Since Baku 2021 Temur Rakhimov has reached the final block of every event he’s entered and at the 2023 Masters this trend wasn’t rebutted but whether he could buck the other trend, avoiding the 5th place or silver medal, was a question not to be answered until the later hours of the day.
He passed Snippe (NED) and Youn (KOR) to face Kageura (JPN) in the semi-final, the real crunch point. Rakhimov is at his best for this Masters, though, and dealt with Kageura by throwing him for ippon after almost 8 minutes of fighting. Just one step to go to the top of the podium.
In the bottom half of the draw we continue with perhaps one of the biggest, in every sense, surprises of the tournament! Number two seed Yusupov (UZB) had a really hard time, losing against Zaalishvili (GEO), leaving early. Zaalishvili was unseeded in Budapest and so he was already having a good day. However, in the quarter-final he met a fully rebooted version of Martti Puumalainen (FIN), a judoka who had already beaten Simionescu (ROU) AND Magomedomarov (UAE) prior to that fight.
Into the big-points matches, Puumalainen kept his head and beat the Georgian with strategy and movement, responding to and respecting every element of the contest. He stepped into a semi-final against Tatsuru Saito (JPN), winner of the 2022 Masters and controlled the fight excellently, as he had done throughout the day. With a minute to go he planted a very well timed morote-seoi-nage and rolled Saito on to his side for waza-ari. We saw the young Japanese star accelerate towards equalising but a resilient Finn met him head on and held the score to the bell.
Martti Puumalainen has not only become the first ever Finnish athlete to fight for a Masters medal, but he has done it with robust, confident judo and reached the final; a stellar performance earning a satisfied and understated nod from coach Rok Draksik.
The final was a well executed plan for the Finnish fighter. He and his coach had analysed, practised and prepared. The left-sided seoi-otoshi was ready for the right moment and it came inside the last minute leaving Martti Puumalainen only to stay resolute, to not lose sight of the tactics. World number one, Temur Rakhimov has taken another silver, a good performance and confirmation of his consistency but for Puumalainen a gold at the Masters means a first ever top spot on the World Judo Tour for any Finnish judoka and an incredible validation for the work he and his coach have put in. Martti Puumalainen will go to the Games and perhaps he will secure seeding too. This is a climb, a big one, one we congratulate.
In the first bronze medal contest Saito had to pass a determined Youn (KOR) and it wouldn’t be easy as Youn is an expert at toppling the big men and showed it again when he beat veteran Silva (BRA) in the round of 16. Saito lost a semi-final he had no intention of losing but his plan was not Puumalainen’s priority and so Saito needed a new focus to obtain the bronze against YOUN (KOR). It was clear from the beginning that he would not allow a second loss in one day. He measured the first half of the fight well and went ahead with penalties but then half a minute into golden score, having threatened his tai-otoshi and osoto-gari many times, he made one stick, an o-soto which earned him a bronze at the Masters to follow last year’s gold.
The second bronze would be hung around the neck of either Zaalishvili or Kageura and after Kageura was disqualified for head dive the medal went to Zaalishvili.