Kanikovskiy’s draw couldn’t have been much tougher. He started his day in round 2 against former world champion at -90kg, Nikoloz Sherazadishvili (ESP). He threw his opponent in the dying seconds of the contest with a clever tomoe-nage to give the Spaniard no chance of retaliation. In round 3, one of last year’s bronze medallists awaited in the form of Kotaro Ueoka (JPN), who had just knocked out another former world champion, Varlam Liparteliani (GEO, in his previous contest. Kanikovskiy was made to work hard by the Japanese, but summoned a huge soto-makikomi in the 3rd minute of golden score to move to the quarter-final.
There he met newly-crowned European champion Zelym Kotsoiev who had soundly beaten Kanikovskiy en route to that title. The neutral athlete wasn’t going to let that happen again, throwing the Azeri with a powerful tsuri-goshi for waza-ari in the 2nd minute of the contest, which was enough to avenge his defeat from a few weeks ago. His semi-final opponent would be Ulaanbaatar Grand Slam 2023 winner Gonchigsuren Batkhuyag (MGL) who was on similarly impressive form, having knocked out home favourite Kentaro Iida in round 2. He was no match for Kanikovskiy, however, who threw him in under two minutes with an over-the-back-grip ko-uchi-gari for ippon.
In the other half of the draw Japan’s hopes rested on 18-year-old Dota Arai, the current junior world champion. Arai was a joy to watch throughout the preliminaries. He threw every single one of his opponents on his way to the final, with ashi-waza that would make the Japanese greats Inoue and Suzuki proud, all the while picking up only one penalty in those 5 contests. He defeated Singh (IND) in round 1 with two waza-ari scores in two minutes using o-soto-gari and later uchi-mata. He then produced arguably the biggest upset of the day, taking out the current world champion Arman Adamian (AIN); he switched from o-soto-gari to harai-goshi to flatten the 4-time grand slam winner. It took him only 35 seconds to throw Takahashi (USA) in their quarter-final, once again with his inspired hopping uchi-mata.
Former world number 1 Michael Korrel faced Arai in the semi-final and the precocious Japanese judoka scored a waza-ari early on with a counter to Korrel’s dropping shoulder throw, comfortably holding onto his lead to make it through to the semi-final. Last year’s surprise winner Gennaro Pirelli (ITA) would be Arai’s opponent, having just beaten the current Olympic champion Aaron Wolf (JPN) in their quarter final. Such was Arai’s brilliance, he did what none of Pirelli’s opponents this year or last could do at this event, throwing him for ippon with that textbook uchi-mata in just 43 seconds, sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
The final was over almost too soon, however, as Kanikovskiy surprised Arai with a sneaky hikikomi-gaeshi in just 40 seconds to score ippon and take another gold away from the hosts, his 5th grand slam medal in as many attempts. The two young finalists have shown a mastery of their craft well beyond their years. We look forward to enjoying their contests for years to come.
The first of the bronze medal bouts gave us Kotsoiev against Pirelli. The Azeri followed in Arai’s footsteps and threw the Italian with an opportune sumi-gaeshi for waza-ari, before pinning him using yoko-shiho-gatame to pick up his 6th grand slam bronze and his 10th overall. Kotsoiev continues to impress with his consistency in such a strong category.
The second bronze medal was settled between Korrel and Batkhuyag. The contest featured many intense kumi-kata exchanges but very little in the way of strong and threatening attacks. It was the Dutchman who eventually made a breakthrough after 4 minutes of golden score, throwing the Mongolian with his favourite ippon-seoi-nage to score a decisive waza-ari. Another solid performance from Korrel earns him his 13th grand slam medal.