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

Japan Wrestle-Offs

Okuno, Ota Enter Japan World Team Playoffs in Non-Olympic Weights

By Ken Marantz

World champion Haruna OKUNO and Rio 2016 Olympic silver medalist Shinobu OTA, who missed out on places on Japan's team to this year's World Championships in Olympic weight classes, have entered the playoffs for spots in non-Olympic divisions, the Japan Wrestling Federation announced on its website.

Okuno, the world champion last year in Budapest at 53kg, will move up to 55kg---the same weight class she won a world gold at Paris 2017. Okuno was defeated in the Japan team qualifying at 53kg by Mayu Mukaida, the world champion at 55kg who dropped down to the Olympic weight.

Shinobu OTA​ ​​​​​​will take on Yoshiki YAMADA in the 63kg playoff. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka) 

Likewise, Asian champion Ota failed to displace 2017 world champion Kenichiro FUMITA at Greco-Roman 60kg, and will now try to make the team at 63kg in the non-Olympic weight playoffs, to be held July 21 at the National Training Center in Tokyo.

This year, the Japan Federation decreed that any wrestler winning a medal in Nur-Sultan in an Olympic weight class would automatically secure a spot at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Such an incentive caused a scramble among top wrestlers into the six Olympic weight classes in each style. In addition to the clash of world champions Okuno and Mukaida, it also produced a highly publicized battle between Olympic gold medalists Risako KAWAI and Kaori ICHO at 57kg, from which Kawai emerged victorious.

To dispatch as strong a team as possible to Nur-Sultan 2019, the federation is allowing the runner-ups in the Olympic weight classes in the two national tournaments, which served as the world team qualifiers, to enter the playoffs in the non-Olympic weights.

Haruna OKUNO will wrestle Saki IGARASHI and Nanami IRIE in a three-way wrestle-off for the world team spot at 55kg. (Photo: Max Rose-Fyne) 

At women's 55kg, Okuno faces a three-way wrestle-off with Saki IGARASHI, winner of the All-Japan Invitational (Meiji Cup) title in June, and Nanami IRIE, who was second to Mukaida at 53kg at the All-Japan Championships (Emperor's Cup) last December. Okuno had missed the latter tournament due to illness.

Igarashi, a Shigakkan University teammate of Okuno's, won both the world junior and U-23 titles in 2018, and was second at this year's Asian Championships. Irie was a world junior champion in 2015, but has been largely overshadowed by older sister Yuki, who famously knocked off two-time reigning world champion Yui SUSAKI at 50kg.

Okuno has faced Irie twice recently, beating her 5-2 in the Meiji Cup semifinals this year and by fall in the quarterfinals in 2018. Okuno and Igarashi met twice as high schoolers in the finals of two national tournaments in 2016, with Okuno winning both on points.

Ota's path to Nur-Sultan has just one obstacle in the form of Meiji Cup champion Yoshiki YAMADA. Ota has experience at the heavier weight, having won the Grand Prix of Hungary and placing second at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov Tournament at 63kg earlier this year.

In other weight classes, Daichi TAKATANI, a silver medalist at both the Asian Championships and Asian Games in 2018, has moved up to 70kg after failing to displace world champion Takuto OTOGURO at 65kg.

Yuka KAGAMI, a two-time cadet world champion, will try to make the world team at 72kg. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka) 

The women's 72kg class in the lone division to draw four entries, including high school phenom Yuka KAGAMI. Kagami, a two-time world cadet champion who captured an Asian senior gold in April, won the Emperor's Cup at 72kg, but failed in a bid to knock off two-time world bronze medalist Hiroe MINAGAWA at 76kg at the Meiji Cup.

Two other high schoolers have a chance to earn tickets to the senior worlds: Yuzuka INAGAKI, the senior Asian champion at women's 59kg, and Yudai TAKAHASHI, who is fresh off a victory at the Asian Cadet Championships, also held in Nur-Sultan.

One notable name who was eligible but did not enter the wrestle-off was world bronze medalist Atsushi MATSUMOTO, the Emperor's Cup champion at freestyle 92kg whose absence will concede the spot to Meiji Cup winner Takuma OTSU.

Matsumoto had moved up to the Olympic weight of 97kg for the Meiji Cup, but did not advance past the semifinals.