Japan Wrestling

Japan Holds 1st National-Level Tournament Since Feb. as High Schoolers Take Mat

By Ken Marantz

NIIGATA, Japan---The loudest sounds came from the referees' whistles, even though they were blown behind plastic face shields. Other than shouts from the coaches in the corners, the only encouragement was from teammates in the stands in voices muted by obligatory masks.

Japan took another small step forward toward normalcy in the pandemic era, cautiously and optimistically holding its first national-level tournament since February with the three-day Kazama Cup National High School Invitational Championships Oct 9-11.

Protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were firmly in place as over 300 of the top second- and third-year high schoolers converged on the port city of Niigata for the tournament which had been originally scheduled for March---and had one point been canceled outright.

But less than a month ago, as restrictions on sports and other large-scale events began easing, the Niigata Prefecture wrestling federation stepped up and took up the challenge of hosting what will likely act as a template for tournaments in the near future.

A referee wearing a face shield keeps an eye on the action. (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)A referee wearing a face shield keeps an eye on the action. (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)

"My feeling is, 'The wait is finally over,'" said Yoshihiko HARA, vice-chairman of the tournament organizing committee on what it was like to finally see the event, which included separate team and invidividual competitions, actually being held.

"We need one month to prepare, but it got pushed back another week and we had to wait until there was only three weeks before it was decided. In the first week of September, the Niigata Prefecture government vastly eased the restrictions and we were able to become the host."

The Kazama Cup is one of three tournaments making up the high school "triple crown" for boys, along with the Inter-High and the National Games (Kokutai). With the latter two canceled for good, national wrestling officials wanted to give the outgoing seniors a final goal to strive for.

"For the 3rd-year students, this is their final tournament," Japan Wrestling Federation Vice-President Hideaki TOMIYAMA said. "They had nothing because the Inter-high and Kokutai weren't held. It's good they have one."

Tomiyama denied the suggestion that the federation might be pulling the trigger too soon and pressing to hold the event.

Everyone entering the facility had their temperature automatically taken. (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)Everyone entering the facility had their temperature automatically taken. (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)

"Looking at other sports, the pro sports have gradually been allowing spectators back in," he said, referring to Japan's leading pro sports of sumo, baseball and soccer. "First of all, you have to move forward. As long as you prepare thoroughly and take firm countermeasures, it can be done."

There was also a precedent of sorts, as Niigata last month hosted the national collegiate championships in athletics.

"Before this, there was a national college track and field meet and the restrictions were very tough," said Hara, a Niigata native and former five-time national freestyle champion and two-time Olympian. "The athletes and coaches weren't allowed to leave their hotels and had to submit a written pledge. It had 1,300 athletes."

Allaying local fears
While Niigata city, located on the Sea of Japan coast about 250 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, has a population of 810,000, the prefecture of the same name in which it sits is a mix of rural and mountainous regions.

The prefecture has been spared much of the brunt of the pandemic--there have been less than 200 total cases and no deaths recorded. That is in stark contrast with Tokyo, which continually has 100 to 200 cases per day and accounts for about one-fourth of the nation's 1,670-plus deaths. There is constant concern among locals about "outsiders" spreading infection.

"We are far away from Tokyo and there were many complaints about holding the tournament," Hara said. "'Why are we holding a national event? Why are people from Tokyo coming here?' There is still an 'allergy' in terms of events."

A wrestler bows to his opponent's corner after his match instead of shaking hands. (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)A wrestler bows to his opponent's corner after his match instead of shaking hands. (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)

Unlike other individual sports such as athletics, tennis and golf, wrestling and other contact sports are in a much tougher position when it comes to preventing the spread of infection. That was true even before the coronavirus came along, but is now even more so.

As such, other contact sports, along with the media, took great interest to see how wrestling handled the Kazama Cup. Hara noted that three national officials from boxing came to observe.

"Among contact sports, it is the first national tournament," Hara said. "Rugby was canceled. Judo is also halted. We're holding the first high school event on a national scale, so it has become mainstream news. Interview requests are coming not for those of us involved in wrestling, but the doctor on site and the volunteers checking temperatures at the entrance. Still, we're grateful."

The rules were strict and encompassing. Only the wrestlers, coaches and tournament officials and staff were allowed into the venue, the Higashi General Sports Center; that meant no family members, friends or general spectators. As teams were limited in their preparation, wrestlers were recommended not to cut excessive weight, and a 2-kilogram allowance was adopted.

Everyone entering the arena had to submit a form with their daily temperature for the previous 14 days. At the reception desk, infrared cameras were set up to take temperatures again. Inside, everyone other than the wrestlers in action on the four mats had to wear a mask at all times.

Access to the warm-up room was limited to avoid crowding. "The biggest problem was trying to get people to maintain social distancing in there," Hara said. The referees on the mat wore face shields, and, following a match, the wrestlers bowed to the opponent's coach, instead of the normal handshake.

"You need to carefully handle the reception area," Tomiyama said. "If you do that, there's no real problem. With no spectators, we can confirm everyone who comes here."

Tuvaadorj BUKHCHULUUN (NSSU Kashiwa) battles Kyo KITAWAKI (Nirasaki Technical) in the 92kg final. (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)Tuvaadorj BUKHCHULUUN (NSSU Kashiwa) battles Kyo KITAWAKI (Nirasaki Technical) in the 92kg final. (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)

Mongolian leaves final mark
The tournament is set up for 48 entries in the team competition and in each of the eight individual weight classes, selected from nine regions and host Niigata. The number of allotments per region ranged from eight each from Kanto (which includes Tokyo) and Kyushu to one from Hokkaido. The draw that was made in March was used as is, so there were about five to 10 no-shows in each division.

Starting things off was the team competition, which was held on the first day and the morning of the second, and consisted of a knockout-style competition of duel meets between seven-man squads.

Nippon Sports Science University Kashiwa High School of Chiba Prefecture won its fourth straight title, defeating Saitama Sakae 5-2 in the final. NSSU Kashiwa advanced to the final by edging another Saitama Prefecture school, Hanasaki Tokuharu, 4-3 in the semifinals.

Mongolian Tuvaadorj BUKHCHULUUN provided the decisive victory at 125kg in the semifinal win over Hanasaki Tokuharu, then became the lone NSSU Kashiwa wrestler out of three in the finals to win an individual crown, taking the gold at 92kg.

Bukhchuluun chalked up four straight technical falls without surrendering a point before blanking Kyo KITAWAKI of Yamanashi Prefecture's Nirasaki Technical 6-0 in the final.

For Bukhchuluun, the victory marked not only the end of his career as a high schooler, but as a freestyle wrestler as well. He said he will be joining the sumo team at Nippon Sports Science University next year, the first step toward a career in that sport, which has in recent years been dominated by Mongolians.

Bukhchuluun, who speaks conversational Japanese, said the switch was to fulfill a pledge he made to his father before he died in 2018. "I wanted to wrestle in college, but he wanted me to go into sumo," he said.

Bukhchuluun only started wrestling in 2016 and won the Mongolian junior high school championship the following year. That drew the notice of former sumo yokozuna (grand champion) Asashoryu, who helped arrange for the youngster to enter NSSU Kashiwa as a foreign student.

Last year, Bukhchuluun won the 92kg title at both the Inter-High and Kokutai, beating Atsushi Miura of Kyoto Prefecture's Amino High School in the final both times. Those avenged a loss to Miura in the final of the Kazama Cup. This year, they both emerged victorious, as Miura moved up to 125kg and won the gold for his second title.

One big difference for Bukhchuluun as he prepares for a sumo career is that his weight concerns will no longer be about making a certain weight (although at a natural weight of 83kg, that wasn't really a factor). He will now have to bulk up in a sport where 100kg is considered light. "I have to get bigger to win," he said.

Kaisei TANABE (NSSU Kashiwa), the son of an Olympic medalist, had to settle for the silver after a loss in the 55kg final to Kento YUMIYA (Inabe Sogo Gakuen).  (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)Kaisei TANABE (NSSU Kashiwa), the son of an Olympic medalist, had to settle for the silver after a loss in the 55kg final to Kento YUMIYA (Inabe Sogo Gakuen).  (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)

Family ties with mixed results
In other finals, there was a handful of names that global wrestling fans might recognize, although their owners had mixed success.

NSSU Kashiwa's Kaisei TANABE, the son of 2004 Athens Olympic bronze medalist Chikara TANABE, had to settle for a silver medal for the second year in a row when he was dealt a close 4-2 loss in the 55kg final by Kento YUMIYA of Mie Prefecture's Inabe Sogo Gakuen.

Yumiya, the Kokutai champion, followed in the footsteps of older brother Hayato, the 55kg champ in 2019, when he scored a stepout with :25 left and Tanabe leading 2-2 on criteria.

"The latter part of my match is my weakest part," Tanabe said. "I have to fix that for the next tournament."

For Tanabe, who lost in the 51kg final last year, the match was his 11th over the three days, combining team and individual bouts.

"It was tough, but coming into the tournament I wanted to win the team and individual titles. I was good through the semifinal," he said, adding that he felt adequately prepared.

Next year, Tanabe will join older sister Yumeka TANABE, the 2019 world U-23 champion at 59kg, at Nippon Sports Science University, where their father is the coach. His father would normally have been at his side in Niigata, but could not attend because of the coronavirus restrictions.

"He gave me advice by phone," Kaisei said. "That was enough."

In the 51kg final, Taiga ONISHI of Saga Prefecture's Tosu Technical chalked up an 11-1 technical fall over Hanasaki Tokuharu's Akito MUKAIDA, the younger brother of two-time women's world champion Mayu MUKAIDA.

It was the second major title for Onishi, who last year won the 55kg title in Greco-Roman at the Kokutai.

The eight gold medalists gather for a group photo.  (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)The eight gold medalists gather for a group photo.  (Japan Wrestling Federation photo)​​​​​​​

Meanwhile, Tosu Technical's Iori KOSHIBA, the son of 1998 Asian Games silver medalist Kenji KOSHIBA, picked up his first major title with a 10-0 technical fall of Wakayama Kita's Taishin YAMAJI in the 71kg final.

Saitama Sakae wrestlers took home two of the three other golds at stake, with  Kenji OGINO winning at 60kg and Fumiya IGARASHI at 80kg. Hanasaki Tokuharu's Ryosuke KERA triumphed at 65kg.

In a snapshot of the times, the top eight wrestlers in each weight class received their awards (medals for top four, certificates for fifth places) while wearing masks, which they kept on for the memorial photo. The eight champions later took off the masks for a group shot together.

While the tournament seemed to come off without a major hitch, officials know they are not out of the woods yet, given the time that it takes for symptoms of infection to be detected.

"I don't think I'll be able to sleep until two weeks after the tournament ends," one official told the federation website prior to the tournament. "I'll be worried that someone will test positive."

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."