Abe Takes Last Olympic Spot on Japan’s Team in Battle of Top Judoka

Pool photo / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hifumi Abe, above, defeats Joshiro Maruyama in a match held in Kodokan in Tokyo on Sunday.

Judoka Hifumi Abe is on his way to his first Olympic Games by grabbing the last spot on Japan’s judo team after winning a one-match showdown against rival Joshiro Maruyama on Sunday.

The match held in Kodokan lasted 24 minutes, far longer than the usual four minutes, as Abe, the 2017 and ’18 world champion, and 2019 world champ Maruyama were equal to each other.

Nearly 20 minutes into the “Golden Score” overtime where the judoka who scores first wins, Abe used an ouchigari inner leg sweep on Maruyama to record a waza-ari half-point.

Abe will represent the nation at the Tokyo Games next year in the under 66 kilogram weight class, the last of the 14 categories for Japan’s men’s and women’s team to be decided.

During an interview after the match, Abe shed tears.

“Many people have supported and encouraged me,” the 23-year-old said.

“My spirit and his spirit clashed,” Abe continued, referring to Maruyama, who is four years older. “I thought I should win at any cost and would never step back, whatever happened.”

Both Abe and Maruyama are head-on attackers. But Abe stepped forward even when their his grip was not sufficiently firm. He also attempted throws when only one of his hands gripped Maruyama, continuing to be offensive while mixing in leg attacks.

Abe defended against Maruyama’s kataguruma and tomoe-nage throwing attacks with his excellent reflexes.

“If Maruyama didn’t exist, I would not have been able to become as strong as I am now,” Abe said.

Coming into the match, Abe’s record against Maruyama was three wins and four losses. In three matches that went to overtime from the 2018 Grand Slam Osaka competition onward, Maruyama defeated Abe each time. Stamina had been a hurdle Abe needed to clear.

Though Abe had been unable to practice as usual for a certain period due to the novel coronavirus crisis, he did not take his eyes off his goal to improve his stamina.

“I steadfastly ran to build up my stamina so that my strength would not run out even in a lengthy match,” he said.

After the match, Abe received a phone call from Teruo Masaki, who instructed him when he was in junior high and high school.

Abe said Masaki told him: “This is no more than a pathway. You have to take care of your physical condition as the decisive phase starts now.”

Abe replied, “I’ll keep this in mind and do my best.”

Abe mentally grew up by winning the tough battle against Maruyama. The victory was his starting point toward his goal of a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

Kosei Inoue, head coach of Japan men’s judo team, said: “I express my gratitude from the bottom of my heart to these judoka for showing everyone such a great match.”