It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Kenichiro Fumita, Japan’s dynamic two-time World Champion, was widely accepted as the preeminent favorite to emerge victorious at the Olympic Games. Held in Tokyo, the capital of his home country, last year’s postponed Olympiad represented wrestling’s triumphant comeback. Spectators might not have filled the stands, resulting in a quieter environment than is the norm for the sport’s grandest event. Restrictions covering each and every movement of personnel would also have seemed to put a damper on the proceedings.
But ultimately, it is always about what happens on the mat. And with Japan entering the Games boasting only two athletes qualified for Greco-Roman, Fumita was positioned to deliver the nation’s hallmark performance.
Until he ran into the buzzsaw known as Luis Orta Sanchez (CUB).
Fumita — whose pair of World titles were earned during the preceding quad — faced only one serious threat en-route to the final opposite Orta Sanchez. That match came against ’18 World bronze Sailike Walihan (CHN) in the quarterfinal, a snug 1-1 outcome. His other two bouts, against Abdelkerim Fergat (ALG) and Lenur Temirov (UKR, now a two-time World bronze medalist), respectively, left little doubt as to his candidacy. Fumita had not deviated from the path. After surviving a multi-year series of domestic firefights with ’16 Rio silver Shinobu Ota, coupled with his ascension to the top of the World stage, his march to the gold-medal round arrived with almost an air of formality. Just one more match in a storybook journey that most had anticipated would reach its conclusion with an appropriate ending.
Of course, that is not what transpired. Instead, Orta Sanchez all but cruised to a 5-1 decision to cement what had been in and of itself a showing for the ages.
Fumita, 26, returned to training in November. Because Japan’s competitive schedule was light, the respite allowed for the chance to reset and refocus — easier said than done when a wrestler with two World golds had just experienced the most monumental disappointment of his career, and at the most inopportune time. Discipline played a role in his sitting out. So too did patience.
December saw Japan run its annual Emperor’s Cup, which for this season amounted to the first of a two-part selection process for the 2022 World Championships. The tournament wasn’t on Fumita’s radar. June was the better option. The Meiji Cup All-Japan Championships offered the more amenable venue for Fumita to reaffirm his status as an elite global competitor, not to mention hold onto his place atop the domestic pecking order. Ota was no longer a concern, for the exciting, innovative lightweight had since moved onto a career in MMA. But that did not mean Fumita would be without a legitimate challenger.
Right beneath Fumita on the depth chart has been Ayata Suzuki, who in ’22 earned his second bronze at the Asian Championships and has put forth a handful of solid international starts elsewhere. Both did their jobs on opposing sides of the bracket to setup two definitive clashes. In the bracket final, Fumita decisioned Suzuki 6-3, with par terre points the biggest factor. Japan operates their selection formats differently by availing a “playoff round”. It’s not a best-of-three scenario, more like a superfight between two top athletes to confirm who will represent the country at the next World-level meet. Again the nod went to Fumita, who prevailed over Suzuki 4-2, thanks in large part to a thrilling sequence late in the second period. “I was losing in the last minute, but I was confident I could turn it around,” he said afterwards.
All in all, Fumita was pleased with the result. A ten-month layoff is not insignificant, particularly when there had already been a prolonged break from competition due to the pandemic. The opportunity to claim a third title in September was his obvious objective at the Meiji Cup; but not far behind was simply getting back into a groove and engaging a requisitely confident posture during what are undoubtedly still the prime years of his career.
“Honestly speaking, I moved a lot better than I thought I would,” Fumita said. “At first my weight was up and my strength was down. I went back into training in November, and I wasn’t sure I would be ready by June. But I did what I’m capable of and came out with the victory.”
Bulgaria is holding their Senior World Team camp for Greco-Roman this week in Teteven. The Eastern European nation is expected to field perhaps its strongest roster in several years when the ’22 Worlds begin in September. Three BUL athletes came away with medals from the ’22 Euros in March: Edmond Nazaryan (60 kg, silver), Aik Mnatsakanian (77 kg, bronze), and Kiril Milov (97 kg, silver). Mnatsakania is a two-time World bronze at 72 kilograms (’18 and ’19) while Milov earned World silver in ’18.
USAW’s Fargo Fantasy Bracket
The national governing body’s “Fargo Junior Nationals Fantasy Bracket”, which debuted last month to ring in the tournament’s 50th anniversary, has now been whittled all the way down to its final two wrestlers — Brent Metcalf and Dennis Hall. Both were three-time Fargo champs during their age-group days (which for Hall began during the Reagan administration), though Metcalf would go on to bypass Greco-Roman competition following high school, instead choosing to focus on NCAA pursuits before embarking on a freestyle career. Hall, meanwhile, is arguably the best competitor in United States Greco-Roman history and the owner of all three World medal colors (gold, ’95; Olympic silver, ’96; bronze, ’94) as well as ten Open titles.
Fans have been voting through each round of the fantasy bracket to determine winners. Below are the percentages behind how Metcalf and Hall reached the final.
Round-of-32 — Brent Metcalf (MI) over Matt Goldstein (IL) 95%-5%
Round-of-16 — Brent Metcalf (MI) over Kendrick Sanders (FL) 55%-45%
Quarterfinals — Brent Metcalf (MI) over Justin Ruiz (UT) 60%-40%
Semifinals — Brent Metcalf (MI) over Sam Henson (MO) 72%-28%
Round-of-32 — Dennis Hall (WI) over Mitchell McKee (MN) 82%-18%
Round-of-16 — Dennis Hall (WI) over Matt Nagel (MN) 82%-18%
Quarterfinals — Dennis Hall (WI) over Brandon Paulson (MN) 59%-41%
Semifinals — Dennis Hall (WI) over Garrett Lowney (WI) 83%-17%
Voting is open for the finals from now until July 13 (Wednesday). Users must input an email address to log their votes.
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