Japan Wrestling

Homebound for Now, Susaki Never Wavers from Revived Quest for Olympic Gold

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO -- Having seen her Olympic dream all but crushed, and then suddenly revived through a twist of fate over which she had no control, Yui SUSAKI (JPN) knows she must take advantage of whatever opportunities life throws her way. 

And if she has to wait another year to achieve her goal at the Tokyo Olympics, then she is going to look for the silver lining in the delay of her quest for gold. 

"This is the first time for me to be away from wrestling for so long," Susaki said in an interview by email. "I really want to wrestle again as soon as possible. Even so, there is also the plus side that I can use this time to do image training while watching videos, and put together a training regimen for the parts where I am weakest."

In what area Susaki, who will turn 21 on June 30, has a weakness, or if she has any at all, might be up for debate, but the two-time senior world champion in the women's 50kg class does not want any more missteps along the way. Like the majority of the sports world, Susaki has spent the past month training at home, preparing for the day when she can get back on the mat. 

There is a possibility that the National Training Center might be reopened following the lifting of the nationwide state of emergency by the Japanese government, but as of this writing, a definite date had not yet been decided. Susaki also cannot train at Waseda University, where she is a student and which has been closed since March. 

So, limited to keeping in shape at her home in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, Susaki said she goes through two workouts a day of about an hour each. She runs three to five kilometers and exercises or weight trains in a local park or at home. 

She does get a chance for some wrestling-oriented training. Her older sister Mai joins Yui to work on takedowns. Like their father Yasuhiro, Mai wrestled at Waseda, and once finished third at the Klippan Lady Open. "On the weekends when my sister is not working, we train together with takedown drills," Susaki said.

The family reunions are a welcome bonus as they deal with the societal effects of the crisis, which means an absence of contact with friends and teammates. For Susaki, it is the longest she has spent time with her family since she left home in the second year of junior high school to join the Japan Olympic Committee Elite Academy.

"To spend so much time with my whole family is really a fresh feeling and I'm really happy," Susaki said. "The time is so valuable. They look forward to seeing me perform on big stages like the Olympics and World Championships, and are with me through their support. This really hit me as we spend so much time together. My determination [for success] is also for my family."

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) starts each match off in her patented low-level stance. (Photo: Kadir Caliskan)

In between her training sessions, Susaki participates in online classes at Waseda, where she is enrolled in the Faculty of Sports Sciences, which includes among its professors two-time Olympic freestyle medalist Akira OTA (JPN). It was significant that Susaki opted to follow in the family footsteps and enroll in Waseda instead of going to wrestling powerhouse Shigakkan University. 

Shigakkan, previously known as Chukyo Women's University, has produced every Japanese Olympian in women's wrestling since it was added to the Olympic program at Athens 2004. That includes such luminaries as Saori YOSHIDA (JPN) and Kaori ICHO (JPN), and current stars Risako KAWAI (JPN) and Sara DOSHO (JPN), who will aim to defend the Olympic titles they won at Rio 2016. 

Under the assumption that the Tokyo Olympics will be held as rescheduled in summer 2021, Shigakkan's monopoly will end as world 76kg silver medalist Hiroe MINAGAWA (JPN), who competed collegiately at Ritsumeikan University, has already clinched her place on the Japan squad.

For Susaki to join her, she needs to first secure a place at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament, currently set for Xi'an, China, in March 2021. At the time that she won the 50kg title at the All-Japan Championships in December last year to earn the right to enter the qualifier, she had two months to prepare. Little did she or anyone else know that it would stretch to 15 months after first being moved out of China then postponed altogether. 

"It was very difficult to prepare myself for the competition under the circumstances where we didn't know if it would be held or not,"  Susaki said. "When it was postponed a year, I thought about the positive side, as it gives me another year to get stronger. From now, I will get stronger."

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) celebrates after defeating rival Yuki IRIE (JPN). (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

A 0.01 Percent Chance
That Susaki will be taking the mat in Xi'an, barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances, is a testament to the unpredictability of sports. 

Susaki's Olympic dream appeared to be shattered when she lost a playoff to nemesis Yuki IRIE (JPN) for a place on the team to the World Championships in Nur-Sultan last September. That held major significance, as an expected medal in the Kazakh capital would have clinched a place at the Tokyo Olympics for Irie, the only wrestler in the world who has beaten Susaki since elementary school. 

But Irie suffered a heartbreaking 13-12 loss in the quarterfinals to Rio 2016 bronze medalist SUN Yanan (CHN). Then, more significantly for Susaki and her fans around the globe, Sun was beaten by eventual champion Mariya STADNIK (AZE) in the semifinals--knocking Irie out of a place in the repechage and a chance for a bronze medal. 

Susaki had continued practicing, taking to heart her coach Shoko YOSHIMURA's words that "if there is still a 0.01 percent chance, you have to keep fighting."

"I had practice at the time, so I didn't see the match between Sun Yanan and Irie in real time," Susaki said. "I did see the match between Sun Yanan and Mariya Stadnik."

That unlocked the door to the Olympics, but to open it up, she first had to make it to the Asian qualifier. And to do that, she had to beat Irie--and Rio 2016 gold medalist Eri TOSAKA (JPN), for that matter--which she did with a razor-thin 2-1 victory in the final at the All-Japan, also known as the Emperor's Cup.

 "I went into the match against Irie at the Emperor's Cup regarding myself as the 'challenger'," Susaki said, adding that she told herself, "'This is your last chance. Definitely make this yours and get to the Tokyo Olympics.' That feeling was so strong. 

"When I lost in the playoff, I was confused and lost confidence in myself. But making use of that time, I was able to compete confidently at the Emperor's Cup, for all of the people who believed in me and supported me as well as myself."

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) celebrates with her coach after winning her second consecutive senior-level world title. (Photo: Gabor Martin)

Success Comes Early, Often
Her Olympic aspirations began burning not long after Susaki started wrestling as an elementary school first-grader at the local Matsudo Junior Wrestling School. By third grade, she had her first age-group national title and began dreaming of emulating Yoshida and win an Olympic gold.

The next year in 2009, she lost in the fourth-grade 26kg final to future world junior champion Saki IGARASHI (JPN)--Susaki would not lose again until 2015--but came back to take the national crowns in fifth grade and sixth grade. 

Success continued in junior high school, where she won both of the major national titles all three years and never tasted defeat. She also made her mark on the global stage, winning cadet titles at the Klippan Lady Open three years in a row, and the first of three consecutive world cadet golds. 

In her second year of junior high school, she was recruited to join the JOC Elite Academy under Yoshimura, a former five-time world champion who still mentors her today. 

Asked what sets Susaki apart from other top wrestlers, Yoshimura said, "The skill and physical strength to achieve a goal cannot be gained without having the will. Since she has a strong will and the energy, she can increase the amount of practice, effort, and training. She thinks of a methodology for applying various things to wrestling."

Moving on to high school, Susaki followed up her victory at the 2015 world cadet by making the final in her debut at the Emperor's Cup. In the gold-medal match, she was dealt the first of three career losses by Irie, who rolled to a 10-0 technical fall. That ended an 83-match winning streak dating back to her first year of junior high school and not including elementary school, although she came back the next year to win her first All-Japan title.

In 2017, she made the jump directly from cadet world champion to senior world champion, winning the 48kg gold in Paris, which made her the first high schooler to win a world title since Icho in 2002. That year began and ended in vastly different ways, as she won at the Yarygin Grand Prix in her senior debut, but lost to Irie in the Emperor's Cup semifinal, snapping a 63-match winning streak.

Entering Waseda in April 2018, she beat Irie at the All-Japan Invitational Championships, then again in a playoff to earn a ticket to that year's World Championships in Budapest, where she manhandled Stadnik in the 50kg final for her second straight gold. That victory came a little over a month after she added a world junior title to her collection.  

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) smiles after a win at the '19 Women's Wrestling World Cup. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

The Joy of Wrestling
In the video of her rout of Stadnik, the American commentator made this observation of Susaki: "She absolutely loves wrestling. When you see her wrestle, she smiles, she's really enjoying it, she's having fun, she's relaxed out there."

Asked if this was an accurate assessment, Susaki confirmed that it was. 

"Yes, it's accurate," she said. "I really love wrestling and always enjoy being in a match. It's fun for me when I get the most out of my abilities to win a gold medal at the World Championships or I defeat a powerful opponent. 

"I get nervous before a match, but I know the effort I made preparing for the match, and how hard I practiced for the purpose of winning. I go into the match in the spirit that, 'I know I am OK. Now just put everything into enjoying the match.'"

Susaki's fierce determination and bubbly personality has endeared her to fans both at home and abroad. Given the chance to address her international fans in this UWW story, Susaki wanted to convey her gratitude for their support, and encourage them to continue efforts to overcome the pandemic.

"I am very happy to all my fans around the world and am grateful from the bottom of my heart," she said. "They encourage me when I lose, and they share the joy when I win. Thanks to all of the fans, I have able to do my best. 

"Right now, the coronavirus has caused a serious crisis around the world. We can all pull together to get through this and look forward to the day when we can wrestle again and have matches again. I'm going to do everything I can to make progress and again give everyone a good show on the world stage."

Japan Wrestling

Pedigreed Pakistani aims to revive illustrious family legacy via Japan

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO, Japan (March 21) -- The quest started from a bond formed over a half-century ago in a pro wrestling match and meant leaving the comfort of home and traveling 6,000 kilometers to a country where he did not speak the language, to train in a sport he had never done.

But when Haroon ABID (PAK) accepted the challenge to move to Japan as a teenager to become a wrestler, he was not acting in self-interest. It became a mission to revive a family legacy in the sport that dates back centuries.

"The reason that I came to Japan was to regain the name of my family members because we had a long history," Abid said in a recent interview in the wrestling room at collegiate powerhouse Nippon Sports Science University, where he is finishing up his senior year and has found remarkable success despite his late start in wrestling.

"But it is old, people have forgotten it. So I want to be the key that people still remember us."

In his four years at NSSU (referred to locally as "Nittaidai") from 2018-2021, Abid finished second or third every year at either of the two national collegiate championships at freestyle 97kg or 125kg. He even dabbled in Greco-Roman, finishing as runner-up at 97kg in 2019.

"In terms of natural ability, he has what it takes," said NSSU head coach Shingo MATSUMOTO, who won nine straight national Greco titles from 1999 to 2007. "If he didn't, he wouldn't have achieved what he did. He was in a Japanese training environment and that led to his progress in high school and college."

As laudable as his achievements are, for the 22-year-old Lahore native, the ultimate way to restore the family to prominence is to get to the Olympics, and ideally, win a medal. Pakistan has not had a wrestling entry at the Olympics since 1996, and its lone medal was won in 1960.

ABIDHaroon ABID (PAK) gets in on a tackle against Aiaal LAZAREV (KGZ) in the repechage round of the Asian Olympic Qualifiers at 125kg. (Photo: UWW)

Abid had a shot at making last year's Tokyo Olympics, but circumstances linked to the pandemic left him less than prepared, plus he agreed to yield the Pakistan spot at 97kg for the Asian qualifier to veteran teammate Muhammad IMAM (PAK) and competed at 125kg instead. He dropped back down to 97kg for the tougher World Olympic Qualifier but lost his first match.

"I was not properly trained for those," Abid said. "Because of corona [COVID-19] and all, the training was closed at Nittaidai. We were not allowed to go out of our dorms, so were stuck in the rooms. So I didn't have much time.

"The Olympics is not a little dream, a lot of people have that dream in their mind. It's not that easy, you don't train for a few months and go and participate. I was not well prepared, but I tried my best in the time I had."

Time spent going to Pakistan ahead of the qualifiers also put him behind in his classes at NSSU, and he will not be graduating with his class later this month. But his path to qualifying for Paris 2024 is clear, as he recently signed a deal with the Japan pro-wrestling circuit Noah that will allow him to continue to train full-time at NSSU, which has a spacious campus with top-notch facilities in suburban Yokohama, 40 minutes by train and bus southwest of Tokyo.

"I think it's good at the start because right now, they gave me permission to do wrestling," Abid said. "I don't have to go there and train. I just have to come here [to NSSU]. It's more of a sponsorship. And they gave me the chance, if you want to do pro wrestling in the future, you can do it. It's my choice. That's really nice of them."

ABIDHaroon ABID (PAK) poses with Narihiro TAKEDA, director of CyberFight, the parent company of Pro Wrestling Noah, to announce his signing a post-graduation contract with Noah. (Photo: ©Noah) 

Chance of a lifetime

Nothing could have prepared Abid for the chance of a lifetime that came his way when he was 14.

A diligent student at the prestigious Bloomfield Hall School in Lahore, he was looking toward a career in business and perhaps following his father into money exchange and real estate.

Instead, his career path veered toward that of his revered ancestors.

Abid had grown up hearing the tales of his great-grandfather Imam BAKSH, a great champion and brother of Gulam BAKSH, who earned the title "The Great Gama." Both were unbeaten superstars in the early 20th century who defeated all-comers both at home and abroad in matches fought on the sand. They moved from India to Pakistan after the partition in 1947.

"It's called pro wrestling, but it was actual wrestling," Abid said. "It was not decided who was going to win and lose. The strong one is going to win. So they were training so hard for that."

Imam Baksh had five sons who kept up the family tradition in wrestling in the next generation. One would have a match that would change the course of a future grandson of one of his brothers.

In the 1970s, pro wrestling was flourishing in Japan and the biggest star was Antonio INOKI, a giant with a jutting jaw who would later become world famous for a special match in the ring against boxing legend Mohammad ALI.

In 1976, Inoki fought and won a special-rules match with Abid's great-uncle Akram PAHALWAN, whose glory days were already well behind him. Watching that match was a teenaged Zubair JHARA -- Abid's uncle -- who vowed to avenge the loss. Three years later, he did just that in a match in Pakistan.

InokiHaroon ABID (PAK), right, with Japan's pro-wrestling great Antonio INOKI, sitting, and Abid's father.

Fast forward four decades and Inoki, who had served several terms in the Japanese Diet while continuing his pro wrestling career, was visiting Pakistan to promote a sports friendship festival.

While there, he decided to look up his old friend and rival Jhara. When he learned that this iconic wrestling family had not had anybody in the sport for nearly three decades, Inoki made a generous offer -- he would cover the expenses for a family member to come to Japan for school and to become a wrestler.

But who would it be?

Abid was athletic, but had only limited exposure to sports, mainly in team sports like cricket, basketball and soccer. He had never taken part in any kind of combat sport.

"I knew that my family belonged to a wrestling background, but it was all finished, so I was not doing that much sports at that time," Abid said. "I was just studying and all that stuff.

"I was interested in wrestling because I had a wrestling background, but around me, none of our family members were doing it. I used to watch WWE and used to watch Olympic wrestling, too. But I was not doing anything."

And yet he became the Chosen One.

"He asked somebody to meet some member of the family, and I don't know for what reason he picked me," Abid said. "I can't tell, why me? Because I was not doing sports at that time. No gym, no sports, nothing. I was just a normal teenager. I'm so thankful that he chose me, but I don't know the reason behind that."

Abid was not rushed into the decision and was flown over to Japan to see what it was like. He had been planning to study abroad anyway, so being away from home was not an issue. His father, who had wrestled but never at a high level, favored his going, but with a caveat.

"He said, 'If you go into it, you have to go all in it. It's not like you can go halfway then you leave. It's not like that,'" Abid said. "So I was thinking about it and I saw that my family was happy, so I thought I should give it a try because of that. I have a passion, too, that I wanted to do that."

ABIDHaroon ABID (PAK) has the upper hand in the 120kg match of the team final of the national high school invitational championships in March 2017, helping Nittadai Kashiwa win the title. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation)

New life in Japan

Although he came over to Japan to start a wrestling career. Abid actually spent his first year learning judo instead.

Inoki had a connection with Nippon Sports Science University, so it was arranged that he would go to one of its affiliated high schools, Nittaidai Ebara in Tokyo. The only problem was that it did not have a wrestling team. So he learned judo as he endured culture shocks that included his first experience of living in a dormitory.

"The place where I was staying in my school when I came, it had like eight people to a room," he said. "And we used the same bathroom... I had to wait for the last member to take a shower. I was like, what did I get myself into? But it was nice, it was a good experience. It's good to have new friends."

He also took to the new sport, enough so that when another Nittaidai-affiliated high school in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, started a wrestling team, the Ebara coach tried to get him to stay.

"Judo was also a really good experience. My coach at that time, Kokubo-sensei, told me that you can stay with us. We will give you all of the expenses. At the time, Inoki-san was supporting me. He said I can leave him and we will support you if you want to do judo. And he used to tell me that judo was more famous in Japan.

"But I came here for wrestling, so I had to shift."

Abid recalled that his first impression of Japan was that it was nothing like he had imagined. Coming from an upper-middle-class family in Pakistan, he did not expect just how compact a sprawling city like Tokyo can be.

"Japan is such a well-known place, so I thought there would be big homes. But when I came, they sleep on the floor, they were so humble. I was like, damn, it was the opposite of what I thought Japan would be.

"Now I am used to it, but it was completely different than I had thought. There were big buildings, but I thought there would be robots and all. [And] everyone uses the train in Japan, so you can't judge who is rich or poor. That's the nice part of Japan."

For his second year of high school, Abid made the move to Kashiwa, which had newer facilities and the dorm only had four to a room. The sport-oriented school also had more foreign students, which made it easier for him to adjust.

"It was a good school," he said. "It was clean; Ebara was clean, too, but Kashiwa was like new beds and all that stuff, so it was a good place to study. The competition was very good, too. "

Abid said it took him six or seven months to achieve a passable level of Japanese, which became a necessity in one aspect.

"For me, I'm a Muslim, so I can't eat pork and I have to tell people, I can't eat this, I can't eat that, so I had to learn really fast. That was the reason I learned Japanese really fast."

He also made rapid progress in wrestling. In just his second year in the sport, he finished third at 120kg at both the national invitational high school championships and the Inter-High tournament, both of which had over 45 entries in his weight class. For good measure, he took the silver medal at Greco 120kg in the high school division at the National Games.

Abid chalks his success up to more than good genes. "I had a really good partner," he said. "He was from Mongolia, and he was also 125. So I got used to training with heavy guys. That was a really plus point for me. And that guy was strong, too, he was also an Inter-high champion. So I had the confidence that I was training with this guy and taking points, too. That's why I could [do well]."

In all three tournaments, he was defeated by Yuri NAKAZATO (JPN), who would become his teammate at NSSU and last December placed second at the senior All-Japan Championships at Greco 97kg. Abid is not eligible to take part in the All-Japan.

ABIDHaroon ABID (PAK) is aiming to get to Paris 2024 and become the first wrestler from Pakistan to make the Olympics since 1996. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation)

Overcoming nerves

With eyes on Paris 2024, Abid is still looking for his first victory over a non-Japanese opponent outside of Japan.

Aside from facing foreign opponents from other schools in Japan, Abid was poised to face global competition for the first time at the Asian Junior Championships in 2018 in New Delhi.

But he was unable to get a visa to enter his ancestral homeland, and his international debut was pushed back to the same tournament the next year in Chonburi, Thailand.

In Chonburi, he lost his opening match in the quarterfinals at freestyle 97kg to Zyyamuhammet SAPAROV (TKM), then the bronze-medal match to Arslanbek TURDUBEKOV (KGZ).

In 2021, he was dealt a succession of first-round losses: to Lkhagvagerel MUNKHTUR (MGL) in the qualification round at 125kg in the Asian Olympic qualifier (followed by a repechage loss to Aiaal LAZAREV (KGZ)); to Minwon SEO (KOR) at 97kg at the Asian Championships; and to Timofei XENIDIS (GRE) at 97kg the World Olympic qualifier.

"He has continually been improving," NSSU coach Matsumoto said. "During the pandemic, he could not leave Pakistan for an extended period during Tokyo Olympic qualifying. If he has an environment in which he can continually train and prepare, he will become stronger and look ahead to the next competition."

No doubt the pandemic had an effect by curtailing his preparation. But there is another reason for his lack of success, as well as his failure to win a major collegiate title at NSSU. Granted, he made plenty of podiums, but, save for a victory at the spring newcomers tournament in his freshman year, he never ascended to the highest step.

For Abid, who said his next tournament will likely be the Asian Games in China in September, every match is as much a battle against nerves as an opponent.

"In matches, I'm not as good as in practice," he said. "I don't know why, I can't say I'm still at the start, it's been seven years I've been wrestling. But I need more competitions so I can gain more confidence."

Looking back at his first international outing in Thailand, he said, "I was prepared well, but the pressure was immense. It was not me on the mat. I couldn't move properly like I could in the training because it was my first international match.

"My family was looking at me, and there were all different people around me. I wasn't scared, but I was a bit under pressure. I would have gotten a medal in that [tournament], but after that match, I thought I really need to work hard."

ABIDHaroon ABID (PAK) has had success at Greco-Roman in Japan. Here he battles Yamanashi Gakuin University's Bakhdaulet ALMENTAY (KAZ) in the 97kg final of national collegiate championships in October 2019. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation)

Abid points to two matches that he said helped boost his confidence. Ironically, both were in Greco, which he decided to do because it gives him a chance to enter more tournaments. It was how he held his own against expectations that makes the encounters --- one was even a defeat -- so significant.

Back in 2019, Abid made the final of the national collegiate Greco championships with a semifinal victory over Takashi ISHIGURO (JPN), who last year won the senior national and was an Asian bronze medalist title at freestyle 97kg.

"Everyone was telling me he's strong and I beat him," Abid said. "And it was a good point-difference [6-0], so that match really gave me a boost.

In the final, he would fall to Bakhdaulet ALMENTAY (KAZ), who went undefeated in his career at rival Yamanashi Gakuin University. Almentay would also defeat Abid in one freestyle final.

"I didn't beat him, but it was a good match between us, you couldn't tell who would win," he said. "Even though it was in Greco, when I came back from the match, I had gained that confidence of being among the best in Japan, and I could be that good."

It's an attitude that would make his ancestors proud. Now he has to back it up with deeds on the mat, and he's determined to fulfill his quest. Getting to Paris 2024 would make him the first Pakistani wrestler at an Olympics since Mohammad BHALA competed at the 1996 Atlanta Games at freestyle 90kg.

The Southeast Asian nation's lone Olympic wrestling medal came in Rome in 1960 with Mohamed BASHIR's bronze at freestyle 73kg, and it has not had a world medalist since winning two bronzes in 1959.

"I'm definitely going to be the Olympics at Paris 2024," Abid declared. "I have that confidence right now. For sure, I'm going to be in that match. For sure."