It was long believed that Riner was unbeatable, going on a 154-win streak stretching all the way back to 2010, which was ended by Japan’s Kokoro Kageura at the 2020 Paris Grand Slam. Further defeats at the French national team championships and the quarter-final of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics confirmed that he was not invincible and that cracks were starting to appear in his previously impenetrable armour. Though 3 months prior to Doha, he competed in Paris once again and looked to be back to his best, surviving challenges from now world number 2 Alisher Yusupov (UZB) and former All Japan open-weight champion Hyoga Ota (JPN) to take gold. Of course, the French legend has nothing left to prove but could he really win an astonishing 11th world title at the age of 34? To do so he would have to get through some of the toughest contests of his career.
Unseeded going into the championships, Riner started the day in round 1 against Vladut Simionescu (ROU). Each quickly picked up two penalties for passivity and at that point the Frenchman finally came alive, throwing the Romanian for ippon with an effortless sasae-tsurikomi-ashi. The explosiveness we had come to expect from Riner was clearly still there in droves. Next up, in round 2, was Szczurowski (POL), over whom Riner took a comfortable tactical victory, out-gripping the Polish fighter, who quickly picked up three penalties.
In round 3, Tsetsentsengel Odkhuu (MGL) was waiting, one of the few players in the category who is a match for Riner height-wise. The fight was incredibly tense, with both fighters wary of fully committing to their attacks for fear of being countered. Odkhuu played a good tactical game, forcing Riner to the edge of the area in most exchanges but he couldn’t match the attack-rate of his opponent. A third penalty for the Mongolian after 3 minutes of golden score sent Riner through to the quarter-final stages.
An even tougher test was yet to come for Riner, as he met last year’s world silver medallist and All Japan open-weight champion Tatsuru Saito (JPN) for the first time in competition. Saito had used his ne-waza skills to great effect in the previous round, defeating Tokyo Olympic silver medallist Tushishvili of Georgia. It was a left versus right or kenka-yotsu battle and Riner struggled to dominate the gripping as much as he does against fellow right-handers. Despite his size, Saito’s ashi-waza is excellent and he came closest to scoring in the fight with an uchi-mata attempt that required all of Riner’s defensive ability. Like Odkhuu before him, he couldn’t match Riner’s stamina and picked up a third and final shido for passivity after nearly 4 minutes of golden score. Riner had passed the latest test, but only just.
The semi-final bout was expected to be another challenge for the Frenchman, as current world number 1 Temur Rakhimov (TJK) was his opponent but Riner was clearly not in the mood for any more golden score contests as he threw the Tajik man with his favourite harai-goshi in less than 30 seconds. It was the biggest ippon of the day; a timely reminder that he can still do it when it matters.
Riner’s opponent in the final would be the powerful Inal Tasoev (AIN). The multiple grand slam winner and former European champion was competing at only his second senior world championships and was clearly on a mission for a first senior world title, after winning the junior title back in 2017. In round 2 he came through a tough contest with number 6 seed Roy Meyer (NED), where he passed the Dutchman’s guard to hold him in yoko-shiho-gatame for 15 seconds, enough to score waza-ari and put him through to the next round. Another tense fight followed in round 3, where Tasoev met former world silver medallist Ushangi Kokauri (AZE). The contest was a close one until the 3rd minute, when Tasoev launched the Azeri through the air with a huge ura-nage, scoring a thunderous ippon.
Next up was the defending champion from Tashkent, Cuba’s Andy Granda. The surprise champ looked somewhat out of sorts in Doha but still made life very difficult for his opponent. However, around the 3-minute mark, Tasoev attacked with a perfectly-timed harai-tsurikomi-ashi, which scored him a waza-ari and then held off the Cuban to make his way into the semi-final. His opponent there would be Yusupov, who himself was on blistering form, defeating Dragic (SLO), Krikbay (KAZ) and former world silver medallist Rafael Silva (BRA) all by ippon scores. Much like Riner, Tasoev seemed in a hurry as he countered the Uzbek with tani-otoshi in just 37 seconds. He knew that he would need to conserve his energy, as he would need all of it to have any chance of defeating his next opponent.
The final was a battle for the ages. The countless French supporters in the crowd created an electric atmosphere and Tasoev threw everything he had at Riner in the first 4 minutes of the contest. He made several attacks that took the Frenchman down to the ground but Riner still dominated the grip fighting and matched Tasoev’s attack rate, attempting harai-goshi several times.
Both players tired quickly as the fight entered golden score and in the 4thextra minute, Riner again attacked with harai-goshi, and Tasoev appeared to counter, rolling Riner across his back but replays showed there was no nameable judo technique used or proper landing and so no score was given. Riner decided enough was enough and he grabbed Tasoev, circled around him and threw him with what he refers to as his 'pourri-waza,' meaning rotten technique, which we know as uki-waza, a technique that has saved him countless times over the years. A waza-ari was scored for Riner and an unbelievable 11th world title was his. There are no more words to describe the scale of his achievement. The question now is, can he fulfil his goal of a 3rd individual Olympic gold medal in front of his home crowd in Paris next year?
The first bronze medal was contested between the giant slayer Kageura and Yusupov. With both fighters being shorter and more athletic than the majority of their counterparts, it was an explosive match-up, with Kageura scoring waza-ari with a forceful ura-nage one minute into the contest. Yusupov responded immediately and in dramatic fashion, hooking the Japanese judoka's arm after avoiding an o-uchi-gari attack and rolling him over to straighten the arm and submit him with juji-gatame. Yusupov takes a deserving first world medal and the 4th for Uzbekistan at these championships.
The second bronze was decided between Silva and Rakhimov. It was a tactical affair, with them quickly picking up two shidos apiece. Both were waiting patiently for the right moment to attack and it was the Tajik man who went first, attacking with o-uchi-gari but Silva comfortably killed the attack and took the opportunity to throw Rakhimov backwards with sumi-otoshi. This scored him waza-ari 30 seconds into golden score and earned him his 3rd world bronze medal at the age of 36, a phenomenal achievement this late into his glittering career.
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