Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hitoshi Saito RIP (1961-2015)

Some sad news today. Hitoshi Saito of Japan -- World Champion and double Olympic Champion -- has died of cancer at the age of 54.

Saito was truly one of the judo greats of all time. Weighing a massive 140 kg in his prime, he was truly a heavyweight but he displayed the nimbleness and agility of a lightweight (see the video clip at the bottom to understand why I say so).

Saito, however, had the misfortune of competing in the same era of the legendary Yasuhiro Yamashita, whom he never beat but whom he fought alongside in the 1983 Moscow World Championships, where both men won gold: Yamashita in the +95kg category and Saito in the Open.

A year later, both men would go to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games except this time they changed roles, with Yamashita fighting in the Open and Saito fighting in the +95kg category. They would both win gold again.

Although Saito never managed to defeat Yamashita in domestic competitions, he came very close to doing so in the very last match Yamashita ever competed in: the final of the 1985 All-Japan Championships. Some say he deserved to win. I'll let you decide by watching the video clips yourself.

Saito would have won another world title, at the 1985 Seoul World Championships if not for an illegal attack by his South Korean opponent, who should have gotten hansoku-make but instead was awarded the gold medal.

He would have his revenge three years later though, at the 1988 Seoul Olympics  where he met that same South Korean opponent. This time, he beat his rival on South Korean soil. Not only that, he single-handedly saved Japanese honor by winning Japan's only gold medal at that Olympics. He was the first Japanese ever to win a double Olympic gold medal.

A heavyweight with the agility of a lightweight

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