World Cadet Champion Ozaki Comes of Age with Japan Senior Title at 62kg

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (Dec. 18) -- A year ago, two-time reigning world cadet champion Nonoka OZAKI qualified to appear at the senior All-Japan Championships with a victory at the National Games, but was too young to participate. On Friday, the 17-year-old put on a performance well beyond her years.

Ozaki captured the women's 62kg title with a 5-0 victory in the final over 2018 world junior champion Atena KODAMA on the second day of the four-day championships at Tokyo's Komazawa Gym. 

"It was my first title on my first try," said Ozaki, a member of the JOC Elite Academy who attends a high school near the National Training Center. "Last year, I earn qualification at the National Games, but I wasn't allowed to participate because of my age. 

"That was difficult to swallow. This year I was able to enter, and even though my training was affected by the coronavirus, I encouraged myself and was able to win the championship."

It was a good day for the JOC Academy at the tournament referred to as the Emperor's Cup, as recent graduate Yuka KAGAMI, now a freshman at Toyo University and a reigning world junior champion herself, came from behind to top defending champion Yasuha MATSUYUKI, 6-4, in the 76kg final for her second senior national title.

The tournament is being held under strict protocols amid a nationwide surge in coronavirus infections, with no spectators allowed and all weight classes limited to a maximum of eight entries. All but one of the eight wrestlers who have already clinched spots at the Tokyo Olympics are not entered.

Among the Olympians who skipped the event was women's world 62kg bronze medalist Yukako KAWAI, who absence Ozaki acknowledged takes some of the luster from her gold medal. 

"This is an Olympic weight class and Olympic team member Yukako KAWAI wasn't entered," Ozaki said. "Looking it that way, the top wrestler in Japan wasn't here, so winning the 62kg title doesn't seem that great."

Still, it was quite an accomplishment for the Ozaki, the gold medalist at the 2018 Youth Olympics at 57kg. She defeated 2017 world U23 champion Yui SAKANO and defending champion and fellow high schooler Ami ISHII en route to the final.  

"I didn't think about who I was facing, I just focused on my own wrestling," Ozaki said. "While there are still some things I need to work on, I showed at this tournament how I have made progress."

Kagami, who also has two world cadet crowns to her credit, has established herself as the frontrunner to follow in the footsteps of world medalists Kyoko HAMAGUCHI and Hiroe MINAGAWA in the heaviest weight class.

In the final, Kagami fell behind 4-1, but gained a stepout early in the second period, then scored a takedown with :52 left before hitting a gut wrench 20 seconds later to secure the victory, adding to the title she won at non-Olympic 72kg in 2018.

"When I was down by 3 points, part of me thought it was over," Kagami said. "But I knew with the practice I put in, I was confident that I could beat anyone, so I thought it would definitely be OK. I made myself keep my composure."

So SAKABE defeated Masato SUMI in the Greco-Roman 87kg final (Photo: Tateo Yabuki/Japan Wrestling Federation)

Sakabe Rises from Depths of Despair

In other action, So SAKABE not only defeated Self-Defense Forces Physical Training School teammate and three-time defending champion Masato SUMI in the Greco-Roman 87kg final, he reached a new high after having sunk to the depths of despair.

In June 2018, Sakabe was shocked to receive a ban for doping at the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships. A drug prescribed by a doctor for a stomach disorder that he had taken mistakenly contained a banned substance, and it would not be until February 2019 that the Japan Anti-Doping Agency would completely exonerate Sakabe as blameless.

But the incident took a toll on Sakabe, who still has pending a lawsuit for damages against the pharmaceutical company that manufactured the drug. He had been a rising star when he won the 75kg title at the 2016 Meiji Cup to earn a trip to the World Championships (at 80kg), but had to overcome a long blank when he returned last year.

"It's been awhile since I won a championship, so I'm really happy," said the 27-year-old Sakabe, who has moved up to 87kg after finishing third last year at 77kg, thus putting him out of the running for an Olympic spot in that weight class.

Ironically, the hardship he endured made it easier to get through the disruption caused by the pandemic this year.

"I was out of the sport because of the doping incident, so I wasn't so concerned about the coronavirus," Sakabe said. "I just focused on what I could leading up to here, and today was the result."

In the final, Sakabe broke a 3-3 tie with a stepout with :08 left, then got a last-second 2-point penalty to defeat Sumi, 6-3. 

"He's an opponent who won a number of times in a row," Sakabe said. "We're on the same team and the same year. He's the champion and very strong. But I put out what I did to get here, and in the end, I won with heart."

Sumi is one of the nine wrestlers in the tournament who, by virtue of victories at last year's Emperor's Cup, will represent Japan at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in March in Xi'an, China. Their places are set, regardless of how they fare at this year's Emperor's Cup. 

Three others bound for Xi'an who were in action Friday managed to maintain their pride and defend their titles. 

Shohei YABIKU won a second straight title at Greco 77kg and fifth overall, Arata SONODA made it seven in a row at Greco 130kg, and Naoya AKAGUMA extended his streak of freestyle 97kg titles to three with a fourth overall. 

Yabiku came out on top of a 2-1 decision in the final over Naotsuku SHOJI, with all of the points scored on passivity and neither able to score in the par terre position.

"Before the last Olympics, I entered the qualifying tournament and ended with an agonizing result," Yabiku said. "This time, there is still time for me to work on the issues that came up here, and raise my level to secure an Olympic spot by winning the qualification tournament."

Sonoda remained in a class of his own in the heaviest division, winning both of his two matches by technical falls, including an 8-0 romp in 1:13 over Sota OKUMURA in the final.

Naoya AKAGUMA extended his streak of freestyle 97kg titles to three (Photo: Tateo Yabuki /Japan Wrestling Federation)

Akaguma was similarly dominant in his final, finishing off Takashi ISHIGURO with three rolls off a lace lock to cap a 10-0 technical fall in 1:56. In the first round, Ishiguro ousted Takuma OTSU, the Asian silver medalist and last year's champion at 92kg. 

The other freestyle gold at stake went to world junior 61kg champion Kaiki YAMAGUCHI, who won a battle of activity points to beat Ryoma ANRAKU, 2-1, in the 65kg final. 

The victory was a repeat of Yamaguchi's win over Anraku in the semifinals en route to the title at the national collegiate championships six weeks earlier.

In the absence of former world champion and defending champion Yui SUSAKI, collegiate champion Remina YOSHIMOTO captured the gold in the women's 50kg class, gaining her final eight points with lace lock rolls in an 11-0 technical fall over high schooler Umi ITO.

Day 2 Results


Kaiki YAMAGUCHI df. Ryoma ANRAKU, 2-1
3rd Place
Kei YONEZAWA df. Yujiro UENO, 8-6
Yamaguchi df. Ueno, 10-2
Anraku df. Yonezawa, 2-2

Naoya AKAGUMA df. Takashi ISHIGURO by TF, 10-0, 1:56
3rd Place
Takeshi YAMAGUCHI df. Taira SONODA, 11-9
Akaguma df. Yamaguchi, 4-2
Ishiguro df. Sonoda, 2-2


Shohei YABIKU df. Naotsuku SHOJI, 2-1
3rd Place
Kodai SAKURABA df. Yudai KOMURO, 5-0
Yabiku df. Amane SHIMOYAMADA by TF, 10-0, 2:24
Shoji df. Kaichi SUGAWARA, 3-1

So SAKABE df. Masato SUMI, 6-3 
3rd Place
Takahiro TSURUDA df Kaito MIYAMOTO by TF, 9-0, 2:25 
Sumi df. Miyamoto by TF, 11-0, 3:56
Sakabe df. Tsuruda, 4-1

Arata SONODA df. Sota OKUMURA by TF, 8-0, 1:13
3rd Place
Ryuta KONO df. Shoma SUZUKI by Fall, 1:35 (4-0) 
Sonoda df. Suzuki by TF, 9-0, :54
Okumura df. Kono by TF, 10-1, 4:28

Women's Wrestling

Remina YOSHIMOTO df. Umi ITO by TF, 11-0, 2:53 
3rd Place
Miyu NAKAMURA df. Miho IGARASHI, 7-0
Ito df. Igarashi, 4-0
Yoshimoto df. Minoriho YONEHARA by TF, 10-0, 1:48

Nonoka OZAKI df. Atena KODAMA, 5-0
3rd Place
Rin MIYAJI df. Ami ISHII, 5-5 
Ozaki df. Ishii, 6-2
Kodama df. Miyaji by Fall, 5:59 (7-4)

Yuka KAGAMI df. Yasuha MATSUYUKI, 6-4
3rd Place
Rino ABE df. Mizuki NAGASHIMA, 2-1
Matsuyuki df. Nagashima by TF, 11-0, 4:52
Kagami df. Abe, 5-2