Local stars Makhmudov, Tynybekova among 10 world champs on quest for Asian gold

By Ken Marantz

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (April 9) -- They are both defending champions, both world gold medalists and Olympic silver medalists, and together will be competing in front of a partisan Kyrgyz crowd that absolutely adores them.

For local heroes AKZHOL MAKHMUDOV (KGZ) at Greco 77kg and Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ) at women's 62kg, the setting for the upcoming Asian Championships in Bishkek could not be more perfect.

But that does not mean it will be easy. Another thing that the two superstars have in common is that a Japanese opponent is waiting in the wings for each, fully determined to avenge a close semifinal loss at last year's World Championships. Makmudov and Tynybekova are among 10 current world champions, including compatriot Zholaman SHARSHENBEKOV (KGZ) at Greco 60kg, who will be taking the mat during the six-day tournament at Bishkek Arena that starts on Thursday.

The field has been thinned a bit by the fact that the Asian Olympic Qualifier will be held three days after the tournament ends, but there are still more than enough top competitors to ensure a lively event.

Makmudov, Tynybekova and Sharshenbekov are among 13 returning champions, although a weight class change has put two of them together. Among the baker's dozen, Amin MIRZAZADEH (IRI) at Greco 130kg and Akhmed TAZHUDINOV (BRN) at freestyle 97kg also completed the world-Asian double.

Powerhouse Iran has sent a freestyle contingent with a mixed bag of experience, led by former world champion and defending Asian champion Rahman AMOUZAD (IRI) at 65kg, three-time world medalist Mohammad NOKHODI (IRI) at 79kg and reigning world champion Amir Hossein ZARE (IRI) at 125kg.

A clash of world champions is possible at 97kg, although Tazhudinov, who established his credentials with one-sided victories over both Kyle SNYDER (USA) and Abdulrashid SADULAEV (AIN) in Belgrade last September, handily defeated 92kg gold medalist Rizabek AITMUKHAN (KAZ) in a meeting last month.

In Greco, Mirzazadeh is among four returning champions for Iran, along with Poya DAD MARZ (IRI) at 55kg, Iman MOHAMMADI (IRI) at 63kg and Naser ALIZADEH (IRI) at 87kg. Olympic bronze medalist and three-time world medalist Mohammadhadi SARAVI (IRI) will look to keep the 97kg gold in Iranian hands while adding to his 2020 Asian title.

In women's wrestling, the all-mighty Japanese can be expected to dominate, particularly since four of the six wrestlers who qualified for the Paris Olympics are making the trip to Bishkek, including Tokyo Olympic champion Yui SUSAKI (JPN) and fellow world champion Tsugumi SAKURAI (JPN).

"The Asian Championships will be my last competition before the Paris Olympics," Susaki said in a recent video posted on the Japan federation's Facebook page. "I want to take the mat with the same emotion as at the Olympics, definitely win the gold medal and make a good start heading towards the Olympics."

The tournament will mark the international debut at 68kg of Nonoka OZAKI (JPN), who failed to make the squad to Paris at 62kg, the weight in which she won the world title in 2022. She won the gold at 65kg last year, then made a bold move up to 68kg and won a dramatic playoff for the Olympic spot.

Bishkek will also see the return to the global stage of two-time Olympic champion Risako KINJO (JPN) after she missed out on Paris at 57kg. Kinjo, who is entered at 59kg, last competed internationally at the Tokyo Olympics and has since gotten married and given birth. She won two Olympic, four world and four Asian titles under her maiden name of KAWAI.

The wild card of the tournament will be the presence of wrestlers from the DPR Korea, which has four entries in freestyle, four in Greco and six in the women's competition.

From 2020 and the disruption of the pandemic up to this year, the nation has entered just one international tournament, sending two Greco wrestlers to last October's Asian Games.

While Yong Ok HWANG (PRK) was a senior bronze medalist at women's 50kg in 2019, most of the team members are relative unknowns, with some having won Asian medals on the cadet or junior level in the pre-pandemic years. Other teams will underestimate them at their own peril.

India, which will be competing under its name and flag following the lifting of the suspension of its national federation, is sending a young squad built around two-time champion SARITA (IND) at women's 57kg. There are a number of wrestlers with recent success on the age-group levels, including world U20 champion PRIYA at women's 76kg.

Amir Hossein ZARE (IRI)World champion Amir Hossein ZARE (IRI) is making his Asian Championships debut in Bishkek. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Kadir Caliskan)

Here is a short overview of each weight class:

Freestyle (April 11-12)

57kg: This division is wide open, with Almaz SMANBEKOV (KGZ) the lone returning medalist after adding the silver last year to the bronze he won in 2022. Zanabazar ZANDANBUD (MGL), a world bronze medalist in 2022, will be looking to improve on his Asian silver from 2017. The draw also includes the finalists from last year's Asian U20 tournament, champion UDIT (IND) and runner-up Ebrahim KHARI (IRI).

61kg: The host country's Taiyrbek ZHUMASHBEK UULU (KGZ), the defending champion and a world bronze medalist, and 2022 world silver medalist Reza ATRI (IRI) look like the ones to beat. Atri was the Asian champion at 57kg in 2019 and finished fifth at the Tokyo Olympics. Also worth watching is two-time world U23 bronze medalist Assyl AITAKYN (KAZ).

65kg: Amouzad, who earned Asia's lone spot at the Paris Olympics in this weight class by placing fifth in Belgrade, will be the favorite to win his third title in a row. The 2022 world champion, who placed second at the Zagreb Ranking Series tournament in January, could see a rematch of the 2023 final with Tulga TUMUR OCHIR (MGL), a 2021 world bronze medalist.

The two can expect competition from Ulukbek ZHOLDOSHBEKOV (KGZ), who picked up his fifth senior Asian medal last year when he took bronze. His lone gold came in 2020 at 61kg. Also in the field is two-time Asian bronze medalist Abbos RAKHMONOV (UZB) and Masanosuke ONO (JPN), surprise winner at last month's Yasar Dogu tournament in Antalya, Turkey.

70kg: World bronze medalist Amirmohammad YAZDANI (IRI) heads a field that includes returning bronze medalist and world U23 silver medalist Yoshinosuke AOYAGI (JPN), two-time Asian bronze medalist Meirzhan ASHIROV (KAZ) and 2021 world bronze medalist Alibek OSMONOV (KGZ).

74kg: This Olympic weight is a bit light on name recognition, with two medalists from the past two years at 70kg coming in as the favorites. Syrbaz TALGAT (KAZ) was a bronze medalist in 2022 and the champion in 2021, while Zafarbek OTAKHONOV (UZB) has moved up after his runner-up finish last year. Iran will be represented by Hossein ABOUZARIPASHKOLAEI (IRI), who was second at this year's Zagreb Open, with 2022 world U23 bronze medalist Kota TAKAHASHI (JPN) also in the draw.

79kg: The gold medal is Nokhodi's to lose as the Iranian makes his first Asian appearance since winning a bronze in 2019. The 2023 world bronze medalist, who lost to Jordan BURROUGHS (USA) in the finals at both the 2021 and 2022 worlds, arrives in Bishkek with a victory at the Zagreb Open under his belt.

Looking to upend Nokhodi are Khidir SAIPUDINOV (BRN) and Byambadorj ENKHBAYAR (MGL), the champion and runner-up, respectively, in Antalya, and 2022 world U20 silver medalist Ryunosuke KAMIYA (JPN).

86kg: Two-time world bronze medalist Azamat DAULETBEKOV (KAZ) will be going for his third straight Asian title and fifth medal overall, and could get a chance to avenge a 4-3 loss at the Asian Games to eventual bronze medalist Javrail SHAPIEV (UZB). Shapiev, who was fifth at the Tokyo Olympics, earned a ticket to Paris by winning the fifth-place playoff in Belgrade.

Looking to knock off those two will be 2022 world U23 champion Tatsuya SHIRAI (JPN), Asian U23 champion Batbilguun NAAMDAMBAT (MGL), and Yasar Dogu winner Hadi VAFAEIPOUR (IRI) -- who has the rare achievement of also being a champion in the Beach Wrestling series, having won at a tournament in Turkey last October.

92kg: Amirhossein FIROUZPOUR (IRI) is back on the Iranian team after a successful run in 2022, when he won the senior Asian and world U23 and U20 golds, and is coming off a victory in Antalya. Magomed SHARIPOV (BRN) will be aiming to improve on the bronze he won last year, while Adilet DAVLUMBAYEV (KAZ) will be looking to strike gold after settling for silver in 2018 and bronze in 2022.

97kg: Tazhudinov got the best of his fellow world champion Aitmukhan in the semifinals in Antalya, winning by fall after leading 9-3 en route to the title. Tazhudinov has not been defeated since February 2023, when he fell 6-4 to Vladislav BAITCAEV (HUN) in the quarterfinals at the Alexandria Ranking Series tournament. Since then, he has been on a rampage, winning golds in succession at the Asian Championships, Bishkek Ranking Series, World Championships, Asian Games and Yasar Dogu.

It remains to be seen if veteran Mohammadhossein MOHAMMADIAN (IRI) can stop the juggernaut. The 31-year-old won his second Asian title in 2022, seven years after his first and following a blank between 2015 and 2019. Others to watch are returning bronze medalist Makhsud VEYSALOV (UZB) and two-time silver medalist Batzul ULZIISAIKHAN (MGL).

125kg: Zare, a Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist, is the prohibitive favorite to triumph in his senior Asian debut, having captured the Asian Games gold in October. The two-time world champion opened the year with a victory at the Zagreb Open. Both bronze medalists from 2023, BUHEERDUN (CHN) and Anirudh KUMAR (IND), are back, as well as 38-year-old Aiaal LAZAREV (KGZ), who will be gunning for his sixth Asian medal dating back to 2010. He won his lone gold in 2015.

Yui SUSAKI (JPN)Yui SUSAKI (JPN) is returning to the Asian Championships after a gap of seven years. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Kadir Caliskan)

Women's Wrestling (April 13-14)

50kg: Susaki has still never been defeated by a non-Japanese opponent, and while her ultimate goal is the successful defense of her Olympic title in Paris, she has no intention of letting her guard down in Bishkek. The three-time world champion is riding a 51-match winning streak since losing to compatriot Yuki IRIE (JPN) in a world team playoff in July 2019 -- with 39 of the victories by fall or technical superiority.

Susaki opened the season with a dominant performance at the Zagreb Open, beating one of her main competitors in Bishkek -- world bronze medalist Ziqi FENG (CHN) -- 10-0 in the final. She also faced two other medal contenders last year, world silver medalist Otgonjargal DOLGORJAV (MGL) and Asian silver medalist Jasmina IMMAEVA (UZB), beating them both by a similar result. In aiming to add to her lone Asian title from 2017, Susaki will need to be wary if she encounters the DPR Korea's Hwang--the reclusive nation's wrestlers have a recent history of tunning big-name Japanese opponents.

53kg: World champion Akari FUJINAMI (JPN) will not be returning for a three-peat after recently suffering a dislocated elbow in practice. That leaves the door wide open in a field with no obvious favorite. Taking Fujinami's place is Nagisa HARADA (JPN), who finished second at the Klippan Lady and seventh at the world U20 in 2023. Other contenders are Otgontuya CHINBOLD (MGL), the silver medalist at 55kg last year; 2018 gold medalist Chun LEI (CHN); and two-time Asian U20 silver medalist Dilshoda MATNAZAROVA (UZB). Ji Hyang KIM (PRK) was the 2019 Asian cadet champion, so it will be interesting to see what she brings to the table.

55kg: Dulguun MUNKHBOLD BOLORMAA (MGL) completed the full set of Asian medals when she won the gold in 2021 (following a silver in 2020 and bronze in 2019). Can she add to the collection and, if so, which color will it be? Looking to prevent it from being gold will be 2022 world U23 and U20 champion Moe KIYOOKA (JPN) -- a teammate of Harada's at Ikuei University -- Asian U23 champion Min ZHANG (CHN), and TAMMANA (IND), the Asian U23 silver medalist at 53kg. Kiyooka will be competing a few days before older brother Kotaro tries to earn an Olympic berth for Japan at freestyle 65kg.

57kg: Three-time reigning world champion Sakurai, a recent Ikuei grad, will be aiming for a second Asian gold as she begins final preparations for her first Olympics, having previously triumphed in 2022. India's Sarita has moved down from 59kg, the division in which she won back-to-back golds in 2020 and 2021 and a bronze in 2022, as well as a world bronze in 2021.

Gantuya ENKHBAT (MGL) has dropped down from 62kg, in which she won world bronze in 2021. Yongxin FENG (CHN) medaled at the Zagreb Open for the second straight year in January, while Hyon Ju PARK (PRK) was the 2019 Asian junior champion.

59kg: Kinjo lost out to Sakurai in a bid to make the Paris Olympics at 57kg, but does not view making Japan's team to Bishkek at 59kg as a consolation prize. She remains a serious competitor and ready to take on all challengers. Her main competition happens to be the reigning world champion, Qi ZHANG (CHN), who also has a pair of Asian bronzes from 2017 and 2019.

62kg: A rematch of the final at the World Championships -- and possibly a preview of Paris -- is a strong possibility between Tynybekova and rising star Sakura MOTOKI (JPN), who moved up from 59kg and snatched the Olympic spot at 62kg from Ozaki and Tokyo champion Yukako KAWAI (JPN). Tynybekova, with the crowd on her side, will be aiming for a sixth Asian gold and 11th medal overall. She also has four world medals, including three golds.

Tynybekova and Motoki have met twice over a recent four-month span--in Belgrade and Zagreb -- with the former winning both by close decisions. Motoki is ready to turn the tide. "The Asian Championships will be held in Kyrgyzstan, and that's the country of my biggest rival Aisuluu, and I will do all I can to beat [her]," Motoki declared in an interview.

The battle for the other medals will likely be between world 65kg bronze medalist LILI (CHN), 2015 world silver medalist and three-time Asian bronze medalist Tserenchimed SUKHEE (MGL) and two-time Asian bronze medalist MANISHA (IND).

65kg: Mahiro YOSHITAKE (JPN), the 2022 world U20 champion, has a golden opportunity to upgrade her 2023 silver to gold as the prohibitive favorite. Yoshitake won the Yasar Dogu title in January with an 11-1 victory in the final over Asian U23 champion Enkhjin TUVSHINJARGAL (MGL), who will likely be one of her main rivals in Bishkek. Also expected to be in the mix are world U20 silver medalist ANTIM (IND) and 2022 world U20 bronze medalist Dilnaz SAZANOVA (KGZ).

68kg: Any doubts about whether Ozaki could handle the extra weight in moving up to 68kg were likely answered when she pulled off a dramatic victory over 2022 world silver medalist Ami ISHII (JPN) in the domestic Olympic playoff. She can expect a battle from the most recent world silver medalist, Delgermaa ENKHSAIKHAN (MGL), who will be looking for her first Asian gold after taking home two bronzes and a silver over the past three years. RADHIKA (IND) has made a similar weight progression as Ozaki, from 2021 world U23 bronze medalist at 62kg to 2022 Asian silver medalist at 65kg.

72kg: After coming away with silver medals at the last two Asian Championships, Sumire NIIKURA (JPN) is well-positioned to capture an elusive gold. A world U20 and U23 bronze medalist in 2022, she gained a boost of confidence by winning the gold in Antalya. Two rivals in Bishkek, 2022 world U20 silver medalist Anastassiya PANASSOVICH (KAZ) and Bolortungalag ZORIGT (MGL), were also in Antalya, but both lost in the quarterfinals and neither faced Niikura. Also expected to be in the medal hunt are 2023 world U20 bronze medalist HARSHITA (IND) and Asian Games 68kg silver medalist Nurzat NURTAEVA (KGZ).

76kg: With world champion Yuka KAGAMI (JPN) also withdrawing due to injury, a rematch of last year's final between defending champion Elmira SYZDYKOVA (KAZ) and world silver medalist Aiperi MEDET KYZY (KGZ) could be in the cards. Looking to prevent that will be returning bronze medalist and world U20 champion PRIYA (IND), 2022 world U23 bronze medalist Yasuha MATSUYUKI (JPN) and Yasar Dogu bronze medalist Zagardulam NAIGALSUREN (MGL).

Zholaman SHARSHENBEKOV (KGZ)Zholaman SHARSHENBEKOV (KGZ) will look to defend his 60kg title. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Kostadin Andonov)

Greco-Roman (April 15-16)

55kg: In his quest to repeat as Asian champion, Iran's Dad Marz could encounter the wrestler with whom he shared the podium at the World Championships. Both Dad Marz and Jasurbek ORTIKBOEV (UZB) took bronze medals home from Belgrade, and also have multiple Asian medals to their credit. Dad Marz, the 2022 world U23 champion, is coming off a gold-medal run in Antalya. Ortikboev, a two-time world bronze medalist, was second at the 2020 Asian Championships and third in 2022. Aiming to stop them will be two-time Asian bronze medalist Arjun HALAKURKI (IND), 2023 Zagreb Open champion HUSIYUETU (CHN) and Asian U23 champion Ulan MURATBEK UULU (KGZ).

60kg: Kyrgyzstan's Sharshenbekov has been the dominant figure at this weight for the past two years, monopolizing both the Asian and world titles while also picking up the Asian Games gold. A victory in his home country would give him a fifth Asian medal overall. Who can stop him? Liguo CAO (CHN), an Asian and world bronze medalist last year, will certainly give it a shot. As will Ilkhom BAKHRAMOV (UZB), who will be looking to combine with brother Islomjon at 63kg in a repeat of their golden sibling double of 2019. Also look out for world U20 bronze medalist Amirreza DEHBOZORGI (IRI) and 2021 Asian bronze medalist Seunghak KIM (KOR).

63kg: Iman MOHAMMADI (IRI), the 2022 world U23 and U20 champion, is back to defend the title he won a year ago in Astana. Islomjon BAKHRAMOV (UZB), a 2023 world 60kg bronze medalist, will be looking to regain the title he won in 2019 and earn a fourth Asian medal overall. Others to watch are Asian U23 champion Haodong TAN (CHN), Asian Games bronze medalist Ayata SUZUKI (JPN) and 2018 Asian bronze medalist Dokyung JUNG (KOR).

67kg: With the cream of the weight class heading to the Olympic qualifier, returning bronze medalist Razzak BEISHEKEEV (KGZ) has a chance to move up to gold in front of the home crowd. Beishekeev also won the Asian U23 title and an Asian Games bronze medal last year. Hanjae CHUNG (KOR), the silver medalist last year at 60kg, has jumped up two weight classes in a bid for a third career Asian medal. Others to watch are Shermukhammad SHARIBJANOV (UZB), last year's silver medalist at 63kg, 2022 world U20 champion Saeid ESMAELI LEIVESI (IRI) and 2023 world U23 bronze medalist Haruto YABE (JPN).

72kg: This one looks like a toss-up between Adilkhan NURLANBEKOV (KGZ), a bronze medalist the past two years, 2019 world junior bronze medalist Mohammadreza ROSTAMI (IRI) and Asian U20 champion Abdullo ALIEV (UZB).

77kg: Anyone who was in the Kozhomkul Sports Palace in 2018 to see a teenaged Makhmudov win a dramatic gold medal for host Kyrgyzstan on the final day knows how frenzied and passionate the home crowd can get. And Nao KUSAKA (JPN) would love nothing better than to spoil the mood.

Kusaka took Makhmudov to the limit at the World Championships before conceding a 7-5 loss in the semifinals. Kusaka went on to win a bronze medal and clinch his first trip to the Olympics, and avenging the loss to Makhmudov is all part of a grand plan to optimize his chances in Paris.

"I'm looking forward to it," Kusaka said in a video interview. "The opponent who I lost to in the semifinals at the World Championships is also entered. I looked back at the footage of our match and it was filled with places where I thought, 'If I only had done this more.' I'm really excited right now.

"After Asia, I will go the [UWW Ranking Series in] Hungary, because I want to be seeded for the Olympics," said Kusaka, who currently sits fourth in the UWW rankings. "Everyone looks at it differently, but for me, even one less match [at the Olympics] is best. That's because the concentration I can put out for each match is different."

Either Makhmudov and Kusaka could have to contend with a champion from 2023 in Ibragim MAGOMADOV (KAZ), who won the gold at 72kg in Astana. Also worth watching are SAJAN (IND), a 2022 world U23 bronze medalist with Kusaka, and Amir Ali ABDI (IRI), who also won a 2022 world U23 bronze, but at 72kg.

82kg: With just seven entries in the non-Olympic weight, 2o22 Asian champion Rasoul GARMSIRI (IRI) looks like the wrestler to beat as the Iranian comes off a runner-up finish in Antalya. Others to watch are 2022 bronze medalist Mukhammadkodir RASULOV (UZB), 2019 world U23 bronze medalist Yevgeniy POLIVADOV (KAZ) and 2023 world U17 champion Taizo YOSHIDA (JPN).

97kg: Tokyo Olympic and 2023 world bronze medalist Saravi is the clear favorite in a field that includes Makhmudov's brother Beksultan MAKHMUDOV (KGZ), a bronze medalist in 2021. Saravi has one Asian title to his credit from 2020, as well as an Asian Games gold won last year. Also in medal contention will be 2022 world U20 silver medalist Iussuf MATSIYEV (KAZ).

130kg: It would be tough to bet against world champion Mirzazadeh, who won his second Asian title last year, and also has an Asian Games gold and 2022 world silver medal to his credit. Lingzhe MENG (CHN) will be gunning to avenge losses in the finals to Mirzazadeh at both the Asian Championships and Asian Games. Also in the mix will be 2018 world bronze medalist and two-time Asian silver medalist Minseok KIM (KOR), 2022 Asian U23 champion Erlan MANATBEKOV (KGZ) and 2020 Asian bronze medalist Mansur SHADUKAYEV (KAZ).

#wrestlebishkek, #WrestleParis

Rising star Sogabe survives scare to gain Paris 2024 ticket

By Ken Marantz

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (April 21) -- For all the young wrestlers who wonder why they do so much bridging in practice, Kyotaro SOGABE (JPN) showed how it can all pay off in that future situation when the stakes are at their highest.

Sogabe, about to see his Olympic dream ended, fought tenaciously off his back before going on to defeat Meiirzhan SHERMAKHANBET (KAZ) 11-2 and earn a ticket to the Paris Olympics at Greco 67kg on the final day of the Asian Olympic Qualifier on Sunday in Bishkek.

"If I had lost by fall there, my life would have been over," said the 22-year-old Sogabe, the 2023 Asian silver medalist who has long been touted in Japan as a star of the future. "All I've ever thought deep in my heart is that I will definitely win the gold medal in Paris.

"I asked myself, 'Are you going to give up now?' and that really got me going. I was so strongly determined not to lose by fall that I was able to escape."

Iran became the first country to complete the full set of six Greco quotas when Amin KAVIYANI (IRI) and Alireza MOHMADIPIANI (IRI) won their respective bouts at 77kg and 87kg, although neither victory came easy.

Also notably qualifying for Paris was Asia's "greybeard" Rustam ASSAKALOV (UZB), the 39-year-old wonder who earned his third trip to the Olympics with a victory at 97kg.

Kazakhstan came away with three Paris berths, while Korea won two along with Iran. The DPR Korea, which was shut out in freestyle before winning three spots in women's wrestling, gained its first and only ticket in Greco.

Three countries saw bids for historic victories quashed, as Jordan and Saudi Arabia were left still waiting for their first-ever Olympians in wrestling, while Chinese Taipei remains without ever having a male wrestler make the Olympics.

Combined with the results from last year's World Championships in Belgrade, where five quotas per weight class were available, Kazakhstan now has four, Kyrgyzstan, Japan and China three each, Korea and Uzbekistan two apiece and the DPR Korea one. The last chance will be at the World Olympic Qualifier in Istanbul on May 9-12, where three final places will be up for grabs.

Kyotaro SOGABE (JPN)Kyotaro SOGABE (JPN) with the 'qualified athlete' ticket for Paris Olympics. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Kadir Caliskan)

For Japan's Sogabe, his victory made up for a controversial loss in the quarterfinals in Belgrade to Mohammadreza GERAEI (IRI), which he lost 11-10 but had the crowd fully on his side as the Iranian waned in the final moments. It also made him determined to leave Bishkek with the ticket to Paris.

"The World Championships last year was devastating, and I have practiced every day with the determination to win the gold medal in Paris," said Sogabe, a 2022 world U23 bronze medalist. "Keeping that tough experience in my head, I worked on fixing things that weren't working well and was able to win here."

Asked about getting the chance to avenge the loss to Geraei in Paris, Sogabe expressed more concern with just winning the gold, regardless of who he faces.

"Today was really enjoyable, and I realized that in the end, having fun is the best way to do wrestling," he said. "I have to think about how I can become the strongest wrestler I can be so I can win at the Olympics. My goal is the gold medal, and I want to win it by being the strongest of all and in an enjoyable way."

Sogabe's victory came two days after Nippon Sports Science University teammate Kotaro KIYOOKA (JPN) earned his Paris ticket at freestyle 65kg. The two are both from the central island of Shikoku, and have been friendly rivals since their elementary school days.

"We are in the same class, and ever since we were young, I have not wanted to lose to him," Sogabe said. "'If I lose here, I'll be a step behind [Kotaro],' I thought. We are rivals, but we push each other and make each other better. I want us to win gold medals in Paris together."

Sogabe saw how quickly fortunes can turn in the sport in his clash with Asian Games silver medalist Sharmankhanbet, the 2021 Asian champion and a 2018 world bronze medalist.

Sogabe secured a body lock on Sharmankhanbet and slammed him down for four points -- only to have Sharmankhanbet roll Sogabe onto his back and secure a tight front headlock. A fall seemed imminent, but Sogabe's bridge kept his shoulders off the mat, and after a few tense seconds, he managed to extricate himself from the danger.

The Kazakh side made a seemingly dubious challenge for a suspected hand block of the leg, which was not only denied to give Sogabe a 5-2 lead but would work against them when an actual challenge situation arose later on and they could not contest it.

While his aggressiveness got him into trouble, Sogabe said he has no plans to change his style. "I have used attacking wrestling all this time, so I'm definitely not going to veer away from it," he said. "I will continue attacking right up to the very end."

In the second period, Sogabe drove Sharmankhanbet down for a takedown, although it looked like he may have stepped on his opponent's foot. But because the Kazakh side could not challenge, the points stood and Sogabe had a comfortable 7-2 lead. He stopped a desperation throw for 4 in the final seconds to make it officially a technical fall.

Among the crowd at Bishkek Arena were Sogabe's family and Nippon Sports Science University head coach Shingo MATSUMOTO, who flew in for the occasion. "For my whole family to come all this way, and coach Matsumoto here to support me, I'm really happy that I was able to get the job done," said Sogabe, who had to beat Asian Games champion and senior training partner Katsuaki ENDO (JPN) to earn the right to compete in Bishkek.

Sogabe's path to the final started with an 8-0 victory over 36-year-old Hansu RYU (KOR), a two-time Olympian and two-time former world champion, which may have marked a generational change in the weight class.

Amantur ISMAILOV (KGZ)Amantur ISMAILOV (KGZ) tries to pin HUSIYUETU (CHN) in 67kg semifinals. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Amirreza Aliasgari)

The other Paris berth at 67kg went to Amantur ISMAILOV (KGZ), who thrilled the home crowd with a second-period surge that gave him a 9-1 victory over HUSIYUETU (CHN).

Leading 1-0 off a passivity point in the first period, Ismailov started the second by fighting off a throw for a takedown, then charged ahead with a reverse body lift for a 2-point exposure. China challenged the original takedown, only to see it not only affirmed, but Husiyuetu assessed a 2-point penalty for touching the leg while he was being sent to his back.

The penalty, while giving Ismailov a 7-1 lead, also put him on the top in par terre, and he turned Husiyuetu over to end the match at 3:58.

Amin KAVIYANI (IRI)Amin KAVIYANI (IRI) celebrates after winning the Paris Olympic 77kg quota for Iran. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Amirreza Aliasgari)

At 77kg, Iran's Asian Games silver medalist Kaviyani was made to work hard for his Paris ticket, clinching a tense 6-5 victory over Rui LIU (CHN) by scoring the last of three consecutive stepouts with 49 seconds left.

Liu got off to a good start in his bid to avenge a 1-1 semifinal loss at last October's Asian Games in China when he completed a roll from par terre, and had a 2-point leg blocking penalty tacked on for a 5-0 lead. Kaviyani cut the gap with a counter takedown before the break.

"Everything was under control, but unfortunately I got a two-point warning," Kaviyani said. "In my opinion, there was no foot fault but it made the fight more difficult for me."

In the second period, Kaviyani received a passivity point but allowed Liu to pop out from par terre, leaving him trailing 5-3. But then the three-time Asian medalist launched his succession of stepouts to march to victory and a likely trip to Paris.

"At the Asian Games where the Chinese were the hosts, against the Chinese wrestler who is powerful, I won the match with a 1-1 score, but today I was able to get more technical points in this match," Kaviyani said. "I was under a bit of pressure and I had to get the best result. I’m thankful that I could get that result and the Olympic quota."

Alireza MOHMADIPIANI (IRI)Alireza MOHMADIPIANI (IRI) defeated Jalgasbay BERDIMURATOV (UZB) to win the 87kg quota for Iran. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Amirreza Aliasgari)

A short time later at 87kg, Mohmadipiani was also taken to the limit in securing Iran's sixth Olympic quota with a 3-2 victory over Asian Games champion Jalgasbay BERDIMURATOV (UZB).

Berdimuratov was only able to gain a 1-point stepout from a throw attempt out of par terre in the first period, and that would make the difference when Mohmadpiani, the world silver medalist at 82kg, got 2 from a throw in the same situation in the second period.

"I’m thankful that I could get the Olympic quota one year after the World Championships, especially when I was able to go from 82kg to 87kg," Mohmadpiani said. "I feel really good that I could keep this weight and I hope I can defeat my opponents in the Olympics."

Looking toward Paris, Mohmadpiani added, "My plan for the Olympics is to fix my flaws and add some new techniques so I can wrestle some mistake-free matches in the Olympics and shine."

Rustam ASSAKALOV (UZB)Rustam ASSAKALOV (UZB) celebrates after beating Uzur DZHUZUPBEKOV (KGZ) to win the Paris 2024 quota. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Kadir Caliskan)

At 97kg, the ageless Assakalov rumbled to another Olympics with a 3-1 victory over Tokyo Olympian Uzur DZHUZUPBEKOV (KGZ), who was his own worst enemy by committing a 2-point penalty for grabbing the singlet.

Assakalov, coming off a bronze-medal performance at the Asian Games, was put in par terre first, but was unable to add points against Dzhuzupbekov, a five-time Asian medalist and 2019 champion.

In the second period, Assakalov initiated a challenge to get Dzhuzupbekov tagged for grabbing the singlet that had gone unnoticed by the referee. The challenge worked, and Assakalov now had a 3-0 lead.

All he had to do was survive a stint on the bottom of par terre, which he did, and then used his vast experience to hold off Dzhuzupbekov while avoiding a passivity caution.

Assakalov, whose longevity is a testament to his love of the sport, has a long list of career achievements. He finished eighth at both the 2016 Rio and 2021 Tokyo Olympics, won a world silver in 2015 and bronze in 2017, and has eight Asian medals, including three golds.

It was singlet-grabbing that also proved the downfall for Ibrahim FALLATAH (KSA) in the other 97kg match, in which he lost 5-1 to Seungjun KIM (KOR) to fall short of becoming Saudi Arabia's first-ever wrestler in the Olympics.

Fallatah was hit with a 2-point penalty for grabbing the singlet in each period, while both wrestlers received a passivity point but were unable to score in par terre.

The loss by Sultan EID (JOR) to Haitao QIAN (CHN) in the other 87kg match was much more straightforward, as the Chinese held the upper hand throughout in a 7-0 victory in denying Jordan its first-ever Olympic wrestler.

Qian, a 2019 world bronze medalist at 82kg, was put in par terre in the first period and took advantage with a pair of gut wrenches for a 5-0 lead. In the second period, he used an underhook for a driving takedown to put the victory on ice.

Demeu ZHADRAYEV (KAZ)Demeu ZHADRAYEV (KAZ) scores a match-winning takedown against Dowon LEE (KOR) at 77kg. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Kadir Caliskan)

In the other 77kg match, veteran four-time Asian medalist Demeu ZHADRAYEV (KAZ) seemed to be heading straight to defeat when his opponent Dowon LEE (KOR) suddenly crumbled late in their bout, giving Zhadrayev a 5-2 victory and a possible second trip to the Olympics.

Lee began brightly with a nice arm drag for a takedown that gave him a 2-0 lead at the break. And when he gave up a passivity point and was put on bottom, he kept a one-point lead by slipping out of a roll attempt for no points.

But with Zhadrayev viciously pressing ahead at the edge, Lee was holding out quite well until he suddenly ran out of gas and was crushed to the mat for a takedown with 30 seconds to go. Lee then limply went over for a 2-point exposure.

For the wrestlers at 60kg, the tournament provided a golden opportunity for an Olympic place, as Asian nations swept all five places in the weight class in Belgrade -- the only region to do so in any of the three styles.

Two-time world bronze medalist Aidos SULTANGALI (KAZ) came out the winner in the opening match of the night session with a victory by fall over Jui Chi HUANG (TPE).

Sultangali got four points by driving Huang onto his back in defense of an awkward arm throw, then added a gut wrench and a throw that ended up being ruled a stepout. A challenge by the Chinese Taipei downgraded the original 4-pointer to two, leaving Sultangali with a 5-0 lead.

Sultangali, the 2021 Asian champion, went right back to work, sticking Huang with a textbook-perfect headlock throw and securing the fall at 2:28.

Huang was attempting to become Chinese Taipei's first-ever male wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. The nation has had just one wrestler in the Olympics, Wen-Ling CHEN (TPE), who appeared in women's 69kg at the 2016 Rio Games.

Se Ung RI (PRK)Se Ung RI (PRK) won the DPR Korea's first Greco-Roman quota for Paris Olympics at 60kg. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Kadir Caliskan)

In the other match at 60kg, Se Ung RI (PRK) scored a first-period takedown and held on for a 3-0 victory over Dahyun KIM (KOR), who was thrown off his feet twice in the match but somehow managed to keep the moves from scoring points.

Ri looked like he would take an early lead when he hit Kim with a hip throw, but the Korean cartwheeled out of it and landed on his feet for no points. When Ri received a passivity point and was put on top of par terre, he lifted Kim off the mat but was unable to get enough height for points.

Ri got on the scoreboard again with a nice duck-under takedown for a 3-0 lead at the break, and in the second period, he kept the pressure on to avoid giving Kim a chance in par terre.

Korea picked up its second victory of the night at 130kg, when Seungchan LEE (KOR) cruised to a 9-0 win over surprise semifinalist Sota OKUMURA (JPN). Lee gained a passivity point and proceeded to reel off four straight rolls to win in 1:36, the shortest bout of the night.

Okumura, who was looking to become the first Japanese heavyweight in Greco to make the Olympics since 1996, had never won a match in eight previous international tournaments before he rallied to defeat Tamurbek NASIMOV (UZB) 12-6 to move one step away from Paris. That had avenged a loss to Nasimov at the Asian Games.

Alimkhan SYZDYKOV (KAZ)Alimkhan SYZDYKOV (KAZ) hung on for a 7-7 victory over Roman KIM (KGZ) at 130kg. (Photo: United World Wrestling / Kadir Caliskan)

Asian Games bronze medalist Alimkhan SYZDYKOV (KAZ) capped the tournament by fighting off fatigue and home favorite Roman KIM (KGZ) to eke out a 7-7 win in the other 130kg match.

The match between the three-time Asian medalists started with a bang, or a slap as it were. After scoring a stepout, Syzdykov was awarded two points when Kim lashed him with a sharp slap to the ear like the type seen more in sumo wrestling. Kim then spun behind for a takedown to cut Syzydkov's lead to 3-2 at the break.

Syzydkov padded the lead to 7-2 with a takedown and gut wrench, but after that, it was obvious he was running on fumes. Kim put the pressure on and scored a pair of stepouts, with a fleeing point tacked onto the second one to make it 7-5, before Syzydkov was assessed a 2-point penalty for inactivity.

Leading 7-7 on criteria, Syzydkov dropped to the mat at one point complaining of knee pain and received treatment much to the chagrin of the partisan crowd. But Kim had little left in the tank himself and was unable to muster enough energy for a final push.


Paris 2024 Qualification Matches


Aidos SULTANGALI (KAZ) df. Jui Chi HUANG (TPE) by Fall, 2:28 (10-0)
Se Ung RI (PRK) df. Dahyun KIM (KOR), 3-0

Amantur ISMAILOV (KGZ) df. HUSIYUETU (CHN) by TF, 9-1, 3:58
Kyotaro SOGABE (JPN) df. Meiirzhan SHERMAKHANBET (KAZ) by TF, 11-2, 6:00

Demeu ZHADRAYEV (KAZ) df. Dowon LEE (KOR), 5-2

Haitao QIAN (CHN) df. Sultan EID (JOR), 7-0
Alireza MOHMADIPIANI (IRI) df. Jalgasbay BERDIMURATOV (UZB), 3-2

Seungjun KIM (KOR) df. Ibrahim FALLATAH (KSA), 5-1

Seungchan LEE (KOR) df. Sota OKUMURA (JPN) by TF, 9-0, 1:36
Alimkhan SYZDYKOV (KAZ) df. Roman KIM (KGZ), 7-7