We are here, already! It's 2024, Olympic year; Paris is around the corner and the race for seedings is no joke. Ahead of the restart of the World Judo Tour we take a look at who is occupying the top spot in each weight category and it is interesting reading!

-60 kg Fransisco Garrigos (ESP)

At the 2023 Tokyo Grand Slam, the final of the -60 kg category was played out by Naohisa Takato, 4-time world champion and 2021 Olympic champion, and Nagayama, twice world bronze medallist and a junior world champion back in 2015. With only 3 years between them in age, it was not so much a generational switch but a passing of the baton between team mates. After losing that final, Takato smiled and nodded and extended his hands as a blessing for Nagayama to move forward towards the Games with his full support. It was a special moment.

Takato and Nagayama in Tokyo, 2023.

Nagayama sits at number 3 in the category behind Garrigos (ESP), the current world champion, and Harim Lee (KOR) who was impressive in 2023, winning 5 medals from 9 appearances including a bronze medal at the Worlds in Doha.

Garrigos has the red back patch, the confidence of knowing he’s been the best in the world as both a junior and a senior, two Olympic Games already in the bag and a coach who tailors every aspect of his career in the most bespoke way.

Garrigos of Spain is world champion.

This category is not for the youngsters, with the top three in the world being 29, 26 and 27 respectively. They will arrive in Paris with experience and staying power and to move them out of the runnings will be incredibly difficult.

-66 kg Denis Vieru (MDA)

Similarly to the lighter men, at -66 kg the top 3 spots are occupied by highly present faces. 5 world medals, an Olympic medal, 4 Olympic appearances and additionally 55 World Judo Tour medals are spread between Vieru (MDA) at the top and his current runners up, Yondonperenlei (MGL) and Margvelashvili (GEO). They are each known for their specific styles, their ability to win when under pressure and their technical excellence.

Denis Vieru.

However, there’s a 4th name on the list, just below them in the rankings, one with 4 world titles, an Olympic title and a name which inspires confidence and thoughts of guarantees. Hifumi Abe hasn’t lost a single contest since the summer of 2019 and, along with his little sister, he fully intends to continue his winning streak.

Hifumi Abe in Tokyo, 2023.

-73 kg Hidayat Heydarov (AZE)

Azerbaijan’s superstar, Hidayat Heydarov sits in pole position and has done for some months. He missed out on a medal at the world championships last year but became European champion, Tokyo Grand Slam champion and also won on home soil. He’s loved by the people of his country but also by those around the world who are fans of exciting judo. Heydarov brings sparkle and fun to the tatami and is nothing short of inspirational for the next generation.

Heydarov winning on Hashimoto's home soil, Tokyo Grand Slam 2023.

Behind the Azeri, chasing the top seedings, are Japan’s Soichi Hashimoto, Yuldoshev (UZB) and Georgia’s hero Lasha Shavdatuashvili. It’s quite a line up, especially when we consider that looking just a little further down the list we find the current world champion Nils Stump (SUI), Italy’s golden boy Manuel Lombardo and Olympic medallists Cargnin (BRA) and Tsend-Ochir (MGL).

-81 kg Matthias Casse (BEL)

For several years this category has been among the most open but not open to all. There has been an exclusive inner circle rotating the gold medals between them, of perhaps 7 competitors.

The top of this group heading into Olympic year is Belgium’s Matthias Casse, known for his work ethic, planning, meticulous lifestyle and commitment. He’s not so far ahead though as just behind him is Tato Grigalashvili. Both men have worn red back patches, both are capable of the most incredible judo but the head-to-head is 4:2 in favour of the Georgian. It is not unlikely that this year’s Olympic final could be played out between them and predicting the victor is nowhere near a done deal. 4:2 simply says that either could win.

Casse won the 2021 world final against Tato.

What about the 5 or so judoka below them in the rankings who might just use the Olympics to propel them past the top seeds? Will the gold even stay in the inner circle?

-90 kg Luka Maisuradze (GEO)

Luka Maisuradze is world number one by quite a large margin, some 1600 points. In other categories 1600 points alone might be enough to secure Olympic qualification, or at least a continental quota place, but for Maisuradze that’s the buffer he’s chosen to ensure his occupation at the very top of the world.

The Georgian is however chased by another, one familiar to everyone in the judo world because he’s still wearing the gold backpatch from the Tokyo Olympic Games. Bekauri won in 2021 as a fresh-faced nearly-newcomer but now he’s the senior and Maisuradze seems to be gazumping him with exciting, wow-making judo and a huge smile.

Maisuradze and Bekauri's final at the 2023 World Judo Masters.

Far from thinking about the rest of the group, the big question is which Georgian will qualify as the number one seed for the Games? Who will be selected by Georgia? Either could win the event, although Japan and Uzbekistan will do their best to stop whichever Georgian earns their ticket.

-100 kg Ilia Sulamanidze (GEO)

Georgia remains the hot topic as we move up to the next category. Ilia Sulamanidze leads the pack and at only 22 it's an incredible feat to be in such a position, among the heavier men of the judo world. The junior world champion won the 2022 World Judo Masters and also carries with him two junior continental titles and two u23 continental golds. The trajectory is out of this world but the Olympic Games is never played out in a straight line and Sulamanidze’s podium place is certainly not assured.

Sulamanidze fightin in Baku, 2023.

World number 2 Zelym Kotsoiev (AZE) is difficult to beat for anyone. He sometimes makes mistakes which cost him dearly but when he gets it right he’s virtually unstoppable and it’s likely he’ll have done all the right prep ahead of Paris 2024. Two world medals in two years, previous Olympic experience and a fantastic team behind him will make him a formidable opponent in 6 and a half months time.

Kotsoiev on his way to gold in Tel Aviv, 2023.

That’s before we even get to Michael Korrel, Paltchik or Kanikovskiy!

+100 kg Temur Rakhimov (TJK)

The world number one has been the incumbent for a long time. Temur Rakhimov (TJK) has been immovable from the top of the draw but his results provide a window of opportunity for his opponents. Often falling short of the biggest prizes, collecting silver medals and 5th places, consistency is his super power.

Rakhimov at the Qazaqstan Barysy Grand Slam, 2023.

The man to beat though, at the moment, is Inal Tasoev. He’s 25 years old. Has no fear and is joint world champion in the category. He throws and he throws big! He didn’t lose a contest from June 2022 until the 2023 Tokyo Grand Slam and he still medalled there. We suspect that single loss was a blip. Tasoev is hunting Olympic gold, clearly, publicly and possibly successfully.

Inal Tasoev has set his course.

Of course we have to acknowledge that Saito (JPN) and double Olympic champion Riner (FRA) want that medal just as much but the World Ranking List favours Tasoev with the Japanese and French competitors sitting at 6 and 13 respectively.

It could be argued that the Olympic Ranking List is more relevant but let’s wait to analyse that later. Let it settle, let the domestic selections be solidified. The World Ranking List is as good a place to start as any. The race is on and the number ones perhaps, although potentially safe for qualification, have one of the hardest jobs of all, to hold their ranking and earn a positive first round in Paris in the summer.

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