory over Ayumu SUZUKI avenged a loss to the fellow collegian earlier in the day.

Suzuki forged out a 6-4 win over Motoyama in the quarterfinals en route to winning the gold by beating Hirotaka ABE 6-3 in the final.

But Motoyama took his game up a notch in the playoff, scoring four stepouts in building up an 8-0 first-period lead before going on to win 10-1.

Sato's road to Oslo meant beating Emperor's Cup champion Kirin KINOSHITA twice, and he did it by the narrowest of margins.

First Sato won the Meiji Cup gold with a 2-2 win in the final, with his second-period takedown trumping the two single points scored by Kinoshita. Then in the playoff, a second-period takedown gave Sato a 2-1 win and the ticket to Oslo.

At 70kg, the spotlight was more on the return of Taishi NARIKUNI, a former collegiate champion who has competed just twice -- back in 2019 -- since being hit with a two-year doping ban in 2017 after a doctor mistakenly prescribed a cold medication containing a banned substance.

After starting off with a fall, Narikuni saw his dreams of making it to the World Championships shattered with a come-from-behind 8-3 loss to Abe in the semifinals. A late stepout put him behind before a failed throw attempt in desperation gave Abe his final points.

It was reminiscent of his loss at the Emperor's Cup in 2019, where he wrestled at 74kg because it was the first domestic qualifier linked to the Tokyo Olympics.

"It was the same at the Tokyo Olympic qualifier, at the end I lost the same way," he said. "At the 5-minute mark, I was the one attacking, only to be pushed out for the decisive point. It's a waste and shameful to lose the same way."

Narikuni came back to win the bronze medal by fall over Hidetaka SAKANO, but the damage was done.

"It's like it wasn't worth coming, it was so shameful," Narikuni said. "After the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers, I have been aiming for the World Championships for the past 1 1/2 years. I think I put more into this than I did for the Tokyo Olympics."

Narikuni won national collegiate titles in both freestyle and Greco-Roman in 2017 while at Aoyama Gakuin University. He has a goal of achieving the rare feat of winning world titles in both styles -- a sort of Shohei Ohtani of wrestling, referring to the Japanese baseball star who is a rarity by being both a pitcher and a slugger.

Upon graduating, Narikuni became a staff member at the Gold Kids wrestling club in Tokyo run by his mother, a two-time world champion under her maiden name of Akiko IIJIMA. As for what lies ahead, he's still too stunned to think about it.

"My goal was to win the title, win the playoff, then win the world title," Narikuni said. "There were nearly 100 people backing me up from Gold Kids, and I have a real sense of loss. My mind is a blank right now, I can't think of anything."

Reminded that the World Championships are held every year so it won't be long until the next one, he replied, "That's what everyone around me says. But inside, I really can't think of anything. I had only thought of this tournament."

Akie HANAI snuck past Yumeka TANABE by one point in the 59kg gold-medal match. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation)

There was one women's title up for grabs, which went to 2019 world junior champion Akie HANAI after edging Yumeka TANABE 2-1 in the 59kg final, with all of the points coming on the activity clock.

Combined with her Emperor's Cup victory, it gives Hanai a place on her first senior world team. She missed out on a first appearance at the Asian Championships in April when Japan withdrew its women's team due to contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.

In the semifinals, Tanabe scored a last-gasp victory by fall over fellow 2019 world U-23 champion Yuzuka INAGAKI. Trailing 3-2 in the final minute, Tanabe used a nifty inside leg hook to trip Inagaki backwards, then clamped down for the fall.

Japan Wrestling

Takahashi Tops Rio Silver Medalist Higuchi in Playoff for Olympic 57kg Ticket

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO---The message from his wife on the handkerchief  tucked away in his singlet impelled Yuki TAKAHASHI to be confident and assured him "it was going to be a good day." How right she was.

Takahashi came up with the win he had waited for his entire life--the one that earned him an Olympic ticket--by defeating 2016 Rio Olympics silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI 4-2 in a wrestle-off Saturday for Japan's freestyle 57kg spot at the Tokyo Games.

Takahashi, the 2017 world champion, filled the Olympic spot he himself had secured at the final world qualifying tournament just over a month ago after scoring a 2-point counter exposure with a minute to go to defeat Higuchi in the special match held at Tokyo's Ajinomoto National Training Center.

"He's the Rio silver medalist and I know he's a strong wrestler," the 27-year-old Takahashi said. "To me, I was the one who got the Olympic berth [for Japan] and making it mine was another step in the process. I didn't want to waste the chance."

Under strict coronavirus protocols with Tokyo still in a third state of emergency, only about 20 people were present at the match in the NTC wrestling room, not unlike the final gladiator fight scene between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in Spartacus. The match was livestreamed on Facebook, with a online press conference on Zoom held afterwards.

The match had originally been scheduled to be held on the final day of the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in late May, but was pushed back as Takahashi had gone through a two-week quarantine upon returning from the final world qualifier in Sofia, Bulgaria.

"I'm more relieved than anything," Takahashi said. "After I got back from the world qualifying tournament, the date [of the playoff] wasn't decided and it made me anxious and things remained tense. I had to maintain my weight that I had just done [in Sofia].

"Anyway, there's only 1 1/2 months until the Olympics. I'll take a little rest, then change gears and do what I have to so I have no regrets."

In the match, Takahashi gained the only point of an action-less first period with an activity point, then added another in the second period for a 2-0 lead.

"In the first period, I was hoping to get a takedown, but I got an activity point with my aggressiveness," Takahashi said. "I was able to control the flow like I wanted."

As Takahashi was being awarded his second point, Higuchi got in on a single leg in the first true shot of the match, which he finished off with 1:43 to go to move ahead 2-2 on criteria.

"The first time he got my leg, and I could get a sense of his strength," Takahashi said. "That was at around two minutes [to go], but I didn't think I would lose. He went for a tackle and I thought, 'If I can turn him, I'll turn him, if I can't, I'll get points from standing.' I never thought I was in any danger."

 

Yuki TAKAHASHI (JPN) exposes Rei HIGUCHI for two points during Saturday's 57kg special wrestle-off. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation)

Higuchi remained the aggressor and again secured a single leg near the edge. But Takahashi was able to flatten out his opponent and, reaching over and grabbing a leg, levered him over for a 2-point exposure to go up 4-2 with 1:03 left. That's how it ended.

"Wrestling is six minutes and you never know what is going to happen, you can't let up from start to finish," said the 25-year-old Higuchi, who dropped to the mat in despair after the match. "I don't know what left me a step behind. I was able to do my attacking style of wrestling."

Following the match, Takahashi immediately called his wife, Sayaka, who was watching with Takahashi's parents and brother at their home in Yamanashi, a city 100 kilometers west of Tokyo where he is currently coach of his alma mater, Yamanashi Gakuin University.

"She was half-crying, half-ecstatic," said Takahashi, who credits her and his family for their moral support during the tough times when he thought his Olympic dream had been over.

"Seeing them happy makes me happy. Without them, I wouldn't be here. I wanted to thank them...although it's not over yet. There is the wall of getting to the Olympics, the wall of getting a medal and the wall of winning the gold medal. I am over the first wall."

Takahashi later showed the media a handkerchief that Sayaka had made for him bearing a drawing of him with the Olympic rings, and messages from her and the rest of his family such as "Do as you always do!" and "Go, go, go Yuki! Grab the future!"

"With the writing on it, I thought I might not be able to use it because it isn't white," Takahashi joked.

The victory came nearly two years after Takahashi, also a world bronze medalist in 2018, came up short in his first attempt at clinching an Olympic spot, which he could have done by winning a medal at the 2019 World Championships in Nur-Sultan.

Instead, a 10th-place finish left the door open for others to enter the picture, which is what Higuchi did. After an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the 65kg spot from 2018 world champion Takuto OTOGURO---although he did win a world U-23 gold at that weight--- Higuchi went through the grueling process of dropping back down to 57kg, a struggle that cost him dearly at one point.

Higuchi took a huge step forward when he defeated Takahashi at the All-Japan Championships in December 2019, which earned him the right to enter the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament.

Then the global pandemic hit, and the saga took an unexpected twist. The one-year delay in the Tokyo Olympics and the qualifiers only made it harder for Higuchi, who had not wrestled at 57kg since the Rio Games and was constantly fighting a battle with the scale.

"That has always been the biggest issue for me," Higuchi said. "I'm a bit bigger than those in the world of 57kg. I did a lot of research into weight loss and hired a trainer, and talked with other wrestlers and friends. I would never have been able to do it on my own."

At the Asian qualifier in Almaty in April, disaster struck. Higuchi stunned Japan and the wrestling world when he failed to make weight as a prohibitive favorite at 57kg. It might not have been a slam dunk, but with just nine entries, the odds were certainly in his favor.

The Japan federation opted to dispatch Takahashi, the 2020 All-Japan champion, in Higuchi's place to the world qualifier. He lived up to the expectations, emerging from the field of 23 as one of the two finalists to clinch the berth for Japan and set up the playoff with Higuchi.

Before the Rio Olympics, the two went through almost the same scenario. Takahashi suffered a shocking third-round loss of the 2015 All-Japan to an unheralded wrestler, and Higuchi went on to take the title. He then won the Asian Olympic qualifier to earn the ticket to Rio, where he took the silver.

"That was a disappointment, but I was able to put it behind me," said Takahashi, who added he wants to lead by example as a coach. "If you don't give up, it will produce results. That is what I want to show."

As for Higuchi, he remains unsure what the future holds.

"The Tokyo Olympics are over for me," Higuchi said. "With all of the weight loss, I've been through a dark time. I will take some time to refresh myself mentally, get my thoughts in order and decide what to do."