Sunday, August 20, 2017

Wang Ki-Chun, peaked too early?

The middleweight division is a special one for South Korea for they've had many champions there.

Ahn Byeong-keun became a national hero when he won the -71kg division at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where he overcome Japan's powerhouse, Hidetoshi Nakanishi, in the quarter-final and defeated Italy's Ezio Gamba in the final. He consolidated his legendary status when he won the World Championships on homeground in 1985. In that competition, he defeated the stylish Japanese fighter, Takahiro Nishida, in the quarter-final and Mike Swain of the USA in the final.

The next great middleweight champion from South Korea was Lee Won-hee, who won the gold medal in the 2003 Jeju Asian Judo Championships, 2003 Osaka World Championships, 2004 Athens Olympics and 2006 Doha Asian Games.

Lee was just in his mid-20s and still peaking when his career was cut short by Wang Ki-Chun, who defeated him in the national trials for both the 2007 Rio World Championships and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Another rising star in that category was Kim Jae-Bum. However, he was also beaten by Wang and he decided to move up to the -81kg division (with great success). Lee, however, decided to retire.

Wang would go on to win the 2007 and 2009 World Championships. (He got silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where he had a rib cage fracture in the earlier rounds).

Technically, he was not a big thrower although he was capable of doing many types of throws including ippon-seoi-nage, morote-seoi-nage, reverses seoi-nage, tai-otoshi, kouchi-makikomi, ouchi-gari, uchimata, sode-tsurikomi-goshi and yoko-tomoe-nage. He was very tactical as well and could pull victory from the jaws of defeat in the dying seconds of matches. He was not the most brilliant technician but he was a superbly effective fighter.

The world, it seems, was his oyster. A double World Champion at 21, he had the potential to collect many more World titles to come, especially since the World Championships had change format to a yearly event after 2009. But this was not to be.

Wang lost to the Japanese seoi-nage specialist Hiroyuki Akimoto in the 2010 Tokyo World Championships (and lost to him again at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games).

For the next two years though, from 2011 through 2012, Wang seemed to have regained his stride and was unbeaten in the IJF World Circuit. He was the most consistent fighter in his category. Yet, he would stumble at major world events.

At the 2011 Paris World Championships, he was stunningly thrown for ippon by home favorite Ugo Legrand. He also performed poorly at the 2012 London Olympics, where he lost to Mansur Isaev of Russia. someone he had beaten six times in the past. He also lost for the bronze medal against Legrand, who again threw him for ippon.

After he lost to Japan's Shohei Ono in the first round of the 2013 Rio World Championships, Wang decided to move up a weight to -81kg and challenge his old rival Kim, who was by then Olympic and double World Champion, for a spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics team. As it turned out, neither Wang nor Kim was chosen and Lee Seung-su was sent to Rio instead.

Wang retired after he failed to make the selection for Rio and is now focusing on coaching. It'd be easy to say Wang peaked early but it wasn't like he wasn't winning IJF tournaments after his second World title in 2009. As mentioned earlier, for period of two years (2011 and 2012) Wang was unbeaten in the IJF World Tour and was regularly ranked No. 1. But for some reason, he couldn't live up to expectations in the 2010, 2011, 2013 World Championships and 2012 Olympics – the years when he was at the top of his game.

It just goes to show how unpredictable and how tough judo competition can be. You can defeat all-comers at major IJF events but the World's and Olympics are a different kettle of fish. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Will Krpalek be able to fight -- and win -- at the World's?

An athlete's nightmare is getting injured right before a competition or worse still, during the competition. But judo players are tough and many top players have gone on to win medals despite their injuries.

Krpalek suffers a leg injury weeks before the World's.
The latest top player to have this happen to him is -100kg Olympic Champion Lukas Krpalek who has since moved up a weight class to +100kg. He recently injured his left leg during training and it's not clear whether he will be able to compete in the upcoming 2017 Budapest World Championships.

Ebinuma gets sweet revenge.
In recent years, there have been two cases where a player got injured during their medal match but continued fighting and actually won. In 2013, Japan's Masashi Ebinuma faced Kazakhstan's Azamat Mukanov in the final of the -66kg weight class.

Mukanov attacked Ebinuma with an illegal waki-gatame several times and never got called for it. Then he launched a particularly vicious attack that took Ebinuma to the ground.

It was clear to commentators and observers alike that that was an illegal waki-gatame but for some reason the referee didn't see it as such and neither did the video judges.

So they let it go on. Ebinuma, who was clearly in pain, refused to tap out and survived long enough for the referee to call matte.

Frank Sinatra once said the best revenge is massive success and Ebinuma sure lived by that motto. Despite his arm being badly mangled, he took hold of Mukanov and launched into a driving ouchi-gari that scored a resounding ippon. It was one of the most heroic acts in judo competition.

Nikiforov does the impossible and scores waza-ari and then ippon despite not being able to grip properly.
Arguably even more heroic was Toma Nikiforov, whose hand got injured during an early exchange in the bronze medal match of the 2015 Astana World Championships. Unable to properly take a grip, he was penalized to three shidos and was in danger of getting hansoku-make when in the last minute, his opponent, Cyrille Maret of France, launched a poor forward attack at the edge of the mat that was countered for waza-ari. Suddenly Nikiforov was ahead.

Not content to coast but unable to grip properly, Nikiforov went for broke and completely wrapped himself around Maret with a soto-makikomi and took him down for ippon. It was an incredible display of true grit.

Koga wins despite knee injury.
In Ebinuma and Nikiforov's cases, the injuries were to the arm and hand respectively. To look at a famous leg injury we have to go all the way back to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics where Japanese legend Toshihiko Koga was expected to win an Olympic gold.

He had mesmerized the world with his brilliant performance in at the Barcelona World Championships the year before and it looked like nothing could stop him from winning an Olympic gold. But tragedy nearly struck.

Days before his event, he seriously injured his knee while sparring with teammate Hidehiko Yoshida. his injury was so bad, it wasn't certain that he could compete but in the end, compete he did.

His doctors shot him up with painkillers and he proceeded to win the gold. Throughout it all, he didn't seem to wince. Probably the painkillers did its job. But it was reported that right after the competition he was flown back to Japan for an emergency operation. He would miss the 1993 Hamilton World Championships but returned and won gold at the 1995 at the Tokyo World Championships.

Briggs wins yet another world title despite a dislocated shoulder.
Britain's Karen Briggs is one tough cookie and when she fractured her leg in two places going for her fourth world title in at the 1987 Essen World Championships, she actually wanted to carry on fighting. Of course, this wasn't possible. She did however, managed to regain her title at the 1989 Belgrade World Championships despite suffering a dislocated shoulder doing it.

Yamashita fulfills his destiny.
One of the most famous judokas in the world is Japan's Yasuhiro Yamashita who went into the 1984 LA Olympic Games with an unbeaten competition record.

Although some of today's players might not be as familiar with his fearsome reputation, he was the Teddy Riner of his time. He neither had the height or weight of Riner but he was just as devastating with her uchimata, ouchi-gari and osoto-gari. And he was very effective with strangle and hold-downs as well.

The LA Olympics was to be his last hurrah as he had planned to retire from international competition after the Games. He had missed the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the US-led boycott. A gold medal in Los Angeles would be a perfect way to cap a remarkable career. But it nearly didn't happen.

In the preliminary rounds, he injured his leg. His injury got progressively worse as the day dragged on and he was seen clearly limping going into the final against the Egyptian player Mohammed Rashwan. By that point it was doubtful whether Yamashita could have attacked effectively with his leg so badly injured but it didn't matter because Rashwan attacked first. Yamashita quickly countered and took him to the ground where he clamped on a pin for ippon.

Will Krpalek be able to join the ranks of these heroic players and win despite injury? We shall see...