World number one Temur Rakhimov (TJK), Olympic and world medallist Silva (BRA), world champion Andy Granda (CUB), Olympic silver medallist Guram Tushishvili (GEO), Japanese prodigy Saito, and so on and so on. This list is just a snippet of the quality registered for the men’s heavyweight category at the 2023 Masters. Odkhuu, Zaalishvili, Kokauri, who was going to win?

What if we told you a Finn had his eye on gold and had laid his claim on it many, many months ago? What if we told you that a judoka with no grand slam medals despite ten appearances, no final block in any of his 5 world championship attendances, would not only win the gold but would throw the Japanese and throw the world number one? Yes, it is judo and we can expect the unexpected but what Martti Puumalainen did on day 3 in Hungary was truly incredible.

The 2023 +100kg podium at the World Judo Masters

Puumalainen and his teammates in Finland are under new management with Slovenian Rok Draksik leading the programme for the last 3 years, since his appointment in 2020. Draksik knows what it takes to earn medals among the elite. He was European champion and had 14 World Judo Tour medals, including a Masters silver medal.

Martti and Rok ready for the Masters final

“The biggest thing was for Rok to come and change the culture in Finland. He knew what it meant to really reach the highest level and in Finland we didn’t understand all of the nutrition, recovery, timing of different types of training, the details of good planning,” said Puumalainen. “He’s a very demanding coach. He pushes me even when I don’t think I can push anymore, reaching new levels all the time.

All of it has been only a warm-up until now. The whole team has improved and now we have a great team in Finland. He brought the team together and helped create much needed team spirit. There’s good humour with teammates, who are all friends, and with the coach.

Rok is a great person aside from being a great coach. I saw a documentary once about coaching and the doctor there said that a good coach can be like an extra parent. I can’t say now that we are friends as there has to be hierarchy, we need that, but he’s a great guy outside the tatami.

The final is won!

This is the first time ever that Finland had two athletes qualified for the Masters and having my teammate Valtteri Olin with me was really great. He’s a funny guy and he kept me relaxed before the final.

I always dreamed about the Olympic Games and even gold but when Rok came it became so much more realistic. I had no idea what it really takes. These extra things around the training are demanding but so important; going to bed at the right time, recovering properly, for example. These days make it worth it.”

How do you win a final against a world number one, especially when you have lost to him three times before?

Throwing the world number one.

“The plan was to block the high collar grip as it has been difficult in the past. I needed to keep on the move because if the pace is his, he is very tough to beat. Really though, the belief began with Magomedomarov. He is much better than his ranking suggests, a much higher level. I was actually ahead and then he came back with a waza-ari and then I made the ko-uchi-gari and really persevered with it for the second score. It was that moment against Magomedomarov that I finally believed I could do it today.

I have beaten some top guys here and there but to reach a medal here I had to beat 4 of the top ranked in the world and I did it. To beat Saito feels incredible. We have had randori at camps and we both knew what was coming with each other but it was very special to beat him, a big name coming up in the judo world, to get to the final. Incredible!

Beating Saito (JPN) in the semi-final.

I thank my teammates for the support. We are in this together always . The medal is mine today but it is for the whole team and now we know everything is possible if we put our whole selves into it.”

With hard work, team spirit, a knowledgeable team and a great relationship between athletes and coaches, Finland has put Martti Puumalainen into the best possible position ahead of the Paris Games and with the progress being made in the way Martti describes, perhaps this is just the beginning for Finnish judo.

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