Saturday, July 1, 2017

Where the heck is Cheng Xunzhao?

Cheng Xunzhao (CHN) created quite a sensation at the 2016 Rio Olympics when he defeated Ilias Iliadis (GRE), Krisztian Toth (HUN) and Marcus Nyman (SWE) -- all with ippon, and all with the same ippon-osoto technique -- on his way to eventually winning a bronze medal.

He proved he was no fluke by winning the 2017 Paris Grand Slam in style by using the exact same technique to score ippon in his gold medal match against home favorite, Axel Clerget (FRA). Oh, along the way, he also threw World Champion Gwak Dong-han (KOR) with that very same technique (it scored waza-ari, and then he pinned him for ippon).

Many judo fans looked forward to this new rising force in the -90kg division taking part in various IJF World Tour events this year. But since Paris he has been missing. 

Cheng didn't compete in any of the subsequent IJF World Tour events and he wasn't even at the Asian Championships. Now, we find he is not listed in the contest sheet for the 2017 Hohhot Grand Prix. (See below)

2017 Hohhot Grand Prix draw sheet for -90kg. Cheng Xunzhao's name is notably missing.

What's going on here? Is he injured? Perhaps and that's probably the most logical explanation for his absence from competition. But could there be another reason? Is he purposely keeping his competition appearances to a minimum ala Teddy Riner to maintain an air of mystery and authority, to keep his rivals afraid of what he's capable of doing?

When you compete a lot, even if you are a dominant player, you sometimes lose or come close to losing. Then that aura of invincibility diminishes.

"We don't know why they are missing but to stay away for so long without competing will certainly give rise to the speculation that they are avoiding competition for strategic purposes," says Hans van Essen, editor-in-chief of Judoinside.com. "That might not actually be the case but their long absence certainly gives off that impression."

Many judo fans were looking forward to the 2017 Ekaterinaburg Grand Slam because it was highly anticipated that Riner and the Japanese representative for the World's Takeshi Ojitani would be competing. When Riner withdrew (ostensibly due to injury), Ojitani's name also mysteriously disappeared from the roster. Like Cheng, Ojitani he has not competed internationally since the 2017 Paris Grand Slam, which he also won.

Speaking of missing in action, Italy's flashy Olympic Champion Fabio Basile has not competed in any of the IJF World Tour events this year. His one and only competition after the Olympics was at the 2016 Tokyo Grand Slam where he lost his first match. Is he going to make a grand comeback at the 2017 Budapest World Championships? And if so, can he do well given that he has not been competing at all this year?

"These players are famous and everyone knows their style of play," says Judoinside.com's Van Essen. "What is not clear is how is their form right now? Are they in fighting shape? Skipping so many competitions ahead of the World Championships is surely a risk but I'm certain they are training hard. Riner, for example, has been spotted at international training camps. I'm sure they will all be ready for the World Championships."

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