Susaki Aims to Gain Olympic Spot with Golden Performance

By Ken Marantz

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (April 8) --- Two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI (JPN) can see a silver lining in the year-long postponement of the Asian qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Olympics.

And while a silver medal in Almaty would be good enough to earn her a first trip to Olympics, the 21-year-old star has no intention of coming home with anything but the gold.

"When the Asian qualifying and Tokyo Olympics were postponed for a year, I felt I was given that amount of time to get stronger and I kept practicing," Susaki said in an online press conference earlier this week.

"As for not having matches, it gave me time to address the little issues that I couldn't do up to now. I was able to work on fine points and from that standpoint, I feel like I've grown in the past year."

Susaki will be aiming to secure a berth for Japan at 50kg, the only one of the six women's weight classes in which the Asian powerhouse did not clinch a spot at the 2019 world championships.

The women's tournament will be on the second day of the three-day tournament April 9-11, which will start with Greco-Roman and end with freestyle.

"It's good and I'm ready for matches," Susaki said of her current condition. "From the start of the year, I've had good practices in preparation as the tournament gets closer."

The tournament will mark her first international event since the 2019 World Cup, and first overall since the All-Japan Championships in December 2019, where she defeated rival Yuki IRIE (JPN) to earn the right to enter the Olympic qualifier.

"It's my first tournament in awhile, so I'm really looking forward to it," Susaki said. "The Olympics are on the line, so everyone is putting everything into this tournament. I will concentrate on each match as it comes and work my way to the title.

"I'm grateful to be able to make the challenge for the Tokyo Olympics. I want to definitely win and gain an Olympic berth, and come home with a smile."

Susaki will certainly be favored to grab one of the two spots available for Asia at the qualifying tournament. She will not contend with opponents from host Kazakhstan or China, as both of those countries qualified at the Nursultan worlds.

Regardless of the competition, and notwithstanding the fact that she does not need to do it, going for the gold has been her mantra since she started the sport, and has many more times than not also been the result. Since junior high school, she has lost only three times --- all to compatriot Irie. She is undefeated against the rest of humanity.

"To have come this far, no matter how it's done, I want to win the title and make the Olympic team," Susaki said. "From the time that the Tokyo Olympics were decided, I've regarded it as an event I definitely want to participate in and win the gold medal."

Susaki's main competition looks to come from 2020 Yarygin Grand Prix champion Namuuntsetseg TSOGT OCHIR (MGL) and 2019 Yasur Dogu winner Seema SEEMA (IND).

Following the postponement, Susaki tried to stay focused on the task at hand, even though it was difficult as the Tokyo region went through two states of emergency and there were limited opportunities for match experience, as no Japanese wrestlers made trips abroad for competition.

"Over this past year, so many things happened, like there was a state of emergency declared and I had to go back home," Susaki said. "Would the Olympics be held or not? The situation was changing all the time. So it was a hectic year.

"But I could see my family and meet my friends, so as long as there was this 'support', I could stay strong through now. A lot happened, but because of those around me, I realized that they made me what I am today. As such, I want to repay them even in a small way by making it to the Olympics."

Without getting ahead of herself, Susaki is already looking forward to what awaits her after the tournament.

"When the Asian qualifying is over, I want to come back to Japan and eat all kinds of goodies, like sushi, pizza, cake. After I secure the Olympic spot, I think that everything will taste great."

U23 Asian and world champion Mohammad Reza GERAEI (IRI) will compete at 67kg. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Paths to Olympic spots varies

Of the Asian nations, host Kazakhstan and Japan secured the most Olympic berths at the world championships with eight each. Iran has sewn up six places, followed by China (5), India (4), Uzbekistan (3) and Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and the People's Republic of Korea (2).

For some hopefuls in Almaty, the path to the Olympics will be somewhat easier. There is one weight class in each style in which Asian nations have already secured four spots---freestyle 65kg, Greco 60kg and women 53kg.

Conversely, the Greco 67kg and 97kg divisions had no qualifiers, meaning all nations will be vying for the coveted spots, while there was only one qualifier each at freestyle 97kg and Greco 130kg.

Greco 67kg will feature veteran RYU Hansoo, the 2013 world champion at 66kg who has won a combined five titles at the Asian Games and Asian Championships, most recently in 2020 in New Delhi. Now 33, he is looking for one more trip to the Olympics, having finished fifth at Rio 2016.

Also entered in that weight class is Mohammad Reza GERAEI (IRI), the 2019 world U-23 and Asian champion at 72kg, and Meirzhan SHERMAKHANBET (KAZ), who finished second to Ryu at the 2019 Asian Championships, as well as 2020 Asian bronze medalist Ashu ASHU (IND) and 2019 world 72kg silver medalist Aram VARDANYAN (UZB).

Shogo TAKAHASHI (JPN), a 2019 Asian bronze medalist, has the added incentive of attempting to qualify for an Olympics on home soil.

Along with Rio 2016 silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI (JPN), who is aiming to qualify at freestyle 57kg, another Japanese wrestler in the spotlight is Sosuke TAKATANI (JPN), the 2014 world silver medalist at freestyle 74kg who will try to make it to a third Olympics, this time at 86kg.

Like Susaki, his goal is to not only to qualify, but to win the tournament. His reasoning is that he took second the two previous times, but failed to medal at the Olympics. "It is bad luck," he said. "Now I'm going to be in 1st place and go to the Olympics."

Among those standing in his way are Azamat DAULETBEKOV (KAZ), a 2018 Asian bronze medalist who was fifth last year, and Gankhuyag GANBAATAR (MGL), an Asian bronze medalist in 2019.

Also worth watching will be American-born Domenic ABOU NADER (LBN), a silver medalist at the 2018 Asian Games. The former All-American at Michigan University will aim to become the first wrestler from Lebanon to qualify for the Olympics since 1980 and seventh in history.

In women's wrestling, it will be interesting to see how up-and-coming Sonam MALIK (IND) fares at 62kg. The 2019 world cadet champion at 65kg knocked off Rio 2016 silver medalist Sakshi MALIK (IND) 8-7 at the Indian national trials in Lucknow.

"Sakshi Malik is our role model, she won the medal at the Olympics," Sonam told Indian media. "My coach said, 'You have nothing to lose' and give your best in the match. It was in my mind that I want to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics."

In Almaty, she can expect tough competition from Ayaulym KASSYMOVA (KAZ), the silver medalist at last year's Asian Championships, and Nabira ESENBAEVA (UZB), a 2019 Asian bronze medalist along with Sakshi.


Payback Adds to Gold Medal's Luster for 2 New Asian Champions as Ryu Completes Almaty Double

By Ken Marantz

First-time champions Aidos SULTANGALI (KAZ) and Tsuchika SHIMOYAMADA (JPN) added
a sheen of payback to their gold-medals at the Asian Championships, while Hansu RYU (KOR) completed an amazing double in Almaty in grabbing his third straight continental title.

Sultangali rallied from a three-point deficit to defeat Mehdi MOHSEN NEJAD (IRI) 8-4 in a tempestuous 60kg final as the Greco-Roman competition concluded Wednesday on the second day of the six-day tournament in the spectator-less Baluan Sholak Palace of Culture and Sports.

Sultangali's victory avenged a 5-3 loss to the Iranian in a bronze-medal match at last year's Asian Championships in New Delhi, and adds the senior gold to his collection of Asian junior
and cadet titles.

"I have wrestled him before but lost to him, but it was a lesson for me," said Sultangali, a 2018 world bronze medalist. "Today, I felt that he was tired after the first period and I started attacking and worked in par terre. It was a serious win for me."

Mohsen Nejad, a 2019 world U-23 and junior bronze medalist, jumped out to a 3-0 lead with a gut wrench out of the par terre position. In the second period, Sultangali matched that with a throw from par terre, then added a big 4-point hip throw. An unsuccessful challenge gave the Kazakh an 8-3 lead.

Sultangali nearly paid for a premature celebration in the final seconds, but Mohsen Nejad could only force him out for a single point.

"For any wrestler, it means a lot to win in his home country," Sultangali said. "Even though there are no spectators, you can feel the hometown tribute. I love wrestling so that I get the opportunity to raise the Kazakh national flag."

Mohsen Nejad was less than satisfied with the bout and the silver medal.

"I am not satisfied with the referees, I think he committed a leg foul," the Iranian said. "I defeated Uzbek and Japan to reach [the final] and then lose to Kazakh. Not possible. I only came here to win gold. I had beaten him easily in New Delhi last year in the bronze-medal bout."

Shimoyamada also settled a old score by digging himself out of a big hole, fighting back from the brink of a technical fall loss in the 67kg final to defeat Almat KEBISPAYEV (KAZ) with a dramatic fall after building a 12-7 lead.

It was three years ago in the final in Bishkek that Kebispayev denied Shimoyamada with a 5-1 victory.

"It's a great feeling," Shimoyamada said. "At the 2018 Asian Championships, I fought him and lost, and now I got revenge, so I'm very happy."

Kebispayev used a reverse headlock roll from the par terre position to take a 5-0 lead, which he then padded with a stepout and an unsuccessful challenge point. But in the second period, Shimoyamada went on the offensive.

After getting back into the match with a takedown, the Japanese went ahead on criteria with a four-point throw from par terre. In the final minute, he sent Kebispayev to his back with a driving bear hug, and secured the fall with :38 left.

"I wasn't thinking anything, just to do my wrestling," Shimoyamada said of his comeback. Asked about how he will celebrate, the member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police force replied with a smile, "I want to eat Japanese food and drink too much."

Two-in-two for Hansu Ryu

Ryu can be popping some corks after adding another chapter to his legendary story, when the two-time former world champion held off 2020 Asian bronze medalist Ruslan TSAREV (KGZ) to win the 72kg title with a 6-5 victory.

The title came five days after he secured a 67kg berth in the Tokyo Olympics at the Asian Qualifying tournament, held at the same venue April 9-11. With the pandemic curtailing tournaments around the world, he said he stayed for the Asian Championships just for the thrill of competition.

His natural ability made up for the size disadvantage at 72kg, where he more than held his own.

Against Tsarev, Ryu jumped out to a 5-0 lead with a 4-point spinning throw from a high-chest
hold in the par terre position.

In the second period, Tsarev chipped away at the lead with a passivity point, a 2-point leg
blocking penalty and an unsuccessful challenge point. He had a chance to go ahead when he lifted Ryu into the air, but the nimble Korean managed to land on his feet on Tsarev's throw attempt.

Tsarev gained a point for the stepout, which tied the score but left him trailing on criteria. He
understandably challenged the call, and understandably lost it to make the final score 6-5 and
give Ryu his fourth career Asian gold.

"My main target is the Olympic Games and all of these competition are stages to achieve the
target," said Ryu, who finished fifth in his only Olympic appearance at Rio 2016.

"I can win a medal [in Tokyo], but there is also a chance that I may not win the medal. So it's 50-50. My last aim in wrestling is to win an Olympic gold. I may be the coach for the national
team [in the future]."

Iran, which medaled in all but one weight class, easily captured the team title with 194 points, as former Asian junior champion Mehdi BALIHAMZEHDEH (IRI) provided the last of its four
golds by taking the 97kg title.

Aidos SULTANGALI (KAZ), Asian Championships 2021
Aidos Sultangali won the gold medal at the 60kg Greco-Roman weight category. (Photo: UWW/Sachiko HOTAKA)

Kazakhstan, lifted by Sultangali's gold, finished second with 156 points, edging third-place
Kyrgyzstan by three points.

In the 97kg final, Balihamzehdeh built up a 7-2 lead in the first period, then held off a late surge by Seungjun KIM (KOR) for a 9-7 victory.

"I was able to win the gold medal because of my training and the coaches," Balihamzehdeh said.

"The wrestlers I fought today were very strong and the pace of the bouts was very high. So I am feeling very good now."

Another Tokyo-bound wrestler who captured a gold medal -- also in a different weight class --
was Jalgasbay BERDIMURATOV (UZB), who won the 82kg title with a victory by fall over
Kalidin ASYKEEV (KGZ).

"In the future I have a big hopes to become Olympic champion," Berdimuratov said. "I qualified for the Olympics already. We have a lot of training to do until [Tokyo]. Now here, I truly competed for the gold medal."

Berdimuratov, who won a bronze medal at 77kg at the 2019 World Championships in Nursultan to gain a ticket to Tokyo, was put on the bottom of the par terre, but stepped over Asykeev's attempted roll and clamped down for the fall in 1:46.

Berdimuratov, a bronze medalist at 82kg a year ago, had defeated Asykeev 3-0 earlier in the day in their round-robin group match. For Asykeev, the loss in the rematch meant having to add a senior Asian silver to his one at U-23 and two at the junior level.

"I wrestled against the Kyrgyz wrestler last time and I lost 3-0," Berdimuratov said. "But today we were competing again and I won the gold medal. I’d like to share this medal with my whole team, and my coaches, because we worked hard to achieve this result."

It was a good day overall for Japan, which also came away with three bronze medals from Ayata SUZUKI (JPN) at 60kg, Taishi HORIE (JPN) at 72kg and Satoki MUKAI (JPN) at 82kg. A chance for a fourth failed to come to fruition when Beksultan MAKHMUDOV (KGZ) handed
Masayuki AMANO (JPN) a 5-3 loss at 82kg, earning a bronze for himself after consecutive fifth places at the last two Asian Championships.

At 67kg, one of the third-place matches was a clash of the two bronze medalists from 2020, with Hossein ASSADI KOLMATI (IRI) taking home the hardware again after using a devastating front headlock to wipe out Ashu ASHU (IND) by 9-0 technical fall in 26 seconds.

The other 67kg match for the bronze produced a startling comeback, as Amantur ISMAILOV (KGZ) rallied from a seven-point deficit to defeat Mirzobek RAKHMATOV (UZB) by fall after building up a 15-7 lead.

Amin KAVIYANINEJAD (IRI), last year's 72kg champion, came away with a bronze this time
after edging Makhmud BAKHSHILLOEV (UZB) 2-1. Bakhshilloev was the silver medalist at
67kg behind Ryu last year.

Day 2 Finals


60kg (10 entries)
BRONZE - Seunghak KIM (KOR) df. Karrar Abbas ALBEEDHAN (IRQ) by TF, 9-0, :56
BRONZE - Ayata SUZUKI (JPN) df. Merdan ALLAYAROV (TKM) by TF, 8-0, 2:18

67kg (10 entries)
GOLD - Tsuchika SHIMOYAMADA (JPN) df. Almat KEBISPAYEV (KAZ) by Fall, 5:22 (12-7)
BRONZE - Hossein ASSADI KOLMATI (IRI) df. Ashu ASHU (IND) by TF, 9-0, :26
BRONZE - Amantur ISMAILOV (KGZ) df. Mirzobek RAKHMATOV (UZB) by Fall, 4:51 (15-7)

72kg (9 entries)
GOLD - Hansu RYU (KOR) df. Ruslan TSAREV (KGZ), 6-5
BRONZE - Taishi HORIE (JPN) df. Muslihiddin UROQOV (TJK) by TF, 9-0, 3:16

82kg (7 entries)
GOLD - Jalgasbay BERDIMURATOV (UZB) df. Kalidin ASYKEEV (KGZ) by Fall, 1:46 (2-1)
BRONZE - Satoki MUKAI (JPN) df. Yevgeniy POLIVADOV (KAZ), 3-1

97kg (9 entries)
GOLD - Mehdi BALIHAMZEHDEH (IRI) df. Seungjun KIM (KOR), 9-5
BRONZE - Yerulan ISKAKOV (KAZ) df. Al Majeed AL KAABI (IRQ) by Default
BRONZE - Beksultan MAKHMUDOV (KGZ) df. Masayuki AMANO (JPN), 5-3