Ozaki grabs Paris ticket at 68kg with thrilling win over Ishii

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (January 27) -- Ever since she started wrestling as a schoolgirl, the single-leg takedown has been Nonoka OZAKI's most reliable weapon. It didn't let her down when she needed it most -- with a ticket to the Paris Olympics on the line.

Ozaki launched a last-ditch single-leg in the final nine seconds and it paid off with a takedown, giving the two-time world champion a dramatic 5-4 victory over Ami ISHII in a playoff for Japan's spot in Paris at women's 68kg on Saturday at Tokyo's National Training Center.

"I'm really happy, but it still hasn't sunk in that I've taken a step closer to my dream," said a jubilant Ozaki, for whom the road to Paris has been a roller-coaster of emotions.

Ozaki was the 2022 world champion at 62kg, but missed out during the domestic qualifying process for Paris in that weight class. She then decided to take a shot at 68kg when that became her only remaining option.

Ozaki set up the playoff with Ishii by winning the 68kg title at the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships last December. Ishii, the world silver medalist in 2022, had finished fifth at last year World Championships in Belgrade -- good enough to secure a Paris berth for Japan but not enough to fill it herself.

The victory gave Ozaki her fifth win in five career meetings between the two, who are only three months apart in age. The older Ishii turned 22 in December. Ozaki threw down the gauntlet in their most recent clash, defeating Ishii 6-2 in the first round of the Emperor's Cup.

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Ami ISHII scores a go-ahead takedown late in the second period. (Photo by Ikuo Higuchi / Japan Wrestling Federation)

On Saturday, Ishii looked like she might have finally found an answer. Trailing 3-0 in the second period, she received a passivity point, then broke through Ozaki's defenses to score a takedown at the edge in the final seconds that was upheld in an unsuccessful challenge (the Ozaki side wanted it called a stepout) to take a 4-3 lead.

"She got the points in the last 10 seconds and I thought for a moment all was lost," Ozaki said. "During the challenge, I thought, 'I don't want the match to end this way.' Those on my side had a look on their faces of 'you can still do it.'...There was nothing left but to go for it."

During the challenge, the mat chairman also had the clock reset from four seconds and change to 9.89. Ozaki wasted none of it, lunging for the single-leg and quickly finishing it off with a few seconds to spare.

"I didn't practice that, shooting right off the whistle, but I believed in myself," Ozaki said. "It was good they put the clock back to 10 seconds, if it was four seconds, it would have been a problem. I can't say I was calm, but there was nothing else to do. The fact that I didn't have time to think, 'What should I do?' was a good thing."

Ozaki also cut it close with her first-period takedown, which she scored with six seconds left off a counter that she said she practiced in preparation for the match. Ishii likes to work an underhook, and as soon as she made a move for a leg, Ozaki dropped down and clamped on her head, then used her speed to spin behind.

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Nonoka OZAKI defeats Ami ISHII in the women's Olympic 68kg playoff. (Photo by Ikuo Higuchi / Japan Wrestling Federation)

For Ishii, the agony of defeat was excruciating. In disbelief, she dropped to the mat and sobbed uncontrollably, which continued even after she was escorted by teammates off the mat. Her wails of anguish reverberated throughout the room, in contrast to Ozaki's celebrations with her contingent.

The playoff was held on one of the six mats in the spacious wrestling room on the basement floor of the National Training Center. Aside from a smattering of media and federation officials, each wrestler was accompanied by a small contingent of fans or teammates.

Ishii just could not seem to process what had happened. Speaking in a barely audible voice through tears to the media, she said, "It's like someone you know has died, but you don't feel like they're gone. I don't feel like Paris is gone, but I have to accept that it is."

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Nonoka Ozaki finishes up a quick-fire takedown in the final seconds of the second period to clinch the victory. (Photo by Ikuo Higuchi / Japan Wrestling Federation)

Ozaki could commiserate with her vanquished opponent. She had been on the losing end in a battle for the 62kg place with Ishii's Ikuei University teammate Sakura MOTOKI, a 2022 bronze medalist at 59kg who moved up to the Olympic weight and made it hers. (Another Ikuei wrestler, world champion Tsugumi SAKURAI, will be going to Paris at 57kg.)

"This is a world of competition, and I came here to get the ticket [to Paris] also," Ozaki said. "I know how much she wanted to win, but the competition is harsh and one of us has to lose. I won in the last few seconds, but that could have gone either way. I could have just as easily lost. I am grateful to her for giving me such a high-level match."

Ishii had won the world silver at 68kg in 2022 and could have locked up her place in Paris with a repeat performance last year in Belgrade. The Japan federation had decreed that any wrestler who won a medal in an Olympic weight class would automatically fill the Paris berth themselves.

As it turned out, 68kg was the only women's weight class out of the six in which the Japanese entry did not medal.

Sadly for Ishii, an 8-8 loss in the bronze-medal match to Irina RINGACI (MDA) had dire consequences. Ishii would win the fifth-place playoff to secure the Paris berth for Japan, but it left the door open for others to poach.

Ozaki was also in Belgrade, having decided that she needed to move forward and put her failure at 62kg behind her. She won a spot on Japan's team at the non-Olympic weight of 65kg and picked up her second world gold. But her heart was hardly into it. Of more concern was seeing Motoki clinched her place in Paris by winning the 62kg silver.

"When I look back, it's enough to make me cry, it was so tough," Ozaki said. "Right now I'm happy, but up to last year's World Championships, there was no joy at all in my life. It's like the person I was up to then was lost, it was someone I didn't know like I had run into a wall. I wanted to fight hard but I couldn't make the effort.

"I thought that I don't even want to watch a Paris Olympics that I'm not in. When I won the 65kg playoff here, I had convinced myself that I had to keep moving forward. It wasn't an Olympic weight, but I thought if I could be No. 1 in the world again, it would be an opportunity to start over.

"That's how I felt going to the World Championships. But before my final, the 62kg [berth] was secured. I didn't take a victory lap and I was crying -- it makes me cry now to recall this -- because I was thinking, 'The Olympics is over for me.' I felt resentment. But as I told the media, I was the one responsible and had to accept it. 'I'm not going to retire, and I'll keep fighting,' I said. I had never thought that in the end, I would be going to the Olympics at 68kg."

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Ikuei University teammates try to console a devastated Ami Ishii. (Photo by Ken Marantz / United World Wrestling)

Less than two years ago, Ozaki was on top of the world at 62kg, having won 2022 world golds on the senior, U23 and U20 levels over two months. Her eyes were firmly on Paris, and the Japanese press buzzed over her budding rivalry with Tokyo Olympic silver medalist Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ).

But her well-laid plans began to unravel just a few months later when Motoki decided to make a challenge for the Olympic spot at 62kg in a field that included Tokyo Olympic champion Yukako KAWAI.

After Motoki won their clash at the Emperor's Cup, they never got to meet in the second qualifier -- the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in June 2023 -- as Ozaki was handed a stunning 6-6 defeat in the quarterfinals by Yuzuku INAGAKI. Motoki won the title to clinch the ticket to Belgrade, and the rest is history.

In preparation for Paris, Ozaki plans to enter one tournament at 68kg, the Asian Championships in Bishkek in April. She is also carrying some injury concerns, having hurt her right knee at the Emperor's Cup and having problems with her left thumb for the past year which she says affects her grip.

But that is all secondary to having made it to the Olympics, even if it means facing opponents larger than she is accustomed to.

"A year ago, I would never have thought of taking the path of 68kg," Ozaki said. "I'm still only 66 kilograms, but I'll work to fill out to 68. Without being inferior in strength, I will use my speed to my advantage. I'll work on counters for underhooks and throws, and maybe even be able to hit some throws of my own. I'll continue to make progress and I'll be ready."

Ozaki, a product of the JOC Academy, took the academic route when it came to choosing a college and currently attends the prestigious Keio University. That means that outside of national team camps, she has to hit the road for training. Her preparation for the playoff took her to Kanagawa University, a club team in Kanagawa Prefecture and a high school in Yamanashi Prefecture. Several of the male wrestlers at the latter were on hand Saturday.

Whether she can win the gold will likely come down to how effective her old friend, the single-leg tackle, will be for her.

"That tackle has been a part of everything I've accomplished up to now," Ozaki said. "It's my weapon, one that I believe in completely. I've always relied on it and won with it. I owe a debt of gratitude to the technique."

Japan's Paris-bound women

50kg: Yui SUSAKI (world champion)
53kg: Akari FUJINAMI (world champion)
57kg: Tsugumi SAKURAI (world champion)
62kg: Sakura MOTOKI (world silver medalist)
68kg: Nonoka OZAKI (world champion 65kg)
76kg: Yuka KAGAMI (world champion)


Ozaki keeps Olympic dream alive, glides into 68kg playoff

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (December 24) -- After a devastating setback last summer that left her doubting herself, Nonoka OZAKI took action by going back to school. On Sunday, she passed a vital test that moved her a step closer to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Ozaki, looking far from the wrestler whose Olympic dreams seemed squashed for good a half-year ago, masterfully glided to a 7-0 victory over Miwa MORIKAWA in the women's 68kg final at the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships in Tokyo.

The victory that capped the tournament at Yoyogi No. 2 Gym earned Ozaki a place in a playoff with Ami ISHII for the berth in Paris that Ishii had secured for Japan at this year's World Championships in Belgrade. The showdown has been set for January 27 at the National Training Center in Tokyo.

"There was only one match left, and I fought with the sole thought that winning this and then winning the playoff would get me to Paris," Ozaki said of the final.

The 20-year-old Ozaki relied on her speed and renewed confidence to win out in a weight class two above her usual 62kg. She had missed out on that division to Sakura MOTOKI, who clinched the Paris berth for Japan in Belgrade by winning a silver medal that automatically secured the spot for herself.

Japan female wrestlers won medals in five of the six Olympic weight classes in Belgrade, leaving only 68kg up for grabs because Ishii finished fifth. The lure of a ticket to Paris drew a slew of past and current world champions from weight classes above and below to the All-Japan to challenge Ishii, who would have snatched the berth outright with a victory.

Ozaki, the 62kg world champion in 2022, also went to Belgrade in the 65kg spot and won her second senior world title. Morikawa, the 2022 world champion at 65kg, likewise moved up to 72kg and took home a bronze.

Before the All-Japan, Ozaki said she added enough weight and strength so that it did not affect her speed. That helped her ensure that Ishii would not be leaving Yoyogi No. 2 Gym with both the title and Olympic berth by defeating her in the first round on Saturday. She and Morikawa then continued through the gauntlet to get to the final.

"It was a tense tournament," Ozaki. "I practiced very hard, practices that would be second to none, and I believed in myself, and my objective was to put all of that out on the mat here. I'm glad it worked out."

In the final, Ozaki led 1-0 after receiving an activity point when the complexion of the match turned with a lightning-fast series of points by Ozaki.

Morikawa shot for a high crotch and Ozaki reacted instantly by applying a pancake, then reversed field and grabbed the near knee to send Morikawa reeling backward for a takedown. Keeping the leg locked, Ozaki stood up and reverse rolled Morikawa over, then added a second exposure for a 7-0 lead.

In the second period, Ozaki never let the slower but more powerful Morikawa get close to her legs, fending off all attacks while continuing to keep just enough pressure on.

"I used my speed which is my strong point and withstood the power of the opponent, then used it against her to set up a tackle," Ozaki said. "I think I did well using the opponent's strengths, including when we tied up."

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Nonoka OZAKI turns Miwa MORIKAWA over during a six-point spree in the first period of the women's 68kg final. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation / Takeo Yabuki)

When time ran out, Ozaki neither screamed in joy nor punched the air. Her only gesture of celebration was a quick nod toward a section of the stands with a small group donned in bright yellow t-shirts with her name on them.

The contingent, which included her mother, was mainly students and parents from Nirasaki Technical High School in Yamanashi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. Up to a few months ago, Ozaki had no connection with the school, but it would play a huge role in her revival.

Ozaki represents a rare case among elite wrestlers in Japan in that she attends Keio University, one of Japan's top academic universities with no wrestling tradition to speak of. Instead of earning easy entry through sports, she went the route of the common student and passed the grueling entrance exam. A product of the Japan Olympic Academy that also produced world champions Yui SUSAKI and Yuka KAGAMI, she mainly uses that as her training base.

Wrestling at 62kg at the Asian Games in October, she defeated world champion Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ), only to be dealt a tough 6-6 loss to Hyun-Gong MUN (PRK) in the final. Something had to change, and fast.

It was then that a friend of her mother whose children attend Nirasaki Technical suggested that Ozaki come train with its national powerhouse wrestling team, which is coached by Toshiro FUMITA, the father of Kenichiro FUMITA, the Tokyo Olympic silver medalist at Greco 60kg.

Every weekend, Ozaki trained with the team, sparring with the boys, as she went to work on improving her defense and just regaining her confidence. The difference was palpable when comparing the aggressive Ozaki at the Emperor's Cup with the unsure Ozaki in the July playoff.

"It was exactly a year ago that I lost at the Emperor's Cup," Ozaki said. "I lost the chance at 62kg and it made me think about many things. I wasn't going to retire, and my desire to get to the Olympics never changed.

"Then the chance came up [at 68kg], and I was going to grab it. The person I was last year would not have been able to take it one step at a time and keep winning. It makes me think I have made progress as a person, and I can achieve the dream that I have had since I was small."

Speaking about her time at Nirasaki caused Ozaki to break down into tears. "They took care of me, and created a perfect environment to prepare," she said.

"They are the reason I could win here. The kids came here to support me, they made t-shirts, I have nothing but gratitude for them. I can't lose the next match."

Looking ahead to the playoff, Ozaki will be aiming to beat Ishii for a fifth time in five career meetings, having previously beaten her three times during their junior days. But one thing the past year has taught her is to never let down her guard.

"She has nothing to lose, and we both want to go to Paris," Ozaki said. "It will come down to getting ready over the next month and who wants it more."

Arash YOSHIDA (JPN)Arash YOSHIDA chalks up one of his six stepouts in the freestyle 97kg final against Hibiki ITO. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation / Takeo Yabuki)

Teen Yoshida earns ticket to Olympic qualifier

The final three tickets to the Asian Olympic qualifier in Bishkek in April were awarded, and teenager Arash YOSHIDA powered his way to one in his first-ever outing at freestyle 97kg, while two rising stars at Nippon Sports Science University grabbed the other two.

The 19-year-old Yoshida, the Asian champion at 92kg who finished fifth at the World Championships, gave away nothing in terms of strength at the higher weight class, crushing Hibiki ITO by a 10-0 technical fall in the final.

In fact, Yoshida was the one turning on the turbocharge as he scored six stepouts along with a pair of takedowns off counters for his first senior national title.

"I knew the opponent was strong on tackles, but I kept up my guard and used what worked best for me in the match," said the Nihon University star. "I know I didn't go on the attack very much, so I want to increase my attacks."

Yoshida, whose Iranian father was his coach at the Chiba Prefecture kids club where he started the sport, won all three of his matches by fall or technical fall.

One opponent he, fortunately, did not have to face was older brother Keivan, who was in the other bracket but lost his first-round match to defending champion Takashi ISHIGURO, who then fell to Ito in the semifinals.

"We were in the same weight class and I was thinking, 'Don't make us meet, don't make us meet,'" Yoshida said. "In the end, we didn't have to. Although he didn't make the final, he was there to help me warm up and all of the family gave me support."

At freestyle 65kg, NSSU's Kotaro KIYOOKA made sure his stunning win over Tokyo Olympic champion Takuto OTOGURO in Saturday's semifinals was not in vain, rolling to an 11-0 technical fall over fellow collegian Masanosuke ONO in the final.

With the victory, Kiyooka became the second member of his family to win a title at the tournament, after younger sister Moe successfully defended her 55kg crown on Friday.

Kyotaro SOGABE preceded his teammate to the top of the podium by rallying to beat NSSU alumnus and training partner Katsuaki ENDO 8-5 in the Greco 67kg final for his second straight title.

Sogabe was trailing 5-4 when he was put on top for the third par terre of the match with about a minute to go. He failed to score points with a throw, but the two landed in a position that allowed Sogabe to execute a pair of rolls to go ahead.

Sogabe, the Asian silver medalist this year and 2022 world U23 bronze medalist, had beaten Endo in a playoff to get to the World Championships. But his bid to clinch an Olympic spot in Belgrade came up just short when he suffered a heartbreaking 11-10 loss to Tokyo Olympic champion Mohammadreza GERAEI (IRI) during which he won the crowd to his side.

In Bishkek, both Kiyooka and Sogabe will aim to win Olympic berths in weight classes in which only Iran has already secured one from Asia.

Risako KAWAI (JPN)Risako KAWAI lifts up Sena NAGAMOTO for a 4-point counter in the women's 59kg final. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation / Takeo Yabuki)

Kinjo claims fifth national crown

Having come to terms with the fact that she no longer has a chance to win a third straight Olympic gold, Risako KINJO is content with continuing her career while balancing it with being the mother of a toddler.

Kinjo, formerly KAWAI, won her second straight title at women's 59kg and the fifth overall of her career with a 9-2 victory in the final over Sena NAGAMOTO.

With the win, Kinjo earned a ticket to next year's Asian Championships, which will be held in Bishkek the week before the Olympic qualifier.

"As I raise my child, I realize I can't do my wrestling as usual," said the 29-year-old Kinjo, who gave birth to her daughter in August 2022 and then lost out to world champion Tsugumi SAKURAI in the race for the Olympic berth at 57kg.

"To face opponents who can focus on wrestling seven days a week is difficult."

The non-Olympic weights were run in a single day, which meant Kinjo had to win four matches en route to the gold. That task was made more difficult by the fact that only two divisions were remaining on the final day, meaning very little time between bouts.

"It was hard to have four matches in one day, but I was glad I wrestled hard and got through it," she said.

Her toughest match came in the semifinals when Kinjo had to draw on all of her power and pride as a two-time Olympic champion to avoid an upset by 2022 world U23 champion Himeka TOKUHARA.

Tokuhara was leading 2-1 in the second period when she scored a 4-point throw from a standing front headlock. Looking like vintage Kinjo, she came back with a takedown with :40 left that had a one-point fleeing penalty tacked on to cut the lead to 6-4.

That put her on top in par terre, but Tokuhara wriggled out of a roll attempt. With :20 remaining, Kinjo hit a slick inside leg trip to slam Tokuhara to her back for 4 points and the win.

"Up to the Tokyo Olympics, my mindset was that I wanted to win every match and win big," Kinjo said. "Now I don't have that luxury. I have to focus for all six minutes on the opponent. I don't even remember the four matches. I'll have to look at the videos to see what happened."

In Bishkek, Kinjo will be aiming for her fifth career Asian title dating back to 2014. But there's another reason she will aim to strike gold.

"I want to wear a uniform with 'Kinjo' on it and compete overseas once more," she said. "Also, I don't want my child to think that I became weaker because I gave birth to her. I want to have a good result after giving birth. That's become my motivation."

In other finals, two-time former world champion Remina YOSHIMOTO re-established herself as arguably the second-best 50kg wrestler in the world, defeating world U23 champion Umi ITO 11-2 for her third career national title.

Yoshimoto has had the bad luck of competing during the reign of Tokyo Olympic and three-time world champion Susaki, who has lost to only one wrestler (albeit three times) in her entire career. Yoshimoto's only losses both at home and abroad since 2020 have come to Susaki, and her world and national titles were won when Susaki was not entered.

As for the Asian Championships, Susaki and the eight others who have clinched spots at the Paris Olympics will have the priority on deciding whether or not to go to Bishkek, despite not entering the All-Japan. If Susaki defers, Yoshimoto will get a chance at a third continental crown.

At women's 57kg, 2021 world bronze medalist Sae NANJO won her second straight title and fifth overall with a 4-0 victory in the final over Himeka TANABE.

Nanjo scored a pair of activity points while being continually held to a stalemate on her single-leg attempts by Tanabe, then finally scored a clinching takedown in the second period.

Tanabe, a four-time bronze medalist, was appearing in the final for the first time but came up short of joining younger brother Kaisei as a national champion. Kaisei had won the freestyle 61kg title to complete a father-son tandem with their father Chikara, a bronze medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Leon KAKEGAWALeon KAKEGAWA, 2nd from right,  stands on the Greco 82kg podium after winning a bronze medal, making him the first to medal in both styles since 1973. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation / Takeo Yabuki)

College freshman achieves unique double

With a sudden influx of wrestlers entering both the freestyle and Greco competitions, the "Shohei Otani" award for best two-way player goes to Waseda freshman Leon KAKEGAWA, who became the first wrestler to win a medal in both styles at the All-Japan in a half-century.

Kakegawa won a bronze medal at Greco 82kg, a day after he finished as the silver medalist at freestyle 92kg.

Kakegawa said he exclusively practices Greco, but entered the freestyle after qualifying by winning a gold at the freshman college championships.

"As a freshman, I thought it would be good to get as much experience as I can, and even though it's not my main style, I decided to enter," he said.

Asked about the large gap in weights between the two styles, he acknowledged that he was closer to 86kg in freestyle. "But this being an Olympic [qualifying] year, the top competitors all gathered for this tournament," he said.

"I'm not yet at that level. As a non-Olympic weight class, 92kg is kind of overlooked and I thought it would increase my chances for medal."

The last time a wrestler medaled in both styles was in 1973 when Mitsuo YOSHIDA won golds in the 100kg class. He went on to become a professional wrestler with the ring name Choshuriki.

In fact, no wrestler since the 1980s had entered both styles until last year, when 2022 world 70kg freestyle champion Taishi NARIKUNI did it, only to pull out of both due to an injury. Still, that seemed to inspire others to try and a handful did so this year.

Day 4 Results


65kg (27 entries)
GOLD: Kotaro KIYOOKA df. Masanosuke ONO by TF, 11-0, 2:02

BRONZE: Tomohiro HASEGAWA df. Takuto OTOGURO by Def.
BRONZE: Takumi AKIYAMA df. Ryoma ANRAKU, 8-4

97kg (14 entries)
GOLD: Arash YOSHIDA df. Hibiki ITO by TF, 10-0, 4:52

BRONZE: Takashi ISHIGURO df. Asahi IMAMURA by Fall, :59 (6-0)
BRONZE: Genki HOKI df. Taira SONODA by Def.


67kg (20 entries)

GOLD: Kyotaro SOGABE df. Katsuaki ENDO, 8-5

BRONZE: Haruto YABE df. Zaion OBA by TF, 9-0, 3:18
BRONZE: Yuji UEGAKI df. Tomoaki FUTAMATA, 6-0

82kg (13 entries)
GOLD: Hayato TAMAOKA df. Taizo YOSHIDA, 6-4

BRONZE: Muto SAWADA df. Shohei YABIKU by Def.

Semifinal: Taizo YOSHIDA df. Leon KAKEGAWA by TF, 12-4, 2:30
Semifinal: Hayato TAMAOKA df .Shohei YABIKU, 5-3.

Women's Wrestling

50kg (18 entries)
GOLD: Remina YOSHIMOTO df. Umi ITO, 11-2

BRONZE: Miruko SAKANE df. Miwa MAGARA, 6-2
BRONZE: Riko KASAI df. Minoriho YONEHARA , 6-2

57kg (13 entries)
GOLD: Sae NANJO df. Yumaka TANABE, 4-0

BRONZE: Sara NATAMI df. Ibuki TAMURA by Fall, 4:26 (10-0)
BRONZE: Kanon YAMASHITA df. Ichika ARAI by TF, 12-0, 3:29

59kg (15 entries)
GOLD: Risako KINJO df. Sena NAGAMOTO, 9-2

BRONZE: Himeka TOKUHARA df. Atena KODAMA, 6-2

Semifinal: Sena NAGAMOTO df. Miyu NAKANISHI, 3-1
Semifinal: Risako KINJO df. Atena KODAMA, 8-6

68kg (11 entries)
GOLD: Nonoka OZAKI df. Miwa MORIKAWA, 7-0

BRONZE: Masako FURUICHI df. Rin MIYAJI by Def.