Pride was at stake in the final of the men’s 73-kilogram class at the Grand Slam Tokyo as former judo world champions faced off against each other.
The match was neck and neck, but it was Hiroyuki Akimoto’s willpower that made the difference in the end. The 2010 world champion scored a yuko against Shohei Ono with about a minute remaining to grab the gold medal.
“I’m relieved — my career has been at the edge of a cliff,” Akimoto said Saturday at Tokyo Metropolitan Gym after winning the tournament for the first time since 2011.
The 28-year-old won all five matches by ippon up to the final against Ono, a 22-year-old who won at the 2013 World Championships. Ono is known for his strength in establishing better grips and his sophisticated techniques, but Akimoto overcame that advantage with quick footwork.
With about a minute remaining, Akimoto executed a one-arm shoulder throw. Ono tried to escape from the move, but Akimoto put all his weight on Ono to flip him over. After scoring a yuko, Akimoto did not allow Ono to strike back.
“It was my spirit that pulled him down. Determination has been driving me,” Akimoto said.
Akimoto has long been regarded as a top-level judoka, but he has been plagued by serious injuries and an eating disorder, which was caused by struggles to lose weight. He missed chances to win berths at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Games.
“I have an aspiration to take part in the Olympics,” Akimoto said.
The road to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games is not easy. Other than Akimoto and Ono, Japan has another world champion — Riki Nakaya, winner of the 73-kg class at this year’s World Championships.
However, with the Grand Slam Tokyo title, Akimoto proved he is on the same level as Ono and Nakaya. “Akimoto proved that he can compete sufficiently at world-class tournaments,” Japan men’s coach Kosei Inoue said. “He, Nakaya and Ono will vie for a ticket to the [Rio] Olympics.”
Said Akimoto: “I’ve long been in a tunnel, but now I can see some light.”