Japan Wrestling

World Champ Sakurai Successfully Moves Up to 57kg, Upends Nanjo for 2nd National Title

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO, Japan (December 18) -- While winning a world title at a non-Olympic weight is a commendable accomplishment, Tsugumi SAKURAI knows it has its drawbacks in Olympic-obsessed Japan.

So less than three months after her triumph in Oslo, the 20-year-old made the move up to an Olympic division and knocked off one of its world medalists to establish herself as a contender for a ticket to Paris in 2024.

Sakurai, the world champion at women's 55kg, captured her second straight national title with a thrilling 5-2 victory in the 57kg final over two-time defending champion Sae NANJO at the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships on Saturday at Tokyo's Komazawa Gym.

"My objective is to win the title at the Paris Olympics, and as 55kg is not an Olympic weight, I moved up to 57kg so I could go to the Olympics," said the soft-spoken Sakurai, who clinched the victory over the world bronze medalist Nanjo with a 4-point takedown in the final seconds.

"This tournament for me -- of course I aimed to win the championship --but because I went up a weight, I went into it regarding myself as the challenger. The fact that I could still win the title makes me feel like I have grown."

Masako FURUICHI, the women's 72kg gold medalist from this year's World Championships in Oslo, dropped to the Olympic weight of 68kg only to suffer a stunning loss, while world bronze medalists Kensuke SHIMIZU and Nonoka OZAKI both stayed put and won second straight national titles -- Shimizu at Greco 63kg and Ozaki at women's 62kg.

In freestyle, Rio 2016 Olympic silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI, who came up short in a bid to make the Tokyo Olympics at 57kg, made the final at 61kg but lost to a wrestler coached by the man who kept him off the team to Tokyo.

The victories by Sakurai and Ozaki come with a caveat, as they came in the absences of the Tokyo Olympic champions in their weight classes, sisters Risako and Yukako KAWAI, respectively. In fact, none of Japan's Tokyo medalists are taking part in the four-day tournament that is serving as the first of two domestic qualifiers for next year's World Championships in Belgrade.

The winners earn tickets to the Asian Games in China next September, but in the race to Belgrade, will likely encounter the Olympians at the second world qualifier, the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in the spring.

Sakurai said that her triumph in Oslo provided validation that she could compete at the highest level, an ability of which she first provided a glimpse by winning the gold at the 2020 Klippan Lady with a victory over veteran Sofia MATTSON (SWE).

"I was able to see that my wrestling can be competitive on the world level, and that gave me a big boost in confidence," said Sakurai, who last year became the first-ever national champion at Ikuei University, a school only founded in 2018. "But even though I won a world title, I can't be satisfied just yet. I feel it gets me closer to achieving my goal of winning at the next Olympics, and if I keep working hard, I can get to the Olympics."

But somewhere along the path to Paris, she knows she has to get past Risako Kawai. At this point, Sakurai is unsure how she matches up with the double Olympic champion.

"Until I face her in a match, I won't know," Sakurai said. "But her results are amazing, winning at two straight Olympics, winning many times in Japan, and constantly battling with the world's best. In the end, I will have to beat her, but she's well above me. To be able to win at the next tournament, I have to work hard."

In the final, Sakurai and Nanjo got into a defensive struggle, with neither finding an opening to take shots. Sakurai received an activity clock point in the first period, but Nanjo got two in the second to lead 2-1 with a minute to go.

As the clock ticked down to single digits, Sakurai used a 2-on-1 to set up a sweeping single-leg tackle. She managed to lift the leg in the air, then barreled forward to send Nanjo crashing out of the ring and onto her back for 4 points with less than two seconds left.

"My wrestling doesn't produce a lot of points, which has been an issue for me," Sakurai said. "But my strong point is that I fight to the end and with the feeling that I will definitely win. So even though many of my matches have close scores, I don't get impatient."

Just like at 57kg, the women's 68kg class featured a potential match-up between a reigning world champion who changed to an Olympic weight (Furuichi) and a world medalist in that division, in this case, Rin MIYAJI. Neither, however, were around for the final.

Furuichi was dealt a stunning 4-1 loss in the semifinals by Ikuei's Ami ISHII, while world silver medalist Miyaji withdrew before taking the mat after reportedly failing to recover from an injury suffered in Oslo.

Against Furuichi, Ishii was leading 2-1, all from activity points, when she clinched the win with a last-second takedown.

"I couldn't do anything," said Furuichi, one of only two wrestlers to have completed the "grand slam" of world senior, U23, junior and cadet titles.

"It's the same thing that I always regret, not having the courage to shoot for takedowns, and I want to fix that with practice."

What made her defeat more vexing was that it came at a lower weight. While Furuichi said she ballooned "quite a bit" during the two-week quarantine upon returning from Oslo, she said getting down to 68kg did not present a problem and had no effect on the outcome.

"My condition [here] was not bad," said Furuichi, who added that she had decided that the Oslo worlds would be her last tournament at a non-Olympic weight. "From now on, I will stay at the Olympic weight [of 68kg]," she said.

Ishii suffered a shocking defeat of her own in the final against defending champion Naruha MATSUYUKI, who overcame a 0-4 deficit with two takedowns in the final 30 seconds for a 4-4 victory on criteria.

Matsuyuki, the 2019 world junior champion, salvaged some pride for her family by winning her third career national title. On Thursday, twin sister Yasuha was upset in the semifinals at 76kg, and earlier Saturday, younger brother Taisei lost in the final at freestyle 86kg.

OzakiNonoka OZAKI claimed the gold medal at 62kg. (Tateo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

At women's 62kg, Ozaki scored a double-leg takedown with :36 left to edge two-time former champion Naomi RUIKE 4-3 in the final, making her the first student or alumnus from academically oriented Keio University to win a national title in 62 years.

Ozaki said that her experience in Oslo, where she suffered a come-from-behind loss to eventual world champion Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ) before battling her way through the repechage to the bronze medal, prepared her to be ready for all matches regardless of the round.

Ozaki got her day started by having to face 2019 world U23 and junior champion Yuzuka INAGAKI, who she defeated 5-1 in the quarterfinals with a pair of second-period takedowns.

"In this tournament, I had tough matches from the beginning," the 18-year-old said. "But I didn't let that discourage me. At the World Championships, I also came up against a strong opponent in the first round and I lost, which made me prepared.

"I look at it as an ordeal to test me. If I can fight through it, I will be the better for it. From the first round, I looked at each match as a final and this was the result. I never lost hope in every three-minute period."

Ozaki, a product of the JOC Elite Academy, is a bit of an anomaly in Japanese wrestling. Instead of opting for a wrestling powerhouse out of high school, she took and passed the difficult entrance exams for Keio, and is now a freshman in the Faculty of Environmental Information.

Among her subjects, she is currently studying Korean, and plans to also learn French, according to Tokyo Sports. A grueling course load combined with high-level wrestling practice means "I don't have much time for the fun things in college life," the true scholar-athlete said.

Like Sakurai, Ozaki has a Kawai sister blocking her road to the Paris Olympics but remains confident of forging through. "We haven't faced each other yet, but I am very aware how strong she is," Ozaki said. "But I have won the Emperor's Cup and the Meiji Cup, and I think I can give her a fight."

ShimizuKensuke Shimizu claimed a 6-3 victory in the 63kg final over Ryuto IKEDA. (Tateo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

In Greco-Roman, Takushoku University's Shimizu lived up to the expectations that his unique family history entails with a 6-3 victory in the 63kg final over Ryuto IKEDA.

After successfully fending off Ikeda while in the par terre position in the first period, Shimizu took full advantage of his chance on top in the second period with an explosive 5-point throw.

Ikeda scored a late takedown that was too little, too late.

"I was able to defend when he got the first point, so I felt the momentum was going my way," Shimizu said. "At the World Championships, my defense was weak and that led to my defeat. I still haven't fully fixed that yet, but I feel it's coming along."

With competition at the Asian Games limited to Olympic weights, it is likely that Shimizu and other winners in non-Olympic weights will get first priority to be dispatched to the Asian Championships, scheduled for April in a place to be determined. Shimizu would like that tournament to serve as his last hurrah at 63kg before moving up to 67kg, and perhaps as a chance for some revenge.

"The next Asian Championships could very likely be my last tournament at 63kg," Shimizu said. "I think the Iran wrestler who won the world title [Meysam DALKHANI (IRI)] might enter, so I will aim to beat him."

While Shimizu himself is not a household name in Japan, his name is well known because of the exploits of his uncle, Hiroyasu SHIMIZU, who became a national hero when he won the gold medal and set the world record at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics in the men's 500 meters in speed skating.

In other Greco action, there was a changing of the guard at 97kg, in which Takahiro TSURUDA blanked Yuri NAKAZATO 6-0 in the final for his first national title, after each knocked off one of the two wrestlers who had reigned over the weight class for the past five years.

In the semifinals, Nakazato notched a 3-1 win over Yuta NARA, who held the title from 2016 to 2019, and Tsuruda followed with a 4-0 win over defending champion Masayuki AMANO.

SakakiRyoto SAKAKI won the 61kg final 4-0. (Tateo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

In freestyle, Yamanashi Gakuin University's Ryoto SAKAKI withstood everything that Higuchi could throw at him in the 61kg final, winning 4-0 to add to the title he won in 2019.

"Honestly speaking, I was unsure about whether or not I could win this tournament," said Sakaki, a 2020 Asian bronze medalist and 2017 world cadet champion. "That I was able to take the title, simply put, I'm really happy."

Sakaki said he sweated a bit after hearing that Higuchi was entered at 61kg. "From a while back, I had heard from a number of people that Higuchi would be entering the Emperor's Cup at 61kg, It made my heart pound," he said.

But Sakaki more than held his own against the 2018 world U23 champion, scoring a first-period takedown, then squiggling out of danger when Higuchi got behind while on their feet in the second period. At the end, Sakaki fought off a headlock attempt to score a match-clinching takedown.

Sakaki had a not-so-secret weapon in his corner, Yamanashi Gakuin coach Yuki TAKAHASHI, the former world champion who had beaten Higuchi in a playoff for the spot at the Tokyo Olympics that Higuchi had earned for Japan.

"Higuchi is really good at grabbing an arm, and of course coach Takahashi and head coach [Kunihiko] OBATA told me to be particularly careful of that," Sakaki said. "[Takahashi also said] I have a habit of floating in my stance, and he advised me to work on that."

To get to the final, Sakaki notched a 2-2 win over defending champion Kodai OGAWA of Nippon Sports Science University, who had beaten him a month earlier in the first round at the national collegiate championships.

The other freestyle golds up for grabs went to Daichi TAKATANI at 74kg and Shota SHIRAI at 86kg.

Takatani, whose lone previous title came at 65kg in 2017, defeated defending champion Kirin KINOSHITA 7-2 in a final that ended with a wild 4-point move for Takatani.

Takatani now wears the 74kg crown that his older brother, Sohsuke, wore for six years from 2011 to 2016. On Sunday, Sohsuke will attempt to win his 11th straight national title over four weight classes with a victory at 92kg.

Shirai added to the 82kg title he won in 2017 with a 5-4 victory over Matsuyuki. Shirai scored four stepouts in building a 5-0 lead, only to see Matsuyuki close the gap with a 4-point trip at the edge late in the second period.

The tournament wraps up Sunday with competition at freestyle 57kg and 92kg, Greco 55kg ad 72kg, and women's 50kg and 53kg.

Day 3 Results


61kg (12 entries)
Final - Ryoto SAKAKI df. Rei HIGUCHI, 4-0
3rd Place - Kodai OGAWA df. Kotaro KIYOOKA, 4-4
Semifinal - Higuchi df. Kiyooka, 2-1
Semifinal - Sakaki df. Ogawa, 2-2

74kg (12 entries)
Final - Daichi TAKATANI df. Kirin KINOSHITA, 7-2
3rd Place - Masaki SATO df. Jintaro MOTOYAMA, 3-1
Semifinal - Takatani df. Sato, 4-1
Semifinal - Kinoshita df. Motoyama, 2-1

86kg (11 entries)
Final - Shota SHIRAI df. Taisei MATSUYUKI, 5-4
3rd Place - Yajiro YAMASAKI df. Mao OKUI by TF, 10-0, 3:34
Semifinal - Matsuyuki df. Yamasaki, 3-2
Semifinal - Shirai df. Okui, 3-1


63kg (12 entries)
Final - Kensuke SHIMIZU df. Ryuto IKEDA, 6-3
3rd Place - Kazuki YABE df. Yoshiki YAMADA, 3-2
Semifinal - Shimizu df. Yabe, 3-1
Semifinal - Ikeda df. Yamada, 3-3

97kg (11 entries)
Final - Takahiro TSURUDA df. Yuri NAKAZATO, 6-0
3rd Place - Masayuki AMANO df. Yuta NARA by TF, 10-1, 2:13
Semifinal - Nakazato df. Nara, 3-1
Semifinal - Tsuruda df. Amano, 4-0

Women's Wrestling

57kg (8 entries)
Final - Tsugumi SAKURAI df. Sae NANJO, 5-2
3rd Place - Sena NAGAMOTO df. Ichika ARAI by Fall, 2:42 (8-0)
Semifinal - Nanjo df. Arai by TF, 12-1, 4:06
Semifinal - Sakurai df. Nagamoto, 3-0

62kg (9 entries)
Final - Nonoka OZAKI df. Naomi RUIKE, 4-3
3rd Place - Yui SAKANO df. Atena KODAMA, 4-1
Semifinal - Ozaki df. Kodama, 8-0
Semifinal - Ruike df. Sakano, 8-2

68kg (4 entries)
Final - Naruha MATSUYUKI df. Ami ISHII, 4-4
3rd Place - Masako FURUICHI df. Rin TERAMOTO by Def.
Semifinal - Ishii df. Furuichi, 4-1
Semifinal - Matsuyuki df. Teramoto, 5-1

Japan Wrestling

Legendary Icho Joins Japan National Team Staff in Run-Up to Paris Olympics

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (December 28) -- If anyone knows how to deal with pressure, it would be the only woman to win four gold medals in the same event in Olympic history.

That was behind the decision of the Japan Wrestling Federation to add Kaori ICHO to its performance enhancement team in the run-up to the 2024 Paris Olympics, appointing her to the newly established position of "entourage coach."

The federation announced the appointment following a meeting of its board of directors on December 19 at the recent Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships.

Two-time Olympic medalist Kosei AKAISHI was named the director of performance enhancement for the national team.

"I think that athletes have worries before matches and other times," Akaishi said. "Ms. Icho has been to the Olympics, and can (provide support) from both mental aspect and technical aspect."

Icho, 37, was named along with former world silver medalist and two-time Olympian Takahiro WADA as entourage coaches, whose main responsibility will be to provide mental support for national team members and coordinate those around them to ensure the best possible training environment.

The Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) defines the position as "those involved in developing a competitive environment and collaborating so that athletes can maximize their performance."

Icho reportedly had to think hard about accepting the offer. Akaishi said he offered the position to Icho in early November and she only recently made her decision to accept.

Tokyo Olympic gold medalist Yui SUSAKI is among those who are glad she did. "It is a great plus for such a renowned predecessor to become a coach," Susaki told Nikkan Sports. "I'm really looking forward to it."

Susaki, who did not compete at the Emperor's Cup but was there to support her Waseda University teammates, foresees getting advice from Icho in her bid to defend the Olympic 50kg title in Paris. "I want to learn what it takes to win consecutive titles, and I'll start thinking about what to ask," she said.

Icho secured a legendary place in sports history when she became just the fifth athlete, and the first woman, to win gold medals in the same event at four Olympics. (Greco wrestler Mijain LOPEZ (CUB) joined the elite group at Tokyo 2020). Icho struck gold at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016, the first three at 63kg and the last at 58kg.

Her bid for a fifth Olympic title ended when she lost a playoff at 57kg with fellow Rio champion Risako KAWAI in 2019. She did, however, make an appearance at the Tokyo Olympics, wearing a blue kimono instead of a singlet as she presented Susaki with the bouquet at the medal ceremony.

Although not officially retired, Icho, also a 10-time world champion, has been serving as a women's coach at Nippon Sports Science University and helped Miwa MORIKAWA win a silver medal at the 2021 World Championships at 65kg.

Akaishi won a silver medal at freestyle 62kg at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and a bronze at 68kg at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He also competed at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Shoko YOSHIMURA, Susaki's coach at the JOC Elite Academy who still sits in her corner during matches, was named as one of two assistant directors of performance enhancement, along with former Olympian and Greco national team member Masatoshi TOYOTA.